post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 34, 30 October 2005
article 1



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whither heterodoxy?

Robert F. Garnett, Jr.   (Texas Christian University, USA)

© Copyright: Robert F.  Garnett, Jr. 2005



Since the early 1990s, economists seeking alternatives to mainstream economic theories and policies – i.e., heterodox economists – have increasingly traveled under the banner of pluralism.  In 1992, Goeffrey Hodgson, Uskali Mäki, and Donald McCloskey published a petition in the American Economic Review (signed by forty-four leading orthodox and heterodox economists, including four Nobel laureates) calling for “a new spirit of pluralism in economics, involving critical conversation and tolerant communication between different approaches” and demanding that this new pluralism be “reflected in the character of scientific debate, in the range of contributions in its journals, and in the training and hiring of economists.”1  One year later, Hodgson, John Adams, Terry Neale, and several other economists created an international consortium, ICARE (the International Confederation of Associations for the Reform of Economics), to serve as an institutional voice for this “new pluralism.”2  By the end of the decade, ICARE stood alongside the U.K.-based Association for Heterodox Economics, pluralistic journals like the Review of Political Economy, and pluralistic organizations like the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy – all creating new space for dialogue and collaboration among previously segregated schools of thought (Lee 2002).

The pluralist turn gained additional momentum in 2000 and 2001 when a series of petitions from young economists in France, the U.K., the U.S., and Italy sparked the formation of the international Post-Autistic Economics movement (Fullbrook 2003).3  This student-led movement called for “a total overhaul of economics and economics teaching” to create a more open and scientific economics, guided by a philosophically principled pluralism:

[a pluralism] that regards the various “schools” of economics, including neoclassicalism, as offering different windows on economic reality, each bringing into view different subsets of economic phenomena. . . [and] rejects the idea that any school could possess final or total solutions, but accepts all as possible means for understanding real-life economic problems (Fullbrook 2003, 8-9).  

The pluralistic ethos of the PAE movement struck a resonant chord with economics students and faculty around the world, giving rise to what Fullbrook describes as a “peace movement” among non-mainstream economists, an historic attempt to forge unity among dissenters who despite being “a sizable and growing minority” have long been divided into separate schools of thought (Fullbrook 2003, 2).  Along the same line, Sheila Dow observes:

The interesting new work among young scholars is synthetic in nature, exploring the middle ground between schools of thought and developing new ideas as a result of cross-fertilization. . . . The future of heterodox economics lies in moving further away from traditional groupings around schools of thought, and engaging in much more open interchange (Dow forthcoming, 1-2).

          The surge of enthusiasm for pluralism has drawn sharp criticism from respected thinkers within the heterodox community who see it as philosophically disingenuous and strategically unwise (Davis 1997 and forthcoming; Sent 2003 and forthcoming; Davidson 2004).  Davis and Sent argue that “Heterodoxy is . . . truly pluralist only within itself” (Davis forthcoming, 23) inasmuch as heterodox economists routinely treat mainstream economic theories in a non-pluralist (intolerant, monistic) manner. Hence it is disingenuous for heterodox economists to criticize the lack of pluralism in mainstream economics while failing to practice it consistently themselves. 

          At a deeper level, Davis and Davidson question the strategic and intellectual value of pluralism itself.  With reference to the recent removal of heterodox faculty from the economics Ph.D. program at the University of Notre Dame (Donovan 2004, McCloskey 2003), Davidson contends that the only way for non-mainstream economists to gain (or preserve) professional standing is by developing a superior paradigm, “a single axiomatic foundation that provides the most general theory case” (Davidson 2002).  He sees pluralism as unhelpful, if not positively dangerous, in this regard.  “Until heterodox economists unite behind a single ‘general theory,’ they are going to be losers” (Davidson 2003a). 

You cannot beat a rigid orthodoxy who despise non-pure bred Aryans (heterodox economists) with a ‘let’s all share the tent guys and gals’ philosophy.  As the Allies found out when dealing with Hitler, it takes an ‘unconditional surrender’ approach and stronger [in this case, stronger logical] forces to win what – whether you like it or not – the other side has declared to be a war of annihilation (Davidson 2003b).

          This clash of perspectives on pluralism raises a host of critical questions about the mission and methods of heterodox economics itself going forward.  The questions are difficult because they seem to pose a trade-off between two time-honored identities of the heterodox economist: the pluralist (seeking to promote intellectual tolerance and critical engagement among diverse perspectives) and the paradigm warrior (seeking to expand or defend the intellectual rights of non-mainstream perspectives by attacking the legitimacy of the ruling paradigm).  Further, the chief circumstance that gave rise to this dual persona in the 1960s – viz., the methodological and epistemological absolutism of mainstream economics – is still very much with us (e.g., Lee 2005a and 2005b).  Hence the average heterodox economist is likely to feel considerable sympathy for the central arguments (or at least the central motivations) of Fullbrook and his fellow pluralists as well as those of Davidson and his paradigm warriors.

          This essay offers an examination of the historical/philosophical premises of these two approaches to heterodoxy and an assessment of their strengths and liabilities for the future of heterodox economics.  In conclusion, I suggest a strategy to combine the unique strengths of pluralism and paradigmism: a recasting of heterodox economics that is attuned to the ethical, epistemological, and pedagogical priorities of the student/faculty petitioners as well as to the professional realpolitik of Davidson et al.  My main hope is to encourage further discussion of the ends and means of heterodox economics as a learning community dedicated to the Aristotelian/liberal ideal of a “civilized conversation among equals” (McCloskey 2001).4

Radical Paradigmism

The paradigm warfare genre of heterodox economics emerged in the mid to late 1960s (Backhouse 2000, 150-54), a period of radical absolutism in U.S. economic theory (Lee 2004; Bernstein 1999; Morgan and Rutherford 1998; Stein 1996).  Mainstream microeconomic theorists had been inspired by Debreu’s Theory of Value (1959) to imagine that “the model of Walrasian equilibrium was the root structure from which all further work in economics would eventuate” (Weintraub 2002, 121).  And leading neoclassical-Keynesians had declared business cycles passé and were beginning to envision a macroeconomic “end of history”:

Most economists [now] feel that short-run macroeconomic theory is pretty well in hand. . . . The basic outlines of the dominant theory have not changed in years.  All that is left is the trivial job of filling in the empty boxes, and that will not take more than 50 years of concentrated effort at maximum (Solow, cited in Hahn and Brechling 1965, 146).


