Home > Uncategorized > Tony Lawson and the nature of heterodox economics

Tony Lawson and the nature of heterodox economics

from Lars Syll

Lawson believes that there is a ‘coherent core’ of heterodox economists who employ methods that are consistent with the social ontology they implicitly advance. However, Lawson also acknowledges that many also use mathematical modelling, a method that presupposes a social ontology that is in severe tension with it. Therefore, I repeat, Lawson proposes that heterodox economists in fact exist in two groups, those who use methods consistent with the social ontology they are committed to, and those who do not. But all are heterodox economists.

Lawson’s hope is that by making the kind of social ontology presupposed by mathematical modelling clear, heterodox economists will increasingly review the legitimacy of the modelling approach. However, Lawson still considers those who make such a methodological mistake to be heterodox economists. For they still, he argues, are committed to the social ontology he defends and always reveal it in some way in their analyses or pronouncements …

Professor Tony Lawson on Economics & Social Ontology in Economics: past,  present and future. An interview project on VimeoIn recent years, Lawson has been increasingly frustrated by the continued use of mathematical modelling by heterodox economists, as well as by movements towards its increased usage. An argument made by such heterodox economists is that the problem identified by Lawson lies not with mathematical modelling per se but with the sort of mathematical methods used. They argue that poor mathematical modelling has been the problem and that better, more complex, models will be able to capture the reality of human existence.

Lawson clearly regards that methodological argument to be mistaken. For, as stated above, he finds that even complex mathematical models presuppose a closed system. However, he maintains that the social reality that such researchers reveal themselves to implicitly accept is at least quite similar to that which he defends. Their concern with being realistic, for one, speaks volumes. Therefore, these researchers should, he believes, still be distinguished from the mainstream …

Lawson does not argue for excluding mathematical models. Rather, as with all other methods, they should only be applied in conditions in which their use is appropriate, though admittedly Lawson does, as an empirical matter, assess the occurrence of the latter to be relatively rare. His stance is not anti-mathematical method but anti-mismatch of method and context of application … What Lawson does argue for regarding practice is an explicit, systematic and sustained ontological awareness, which he believes can only improve the methodological choices of heterodox economists.

Yannick Slade-Caffarel

If scientific progress in economics lies in our ability to tell ‘better and better stories’ one would, of course, expect economics journals being filled with articles supporting the stories with empirical evidence confirming the predictions. However, the journals still show a striking and embarrassing paucity of empirical studies that (try to) substantiate these predictive claims. Equally amazing is how little one has to say about the relationship between the model and real-world target systems. It is as though explicit discussion, argumentation and justification on the subject aren’t considered to be required.

In mathematics, the deductive-axiomatic method has worked just fine. But science is not mathematics. Conflating those two domains of knowledge has been one of the most fundamental mistakes made in modern — and as Lawson argues, both in mainstream and heterodox — economics. Applying it to real-world open systems immediately proves it to be excessively narrow and hopelessly irrelevant. Both the confirmatory and explanatory ilk of hypothetico-deductive reasoning fails since there is no way you can relevantly analyse confirmation or explanation as a purely logical relation between hypothesis and evidence or between law-like rules and explananda. In science, we argue and try to substantiate our beliefs and hypotheses with reliable evidence. Propositional and predicate deductive logic, on the other hand, is not about reliability, but the validity of the conclusions given that the premises are true.

  1. Edward Ross
    April 12, 2021 at 12:14 am

    In reply to Lars Syll re Tony Lawson and the nature of heterodox economics

    I am only a lay person who achieved a humble BA degree.
    Somehow i was invited to the Cambridge 2’004 economic conference. It appeared to me that from that date many economists were claiming to be heterodox economists. But from my simple view they were only heterodox in the sense that they were still locked into mainstream neoliberal way of thinking.
    Next Lars Syll makes the point that there is a distinction between heterodox groups,”those who use methods consistent with the social ontology they are committed to and those who are not. But all are heterodox economists.”From my understanding of Lawsoni have to agree with what Lawson does argue for regarding practise in an explicit systematic and sustained ontological awareness, which he believes can only improve the methodological choices of heterodox economists”.
    Then in the last paragraph “In mathematics the deductive methods have worked just fine”.From my simple logic gained in the real world i reject the way axomatic concepts are used to fit reality to false or unjustified axiomatic assumptions, in other words referring to a 1952 oxford dictionary definition of axiomatics as , an established or widely accepted principle or self evident truth. also Bacon1626 logic a proposition true or fqalse1742″.

