post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 31, 16 May 2005
article 3



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Symposium on Reorienting Economics (Part III)



Towards a Framework for Pluralism in Economics

Jeroen Van Bouwel   (Ghent University, Belgium)

© Copyright 2005 Jeroen Van Bouwel





In her contribution Pleas for Pluralism to this journal, Esther-Mirjam Sent (2003) suggests that the plea for pluralism, as found in many contributions to the post-autistic economics movement, has a strategic motivation. Although I tend to agree that this is true of some contributions, it seems necessary to spell out the non-strategic motivations by which one can defend plurality and pluralism before we evaluate whether (heterodox) contributions are not really pluralistic.


Discussing the idea of pluralism, and elaborating a framework in which the different aspects of the concept are located, will be a fruitful step to deepen the heterodox standpoint, as many heterodox pleas (e.g., many contributions to this journal) do refer to plurality and pluralisms. It might take away the unease some people feel with the use of pluralism, cf. Jacques Sapir (2001): “Having gone so far in support to the post-autistic approach I must confess some unease about the widespread use of the term “pluralism” in the PAE-Newsletter.”



Motivations for pluralism


Let us start by making the various possible motivations underlying a defence of pluralism more explicit. I believe that at least five different motivations can be identified.


a. the ontological motivation


Firstly, there is the ontological motivation for pluralism, which appeals to features of the world, in particular, its complexity. An example can be found in Caldwell’s (2004) recent contribution to this journal: “Some may agree with Lawson and me that pluralism makes good sense; the complex nature of social reality may also mean that it is inevitable.”  As such, ontological complexity or disunity results in the plurality of existing approaches. 


Another example of this motivation in the economics literature is to be found in the contribution of Kurz and Salvadori (2000), as discussed by King (2004):  “Economic reality, they note, is widely believed to be very complicated. (…) Since no theory can consider all relevant factors in any particular economic context, there is a strong prima facie case for theoretical pluralism. Different theories will often be complementary rather than alternative.” In this quote, economic reality is characterised as very complex, hence it might be impossible to be represented by a single theory, and as such it might be the source of pluralism. But this quote is slightly ambiguous, as you might deduce from it that the author considers our cognitive capacities to be too limited to get all relevant factors at once into one theory. If so, then the source of pluralism would be a different one, namely the following.


b. cognitive limitations as a reason for plurality


Pluralism can be motivated by the cognitive limitations of the human inquirers, cf. Esther-Mirjam Sent (forthcoming): “(…) when economists made the agents in their models more bounded in their rationality, they had to be smarter because these models became larger and more demanding econometrically. As macroeconomist Thomas Sargent (1993) explains: ‘Within a specific economic model, an econometric consequence of replacing rational agents with boundedly rational ones is to add a number of parameters’ (168) because we ‘face innumerable decisions about how to represent decision-making processes and the ways that they are updated’.”


Thus, the plurality we encounter in economics can be the result of the decisions qua focus or angle we have to take – due to cognitive limitations – in describing economic processes. These limitations can legitimise pluralism.

c. historical and geographical situatedness as source of pluralism

In discussing arguments for pluralism, King also mentions the work of Geoff Hodgson (2001), and his idea that: “the notion of a single, ‘general’ theory applicable to human behaviour in all societies, at all points in time, is a dangerous delusion that has led astray not only neoclassical economists but also many heterodox theorists.” (King, 2004) Hodgson warns us here of the dangers of theorizing that is too general: “(…) the cost of excessive generality is to miss out on key features common to a subset of phenomena.” (Hodgson, 2001:16).

Here, we can identify a third motivation for pluralism, namely one based on the realisation of the historical and geographical relativism of (economic) knowledge, namely that we develop our theories based on particular (historically, geographically and/or socially relative) and potentially transformable situations or positions; imposing or defending a universal and timeless monistic theory is inappropriate once you realise the perspectivism and relativism of our particular historical situation or reality (note that this does not imply that anything goes). Chick and Dow (2001) as referred to by King (2004), can be situated here as well.

d. the pragmatic motivation

The fourth motivation for pluralism that can be identified is the pragmatic motivation. It rests upon the idea that one (economic or other) phenomenon can be legitimately studied from different perspectives, depending on our epistemic goals and interests. As there is no objectively correct set of goals and interests, there is not one correct (and complete) representation of or perspective on the world (cf. Kitcher, 2001:55-62). I have shown how this can be understood for explanatory pluralism in the social sciences (cf. Weber and Van Bouwel, 2002). Briefly put, we can allow different forms of explanation (e.g., structural explanations, rational choice explanations, etc.) in explaining one social phenomenon, depending on the explanation-seeking question asked about that phenomenon.


e. the strategic motivation


Finally, we have the strategic motivation, mentioned by Sent (2003) in relation to contributions in heterodox economics. The idea of strategic pluralism was introduced by Ron Giere (forthcoming) and refers to groups that advocate pluralism as “primarily just a strategic move in the game of trying to dominate a field or profession. Those in the minority proclaim the virtues of pluralism in an effort to legitimate their opposition to a dominant point of view. But one can be pretty sure that, if the insurgent group were itself ever to become dominant, talk of pluralism would subside and they would become every bit as monistic as those whom they had replaced.” Here, pluralism is being used as a kind of social lever, and we might question whether this motivation represents a really pluralistic stance (cf. introduction), or whether it will eventually lead to monism?


I want to stress that this list of motivations is not exhaustive, and that it may be that a combination of motivations underlie a defence of pluralism.


