Chapter 4. Theoretical framework:
1. Styles of reasoning
The styles of reasoning approach forms the point of departure for the framework of relational and disciplinary styles that I will develop here. It lets us conceptually grasp the enduring macrostructure of science, and I will argue that the central problem of this study, that of stability of a disciplinary approach in modern economics and its enduring and antagonistic relationship with heterodox approaches, is fruitfully understood using this framework.
In chapter 2, I synthesised the findings from a survey of debates on the nature of modern economics and the mainstream-heterodoxy divide. It is clear that the economics discipline is somewhat paradoxically characterised on the one hand by a strong scientific consensus, and on the other hand by a small minority of vocal heterodox opponents. While heterodox economics as a concept and identification only took off around the turn of the millennium, there are good reasons to claim that the phenomenon of a mainstream-heterodoxy divide has existed in some form at least since the post-war years. Summarising the survey, I identified three central features of this divide.
First, the economics mainstream is built around a consensus on a small set of axioms of social ontology, that is, about the behaviour of the actors and interactions figuring in economic analysis. These are methodological individualism (atomistic individual actors as unit of analysis), methodological instrumentalism (individuals’
behaviour fully determined by set preferences), and methodological equilibration (analysis in terms of equilibrium tendencies or states). These are ontological assumptions, for they define the fundamentals of the scientific social ontology, which then allows for a wide range of more specific theories building on these assumptions. Second, there is what I called the epistemological aspect, the disciplinary consensus on how scientific knowledge should be made, with formal modelling as the methodological approach par excellence. In this idealised conception, these two features are embraced by the mainstream, but rejected by heterodoxy in favour of a heterogeneous set of alternative theoretical and methodological approaches, so that the central divide seems to hinge on these fundamental ontological and epistemic issues. The third feature is the social nature of this split, as a divide between two oppositional groups of intellectual actors with boundaries maintained and contested in a relational process.
Drawing on the literature review in chapter 3, I argue that it is fruitful to think about this situation in economics using the concept of styles of reasoning. This allows us to understand it as a particular instance of a more general class of sociocognitive phenomena. I will first explicate my understanding of the
Crombian styles, and in the subsequent sections present the sociological extension of the disciplinary and relational aspects of styles.
Styles of reasoning as enduring collective ways of knowing
A style of reasoning is an enduring, relatively stable, and collective enterprise. It is an epistemological approach to scientific problems, a certain way of finding out, that also implicates ontological presumptions and values orientations. From a sociological perspective, styles point to the enduring or structured nature of knowledge production as a social phenomenon. Styles let us keep what Hacking calls the quasi-stability of the sciences in view. But if there is long-term stability in science, it is not primarily the content of science (facts and theories) that is stable.
For while this may undergo evolutionary or revolutionary historical transformation, it is how we find out, rather than what we find out, that tends to be historically stable, and this is what the styles of reasoning concept captures (Hacking 1992).
A style of reasoning is thus a historically stable and collective way of finding out.
It includes both objects and methods of discovery which may be unique to the specific style. A style introduces its specific types of objects, evidence, ways of being a candidate for truth, laws and possibilities (Hacking 1992:11). In other words, a style is not only a set of epistemic attitudes or standards (for example, what counts as valid evidence?), it is also an ontological orientation: what sort of objects and laws are included or even possible in the scientific ontology?
To understand styles sociologically, we need to see these fundamental epistemological and ontological conceptions as part of scientific socialisation. This was one of the great achievements of Fleck (1979) and Kuhn (1996), but tends to slide out of sight in Crombie’s historical and Hacking’s philosophical accounts.
Fleck and Kuhn showed how the most simple scientific practice, and cognition itself, relies on meticulous training and the development of the readiness for directed perception, “the readiness for one particular way of seeing and no other”
(Fleck 1979, 64). In similar terms, Kuhn (1996) pointed to the paradigm as an exemplar used in training, a generic way of solving problems and establishing scientific standards. Thus, the style provides the basic cognitive framework, within which productive scientific work of normal science may be performed. This structuring of thinking can be understood, using insights from modern cognitive science, in terms of model-based reasoning (Brante 2014:169).
It is useful to also think about styles not only in terms of strictly rational reasoning, but also in terms of normative dispositions. For a style of reasoning is also in an important sense a moral commitment, a set of basic scientific values and
virtues. Crombie (1995:234) emphasised this aspect more than Hacking, and talked of styles as being made up by a set of underlying “intellectual and moral commitments or dispositions” towards nature, science and the nature and purpose of human life. In other words, conceptions of good science and what it means to reason rightly are central to a style of reasoning, together with wider dispositions regarding the role of science in society, and fundamental values regarding our relation to nature (or society). This dual set of intellectual and moral commitments or dispositions plays a central role in the social organisation of scientific reproduction.
