Interview with Tony Lawson
Download the WEA commentaries issue ›
WEA interview on ontology with Tony Lawson in Paris
Q1: You have placed a lot of emphasis on ontology in economics. Is this just an abstract philosophical concept, or is it relevant for applied economists?
TL: Yes I have emphasised ontology, especially social ontology. By ontology I simply mean of course the study of the nature of being; so social ontology is the study of the nature of social being or social reality. Ontology certainly deals in abstractions, though it itself is a concrete process of study, but I do not see dealing in abstractions and doing applied economics as either/or issues.
Fundamental here is the question of what we mean by abstraction. And this is important because of the way the term is used and abused in modern economics. To abstract is to leave something out of ‘view’, so there is always something (more) concrete that is abstracted from. If we talk and I focus on your face as you are talking then I am abstracting from, say, your feet or shoes or heart and kidneys, etc., or better from the totality that is you. But in so doing I don’t suppose that these other features don’t exist. Nor do I treat them as not existing, as though your face can be imagined as existing in isolation from the rest of you. There is no reason at all that abstraction has to lead to constructions that are knowingly inaccurate or fictitious. It’s about emphasis and focus. We can’t think without abstractions.
Of course abstraction is involved in fiction construction and representation too. If I am focussing on Santa’s beard I am abstracting from the totality of this (I am assuming) fictitious construction that is Santa. But abstraction and fiction are by no means the same and the goal of explanatory research has to be to use abstraction in the context of realistic theorising.
The big mistake or deceit of modern economists is to misrepresent abstraction as merely the construction of fiction, in an attempt to justify the use of the latter. Specifically modern economists regularly assume that use of the term abstraction allows them either 1) to treat features of reality on which they focus as if somehow physically isolated from all others; or/and 2) to distort those features that are in focus. So, for example, to theoretically treat human beings as isolated atoms that possess perfect foresight or rational expectations is to construct pure fiction. It is just misleading to ‘justify’ this fiction by calling it an abstraction.
As I say, we cannot think without abstractions, and so, returning to your question, we cannot do applied economics without it either. I’m guessing that your question is really along the lines of ‘can ontology help with or make a difference to applied economics?’ My response so far is that there is nothing in the fact that ontology deals in abstractions that necessarily prevents it from doing so.
But yes my whole point of emphasising ontology is to provide a case for doing economics, including applied economics, differently. In truth ontology is practised by us all. If we act differently when we find we are confronted by, say, a small bird, a snake, a lion, or a bull, we are doing ontology. We are weighing up the natures of any such creature and acting accordingly. If when faced with such tasks as painting a wall, preparing or eating a meal, cutting the grass, or cleaning a mess, we fashion the choice of tools in each case to the nature of the object addressed, we are again doing ontology. We are weighing up the nature of the objects or situations that confront us and choosing methods accordingly.
I’m merely arguing that in social science, including economics, we should take account the nature of social reality in fashioning methods appropriate to exploring specific aspects of it. The problem of modern economics is that methods are determined a priori without consideration of the nature of the task. Whatever the question or object of analysis, mainstream economists insist in advance that certain sorts of methods of mathematical modelling are always the appropriate tools.
I’ve shown many times that this is why modern economics is in such bad shape. The intellectual crisis of the discipline didn’t start with the most recent crises in the economy; the latter just made more people aware of the intellectual failings of the discipline. Ontology indicates conditions that methods must be tailored to meet. This is a longish story, but not a complex one, and reported on variously elsewhere. It turns out that appropriate methods for social analysis are quite different to those that economists usually consider. I have focussed on those that are relevant for applied economics in particular in a recent article in the CJE (Lawson, 2009).
Q2: What do you mean by atomism and closed systems? How do these categories figure in your critique of mainstream economics?
TL: OK now you are asking for details of ontological argument. Given the modern emphasis on mathematical modelling it is important to determine the conditions in which such tools are appropriate or useful. In other words we need to uncover the ontological presuppositions involved in the insistence that mathematical methods of a certain sort be everywhere employed. The first thing to note is that all these mathematical methods that economists use presuppose event regularities or correlations. This makes modern economics a form of deductivism. A closed system in this context just means any situation in which an event regularity occurs. Deductivism is a form of explanation that requires event regularities. Now event regularities can just be assumed to hold, even if they cannot be theorised, and some econometricians do just that and dedicate their time to trying to uncover them. But most economists want to theorise in economic terms as well. But clearly they must do so in terms that guarantee event regularity results. The way to do this is to formulate theories in terms of isolated atoms. By an atom I just mean a factor that has the same independent effect whatever the context. Typically human individuals are portrayed as the atoms in question, though there is nothing essential about this. Notice too that most debates about the nature of rationality are beside the point. Mainstream modellers just need to fix the actions of the individual of their analyses to render them atomistic, i.e., to fix their responses to given conditions. It is this implausible fixing of actions that tends to be expressed though, or is the task of, any rationality axiom. But in truth any old specification will do, including fixed rule or algorithm following as in, say, agent based modelling; the precise assumption used to achieve this matters little. Once some such axiom or assumption-fixing behaviour is made economists can predict/deduce what the factor in question will do if stimulated. Finally the specification in this way of what any such atom does in given conditions allows the prediction activities of economists ONLY if nothing is allowed to counteract the actions of the atoms of analysis. Hence these atoms must additionally be assumed to act in isolation. It is easy to show that this ontology of closed systems of isolated atoms characterises all of the substantive theorising of mainstream economists.
