Internalist, externalist…..

People keep asking me whether my work is internalist, externalist, or a bit of both (neither doesn’t seem to be an option). I confess here and now that I never really know what the difference is between the two. Internalist to me refers to being or remaining within something, externalist must have to do with outside that something. But then I can’t figure out what that something is. From the way these questions are posed I gather that that something must be somehow externally defined. That is, it seems that I can’t decide myself whether a particular argument or story-line is internal or external. However, there’s no authority to be found defining that something that consitutes the inside. Help me out here guys, what is or could be the difference?


10 thoughts on “Internalist, externalist…..

  1. “they” are the internalists, “we” are the externalists. So simple!

    Maybe there is something wrong with the semantics as you suggest, but to me it means to say that externalist is any explanation that widens the spectrum of the material. So ideas do not generate ideas alone, culture and politics and biography and cognition also play a part if not the main role in the history. So stated, it is a very unscientific thing to do, when potatoes breed sea shells, but it somehow works.

  2. The terms ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ refers to the text, not as a material being, but as an essence (a composite of ideas). To put it in a nutshell, an internalist is someone who practice exegis of text or discourse without refering to con-text: the text (as essence or composite of ideas) contains in itself all the information needed to interpret it. An externalist take the opposite view: for him looking at the essence of the text to understand its meaning is useless, because it has no meaning in itself; to access to its meaning, one has to look for its context. When one pushes the argument to its very end, you obtain straightforward historical materialism: in the marxian version, the text is a pure joint product of a class struggle; in the SSK version, the text is a pure joint product of the strategies of actors/group of actors.
    To answer your query, Floris, when you are discussing ideas as essence you are internalist; when you are looking for meaning in the context only, you are externalist. Most of the time, we are caught in-between (That is what I was trying to explain in our lunch conversation in Toronto) because discourses/texts/acts of speech/books are mixed objects: they are both ideas that defies context up to a point, but they are also subject to their context of production/dissemination and the material form they have when you encounter them.

    To Tiago:
    If you are a strict externalist, then this conversation is useless for you: its meaning is embodied in the context, to gain time you should skip the conversation and go for what really counts (my/your material interest, my/your social class, etc.), because knowing the context will afford you to reconstruct our conversation without actually having it. I clearly disagree with that point of view, if you do (which I suspect), then your use of externalist is clearly problematic.

    Footnote: this debate was all the rage from the 1960s to the 1980s (and still going on in France in the mid 90s), I suggest you have a look at a 1980s edition of Blaug’s Economic theory retrospect to get the simple version. If you want to look at the “classics”, then I believe George Stigler’s AER 1960 article “The influence of events and policies on Economic theory” is relevant as well as his two books on the histoy of economics. For the other side of the coin, you should look at: Events, Ideology and Economic Theory: The Determinants of Progress in the Development of Economic Analysis. edited by R. V. Eagly. These are interested to read if only for the crudeness and the naïveté of their arguments: it shows one that it is best to stay out of this debate if you do not want to look stupid in the eyes of the next generation.

  3. Here is a quote that Roy Weintraub uses in the syllabus of his course “The Development of Modern Economic Thought”:

    “Nobody can separate the `internal’ history of science from the `external’ history of its allies. The former does not count as history at all. At best it is court historiography, at worst Legends of the Saints. The latter is not history of `science’, it is history.” (Bruno Latour, “The Pasteurization of France”, p. 218.)

    After our lunch conversation in Toronto, I realized how blurred the line between “internalist” and “externalist” analysis is (except when we define these categories in the strongest/most simplistic way). (And what do we gain with it?) Especially after being in a session (after the “Why do historians hate SSK?” plenary) where Ivan Moscati presented a (very interesting) paper, followed by comments basically asking him to “get rid of” all the “philosophical” discussion he had in the paper and to focus exclusively on the ideas developed by economists, mostly because those ideas were what they had at the time. Esther-Mirjam Sent was also in the audience and asked Ivan whether or not he thought his analysis was in line with SSK…
    Floris, if you are not yet sure that your work is “in-between”, just talk to Loic a bit more and I’m sure you’ll reach that conclusion.

  4. The distinction, as Loic says, should be off any good historian’s conversational agenda. That said, the way one navigates though the materials of interest does depend on whether materials are associated with “contemporary economics” or “older economics,” not as an either-or but along a gradient. What one considers to be text and context is different in discussions of Turgot compared with discussions of Lawrence Klein. For older materials are seldom as rich as those for contemporary figures. And what kind of context do we feel confident about for Hammurabi’s commercial rules? All that granted, I believe as Pedro noted that Bruno Latour had it about right.

