Post-Autistic Economics Network
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from post-autistic economics newsletter :
issue no. 5, March, 2001
Real Science Is Pluralist
Fullbrook (University of the West of England, UK)
© Copyright: Edward Fullbrook 2001
Fifty years from now, when historians of ideas write about
how economics turned away from scientism and toward science, they may
identify the pivotal event as the appearance of Robert Solow’s
article in Le Monde (3 Jan. 2001). Most economists living today grew up with
the idea, even if not always agreeing with it, that there is and should be a
master theory, neoclassicalism. But the idea of a nation, the United
States, claiming mastery over the
theoretical core is not one that often has been publicly proclaimed. Yet that is the implied message that leaps
from every paragraph of Solow’s article, and whose
aftershocks are, as I write, awakening economists from their slumbers.
Nevertheless, those future historians will be wrong if
they hold Solow to account for more than being just
an average guy who opened his mouth in the wrong place at the wrong
article merely manifests in nationalistic form an ideology that has choked
the social sciences, economics in particular, for as long as most of us can
remember. Let me try to explain.
wrote a paper concerned with identifying within a theoretical context a range
of economic phenomena. It focuses on
categories of market behaviour which, on the one hand, are well-known,
commonplace, completely respectable and increasingly dominant, but which, on
the other hand, are excluded from the theoretical core of mainstream
economics. One cannot easily imagine a
similar dysfunctional state persisting in a natural science -- such as, for example, physics
refusing to consider micro-physical phenomena because they don't observe the
metaphysics of gravitational theory.
But of course such states of affairs in economics are the rule rather than
the exception, and it is worth considering why this is so. I am going to filter this brief inquiry
though a short passage by Roy Bhaskar.
Possibility of Naturalism (1979), he writes as follows;
one has in science a
three-phase schema of development in which, in a continuing dialectic,
science identifies a phenomenon (or range of phenomena) [that's phase
one], constructs explanations for it and empirically tests its explanations
[that's two], leading to the identification of the generative mechanism at
work [that's three], which now becomes the phenomenon to be explained, and so
on. [and that's the dialectic] [p. 12]
My view is that, with one notable exception, this
dialectic largely failed to function in 20th-century economics, and that this
breakdown resulted from the discipline's refusal to enter into Bhaskar's phase one.
Instead of identifying phenomena which it then seeks
to explain, economics avoids the dialectic by only considering phenomena
consistent with existing explanations.
In recent decades, this upside down "science"---this
choosing what one sees in order to justify a theory and its ontology, rather
than using theory to understand intransitive realities, became hegemonic as
economics construed support from new narratives of scientific practice,
especially Thomas Kuhn's. I want to
outline the negative role which I think philosophy of science, in spite of Bhaskar's work, has played in economics.
This requires me to say a few things about the
philosophy of science, especially its relation to historical events. Last century's fascination with this
previously obscure corner of philosophy seems to have been triggered by the
acceptance of Einstein's theory of relativity. This event fits well with several
narratives of scientific progress, including Bhaskar's. Unlike Bhaskar's,
however, Popper's and Kuhn's narratives also fitted the meta-narrative which
dominated geo-political perceptions from the 1940s onwards -- that is, that
of global powers and ideologies battling it out until one gains total victory
over the other. Popper indirectly, and
one assumes unconsciously, brought this narrative structure into play by
shifting the epistemological focus from scientific theories themselves to
their dramatic encounters with tests designed to discredit them. The stylized exemplary case for Popper's
narrative became the falsification and overthrow of Newtonian physics, by
means of tests devised through the competing and victorious theory of the
cosmos, Einsteinian physics. This story had instant appeal for an intellectual
population accustomed to global conflict and submerged in Cold War
mythology. It offered a simple,
winners and losers storyline worthy of Hollywood, and echoed the major traumas and neuroses of the
latter half of the century. So it was
no wonder that by the 1960s even people who had never opened a science book
could chatter about falsification.
The popularization of the putative ins and outs of
scientific advance accelerated with the appearance in 1962 of Thomas Kuhn's The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
It was really this book that made philosophy of science
box-office. It also, with its
multi-faceted concept of the paradigm, provided economics with a
rationalization for its worst practices, especially its head-in-the-sand
approach to major kinds of economic phenomena. Recently, rereading Kuhn's book after a
space of many years, it was a shock to be forced to reengage with the
paranoid, bi-polar rhetoric and logic which through the 1950's and 60's shaped
most public discussion in Kuhn's America. Kuhn himself
is open about locating his book in this historical framework. In his Preface to the original 1962
edition, he writes, that his book was conceived and written
over a period of 15 years, in other words, from the heyday of McCarthyism to
the Cuban Missile Crisis and the height of the Cold War.
And it shows.
The scenario which Kuhn, so skilfully, sketches regarding scientific
endeavour is, in the main, the same as that which structured the more
intemperate, more right-wing accounts of what was billed as the struggle
between Communism and the Free World.
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". Others of Kuhn's
most favoured expressions echoed then current geo-political equivalents. For example, "adherents"
translates "patriots"; "incommensurability", no peaceful
co-existence; "different world view", different ideology;
"pre-paradigm", third-world; "rival theories", rival
powers; and so on.