  2. Edward Ross
    April 12, 2021 at 12:19 am

    my computer again Thus in my simple view following the mob without establishing truth or falsehood of the mobs assumption leads to accepting falsehoods which is fine for the neoliberal servants of extreme wealth.Ted

  3. Ikonoclast
    April 12, 2021 at 2:01 am

    I too argue for “explicit, systematic and sustained ontological awareness”. I’ve done this independently and also in relation to the Capital as Power theories of Bichler, Nitzan, Fix, Martin et. al. The CasP theorists show great empirical and ontological awareness. I have learned much from them. Their thinking represents the most fruitful advance in Political Economy, in my opinion, since Marx, Engels and Veblen. Their empirical and sociological focus I applaud. Their implicit, and often explicit, ontology I also applaud.

    Where I feel the CasP theorists could go further is in the issue of a systematic analysis of the ontological links, in Political Economy, from a complex systems point of view of interlinked systems of different ontological categories. I am talking about real systems, formal systems and agent systems and how they connect and interact.

    Let me start with an example of what I mean. Take a traffic light system at a single 4-way intersection and consider only its signals (red, orange and green in the on or off state) pointing at each road entering the intersection and their programmed cycles which control the on-off state of the lights. In this aspect, the traffic lights are a signal system controlled by a prescriptive program of algorithms. The algorithms prescribe the sequences and timings.

    Human generated formal and nominal phenomena, with prescribed qualities, quantities and meanings, including instructional meanings, (all of which criteria traffic light signals as signals simpliciter, meet) can only influence real quantities as signals processed by an agent. In turn, to expand on this, the agent must possess information gathering and processing capacities plus what would be called in the automation industry, servo capacities. Whole, healthy humans have multiple servo units (arms, hands, finger, legs, feet, toes, spine, hips, body column, jaws and tongues etc.) With our physical servo units we affect real systems outside our body including other humans, who after all are real systems.

    In turn, the behavior of humans as human-signal receivers may be obedient or disobedient, attentive or inattentive and so on. In turn, from these behaviors other real humans, real machines and real environments may be affected by these human servo actions in response or lack of response to human signal directives. Where do we look in this inter-meshing of complex systems for instructions (prescriptions), axioms and fundamental laws?

    Instructions or prescriptions are the signals human are intended to act on. Stop at the red light. Don’t steal. Don’t lift. “Twenty years of schooling and they give you the day shift”. [1] Or twenty years of schooling and you, if you are smart enough, learn how to subvert the system or change it.

    Axioms are the legal laws, regulations, (stronger) customs that socialised humans in a system (say the capitalist system) are supposed to obey as promilgated, amended and updated by signals.

    Fundamental natural law outcomes are the events determined by macro objects, processes, motions and forces.

    We need to be clear about what we can change and what we cannot change. What we can predict and what we cannot predict and so on. We can change the instructions (the prescriptions). We can modify and extend human ideations and behaviors but cannot change some fundamentals of humans. They can learn. They can regress. They can obey and disobey (the latter sometimes very creatively and sometimes very stupidly and destructively). They can make mistakes or come up with new solutions. They need food and water absolutely and shelter and security to a very considerable degree. They need vitamins C and D (to name two) but can get them in rather different ways. We cannot change fundamental laws of nature or even of evolved human nature.

    Instructions (prescriptions) we can change at will. The limits on execution of instructions vary from minimal to moderate to absolute. The legal law can prescribe human execution as it does in some countries. This instruction is executable but humanly resistable. The legal law could prescribe human reanimation (to argue reductio ad absurdum) for cases of wrongful execution. This human law would not be executable as it breaks a natural law (related to entropy and lost information). Dead humans have lost internal order, dynamism and within minutes to hours (depending on ambient temperature) vital internal information that makes them human and social beings. The orange light exists (was implemented) because one to multi-ton mobile machines carrying humans cannot stop instantly.