  5. I believe what Roy (and Latour by extent) wrote to be true in principle. In practice, however, I tend to relate the term “internalist” to works like those of Ross Emmett, David Levy & Sandra Peart or Steve Medema, and the term “externalist” to works like those of Phil Mirowski, Esther Mirjam Sent or E. Roy Weintraub. For example, Ross’s articles make use of context to some extent but they are deliberately intended as history of economics for economists, standing sometimes at the borders of hagiography (“Chicago rules !”). That said, I realize that there is a lot of (historical) material that I found interesting in those contributions. Still, I am even more fascinated by the quantity of historical elements Ross has collected that are NOT in his article ! The Moscati article that Pedro cited is also very interesting, in the sense that it contains a lot of historical material, for which the author seems to have to apologize ! I am also fascinated by the number of “historians” of economics who do archival work but do not incorporate it in their articles !
    So, if one admits that history IS context, I would be tempted to define an internalist as someone who puts the context in the background and an externalist as someone who puts it in the foreground. Corollary : the internalist is more an economist than a historian, which doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing to learn from the internalist (On the other hand, there’s a lot to learn from Phil Roth, Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan, too …).

  6. To Roy: I do agree with you that context might be different in the case of pre-scientific text. However, I do not believe that it is follows a kind of quantitative rule, it is more complicated than that in my opinion.
    First, historians have developed several tools to find traces of the past that permit them to recreate context, these tools are used to a diffferent extent (sometime not at all) when investigating different periods. For example, in the case of Hammurabi’s commercial rules, they willl use later texts as proxy or archeological materials to supply the lack of more straightforward evidences.
    Second, I believe the very richness of materials for contemporary authors is as much a problem as a blessing. On the one hand, one has to master several types of evidences (journal articles, newpapers, manuscripts, books, visual materials, audio materials, etc.) in huge quantities. Indeed, the historians have too much material and they have to choose, meaning that often he goes for the more accessible stuff. More generally, the quality and quantity of methodological reflection on evidences (how to use them properly, etc.) tends to be inversely proportionable to the quantity of evidences at hand. In my opinion, it closes part of the gap between periods, that is I do not see a difference in the nature of the investigation, at least for the early modern period in western civilization.

    To Yann:
    Let put it this way. The internal logic of the texts/discourses the historian is studying is one of the context he has to address. Not because he institutionaly belongs to the community of economists, but simply because the people he investigates believed it was an important or fundamental aspect of what they were doing. In this way, being an historian doing HOPE means that you treat your material in a different way than doing cultural history (for example). Would you agree with that proposition?

  7. Unless we deal with very recent texts and contexts, I would suggest that we’re all externalists to some extent, meaning that we approach past texts and contexts from our present. Now I see a significant difference between those who approach texts and contexts using historical knowledge, the definition of which remains problematic, and those who thinks they can do without such knowledge but often end up using the historical preconceptions of laypersons.

    If you happen to have some notion of what the Berlin blockade was, read Carolyn Eisenberg’s “The Myth of the Berlin Blockade and the Early Cold War” in Cold War Triumphalism, edited by Schrecker. In my opinion, this piece illustrates what I have in mind when I distinguish historical preconceptions and historical knowledge.

  8. The way Loïc explains the internalist-externalist issue suggests that it is a version of this philosophical problem, the hermeneutical circle:

    “The meaning of the part can be discovered only from the context – i.e., ultimately from the whole. […] Fundamentally, understanding is always a movement in this kind of circle, which is why the repeated return from the whole to the parts, and vice versa, is essential. Moreover, this circle is constantly expanding, since the concept of the whole is relative, and being integrated in ever larger contexts always affects the understanding of the individual part” (Gadamer, Truth and Method)).
    Understanding the meaning of a text (or a sentence or an utterance more generally) requires a knowledge of the psychological, historical, cultural and social con-text, he continued. The researcher should be able to grasp the “lifeworld” of the author, he concluded.

    While Gadamer is addressing more general issues than the torments of the apprentice historian, he can be viewed as advocating the kind of “in-between” Loic praises.

  9. I follow the line that “Tthe author is dead –
    Which I take to mean that it is the practice of the reading and not of writing that matters most. It does not resolve the internal/external choice since one can ask questions about how a text/science is read in society (external) and ask questions about how many readings a text/science affords (internal).
    My inclination is to ask about foreign readings because my concern is the history of economics as a history of culture(s).

  10. I agree with you Beatrice, this is not a knew problem. I would say that it is something you should be aware of as an historian: “Histoire totale” is a myth, yet it is a useful, some would say essential, myth.

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