I pursued my interests in human science, economics and China studies since my high school times, when ideas emerged that still shape my thinking today. In these youthful days, I thought that linguistics and the philosophy of language are the gateway to understanding human existence by merging the sciences and the humanities. Language is the core artefact of our human way to approach the world, and so I thought that linguistics could be model to follow also by other disciplines.
I decided that all this could only be explored by becoming familiar with a non-Western culture, so I chose China, because Chinese writing exerted a spell on me, considering its high aesthetic value. So I enrolled in Chinese studies, with a focus on linguistics. I added economics as a second major because I thought that an academic area which deals with the more mundane issue of human life might be useful to anchor my thinking in the real world. However, at that time economics was what I call a ‘mathematical Geisteswissenschaft’, often very remote from the real world in its model platonism, so I got frustrated and turned to alternative approaches, in particular evolutionary economics, and I went back to the old German language tradition in economics, which, after all, nurtured the ground for the creation of the ‘Social market economy’ after the tragedy and the horrors of Nazi-rule.
Linguistics also is a model regarding its connection with two other important areas of research. The first is biology, because obviously language is one of the features that distinguishes human beings from other animals. This observation inspired me to study evolutionary theory and Darwinism, and there where obvious bridges to evolutionary economics. The second is brain sciences, since the brain is the biological entity that combines the evolved human capacity for language with the limitless cultural creativity of languages. As a student, I discovered that the only economist who had also conjoined these two aspects in his work was Friedrich von Hayek. His book ‘The Sensory Order’ was one of the greatest reading experiences in my life. So I decided to follow his track in my own research.
These were my intellectual roots more than three decades ago. My first synthesis was my PhD thesis (in German): ‘China: Culture and Economic Order: An investigation based on systems theory and evolutionary theory’. I developed a new approach to analyse economic systems based on James Grier Miller’s systems theory, grounded this in evolutionary theory, and applied it on China. My early work was mostly published in German, but I received strong support by the editor of what was an influential journal in general evolutionary theory at that time, the Journal of Social and Biological Structures. Especially, I published a ‘Darwinian theory of history' that aimed at providing an alternative to North’s theory, and two articles on Hayek, in which I laid the philosophical foundations of the conjunction of evolutionary theory, brain sciences and the analysis of institutions.
- A Darwinian Framework for the Economic Analysis of Institutional Change in History, in: Journal of Social and Biological Structures, Vol.14/2, 1991, 127-148. http://ssrn.com/abstract=950695
- The Brain, Its Sensory Order and the Evolutionary Concept of Mind, On Hayek's Contribution to Evolutionary Epistemology, in: Journal for Social and Biological Structures 15/2, 1992, 145-187. http://ssrn.com/abstract=950592
- Evolutionary Rationality, "Homo Economicus" and the Foundations of Social Order, in: Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, Vol. 17/1, 1994, 41-70. http://ssrn.com/abstract=950590.
Since my first job as a professor was in Chinese economic studies (1992), my main focus in research in the 1990s was China. I tried to develop two paradigmatic approaches in understanding the Chinese economy in cultural terms. One is the role of the state in shaping economic institutions, which I distinguish from ‘government’. I think that the primary factor of driving Chinese economic development is the secular process of transformative state building, starting out from the peculiar governance structures of Late Qing dynasty China. Based on this insight, I developed a strong interest in the relationship and tension between the unitary state and regions in China. The other is the relationship between indigenous conceptualizations of emotions and economic behaviour, especially with regard to networking. In this time, probably my most important contribution to Chinese studies was not my own work, but my role as the spiritus rector in a systematic revival of the ‘comparative village studies approach’. Together with a Chinese research team, we published a book series on five Chinese villages with companion volumes that received a National book award and was praised as a standard setting achievement in an extensive review published in the journal ‘Modern China’.
- Stig Thøgersen, Book Review: Village Economy and Culture in Contemporary China, Modern China, April 2002, 28: 253-274
For personal reasons, and also to enhance the scope of my research program, around the turn of the millennium I started to explore the theory of international trade, also in recognizing the fact that my previous work on China had been blind to the global economic context, only looking on China ‘from the inside’. I realized that international trade remained a bastion of the neoclassical equilibrium approach with modifications, and that evolutionary and institutional alternatives were only weakly developed. So I launched a comprehensive framework for analysing trade and the political economy of international trade policy in two German-language volumes, with a number of follow-up publications in international journals until today.
In the mid-2000s, I turned to my central task, after having completed a German language volume of 800 pages entitled ‘Elements of Evolutionary Economics’ which was designed as an internet-based evolving compendium of my own approach to Evolutionary Economics: This was writing a foundational volume on economic evolution. This turned out to be an arduous task, with at least three versions of the manuscript over the years (then made available via SSRN). Eventually, between 2010 and 2013, a breakthrough was achieved: I fitted all the previous work into the framework of the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, in the modern version of biosemiotics. The result was my ‘Foundations of Economic Evolution: A Treatise on the Natural Philosophy of Economics’, published in fall 2013. These years were extremely intensive. I developed a number of new core notions, in particular ‘performativity of institutions’, and was able to relate this to the brain sciences via the Peircian perspective. This allowed me integrating the current developments in behavioural and neuroeconomics into my own framework. Finally, another breakthrough happened when a young Russian scholar, Ivan Boldyrev, pointed out to me that my thinking comes very close to Hegel. I delved into Hegel’s philosophy, and finally we wrote a book together developing a Hegelian approach to modern economics: 'Hegel, institutions and economics: performing the social', Routledge.
For a congenial review of the Foundations, see:
- Don Ross, Review of Carsten Herrmann-Pillath’s Foundations of economic evolution: a treatise on the natural philosophy of economics. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring 2014, pp. 109-123. http://ejpe.org/pdf/7-1-br-1.pdf
After completing this work, I returned to China studies. I felt that I was still missing a central idea how to grasp the interaction between culture and economy in China, and in general. First I wrote a book in German, published in 2015, but that only happend to be a sort of 'working paper' which generated my final idea: This is to centre on the notion of 'ritual', both as a theoretical concept and as an indigenous term. This discovery triggered another period of intensive wrirting. In winter 2017, my magnum opus on China was published with Routledge, 'China's Economic Culture: The Ritual Order of State and Markets'.
This is where I stand now. Find more details in the accompanying topical pages!