            Dissenting economists responded in kind.  From the early 1970s through the late 1980s, many Austrian, Marxian, Sraffian, post Keynesian, social, and institutionalist economists sought to establish their particular mode of economic theorizing as the “single correct alternative to neoclassical economics” (King 2002).  Philosophically, these radical critics were emboldened by the writings of Thomas Kuhn (1970).  Though Kuhn never wrote a philosophy of social science per se, his emphasis on the paradigm-bound nature of disciplinary knowledge and his accounts of theoretical conflicts and paradigm shifts in the natural sciences gave hope and legitimacy to non-mainstream economists, making it possible for them to envision mainstream neoclassicism (circa 1975) as a dominant paradigm in crisis, ripe for overthrow by an emerging revolutionary science (Gutting 1980).5

           Despite many differences, the intellectual agendas of these “revolutionary scientists” shared three common goals: (1) to develop a rigorous critique of mainstream (neoclassical or neoclassical-Keynesian) economic theory; (2) to develop a compelling alternative theory; and (3) to codify the unique premises and methods of their alternative approach.

            As one example, consider the paradigm building efforts of Austrian economists in the 1960s and 70s.  Their goal was to level “a radical paradigmatic challenge against the core of neoclassicism” (Boettke and Prychitko 1994, 6).  They believed that “the possession of a distinct paradigm” was “necessary for a successful scientific revolution” (ibid., 13).  At the same time, they knew that distinctiveness, while necessary, was not sufficient.  They had to “present an alternative” (Dolan 1976, 5).  To this end, Austrian economists invested years of careful work to build a philosophical and analytical foundation that was congenial to sufficiently large numbers of Mises and Hayek devotees.  This drive for unity led Austrian economists to emphasize (among themselves, and occasionally in published work) their shared normative objections to mainstream economics.  At the same time, Israel Kirzner and other leading Austrians strove to bar these value-laden statements from the formal discourse of Austrian economics.  For Kirzner, a commitment to value-free science was rhetorically and intellectually essential, to demonstrate Austrians’ commitment to the pursuit of objective truth and their willingness “to exercise the restraint necessary to prevent that truth from being dismissed in the eyes of the public as mere propaganda” (Kirzner 1976, 87).6

          Similar stories can be told of institutionalist, social, post Keynesian, Sraffian, and Marxian economists in the 1970s and 80s, or of the pan-paradigmatic radicalism of Howard Sherman (Foundations of Radical Political Economy, 1987) and Malcolm Sawyer (The Challenge of Radical Political Economy, 1989), both of whom sought to merge multiple strands of radical-left economics into a single oppositional paradigm.  Sherman and Sawyer’s pursuit of a unified framework was partially a response to their intellectual opponents.  As Sherman explains: “Some neoclassicals have denied that radicals have a fully developed paradigm, but this book is intended to present such a radical paradigm” (Sherman 1987, 5).  To this end, both Sherman and Sawyer both invoke a set of ethical and ideological commitments that all radical-left economists were presumed to share, e.g., opposition to capitalism and the conviction that “[n]eoclassical economics operates as an apologetics for capitalism and serves to provide a justification for that system” (Sawyer 29).7   They never suggested that their paradigms were (or should be) wholly “value free.”  Yet they consistently claim that they are scientifically superior to neoclassical economics, both because their radical approaches offer more insight into the structure and evolution of real-world economic systems and because they are less beholden to dominant economic and political interests (Sawyer 28 and Sherman 9).

            The point is that each of these projects entails more than just paradigm building.  In addition to building an intellectual community around a shared set of values or interests, each of these groups aspired for its approach to become the new master framework, the new “general theory,” to which other theories would be subsumed as special cases.  This is paradigmism: paradigm building infused with the high modernist hubris of Solow, Samuelson, and Debreu.  Emulating the intellectual imperialism of their mainstream rivals (and former teachers in some cases), many non-mainstream economists became committed to a fundamentalism of sorts.  Much as new classical economists sought to rewrite Keynesian macroeconomics from the ground up by returning to the first principles of individual self-interest maximization and logical-mathematical precision (Lucas 1975 and 1976; Sargent and Wallace 1975),8 many radical left- and right-wing economists in the 1970s and 80s returned to the first principles of their dissident traditions in search of alternatives to the mainstream orthodoxy (Kregel 1975; Eichner 1979; Dolan 1976; Steedman 1977; Desai 1979).

Cold War connections 

Recent scholarship has illuminated the impact of the Cold War on the evolution of U.S. economic theory and policy (Bernstein 1999; Mirowski and Sent 2002; Fusfeld 1998; Hodgson 2002), particularly the “transformation from pluralism to monism during and after World War II” (Sent forthcoming).  Pluralism, according to Morgan and Rutherford (1998), was the dominant force in economics prior to World War II.  During the Cold War years, however, this pluralism was displaced by a modernistic monism – a “technical turn” in economic methodology and epistemology whereby “the possibilities for pluralism persistently waned as the language, form, and tools of economics continued to narrow . . . [and] objectivity came to be associated with a particular set of methods (mathematics and statistics)”  (Sent forthcoming, 6). 

With regard to post-1960s heterodox economics (which emerged in response to this anti-pluralist “technical turn”), this new scholarship raises an important question: How might the Cold War have shaped the goals, identities, and strategies of heterodox economists?

