My philosophy of economics

18 Jun, 2019 at 13:45 | Posted in Economics, Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments

A critique yours truly sometimes encounters is that as long as I cannot come up with some own alternative to the failing mainstream theory, I shouldn’t expect people to pay attention.

This is, however, to totally and utterly misunderstand the role of philosophy and methodology of economics!

As John Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

19557-004-21162361The Commonwealth of Learning is not at this time without Master-Builders, whose mighty Designs, in advancing the Sciences, will leave lasting Monuments to the Admiration of Posterity; But every one​e must not hope to be a Boyle, or a Sydenham; and in an Age that produces such Masters, as the Great-Huygenius, and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some other of that Strain; ’tis Ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge.

That’s what philosophy and methodology can contribute to economics — clearing obstacles to science by clarifying limits and consequences of choosing specific modelling strategies, assumptions, and ontologies.

respectEvery now and then I also get some upset comments from people wondering why I’m not always ‘respectful’ of people like Eugene Fama, Robert Lucas, Greg Mankiw, Paul Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis, and others of the same ilk.

But sometimes it might actually, from a Lockean perspective, be quite appropriate to be disrespectful.

New Classical and ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics is rubbish that ‘lies in the way to Knowledge.’

And when New Classical and ‘New Keynesian’ economists resurrect fallacious ideas and theories that were proven wrong already in the 1930s, then I think a less respectful and more colourful language is called for.


  1. I think the idea that you have to have a “replacement” before you can critique or reject stems from misunderstandings and misapplications of Kuhn and Lakatos. It’s not clear to me why Kuhn and Lakatos have become gospel among methodologists in economics. I think one can reject an individual theory, or even a whole theoretical structure without articulating a complete alternative if one is simply dealing with a bad theory. As a practical matter, it helps to have a replacement. But I’d rather have a series of ad hoc theories that have good empirical support and explanatory power than a complete, coherent theory that is wrong.

  2. “In the intellectual condition of the social sciences today, there is so much to do by way of initial `structuring’ ( let the word stand
    for the kind of work I am describing) that much `empirical research’ is bound to be thin and uninteresting.

    Much of it, in fact, is aformal exercise for beginning students, and sometimes a useful pursuit for those who are not able to handle the more difficult
    substantive problems of social science. There is no more virtue in empirical inquiry as such than in reading as such.

    The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts, and thus to make arguments more fruitful by basing all sides
    more substantively. Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning.

    For once you lay out an empirical study, even if you do not follow it through, it leads you to a new search for data, which often turn out to have unsuspected relevance to your problems.Just as it is foolish to design a field study if
    the answer can be found in a library, it is foolish to think you have exhausted the books before you have translated them into appropriate empirical studies, which merely means into questions of fact…

    But, you may ask, how do ideas come? How is the imagination spurred to put all the images and facts together, to make images relevant and lend meaning to facts? I do not think I can really answer that; all I can do is talk about the general conditions and a few simple techniques which have seemed to increase my chances to come out with something.

    The sociological imagination, I remind you, in considerable part consists of the capacity to shift from one perspective to another, and in the process to build up an adequate view of a total society and of its components. It is this imagination, of course, that sets off the social scientist from the mere technician. Adequate technicians can be trained in a few years. The sociological imagination
    can also be cultivated; certainly it seldom occurs without a great deal of often routine work.

    Yet there is an unexpected quality about it, perhaps because its essence is the combination of ideas that no one expected were combinable say, a mess of ideas from German philosophy and British economics.
    There is a playfulness of mind back of such combining as well as a truly fierce drive
    to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks.

    Perhaps he is too well trained, too precisely trained. Since
    one can be trained only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy. But you must cling to such vague images and notions, if they areyours, and you must work them out. For it is in such forms that original ideas, if any, almost always first appear…

    I know you will agree that you should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit.
    But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences. I suppose those who use it believe they are imitating `physical science,’ and are not aware that much of that prose is not altogether necessary. It
    has in fact been said with authority that there is `a serious crisis in literacy’-a crisis in which social scientists are very much involved.
    Is this peculiar language due to the fact that profound and subtle issues, concepts, methods, are being discussed? If not,then what are the reasons for what Malcolm Cowley aptly calls `socspeak’?

