2006 HES Presidential Address: A Tale of Two Mainstreams: Economics and Philosophy of Natural Science in the mid-Twentieth Century

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Journal of the History of Economic Thought




HES Presidential addresses often attempt to answer a substantive question (or number of related questions) in the history of economic thought. The answers provided are not “answers” in the sense that one finds an answer to a simple numerical problem; rather they are historical narratives, stories, that bring the listener/reader to a new, and hopefully deeper, understanding of a particular author, piece of economic literature, or episode in the history of economic thought. While answers are certainly nice, I am afraid that I will not be providing you with any in this paper. Rather, I will simply pose a particular question and explain the historical context in which the question arose. It is a question that I believe is both interesting and important, but it is one that has not been asked (at least in the way that I will ask it) within the existing literature. As a result, much of the paper will be devoted to trying to convince you there is in fact a “there,” there—that there really is a particular historical “fact of the matter” that is worthy of investigation. Towards the end of the paper I will sketch a few approaches that might provide an answer to the question, but these are simply suggestive, and not exhaustive, of various storylines that might be considered. The question is: Why did mainstream economics, circa 1945-1965, look so much like mainstream philosophy of science during the same period? Before I begin trying to convince you that this is indeed an interesting question, it is important to clarify exactly what is not being asked. This digression is useful because there are two quite similar-sounding questions that do have well-established literatures, and I want to be clear how my topic differs from these more familiar subjects. The first one has long been the mainstay of economic methodology—the question of whether economics lived (or lives) up to the scientific standards set down by the philosophy of science (or any particular program within the philosophy of science). This question, a question that has played a major role in methodological writing from Hutchison (1938)24. Hutchison, Terence. 1938. The Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory, London: Macmillan. View all references through Blaug (1992)5. Blaug, Mark. 1992. The Methodology of Economics: Or How Economists Explain, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [CrossRef] View all references, Caldwell (1994)8. Caldwell, Bruce J. 1994. Beyond Positivism: Economic Methodology in the Twentieth Century, 2nd edition, London: Routledge. View all references, Hausman (1992)18. Hausman, Daniel M. 1992. The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [CrossRef] View all references, and others—and one, I might add, that has, directly or indirectly, occupied a large amount of my own professional attention (Hands 200115. Hands, D. Wade. 2001. Reflection Without Rules: Economic Methodology and Contemporary Science Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [CrossRef] View all references)—is quite different from the question here. The methodological question asks whether economic practice conforms to what certain philosophers say about science in general, and I will focus on how the disciplines themselves compare. For example, one could note that two cultures, say A and B, are surprisingly similar—and ask why that is the case—and that would be very different from asking whether the people in B live up to the behavioral norms recommended by those in A. The second non-question involves a literature that I have elsewhere (Hands 199414. Hands, D. Wade. 1994. “The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and Economics: Some Thoughts on the Possibilities”. In New Perspectives in Economic Methodology, Edited by: Backhouse, R. 75–106. London: Routledge. Reprinted in: Science Bought and Sold: Essays in the New Economics of Science, Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent (Eds) (University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 15-48 View all references) called the “economics of scientific knowledge” (ESK), a literature that takes economic theory as given and tries to employ it as a resource in the philosophy of science. One of the many questions addressed in this literature is whether what economists say about economic efficiency in microeconomics can be used to address questions about epistemic efficiency in science. Although this literature is neither as extensive, nor perhaps as familiar to most historians of economic thought as the traditional methodological literature, it is clearly another way that economic theory of a particular period might be related to work in the philosophy of science. But like methodology, the economics of scientific knowledge is not the issue here. To continue the analogy of the two cultures, ESK asks whether the tools found in culture B would be useful to those in A, and I am interested in the more general comparative question of how it is that A and B are similar, as a precondition to addressing the question of how they came to be that way. With this short digression about what I am not going to discuss, it is time to turn to the topic at hand.