Monday, July 25, 2005

That Old Theory Debate

Henry has frequently posted on the "is economics a science" question which implies the subsidiary question of "what role for economic theory" (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). I have refrained for I have rather naive and simplistic views on the whole question.

-Every academic discipline (except for maybe philosophy and mathematics) exists in order to explain or understand something in the world.
-In explaining something you rely on certain assumptions about how your object of explanation works, about the best way to analyze it. The collection of assumptions forms the basis of theory.
-Theory is concerned with examining and refining and questioning these assumptions and seeing what those assumptions can then say about the world (so in economics, model building).

Attention to theory is important. Paraphrasing Keynes, if you aren't explicit about your theory, you aren't avoiding theory, you are just relying on some other, probably stupid, theory.

In this light, the whole "is economics a science" question is odd. No, it's not physics, but insofar as it, like other social sciences (or even humanities), tries to be rigorous and careful about logic and empirical work, you can't object.

In being obsessed with theory you often come to new insights about the world that you wouldn't come to in the absence of theory. This is the Platonist dream, and it happens. But just because it happens, and often happens in a sexy way, doesn't mean it's the only way to learn about the world: take that theory and apply it (or test it), see what it can tell you about the world. Not that utility is the sole goal of theory, but at some point it should prove useful: it should make you look at the world in a different way. Because I believe in epistemological incompleteness, or something -- I believe that you can never fully understand the world -- the only thing that theory can provide is a series of insights; it will never provide a complete picture of why the world is the way it is, so those insights on the path toward a hoped for complete view better be good.

Theory is thus important. Disciplines better pay attention to theory and keep on refining it, for that is what constitutes the discipline. And since I believe in the unknowability of aspects of the world, there will always be refining to do. But because the discipline exists not to constantly refine theory but to actually say something about the world (in English to analyse literature; economics, to understand "economic actions," or something), a discipline too obsessed with theory, and forgeting that it exists to analyze actual objects in the world, becomes vapid.

A very brief version of this posted in comments to this Tim Burke post.


Blogger henry said...

I have refrained for I have rather naive and simplistic views on the whole question.

Of course my views are also simplistic and naive, but that hasn't prevented me from posting copiously, as you mention.

11:58 AM  

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