It is also easy enough to show that the real world, the social reality in which we actually live, is of a nature that is anything but a set of closed systems of isolated atoms (see Lawson, 1997, 2003)
Q3: If your critique means that we have real problems with current mainstream approaches, how should they be addressed?
TL: Basically we should elaborate the real nature of social reality and tailor our methods to that nature. This is a long story that I have elaborated upon over and again (again see Lawson, 1997, 2003). All I would add here is that your use of the phrase “current mainstream approaches” could be misleading. The defining feature of modern mainstream economics, as I see it, is its insistence on methods of mathematical modelling. It is this dogmatism that both defines the mainstream and is the problem. I see nothing wrong with individual economists experimenting with mathematical methods here and there in the hope that in the contexts of analysis, the relevant conditions hold. The mainstream does not own the methods or approaches they employ any more than they own mathematics. There is nothing wrong with mathematical methods per se only with the manner in which they are used. The problem of the mainstream is one of application of methods in inappropriate conditions. Mainstream economists insist that their mathematical methods be applied to all problems. They fail to differentiate the conditions of legitimate and illegitimate application. So ultimately the failure is one of ontological neglect, no doubt grounded in a cultural-ideological presupposition that mathematics is somehow necessary to all scientific activity, understanding and rigour. In this they are just misguided.
Q4: What problems, if any, do you see with alternative heterodox perspectives on economics?
TL: Well I see a lot that is good about the heterodox traditions, but you ask me about problems. Let me mention two. They concern standards and tendencies of some to exclusivity or gate-keeping.
On the first I would like to repeat what I said at opening plenary. I think we all need to raise our game, to improve standards. When I started out I was surprised that different economists just presented different models. One says “here is my consumption function” another says “here is mine”, and so on. In this there was little attempt to compare, replicate, progress etc. And this orientation seems to characterise much of heterodoxy. ‘Here’s my conception of X’, ‘here is mine’, ‘here is mine’, but with little attempt to resolve differences, explain tensions, and so on.
I am not suggesting that we provide more literature surveys, but rather that we spend more time engaging and seeking to explain and resolve puzzles and contradictions etc. And I do emphasise that we need to spend time on things. Look at the natural sciences. As I was travelling to Paris I think they were expecting to announce at CERN that they had identified a Hicks Boson particle. Whether or not this is so the point is they have long been searching for it. According to the most explanatory powerful theory of particles and their interactions, the masses of all particles are zero. Yet mass seems to exist. As a solution to this problem Peter Higgs hypothesised that space is permeated by a field, a bit like an electromagnetic field, which particles travel through. As they do they acquire the appearance of mass, a bit like we appear to get heavier (and are slowed down) if we run into the sea. The greater the interaction of the particles with the field the more apparent mass they have. So the existence of the field, the Higgs field, is central to this explanation of the appearance of mass. Quantum theory tells us that all fields have particles associated with them. So if the Higgs field exists there must be a particle associated with it; this is the Higgs boson. So the search has been on to track it down. If I remember rightly Higgs first proposed this theory in the mid 1960s.
Now the foregoing summary may not be quite right, and the Higgs boson may not actually have been found; I am a bit out of touch in Paris. But my point is that science progresses and in doing so takes as long as it takes; they have been searching for the Higgs boson for nearly 50 years. Compare that with the largely unconnected, non-developmental, non-engaging atomistic orientation of much of modern economics, including I am afraid much produced with heterodoxy. Of course there are notable exceptions. And the exceptions certainly include the adopted figureheads of heterodoxy. In Marx, Veblen, Keynes, Hayek etc., we find projects unfolding over life-times, mostly through engagement with alternative contributors. Today however, it is all very short term, and disconnected. Anomalies abound, but worse are tolerated and unaddressed. I think Richard Lipsey somewhere observes that the level of anomalies is such that they would be regarded as a scandal in any other discipline. 1
I’m aware, of course, of the pressures on most of us to conform in order to survive. Yes it is easy for me to talk, because I have tenure and am relatively free of these pressures. I understand that publishing lots of different unconnected models designed just to pass the latest chi-square tests or whatever brings tenure and/or promotion; that a preparedness to provide quick analyses that support a particular perspective on policy is what often secures the policy oriented funding in the first place.