The provocative thesis of Fullbrook (2001) and philosopher of science Steven Fuller (2000) is that the Cold War influenced the character of post-1960s heterodox economics quite powerfully, albeit indirectly, via its impact on the formulation and reception of Kuhn’s landmark text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962 and 1970).  Fuller urges scholars to re-read Kuhn’s text “as an exemplary document of the Cold War era” (Fuller 2000, 5).  He details the personal and intellectual history of Structure, particularly the role of James Bryant Conant, the man to whom Kuhn dedicated the book.  Conant was president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953.  During World War II, Conant also served as director of the National Defense Research Committee (which supervised the construction of the first atomic bomb) and later served as chairman of the anti-Communist Committee on the Present Danger.  According to Fuller, Conant helped Kuhn to secure his first teaching position and introduced him to the historical study of science.  Fuller claims that “Kuhn simply took Conant’s [Cold War] politics of science as uncontroversial – indeed, as a taken-for-granted worldview.  Structure does not so much transcend the Cold War mentality as express it in a more abstract, and hence more portable, form” (Fuller 2000, 6).  For example, Fuller points to Kuhn’s “incommensurability thesis” as a “Cold War worldview” (175) in which competing paradigms are cast as (ideo)logically opposed systems of thought.

Fullbrook (2001) extends Fuller’s argument by detailing the impact of Cold War ideas and assumptions on the structure of Kuhn’s arguments and on the pop-academic images of science (especially social science) that emerged in the wake of Kuhn’s famous book.  He cites, for instance, the analogy Kuhn draws between scientific paradigms and rival political systems: “Like the choice between competing political institutions, the choice between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life” (Kuhn 1962, 94, cited in Fullbrook 2001).  

Kuhn’s book methodically transposes the Cold War narrative onto the competing-theories narrative of science.  This transposition extends even to his vocabulary, with a heavy use of Cold-War buzz words and expressions like ‘subversive’, ‘polarization’, ‘crisis’ and ‘crisis provoking’, ‘techniques of mass persuasion’, ‘allegiance’, ‘commitment’, ‘conversions’, total ‘destruction’ and ‘total victory’, and of course ‘revolution’ (Fullbrook 2001).

In Fullbrook’s estimation, heterodox economics today bears the mark of Kuhn’s Cold War conception of science, particularly in the anti-pluralist (“paradigmist”) tendency of radical critics to erect their own separate citadels rather than engaging in critical, pluralistic exchanges as “real scientists” would do.  “Kuhn’s narrative makes the defense of one’s paradigm community, through the elimination or marginalization of rival ones, the scientist’s overriding goal.”  “It is this emotionally-charged us or them, all or nothing mentality which Kuhn’s book seems to legitimate as the ethos of science” (Fullbrook 2001). 

               These arguments suggest that, in some measure, the paradigm warfare approach of heterodox economics is an artifact of the Cold War.  To be clear, I am not arguing that the postwar schism between mainstream and radical economics can be reduced to the Cold War, e.g., that the ascendance of the neoclassical mainstream and marginalization of radical-left alternatives resulted from the former’s embodiment of “capitalist ideology” or the latter’s affiliation with official Soviet Marxism.9  My claim, echoing Fullbrook and Fuller, is that the very bipolarity of these commonplace right/left mappings of the intellectual landscape (e.g., neoclassical/individualist/capitalist/orthodox economics vs. radical/socialist/heterodox economics) has been inspired and sustained by the Cold War (especially via Kuhn), and that they continue to frame the professional/intellectual outlook of most heterodox economists today.        


Paradigmism in question


The radical paradigmist movement has inspired tremendous intellectual energy, growth, excitement, and solidarity among dissenting economists, and has made it possible for numerous individuals and schools of thought to survive under difficult professional circumstances (Lee 2004).  It has spawned an impressive array of resources from which we all benefit today.  It certainly has made economic theory a more contested and contestable terrain.  It has brought new life to old theoretical traditions and given birth to new ones.  In so doing, it has afforded later generations of economists the opportunity to choose among a wider range of intellectual options than would otherwise have been available in a professional culture dominated by the assimilationist dogma that (to paraphrase Milton Friedman) “There is no heterodox economics – just good economics and bad economics.”10  All of this has enabled heterodox economists to (re)claim valuable space within academic economics by publishing articles, teaching graduate and undergraduate students, acquiring senior faculty positions and other positions of academic leadership, organizing conferences, creating and sustaining scholarly journals and book series, and so on.


These virtues notwithstanding, I am inclined to agree with Fullbrook that the “paradigm warfare” approach has become largely anachronistic and self-defeating for heterodox economists today, on several counts. 

First, it presupposes a monolithic enemy (“neoclassical economics”) that arguably has ceased to exist.11   As Davis notes, “mainstream economics is no longer ‘neoclassical’ in the way that many of us are accustomed to thinking of it” (Davis forthcoming, 6; also Colander 2000, 129-130 and Dow 2000, 159).  Colander, Holt, and Rosser go further, chastising heterodox economists for their outmoded understanding of mainstream economics.  “Much of this [heterodox] criticism today is off the mark because mainstream economic thinking has changed. . . . Economics is moving away from a strict adherence to the holy trinity – rationality, selfishness, and equilibrium – to a more eclectic position of purposeful behavior, enlightened self-interest, and sustainability” (Colander, Holt, and Rosser 2004, 1-2).

            Second, radical paradigmism encourages an obsessive concern with the uniqueness and separateness of one’s own theoretical approach vis-à-vis others.  It fuels a bunker mentality of Us versus Them and an autarkic tendency to see one’s own paradigm community as a self-sufficient intellectual universe.  As Malcolm Rutherford observes in regard to AFEE (the “old institutionalist” Association for Evolutionary Economics):

[H]eterodox groups often think that they know the truth.  This can make such groups (and particularly those groups that have been under sustained attack and that feel themselves embattled) very inward looking, defensive, and not very open to new ideas.  A mentality of defending the true faith can come to dominate, and, in my view this has been a serious problem in AFEE and in Marxian and post Keynesian groups (Rutherford 2000, 186).

This isolationist tendency creates particular difficulty for young heterodox economists inasmuch as it encourages them to disengage from other traditions of thought, and perhaps from economics itself, inasmuch as they are taught to see little point (other than careerism) in trying to connect their ideas to the larger economic conversation – a costly proposition, as “[e]ven for self-confessed heterodox economists, this rugged aspect of the landscape carries with it in many cases an unwanted and unnecessary sense of isolation” (Potts 2000, x).

