Evolutionary Political Economy and Philosophy

In this entry I will lay out a short, preliminary sketch of some philosophical problems in Evolutionary Political Economy. The reader may wish to note that this is part of a planned book length project on evolutionary political economy and that the problems I am writing about today are intended to form at least part of Chapter 1. Specifically, there are multiple approaches to evolutionary political economy. I’ve defined three broad camps: Marxist, Original Institutionalist, and New Institutionalist. As I’ve noted, my categorization can easily be questioned, though it does at least serve a useful purpose as a means of grouping theories and theorists who bear a family resemblance to each other. Suffice it to say, that just as there are multiple approaches to economics and other social sciences, there are also multiple and competing theories of evolutionary political economy. Can we develop a cognitively rational criterion (or set of criteria) that can help us to make a judgement about which among the alternatives is the better theory? I think we can, but the problem is not easily resolved as we have to first evaluate the philosophical criteria for judging the criteria for theory evaluation. I caution the reader that in this entry I am thinking out loud rather than engaging in any sort of rigorous examination of the issues.

As I have been re-reading Habermas‘ work on Communicative Action, I am struck by how in spite of Habermas reliance on C. S. Pierce and Mead, many of the concerns he raises are also addressed by the Critical Realists    (see also here). In addition, The New World Encyclopedia provides a pithy introduction to how some notable economists define the relationship of Critical Realism to Economics:


 Heterodox economists like Tony Lawson, Frederic Lee or Geoffrey Hodgson are trying to work the ideas of critical realism into economics, especially the dynamic idea of macro-micro interaction.

According to critical realist economists, the central aim of economic theory is to provide explanations in terms of hidden generative structures. This position combines transcendental realism with a critique of mainstream economics. It argues that mainstream economics (i) relies excessively on deductivist methodology, (ii) embraces an uncritical enthusiasm for formalism, and (iii) believes in strong conditional predictions in economics despite repeated failures.

The world that mainstream economists study is the empirical world. But this world is “out of phase” (Lawson) with the underlying ontology of economic regularities. The mainstream view is thus a limited reality because empirical realists presume that the objects of inquiry are solely “empirical regularities”—that is, objects and events at the level of the experienced.

The critical realist views the domain of real causal mechanisms as the appropriate object of economic science, whereas the positivist view is that the reality is exhausted in empirical, i.e. experienced reality. Tony Lawson argues that economics ought to embrace a “social ontology” to include the underlying causes of economic phenomena.

Positivism is a word these days that has the near equivalence of a swear word. To assert that one is a Positivist is at best to invite an attitude that you are hopeless out of date and naïve. I would argue though, that the word “Positivism” is a vague and imprecise term. We would be better to talk about “Positivisms”. Needless to say, I doubt that we would find many people today who would assert that the natural or social sciences should or could engage in a straight up application of all the tenets of the Vienna Circle. It’s easy to recognize that the Vienna Circle project died. But, that does not mean that its participants were simpletons and naïve: they were merely overly ambitious and arguably wrong on the issue of formal languages. On the other hand, Pragmatism, or at least a version of it, is at least a close cousin to Positivism and never bought into the extreme formalism of the Vienna Circle.

In an Article I wrote some years ago, I outlined some of my issues with Geoff Hodgson’s use of Critical Realism from the perspective of Classical Pragmatism, which I followed with another article on the problems of problems of public policy. If I were writing today, I might put some of my arguments in those articles a bit differently but in reading back over them, I’m struck by their relevance to my project in Chapter One.

For now, I want to briefly raise two objections to the Critical Realist perspective in a way that I view as consistent with a generally (Classical) Pragmatist approach.


  1. My own approach is decidedly realist. I agree that though social entities are humanly devised, they have an existence independently of what you, I, or any body of theorists believe. I agree as well that the concept of structure is valid and useful in the social sciences. We exist in a world of social interaction. This interaction is shared, patterned and habitual. Where I part company with the Critical Realists is in their view that there is some structure that “generates” our shared, patterned and habitual interactions. To the contrary, in my view, the structure is found in those shared, patterned and habitual interactions and no where else.


  1. Critical Realists argue that the search for causal laws through the use of empirically observable phenomena is misplaced. My impression is that the Critical Realists make a straw man out David Hume and the concept of causal law. I will grant at the outset that the concept of causal “law” in the social sciences is a bit of a misnomer because any “law” in the social sciences is subject to contingencies of time, place and agency in a way that laws of physics are not. I will also readily concede that a mere observation of correlation is insufficient in and of itself to establish causation. But the fact that it is possible to postulate frivolous correlations, does not mean that there are not genuine connections between phenomena and that these phenomena routinely co-occur and stand in a causal relationship to each other.


I’m afraid that for today, I have hit the limit for my ruminations and I close by repeating my earlier caveat that today’s post is more along the lines of thinking out loud than an effort at theoretical rigor.


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