Mosse Lecture

The Inaugural Mosse-Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley


Joseph Vogl (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin / Princeton University)
The Specter of Capital 
The Strange Survival of Theodicy in Economics
Respondent: Martin Jay (University of California, Berkeley)
April 7, 2016


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were witness to the rise of theodicy as an attempt to justify the rational and providential workings of God in a world full of plagues and disasters. Likewise, today’s liberal theory of markets and, most notably, financial markets claims that the current economy has brought the best of all possible worlds, despite the recent bankruptcies and crashes. At the heart of this modern dogma of liberalism lies something that we could call ‘oikodicy’ – a doctrine that seeks to justify all the evils and catastrophes that seem irreconcilable with the wisdom of established economic paradigms. This doctrine’s success is evident not only in the fact that oikodicy reduces complex social processes to simple operations, such as acts of exchange, but also as the embodiment of a fundamental figure of hope. Today, this figure of hope still remains connected to financial markets in the following notions: that the market is the privileged location of social order, that it is distinguished as the exponent of practical reason, and that, in the figure of the market, the old divine Providence is usurped by the regularity of the system. Here, economic theory is not vaguely realistic, but deeply moralistic, metaphysical, and theological. All this raises the question as to whether the latest financial crisis might not have a similar effect on social life as the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1775. Contemporary attempts at theodicy in the wake of the 1775 Lisbon earthquake were fundamentally thwarted and could only survive in satirical form, as in Voltaire’s Candide. What is at stake is nothing less than the validity, possibility, and tenability of a liberal or capitalist oikidicy – a theodicy of the economic universe.


Joseph Vogl is a professor of German Literature, Cultural and Media Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin and a permanent visiting professor at Princeton University. He is the author of over one hundred articles and book chapters on German literature, literary and media theory about the history of knowledge and political thought. His books include Ort der Gewalt: Kafkas literarische Ethik (1990), Kalkül und Leidenschaft: Poetik des ökonomischen Menschen (2002), Über das Zaudern (2007) / On Tarrying (2011), Soll und Haben: Fernsehgespräche (2009, co-author: Alexander Kluge), Das Gespenst des Kapitals (2010) / The Specter of Capital(published by Stanford University Press in 2014), and Der Souveränitätseffekt (2015).


The Mosse-Lectures at Humboldt University in Berlin, founded in 1997, commemorate the history of the Mosse-family, the German-Jewish publishing house Rudolf Mosse, and George L. Mosse – the eminent historian – who gave the series’ opening speech on May 14, 1997. As an academic institution, the Mosse-Lectures continue the tradition of democratic liberalism, which was established and defended by Mosse's newspaper Berliner Tageblatt, in their commitment to the support of cultural exchange, transfer of knowledge, and political enlightenment. With support from The Mosse Foundation, the Department of German will bring selected Mosse Lectures to Berkeley.


We would like to thank The Mosse Foundation and Stanford University Press for their generous support.