Tony Lawson vs Uskali Mäki

17 Sep, 2018 at 17:10 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 3 Comments

We are all realists and we all — Mäki, Cartwright, and I — self-consciously present ourselves as such. The most obvious research-guiding commonality, perhaps, is that we do all look at the ontological presuppositions of economics or economists.

title-methodology-image_tcm7-198540Where we part company, I believe, is that I want to go much further. I guess I would see their work as primarily analytical and my own as more critically constructive or dialectical. My goal is less the clarification of what economists are doing and presupposing as seeking to change the orientation of modern economics … Specifically, I have been much more prepared than the other two to criticise the ontological presuppositions of economists—at least publically. I think Mäki is probably the most guarded. I think too he is the least critical, at least of the state of modern economics …

One feature of Mäki’s work that I am not overly convinced by, but which he seems to value, is his method of theoretical isolation (Mäki 1992). If he is advocating it as a method for social scientific research, I doubt it will be found to have much relevance—for reasons I discuss in Economics and reality (Lawson 1997). But if he is just saying that the most charitable way of interpreting mainstream economists is that they are acting on this method, then fine. Sometimes, though, he seems to imply more …

I cannot get enthused by Mäki’s concern to see what can be justified in contemporary formalistic modelling endeavours. The insights, where they exist, seem so obvious, circumscribed, and tagged on anyway …

As I view things, anyway, a real difference between Mäki and me is that he is far less, or less openly, critical of the state and practices of modern economics … Mäki seems more inclined to accept mainstream economic contributions as largely successful, or anyway uncritically. I certainly do not think we can accept mainstream contributions as successful, and so I proceed somewhat differently …

So if there is a difference here it is that Mäki more often starts out from mainstream academic economic analyses accepted rather uncritically, whilst I prefer to start from those everyday practices widely regarded as successful.

Tony Lawson

Lawson and Mäki are both highly influential contemporary students of economic methodology and philosophy. Yours truly has learned a lot from both of them. Although to a certain degree probably also a question of ‘temperament,’ I find Lawson’s ‘critical realist’ critique of mainstream economic theories and models deeper and more convincing than Mäki’s more ‘distanced’ and less critical approach. Mäki’s ‘detached’ style probably reflects the fact that he is a philosopher with an interest in economics, rather than an economist. Being an economist it is easier to see the relevance of Lawson’s ambitious and far-reaching critique of mainstream economics than it is to value Mäki’s often rather arduous application of the analytic-philosophical tool-kit, typically less ambitiously aiming for mostly conceptual and terminological ‘clarifications.’


  1. “My goal is less the clarification of what economists are doing and presupposing as seeking to change the orientation of modern economics … Specifically, I have been much more prepared than the other two to criticise the ontological presuppositions of economists—at least publically. ”
    If you challenge the ontological presuppositions, you challenge the proofs that markets are efficient. If you can’t prove markets efficient, prices may well be arbitrary. If prices are arbitrary, inflation is probably psychological. If inflation is psychological, we can best deal with the expression of money demand by printing money faster than prices rise.
    The private sector already understands that money can be created faster than prices rise. See
    M2 money supply rises almost 4000% faster than CPI. GDP can’t explain away the money growth because GDP has grown about 4000% slower too. Conclusion: the Quantity Theory of Money is wrong, and Trump knows that but economists don’t dare say it publicly.

  2. I happened by chance recently to re-read Joseph Stiglitz ‘s essay, A View from New Haven, his commentary on the Cambridge Capital Controversy.

    Stiglitz, Past Grand Master of Neoclassical Theory, may well serve as archetype of mainstream economic theory. It struck me that in that essay his defense of mainstream theory comes down to rejecting the possibility of an ontology for economics: the economy is not a singular thing. Reality, as my old philosophy teacher put it, has no plural. If you are going to be a realist, you commit yourself to the presupposition that the phenomena you observe or study manifest from a common and singular being of existence. You may think yourself one of many blind men feeling an elephant from different ends, but you presuppose that your own elephant at least, is one elephant, even if you may question whether every one of your fellow blind men are assessing the same elephant.

    Stiglitz, I noticed from that essay, makes no such concession. His epistemic conceit seems to be derived from a kind of analytic atomism, where you can pose an analytic frame to answer one question without answering a contradiction that arises from applying that frame to another question, no matter how closely related the two questions might seem to be, assuming the questions are about different aspects of the same economy. Such analytic independence puts disproof by contradiction out of bounds. It saves the analytic method of Neoclassical theory in a bizarre way, but introduces a surreal phenomenology.

    The great, core fault in economics, imnsho, is “waving out the window”: cutting short analytic reasoning to reference the real world in a casual, undisciplined way and in that gesture, that wave of the ✋ hand, attempting to legitimize a basically unfounded intuition about the nature of this actually existing institutional political economy. The Cambridge Capital Controversy involved one of those unfounded intuitions: the intuitive notion that capital can be usefully conceived of as if capital constitutes an accumulating stock with convex relations in a production function.

    If you think capital as an accumulating stock must exist, then the various detailed ways in which this concept fails constitute together a devastating critique of the concept, because each is one aspect of a common conceptual failure, because the concept ought to concern a common being. Stiglitz rejects this tying together of conceptual failures. Reswitching, marginal product, aggregation by numeraire, whatever else, are isolated analytically and so only problematic in relation to analytic convenience in particular circumstances: if it matters critically to answering the question at hand, it matters but if it can be handled in that analytic case, it can be dismissed globally, because — I am guessing now as to the reasoning — there is no “globally”, no common ground in reality, in being, where the detritus of contradiction accumulates like a pile of junk thinking.

    Just some random reflections.

  3. I think this is far too charitable to Mäki. Though an indisputably clever fellow, he is currently one of the most egregious apologists for mainstream economic theory in the philosophy of economics. (Or “economic methodology”, as the field has had to sell itself in order to qualify for research grants.) A case in point: his defence, noted by Lawson in the quoted passage, of the allegedly valuable capacity of “idealising” theoretical economic models to “isolate” economic mechanisms / phenomena and causal processes / contributions. (If you want to see how those arguments actually work, keep an eye on how they rely on sliding surreptitiously between everyday and highly technical senses of terms like “possibility” and “existence”.) Like his acrobatic apologia for Friedman (1953), almost all of his work is a case of a sharp mind defending the utterly indefensible.

    “Realists” are a *very* motley crew…. Lawson and Mäki have very little in common. Cartwright’s views are very hard to categorise, and “realism” is a rather poor (though obviously not totally irrelevant) way to grasp her sophisticated philosophical views….

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.