But at least for a forum like this one in Paris2, where there are nearly 700 heterodox economists, we can seek to be serious in our papers, to be respectful both to each other as audience members and also to our subject-matters. We don’t need to show how clever we all are; let us take the capabilities of each other as givens. What is needed, yet can be lacking, is real engagement and debate over the nature of the social world and how it works, a progression of the discipline. Instead we allow features like numbers of publications, citations, rankings of journals in which we publish, and so forth to dominate the manner in which we do things. This all results in, or is a manifestation of, a dumbing down of the discipline. It is anti-intellectual. Yes it is the path of the mainstream. But the whole point of heterodoxy I assume is to distance ourselves from mainstream practices that can clearly be seen to be indefensible. I am sorry if this sounds heavy. And of course I’m saying that I must raise my standards as much as anyone else. But I think it is gatherings like this that can help us; and it is in gatherings like this that we can hopefully be allowed to try. I am hopeful that we can draw strength from each other, and connect with each others’ research in serious and respectful ways. Up to a point we already do; some contributors especially. But I feel that many of us could do so much better.
The second problem I have in mind regarding the heterodoxy, and I repeat that I’m emphasising problems only because you ask me to, is a tendency for some groups to semi- professionalise themselves and be exclusive, to establish heterodox, methodology, and history thought journals, that publish only the right people, and – worst of all – endeavour to make sure that even citations/references to the ‘wrong’ sort of heterodox etc contributors are dropped/excluded. I am not going to mention names. But I suspect those outlets etc., to which I refer will be recognised (it is easy enough to appreciate likely exclusions etc., by examining the reference lists of papers that are included). Again I am lucky enough to not suffer from this personally, no doubt in large part because I have been around for so long. But I am far too often meeting scholars, especially younger ones, passing though Cambridge or wherever, or receiving e-mails from them, mentioning that they felt excluded at such and such conferences because they professed an interest in (heterodox) group X or topic Y, or that they were asked to remove all references to (heterodox) project Z in order for their paper to be accepted in some journal, etc. Again this is a terrible example of anti-intellectualism. Actually it will be obvious, because scholars relay their criticisms to me, that one of the projects that sometimes gets treated in this anti-intellectual way is critical realism. But it is far from being alone or the most badly treated.
Of course I am not suggesting that we must all agree with each other; or that everything deserves publication; only that we engage and encourage engagement, that we don’t exclude on non-intellectual grounds. I recognise that resources including journal space are limited; heterodox ones especially. That is why I believe that heterodox journals should not fill themselves with the sort of mathematical exercises that can get into, and indeed are the sole content of, mainstream journals. But I certainly think heterodox journals should be open to, say, mainstream contributors who wish to argue that the current emphasis and insistence on mathematical modelling is entirely appropriate. The problem here, of course, is that mainstream economists do not seem willing to argue a case; they merely take it as given that mathematical tools are appropriate. And they thereby, and in this manner, exclude all alternatives. My worry is that certain heterodox and methodological journals sometimes act in similar anti-intellectual ways to other heterodox views with which they feel uncomfortable or in competition or whatever.
Still I hope I am wrong or at least overstating the problem here. Let me in any case finish on a positive note with some counter examples to these tendencies. The first is precisely this conference. It is quite wonderful and almost unique to experience three different major organisations, the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy (IIPPE), the Association for Heterodox Economics (AHE), and the French Political Economy Association (FAPE), coming together to organise a conference jointly, with streams open to all feasible sorts of contributions. I am really happy to be here and support it all. I think the organisers, especially our French colleagues, have achieved something very special. My understanding is that, as I already mentioned, present at this conference are nearly 700 participants; I think too people have come from about 50 countries and all continents. That is brilliant.
The second positive feature I would like to emphasise is the launch of the pluralistic World Economics Association (WEA), and its various activities, not least its open forum journals. To the latter everyone can submit papers, observe the submission of papers by others, observe in turn the feedback received from referees and any and all others wishing to make an input, engage with any of the latter, all leading to final revisions, and so on. Such an open process appears necessarily free from some of the concerns I raised earlier. The whole thing seems designed to be truly pluralistic. I do so hope these sorts of developments continue, and are widely recognised and supported.
Lawson, T (2003) Reorienting Economics, London and New York: Routledge.
Lawson, T (1997) Economics and Reality, London and New York: Routledge.
Lawson, Tony (2009) ‘Applied Economics, Contrast Explanation and Asymmetric Information’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 33:3, May pp. 405-20.
Lipsey, R. G. (2001), ‘Successes and failures in the Transformation of Economics’, Journal Of Economic Methodology, Vol. 8, No. 2 , June, p. 169-201.
From: Pp.6-9 of World Economics Association Newsletter 2(4), August 2012 https://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/newsletters/Issue2-4.pdf