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posted April 2003


Focusing on Methodology
Alec A Schaerer   (Graduate student, University of Basel / Switzerland)




If economics wants a secure basis — corresponding to its relevance for human life — it must avoid the pitfalls of traditional methodology, caused by the latter's unthinking conceptual self-limitation. A non-compromised approach is proposed which offers the required features, and one of its results is discussed: a natural law in economics — which moreover is constitutive for any form of economy.

The Problem


Our 'mental spectacles' (categories of thinking) determine how we perceive. Asking, for example, chemists about the mind, life, or the economy, evokes answers in terms of chemistry, whose truth-value can't be decided within chemistry alone. Whatever we approach requires clarifying first the adequacy of our categories.


We can distinguish things; hence there must be some order in the universe. How do we grasp it? Modern methodology covers appearances, but not the overall laws whereby things appear and disappear. 'Wars of belief' (between paradigms) replaced 'wars of religion'. We must grasp completely our conceptual setup.


Human life requires producing and consuming. Thinking about it organizes the material means. We solve problems when acknowledging that our 'mental background' determines the material disposition. Today the majoritarian postulate is: be empirical! — forgetting that the categorical criteria for handling empirical data can't be found in data, because data are collected according to them.


The category for handling economic dynamics first was 'thing in exchange', associating 'value'; so flow appeared as aggregation of valued things. Since value looks different depending on the perspective, aggregating an nt's valuating decisions gradually replaced this approach. But adding up aspects never yields the law of the whole — needed in times of globalization. This corresponds to quantum theory and molecular biology trying to predict big aggregates from laws of 'elements': a zealous but categorically unwise procedure, attracting imaginations like 'emergent' phenomena, ending up with 'measurement problem' and fuzzy paradoxes, but never in unambiguous clarity. It enables only probabilistic formulations of the overall order.


Fragmentized thinking is no exception today, but rather the rule, and starts at its root. Mainstream philosophy follows the 'linguistic turn' ('thinking is structured linguistically'). It sees objects 'from outside' (believing exteriority warrants objectivity), debates their properties and believes their real way of being is unknowable. Such attempts, brought to their ultimate consequence, inevitably end up in aporia, incompleteness, paradox, etc. They can't completely decide on their own validity (see Finsler, Gödel, Church etc.) and can't allow to find a strictly universal law of nature (egg. entropy or gravitation concern only matter).


The methodological quest of economics (egg. Blaug [1980], Lawson [1997], Backhouse [1994]) did not transcend this situation. "The methodology of economics is to be understood simply as philosophy of science applied to economics" (Blaug [1980:xi]). Even Bunge [1998], discussing social science in general, remains in the mainstream, envisaging only a "checking of propositions" [1998:11]. He realizes the self-limitation of this procedure, but does not seek the decisive clarification. This is today's state of the art.


Results are egg. wanting to elevate context-dependent connexes (e. g. Kondratieff cycles) to the status of laws, or worrying about costs (of production, opportunity, transaction, etc.) incumbent upon agents, but not whether overall cost outruns overall benefit (Daly [2001], Rees [2002]). Today's theories can't grasp strictly the whole while growth in GNP is equated with health of the economy, aggravating the problem. Models such as supply and demand, or marginal benefit, or production function and marginal productivity, are certainly correct in many situations. But not every useful scientific idea is a universal law of nature — while in economics it has not yet got about that strictly explaining phenomena means tracing them back to universal laws. Even meticulous mathematical description is not explanation; mathematics is only a (fully formalized) language. Moreover, merely describing 'what-is' is poor science; it becomes complete only when understanding 'what-is' in the overall connex.


We can formulate any contradiction, from "straight is curved", "3+5=9" and "I am lying" ('liar paradox') to voluntary deception, within languages — but impossibly think it in one coherent thought. Any supposition that entails antinomies compels — for keeping opposites together — to remain in a set of elements (signs), intrinsically interrelated according to the content of the basic inconsistency. Such suppositions addict to the principle of language, for surviving disunity. This dependency does not concern only individuals, but also philosophical and scientific positions, styles of writers, politicians, etc.: knowing it sheds new light on prolific writers, 'publish or perish', methodology's disintegration into '-isms', etc..


Fortunately thinking is not limited by other's habits. Our query is: What categorical basis allows a secure approach of connexes as a whole — including economic process dynamics?