Third, the Kuhnian notion of a single dominant paradigm (and the correlative notion of a single “revolutionary” rival) encourages an all-or-nothing view of intellectual change.  It is never enough for radical paradigmists to oppose the prevailing orthodoxy.  They must provide a complete and superior alternative.  Much as revolutionary Marxists have long suffered under the onus of having to devise a socialist or communist utopia that would preserve all of capitalism’s virtues but none of its problems (Gibson-Graham 1996), radical economists of all persuasions continue to bear the burden of providing a new “general theory” that would fully supercede neoclassicism.  Besides making the heterodox project seem unthinkably daunting and inviting feelings of resignation and despair while we “wait for the revolution” (ibid., 256 and 259), this point of view also fuels unduly intense rivalries over which radical paradigm is best equipped to do battle with “the enemy,” thus inhibiting exchange and collaboration among intellectual leaders whose creative energies might otherwise be joined to larger ends.12

            Fourth, a paradigmist approach undercuts heterodox economists’ commitments to pluralism. Every heterodox economist embraces pluralism to some degree, as a principle of resistance against mainstream dogmatism if not as a broader commitment to tolerance and critical conversation among contending perspectives.  But pluralism for a radical Kuhnian can only ever be a secondary priority, something to be honored only insofar as it does not conflict with the first-order imperatives of scientific or political/ideological combat.   

The Pluralist Turn

Partly in response to the mounting liabilities of paradigmism, the recent trajectories of heterodox economics show a marked shift – philosophically, analytically, organizationally, and culturally – from school-of-thought paradigmism to pluralism, i.e., to a view of knowledge in which there is no possibility, even in principle, that “any school could possess final or total solutions” (Fullbrook 2003, 8-9).  For heterodox economists who embrace this view of knowledge, pluralism has increasingly become a normative commitment, a “positive valuing of a diversity of views in the minimal sense that one who is so committed would not want to reduce the number of available narratives or views” (Hargreaves-Heap 2001, 356).13  Heinz Kurz and Neri Salvadori, two veteran Sraffian economists, offer a revealing glimpse of this pluralist sensibility:

[T]o seek dominance for one theory over all the others with the possible result that all the rival theories are extinguished amounts to advocating scientific regress.  To paraphrase Voltaire: in a subject as difficult as economics, a state of doubt may not be very comfortable, but a state of certainty would be ridiculous (Kurz and Salvadori 2000, 237).


The most vocal champions of this heterodox pluralism have been realists like Lawson (1997 and 2003), Dow (1997, 2000, 2004a, 2004b, and forthcoming), Fleetwood (1999), Fullbrook (2001), and Herrmann-Pillath (2001) who take an “open system” view of economic phenomena.  These thinkers envision the object of economic inquiry as an open-ended network of institutions and processes.  Further, they believe this object to be so complex and heterogeneous that no single idiom can adequately represent it, and any attempt to do so will only diminish our knowledge of it.  These ontological and epistemological premises lead open-system realists to “[reject] the ideas of theoretical monism and theoretical universalism” (Herrmann-Pillath 2001, 91) and to insist that a plurality of theories and methods is scientifically essential.  In their view, the best way forward for non-mainstream economists would be to abandon the paradigmist dream of a unified general theory and instead work to cultivate a pluralist (heterodox) community of inquiry, united by a shared commitment to open-system realism.

This approach figures prominently in the recent wave of student-led petitions seeking pluralistic reforms in economic education and scholarship.  A dominant chord in the petitioners’ demands is a realist plea for open-system alternatives to the closed-system (deductivist, formalist, rationalist, scientistic) conceptions of social science that still permeate mainstream economics.  The argument for pluralism in the French students’ initial “Open Letter,” for example, relies heavily on an open-system line of argument, particularly its call for “a pluralism of approaches in economics [that is] adapted to the complexity of the objects and to the uncertainty surrounding most of the big questions in economics (unemployment, inequalities, the place of financial markets, the advantages and disadvantages of free trade, globalization, economic development, etc.)” (cited in Fullbrook 2003, 13).

More generally, non-mainstream economists are turning in growing numbers to open-system pluralism as a foundation upon which to build the future of heterodox economics.  Lawson argues that such an ontological reorientation – toward a conscious, systematic embrace of open-system approaches – would help heterodoxy to become a more vibrant scientific community, “a pluralistic forum where explicitly prosecuted ontology and critical reflection can take their place amongst all of the conceivable components of economics as social theorizing” (Lawson 2003, 27).  He believes that the various schools of heterodox economics “can benefit at this juncture from making their ontological theorizing or commitments more explicit, systematic, and sustained, from reformulating themselves explicitly as contributions to what I am calling realist social theorizing” (Lawson 2003, xxiii).  This, is his view, is the best way to overcome the isolationist tendencies of paradigmism and to strengthen heterodox economists’ commitments to pluralism and social science, thus spurring the intellectual progress of heterodox economics at large. 

          Dow offers a parallel set of arguments, but with special attention to the role of paradigms (schools of thought) within a pluralistic, open-system economics (Dow 2004a, 2004b, and forthcoming).  Her argument for pluralism stresses the key role of open-system realism in enabling as well as constraining the play of pluralistic difference among and within paradigm communities.  Dow describes this as a “qualified pluralism”: “a pluralism qualified by the limitations imposed by a shared [ontological] vision,” i.e., a pluralism that promotes difference and unity by giving individuals (or individual schools of thought) “the capacity to follow different routes simultaneously – unified by a common goal” (Dow 2000, 166).14  On this basis, Dow advances an open-system defense of paradigms, seeing “each school of thought [as] itself an open system, with vague boundaries and scope for internal and external change” (Dow forthcoming, 10) and schools in general as integral, productive vehicles of scientific progress.

