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from the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy’s Newsletter, July 2005


Teaching Economics: PAE and Pluralism


Edward Fullbrook

© Copyright: Edward Fullbrook 2005


Of the several ideas that have powered the Post-Autistic Economics movement, pluralism has been the most important.  Yet it is only recently that even dissident economists have begun to become truly comfortable with the idea.  I have a few thoughts about why this is so.


From Popper onwards, twentieth-century philosophy of science conditioned us to be disapproving, or at the very least sceptical, of pluralism in the scientific realm.  For two hundred years the forward march of science has been central to our culture’s narrative.  Part of that narrative a century ago was the belief that science advanced on the basis of theories that had been confirmed so many times that their truth was forever certain.  But Einstein’s speculations and the discoveries to which they led gradually destroyed that belief and in so doing created a major narrative gap for scientifically advanced societies.  Popper plugged it up by abandoning the confirmation story in favour of a drama of competing theories in which one is more true than the others and, if good science prevails, wins out.  A more appealing and timely plot is hard to imagine.  It not only resembles that of a John Wayne western, but also, especially Kuhn’s version, that of the mega narrative called the Cold War.  With the notable exception of natural scientists to which I will return, nearly everyone who came of age intellectually in the 60s, 70s and 80s bought into some version of the competing theories story.1


There is no room in that story for pluralism except in the limited sense of defining rules of engagement and promoting mutual tolerance in the interim before the final battle.  Acceptance of this view of science as the sole one, deprives us of grounds for justifying pluralism in a broader sense, as something more than just a means to the demise of all but one of the contestants.  This absence of a rationale is manifest in the history of the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics (ICAPE), formerly International Confederation of Associations for Reform in Economics (ICARE).  The “aims and purposes” spelled out by its brave and ahead-of-their-time founders in 1993 included the following.


to promote a new spirit of pluralism in economics, involving critical conversation and tolerant communication among different approaches, within and across the barriers between the disciplines ….


The very idea that they were seeking to promote “tolerant communication” reveals a desperate state of affairs.  But beyond the virtue of tolerance and perhaps some enhancement of career opportunities it was not altogether clear why they were promoting pluralism.  That changed decisively in 2000.  That was the year the organization changed its name, “pluralism” superseding “reform”.  Along with the name change, the board issued a statement that embraced


          the belief that methodological pluralism and intellectual progress are complements ….


Coming from a culture and especially a generation that believed that methodological monism and intellectual progress are complements, this was a courageous and seriously innovative move.  It was also an idea nearing its time and that that same year the French economics students put forward with such vigour and flair and without the inhibitions of minds shaped by the narrative of competing theories, research programmes and paradigms.  Their manifesto included the following.


Out of all the approaches to economic questions that exist, generally only one is presented to us. This approach is suppose to explain everything by means of a purely axiomatic process, as if this were THE economic truth. We do not accept this dogmatism. We want a pluralism of approaches 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.).


The phrase “approaches adapted to the complexity of the objects” is an in-your-face radicalization of the demand for a pluralist economics because it inverts the traditional but implicit philosophical idealism of economics, whereby the approach takes precedent over the object of inquiry, the reality of the latter being admitted only to the extent that it is illuminated by the former.  In the past this disposition has characterised not just neoclassical economists, but the various schools generally.  In the context of this tradition, the naked spirit of empiricism in the students’ petition was, and for many economists continues to be, shocking.  If accepted it deprives every school of the dream of representing “THE economic truth” and makes “communication among different approachesessential to any broad advancement of economic knowledge.  It requires a completely new ball game, including new textbooks.  Many of the articles that have appeared in the post-autistic economics review represent attempts to come to terms with the conceptualizations and practicalities of this fundamentally different approach to the doing and teaching of economics.


Ones hopes that in the five years since the appearance of the French students’ petition that the PAE movement has, beyond winning thousands of converts and drawing media attention to the dysfunctional state of economics, made significant progress in developing our understanding of what pluralism in economics entails.  But there remains a long way to go.  Part of the difficulty is that economists tend to have misshapen notions of the nature of contemporary natural science.  One consequence, ironical in the extreme, of the twentieth-century rise in the popularity of and deference paid to philosophy of science among social scientists is that it has tended to cut us off from any contact with the natural sciences.  For a long time now our primary conceptions of these have come not from scientists but from philosophers and pseudo-philosophers acting as quasi-anthropological reporters of the activities of these alien beings, and whose reports are filtered through and shaped by their philosophical agendas.  The distancing from direct observation of scientific practice is compounded when a secondary philosophical literature develops, becomes self-referential, thereby giving rise to tertiary works and so on.  Meanwhile it has gone almost unnoticed that the most successful and revered natural sciences of our time are profoundly pluralistic.  Take physics.  Today physicists have two theories for describing the universe, the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Not only do the conceptual frameworks of these theories differ fundamentally, but also their basic concepts directly contradict each other. [Bohm, 1983, p.176]


·         General relativity conceives of space and time as continuous; quantum theory conceives of them as discontinuous. 

·         General relativity conceives of matter as particulate; quantum theory conceives of it as a wave-particle duality. 

·         General relativity conceives of physical objects as having actual properties; quantum theory describes them as having only potential properties within the given physical situation. 

