Sraffa on Heraclitus & the notion of value as 'universal substance'
The relation between metaphysics and the theory of value is also present in a note written in Italian, where Sraffa (D1/20/4) quotes a passage by Eduard Zeller on a fragment by Heraclitus that can be translated into English as ‘all things are exchanged by fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods’:
But the importance of a comparison must not be exaggerated. The fire substance becomes something different (?), i.e. it transforms itself, as we will see, in water, land, meteor, but Heraclitus supposes (?) always that fire remains hidden in every derived substance, but not in act, as the Aristotelians (!) would say, but in power/potentiality. This comparison like all comparisons is not the expression of a material identity (?), since, if the substance-fire becomes an absolutely different one, like gold exchanges itself for meat, wood, wine or any other object, it is no more possible to talk of a universal substance. (Sraffa, D3/12/10/24, as translated in Kurz and Salvadori, 2010, p. 202)
— Martins, N. (2013). “Sraffa, Marshall and the Principle of Continuity.” Cambridge Journal of Economics, p. 15
Martins proceeds to analyze for the next couple of pages how this excerpt relates to Sraffa’s viewpoint in general. The overall gist is that while “[t]he idea of a universal substance, a hidden substance behind material things, underpins the labour theory of value and certainly Marx’s interpretation of it” (ibid, 15-6), Sraffa’s own value theory tries to avoid relying upon a universal substance (in which ‘utility’ may be included).
“If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like oxen, and each would make the gods' bodies the same shape as they themselves had.”—Clement, Miscellanies 5.110 = 21B15
For what origin will you seek of it? In what manner, and from where did it grow? I will not allow it to be said nor for you to think ‘from that which does not exist’. For it is not possible to speak or to think of what doesn’t exist.
Parmenides, I hate you.
You just mentioned that which does not exist.
So you can speak of it.
Why do people think this man made sense?
Why does this exist?