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What is theory?

from Lars Syll

what is theoryEconomics is a discipline with the avowed ambition to produce theory for the real world. But it fails in this ambition, Lars Pålsson Syll asserts in Chapter 12, at least as far as the dominant mainstream neoclassical economic theory is concerned. Overly confident in deductivistic Euclidian methodology, neoclassical economic theory lines up series of mathematical models that display elaborate internal consistency but lack clear counterparts in the real world. Such models are at best unhelpful, if not outright harmful, and it is time for economic theory to take a critical realist perspective and explain economic life in depth rather than merely modeling it axiomatically.

The state of economic theory is not as bad as Pålsson Syll describes, Fredrik Hansen retorts in Chapter 13. Looking outside the mainstream neoclassic tradition, one can find numerous economic perspectives that are open to other disciplines and manifest growing interest in methodological matters. He is confident that theoretical and methodological pluralism will be able to refresh the debate on economic theory, particularly concerning the nature of realism in economic theory, a matter about which Pålsson Syll and Hansen clearly disagree.

What is theory? consists of a multidisciplinary collection of essays that are tied together by a common effort to tell what theory is, and paired as dialogues between senior and junior researchers from the same or allied disciplines to add a trans-generational dimension to the book’s multidisciplinary approach.

The book has mainly been designed for master’s degree students and postgraduates in the social sciences and the humanities.

  1. June 25, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    If this book offers only “Answers from the social and cultural sciences” it is a waste of time.

    “It is well known that with the exception of technology sector, human affairs still mostly have the pattern of the Aristotelian-Newtonian-Darwinian paradigm, no matter we are thinking of academics, professionals or organizations”.


    From the technology perspective, ‘theory’ needs to be contrasted with mathematical ‘theorems’. It involves philosophical commitment to physical and representational axioms retroducible from current knowledge (eg the geometric form created by a Big Bang), in terms of which evolution/autopoeisis can be deduced and empirically tested.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    July 8, 2020 at 4:20 pm

    I agree with the position taken in the book, ”…that that the question ‘What is theory?’ is a difficult one to answer. The massive effort that the nineteen contributors and I have put into answering it allows me to open this book by claiming that ‘What is theory?’ is not an innocuous question. Instead, it is a destabilizing question that can take academics off guard and unsettle even entrenched convictions. Expecting clear-cut answers from students thus lies somewhere between unfair and uninformed.

    The wide-ranging answers provided here, which are only a few of a wealth of possible answers, since they come solely from selected disciplines in the social and cultural sciences, clearly indicate that theory is something so elusive and multi-faceted that, if you get an answer at all, it is unlikely to be ‘satisfying’. So many things are labeled ‘theory,’ for so many purposes and from so many intractable epistemological perspectives, that I would bet most academics would consider any answers to the question to be at best incomplete and at worst downright inadequate. Of course, this is true of any of the answers presented here, taken individually. But it is not that theory can be anything and that anything can be theory; rather, it is that theory can refer to so many things (usually not at all physical) and that so many things (again, usually not at all physical) can be labeled theory. There is a fundamental difference between anything and many things, and I would say that the purpose of this volume is to help readers distinguish between many and any views of theory.”

    For these, if for no other reasons this book is worth the time for reading it. What you take away from the reading depends entirely on your own flexibility and curiosity.

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