    What the above points to is the possibility of executable and non-executable instructions. We need to look to human capacities and limitations and then to natural capacities and limitations. An instruction (prescription or set of precipitations) for endless economic growth (implicit in capitalism and endogenously essential to its nature) is executable for a time but not executable indefinitely.

    What I am trying to illustrate is that the normative prescriptions and moral philosophy claims intrinsic to any given form of political economy ideology need to be system tested firstly at the theoretical level. We have set a rule or a goal. In theory, does it immediately or emergently lead to a sustainable political economy system or not? Grosser errors should be able to be eliminated immediately in theory if we think empirically and not ideologically. We cannot enforce a law that stopping at a red light must be instantaneous even from one millimeter. We cannot enforce or implement a law that wrongful executions will reversed at some much later date (usually) by reanimation. Equally, we cannot implement an endless growth ideology via a political economy system (or any human system).

    In summary, there is:

    (A) The signal-prescription system (a normative system).
    (B) The agent system (humans operating as social / autonomous agents)
    (C) The greater real system (as a system of real sub-systems)

    We need to analyze how these three complex systems interact. It implies a complex science of interacting real and formal and even of real and normative systems. Then these interact and interact in complex system feedback and iterative manners. Don’t expect me to have this all figured out yet. I am trying to sketch it out. But to develop a unified theory of the empirical ontology of political economy we must consider these three systems and how they interact.

    We have agents (humans) who are rule makers, rule takers and rule breakers (as I like to say). We have the extant prescribed rules. We have the real world as ultimate “arbiter” via fundamental laws of nature and even the(sometimes elastic) laws of human nature of what will work today and what will still work tomorrow both in near and distant future. To look at things emergently, the order is reversed. First came the greater real system (the cosmos, the world). Then came pre-humans and humans. Then came human rules, precepts and morals. These last are most recent, mutable and even evanescent and ought to be changed if consequences (immediate or emergent) indicate they are practically unworkable. The emerging real system reality is that capitalism is destroying the world. Change the rules before the rules kill us all. It’s straightforward at that level.

    • April 12, 2021 at 2:53 am

      The emerging real system reality resulting from capitalism destroying the world, then, is something that we can change because we must at least attempt to do so or cease to exist.

      This is turning into a tough assignment. There is no way out but to change what is stubbornly repeating the mantra of a compounded rate for economic growth. Economists need to become story tellers and paint a picture of a gently declining population and level of economic intensity via financialization of life.

  4. April 12, 2021 at 5:43 am

    Most of this, article and comments, is still hopelessly confused. See Chapter 9 of Economy, Society, Nature

    and my Modest Proposal https://rwer.wordpress.com/2021/03/25/a-modest-proposal-for-generating-useful-analyses-of-economies/

    • Ikonoclast
      April 12, 2021 at 10:18 am


      I admit my comments are confused and badly put. I will endeavor to clarify my comments at some point. In the meantime, I will read your article.

  5. Laurent Leduc
    April 12, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    Today’s post and various responses to it puts me back 35 years ago when I read the refreshing work of Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. Last week’s post by Asad Zaman also suggests a strong connection to the current post. Indeed, I just found this: https://asaduzaman.medium.com/summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi-c329541e8532. See the end of Zaman’s article in reference to his Islamic Economics.

    A bit of a refresher on Polanyi can be found here:

  6. Laurent Leduc
    April 12, 2021 at 8:57 pm
    • April 14, 2021 at 5:24 pm

      I found Polanyi rewarding, but this Warwick reading of him has land and labour as fictitious commodities, but not money. Given the date of publication was so close to Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” it is perhaps unsurprising that it does not index Belloc’s “The Servile State” (1913), which called a plague on both Capitalist and Socialist houses. What Polanyi does do is to reveal the origins of the Malthusian philosophy of population control (p.116 ff,).

