Epistemology 101

Posted: 17 May 2016 in Uncategorized
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Mark Tansey, “Triumph Over Mastery” (1986)

Reading the current debate about how we should approach the teaching of introductory economics, it’s clear the participants actually need to go back and take Epistemology 101.

Now, I’m the first to argue we need to change how we approach Econ 101 (as readers of this blog know). It’s a key course, because it’s the only economics course most college and university students will ever take: it’s where they’re introduced to the kinds of approaches and policies academic economists work with; it’s also a space to discuss the economic dimensions of individual and social life, both historically and in the contemporary world. Given the hundreds of thousands of students who every year are exposed to economics through such a course, its content is crucial.

The course, however, is also often badly taught. That’s in part because the material is many times presented in a mind-numbing manner, as a set of ideas and facts that need to be memorized in order to pass quizzes and exams. But, even more important, it’s because many of those ideas and facts—from the effects of minimum wages to the patterns of international trade—serve to naturalize both mainstream economic theory and the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists. In other words, students are generally taught that the limits of debate are defined by the parameters of mainstream economics.

I know, then, I should welcome a debate about what we should teach in Econ 101—but, as it turns out, not this one. Michael R. Strain wants to keep things pretty much as they are:

An economics 101 textbook is a treasure. The information therein captures the leaps forward in intellectual history, in our understanding of society — indeed, in our understanding of daily life. . .

Look. Understanding society and the economy is tough business. Economics 101 textbooks have a large responsibility to do that right and well. Does the theory of comparative advantage presented in 101 tell you most of what you need to know to understand the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement? Nope. But that’s a ridiculous standard to hold for an intro class. Are economics 101 textbooks perfect? Of course not, and they can and should be improved. But existing 101 textbooks are one of the best tools society has to prepare young people for responsible and informed citizenship.

James Kwak, following Noah Smith, argues Econ 101 should be based on a combination of the mainstream theoretical models Strain wants to focus on (which, in Kwak’s view, provide “some incredibly useful analytical tools”) with empirical studies.

A friend and labor economist said to me that when thinking about the impact of a minimum wage, the natural starting point is the supply-and-demand diagram, because it’s so powerful—but you don’t stop there. The model is incomplete, like all models, and if you don’t realize that you will make mistakes.

Professional economists know all this, and hence many think that models need to be balanced by empirical research, even in first-year classes. Strain doesn’t buy this because “economists’ empirical studies don’t agree on many important policy issues.” I don’t understand this argument. The minimum wage may or may not increase unemployment, depending on a host of other factors. The fact that economists don’t agree reflects the messiness of the world. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Here’s the problem: both sides of the current debate (Strain as well as Kwak and Smith) treat theory and facts radically separate from one another. Thus, for them, there is one theory (separate from the facts) and one set of facts (separate from the theory).

This is where Epistemology 101 comes in. If the participants in the current debate took such a course, they’d learn that the idea of separate theories and facts forms the basis of only one theory of knowledge (which comes in two forms, rationalism and empiricism). But they’d also learn there’s an alternative theory of knowledge, according to which there are different theories and different sets of facts. Each theory has its own set of facts (and, of course, its own validity criterion). And, of course, these different theories and sets of facts interact and change over time.

From the perspective of the second theory of knowledge, then, the professors of Econ 101 would introduce students to different economic theories (neoclassical supply and demand, to be sure, but also other theories that serve as criticisms of and alternatives to neoclassical economics) and different sets of facts (including wages that are equal to the marginal productivity of labor as well as wages that are equal to the value of labor power, after which there is exploitation). And they would include the complex, discontinuous history of those theories and facts, including the debates amongst and between them.

Now, that would be an introductory economics course worthy of the name—and one that is consistent with Epistemology 101.

  1. Any thoughts on Anwar Shaik’s magnum opus? It appears he has presented us with a work that could provide the basis for a new “Econ 101.”

  2. David F. Ruccio says:

    I’ve only just started working my way through it. So, I’ll have more to say later on, when I finish. But already I think it’s too advanced for an introductory economics class for undergraduates.

  3. Mark J. Lovas says:

    ” Each theory has its own set of facts (and, of course, its own validity criterion). And, of course, these different theories and sets of facts interact and change over time.” The is puzzling to me, and I suspect it’s incoherent. This would mean there is no place independent of theory from which to decide one theory is superior.

    So, let me put it as a question, “How, in that case, do you decide between theories? Or, are all theories equally good?” (But surely that is absurd.)