Kuhn also repeatedly foregrounds a parallel between
paradigms and political institutions. For example, he writes, "Like the
choice between competing political institutions, that
between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes
of community life."  It is this emotionally-charged us or
them, all or nothing mentality which Kuhn's book seems to legitimate as the
ethos of science. "After the
pre-paradigm period," writes Kuhn, "the assimilation of all new
theories and of almost all new sorts of phenomena has in fact demanded the
destruction of a prior paradigm and a consequent conflict between competing
schools of scientific thought."  Kuhn's narrative makes the defence
of one's paradigm community, through the elimination or marginalization of
rival ones, the scientist's over-riding goal.
And it makes the identification of new sorts of phenomena, the first
phase in Bhaskar's schema, something to be avoided
like nuclear war.
Kuhn's paradigmatic, that is, anti-pluralist science
does, however, make one fundamental concession to the notion of science as a
pursuit of truth. Although Kuhn
condones all manner of evasions and closed-mindedness, he posits a limit
beyond which empirical realities count for more than loyalty to a community
of belief, where, in his words, scientists "can no longer evade
anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice,"
and where in consequence a scientific revolution takes place. [Kuhn, p.
But in social sciences, conditions rarely, if ever,
exist for a revolution in the way Kuhn describes. Here paradigm changes are more likely to
result from changes in socio-political forces than through any logic of scientific
discovery. Unlike natural scientists,
social scientists seldom come up against reality's hard-edged recalcitrances.
With rare exceptions -- like The Great Depression -- the links between
the social scientist's paradigmatic beliefs and the intransitive world around
him or her are both conceptually tenuous and unconnected to the possibility
of objective tests. Consequently,
difficulties thrown up by external reality can -- when the paradigmatic, that
is, anti-pluralist, ethos prevails -- be brushed aside or charmed away by
rhetorical and formalistic devices, or, -- better yet -- as with all kinds of
faiths, by wilful disregard for all phenomena inconsistent with one's
For these reasons, Kuhn's narrative becomes, in the
hands of economists, a formula for an eternal status quo, for the cessation
of all significant change. It excuses
exclusionary devices in defence of the dominant paradigm community, and it
subordinates the advancement of economic knowledge to the upholding of a
system of belief tied to a vast network of patronage.
These remarks presume that Kuhn's narrative fails as a
generally fair description of development in the natural sciences, that in
general the natural sciences are not opposed to registering awareness of new
ranges of phenomena. So a few words
are needed to support this view and to explain why I believe that Bhaskar's narrative, as encapsulated in the paragraph
quoted at the start, is a vastly superior account of scientific practice --
superior both as a description of actuality and as an ideal.
The competing-theories narrative of scientific
advance, in its various forms, builds its case primarily on the basis of
examples drawn from physics. Yet even
here it is easy to show that the now traditional view both fails to account
for and runs counter to major developments.
This holds especially for Kuhn's version, which turns on the notion of
For several generations, fundamental research in
physics has been focused primarily on "unification". Various
schemes exist for characterizing "the unification process", but all
describe a state of affairs incomprehensible in terms of the traditional
competing-theories, anti-pluralist narrative of scientific development. Stephen Hawking, for example, explains the
quest as follows.
Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two
basic partial theories - the general theory of relativity and quantum
mechanics. They are the great
intellectual achievements of the first half of this century. ....
Unfortunately, however, these two theories are known to be inconsistent
with each other - they cannot both be correct. One of the major endeavours in physics
today...is the search for a new theory that will incorporate them both - a
quantum theory of gravity. 
Reading this passage through the competing-theories
lens, as offered by Popper or Kuhn, invites total misunderstanding. Physicists perceive relativity and quantum
mechanics not as competing theories championed by warring camps of physicists,
but rather as different and complementary conceptual approaches to the
fundamentals of physical reality.
These two narratives illuminate separate ranges of phenomena in what
unification physicists see as ultimately the same domain of inquiry, but
which, until some more fundamental structure or generative mechanism is
identified, cannot yet, if ever, be reconciled with each other. Rather than behaving paradigmatically, that
is, ignoring the existence of micro phenomena because they contradicted both
relativity and classical theory, 20th-century physics proceeded
pluralistically. It got on with
the difficult work of progressively identifying this range of phenomena and
then constructing and testing new explanations. The physicists' dream of unification, with
its implicitly deeper level of understanding than that of existing theory,
arises directly out of its pluralistic approach. It allows for the
peaceful co-existence of the two narratives, the heuristic significance of
each being enhanced by the existence of the other. Physicists seek neither to discredit
relativity or quantum mechanics, but rather to create, in Hawking's
words, "a new theory that will incorporate them both".
Hawking's view of 20th century physics also contradicts Kuhn's
narrative in another way. The central plot device in Kuhn's story of
paradigmatic, anti-pluralist science is his portrayal of natural scientists
as gestalt-bound, that is, as capable of thinking only within single
conceptual systems. He identifies this
intellectual incapacity as a sort of negative force which necessitates taking
an anti-pluralist approach to science which then creates blockages to the
advancement of knowledge, thereby creating pre-revolutionary states. But are scientists really so conceptually inept? Was John Stuart Mill really so wrong when
he characterized the scientific imagination as the faculty for "mentally
arranging known elements into new combinations"? [System of Logic,
433] Are scientists really incapable
of shifting back and forth between seeing the world in different combinations,
between, if you like, seeing the duck and seeing the rabbit?
