Kuhnian Revolutions and Economists

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

After reading Blanchard’s (2008) “The State of Macro” (NBER WP 14259) and after listening a leading Brazilian mathematical economist talk about the major developments in this area after World War II, I realized how pervasive is the use of Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions among practicing economists (and there are many other examples of such use). I started wondering why.

Both Blanchard, who wants to explain the consensus view of fluctuations and of methodology that emerged in recent macro, and the mathematical economist were making an overview of their fields. Such overviews are natural invitations for talking about past and future developments. And here the notion of a revolution pops up often.

Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn

The notion that there are competing “paradigms” at certain points and that one becomes central during “normal” times, and that “revolutions” mark the passage from one paradigm to another, may sound very close to a Darwinian competition of theories for practicing economists. Here, the gist is the role played by “facts” in helping scientists abandon “wrong” theories. I felt that this was implicit in both Blanchard’s analysis and that of the mathematical economist.  For instance, Blanchard (p. 2, emphasis added) writes:

The theme [of this paper] is that, after the explosion (in both the positive and negative meaning of the word) of the field [macroeconomics] in the 1970s, there has been enormous progress and substantial convergence. For a while–too long a while–the field looked like a battlefield. Reserarchers split in different directions, mostly ignoring each other, or else engaging in bitter fights and controversies. Over time however, largely because facts have a way of not going away, a largely shared vision both of fluctuations and of methodology has emerged. Not everything is fine. Like all revolutions, this one has come with the destruction of some knowledge, and suffers from extremism, hearding, and fashion. But none of this is deadly. The state of macro is good.

Besides the affinity between this interpretation of Kuhnian revolutions and a competitive market of ideas, there is yet another role for using the notion of a revolution by practicing economists: revolutions come with clearly identified winners (no care for losers!), as Lucas over “Keynes”, and DSGE (Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium) models over RBC or the first generation of New-Keynesian models, etc.

I will let the others enlighten me about how often Kuhn’s ideas are used by other practicing scientists (and why?).


13 thoughts on “Kuhnian Revolutions and Economists

  1. Kuhn’s ideas are all over the place in the history of radical economics.

    Radicals want to change society. How do you convince people to change their ways and rebel? Kuhn tells you that scientific paradigms frame worldviews, while revolutions in science can coincide with social revolutions . So it follows that you need a new paradigm for economics preferably one that makes the social link clear. A revolution in economics is a precondition for a social revolution. Kuhn becomes normative.

    The Blanchard paper has been going around. A friend sent it to me. It showed up in the Working papers series of HES. I need to read it!

  2. I always understood Kuhn’s significance as asserting the different perspectives one can have for science. At different times alternative methodologies better address questions which are more or less consistent inquiries in the history of science (an in a larger context philosophy). As sciences ebb and flow, they progress at different speeds. At one time it was necessary to approach understanding from a more holistic approach.
    The classical economists seemed good at defining age-old questions. After the definitions became more or less accepted, this method of approach became nothing more than asserting the positions of well formed systems of analysis. The real task then became to arbitrate between these systems with empirical evidence. Birth of mathematical analysis in economics could be a phase where questions are evaluated in a more precise manner. This does not preclude the formulation of new questions in light of the evidence, however. What I would take as the paradigm shifts would be the relative importance of the different questions.
    During and after the Great Depression, certain questions were of rather more significance. The science responds to the real concerns of its time. Seeking to question the fundamentals of the analysis (the devil’s advocate position) did nothing to advance understanding of what actually transpired. In a world where depressions were relatively less frequent, time could be spent on formulating other projects. To the degree that we have not fully understood the depression, this line of inquiry does not need to stand back and take stock of the progress.
    As questions are resolved, or as convergence is reached, new questions suggest themselves. The articulation of a knowledge base is achieved by convergence. However, given the relatively infinite complexity and the potential to understand new frontiers of investigation, old tools formulated for relatively settled matters are no longer sufficient.
    The Ptolemaic system was “good enough” at some level of investigation. Once the question evolved to demand more specificity, new approaches were necessary. This is a fundamentally Comtean understanding of scientific progress. I would note one flaw with his system, the absurdity which we hold for outdated paradigms allows us to both take for granted what we have learned from historical investigation, and allows us to be relatively radical in our approaches going forward. I would hesitate to consider radicals seeking change for change’s sake alone, but rather seeking change because the question no longer demands the tools which have been enshrined by the previous generation.

