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Utopia and epistemology

Summary:
From David Ruccio 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

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from David Ruccio

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 narrativesconfirmation biasethics, 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.

Thus,

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.

David F. Ruccio
I am now Professor of Economics “at large” as well as a member of the Higgins Labor Studies Program and Faculty Fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I was the editor of the journal Rethinking Marxism from 1997 to 2009. My Notre Dame page contains more information. Here is the link to my Twitter page.

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