28 June 2021

A Hermeneutical Approach to the works of Fabio Besta and His Students

In his PhD thesis, Marco Maringoni looks at the works of Fabio Besta, a leading accounting scholar between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, and his students at the Regia Scuola Superiore di Commercio in Venice. Adopting a hermeneutical approach, he provides an interpretation of why Besta conceptualised ragioneria (accounting) as a science, rather than as an art or as a technique, as it had usually been the case until then. 

How did you come to study the works of Besta and his students?

I was interested in firms and wanted to understand more about them. When I mentioned this to my first supervisor, Marc Flandreau, he replied that I should rather focus on accounting. I did not immediately grasp the implications of his words.

I wanted to comply with my supervisor’s advice but did not want to lose sight of firms, so I focused on accounting firms, tying the two together and trying to identify their origin and evolution. This led me to Great Britain in the nineteenth century, where I had found the first accounting firms. Then I followed the industrialisation and corporatisation processes of these firms, a phenomenon that took place in the United States in the twentieth century.

Given that currently accounting and consulting firms play a key role in the economic and financial system, understanding the birth and evolution of these firms was a relevant topic. However, I realised that it was not what I was looking for. 

In fact, whenever I thought about firms, I realised that I was actually thinking about aziende (azienda is the Italian word usually used to translate “firm”). For a long time, I did not pay attention to this difference, superficially taking it for granted that it was merely a linguistical one. In reality, the difference has a much deeper nature, as firms and aziende do not share the same roots; they are words (and concepts) with a different history.
So, I started over and tried to reconstruct the history of azienda. This led me first to Gino Zappa, an Italian accounting and economic scholar who founded economia aziendale (business economics). Then I discovered his maestro, Fabio Besta, who had conceptualised aziende before him. 

As a result of this process, I ended up studying Fabio Besta’s work, that of some of his students, and the environment where they met, that is, the Regia Scuola Superiore di Commercio in Venice, the first higher education institution devoted to the study of commercial matters in Italy. At this point I think I grasped what my first supervisor meant when he directed me towards accounting. I understood that firms were accounting constructions and wondered about the implications of that observation.

Can you tell us more about these implications and your method to analyse them?

Fabio Besta was a leading accounting thinker active between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Accounting in the Italian peninsula had always been conceptualized as either an art or a technique. Besta founded it as a science and his magnum opus, La Ragioneria, constituted the cornerstone of such accounting science. He became the most influential accounting thinker of the Italian Kingdom of his time; he imparted his teachings to thousands of students, many of whom became accounting scholars and professionals themselves. 

What caught my attention was the fact that he had founded ragioneria as a science. What did this mean? What were its implications? Besta did not devote many pages to what he meant by defining accounting as a science. In those few devoted to that, he mentioned Herbert Spencer. Spencer is associated with positivism, a system of thought that focused on the data experience and rejected abstraction and metaphysics. “Positive” is what is real, practical, effective, fertile, that which can be observed and experienced. Specifically in relation to Spencer, he was influenced by evolutionism. For him biology and sociology were parallel sciences, society was a superorganism, whose laws could have been ultimately derived from the world of Nature. However, beyond some superficial remarks, I could find scant proof of the influence of Spencer on him. For example, Besta wrote about the organismo amministrativo (administrative organism), comparing administration to a biological entity, but the comparison had essentially a nominal nature.

To answer my questions, I adopted a hermeneutical approach. As underlined by the title of the thesis, my work is an interpretation and as such it was influenced by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s relationship with hermeneutics was not linear and changed over time, appearing in different configurations. The one I adopted is the one he developed during his early years in Freiburg between 1919 and 1924. While his reflections do not necessarily constitute a methodology, they can be applied to an archive, something not viable with his later reflections on hermeneutics, which becomes a hermeneutical ontology in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) and a reflection on language and poetry after the so-called “turn” in his thought.