In the conception of styles proposed here, I follow Hacking’s notion of the
“self-authentication” of scientific styles of reasoning. As a framework for reasoning and for finding out, an epistemic genre, such styles are themselves criteria for truth: “The styles in our list do not answer to any criteria of truthfulness other than their own. They are not ‘chosen’ because they ‘work’. They help determine what counts as working” (Hacking 2012, 607–8). This conception is not a case for constructivism that treats scientific facts as outcomes of contingent processes of negotiation without anything there preceding the construction of the fact. It is rather a form of anti-foundationalist historical and social epistemology that takes the disunity of the sciences and the historicity of reason as a fact, but nevertheless allows for the production of rational knowledge within styles:
To say that these styles of thinking & doing are self-authenticating is to say that they are autonomous: they do not answer to some other, higher, or deeper, standard of truth and reason than their own. To repeat: No foundation. The style does not answer to some external canon of truth independent of itself. (Hacking 2012:605)
Self-authentication shifts Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability, the absence of external foundations for rational choice between competing paradigms, from the diachronic paradigm shift to the synchronic co-existence of potentially (but not necessarily) incommensurable styles of reasoning. I emphasise this notion because I believe it has interesting sociological consequences. Just as Hacking argues that the introduction of ontological novelties introduced by new styles tend to lead to philosophical realist debates (does this or that theoretical entity really exist?), the same could be said about the methodological aspect of styles. If styles harbour internal truth criteria, contexts with competing styles will lead to prolonged debates about the nature of the scientific enterprise, because there are no proper scientific ways to settle the issue. That this is in fact the case with the mainstream-heterodoxy divide in economics will be one of my main arguments.
Crombian styles and disciplinary styles
I make a distinction between, on the one hand, styles of reasoning as historically stable and discipline-transcending styles in the original sense used by Crombie, Hacking and others and, on the other hand the specific constellation of styles found in a particular discipline at a specific point in time. I have called the former Crombian styles. Crombie’s list of six styles of reasoning includes, using Morgan’s (2012, 15) labels, mathematical postulation and proof, experiment, hypothetical modelling, taxonomy, statistics, and the historical-genetic style. This, as Hacking (1992:8) writes, is a “good workhorse of a list” that should be readily acceptable to historians of science. The list is not exhaustive, nor is it mutually exclusive.
There are good reasons to believe that there are also other distinct styles, like modern psychiatry (Hacking 2012), or perhaps engineering (Kwa 2011). The point here is simply that the list of styles should by no means be treated as exhaustive.
An important difference between styles and Kuhn’s paradigm, and similar concepts, is that a style is not only historically enduring, but also that Crombian styles are more fundamental than scientific fields or disciplines or paradigms. Take statistics for example. When the statistical style of reasoning became established, it not only introduced ontological novelties (like the statistical mean) and new methodological approaches, it became integral to many sciences with otherwise very different objects. Styles in this Crombian meaning thus have relative autonomy from individual sciences. In this sense, while styles of reasoning may be incommensurable and act as barriers to mutual understanding, they are also supra-disciplinary, existing beyond particular scientific disciplines, thus potentially acting as bridges between scientific enterprises across disciplinary boundaries.
To sum up, the styles approach as I use it here involves bringing to our attention the various epistemological and ontological presumptions that guide scientific work, and the ways in which this has varied both diachronically through the history of the sciences, and synchronously at a single point in time. Using this focus it is possible to understand scientific reasoning neither as something singular, timeless and universal, nor as infinitely varied, a matter of personal taste.
Instead, the styles approach invites us to direct our gaze towards the social and collective nature of scientific reasoning. At this level of analysis, a certain “quasi-stability” may be observed in the basic modes of scientific reasoning, that endures despite transformations in theories, facts and research programmes. This perspective does not deny that science is always novelty-producing and evolving, but also treats science as multi-layered, and shifts the perspective to the more stable and slow-changing underlying styles of reasoning.
In real academic life, the various Crombian styles are often entangled in any particular disciplinary setting. This is the case with the modelling style in economics, which mixes with both the statistical style and with deductive postulation and proof (Morgan 2012). Morgan claims that while modelling has become the trademark style of modern economics, it has always been entangled with these styles. But the modelling style is the most fundamental, according to her account.
Morgan shows how the styles approach may be fruitfully applied to modern economics. She argues that while models are partial and may appear as independent and separate reasoning objects, together the abundant models in all fields of modern economics create something like a flexible patchwork of models, stitching together subfields of the discipline. To that, she adds two general assumptions that “hold economic ideas together” (Morgan 2012:394). These are, first, the individual utility maximisation of economic man, and second, the equilibrium tendency. This is just another way of framing the three ontological assumptions delineated above, since “individual utility maximisation” contains the first two (individualism and instrumentalism). Although these are general assumptions of the discipline, they are not necessarily simultaneously present in every model. However, Morgan illustrates how the ontological and epistemological aspect of modern economics can be understood within the styles framework, and as noted in chapter 3, emphasises the social aspect of the style when it becomes a community matter to be transmitted by training, reinforced, and policed.
I will use the term disciplinary style to describe the actual entanglement of a set of Crombian styles that Morgan illustrates. My distinction between Crombian styles in the original sense, and the disciplinary style as the specific constellation of styles found in a particular discipline at a particular point in time, is introduced to bring analytical clarity to the framework. It enables a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, the quasi-timeless Crombian styles, and on the other, the disciplinary style that is open to change in terms of re-combinations of styles or changes in emphasis. Thus conceived, the concept of a disciplinary style has more resemblance to a Kuhnian paradigm. However, the focus is shifted from revolutionary paradigm change, towards historical continuity and evolutionary combinatory transformation. I understand the specific style of reasoning that became established in economics after 1945 as a quasi-stable disciplinary style which relies strongly on the Crombian modelling style, enmeshed with the deductive and statistical styles. It is also entangled with the set of three ontological assumptions about social actors (methodological individualism, instrumentalism and equilibration). Finally, the disciplinary style of modern mainstream
economics is the collective property of an institutionalised disciplinary thought collective.
But—and this is my important extension of Morgan’s understanding of styles in economics—the profession and its dominant style do not exist in a vacuum.
Instead, there is an important sense in which styles and thought collectives are bounded in relational processes. Specifically, the disciplinary style must be understood in relation to heterodox economics.