Meeting Fra Luca Paccioli, or How I Came to Realize that Accounting was a Liberal Art

16 June 2009

Four years ago, I had the pleasure of pursuing an independent study with an economics major who was also keenly interested in medieval history.  Together we came up with a course that would investigate the history of medieval corporations, banking, and accounting. Over the course of term, we read in depth studies of Florentine banking establishments, memoirs of traders, analyses of the rise of letters of credit and exchange, and portraits of the hurly-burly world of medieval monetary exchange.

We both emerged from our readings with not only an appreciation of these dimensions of the medieval world but also an enhanced awareness of all of the structural factors and institutions that needed to be in place, the contingencies and liabilities that needed not only to be calculated but also conceptualized, and above all the centrality of communication of all kinds in the development of the incredibly sophisticated economic entities and networks that the early modern period inherited.

An Unexpected Epiphany

For me, however, the best moment in the course was when, as I prepared for the sessions on the history of accounting, I came to realize that accounting was actually a liberal art.

Although perhaps obvious to some readers, this epiphany came as a bit of a shock to me.  I had my own mythologies that needed their share of seismic shattering.  Accounting, after all, was what they taught in commerce schools and business programs; it was occupational; it was practical; it was technical rather than conceptual.  In Aristotle’s terms, it was a technē, not an epistemē, and the liberal arts were all about epistemē. 

As I read about the rationale and method of double-entry bookkeeping and accounting in the pages of Fra Luca Pacioli’s 1494 Summa on Arithmetic, Geometry, Proportion, and Proportionality, I encountered a mind conceptualizing accounting, to be sure, as a technique whereby a merchant or banker could keep track of his credits and debits.  More importantly, Paccioli (and the subsequent discussions with my student) made me realize that:

  • Like art or literature or physics or sociology, accounting is a way of representing the world with its own conventions, expectations, and assumptions.
  • It was also a form of language, on the one hand fairly stable in its vocabulary, grammar, and rules of usage; on the other, capable of representing an infinite variety of human relationships (which is what debt and credit boil down to in the end). 
  • Also, like language and other modes of representation, accounting could be used to reveal truth or to conceal or distort it, and Paccioli had very strong, clear views on the need for ethical conduct.  Indeed, from his pages I could see emerge a sustained series of very coherent ethical and sociological reflections on those human activities known as banking and commerce and the psychological preconditions of “belief” and “doubt” that lead to their creation or dissolution. 
  • Finally, accounting was about the creation of a visual object, and the owner of the book was well-advised to take into full account the visual organization, size, and over-all aspect of his accounts if he wished to have greatest success with his potential clients and customers, for they would judge his ‘books’, if not by their cover, then by the visual signs of transparency and comprehensibility.  

Language, sociology, ethics, mathematics, book arts, economics, history (because, after all, accounts are a form of historical record), psychology, and representation: why had I not associated these many familiar liberal disciplines with accounting before?

Undoubtedly, my own ignorance was partially to blame.  The more one looks, the more one sees, and Paccioli’s treatise allowed me to see a whole new world.  Another contributor to my blind spot, however, was what I have come to see as a pernicious set of dichotomies that often structure the ways in which we talk about Carleton and what we do here, habits of speech that silently become habits of mind that may not, in the end, serve anyone very well. 

Breaking the Bubble

For me, the phrase, ‘the Carleton Bubble’, exemplifies these potentially detrimental conceptual binaries, for it implicitly promotes the idea that Carleton is a world set apart from the ‘real world’, that the knowledge gained in its classrooms is ‘not practical’ or ‘relevant’, and that what one does at Carleton is self-centered and blinkered unless explicitly oriented to a ‘real-world’ problem.  There is a reason, after all, that being told ‘You’re living in a bubble’ rarely feels like a compliment. 

This is not to say that Carleton is not a distinctive life-world with its own possibilities and limitations.  But it is to say that it is no different in this regard from any other life-world, whether it be a Human Rights NGO, the trading floor of a commodities exchange, an elementary school classroom in the inner-city, a laboratory at Sloan-Kettering, or a law firm specializing in immigration rights or intellectual property.  Each world has its horizons, its walls and its windows.  By using binaries and oppositions like ‘the Carleton Bubble’ vs. ‘the real world’, we risk leading ourselves and our students not to see the full complement of connections, analogies, and contributions of one life world to another, to doubt the value of the education they have received for the new life worlds into which they are entering, and to categorize prematurely the knowledges and skills they possess as practical and useful or theoretical and useless. 

As our students leave Carleton, such blindspots, doubts, and prejudices about their own educations that we have subtly cultivated through our own ways of speaking can mean many things: looking only at certain kinds of work, questioning one’s qualifications and abilities, concealing exciting aspects of oneself because they aren’t ‘right’ or ‘relevant’, seeing only several routes forward rather than the full range of roads, highways, and footpaths, or boxing up sets of questions, curiosities, and knowledges and storing them in the attic or garage rafters of one’s mind.  They narrow and fetter rather than broaden and free.

Fra Luca Paccioli’s treatise on double-entry bookkeeping taught me, in short, that the liberal arts are not a set of disciplines but a state of mind, a state in which all things are recognized as both theoretical and practical and the mind shuttles constantly, freely, and intentionally between different dimensions of  a subject or problem, seeking, probing, experimenting, imagining.  Within such a state, there is no room for ‘bubbles’.

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