  3. On Tiago’s remark: The first that I saw of this use of Kuhn in heterodox economics was by Kregel which ended up being published in The Reconstruction of Political Economy, London: Macmillan, 1973 by Jan Kregel. The Intro was written by Joan Robinson.
    Kregel and Tony Brewer and David Collard and I ran a discussion group on Kuhn and Lakatos at Bristol in Fall 1971, and the discussion in Kregel 1973 seems to have emerged from those discussions.

  4. Does anyone know this book:
    “Thomas Kuhn in the Light of Reason”


    The aim of this book is demonstrate that Thomas Kuhn not only clouded our understanding of science, he also cast a shadow of doubt on the fundamental importance of reason. The length of that shadow can be measured by the success of his book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

    As far as I can tell it has not been reviewed.

  5. On Michael’s remark : Is it some kind of positivist/modernist counterattack against Kuhn ? If so, I’m not sure I would bother reading it …

  6. To address Tiago’s question (7:22), there was no record kept. It was that time, though, like the zeitgeist. I recall that folks were aware of the conference materials coming out that were the LSE response to Kuhn, with Masterman Lakatos in his first statement of the MSRP, Watkins, et al. We met to work though those papers/ideas. There were straight economists too, like M.R. Wickens. This was the time of the first brush with the idea of Naftalion, with Latsis then at LSE, which conference was held in I believe (I don’t have my volume at hand) 1974. But the whole lot of us are still around and confabulating no more than others, so why not send queries around? Of course Roger Backhouse was a 3rd year honors undergrad (most connected to Brewer) in our classes then too!

  7. Yes, Kuhn is very appealing for dissenters, and there are those criticizing Kuhn for clouding the “true” understanding of science and the role of reason. But I was also wondering on how popular is Kuhn among different practicing scientists. It is hard to know precisely, but I just wanted to hear people’s impressions on this. I tried to get a very rough sense of this by making a search on Google Scholar, as “scientific revolution”+Kuhn+’FIELD’, where in ‘FIELD’ I tried the different disciplines listed below, together with the total number of results found:

    political science: 941
    anthropology: 1,860
    biology: 3,170
    medicine: 3,550
    sociology: 3,580
    psychology: 3,820
    physics: 4,480
    economics: 4,760

    From this very noisy data, it does seem that economists do love Kuhn! (Caveat: in my search I cannot know whether or not the selected academic works are by practicing scientists instead of by philosophers or sociologists of science… This just tells us that Kuhn’s scientific revolution idea appears in a lot of works related to “economics”).

  8. There is a double irony here: first, the first economist to pick up on Kuhn, to seek him out, and to attempt to actively promote his importance was…George Stigler (who may have even had a hand in helping to get Kuhn’s Structure approved by The University of Chicago press). Moreover, Stigler insisted (not entirely unreasonably) that his research into the history of economic thought had produced very similar results. After the 1960s, the language of paradigms/revolutions starts showing up in the self-promotion/self-understanding of Chicago economics.
    Second (less ironic), Blanchard’s rhetoric is standard rhetoric of Milton Friedman 1953, and (especially) the 1976 Nobel lecture. I have analyzed this in my (forthcoming in The Elgar Companion to Chicago Economics, edited by Ross Emmett: “Friedman, Positive Economics, and the Chicago Boys”): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1142741
    There, too, I document the Chicago-Kuhn link.
    Eric Schliesser
    PS Tiego, welcome to Amsterdam!

