I had a great discussion/exchange of views today with my friend and colleague in the English and Humanities Department, Mich Niyawalo, on The Economic Consequences of the Peace. I can say quite honestly that I learned a bit from Mich’s presentation and our conversation afterwards. Professor Niyawalo will be providing me with a written text in a few weeks and at that point, I will be quite pleased to post that here and invite further discussion.
I especially enjoyed Mich’s insights into how Keynes consciously uses specific narrative devices in his descriptions of Clemenceau and Wilson. As Mich and I talked more afterwards it dawned on me that the literary references used by Keynes were not accidental. As a student in the British private school system he would have studied the specific literary works to which he makes reference. It’s a good example of how Keynes writes to his audience. I will leave it to Mich to provide a more detailed exposition here when he is ready. I will add, that his presentation on the conflicts between French secularism and French Muslim/Algerian identity in contemporary French rap music was also quite interesting and well done. Mich presented this shortly before our joint session.
That noted, here are my ruminations:
- There is indeed a case to be made for understanding how economists, and other social scientists and even natural scientists employ persuasive strategies.
- In the social sciences, including economics, the triumph of ideas is not a simple matter of who has the better argument as we judge it through cognitvely rational criteria of the combination of logic and empirical evidence.
- The ability to write clearly and persuasively and to connect with the reader as Keynes clearly does in The Economic Consequences of the Peace is important. Economists, with a few exceptions, write poorly.
- However, the triumph of a particular theory or school of thought has not been due to either superiority on the basis of cognitively rational criteria or due to persuasiveness in argumentation.
- The ideas that tend to dominate the social sciences, in the long run and everything else held equal, are those ideas that reinforce the position of the prevailing dominant interests in society. On rare occasions, chinks in the armor occur due to a crisis, and there is a brief interregnum of marginal acceptance of ideas that challenge prevailing social arrangements.
- It would be better if economics and other social sciences were to become truth seeking enterprises based on genuine inquiry. As social scientists, it is our ethical obligation to attempt to minimize and quarantine the ideological element and to prioritize the cognitively rational.
- Economics, in particular, has been marked by an over reliance on formal languages, with the test of validity lying at least in part on who can provide the more formally rigorous model. Though this is often viewed as an instance of positivism, it is the opposite of positivism and makes of economics a discipline of the relationship of abstract self referential signs to abstract self referential signs.
- Economics, in particular, is in need of a more thoroughgoing and genuine broad positivism, or if you prefer, Pragmatism.
And there is my concern: there is much to learn from an analysis of rhetoric. But in the end, inquiry in the social sciences, including economics should be a form of truth seeking inquiry that connects to what Keynes called “the facts of the matter”.