    Perhaps what you have written is only incomplete. But it sounds as though your epistemology has no concept of truth. And without truth, speaking theoretically now, there is no such thing as knowledge. In fact, there is not even a ‘better’ or ‘worse’, but only better from this perspective and worse from that perspective…. But then is one “perspective” better or worse?

    I do think it’s all incoherent. However, I shall have to hear what you say/write.

  4. David F. Ruccio says:

    You’re right, Mark—well, almost. Post-positivist epistemologies do call into question the idea of a singular, capital-t truth. There’s no standpoint, outside of theory, to declare one approach to be “superior” or more truthful—to be better able to reflect or correspond to the facts—than another. But that doesn’t mean there’s no concept of truth (it’s internal to each theory) or that theoretical differences don’t matter (different theories clearly have different consequences for the economic and social world). Now, the idea that such a theory of knowledge is “incoherent” is, I’ll admit, beyond me. It is, perhaps, from the perspective of a foundationalist theory of knowledge (one that presumes a radical dichotomy between theory and facts and some form of correspondence between them). But it isn’t from the perspective of the alternative theory of knowledge I briefly presented, which we might refer to as “partisan relativism.”

    A good introduction to the debate about foundationalist theories of knowledge is the now-classic book by Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A Marxian version of the argument is presented by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff in Knowledge and Class. I’ve presented such an alternative theory of knowledge in many essays and articles, as well as in my book (with Jack Amariglio), Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics.

  5. mjlovas says:

    I don’t think you’ve understood my point. You cannot explain–or, thus far have not–explained why you prefer one theory or approach to another. You’ve made a remark gesturing toward social consequences..

    You write that you don’t need truth with a big T, but that’s not to say “….theoretical differences don’t matter (different theories clearly have different consequences for the economic and social world)”

    Well, in that case, you will need to talk about which consequences are “better” or “worse”–or whatever your favorite terms are. But our ideas about what is good, what is just, what are the social consequences theories are all themselves the result of theories we hold. So, once you’ve relativized truth, you are not done.

    So, now you have this consequence:

    In Theory T, it is true that X is better than Y.
    In Theory T2, it is true that Y is better than X.

    The incoherence comes if you want to have a serious discussion. (A non-serious discussion consists in saying I prefer this theory is like preferring chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream)
    If you wish to assert that your theory is conducive to liberation, or anything else, then you’ve got a problem. Your opponent can not only have a different within-his-theory idea of ‘truth’, but also ‘liberation’ or anything else.

    (Incidentally, Anwar Shaikh in his lectures does say, in a rather modest tone of voice, that he thinks what he says is true–true simply, not relative to his theory. And he does claim that his notion of real competition does a better job of dealing with the facts than standard theories. Which, I think, shows that your particular epistemology is not universal, even among dissenting economists. It looks to me like a Marxist does not have to have your epistemology.)

    The deepest question is why you don’t think that a theory with better social consequences is closer to the truth? (About, say, what just (or juster) social arrangements would look like…) What’s wrong with saying it’s closer to the truth? Are you thinking that since evidence is theory-dependent, it can’t be evidence of what’s true? How is theory-dependence different from partial knowledge? What’s wrong with saying our theory-dependent observations give us a partial glimpse of an independent truth? I cannot see the advantage in tossing out truth-simpliciter, and I do see a sort of incoherence (not a logical contradiction) in what you’ve said.

    Of course, we judge the consequences using whatever theoretical stuff we have available at a particular time, just as we use whatever mathematical or technological tools we have available, and all that can change; so, our judgment is provisional. But when I say, “I think it’s true”, I am not saying it is unrevisable, or that I may not be wrong.

  6. David F. Ruccio says:

    Actually, I think I did understand your point. But we are in a fundamental disagreement. From the perspective of what I’m calling “partisan relativism,” there’s no Truth, no guarantees, no closer to or further away from reality. And, as you point out, that’s the case also with consequences. They, too, are assessed within theoretical frameworks. Finally, you’re right about Marxism: there’s no single epistemological framework. Someone like Anwar might use one theory of knowledge, while I utilize another. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk and debate—with one another (which he and I have often done) and with folks working within other theoretical frameworks (which both of us do all the time); but, from my perspective, nothing closes the debate—no theory, no model, no set of facts.