Secure Holism


Recently a door-opening approach was presented (Schaerer [2002]). Instead of setting out on a linguistic element (axiom, concept, proposition, etc.), it relies on experiencing the law of nature which regulates ultimately all mental processes: any query, pursued to the end of its content, polarizes the conceptual space required for understanding fully the query's content.


History offers countless examples: Aristotle querying the principle of change, finding 'form' versus 'matter' as relevant categories ('what changes' versus 'what allows change'); Kant querying cognition, finding 'perception' versus 'thinking'; Saussure querying the principle of signs, finding 'the signified' versus 'the signifier'; etc.. Such categories are never appearances, but of heuristic value, i.e. useful for guiding observation. While 'A' formally defines 'non-A', strictly covering totality, knowing the content of A and non-A requires investigation.


For considering the ultimate consequences of assumptions and queries, everyday life is usually a hindrance, mixing up query vectors and perspectives. And we are trained to analyze, decom­pose, dissect. So we 'see' only specimens: flowers or seeds, hens or eggs, mind or body, wave or particle, agent or value, etc. — and are compelled to wonder how our bits and pieces can fit together again. But if we view processes as a whole, instead of 'objects' severed from their context, we can 'see' the principle of structures in their complete existential cycle.


For processuality, Aristotle's 'form' versus 'matter' is useful. Investigating them is of the same type as querying processuality itself: unfolding the conceptual space out of the content of the query. Equilibrated unfolding of content is the principle of the proposed approach.


In a first step the question is thus: What is the 'form' aspect of the 'form', and what is its 'matter' aspect? The 'form' aspect is understandable in the polarity of the order in the process and what enforces this order: its 'law-of-the-thing-itself' aspect ('way of being', 'complex of laws of nature') versus its 'force' aspect (what makes it evolve, con­cretely manifesting itself).


A second step queries the principle of 'matter' in its own intrinsic dynamism of being modifiable. It leads to a polarity whereby any thing / process can be thrust into disequilibria, exposing a disequilibriability of force structures ('form' aspect of 'matter'), versus the basic equilibrium of all forces in the respective force structure ('matter' aspect of 'matter', allowing all possible change by dint of this foundational equilibrium). — In an illustration:



This approach makes perspectivity and universal grasp totally compatible. Mainstream methodology can't achieve this since it attached itself to the principle of language rather than fully non-compromised thinking. No 'scientifically' objective approach (looking only 'from outside') can survive complete self-reference.


The proposed conceptualization is valid for all structures, from particles to viruses to human identity to mathematical formulae; the distinction between life and non-life requires additional criteria. The law of nature for instance of poultry is then not being sought in hen or egg, but found in hen and egg and rooster etc., including all their drives and moves — like a particle is not wave or corpuscle, but wave aspect and corpuscular aspect, and the economic process is not defined by agent or value, skill or capital, etc., but by agent and value, skill and capital. Situations of 'either-or' don't arise from reality, but from conceptual discontinuities (egg. imposing quantification). In economics the 'Hilbert-Bourbaki' branch (McCloskey [2002]) 'discovered' complementarity, not noticing it is taken in by self-fulfilling prophecies.


Our tetradic categorization reveals the 'enveloping' order (complementary to science's 'segmental' laws), which is totally reliable because it determines also the principle of what is relevant (in processuality: laws and forces). Hence in this case effects are not dependent on the kind of forces associated with the set of conjugated laws. In this complete perspective there is thus no need to know empirically on which path the content of the query (in processuality: the structures of laws and forces) becomes manifest. If egg. an economic system forces nature and humans into disequilibria, the complete view has no need to know whether effects become manifest in conscious reactions (theoretical and practical improvements in economics and the economy), half-conscious movements (innovations, elusive moves of the firms or consumers, or strikes, revolts and revolutions), or fully unconscious events (diseases, nature dying away, etc.). The inevitability of a counter-movement is accessible as certainty. Merely the paths of the effects will vary, depending on the participant's awareness. Such tetrads are useful also for analyzing economic subsystems. — In an illustration:



Other queries lead to other tetrads. Processuality shows the precise role of equilibria in neoclassic-neoliberal theory which it cannot secure in a systematically complete way.


The Law of Nature Governing Economics


Most economists say their discipline can't be determined by any law of nature, their topic being completely man-made and thus subject to freedom. But this view is naive, because simultaneously the dependency on nature follows laws of nature (whence economics takes its blackmail potential) — and should thus be understood as such.


