A priesthood of economists
from Robert Locke
Ken Zimmerman’s reference to the hermeneutic circle in Asad Zaman’s post about the Education of an Economist sent me scurrying in my mind back fifty years to the seminars on historiography I took in my PhD studies in history and to Widepedia, where I found the following about the hermeneutic circle:
Friedrich Schleiermacher‘s approach to interpretation focuses on the importance of the interpreter understanding the text as a necessary stage to interpreting it. Understanding involved repeated circular movements between the parts and the whole. Hence the idea of an interpretive or hermeneutic circle. Understanding the meaning of a text is not about decoding the author’s intentions. It is about establishing real relationships between reader, text, and context. Even reading a sentence involves these repeated circular movements through a hierarchy of parts–whole relationships. Thus, as we are reading this sentence, you are analysing single words as the text unfolds, but you are also weighing the meaning of each word against our changing sense of the overall meaning of the sentence you are reading, or perhaps misunderstanding, or maybe this sentence is reminding you of, or clashing with, another view about interpretation you have, in the past, advocated or disparaged. Hence we are brought to the sentence’s larger historical context, depending on its location, and our own circumstances.”
Kenneth A. Locke (my son) in The Church in Anglican Theology: A Historical, Theological and Ecumenical Exploration (Ashgate, 2009), noted that the Protestant theologian Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who stressed the importance of the hermeneutic circle took a contrary view to Roman Catholicism in matters of authority: whereas Tridentine Roman Catholicism tends “to see the Church as a priesthood without a people,” Protestants like Schleirmacher “tend to see the Church as a people without a priesthood.” (Locke p. 113)
If we consider economics to be the “secular theology” of the modern world, then the idea that authority within it is maintained postWWII by a priesthood whose seminaries are the elite departments of economics and business schools using the logic of neoclassical economics and mathematical modeling seems to be an inevitable result of the academization process that went on in economics 1960-1980. But such a conclusion is incorrect.
Following the hermeneutic circle, we learn that the academization of the study of economics actually took place in Germany in the late 19th century. The vehicle that propelled the evolution of knowledge was research, carried out in seminars and laboratories by undergraduate and graduate students working with their professors. The footnote, the PhD dissertation, the Habilitionsschrift were integral to this process. As a result, as KeithTribe observed, the ‘German university [became] the international model, enjoying qualitative and quantitative supremacy over universities in Britain and France…’ (Tribe, K. (2002). “Historical Schools of Economics: German and English.” Keele Economics Research Papers. KERP No. 2002/02, p. 2)
Americans, as their country came of age industrially and commercially in the late 19th century, ‘seeking advanced teaching in economics naturally gravitated to Germany, since in England there was very little systematic teaching of economics, and no graduate qualification as in Germany…Having gained doctorates in economics that were still unobtainable in the United States, many American students returned to teach in a rapidly expanding university system, later contributing to the development of American institutional economics, which drew heavily in its method and content on German historicism’, and, following the German example, established graduate research seminars in economics in American universities. (Tribe, 2002, p. 2)
There are three points to be made here.
- Little about the process of academization of the study of economics in itself led to the triumph of neoclassical economics and econometrics in economic studies. On the contrary, 19th century German academic economics that US students studied pretty much ignored neoclassical economics. The historical and institutional economics that thrived in German academia vanished because of the outcomes of geopolitics – the total defeat of Germany in WWII, which was not an academization process, except that German universities were closed down.
- If the establishment of this postwar priesthood of economists almost exclusively in Anglosaxonia was accidental, the knowledge they have created not only excludes the people in that it is esoteric in its axioms and scientific toolkit but in that it is of such a nature as to deprive the priesthood of economists of the kind of knowledge about cultural, historical, and literary contexts that is essential to their understanding their subject.
- Therefore, the denizens of the priesthood of economics, in order to examine economics within the hermeneutic circle must admit people into its ranks with the kind of knowledge necessary to an interpreter’s understanding and give them voice. Or….?