As a central notion for understanding human behavior, the concept of interest emerged in early modern European political theory. It was part of the skeptical view of human affairs that informed the secular approach to politics and government, which arose anew in the Renaissance. In the course of the seventeenth century, the concept entered a variety of other intellectual genres as well, and obtained a new and crucial significance by becoming linked to a theory of civil exchange. To view human behavior as interest driven was not merely considered a matter of political realism, it came to be valued as socially beneficial as well. This new conception of human society was subsequently elaborated by political economists and utilitarian philosophers. From the early nineteenth century onward, the conceptual development has occurred mainly in debates accompanying the rivalries between academic disciplines. Interest was associated primarily with economic theories, which have been emulated, enlarged, corrected, as well as contested in other disciplines.

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Keywords (Self-)interest, Altruism, Commerce, Disinterestedness, Exchange, Invisible hand, Jansenism, Laissez-faire, Maximization, Rational choice, Self-love, Self-preservation, Utility
Persistent URL,
Heilbron, J. (2015). Interest: History of the Concept. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Second Edition (pp. 386–390). doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.03095-6