Tony Lawson has changed our conversation
from Edward Fullbrook
The case for Lawson’s significance that I argued five years ago and appears below seems to me even truer today.
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:
- that success in science depends on finding and using methods, including modes of reasoning, appropriate to the nature of the phenomena being studied, and
- 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
Popper, economics, methodology 923,000
Kuhn, economics, methodology 2,740,000
Lakatos, economics, methodology 194,000
Lawson, economics, methodology 2,760,000
ontology, economics, methodology 6,000,000
To appreciate the significance of the huge debate begun by Lawson, we need to look at its historical background.
Physics, economics and the philosophy of science
For those of you too young to remember, philosophy of science took off in a big way in the 1960s. Not for the first time, philosophy struggled to update its teachings to make them consistent with developments in science. . . . . . . . . . .
1843 to today
John Stuart Mill not only turned economics primary concerns away from production and distribution to those of value, he also made the case that economics, and the social sciences in general, should ape the methodology of astronomy and physics. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
By unveiling the mainstream’s ontology entailed by its methodology and by calling attention to economics’’ scientism, Lawson seeks to win the minds of the young and thereby bring about a reversal of the discipline’s traditional order of priority between method and substance. Above all Lawson’s project is one of persuading economists to do as physicists have always done: to take cognizance as best they can of the basic characteristics of their domain of inquiry and then proceed to develop and choose their methods accordingly.
Lawson builds his prescriptive analysis on the ontological platform of the social-philosophical school of thought called Critical Realism. This movement, a predominately Anglo-American affair, can through Continental eyes appear rather hackneyed. Lawson lists five key properties which, “according to the (philosophical) ontological account” that underwrites his project, social phenomena possess. [Reply to Davidsen, 15]
- They are produced in open systems.
- They possess emergent powers or properties.
- They are structured.
- They are internally-related.
- They are processual.
These core ontological ideas of Lawson’s project include nothing that at the time of Critical Realism’s inception in the 1970s was not already part of the woodwork of Continental philosophy and social theory. One example well illustrates the case. In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), one of the last century’s most influential books, the concept of gender and the ontological framework that supports it incorporate all five of the properties of social phenomena that Lawson embraces.
- open systems:
“humanity is something more that a mere species: it is a historical development;” [Beauvior, p. 725]
“Woman is not a completed reality, but rather a becoming,” [p. 66]
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” [p. 295]
“For us woman is defined as a human being in quest of values in a world of values, a world of which it is indispensable to know the economic and social structure. We shall study woman in existential perspective with due regard to her total situation.” [p. 83]
”Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.” [p. 17]
”The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” [p. 18]
”An existent is nothing other than what he does;” [p. 287]
And of course above all Beauvoir was an existentialist so that, in Lawson’s words, “there is no one-to-one mapping from social structure to individual pathways, experience or personal identities [p. 65, this volume],” and in Beauvoir’s words, “she acquires this consciousness under circumstance dependent upon the society of which she is a member. . . . But a life is a relation to the world, and the individual defines himself by making his own choices through the world about him.” SS, 80-1]
Pointing out the historical pedigree of Lawson’s core ontological ideas is not a criticism but, on the contrary, an endorsement. It is the unoriginality that so suits Critical Realism for the task of critiquing mainstream economics. The legitimacy and fecundity of the ontological ideas that it pushes are so well-tested and so widely embraced outside of economics that it makes an ideal replacement for the ontology implicitly assumed by mainstream formalist methods. To my knowledge no one of repute in economics has dared to come forward to argue, against Lawson, that the economy is a closed system, that it is not characterized by the property of emergence, that it is not structured, that in it internal relations do not play a pivotal role and that it does not consist of an inter-related series of unending processes. Only a fool would publicly take up these arguments. And most economists, but not all, are also too sensible to suggest that economics should not take cognizance of the fundamental properties of its object of enquiry. In consequence, defenders of the status-quo find it difficult to frontally attack Lawson’s ideas. They tend to settle instead for indirect approaches. Easiest and in the short run probably strategically the wisest is just to ignore him. Another has been to hurl personal abuse at him, as in Herbert Gintis’s amazon.com review of Reorienting Economics. Another and increasingly common tactic has been to misrepresent the current situation in economics. There can be a big payoff for this approach when addressing a non-economist public, including economics students, or when addressing oneself in bad-faith. Out of the tens of thousands of papers published in mainstream economics journals over the past half century, one can easily find some, which having slipped past the gate keepers, embody one or more of the five properties. Wave these papers about vigorously enough and some people will be convinced that economics is already as Lawson would like it to be. Alternatively, one can misrepresent the formal properties of various methodologies, as when it is suggested that standard game theory describes an open system.
Thirteen years on
Thirteen years on, Backhouse’s collection belongs not just to another century but also to a different era. Although many economists, especially older ones, still entertain kissing-cousin fantasies about their relation to physicists, inhibitions have developed about acting them out in public. It is hard to imagine anyone accepting the Swedish prize today behaving as Samuelson did. Among methodologists the shift has been especially pronounced and quick. The majority may still in their heart of hearts prefer to view economic method through the physical science prism. But in the main they have, even if begrudgingly, taken on board the fact than any methodological commitment is also an ontological one. Questions concerning the fundamental nature of economic phenomena are not yet basic to the practice of economics, as the corresponding questions are in physics, but neither are they still treated as totally beneath attention. Today nearly all methodologists are either conversing with Lawson or heckling him from the edges of the room.
 For more on Beauvoir’s ontology see Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1998, or Edward Fullbrook and Margaret A Simons, “Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre” Gendering Western Philosophy: Pairs of Men and Women Philosophies from the 4th century B.C.E. to the Present, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008, or “Chapter 14: Gender and Ethics” and “Chapter 15: The Second Sex” in Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, Sex and Philosophy, London: Continuum, 2008, or the many papers in “Première Partie: La Philosophie du Deuxiène Sexe” in Cinquaternaire du Deuxième Sexe, editors Christine Delphy, Sylvie Chaperon, Kate Fullbrook and Edward Fullbrook, Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2002, pp. 19-190.