    Then there’s the question of how one chooses a theory (or, for that matter, a set of facts). I do want to make the argument that one of the consequences of Marxism is to enable one to “see” class exploitation and thereby to attempt to eliminate it (a particular kind of Marxian liberation, if you will). But I’m also willing to admit that others, working within other theories (and with other life experiences, etc.) might not see exploitation (and therefore the need to eliminate it). So, we muster everything at our disposal—theories, facts, music, art, etc.—to try to get folks to “see” what is going on and, of course, to try to change it.

    But I suspect you want something more (but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong): how and why did I choose to use a Marxian framework? How do I know it’s the “correct” theory? Well, I don’t. I can tell you a story about when and how Marxian theory made sense to me and I chose it to make sense of and to change the world. But I can also tell you a story about how—through a long, complicated process—Marxian theory chose me. In both cases, it’s a story about biography, society, and much else. But, however I tell that story, I don’t claim (I can’t and don’t want to claim) that Marxian theory is the “correct” one.

    I hope this helps.

  7. mjlovas says:

    Thank you for saying more. This is interesting, and more substantial. Alas, it is late now, and I’m quite tired. I shall have to re-read your comment and think about it–but, tomorrow. (And I do very much enjoy your blogging.)

    I do, however, have one thought. You write:
    “…from my perspective, nothing closes the debate—no theory, no model, no set of facts.””
    I agree with that. But I cannot see how using the word ‘true” closes the debate down; or I can’t see why it should. I can always say: I thought it was true, but I was wrong. And I suppose there can always be developments in thought which remind us of theories we thought we had discarded, so that we are forced to engage in serious re-evaluation of what we thought we knew about the past.

    But, I can’t see the advantage of avoiding talk of truth. On the other hand, I can imagine that by focusing upon one’s own research program,one thereby has the best chance of propagating and developing the ideas that one finds natural, plausible, explanatory, appealing, etc. But there are trends in thinking which attempt to ferret out subtle errors in an opposed form of thought ( I am thinking of Wittgenstein, though I’m no expert; and I suppose one might read Marx that way too.) Right now I’m not sure which one is best, or even which appeals to me. (And I suppose that one can do both things….)

    As I think about it now, in your blog that engage with other theories (other approaches to the study of the economy) and talk about their failures. So, I have to acknowledge that’s a sort of seriousness in intellectual engagement that goes beyond a facile relativism. And I acknowledge my tendency to suppose, even now, that there’s something incomplete here–a gap to be filled by talking about truth.
    But, that’s no argument.

  8. mjlovas says:

    Note to the above: It’s late here because I am currently in Central Europe……

  9. mjlovas says:

    And I can’t help but wonder whether your talk about closing down the debate comes from your experience with Mainstream Economists and their version of truth? I can promise you: I’m not one of them. My model of robust truth is (forgive me) Platonic with never-ending open inquiry. I know the reading/interpretation of Plato is crusty with awful stuff, and I’m in no position to clear all that stuff away here, (so I am in danger of being misunderstood) but I’ll just say that I think Plato (and Socrates) were willing to talk about the truth (in the way in which you are not), but at the same time were committed to a permanently open debate…….

  10. mjlovas says:

    What I take away from this conversation is that you have classified a controversial and not obviously true view as more obvious than it is. To call it Epistemology 101 suggests that it is a first step, or that it occurs immediately to anyone who takes the subject seriously for a short time. Yet, you also concede that serious workers in your area do not endorse the view–so it can’t be so basic or so obvious…..So, there’s something like a contradiction or confusion here……

    As I said above, I think your practice is quite decent. (And, obviously and repeating myself, I have benefited enormously from your blogging.) You engage with those in your profession with whom you disagree, and (quite reasonably) you complain that they are not similarly decent.

    But your views about truth are, in essence, a meta-view; and whether your actual practice fits your view of what you are actually doing remains for me an open question.

  11. David F. Ruccio says:

    I beg to differ: Epistemology 101 (like any introductory course) is not for the obvious (what “occurs immediately to anyone who takes the subject seriously for a short time”), but instead for the basics. And, as far as I am concerned, the basics of epistemology includes the debate between foundationalist and post-foundationalist (or essentialist and nonessentialist) theories of knowledge. It’s certainly not universal, inside or outside mainstream economics, but it’s what I consider one of the key debates within epistemology.

    As for me (and I appreciate your gracious comments), I may be inconsistent. But, when I engage in disputes with other perspectives and theories, I don’t claim a capital-t truth. My only claim is there’s a different reading, with different consequences. And that’s fine by me.

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