  7. April 13, 2021 at 11:09 am

    Tony Lawson (2013) classified modern economics in three basic divisions in his paper “What is this ‘school’ called neoclassical?” ‘(Cambridge Journal of Economics 37(5): 947–983). In a book What is Neoclassical Economics? (2016), edited by Jamie Morgan, which is a collection of comments on and reproduces Lawson’s paper as Chapter 1 of the book, Steve Keen, one of main leasers of RWER movement, baptised these three divisions “The Bad, The Good, and The Ugly.” (Morgan 2016, p.239) Keen classified himself as “ugly,” meaning that he is heterodox economist who uses mathematics.

    A quarter century has passed since Lawson started to argue like now and yet no seminal works seem to have appeared among Lawson’s followers or more widely among “good” economists (non-neoclassical economists who do not use mathematics). As far as I know, “ugly” economists, such as Keen, Alain Kirman, Richard Nelson, and Marc Lavoie, are more productive than “good” economists. In fact, I know no “good” economists who have contributed to the advancement of heterodox economics. If we extend the range of economics very wide, perhaps Elinor Ostrom and Jane Jacobs might be classified as “good” economists. Amartyah Sen whom Lars Syll often cites may be classified as non-neoclassical but he heavily used mathematics. If someone has an opinion contrary to mine, please name those works. I will be happy to check them.

  8. April 13, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    I agree that economics as a whole over relies on formal mathematical modeling and my own work has never utilized formal modeling at all. I recall that as a graduate student (longer ago than I want to admit) I was always puzzled how political economy seemed to be about technical debates on obscure Marxist theorems. I agree that the issues the social sciences in general deal with are better understood through natural language. What I don’t understand is why this particular interpretation of open systems theory precludes any formalization at all. There are deeper questions still about what precisely one means by “open systems”. I agree that the deductive axiomatic method is a problem because among other things, it begs the question of how one arrives at the so called axioms. What I don’t agree with is that we need to abandon the idea of modus ponens as a useful structure in scientific explanation. Lawson and other Critical Realists support abduction as a means of arriving at ontological principles, which I agree with. But then why not take the next step from abduction to deduction and inductive testing? Any coherent theory is formalizable, though that doesn’t mean that one necessarily gains from formalism. I do think that formalization to the level that Marshall and Keynes formalized can help us organize our thinking. I don’t see what we gain past that.

  9. Jamie
    April 13, 2021 at 4:06 pm
  10. April 14, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    Jamie, what is your opinion on my question (In a Reply on April 13, 2021 at 11:09 am)?

    • Jamie
      April 14, 2021 at 11:44 pm

      Not sure what you are asking me Yoshinori; what criteria are we using?

    • April 16, 2021 at 10:43 am

      By your own criterion. If you raise one or two papers, we can see if we can agree or not.

      • Jamie
        April 17, 2021 at 10:40 am

        You raised the issue Yoshinori, so in order to adequately respond I need to know the basis of the concern.
        Clearly, it is a fact that Lawson and other “social ontologists” have not produced work that has been transformational for the discipline – but what is the status of this fact? Does it make Lawson wrong about the state and nature of the discipline? Does it make his or others work not “seminal”? (Money, the corporation etc.)
        Being more or less right is not a popularity contest any more than consensus equals truth.
        Equally it is a fact that self-identified heterodox economists use models and maths, including many leading post Keynesians, such as Steve Keen and Mark Setterfield; and many have also tried to defend some uses of analytical statistics – Edward Nell and so on; and not all maths is frequency probability interpolations and tests for sophisticated averages prone to problems of internal and external validity, P value problems etc (e.g. QCA).
        In the end this comes down to whether one can make the case for the explanatory insight of the form…
        Note: I am marking essays at the Monet – so not checking the blogs much…

      • yoshinorishiozawa
        April 21, 2021 at 5:41 pm

        Would you, Jamie, like to indicate explicitly the title of a paper at your choice, if you believe that you know some seminal papers in the domain or theme of money or cooperation?

        I do not care about popularity. “Seminal paper” usually means that I stimulated other economists to write papers that develop or extend the original paper. This is a quite objective criterion.