           One source of the current enthusiasm for open-system thinking is that these ideas are seen as a powerful way to demonstrate the distinctiveness and superiority of heterodox economics vis-à-vis orthodox economics.  Open-system realists seek to challenge mainstream economics by challenging its closed-system presuppositions and thus holding it accountable to the ontological and methodological criteria of a properly social science.  In this way they hope “to ensure that the [gap] between orthodox theory and reality is recognized widely enough to support a scientific revolution” (Dow forthcoming, 4).  In addition, Dow contends that heterodox economists possess a further, related advantage: a uniquely strong commitment to pluralism based on their complex, open-system conception of the economy.  Orthodox economists have only a limited capacity for pluralism due to their formalist, paradigmist commitment to closed-system modes of thought (Dow 2000 and forthcoming).  Hence orthodox economists “can only accommodate pluralism as a temporary position . . . until the parts are unified within a single, formal whole” (Dow 2000, 163 and 161). 

          A second cause for enthusiasm is the potential for more effective intellectual exchange and collective action among heterodox economists if a shared commitment to open-system realism and pluralism can inspire members of each school-of-thought group to see themselves as part of a larger network of overlapping and complementary perspectives.15  In Dow’s view, this would allow heterodox economics to become a more inclusive and connected community, a “collection of non-orthodox schools of thought such as post Keynesian economics, institutionalist economics, neo-Austrian economics, behavioral economics, social economics, feminist economics, and Marxian/radical economics, all of which employ some kind of open-system approach” (2000, 158; also Fullbrook 2003, 2-3).  As such, heterodox economics could potentially become an alliance broad and powerful enough to challenge the mainstream.  She and Fullbrook see signs that such a nascent unity may already be emerging.  “In numerical terms the communities of heterodox economists are getting larger.  Along with this has gone the build-up of an institutional structure of textbooks, journals, associations, and conferences.  There is an impressive band of young scholars pushing ideas forward” (Dow 2000, 163; also Dow forthcoming, 1-2). 

[T]he time would appear to be ripe for a challenge to the ruling paradigm: in Kuhnian terms there would appear to be the recipe for a crisis in orthodox economics.  Just as the orthodox refusal to address the problem of unemployment in the 1930s paved the way for Keynes’s ideas . . . could the same be possible [for heterodox economics] in the new millennium?” (Dow 2000, 165).16  

Fullbrook also likens the current movement to the “last great crisis in economics” in the 1930s, but describes the current crisis as “more general and more serious” in that “economics as taught in universities neither explains contemporary reality nor provides a framework for the critical debate of issues in democratic societies” (Fullbrook 2003, 8).


Pluralism in question


            As noted in the Introduction, the pluralist turn among heterodox economists has elicited an array of criticisms.  Some of the critics are pro-pluralist, taking advocates of pluralism to task for failing to understand the meaning and requirements of pluralism, or for failing to practice what they preach.  Others have taken strong positions against pluralism, seeing it as a wrong-headed strategy for promoting the intellectual/professional interests of heterodox economists.  Hence while all of these critics agree that the current wave of heterodox enthusiasm for pluralism has “gone too far,” their arguments are notably diverse.

            Esther-Mirjam Sent, for example, endorses the pluralist aspirations of heterodox economists, expressing the hope that “[they] are serious about their advocacy of pluralism” (Sent 2003).  She finds their pro-pluralist rhetoric uncompelling, however, as it frequently is accompanied by what she regards as anti-pluralist behavior.  “Against the spirit of pluralism, heterodox economists appear to be offering a rather monist reading of the mainstream” (2003); or, “though their advocacy of pluralism may be couched in metaphysical or epistemological terms, it is primarily inspired by efforts to achieve professional power and dominance” (Sent forthcoming, 20).  This leads Sent to conclude that heterodox economists either do not understand the requirements for a philosophically consistent pluralism or are unwilling or unable to fulfill them.  She challenges heterodox economists to practice what they preach: to pay more attention to the types of pluralism they advocate; to avoid inadvertently “sliding into monism” (e.g., embracing a pluralism whose rationale is only temporary, such as a temporary state of incomplete or uncertain knowledge);17 to avoid disingenuous invocations of pluralism (i.e., “[employing] appeals to pluralism strategically, in an effort to achieve monism”); to confront the charge that pluralism inevitably leads to an “anything goes” view;  and to “work to ensure that the material and social conditions for the flourishing of pluralism are met” (Sent 2003).

           Paul Davidson, in contrast, questions the value of pluralism itself.  He firmly rejects the Fullbrook/Dow assertion that a more widespread commitment to pluralism will help non-mainstream economists to effect significant changes in “the development of their discipline as taught in major universities and economic journals” (Davidson 2004).  In fact, Davidson regards this kind of pro-pluralist argument as dangerous inasmuch as it serves to reinforce the marginal status of non-mainstream ideas and practitioners within the economics profession. 

Encouraging pluralism in economics without a common general theory foundation merely encourages heterodox economists to erect a modern Tower of Babel, thereby making it easier for mainstream economists to ignore the resulting incomprehensible babble coming from this heterodox structure (Davidson 2004). 

[T]he mainstream sees heterodox [economists] as . . . people who do not deserve to be heard in proper academic circles because they clearly possess fundamental logical inconsistencies in their approaches.  Until they can get their house in order, why pay any attention? (Davidson 2002).

In other words, the ongoing (and arguably increasing) marginality of heterodox economists within academic economics signifies not a failure of a Kuhnian paradigmism but the need to redouble our commitment to the development of a serious, coherent alternative to mainstream theory.


John Davis’s objection to the recent pluralist turn combines key elements of Sent and Davidson’s critiques.  Like Sent, he applauds the ideal of a more pluralistic economics.  Of the recent pluralist trajectories of mainstream and heterodox economics, Davis writes approvingly: “We appear to have entered upon a new period of pluralism in economics, structurally speaking perhaps not unlike the past interwar pluralism” (Davis 2002, 149).  At the same time, he is wary of the growing tendency to identify heterodox economics with pluralism, in part because heterodox arguments for pluralism are not uniquely heterodox.  These arguments are grounded in the same liberal arts traditions that underlie mainstream economics.  Davis thus regards heterodox arguments for pluralism as well-intentioned and valuable but philosophically ad hoc:

Of course it is all fair and good for [heterodox economists] to press on a non-theoretical, purely practical basis for openness, non-discrimination, and for a “free market” in ideas . . . These are ideals that ought to be defended across all of the humanities and sciences . . . But this sort of program does not stem directly from the particular content of heterodox economics.  It stems from a commitment to social values of long-standing that operate across the humanities and sciences and indeed in society generally.  Only, it seems, were these ideals and values to become shared across heterodoxy and the mainstream, would there then be hope for a wider pluralism in economics (Davis forthcoming, 17).


