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Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 1 January 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Although historians of science have not traditionally shown a strong interest in the history of economic thought, developing such an interest would make good professional sense, in particular because epistemological issues in economics and the natural sciences have long been intertwined in less than obvious ways.  Historians would do well to familiarize themselves with historical epistemological debates around economic thought, such as the Methodenstreit of the 1880s, because important ideas like “science”, “objectivity”, and “impersonality” have meanings that, in much of the historical commentary on them, were specifically associated with debates surrounding the validity of social scientific abstraction, and the important distinctions that were made between the goals of theorization and normative practice.

Aside from brushing up on the historical meanings of certain terms, historians of science also have an opportunity to lend additional clarity to the historical connections between thinking about science and thinking about politics, society, and economy.  Intellectual historians and philosophers of economics, and of science more generally, have studied the more explicit historical debates surrounding political economy and its connections to the methods of science, say, in the thought of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) or Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Additionally, the transfer of metaphors between domains has received good attention, particularly in the area of evolutionary theory: from the economics of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), or from evolutionary theory back into Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) social theory (on this blog, also see Chris Renwick’s discussion of Patrick Geddes).

There is further important work to be done in straight-up intellectual history, but additional opportunities may be found in the history of intellectual practices that provide the context in which ideas make sense. To my mind, the work of historian of economics Philip Mirowski sets the bar here.  Mirowski is more willing than most scholars to follow an argument from the deeper contours of philosophical debates, to the day-to-day practice of economic theorizing, to the histories of science and technology that developed alongside economic theory, taking the intellectual content of each level very seriously.  The details of his narratives usually address substantive points, reflecting the fact that his historical actors are generally deep thinkers; they are rarely the unreflective doctrine-builders found in some histories, and never the geniuses who come through with just the right solution at just the right time to be found in other histories.

However, as sophisticated as Mirowski’s thinkers are, they (or perhaps the narratives in which Mirowski casts them) do tend to be possessed of an overarching servitude to some central idea or project.  In 1989’s More Heat Than Light it was economics’ impersonation of thermodynamics theory.  It was the attraction to the engineering and theory of information processing in 2002’s Machine Dreams.  And it is the neoliberal intellectual program in his most recent work.

While it is extremely difficult to write history that spans so many levels of thought, and even more so to draw out concrete connections between those levels, there is more to Mirowski’s theses than an attempt to bring order to his sprawling interests.  His theses embody what he understand to be the historical flaws that constitute what he views to be the origins of epistemological maladies in the economics of our own time.

So I can understand why it would be difficult for practicing economists to put aside the question of whether or not Mirowski is broadly “right” (I don’t see how he could be), but I think those with purely historical interests are well advised to move beyond that question and to concentrate on and take seriously the vast array of sub-arguments that populate his writings, many of which are really insightful.  The problem is to map out the various sub-arguments that have been and might be made.  If more scholars were willing to engage at the level of sub-argument, it might take away some of the impetus for authors to come up with grand theses, and for audiences to worry about whether those theses are right.

If, for example, we look at Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) as something other than just an iconic achievement in the historiography of science, we can find within it excellent, but very specific points about how Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) connected the epistemology of Cartesian natural philosophy to his political philosophy, as squarely evidenced by his discomfort with the prospects of experimental practices to deliver resolution to important natural philosophical questions.  That was a really interesting argument, and I am not aware of any scholarship that really engages with, or expands upon that specific point (again, as always, the comments are open to correcting my bibliographical ignorance).

I believe that there are probably enormous gains yet to be made in the study of 18th-century philosophy, and particularly in linking the way politico-economic and natural philosophical arguments were made and criticized.  Post-Newtonian philosophy constructed coherent systems of arguments by asserting basic principles and working out their logical consequences in such a way that the consequences describe cause and effect relationships, which account for the existence of phenomena actually observed, and which do not imply the existence of phenomena not actually observed.

Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) “mathematical principles” referred to real tendencies without grounding them in a strictly ontological reality, but the consequences of these principles could account for motions actually exhibited (unless these bodies were also or otherwise motivated by counteracting forces, as through the still mysterious forces associated with electricity, chemicals, heat, life, thought, and so forth).  Newtonian motion was deterministic, but more broadly, argumentation in terms of principles and their logical consequences were understood by 18th-century savants as the foundation for speaking coherently about any topic regardless of the prospects for reducing the topic to a strictly deterministic cause-and-effect.  The chain of consequences that accounted for the stability, and potentially the instability, of systems constituted an “economy”, literally from the Greek oikonomia, referring to household management.

Although derived from the idea of a balance sheet, I tend to think the term “economy” was less a metaphor than it was an abstract idea with applications that were more diverse than they are today.  Gravity (and possibly other active principles) governed the cosmological economy, determining whether it was eternal or transient.  The “animal economy” was built from the respiratory, digestive, circulatory, and nervous functions that comprised an animal’s physiology and that were responsible for health, sickness, and death.  The principles of justice regulating moral and compulsory action that resulted in war, peace, civil order, and uprising constituted a moral and political economy.  Arguments about how authors studied these “economies”, and about how their interests and audiences spanned natural and political topics, would, I think, be of great interest.

As a means of producing satisfactory arguments, systems-building was both ubiquitous in 18th-century thought, and widely criticized for failing to come to clear and stable conclusions, in both natural or human sciences.  The 19th century would see serious efforts in both natural and human science to deal with these difficulties, driving the two domains apart.  But not totally apart.  Some further connections that might benefit from future scrutiny will be considered in Pt. 2.

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