Sunday, January 19, 2014

Heterodox Economists on Postmodernism.

Yanis Varoufakis warned heterodox economists against Postmodernism: he wasn't alone. Many founders of the PAECON movement, representing a wide variety of perspectives, rejected PoMo.

Take, for instance, the exchange between John E. King (history of heterodox economic thought) and Paul Davidson (Post Keynesian macroeconomics) in the Post-Autistic Economics Review in 2004.

King started the debate with an article arguing for pluralism in economics (issue 23). King went to great lengths to distinguish the form of pluralism he supports and proposes, from the superficially similar postmodern pluralism (i.e. Feyerabend's "anything goes"), which he opposes:
"There is much to be said for tolerance of many and even antagonistic scientific research programmes within an academic discipline or university. But we should not tolerate the existence of inconsistent ideas within our own heads."
For King his brand of pluralism rules out "unqualified relativism, for one thing; logical incoherence, for another", which he correctly identifies with PoMo (i.e. the "inconsistent ideas within our own heads").

Speaking with evident approval of the institutional economist Geoffrey Hodgson, King adds: he "is the most outspoken in denying that 'anything goes' and the most sternly critical of postmodernist claims in this regard". (Emphasis mine)

Furthermore, King goes on to say of Sheila Dow (methodology, the history of economic thought, money, banking and regional finance) that she "has also defended the principle of consistency against its postmodernist and constructivist opponents. Thus she proposes that a clear distinction be drawn between 'pure' and 'modified' pluralism". (Emphasis mine)

In the following issue (i.e. issue 24) Davidson replied to King. Davidson has little to object on PoMo. In reality, Davidson seems to care little for PoMo: the word is mentioned only once in his response (in a quote verbatim from King's article!).

If King's stance on PoMo wasn't the issue of Davidson's response, what was it?  Simple: he does not like either flavour of pluralism (neither King's, nor the Feyerabend/PoMo "anything goes" one); Davidson does not accept pluralism. Period. It's hard to say why, but it seems that, to Davidson, pluralism itself smacks of PoMo and Davidson would have none of it. Instead, he subscribes to a Keynesian monism:
"If one wishes to explain (describe) the production, exchange and financial features and operations of a market-oriented, money using,  entrepreneurial economy, then Keynes's  'General Theory' is the sole 'correct' alternative to neoclassical economics. Neoclassical theory is … merely a 'special case' of his general theory. Moreover I would argue that … other heterodox theories … are other special cases …".
In Davidson's view, it would seem, you cannot be a Keynesian (or Post Keynesian, at any rate) and a PoMo at the same time. And, having to choose between being a Keynesian and being a PoMo, Davidson takes the former.


A little later, in issue 28 of Post-Autistic Economics Review, Geoffrey Hodgson himself expresses his own views on PoMo (and formalism in economics, another obsession among the PoMo/PoKe "in" crowd). The long quote is fully justified:
"It is also worth bearing in mind that there is an example of a social science in which formal methods and models have hitherto been put to little use, apart from statistics. Yet this discipline is widely acknowledged to be in a state of severe disorder, especially concerning its core presuppositions, its self-identity and boundaries, and its relations with other disciplines, particularly economics and biology. This afflicted social science is sociology. The persistence of its acute scientific maladies alongside its relatively infrequent use of formalism indicates that additional problems exist within the social sciences today. These include the postmodernist affirmation that one theory is as good as another, the frequent choice of a theory on ideological rather than scientific grounds, and an occasional self-inflicted blindness concerning the biological aspect of human nature and its significance for the study of human society". (Emphasis mine)
So, while Hodgson criticizes the hyper-formalisation of economics, his criticism is a moderate one: for him formalisation is not the problem, but a problem; for Hodgson, PoMo is among "the additional problems … within the social sciences today".

Another high-profile heterodox economist (one who seemingly criticizes mathematical formalism much more radically than Hodgson), Lars Pålsson Syll (issue 55. RWER. PDF):
"One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. In a time when scientific relativism (social constructivism, postmodernism, de-constructivism etc) is expanding, it's important to guard against reducing science to a pure discursive level". (Emphasis mine)
To add insult to injury, Syll not only singles PoMo out as something to guard against, but takes the defence of one of the PoMo favorite bugbears: believe it or not, the Enlightenment (curse its memory!): "We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality". (Emphasis mine)


"Fine" -- the reader may say. "I get the idea: lots of heterodox economics big wigs don't like Postmodernism. Meh! Why should I care?".

In the next post or two in this series I intend to tell you why you should care.


  1. Economists are best advised to stay away from philosophy without doing their homework — lots of it — or they will get their asses handed to them. Most economists haven't reflected on philosophy of economic and are not really up on the issues in philosophy of science either. The dismissal of PoMo and Deconstructivism as "anything goes" is puerile. The logical question is about criteria and whether there are absolute criteria are universally applicable. All argument must stop somewhere to avoid infinite regress or a vicious circle. What are the non-arbitary stopping points? What criteria identifies them?

    1. "Economists are best advised to stay away from philosophy without doing their homework — lots of it — or they will get their asses handed to them."

      Good! Start with these people's asses:

      Yanis Varoufakis
      John E. King
      Paul Davidson
      Geoffrey Hodgson
      Sheila Dow
      Lars Pålsson Syll