  11. Ikonoclast
    April 16, 2021 at 8:41 am

    Lars Syll and Tony Lawson seem to be tilting a lot at mathematical economics. That is all well and good and I agree with them both in principle and in bias. Like Citizen Rat above I too hold that “the issues the social sciences in general deal with are better understood through natural language”. Political economy (the real subject at issue) is properly an object of social science and moral philosophy analysis.

    What I do not see Lars Syll, Tony Lawson and their followers doing is developing a new ontology for economics and/or political economy, theoretical and applied. Either that, or I am not reading the right books. It is one thing to say “the ontology of this subject (economics) is false or non-existent”. It is another thing to develop a new and valid ontology.

    What I have never seen anyone grapple with (and again my reading may be too limited) is the issue of the real and the formal in economics and their lamentable mashing together in conventional economics. The problem arises as soon we do things like measuring the real in the fictional dimension of money value quantification. And if that mistake is avoided then fundamental laws are sought in the behaviors of prescribed formal systems (not described real systems) of producer,s consumers and markets. RDEU (Rank Dependent Expected Utility) “laws” are sought in the actions of homogenized representative agents making choices after being encultured in a capitalist society, advertised at, propagandised and manipulated. It’s like saying that it is a law that dogs slaver at the sound of a bell. No, it’s only a strong behavioral tendency when they are conditioned to slaver at the sound of a bell.

    Humans (quite a lot actually) choose to spend money on dog food instead of helping to feed very poor people in their own a country or in another country. They choose to kill small wild fish for cat food rather than respect the small wild fish and let them feed big wild fish, some of which could be allowed to be caught by poor fisherman in poor countries and others which could left alone is marine reserves. These are all moral choices (and ecological choices). This is why I referred above to moral philosophy. It is our moral philosophy, like our sentiments, so often formed now by capitalist social pressures and advertising which cause us to expect more utility (hedonic utility or pleasure) from feeding a meowing cat and feeling it rub against one’s leg. But in the long run, who much hedonic pleasure and actual sustenance will be gained from dead oceans?

    Capitalism encourages all sorts of shallow, emotional and sensual indulgence at the expense of much greater future pain and suffering for others and even for ourselves. In this case, it is not RDEU maths which is of most importance. It is natural language reasoning which is of most importance and allows us to ask questions like, “Is it more important (and moral) to have cats and cars now or is it of more importance to preserve a liveable biospehere for humans and Holocene species in general? There is no maths for that.

    Moral philosophy first, democracy second, impact science third, production science fourth and the economics of preferences fifth. Economics, as John Ralston Saul put it, is of fifth order importance. We have made what is of just fifth order importance into our guiding star. No wonder we are on a disastrous course.

    • April 16, 2021 at 8:49 am

      Tony’s latest book actually does exactly what ask for — “developing a new ontology for economics and/or political economy, theoretical and applied”

      • Ikonoclast
        April 17, 2021 at 11:34 pm

        I have found this link for “The Nature of Social Realty”, the “full text” posted by Tony Lawson. (Public full text – Content uploaded by Tony Lawson.)


        It seems to contain the Preface, Part 1 and notes. The rest of the text does not appear available free and on-line. I assume I have to purchase the book? I saw a price somewhere of a couple of hundred Euros, IIRC. Alternatively, can I join Research Gate for free and get the rest of the text free?

        You may say I am a dreamer (John Lennon) or a cheapskate. However, philosophy and knowledge intended to revolutionize and supersede capitalism properly ought to be free in the public domain. It is counter-productive and antithetical in every sense for it not to be so. We need to socialize knowledge and research completely and take it out of the Lauderdale Paradox, artificial scarcity, enclosure arena, capitalist scene entirely. Just sayin’. :)

    • April 16, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      Says Ike: “What I do not see Lars Syll, Tony Lawson and their followers doing is developing a new ontology for economics and/or political economy, theoretical and applied. Either that, or I am not reading the right books. It is one thing to say “the ontology of this subject (economics) is false or non-existent”. It is another thing to develop a new and valid ontology.

