May 31, 2016

History delivers the questions but not the answers

Comment on Robert Locke on ‘The naiveté of science as the history of Ideas’


It is rather trivial that a scientific/mathematical proposition/law/discovery/theorem emerges in a specific social, historical, geographical, biographical context. But for the question of whether, for example, the Law of Universal Gravitation* is true or false these specifics are absolutely irrelevant.

What, then, is relevant?: “Research is in fact a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant)

Everything else, e.g. calendar time, religion, nationality, gender, etc., is a distraction from actual scientific problem solving and irrelevant for the assessment of the truth/falsity of a theory. Historians are occupied with the context of discovery, scientists are occupied with the context of justification, i.e. the logical and material consistency of a theory.

Science is about general and invariant features of reality (= invariances, see Nozick 2001 ), history/ evolution is about unique event configurations on the surface which never repeat themselves. This is known since Heraclitus and that is why Descartes said that history was not a science. Science abstracts from historical detail. No way leads from the history of falling apples to the universal Law of Falling Bodies. No way leads from the historical fact that Einstein wore no socks to the understanding of the Theory of Relativity.

Economics is about the underlying structural laws of the economic system. If you do not understand these (e.g. the Profit Law**) you neither understand the present nor the past.

The current state of economics is this: economists got the premises/basic concepts/axioms of economic theory hopelessly wrong. Because of this, the whole theoretical superstructure that in turn informs economic policy is defective. What we actually have is folk psychology, folk sociology,*** storytelling, political blather, senseless model bricolage, the history of money since the cowrie shell, and utter methodological confusion.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

* See Wikipedia
** See Wikimedia
*** See post ‘How to get out of the Econ 101 PsySoc woods’.

REPLY to Robert Locke on Jun 4

You say: “ the pursuit of knowledge tempered by the subjectivity of the individual observer, and by extension the political, economic, and social subjectivities specific to historical time and place.”

I agree. Just because of this economics has to leave all subjective/behavioral/human nature issues to psychology, sociology, history, politics, etc. and focus on the systemic aspect of the (world-) economy.

This is what the shift from subjective-behavioral microfoundations to objective-structural macrofoundations is all about. And this is the economic methodology of the 21st century.