Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Kuhn’


John Baldessari, “Man Running/Men Carrying Box” (1988-1990)

It was Paul Samuelson who, in 1997, declared with morbid optimism that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.”*

What Samuelson presumed is that, over time, wrong ideas would be killed and laid to rest and better ideas would flourish, thus creating the foundation for progress in economic thought.

That’s what I consider to be the epistemological utopianism of mainstream economic thought: using the correct scientific methods, the work that economists do gets closer and closer to the Truth—the singular, incontestable, capital-t truth. It used to be the case (for Samuelson and many others, such as fellow Nobel laureates Kenneth Arrow, Gerard Debreu, and Paul Krugman) that mathematical models represented the best way of making progress (inspired by a particular conception of nineteenth-century physics).** The current fad is to rely on randomized experiments and big data as evidence that economics is finally becoming a real, empirical science (akin to biology and medicine).

In the first case, rationalism is the reigning theory of knowledge; in the second case, it’s empiricism. However, both theories represent two sides of the same epistemological coin, defined by a radical separation between theory and reality and some sort of correspondence between them. In other words, both rationalism and empiricism are foundationalist theories of knowledge according to which the gap between theory and reality is eventually—”funeral by funeral”—closed.

It’s a utopianism that serves as both the premise and promise of mainstream economists’ practice. And we know something about the consequences of that epistemological utopianism—for example, the combination of ignorance and arrogance when it comes to the work of nonmainstream economists (who stand accused of not doing science and therefore of not contributing to the progress of economics), noneconomists (whose methods are neither mathematically nor empirically rigorous enough), and everyday economists (who either produce cultural representations that accord with the lessons of mainstream economics, in which case they be invoked as illustrations, or whose work is dismissed and needs to be attacked and eradicated, because it runs counter to mainstream economics). Not to mention the idea that, in the midst of the worst economic crises since the first Great Depression, mainstream economists could blithely assert that their theories had done just fine; the only problem was the fact that policymakers hadn’t adequately listened to or followed the advice of mainstream economists. Finally, of course, there’s the closing-off of publishing venues (like the leading journals), research funding (especially the National Science Foundation), teaching positions (especially in research universities), and so on—all in the name of a singular scientific method and conception of truth.

As I have shown (e.g., here and here), mainstream liberals today are also obsessed with the defense of science and capital-t Truth. In their zeal to attack Donald Trump and the right-wing media’s defense of his administration’s outlandish claims about a wide variety of issues—from climate change to the Mueller investigation—they increasingly invoke and rely on an absolutist theory of knowledge. And then, of course, claim for themselves the correct side in the current debates. They, too, are guided by the utopianism of essentialist theories of knowledge.

The problems with epistemological utopianism are legion. I’ve mentioned some of the nastier consequences above. But there are other issues. For example, in their defense of absolute truth, they invoke a time—before the current “post-truth” regime—when a set of institutions (such as journalism, science, and the academy) supposedly got it right. Except they can’t ever cite an example of how those institutions successfully adjudicated the facts in play—when, supposedly, there was universal assent to the truth claims, either within the academy or the wider society—and they ignore all the times when they simply got it wrong.

Moreover, they’re willing to admit that the claims to truth are often deflected by lots of other influences—such as narratives, confirmation bias, ethics, and information overload. But the problem is always “out there,” among regular people, and not the scientists themselves (whether in economics or other disciplines). Epistemological utopians simply can’t acknowledge that, in their daily practice, mainstream economists and liberal thinkers are also engaged in story-telling, that they accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye, make ethics-laden decisions based on relations of unequal power, and operate with overconfidence based on the illusion of knowledge.

There are, of course, many alternatives to the utopianism of absolutist epistemology. One of them is what I call “partisan relativism,” associated with the Marxian critique of political economy.

In fact, I (with my friend and frequent coauthor Jack Amariglio) have just published an entry on “epistemology” in the Routledge Handbook of Marxian Economics. There, we discuss many different contributions to Marxian epistemology and highlight the role that postmodernism has played in providing an alternative to and moving beyond the long history of attributing to Marx a modernist project of attempting to delimit the certainly of scientific knowledge from non-science (or ideology). Thus, we write, postmodern Marxists

frequently call attention to the “relativism” that they believe is Marx’s main epistemological message and/or is exemplified in his texts. Marx’s aleatory materialism, for postmodern Marxists, also establishes an under-determination in the realm of knowledge; a discursive whole cannot close itself. Influenced by Jacques Derrida’s conception of “deconstruction,” postmodern Marxists insist that discourse is always marked by slippages, aporia, displacements, and deferments. For them, meaning is overdetermined and uncertain. A certain knower is thus a contradiction in terms.