Like Davidson, Davis is keenly aware of the mainstream propensity (and power) to reject heterodox work as substandard and hence the likelihood that heterodox pleas for pluralism will be ignored, particularly by a mainstream that is increasingly characterized by a plurality of methods and approaches (Davis forthcoming, 23; also Colander 2000 and Colander, Holt, and Rosser 2004).  The fact that mainstream economists regard themselves as increasingly open and pluralistic makes it easier for them to dodge heterodox criticism while continuing to maintain an “exclusionary posture towards heterodox economics” (Davis forthcoming, 21).  In Davis’s words: “[U]nder such circumstances, mainstream exclusion of heterodox economics [can] be further promoted under the protection of a newly proclaimed openness!” (ibid., 2).


            Davis therefore concludes that pluralism should not be the primary means by which heterodox economists try to establish their identity vis-à-vis the mainstream.  A better choice, in his view, would be to trade our “politics of pluralism” for a “politics of ontology”: to emphasize the ontological differences between the “rationality-individualism-equilibrium” nexus of mainstream economics and the “institutions-history-social structure” nexus of heterodox economics.  This would allow the diverse schools of non-mainstream economics to rally around a broad yet distinctly heterodox line of critique, viz., a critique of mainstream economics for its inadequate picture of the world, especially their “now arguably defunct . . . atomistic individual conception” (Davis forthcoming, 18; also Davis 2003).  Thus while Davis agrees with Sent that heterodox economists tend to be non-pluralistic in their treatment of mainstream economic theories, he sees this not as a failure of pluralism but as the expression of a legitimate and far-reaching ontological critique. 


Recasting Pluralism And Paradigms, After The Cold War

           Heterodox economics as we know it today emerged alongside a dominant neoclassicism in the high modernist, Cold War environment of the 1960s.18  Dissenters aspired to defeat an arrogant orthodoxy at its own game.  Paul Davidson and other paradigm warriors are still trying.  Others have moved in more pluralistic directions, seeking to build broader communities of dissent.  Yet in many cases these pluralists are still paradigmers too, holding tightly to an oppositional conception of heterodox economics.  Their main philosophical strategy is to formulate rules – demarcation criteria – whereby economic science is (re)defined to include Us but not Them.

          For example, despite their many differences, Davis and Davidson agree that the principal aim of non-mainstream economics ought to be the establishment of a logical or ontological fault line between heterodox and orthodox approaches so that “heterodoxy . . . is differentiated and also identified as a single discourse in terms of its . . . differences from mainstream economics” (Davis forthcoming, 23; also Davis 1999). Even the open-system pluralisms of Dow, Lawson, and Fullbrook retain elements of this paradigmist vision, insisting that heterodox economics define itself as the Other of orthodox economics.  This is Cold War paradigmism in a different guise but still the same oppositional project, with the same truncated pluralism: offering intellectual openness and respect to persons and arguments within our own paradigm communities but not to outsiders.  To define heterodox economics in this manner is to warrant the charge that heterodox economics has no positive identity, that it defines itself only as “against orthodox” and hence “in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is” (Colander, Holt, and Rosser 2004, 11).  This puts us in the reactive position of “permitting the mainstream to set the agenda for heterodox economics . . . to define its structure and content” (King 2004).  It also demonstrates that our professed commitments to pluralism are fundamentally ill-conceived, insincere, or both.

          Hence the critical questions: Must we define ourselves in this negative, oppositional way?  If not, then what exactly does heterodox economics stand for?  What are our primary intellectual goals and values?  Is heterodox economics an inherently paradigmist enterprise whose primary purpose is (and must be) to cross swords with mainstream economics, if not to replace the mainstream then at least to defend the validity and usefulness of heterodox perspectives in professional spaces where non-mainstream work is routinely dismissed as unserious and “not economics”?  Or, is it possible that we might be better served by taking a more principled stand for pluralism, i.e., by committing ourselves to the expansion of intellectual freedom for all economists and their stakeholders (including graduate and undergraduate students)?  Indeed, might not academic economics in toto stand to gain from such a “total overhaul of economics and economics teaching”?  If so, then who better than today’s heterodox economists, the younger and the older, to exercise leadership in the movement toward this genuinely pluralistic, multi-perspectival (hetero-dox) economics?

          Much is at stake in these questions.  They are likely to become even more pressing over the next 10-15 years as the accumulated intellectual and institutional capital of several generations of heterodox economists (scholarly research programs, graduate and undergraduate curricula, editorships, leadership positions in professional associations, as well as the journals and associations themselves) pass into the hands of younger economists whose ability (and willingness) to employ this capital will depend on where and how we choose to lead heterodox economics in the interim.

          Serious attempts to answer these questions must begin by recognizing the compelling points registered thus far on all sides of this conversation.  For instance, Fullbrook and Dow are undeniably correct to claim that the pluralist ethos among heterodox economists today is stronger than it was 15-20 years ago, and that if interaction and cross-fertilization among previously segregated schools of thought continues to increase, then pluralism stands a very good chance of becoming a potent engine of intellectual progress and collective action among non-mainstream economists.  By the same token, one cannot help but be moved by the overarching context of Davidson and Davis’s arguments, viz., the institutional power and arrogance of mainstream economics and the vulnerable position of non-mainstream perspectives.  These realities are glaringly evident in the 2003 removal of heterodox faculty from the economics Ph.D. program at the University of Notre Dame on the grounds that their scholarly work “did not meet the minimum standards of quality” (Ancochea 2004, Donovan 2004), and by the ongoing situation in the U.K. (Lee 2005b) where the government’s annual “research assessment exercise” is fuelling a rapid paradigmatic homogenization of economics” (Lee 2005b, 2).  Under these conditions, it may be more necessary than ever to adopt a combative, paradigm warfare approach.  The notion that heterodox economics should aspire to become more intellectually open and inclusive (though laudable and advantageous, to a point) may be a luxury we cannot afford at the moment inasmuch as it entails a diminished commitment to other important professional or intellectual goals. 

