Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Speaking of new posts

It's about time I wrote one, eh? I'm still studying Molyneux to see how pleased I am with his thinking, and since he's put out tons of stuff, it takes a while. And, of course, it seems to me that his thesis on atheism is logically consistent (and that most theology isn't), so now I have to compare that to my own experience. No guarantees where that will lead.

I have choir practice tonight, after the Lenten Service (in fact, we're supposed to sing tonight, though I've missed a couple practices - I'll have to sit this one out). This choir member could use a good talking to.

[Update: I was wrong. The church is putting on a production of The Sound of Music and they were doing a dress rehearsal tonight. I was just a bit freaked.

Oh, and on the contradictions here: thank you, Grapevine.]

The Mises Institute has made Rothbard's History of Thought available online. I like this passage from the intro:

[Oops, I had a spare half line there.]
The continual progress, onward-and-upward approach was demolished for me, and should have been for everyone, by Thomas Kuhn's famed Structure of Scientific Revolutions.5 Kuhn paid no attention to economics, but instead, in the standard manner of philosophers and historians of science, focused on such ineluctably 'hard' sciences as physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Bringing the word 'paradigm' into intellectual discourse, Kuhn demolished what I like to call the 'Whig theory of the history of science'. The Whig theory, subscribed to by almost all historians of science, including economics, is that scientific thought progresses patiently, one year after another developing, sifting, and testing theories, so that science marches onward and upward, each year, decade or generation learning more and possessing ever more correct scientific theories. On analogy with the Whig theory of history, coined in mid-nineteenth century England, which maintained that things are always getting (and therefore must get) better and better, the Whig historian of science, seemingly on firmer grounds than the regular Whig historian, implicitly or explicitly asserts that 'later is always better' in any particular scientific discipline. The Whig historian (whether of science or of history proper) really maintains that, for any point of historical time, 'whatever was, was right', or at least better than 'whatever was earlier'. The inevitable result is a complacent and infuriating Panglossian optimism. In the historiography of economic thought, the consequence is the firm if implicit position that every individual economist, or at least every school of economists, contributed their important mite to the inexorable upward march. There can, then, be no such thing as gross systemic error that deeply flawed, or even invalidated, an entire school of economic thought, much less sent the world of economics permanently astray.

Kuhn, however, shocked the philosophic world by demonstrating that this is simply not the way that science has developed. Once a central paradigm is selected, there is no testing or sifting, and tests of basic assumptions only take place after a series of failures and anomalies in the ruling paradigm has plunged the science into a 'crisis situation'. One need not adopt Kuhn's nihilistic philosophic outlook, his implication that no one paradigm is or can be better than any other, to realize that his less than starry-eyed view of science rings true both as history and as sociology.

But if the standard romantic or Panglossian view does not work even in the hard sciences, afortiori it must be totally off the mark in such a 'soft science' as economics, in a discipline where there can be no laboratory testing, and where numerous even softer disciplines such as politics, religion, and ethics necessarily impinge on one's economic outlook.

There can therefore be no presumption whatever in economics that later thought is better than earlier, or even that all well-known economists have contributed their sturdy mite to the developing discipline. For it becomes very likely that, rather than everyone contributing to an ever-progressing edifice, economics can and has proceeded in contentious, even zig-zag fashion, with later systemic fallacy sometimes elbowing aside earlier but sounder paradigms, thereby redirecting economic thought down a total erroneous or even tragic path. The overall path of economics may be up, or it may be down, over any give time period.

In recent years, economics, under the dominant influence of formalism, positivism and econometrics, and preening itself on being a hard science, has displayed little interest in its own past. It has been intent, as in any 'real' science, on the latest textbook or journal article rather than on exploring its own history. After all, do contemporary physicists spend much time poring over eighteenth century optics?

No, I don't take that use of "Whig" personally. He's referring to Acton and Macauley and others like them. We love them, but they did tend to portray history as constant progress. Progressives took up that style and, in Acton's time, began the process of reversing everything he would have called progress. That's why I call myself, following Hayek (in my case, it's an allusion to Hayek's "Why I am not a Conservative" ), an "old whig."

Oh, here's a great Aristotle quote from the book: "men do not become tyrants in order that they may not suffer cold". That's from page 14 of the book (page 30 of the pdf).

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