  9. I am not aware of any practicing scientist who has gained any value from T S Kuhn. He has nothing to say to the practicing scientist. There is nothing new about the influence of fads and fashions but it is tragic/farcical that a work that might represent a contribution to the theory of the diffusion of innovations is taken as an innovation philosophy and methodology.

  10. This is an attempt to explain, not whether practicing economists were influenced by Kuhn but why his ideas and those of Lakatos achieved some status in some other circles. Oversimplifying for brevity, it is generally accepted that practicing economists take little or no notice of the history of ideas or philosophy or methodology. Given that the philosophy and methodology of empiricism and positivism are practically useless, that is not such a bad thing, although positivism invaded by stealth due to the dominance of the logical empiricists in US philosophy schools (Hitler’s revenge).

    Kuhn became popular due to a combination of reasons.
    1. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was thinner and cheaper than The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
    2. For that generation, revolution beat logic every time.
    3. It appeared at a time when students were desperate for something more sexy than language analysis and the degenerating program of positivism (lapsing into the mathematical technicalities of probability theory, Bayesian and other).
    4. His book (with subsequent modifications) contained (or generated) inconsistencies and tensions (including multiple meanings of terms) which provided endless opportunities for scholarly diversion into textual exegisis, none connected with practical applications (including the practice of science).
    5. Kuhn had something for everyone, for the textual analysts (see above), for the revolutionaries (the radical chic of paradigms), for the inductivists of normal science (just do what your research director tells you). So everyone could keep on saying and doing the same things (totally conservative) while the revolutionaries could feel good, and the normal scientists could feel good too “Like Man, I’m OK, Your OK”.

    Enter Lakatos, via Cambridge and a prison cell in Hungary.

    Lakatos appeared to take up the defence of Popper’s ideas, using the theory of programs from an unpublished ms of Popper. He added elements from Kuhn and a whiff of inductivism, attempting a Hegelian synthesis of Popper, Kuhn and positivism with himself installed as the New World Spirit of the Philosophy of Science.

    The launching pad for this project was the Bedford College Conference of 1965 and the vehicle turned out to be the best selling fourth volume of the proceedings “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge”. A windfall from the event was the falling-out between Popper and Bartley.

    Latsis carried the ideas of Lakatos into economics and his father, a shipping magnate, funded two conferences in the Greek islands to facilitate the work. The first was held with high hopes, the second was practically a wake although in the afterword to the proceedings Mark Blaug announced his U-turn to accept that the Austrians were correct on some key points (well, Hayek but maybe not Mises).

    After all these diversions into Kuhn and Lakatos, and others like feminism and cognate radical sidelines, the last resort was to read the instructions (when all else fails…) and go back where Larry Boland and Jack Birner had been all the time, taking their cues from Popper the critical rationalist and situational analyst. Sadly Popper’s instructions became confused in his much criticised paper on SA and the Rationality Principle. This is probably the way to go, but more work is required to get the synergy of Popper and the other Austrians. http://alp-centauri.livejournal.com/751.html

  11. Thanks Eric and Rafe for your nice points! I wasn’t aware of the link Stigler-Kuhn, which is indeed very interesting. Clearly, the link Chicago-Kuhn is ironic and fruitful for understanding the impact of Kuhn’s ideas on economics.
    I believe a very important point in this discussion is point 5 of Rafe’s second comment, that “Kuhn had something for everyone”. That explains a lot his original impact in economics. But I keep wondering in a cross-science dimension: why was it so in economics and not in Physics of the same time, for example? More importantly, why is it the case the Kuhn’s ideas seem more present nowadays in economics than in other sciences? (Of course, my “evidence” here is extremely thin and merely suggestive…) I don’t think that there is a simple answer, but I just wanted to hear people’s thoughts on Kuhn’s presence in other sciences nowadays.

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