      “What I have never seen anyone grapple with (and again my reading may be too limited) is the issue of the real and the formal in economics and their lamentable mashing together in conventional economics”.

      Well, I’m a follower of Tony Lawson, concluding precisely with the issue of the real and the formal, but Ike’s problem is not his not reading the right books. It looks as though he hasn’t read (or has dismissed as invalid) what I’ve been trying to say here (even before I discovered Tony 22 years ago). Where Tony has tried to retroduce a better generalisation as his starting point, I’ve followed Library Scientist S R Ranganathan’s method of retroduction by complete abstraction of all the content of all the dimensions of knowledge, leaving me deducing testable hypotheses from the Big Bang up. When this has mapped evolution as far as mankind, it leaves the ontology of real economics as families trying to feed and educate their kids, and a formal monetary FIRE economy distinguished by developing money making so much more rapidly than evolutionary development that it is generating uncontrollable chaos.

      Try assuming this is right, imagining what it means (and is motivated by) in practice, and compare that with what economists past and present assume economics IS, i.e its ontology. Is it household management or is it money making? Given the former, is it to be political management of the global household? and/or enabling families and localities to manage their own affairs? [By giving them sufficient credit and rules like “giving way at roundabouts”].

  12. Ikonoclast
    April 18, 2021 at 2:18 am

    At this stage, I can only guess where Tony Lawson’s text will go from the on-line available first chapter and table of contents. I will endeavor to get a library copy from somewhere. In the meantime, I will make a few points. One central issue in economics (or rather political economy) is the issue of the interaction of the formal with the real, or to put it into more standard economic parlance, the interaction of what can be prescribed (the prescriptive) with what can only be described (the objectively real).

    We have to examine social ontology which is at least partially prescribed and even “programmed” into humans as social agents by the use of formal systems for logic, quantification, communication and control. Then we have to examine how social ontology as a system relates to and interacts with objectively real material existence; the cosmos of stuff with objects, processes and fields which we can only describe and can hopefully find fundamental hard science laws for; and of course the biosphere of stuff and other organisms, in which biosphere we find ourselves and live.

    It is this interaction of the real with the formal and the formal with real, through human agents who are both external materials manipulators (via the body as servo and tools and machines as extensions) and also logical manipulators (via the brain and computers as extensions for certain formal brain actions) of formal system. We need a theory of this interaction. In other words, we need a theory of the interaction of social ontology with the ontology of the objectively real. It is only in discovering fundamental laws (if possible) or tendencies of this combined arena, that we can move towards a science of one aspect of political economy. In its full aspect, political economy will always involve both power, as both ontologically physical power and ontologically social power, and “ethics” or moral philosophy (moral power os suasion). These arenas of social power and moral philosophy do not seem at all amenable to scientising and there are plenty of warning signs that we should not attempt to scientise them. Social Darwinism and Eugenics are two clear examples of those warning signs. Propertarianism is another clear warning sign.

    This leaves the field of a unification of the fundamental interactions of the formal and the real as the field that political economy ontology (and indeed all social sciences ontology) ought to attempt to enter and analyze; even develop from scratch one might say. How does the formal interact with the real? That is a very intriguing question. Pragmatically, we see it when human agents using formal systems, employ these formal systems to deduce, plan or propose real actions to affect real systems. Since the building metonomy or metaphor was good enough for Tony Lawson for certain illustrative purposes in the first chapter of his work that I have thus far read (and I agree with his method of deployment of same), I will use another simple building example. We use plans to build houses. At least, architects, designers and builders do. The house plan is a formalization based essentially on euclidean geometry and certain measures which we can actually find in the SI (International System of Units) particularly the meter and the kilogram but also other units and their derivatives if any formal engineering is required.

    My point here is that certain plans can be translated into real constructions and certain plans cannot. The plans which can be translated into real constructions obey certain rules. In essential ways, the plans must be homomorphically congruent (following the correspondence theory of truth ) with real possibilities and only real possibilities inherent in objective, material reality itself. If the plans are not congruent in that way, then the planned structure cannot be built at all or will fail catastrophically immediately or eventually (as opposed to slow attrition or entropic failures which are both acceptable in realistic or pragmatic terms and inevitable in this cosmos).