            Space does not permit me to develop it here, but in a subsequent essay (Garnett forthcoming) I will outline my own response to these questions.  I will propose an approach that is consonant in many ways with the realist pluralisms described above (particularly their efforts to reconcile the competing priorities of paradigmism and pluralism via a rethinking of science to make pluralism an intrinsic and vital feature of “normal science” – in contrast to Kuhnian notions of science in which pluralism emerges only in the interstices of scientific progress, during transitions between dominant paradigms)19 but where the case for economic pluralism (and for paradigms) is grounded not in an open-system ontology but in the ethics and epistemology of classical liberalism.

          Briefly, the approach I envision would combine Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to human development (modified to focus on intellectual capabilities) with Deirdre McCloskey’s notion of economics as a pluralistic conversation (Sen 1999; McCloskey 1998 and 2001) to create an egalitarian-libertarian philosophy of economic science that is attuned to the ethical, epistemological, and pedagogical priorities of the students and faculty petitioners as well as to the professional/scientific realpolitik of Davidson et al.  Sen and McCloskey both root their central arguments in the traditions of Adam Smith and classical liberalism.  Yet their appropriations of the liberal tradition are quite different, particularly in their definitions of freedom, pluralism, and the requirements for a free society.  My proposal is to join these different notions – to exploit the tensions and complementarities between them – in order to construct a normative framework for the ongoing assessment and improvement of academic economics, focused on the enhancement of intellectual freedom for all economists and their stakeholders, not least our graduate and undergraduate students. 

            This capabilities-minded pluralism, inspired by egalitarian and libertarian ideals, aims to move economics ever closer to the Aristotelian/liberal ideal of a “civilized conversation among equals” (McCloskey 2001).  It also endeavors to address several challenges posed by critics of the recent pluralist turn, by developing a pluralism (1) that is genuine and consistent, not partial, temporary, or otherwise “strategic”; (2) that avoids “anything goes” relativism; (3) that attends to the “material and social conditions for the flourishing of pluralism”; (4) that is grounded in the traditions and principles of heterodox economics; and (5) that serves to advance not only heterodox economics but also the social value and intellectual vitality of academic economics at large.

            This, I think, is the kind of economic pluralism envisioned by the student petitioners: an economics animated by an epistemologically consistent pluralism that seeks to enhance the substantive intellectual freedoms of economics scholars, teachers, and students alike.  As the French students put it, “[N]early everything in economics is in permanent debate.  So we want the various points of view to express themselves in the university, which is what the university should be” (Raveaud, cited in McIntyre 2003, 14).  With specific regard to teaching, Raveaud underscores the petitioners’ desire for teachers to actively enhance students’ academic freedom by providing “the intellectual background that would allow students to think for themselves in their ordinary life or in their professional life” (ibid., 20).20  The Cambridge 27 state the case succinctly:

[W]e are not arguing against the mainstream approach per se, but against the fact that its dominance is taken for granted . . . Pluralism as a default implies that alternative economic work is not simply tolerated, but that the material and social conditions for its flourishing are met, to the same extent as is currently the case for mainstream economics. This is what we mean when we refer to an “opening up” of economics (cited in Fullbrook 2003, 36).  


I would like to thank my teachers (especially Bruce Roberts, Stephen Resnick, and Richard Wolff), whose commitment to alternative economic theories, and to the intellectual development of their students, gave me a first-hand lesson in the importance of paradigm building and pluralism in economics. I am also grateful to Edward Fullbrook for his helpful comments on a previous draft.





1. “Plea for a Pluralistic and Rigorous Economics,” American Economic Review 82 (May): xxv.


2. A brief history of ICARE (and its renaming as the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics [ICAPE] in 2000) is available at www.econ.tcu/econ/icare.


3. Fullbrook’s recently published collection (Fullbrook 2003) contains the initial petitions from French students (2000) and professors (2001) as well as the 2001 petitions from Ph.D. students at Cambridge University and from an international gathering of economics students and faculty at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.  A 2002 petition of Ph.D. students in Siena, Italy is available at  A 2003 petition of Harvard undergraduate students seeking a more pluralistic introduction to economics is recorded in Lee (2003). 


4. Pluralism remains an undertheorized topic in economics, though it has received more explicit attention over the past decade.  Informative surveys of major approaches to pluralism in economics are provided by Salanti and Screpanti (1997) and Sent (2003 and forthcoming). 


5. This Kuhnian sensibility is visible in early/mid 1970s titles such as “Bourgeois and Radical Paradigms in Economics” (Zweig 1971), “Radical Political Economy as a ‘Scientific Revolution’” (Worland 1972), or “Austrian Economics as Extraordinary Science” (Dolan 1976, 3-18).  Dolan’s essay is explicit in this regard:

In contemporary economics, [Kuhn’s notion of] normal science is represented by work within the framework of the neoclassical-Keynesian synthesis. . . [Austrian economists, in contrast, are] “doing extraordinary science. . . . They are very much concerned with methodological and philosophical fundamentals . . . [and] share a conviction that orthodox economics is at the point of breakdown, that it is unable to provide a coherent and intelligible analysis of the present-day economic world (Dolan 1976, 3-4).


6. For Austrians, as for Marxists, this “rush to science” was propelled in part by a desire to transform Cold War political projects into academic-cum-scientific ones. 

Austrian economics, as interpreted by its handful of students in the 1950s, needed no refinement, critical reflection, nor change: it was considered free-market wisdom to be dispensed to anybody who would listen, in the hope of rebuilding a political program for laissez faire (Boettke and Prychitko 1994, 7).    

