Abstract: Entrepreneurship as Being: Phenomenological Approaches to the Historical Study of Entrepreneurship

Andrew Popp and Robin Holt


Entrepreneurship studies have moved away from prescriptive, traits-based approaches to the entrepreneurial subject and had developed an increasing emphasis on entrepreneurial narratives and narrative-based methodologies. However, the narrativization of entrepreneurship studies remains directed toward the isolation of a distinct and unique entrepreneurial person and process. Conversely, business and economic history, looking to economics for conceptual tools, have tended to remain focused on the entrepreneur's function within economy and society. In this contribution, though we start from the category of "entrepreneur," our aim is to go behind or before it. In doing so we aim for the near complete absorption—or dissolving—of that category into far more fundamental frames of reference, problematizing related concepts such as entrepreneurial identity, narratives, and agency. Our empirical subject, John Shaw, a hardware factor in early nineteenth-century England, did not identify himself as an entrepreneur, yet how he acted in the world would now be defined as entrepreneurial. We would argue that Shaw did not act out the social category of entrepreneur; rather, he acted out of his everyday being, providing expressive, phenomenological testimony to the ground or base condition out of which concepts like "entrepreneur" occur and become fixed. Shaw's letters are an expression of his thrown-ness in a world where the idea of a business venture was a nascent, febrile, and uncertain possibility. The language of the letters conveys how these possibilities were exploited, transformed, and even wasted as they were acknowledged and merged, more or less sympathetically, with all the other raw materials of experience that went to make up Shaw's everyday life. Archivally based, empirically rigorous, and melding approaches from history and philosophy. the paper takes us back to beginnings of phenomena, before the fixing of habits and concepts, bringing into question our typical focus on patterns and outcomes.