If natural scientists were as gestalt-bound as Kuhn
repeatedly alleges, then 20th-century physics could never have taken
place. Shifting between narratives
with radically different conceptual systems can be a daily occurrence for
20th-century physicists. For them
conceptual agility -- that is, the ability to move freely between conceptual
gestalts -- is imperative. Unlike
theory replacement, unification of theories demands the ability to jump back
and forth between conceptual systems.
And even to become a physicist, one must learn to think within the
conceptual frameworks of both relativity and quantum mechanics. All the rest of modern physics is derived
from one or the other of these two theories whose "basic concepts",
notes the physicist David Bohm, "directly
contradict each other." [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p.
176] General relativity conceives of
matter as particulate; of physical objects as having actual properties; of
all physical reality as determinate; and all events as, in principle, having
a causal explanation. Quantum theory,
on the other hand, conceives of matter as a wave-particle duality; of
physical objects as having only potential properties within the given
physical situation; of the existence of indeterminacy; and of the existence
of events incapable of causal explanation.
Conceptual differences and theoretical inconsistencies greater than
these are scarcely imaginable. Yet,
for nearly a century, these two metaphysically dissimilar narratives have
worked, not in competition, but in tandem to the produce what are arguably
the greatest advances in the history of science.
Unlike Kuhn's narrative, Bhaskar's
three-phase schema of scientific development sits comfortably with this
history. It also suggests a way of
advancing radical reform of economics.
Taking Bhaskar's view of science, the
question becomes how, in economics, do you kick-start the dialectic, when in
the main it has been stalled for decades and when powerful institutional
forces work to keep it from starting up again.
As previously indicated, my view is that the blockage
of the first phase -- the identifying of phenomena -- has stalled economics. Here Bhaskar's
verb "identifies" must be given a robust interpretation. Passive identification of economic
phenomena not covered by existing theory is, for the reasons stated above,
insufficient for getting economists to take them into account. To get from phase one to phase two -- that
is, from identification to construction of explanations -- reformers must
find a way through the defence mechanisms, mis-education
and indifference with which, by tradition and Kuhnian
anti-pluralist, ideology, the profession encases itself. This, I believe, argues for two kinds of
initiative both directed at the identification of economic phenomena, but by
First, economics will be resuscitated and made
relevant to the urgent needs of the new century, only if roused from its
ontological slumber. Wittgenstein
characterized his kind of philosophy as “not a body of doctrine but an
activity," whose "work consists essentially of elucidations."
[Tractatus, 4.112] Because economic ontology has for so long been
off-limits, much elucidatory activity regarding economics’ concepts and the
nature of economic reality, as in the work of Lawson and Stretton, is now called
for. Economists and students must be
led to a practical awareness of the open nature of economic
existence and of the importance of internal relations, and of how these
dimensions of economic reality mean that the deductivism
of traditionalist economics excludes the identification of most economic
phenomena from within the context of explanation. The ontological preconceptions and
methodological pieties of traditionalist economics both mask from view the
larger part of economic events and block inquiry into the structures which
In economics, the first stage of Bhaskar's
schema has been trumped by devotion and obedience to an obscurant
metaphysics. The re-education of
economists to attend to these exclusions and to the possibilities which they
imply, will, it is hoped, coax the discipline into engaging with a larger
range of economic reality. Such
elucidations not only create an intellectual space in which members of the
post-autistic vanguard can operate, but also provide respectability and
justification for traditionalists contemplating post-traditionalist,
post-autistic pursuits. Such work
provides ordinary economists, especially the young ones, with the conceptual
means of articulating their misgivings and intuitions, and in general of
liberating their repressed awareness of all those phenomena whose relevance
the anti-pluralism of their elders denies..
These elucidations serve to identify economic
phenomena in a broad ontological way.
Through a form of applied philosophical analysis, they explain why
there exist vast tracts of unexplored territory and, at the same time, the
reasons behind the notorious failure of traditionalist methods. But they identify the general nature and
scope of socio-economic reality, rather than particular phenomena or ranges
So a second type of initiative for
the identification of economic phenomena is also required. Compared to the first, it is less
glamorous. But it is at least as
important. As a lure away from autistic
economics, philosophical enlightenment is most likely insufficient for the
rank-and-file economist. He or she must
also be enticed with concrete possibilities for research. To this end, conceptual frameworks must be
developed that bring into view ranges of economic phenomena that enter
strategically into economic outcomes, but that are unrecognised by
traditionalist conceptualisation. That there exists a surfeit of such
possibilities is self-evident to the post-autistic economist. That their successful realization – the
development of effective understandings of the these
phenomenal realms -- are now crucial to human welfare is, outside the
economics community, accepted fact.
Edward Fullbrook (2001) “Real Science Is
Pluralist”, post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 5, March, article