In addition, if scientific discourse is not the mirror of nature, then there is an “ethical” dimension to all knowledge production. Cornel West, utilizing Richard Rorty among other “pragmatist” philosophers, brings out the enduring, constitutive ethical and political aspects of how and what we know, and what we intend to do with this knowledge.

Thus, we go on to explain, relativist Marxists dispute the claims of a certain knowing subject (indeed, they challenge the very idea that knowledge begins with a knowing subject) and focus instead on how knowledge claims are internal to theoretical frameworks and the manner in which knowledges produce within different theories or discourses have specific—and often quite different—conditions and consequences in the world within which those knowledges are produced.


For many Marxist epistemologists, knowledge is active and actionable, and its existence as material image/image of the material is one requisite condition for the revolutionary socioeconomic—especially class—change that Marx vehemently proposed.

And that, in the end, is the utopian moment of Marxian epistemology—not a utopian appeal or aspiration to absolute truth, but instead a practice (one might even call it an ethics) of materialist critique. That critique operates at two different levels: it is a critique of all theoretical claims (such as those made by mainstream economists) that normalize or naturalize the existing economic and social order and a critique of capitalism itself, since from a Marxian perspective capitalist societies are based on and serve to reproduce an exploitative class structure.

It should come as no surprise then that the utopian horizon of Marxian epistemology is summarily rejected by mainstream economists and liberal thinkers—or that the latter’s epistemological utopianism often serves to locate itself within and ultimately to justify, by treating as normal or natural, the existing set of economic and social institutions.


*“Credo of a Lucky Textbook Author,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 11 (Spring): 159.

**It’s a particular conception of physics that has been disputed by many others, including Thomas Kuhn (and his theory of “scientific revolutions”), Paul Feyerabend (who argued that there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge), Richard Rorty (who criticized the idea of knowledge as representation), and Michel Foucault (who showed that different systems of thought and knowledge—epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology—are governed by different sets of rules). Their criticisms of essentialist epistemologies apply as well to the more recent turn to “empirical” methods as the foundation of economic knowledge.


Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

As I explained back in April, I often suggest to students they read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is particularly important for economics, a discipline in which many practitioners—both mainstream and heterodox—fetishize science and suffer from physics-envy.

John Naughton explains why, even though paradigm shift is “is probably the most used – and abused – term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress,” Kuhn’s book remains important as a challenge to Whig versions of the history and philosophy of science.

Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative “progress”, he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work.

Naughton, in contrast to many commentators, notes the importance of incommensurability in Kuhn’s approach:

But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn’s account of the process of paradigm change. He argued that competing paradigms are “incommensurable”: that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits. There’s no way, for example, that one could make a checklist comparing the merits of Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) and quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level). But if rival paradigms are really incommensurable, then doesn’t that imply that scientific revolutions must be based – at least in part – on irrational grounds? In which case, are not the paradigm shifts that we celebrate as great intellectual breakthroughs merely the result of outbreaks of mob psychology?

In my experience, the idea that different paradigms or discourses (to use the Foucauldian term) are incommensurable—such that, for example, neoclassical and Marxian economic theories are radically different and literally incommensurable ways of looking at the world—challenges and undermines traditional ways of doing and teaching economics.

In that sense, Naughton is wrong: at least in economics, Kuhn’s approach to the history and philosophy of science is still remarkable.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published 50 years ago, is one of the few classics I tell students in pretty much all my classes they have to read before they leave college, whether or not it’s assigned in one of their courses. It contains important lessons, especially for economics, of radical paradigm shifts and the fundamental incommensurability among different theories and approaches.

David Weinberger [ht: eo] retells one of the great stories about Kuhn:

To overstate it: The scientists hated incommensurability because it seemed to imply that science makes no real progress, the philosophers hated it because it seemed to imply that there is no truth, and the positivists hated it because it seemed to imply that science is based on nonrational decisions.

And, apparently, Kuhn grew to hate being challenged about it, at least according to a story told by the documentarian Errol Morris, who as a graduate student at Princeton studied under Kuhn:

“I asked him, ‘If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? … Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be “incommensurable?”‘

He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, ‘He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.’

And then I added, ‘ … except for someone who imagines himself to be God.’

It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me.”

Back in the day, those of us studying radical economics (at the University of Massachusetts Amherst) didn’t throw ashtrays but would taunt the students in neoclassical programs (like Harvard and MIT) by asking, “brother, can youse paradigm?”