Ford’s Metaphysics: On the Transcendental Origins of Henry Ford’s Fordism

Peter Watt

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Since it was first articulated by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks (1929-1935), Fordism has been understood at two interconnected levels. At one level, it is understood in secular materialist terms as an archetypal system of mass-production. At another, as a techno-economic paradigm of capitalist expansion. However, little attention has been given to the philosophical influences and ideas that underpinned Henry Ford’s (1863-1947) worldview and how this came to influence the formation of the factory systems at his Highland Park and River Rouge complexes. In most textbooks, it is assumed that Ford based his industrial design on a technological intensification of F.W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911). This paper seeks to examine the origins and rationale behind Ford’s factory system by exploring the relationship between his personal worldview and the ‘ism’ which came to bear his name. Through a cultural-historical analysis, the paper critically explores Henry Ford’s personal Fordism, and argues that what has come to be understood as one of the most ‘secular’ and ‘materialist’ processes of organizing ‘men and machine’ began with an attempt by Henry Ford to realise a ‘metaphysical’ ideal that was informed by the popular philosophical and theological thought of the previous century. By returning to the ideas and the context of this period, Ford’s engagement with the work of the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is considered to both contextualise Henry Ford’s Fordism and explore the philosophical tensions at the heart of his organizational theory and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)577-603
Number of pages27
Issue number4
Early online date13 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021


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