Forms of pluralism


I am convinced that trying to identify which of these (or other) motivations underlie the different contributors to heterodox economics, will be a fruitful exercise in the development of a strong alternative to mainstream economics. But, merely mentioning the different possible motivations leaves unspecified the form of pluralism offered in particular cases. A second step – besides clarifying the motivations or sources of pluralism – should therefore be to specify which form of pluralism one is discussing when defending pluralism.



Tony Lawson, a pluralist?


I want to discuss some of the above questions in relation to the work of Tony Lawson, an important heterodox scholar, which gets a lot of attention in this journal.


In an earlier paper (Van Bouwel, 2004) I have argued that Lawson’s guidelines for the explanatory praxis of economists are based on a doubtful transcendental argument, which supports his a priori ontological framework. As such, Lawson commits the ontological fallacy (analogous to the epistemic fallacy committed by mainstream economists) and risks throwing out some of the handy instruments mainstream economists have to offer. For example, I have defended the view that explanations following the covering law model might be poor instruments to answer some explanatory requests (e.g., those motivated by therapeutic interests), but that they can provide us with information that Lawson’s contrastive explanations do not give us, such as information that enables us to predict whether and in which circumstances similar events will occur in the future. Although this kind of prediction is certainly not the only goal of the social sciences, it is one of them (e.g., to control social outcomes, to be confident that proposed measures will have the intended effects, etc.).


The way in which Lawson develops guidelines for explanatory praxis and his rejection of the covering law model, give a good illustration of what form of pluralism Lawson is defending. By presenting mainstream economics as a monolithic unity as is done by Lawson, he invites critics to reject it en bloc.2 As is obvious in Lawson’s work, and which I have illustrated in considering his proposals concerning explanation (cf. Van Bouwel, 2004), Lawson’s quest for heterodox economics is not so much focusing on elaborating compatibility and complementarity with mainstream (or neo-classical) economics, but rather creating his own alternative, that would be the new (monist) standard.


If we call Lawson’s contribution pluralist, as he does, we can distinguish two different forms or conceptions of pluralism. Firstly, Lawson’s work is pluralist in the sense that it provides us with an alternative to the mainstream, and as such we have more than one alternative (hence we have plurality). Secondly, we can understand pluralism as engaging in a conversation, as exchanging ideas, and not merely developing different isolated (and essentially monist) alternatives.


Lawson’s account does not defend this second kind of pluralism. He does not develop a form of pluralism that shows how the different schools or alternatives can be used for different occasions. He rejects the mainstream completely, without considering possible positive contributions. He does not elaborate a form of pluralism that might show the complementarity of the schools or make us understand the origin of the differences between and the plurality of schools. What is missing in general in Lawson’s work is a framework for pluralism in economics, including an account of the origin or motivation for pluralism (cf. the five possibilities mentioned above).





Using Tony Lawson as an example of heterodoxy in economics, I have illustrated that the heterodoxy’s account of pluralism should be made more explicit. I claim that a really pluralistic approach should engage in a conversation, in spelling out compatibilities and complementarities between the mainstream and the heterodox approaches (both sides should be engaged). The pluralism of Lawson risks leading us to an isolated diversity, to a lack of exchange of ideas. In order to avoid this risk, Lawson and the heterodoxy should be more explicit about the origins and motivations for pluralism, otherwise the suspicion that the plea for pluralism is merely strategic will remain. I hope spelling out the different possible motivations for pluralism is a good starting point to further elaborate the fascinating project of post-autistic economics.





1. The author is a post-doctoral researcher of the Fund for Scientific Research, Flanders (Belgium). He is working at the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Ghent University. Contact:


2. Contrary to Lawson, Ester-Mirjam Sent (forthcoming) illustrates the failure to achieve monism on the part of mainstream economics.





Caldwell, B. (2004). ‘Some Comments on Lawson’s Reorienting Economics: Same Facts, Different Conclusions’, Post-Autistic Economics Review, issue n°28, 25 October 2004, article 3,


Chick, V. and Dow, S.C. (2001). ‘Formalism, logic and reality: a Keynesian analysis.’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 25 (6):705-21.


Giere, R. (forthcoming). ‘Perspectival Pluralism.’ In: Stephen Kellert, Helen Longino, and Kenneth Waters (eds), Scientific Pluralism. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science.


Hodgson, G. M. (2001). How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science. London: Routledge.


King, J.E. (2004). ‘Three Arguments for Pluralism in Economics’, Post-Autistic Economics Review, issue n° 23, 5 January 2004, article 2,


Kitcher, Ph. (2001). Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Kurz, H.D. and Salvadori, N. (2000). ‘On Critics and Protective Belts.’ In Kurz and Salvadori (eds). Understanding ‘Classical’ Economics: Studies in Long-Period Theory. London: Routledge, pp. 235-58.


Sapir, J. (2001). ‘A rejoinder to James K. Galbraith and a contribution to the ongoing debate’ Post-autistic economics newsletter, n° 5, article 4.


Sargent, Th. J. (1993). Bounded Rationality in Macroeconomics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Sent, E.-M. (2003). ‘Pleas for Pluralism.’ Post-Autistic Economics Review, n° 18, article 1,


Sent, E.-M. (forthcoming). ‘Pluralism in Economics.’ In: Stephen Kellert, Helen Longino, and Kenneth Waters (eds). Scientific Pluralism. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science.


Van Bouwel, J. (2004). ‘Explanatory Pluralism in Economics: Against the Mainstream?‘ Philosophical Explorations 7(3): 299-315.


Weber, E. and J. Van Bouwel (2002). ‘Can we dispense with structural explanations of social facts?’ Economics & Philosophy 18:259-275.


Jeroen Van Bouwel,
“Towards a Framework for Pluralism in Economics ”,  post-autistic economics review, issue no. 30, 21 March 2005, article 3,