Marxian economics in the anti-communist 1950s was primarily “political” as well.  As Paul Sweezy explains, in reference to his work as editor of the socialist magazine Monthly Review during this period, “We [at MR] never considered ourselves to be anything but orthodox Marxists . . . We were not in any way trying to redo Marxism.  We just planned to use it” (Sweezy and Magdoff 1988, 91). 

7. In this context, “neoclassical economics” includes all theories that appear to be pro-market or pro-capitalist.  The awkwardness of this crude classification is evident in Sawyer’s attempt to justify the omission of Austrian theory from his list of “alternatives to neoclassical economics”:

There is one alternative to neoclassical economics which is not covered in this book, namely the Austrian approach.  The major reason for this omission (apart from the inevitable space constraint) is that the Austrian approach is rather “out on a limb” as compared with the other approaches.  This arises from the adoption of a rather different methodology and focusing on rather different questions.  Indeed the Austrian approach shares with neoclassical economics a generally favorable attitude towards capitalism, and particularly towards the benefits of competition (though the Austrian and neoclassical views of competition are rather different) (1989, 10).

This political/ideological definition of neoclassicism, already fading in Sawyer’s account, has become much less prevalent since the early 1990s.  Roberts and Feiner (1992) note, for example, that many radical-left economists “are increasingly unwilling to settle for ritual denouncements of all things neoclassical as ideological and thus worthless” (Roberts and Feiner 1992, 4).

8. This characterization of new classical economics is suggested by Klamer (2001).

9. To the contrary, many radical-left economists have dedicated their careers to “third way” attempts to transcend the Cold War paradigms of neoclassical economics and official Marxism.  Sherman, for instance, describes his radical-left political economy as a pluralistic alternative to the absolutism of U.S. capitalism and its neoclassical ideology as well as the absolutism of Soviet communism and its official Marxist ideology.  “In opposition to both of these dominant paradigms is the paradigm of radical political economy” (Sherman 1987; also Roberts and Feiner 1992, 3).

10. Friedman’s original quote (from a 1974 conference) is “There is no Austrian economics – only good economics and bad economics” (cited in Dolan 1976, 4).


11. Lee and Keen (2004) offer a compelling counterargument to the Colander thesis, citing numerous ways in which mainstream economics (as reflected in undergraduate and graduate textbooks, professional journals, and public policies) remains thoroughly neoclassical.  


12. A further consequence of this all-or-nothing view is the conservative tendency of economists who feel dissatisfied with received theories, methods, and textbooks to remain committed to them.  “Too many people, even if they are not completely attached to orthodoxy, do not feel strongly enough to propose an alternative view.  So the domination of orthodoxy is in the people themselves.  Nobody is going to take a risk to do something really different, because they think they have no alternative theory that is as good as the standard one” (Raveaud, cited in McIntyre 2003, 15). 


13. Cullenberg, Amariglio, and Ruccio also articulate a normative pluralism: “[O]ver a century after the marginalist revolution, economic discourse is more heterogeneous than one might expect from a supposedly ‘unified’ science.  [But] this heterogeneity is nothing to bemoan in our view” (Cullenberg, Amariglio, and Ruccio 2001, 5).


14. In a more recent article, Dow calls her pluralism “structured” rather than qualified (Dow 2004a).  Yet the thrust of her argument remains the same: seeking a notion of pluralism that avoids the extremes of modernist monism and postmodern (unqualified, unstructured) pluralism.


15. Dow’s vision of interparadigmatic communication facilitated by an open-system ontology/epistemology closely resembles the postmodern Marxian perspective of Resnick and Wolff (1988).

16. Dow recognizes that her optimistic vision relies on two hopeful assumptions: (1) that heterodox schools of thought do indeed share an open-system approach to economics; and (2) that umbrella organizations like AHE, EAEPE, and ICAPE will help to foster an awareness of this shared approach by building new bridges among different branches of the heterodox movement:

The argument here has depended largely on heterodox schools of thought sharing an open-system approach to economics.  It is my view that, if this commonality is not recognized, it is more a problem of misperception than the actual absence of commonality.  Perhaps the very first stage towards broadly based progress in heterodox economics as a whole is, therefore, to raise consciousness among heterodox economists themselves about their shared methodological foundations.  There is already considerable communication between heterodox schools of thought, but institutional arrangements, such as the umbrella organizations described above, would be particularly important for enhancing mutual understanding (Dow 2000, 168-69). 


17. As Sent (forthcoming) explains, some forms of pluralism ultimately reduce to monism because they leave open the possibility that for every phenomenon there is (or could be, in principle) a single, best account.  


18. “Heterodox economics, as it now exists within academia, is the product of a specific style of economics that has come to dominate the subject since the 1950s, combined with circumstances that made groups of economists wish to organize against this and provided the opportunities for them to do so” (Backhouse 2000, 151).  


19. Dow’s recent work aims to theorize the mutual complementarity of paradigms and pluralism in an open-system view of heterodox economics (Dow 2004a, 2004b, and forthcoming).  Davis offers a parallel set of arguments (Davis 1999 and forthcoming), though he and Dow disagree about the premises and implications of this argument, particularly concerning the role of pluralism and open-system ontology in the demarcation of heterodox economics from orthodox economics.


20. The French professors’ petition (in support of the original “Open Letter” that launched the Post-Autistic Economics movement) makes a similar point.  “Two fundamental features of university education should be the diversity of the student’s degree course and the training of the student in critical thinking.  But under the neoclassical regime neither is possible . . . In free societies, this is an unacceptable state of affairs” (cited in Fullbrook 2003, 15).  The professors’ petition also calls for a critical approach to rival paradigms.  “Different paradigms [comprise] . . . different families of representation and modalities of interpretation . . . [But] acknowledging the existence and role of paradigms should not be used as an argument for setting up different citadels, unquestionable from the outside.  Paradigms should be confronted and discussed” (cited Fullbrook 2003, 15).  The Kansas City petitioners concur: “A responsible and effective economics is one that . . . encourages philosophical challenge and debate” (cited in Fullbrook 2003, 39).




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Author contact:


Robert F. Garnett Jr., “Whither Heterodoxy?
”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 34, 30 October  2005, article 1, pp. 2-21,