·         General relativity conceives all physical reality as determinate and all events as in principle having a causal explanation; quantum theory admits indeterminacy and events incapable of causal explanation. 


I defy anyone to imagine conceptual differences greater than these.  This radical pluralism is physics’ response to the complexity of the object, the universe, that they wish to understand.  Their wildly divergent methods of approach offer different points of view on that object, like observing Michelangelo’s David from the front and from the rear, thereby revealing different primary dimensions of the physical world.  The physicist David Bohm explains, in words that would fit the French students’ manifesto, the pluralist case as follows.

One may indeed compare a theory to a particular view of some object. Each view gives only an appearance of the object in some aspect. The whole object is not perceived in any one view but, rather, it is grasped only implicitly as that single reality which is shown in all these views. [Bohm 1983, p. 8]


Modern evolutionary biology is also founded on pluralism.  It shifts between theories that take different units as primary, as the ones that survive or become extinct, including genes, fragments of genes, chromosomes, genotypes, phenotypes, groups of organisms, gene pools and species.  This pluralism enables the biologist to view the selection process from a wide range of points of view.    Modern biology also shifts  between “biological”  and “phylogenetic” concepts of species, and between theories whose basic unit of classification is species and theories where it is niche.


When the “belief that methodological pluralism and intellectual progress are complements” and the demands of the French students and of the movement to which they gave rise are juxtaposed to these practices in physics and biology they are seen to be anything but radical.  To the contrary, it is the monist status quo maintained by the economics establishment that is radically at odds with what the most prestigious of the natural sciences regard as standard and essential practice.  For the reasons outlined above, this is a fact insufficiently realized by dissident economists.  Yet it is one of the two overriding reasons why economics requires a pluralist revolution.2


The other overriding reason is that it is required for the preservation of democracy. The fact that a conceptual system defines, at the exclusion of others, a point of view toward its object of enquiry has in the social sciences, in addition to its epistemological consequence, an ideological one.  There are two reasons why this is so.  First, the conceptual systems of social sciences can alter the objects of their enquiries by becoming part of the conceptual and belief systems through which humans conceive of themselves and of others and by which they make choices.  In the daily functioning of societies this recursive dimension of the social sciences, economics especially, becomes increasingly significant as mass higher education becomes the norm, even more so when as in the United States there is a social science input into most undergraduate degrees.  Second, the social sciences provide means by which governments preserve or reconstruct,    sometimes fundamentally, the basic realities of societies.  Different conceptual systems, such as institutional and neoclassical economics, present different sets of choices, real or imagined, to be chosen and acted upon by human populations at large.3  It can never be the case that each of these sets of choices will equally favour every group in society, so that when a social science falls victim to anti-pluralism it becomes inescapably and profoundly ideological.4  If only one conceptual framework is permitted, with the consequence that it alone is inculcated into the citizenry and its leaders, then the choices that in a democracy should be out in the open and belong to the people are hidden from view and the free discussion and debate upon which all democracy depends is silently eliminated.  Peter Söderbaum explains it as follows:

The ‘fact’ that also ideology is present means that the ‘one-paradigm position’ at departments of economics becomes untenable. Limiting economics to one paradigm means that one ideological orientation is emphasized at the expense of all others. This position is not compatible with normal ideas of democracy. Departments of economics should avoid the role of being political propaganda centres. With more than one paradigm as part of a pluralistic strategy, the ideological diversity in a democratic society will be better reflected.  Furthermore, one specific paradigm, such as the neoclassical one, may perform well in relation to some fields of study while being more of a problem in relation to other fields. [Söderbaum 2004, 159]


Fortunately natural scientists seem rarely to read philosophy of science.  If they had and had taken it as seriously and as literally as economists have taken it, the most impressive parts of science today would not exist.  Popper’s story and subsequent variants fitted well the Einstein versus Newton chapter, but the development of science, when it is allowed to be, is much more diverse and freeform than that.  Economics must learn to be likewise, not only for the sake of knowledge but also for democracy.  Thanks to the kick-start from the French students five years ago this summer, we have made a good beginning.  But it is only that.  A long struggle lies ahead.





1. For an extended development of the distinction between competing and complementary theories see Fullbrook 2005a.


2. For an elaboration of the distinction between fake pluralism and real pluralism see Fullbrook 2005c.


3. For a look at how these choices vary between different conceptual systems in economics see Fullbrook 2005b.


4. For an extended analysis of the relation between economics and ideology see Fullbrook 2005c.




Bohm, David (1983) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge, 1983.


Fullbrook, Edward (2005a) “Competitive and Non-Competitive Narratives”


Fullbrook, Edward (2005b) “Post-Autistic Economics”, Soundings, issue 29, pp. 96-109.  To be republished as “PAE and the Rand Portcullis” in issue 32 of the post-autistic economics review.


Fullbrook, Edward (2005c) “Concealed Ideologies: A PAE View of Ideology in Economics”, Revue de Philosophie Economique, forthcoming in next issue.


Söderbaum, Peter (2004) “Economics as Ideology and the Need for Pluralism”, A Guide to What’s Wrong With Economics, edited by Edward Fullbrook. London: Anthem, pp. 158-168.



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