RBE I Workshop: Vincenzo Crupi, "Progress and Revolutions in Economics: The legacy of a Debate"

A Historical Perspective

Collegio Carlo Alberto, Moncalieri (Torino, Italy)
April 16, 2010

Department of Critical Care, University of Florence; Department of Philosophy, University of Turin.

Progress and Revolutions in Economics: The Legacy of a Debate


1. Economics, philosophy of science and method
Historically, economics and philosophy of science have been interacting at least from Stuart Mill’s through Keynes’s writings and right up to quite recent times (e.g., in the work of Herbert Simon). Indeed, there certainly exist shared issues of concern across the two disciplines, a paramount example being the notion of rationality. Economics, moreover, as a scientific endeavor itself, is a legitimate – and in fact fascinating – domain of inquiry and analysis for philosophers of science. On the other hand, there have been proposals of a broadly “economic” approach to methodological problems traditionally discussed in the philosophy of science (see, e.g., Radnitzky, 1987; Zamora Bonilla, 1997).
The purpose of the present contribution is to comment on one episode of interaction that has been relatively intense, here presented under the heading of a debate concerning “progress” and “revolutions” in economics. In contemporary philosophy of science, a strong emphasis on progress – meant as growth across substantial change – has been introduced by Karl Popper. [1] A similar role has been played by Thomas Kuhn for the occurrence of revolutions as relatively unusual and dramatic events breaking up lines of otherwise conservative development of scientific research (“normal science”). By associating progress and revolutions, I mostly mean to point to the work of Imre Lakatos, often perceived as “a convex combination of Popper and Kuhn” (Archibald, 1979, p. 304).
Lakatos is an important, though somewhat controversial, figure in twentieth century philosophy of science. Notably, his premature death in 1974 interrupted a marked approaching trajectory towards economics and the social sciences. Across his writings in the philosophy of science, for instance, Marxism has been increasingly present as a case-study of methodological appraisal (Lakatos, 1970, 1974). He also concluded his last lecture series in 1973 stating that the Department of Logic, Philosophy and Scientific Method at the LSE (of which he was the Director) would have welcomed any young scholar willing to tackle problems concerning methodology in the social sciences (Lakatos, 1999). As an editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, moreover, he had promoted the publication of early contributions in this vein (Latsis, 1972; Urbach, 1974). Finally, he had organized for 1974, but did not live to attend, a celebrated conference in Napfilion (Greece) devoted to methodological appraisal in economics; the publication of the conference proceedings (Latsis, 1976a) essentially inaugurated the “rise and fall” of his philosophical views in debates on methodological issues in economics (Backhouse, 2008). As for the fall, it took about fifteen years to arrive: the majority of the contributors of a similar conference in 1989 expressed an overall negative assessment concerning Lakatos’ methodological analyses as providing a guide for the study economic research and its development (see De Marchi & Blaug, 1991).
Based on the above brief reconstruction, the debate on progress and revolutions in economics looks like an essentially closed dossier. Moreover, the alleged failure of Lakatos’s approach has been announced repeatedly, in philosophy even earlier than in the economic literature (see Agassi, 1971; Feyerabend, 1975; Pera, 1989; McCloskey, 1993). In consideration of all this, the present contribution displays a somewhat heretic, partly provocative, point of view. Let me present, crudely and apodictically, the main tenets of my discussion. Some (though not all) of the following statements will be subsequently provided with supporting arguments and remarks.
(i) Lakatos’s account of scientific methodology has been convincingly refined and fruitfully developed, mostly by the contributions of two of his colleagues and followers: John Worrall (see 1976, 1989a, 2006) and Paul E. Meehl (see 1990, 1992).
(ii) As for a viable understanding of general issues about method and progress in science, Lakatos’s framework (now updated and refined) remains a highly valuable starting point – probably still the best available.
(iii) The “disenchantment” for Lakatosian views among scholars in economic methodology (Hausman, 2008) has been importantly fostered by a line of argument which is unsound in crucial respects.
(iv) As a consequence, the debate on progress and revolutions in economics across the Seventies and Eighties has to be seen as a largely missed chance to improve methodological insight concerning economic research.
[1] E.g.: “Science is one of the very few human activities – perhaps the only one – in which […] we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress […]. In most other fields of human endeavour there is change, but rarely progress.” (Popper, 1963, pp. 216–217).

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