    A key problem arises in economics (political economy) when prescriptive rules are adhered to ideologically rather than realistically. The key prescriptive rules of capitalism (unsustainable capitalism we might add as we contemporaneously discover that this is the only kind of capitalism possible) center around the current prescriptions for property, markets and money-finance. These prescriptions formally “sum” to a formal system that has “formal emergent” qualities which eventually approach the asymptote of the possible in the real world, and then both the real economy and the formal-financial economy break down. Such prescriptions assume that the impossible is possible and take the real system to its asymptotic limits. I used the term “formal emergent” in scare quotes. This is because “formal emergent” in a sense is an oxymoron. Something that is “formally emergent” in an axiomatic-prescriptive system (like that of capitalist property, markets and money-finance operations) is strictly speaking a theorem derivable from the axioms.

    However, complexities arise from the limits not being near (initially) and the limits being in the real system, not in the formal system. When the real system (the finite biosphere) begins to show serious indications that the endless growth in “value” and “wealth” in capitalism is not possible then the formal system and the real system will have diverged too far apart for the fictions (social-fictive quantities and beliefs like money and faith in capitalism) to be maintained. Those are the the points where we get economic crises, social crises, wars and now ecological and climate system collapses. Thus, a formal system must be constructed which conforms to the real system and also conforms to our ethical systems.

    The method (in the social sciences and political economy) must be to subject all social and economic prescriptions (prescriptions being unavoidable for coordinated social and civilizational living) to two tests. The first is the physical reality test. The second is ethical test (according variously to deontological and consequentualist ethics decided upon democratically). This is an argument essentially to abolish ideology if that goal could ever be attained or at least to demote ideology to a minor place in our values and calculations.

    The physical reality test and even the social ontology ethical test are not and will not be simple. Evolution and emergence (in both physical reality and social reality) will continue to assure that. But surely we can avoid gross errors like ever rising inequality and impending ecological catastrophe if we act in time and it is not already too late.

    Our current problem is the high level of quasi-religious and ideological faith in capitalism to endlessly deliver the goods and somehow save the environment even if it be by Geo-engineering. This faith will soon be shattered and the world will become home to 7.9 billion very angry people… and falling in those numbers. The task is to prepare the next system theoretically and in a manner which understands formal systems, real systems and their interactions in a fully scientific manner. The key will be to test every prescription both theoretically and in practice with a method (methodology) which applies formal prescriptions to real systems and tests whether the real system refutes the formal prescription. I have not developed this method yet and I don’t know if I can. But it needs to be developed. The theoretical and empirical work of the Capital as Power theorists points the way in many respects. I approach the problem more the philosophical and ontological angle. But CasP ontology is sound. I can’t find a problem with their ontology when I consider it philosophically and they have plenty of empirical evidence for the validity of their approach.

    I referred earlier to the need to consider power (especially as social power in general and capital as power in particular). If I wrote anything about capital as power I would just be imperfectly paraphrasing the CasP theorists. I recommend people go to the source. Suffice it to say here that the CasP theorists conclusively demonstrate that money does not measure value in any way and certainly cannot measure value in any real dimension. Capital instantiates power. This gets us back to the fact that political economy is about power. It is a form of social power. There are other forms of social power of course. Moral power (as moral suasion at least) is one form. But money, and capital, has as Marx predicted become very socially powerful and subsumed many other values under the cash nexus.

    I think there is a further and more fundamental ontological analysis (perhaps it is implicitly embedded in CasP theorising) which needs to be more fully explicated and explored. It relates to the interaction of the formal and the real as I have tried to sketch out above. But, this post is long enough for now. I hope Lawson relates social ontology to real ontogy in some manner in his full work otherwise he may be close to the mark but not “in the gold” (in archery target terms).

  13. April 20, 2021 at 9:53 am

    Ike [16th April]: “Lars Syll and Tony Lawson seem to be tilting a lot at mathematical economics. That is all well and good and I agree with them both in principle and in bias. Like Citizen Rat above I too hold that “the issues the social sciences in general deal with are better understood through natural language”. Political economy (the real subject at issue) is properly an object of social science and moral philosophy analysis”.

