Can anything go?

The title of this blog post, is of course, a reference to Paul Feyerabend’s famous (or if you prefer, infamous) slogan “anything goes”. But a careful reading of Feyerabend shows that he didn’t really mean literally, “anything goes”. My immediate goal however is not to defend or critique Feyerabend per se, at least not today. Instead, I want to provide some context for important debates amongst Post Keynesians and other Heterodox economists about evaluation of schools of thought and specific theories. I will also note that while my immediate topic is economics, my arguments have implications for theorizing in the social sciences in general.

In today’s post, I want to explore some questions about the concept of Structured Pluralism   and  contrast it with one version of foundationalism that is prevalent in economics. I hope to follow later this week with a sketch of an alternative. The version of foundationalism in economics that I am addressing (there are others), takes a foundational axiom (or axioms) as  both given and true of general features of the external world, in this case of real world economic systems, and derives conclusions via deductive logic which are then asserted as true. The usage of the term axiom in this context has some resemblance to Joseph Schumpter’s concept of Pre analytic vision albeit with an important difference. Schumpeter’s concept of vision was looser and related to the concept of “world view”, whereas axioms as foundational principles are typically more rigorously specified. Two prominent heterodox economists who have argued for this kind of axiomatic approach to economics are Paul Davidson and E.K. Hunt.  Notably, what each considers to be the correct foundational axiom differs significantly.

It is my hope that the reader will proceed with a bit of caution as most of my ideas are still in their formative stage and that my ability to proceed with the level of rigor and caution these ideas require is limited by the format of a blog post. Today’s post, and subsequent posts on this topic, should be read as “thinking out loud” and part of my effort to regain traction on old research projects that have been left to rust during my hiatus of holding positions that have not afforded much time to devote to research and writing.

The argument for structured pluralism as I understand it, goes something like this. Our ontological assumptions about the world shape and guide our analysis of the world. On this point, it should be noted, foundationalists and structured pluralists agree. Where structured pluralists disagree with foundationalists is the assertion that we can a maximally general property about complex reality as given and true of the essential properties of a complex, real world economic system. In this view, orthodox economics is not wrong when it is advanced as a theory of part of reality; it is incomplete and likely to lead us to error when analysis based on orthodox economics is advanced as a general theory. Hence the goal of heterodox economics is not necessarily theory displacement but rather disciplinary pluralism.

Notably, structured pluralism is often proposed as an alternative to the post-modern position of “anything goes”. But is it? As I’ve noted several posts before, “post-modernism” is a term that is so absolutely vague I think we would do well to stop using it, except that any other term we will invent be equally useless. Even Feyerabend, if you read him carefully, never actually said that literally anything goes. There are some people in economics who have self-described  adherents to some version or other of Post-Modernism. And it is  potentially an emotionally gratifying challenge to the authority and scientific status of orthodoxy. But the argument is problematic and unsettling to heterodox economists because if there is no clear way to say that a school of thought or a theory is true or false, then we cannot actually criticize orthodox theory as false. We can only criticize it’s claim to authority. Inevitably, the fall back is a form of conventionalism but a form of conventionalism in which multiple different kinds of conventions are accepted. Economics, in other words, is just another form of rhetoric, as Deirdre McCloskey asserts.

It is one thing however to argue that economists, like everyone else, even when couching their arguments in the form of mathematical models use rhetoric in their efforts to persuade. It’s another however, to argue that economics is just another form of literature and fiction writing, rather than a form of theorizing about the external world that has potentially disastrous consequences if it is based on facts about a world other than the one in which we happen to live. I don’t, for the record, attribute this view to Sheila Dow. My argument here is that it is difficult to distinguish the implications of some of the arguments for structured pluralism from some of the arguments for post-modernism in economics.

Yet the kind of foundationalism advocated by Davidson or Hunt is itself vulnerable. Pop-quiz: what is the correct, maximally, general, essential axiom about the nature of the external world?  I trust you see my point: if you and I share a common frame of reference then denying the truth of the sentence “snow is white” when the snow is really white is bad faith or nonsense. But the kinds of axioms that Hunt and Davidson propose are not straightforward observation sentences: they are general propositions about the nature of external reality. They’re not the kinds of propositions we can take as a given. If we want to assert that a general kind of proposition about the external world is true, then we have to earn the right to do so.

In a future pos, or posts,  I will try  address a possible way out of this dilemma. In other words, I will address the question as to whether or not I can ever say with justification that my theory is better than your theory?



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