    Is it really necessary to your proper work? If it is, there is nothing you can do about it; if it is not, then how can you avoid it?

    Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.

    In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a `mere literaryman.’ or, worse still, `a mere journalist’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable… To write is to raise a claim for the attention of readers. That is part of any style. To write is also to claim for oneself at least status enough to be read…To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose.

    It is much less important to study grammar and Anglo-Saxon roots than to clarify your own answers to these three questions: (1) How difficult and complex after all is mysubject? (2) When I write, what status am I claiming for myself? ( 3 ) For whom am I trying to write?

    (1) The usual answer to the first question is: Not so difficult and complex as the way in which you are writing about it. Proof of
    that is everywhere available: it is revealed by the ease with which 95 per cent of the books of social science can be translated into English.

    But, you may ask, do we not sometimes need technical terms? Of course we do, but `technical’ does not necessarily mean difficult, and certainly it does not mean jargon. If such technical terms are really necessary and also clear and precise, it is not
    difficult to use them in a context of plain English and thus introduce them meaningfully to the reader

    My first point, then, is that most `socspeak’ is unrelated to any complexity of subject matter or thought. It is used-I think almost entirely-to establish academic claims for one’s self; to write in this way is to say to the reader ( often I am sure without knowing it): I know something that is so difficult you can understand it only if you first learn my difficult language. In the meantime, you are merely a journalist, a layman, or some other sort of `underdeveloped type´.
    (2) To answer the second question, we must distinguish two ways of presenting the work of social science according to the idea
    the writer has of himself, and the voice with which he speaks. One way results from the idea that he is a man who may shout,
    whisper, or chuckle-but who is always there. It is also clear what sort of man he is: whether confident or neurotic, direct or
    involuted, he is a center of experience and reasoning; now he has found out something, and he is telling us about it, and how he
    found it out. This is the voice behind the best expositions available in the English language.

    The other way of presenting work does not use any voice of any man. Such writing is not a `voice’ at all. It is an autonomous sound. It is a prose manufactured by a machine. That it is full of jargon is not as noteworthy as that it is strongly mannered: it is not only impersonal; it is pretentiously impersonal. Government bulletins are sometimes written in this way. Business letters also. And a great deal of social science. Any writing-perhaps apart from that of certain truly great stylists-that is not imaginable as human speech is bad writing.

    ( 3 ) But finally there is the question of those who are to hear the voice-thinking about that also leads to characteristics of style. It
    is very important for any writer to have in mind just what kinds of people he is trying to speak to-and also what he really thinks of
    them. These are not easy questions: to answer them well requires decisions about oneself as well as knowledge of reading publics.To write is to raise a claim to be read, but by whom?

    One answer has been suggested by my colleague, Lionel Truing, who has given me permission to pass it on. You are to assume that you have been asked to give a lecture on some subject you know well, before an audience of teachers and students from all departments of a leading university, as well as an assortment of interested people from a near-by city.

    Assume that such an audience is before you and that they have a right to know; assume that you want to let them know. Now write…The line between profundity and verbiage is often delicate, even perilous…

    Perhaps I can best summarize what I have been trying to say in the form of a few precepts and cautions:
    ( 1 ) Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination.
    Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself.

    Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to theascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

    ( 2 ) Avoid the Byzantine oddity of associated and disassociated Concepts, the mannerism of verbiage. Urge upon yourself and upon others the simplicity of clear statement.
    Use more elaborated terms only when you believe firmly that their use enlarges the
    scope of your sensibilities, the precision of your references, the depth of your reasoning. Avoid using unintelligibility as a means
    of evading the making of judgments upon society-and as a. means of escaping your readers’ judgments upon your own work.”
    C.Wright Mills- On Intellectual Craftsmanship

    • “Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.”
      Lovely quote 🙂

      • A classic Lars.He wrote it already in 1959 old Charles Wright Mills,but i think it still valid and worth qouting,maybee even more today? 🙂

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