For any economy to arise, nature must be taken up by humans. Nature (resources) is one half; the human act of picking up and setting into value is the other. Both are required for getting going an economy. The initial act carries materially the whole economic process — but escaped adequate attention in economics because this embodies an 'essentialist' and fully processual sort of law that must fall through the meshes of empiricist's expectations. Having an 'intuitive' hunch of this law suffices for brachial initiatives, as 'Realpolitik' shows.


This strictly necessary condition is an act (no 'thing'), which humans must perform — and no 'physiocracy' (whereby nature provides basic value). Theorists now declare proudly 'the age of digging in the earth for setting up economies is over'. But even the most enlightened and industrialized economy is totally dependent: however efficient energy collectors, fertile greenhouses, sophisticated manufacturing techniques / services etc. it may boast, everything is materializable only once the necessary condition is fulfilled.


The societal result of the primal act can be considered a value — a real value, prelimina­ry to any monetary system, and the fundamental form of capital ('what allows future action'). Usual values — property, capital, interest, labour, etc. — are secondary, a juxtaposed layer of imaginary values.


This condition is also strictly sufficient: it allows any economy to operate fully — from feeding, clothing, and housing through production, distribution (including monetary systems), use, communal services, to waste disposal. Depending on their insight, economists induce conditions — tedious toil or satisfying occupation. Concerning distribution and re-distribu­tion, understanding real value avoids initial inappropriate allocation.


Today's discourse reveals some awareness of the dependency by discussing "scarce resources", but misses the point in the problem of hierarchy, shifting the attention to secondary aspects. Resources being 'scarce' is not as primordial as resources being available within nature's organization. Imagine living on a barren rock!


Whether an economy is subsistence toil or high-tech, involves money or not, is capitalist or socialist, is irrelevant: this law governs all economies. It is valid even in a universe of purely mental matter, in mental economy: the necessity to produce first a set of mental representations for future cognition, a language, is of the same order: re-cognizing signs enables organizing the ever-new process of cognizing.


All this is not in contradiction with today's notions of egg. capital or labour. It merely posits such elements in a systematically more coherent conceptual structure, offering a degree of completeness which today's dominating theory cannot afford.




Thinking within adequate categories enables a transdisciplinary and completely holistic approach, fulfilling the strictest methodological requirements. Its 'enveloping' order comple­ments today's theoretical positions and results and integrates the different scientific points of view, from natural to social science and the humanities.




Backhouse Roger E. (ed.)

                [1994] New Directions in Economic Methodology; London / New York: Routledge

Blaug Mark

                [1980] The methodology of economics, or how economists explain; Cambridge: Cambridge University

Bunge Mario

                [1998] Social Science Under Debate. A Philosophical Perspective; Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Daly Herman

                [1996] Beyond Growth, Boston: Beacon Press

                [2001] “Unwirtschaftliches Wachstum und Globalisierung in einer vollen Welt”; in: Natur und Kultur
                           2(2001), p. 3-22

Georgescu-Roegen Nicholas

                [1999] The Entropy Law and the Economic Process; Cambridge: Harvard University Press (reprint of
                           1st ed. 1971)

Niehans Jürg

                [1994] A History of Economic Theory. Baltimore / London: The John Hopkins University Press

Lawson Tony

                [1996] "The Predictive Science of Economics?", in: Foundations of Economics: How Do Economists Do
Warren Samuels (gen. ed.), Edward Elgar Publishing Company, Cheltenham  UK /
                            Northampton MA USA, pp. 163-74

                [1997] Economics and Reality; London / New York: Routledge

Mayumi Kozo, Gowdy John

[1999] Bioeconomics and Sustainability : Essays in Honor of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen; Edward
           Elgar, Cheltenham U.S.A.

McCloskey Deirdre

[2002] "Yes, There is Something Worth Keeping in Microeconomics", post-autistic economics review,
           issue no. 15, September 4, 2002, article 1.

Rees William E.

                [2002] "Globalization and Sustainability: Conflict or Convergence?" in: Bulletin of Science, Technology

                          and Society, 22 (4): 249-268 (August 2002)

Schaerer Alec A.

                [2002] "Conceptual Conditions for Conceiving Life — a Solution for Grasping its Principle, not Mere
                            Appearances", in: Fundamentals of Life (G. Palyi, C. Zucchi, L. Caglioti, eds.), Paris: Elsevier,
                            p. 589-624