Lawson yes, Lawsonism no
from Edward Fullbrook
I have mixed feelings and misgivings about Nuno Martin’s short essay, “The nature of modern economics, including an account of heterodox unity and coherence”.
Like Keynes, Lawson is a mathematician – a real mathematician – who turning to economics was shocked by the incompetence with which economists habitually apply mathematics to their subject matter. He has made it his life’s work to turn economics away from scientism.
My continuing enthusiasm and support for Tony Lawson’s project began in 1997 when his influence did not yet extend far beyond the banks of the Cam. In 1998 the Atlantic Economic Journal published my review article “Shifting the Mainstream: Lawson’s Impetus”, which notes Lawson’s “deeply informed attempt to liberate economics from its metaphysical presuppositions, usually tacit, inherited from Newtonian physics and Enlightenment epistemology“, and it concludes that “all economists should read his Economics and Reality.”
More recently I commissioned for the Real-World Economics Review ten critical essays on Lawson’s work. These papers together with Lawson’s replies were then gathered to form the book Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and his Critics published last year by Routledge. The opening to my introduction to that book testifies to the importance I attach to Lawson’s work and also to the success, through his relentless energy and clarity of thought, he has had in getting his ideas known to, even if not yet accepted by, large elements of the economics profession.
Tony Lawson has become a major figure of intellectual controversy on the back of juxtaposing two relatively simple and seemingly innocuous ideas. In two books and over fifty papers he has argued:
1. that success in science depends on finding and using methods, including modes of reasoning, appropriate to the nature of the phenomena being studied, and
2. that there are important differences between the nature of the objects of study of natural sciences and those of social science.
Taken together, these two ideas lead to the conclusion that the methods found to be successful in natural sciences are generally not the ones that should be used in social science.
By relentlessly focusing on this pair of ideas, Lawson has in a short space of time changed one of economics’ key conversations. His chapter, “A Realist Theory for Economics”, published in Roger Backhouse’s 1994 landmark collection New Directions in Economics Methodology, stands out like someone standing alone at a party. As recently as then the ideas of three thinkers, none of them economists, none social scientists and all of them dead, dominated economics’ literature on methodology. The index of Backhouse’s wonderful book powerfully illustrates this. It lists 47 pages that refer to Thomas Kuhn, 69 to Karl Popper and 73 to Imre Lakatos. Twelve of the book’s sixteen chapters (excluding Lawson’s) refer to one or more of the three and eight, as well as the back cover, to all three. Lawson does not refer to any of them. More significant, Lawson’s key reference point is ontology, a word that, except in the Introduction when Backhouse is introducing his collection’s odd man out, appears in none of the other chapters. Notably, when Lawson first uses “ontology” he feels it necessary, despite his highly specialized audience, to explain what the word means: “enquiry into the nature of being, of what exists, including the nature of the objects of study.” [Lawson 1994, p. 257]
Thirteen years later and anyone in economics who knows anything about methodology knows what “ontology” means. They also have come to realize that if Lawson’s basic conclusion were applied it would entail a programme of reform that would fundamentally change economics. A quick check with Google shows just how phenomenally successful Lawson has been at changing the conversation. Below are listed the number of web pages turned up for four trios of words. [30/03/07]
- Popper, economics, methodology 300,000
- Kuhn, economics, methodology 391,000
- Lakatos, economics, methodology 82,300
- Lawson, economics, methodology 264,000
- ontology, economics, methodology 1,050,000
From the start, however, I have had one disagreement with and one serious doubt about the long-term effectiveness of Lawson’s program. The former is with Lawson’s tendency to dismiss all uses of all maths in economics as ill-conceived, a view which tends to become more categorical and condescending and sometimes perhaps ill-informed with some of his followers. An illustration is Martin’s penultimate sentence which speaks of “novel mathematical approaches that commit all the usual errors in a slightly different guise (complexity analysis is an obvious example).”
Martin’s essay also illustrates and reinforces my doubt about the real-world efficacy of Lawson’s project. My first essay on Lawson’s work cautioned that “his efforts risk evaporation through inward-turning discussions by a band of like-minded meta-theoreticians” and noted that this “is the classic road to nowhere travelled by most would-be reformers of all kinds throughout history.” Likewise today the inward-turning discussions among groups of like-minded are the plague of heterodox economics, a sociological arrangement consisting of a smorgasbord of isms upon whose disunity the neoclassical hegemony ultimately depends. The purpose of the “How to build a narrative linking the various heterodoxies” series of posts and comments is to turn those discussions outward so as to join them together to create a new “mainstream”. Lawson’s project, because of its meta nature and because it strikes at the heart of the neoclassical beast, has much to offer the building of a new narrative and, moreover, one joined to science rather than scientism. But I detect, hopefully wrongly, in Martins’ essay the view that those wishing to reform economics should join “the Cambridge group” rather than it join the larger community of real-world economists. Lawson’s social ontology offers a beginning for building an alternative paradigm, not the paradigm itself as Martin seems to imply. It could be extremely constructive if the “the Cambridge group” came on board and pitched in with the larger project.