    Ike [17th April] links in what in effect seems to be Tony Lawson’s reply:

    “As Edward Fulbrook (2009) observes, when the idea that social reality is processual and relational in nature is emphasises, the suggestion is never seemingly opposed; rather, commitments to preconceptions of isolated atoms persist, in my experience, simply because most modellers never reflect upon such matters. … [They take their teachers’ numerical mathematics for granted? DJT].

    Tony continues: “In my research I have found it useful to make a distinction between socio-philosophical ontology and socio-scientific ontology (see Lawson, 2015b). The former is concerned with features that hold or operate throughout the social domain – that is, features of social being per se, that comprise in effect (or anyway include) basic principles according to which social reality is everywhere constituted. In contrast, socio-scientific ontology is concerned with how particular outcomes or social existents (money, markets, cities, corporations, technology, gender, universities) are formed, based on, or in line with, the more general features elaborated within philosophical ontology.

    “In order to outline the sense, or manner, in which social reality is generally relational in nature, I need to say something of the theory of social positioning that is defended throughout the book. According to it, social relations of a specific sort are fundamental in that they bind and organise various kinds of phenomena as components of social systems or totalities that constitute communities. … In the non-social world this binding may happen by way of processes of chemical bonding, electrical attraction, collision etc. In the social case constitutive social relations are always involved …”.

    Where I had said [16th April] “Tony has tried to retroduce a better generalisation as his starting point”, I had in mind his focus here on today’s social existents and components. I’ve retroduced back in time to the Big Bang, distinguishing human societies from animal ones by their use of language: a basic principle of science – never mind social science – which seems to slip under Tony’s radar. My philosophy of science – what I take science to be – is Francis Bacon’s “taking things to bit to see how they work” so that those who don’t yet know something can be taught it. So I too have to start with a theory of positioning, but how do you position anything in the expanding space-time of a Big Bang, and express that teachably? The Biblical stories and proverbs, Bacon’s aphorisms and G K Chesterton’s paradoxes and poetry are not about writing books for the learned but about finding a few memorable words that get the “not yet learned” thinking about principles.

    “Happy is he who more than wise
    Who sees with wondering eyes and clean
    This world through all the grey disguise
    Of sleep and custom in between”. [“Chesterton Day by Day”, May 4th].

    Strangely enough, positioning is as easy as using the language of Cartesian coordinates (complex numbers) as we now do in navigation. Retroducing right back to the Big Bang resolves Citizen Rat’s problem with deductive axioms; his modus ponens (“if p then q; p; therefore q”) is problematic when p is a name and q the reality it is supposed to refer to but perhaps doesn’t. So I’m not disagreeing with Ike and Citizen Rat that this better understood through natural language: I’ve just used natural language even if mine is “all Greek” to today’s learned specialists. I’m agreeing with Tony perhaps more than Lars that the problem is not mathematics but the simple-minded mathematics that has taught learned economists to be simple-minded. I myself wouldn’t (couldn’t) write a book about positioning, but I do appreciate who Tony is writing for. Ken Zimmerman’s self-centred unreality got me reading Terence Hawkes’ anthropology of “Structuralism and Semiotics”, in which a Russian, Shklovsky, describes the literary function of Chesterton’s verse [why his is a story too long to tell here] as “making strange”. So Tony’s learned language is as strange (estranging) for me as doubtless my abbreviated logical form is for him.

    Why this? Well, I’m thinking of Ikonoclast aligning himself with a Marxist CasP power theory as subconsciously as his pseudomym does with the literal-minded religious puritans who burned the science in the ancient library of Alexandra and came back to smash the iconic teaching windows in medieval Christian churches. As a Christian I am well aware of the significance of power, but prioritise Catholic (universal) love and truth because without them power becomes evil. I am very conscious of this because I struggle to find words to express it. Peter Selby does better. His “An Idol Unmasked” reveals that money is not an icon but the forbidden “idol” that literal-minded ikonoclasts thought they were smashing.

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