In his Freiburg years, Heidegger called for a critical scrutiny of tradition, a Destruktion (destruction, dismantling), to the point of claiming that hermeneutics corresponded to such destruction. For him, such an act does not result in a God’s eye view, because one cannot transcend one’s historical situation. Destruction is not only related to tradition, but also to truth. in Ancient Greece, truth corresponded to ἀλήθεια (alètheia), which can be translated as “unveiling”. Over time, the meaning of truth in Europe changed, metamorphosing in certitude. If truth is alètheia, it is concealed, and an act of destruction is necessary to bring it to light. 

What did your hermeneutical approach unveil about ragioneria?

It helped me unveil three elements: what I consider the genuine influence on Besta, what I consider the essence of accounting and the role Besta and his orthodox students played in its history, and what I consider the effect of this kind of mentality on the real world.

As previously mentioned, Besta’s explicit influence when conceptualising accounting as a science is Spencer. However, this reference is limited and superficial in the volumes of Ragioneria. What influenced him a lot more is economics, especially the ideas that would be later labelled neoclassical economics. Francesco Ferrara, who was the director of the Venetian school, helped spreading such ideas in Italy. Besta wrote that given that accounting investigated the vita della ricchezza (life of wealth), and that wealth could only be measured through value, theories of value were crucial to accounting. With this action, the sociological veneer of accounting is removed and underneath it one discovers that accounting for Besta is embedded in an economic landscape, an economic Weltbild (picture of the world). He then proceeded to select Henry Charles Carey’s cost of reproduction theory of value as the one he considered correct, a theory which was popularised by Ferrara in Italy.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat found the earliest traces of accounting in Uruk, Mesopotamia, where tokens representing goods were used to count them. Accounting in its essence has to do with abstraction, quantification, control. This process evolved over millennia and Besta played a role in it too. In his time, accounting was centred on persons and was subject to a legalistic approach. Besta emphasised value rather than persons, adopted an economic and material approach, and believed that accounting could have universal laws, as did neoclassical economists. 

This relation between laws, numbers and quantification underlies a certain mentality. Alexandre Koyré studied Galileo Galilei. While Galilei is often linked to experiment, observation and experience, and seems to embody an Aristotelian ethos, Koyré maintains that in fact Galileo is influenced by Plato, that the book of Nature is written in mathematical language for him, and thus that Galileo gives mathematics a superior status. Carlo Ghidiglia, one of Besta’s orthodox students who closely worked with him, believed that ragioneria pura (pure accounting) as a science of economic control existed, with natural and fixed laws, transcending experience, with the exception that its principles had not been identified yet. This belief shared by Besta and his orthodox students was only possible in a world where there existed a mathesis universalis (universal learning), a mathematical universal science, and a characteristica universalis (universal character), a formal and universal language, two concepts that were developed thanks to René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz and that gave their project an implicit rationalistic character.

These Weltbild and conceptualisation are not merely metaphysical notions, but have an impact on the real world, a world which is a complex mechanism. A physical person can be translated into patrimony, an aggregate of wealth (and its transactions). The same applies to personae fictae (fictitious persons). The State, as the Hobbesian Leviathan, is the embodiment of the modern fictitious person. While the Leviathan focused on order in relation to security, azienda focuses on order in relation to the economy. Each fictitious person, State included, can be configured as an azienda. In this world, azienda acts as a technology, whose essence is Gestell (enframing), that is, the translation of the world into Bestand (standing reserve), a resource ready to be used.

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Marco Maringoni defended his PhD thesis in International History in May 2021. Professor Rui Pedro Esteves presided the committee, which included Assistant Professor Carolyn Biltoft, thesis supervisor, and Associate Professor Graham Hubbs, Department of Politics and Philosophy, University of Idaho, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Maringoni, Marco. “Rationalistic Constructions: An Interpretation of Selected Works by Fabio Besta and His Students at the Regia Scuola Superiore di Commercio (Venice, 1868–1927).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021. 

For access, please contact Dr Maringoni.

Banner image: excerpt from a picture by
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.