Throughout his career, Jacob Marschak repeatedly pointed out that since the rationality and efficiency concepts on which conomics is built are intrinsically normative, economics is primarily a normative science. His use of the term ‘normative’ was certainly not akin to the one found in the “Methodology of Positive Economics” by colleague –and adversary- Milton Friedman. Nor does it reflect the definition given by my fellow historians confronted with the positive/normative distinction. Nor does it fit the framework with which I try to make sense of his life and work.

All the same for his idea of “planning.” And several other notions. My work is overcrowded with these  irreconciliable –historically or logically- conceptual frameworks.

“You have the power, you impose your own framework on your story”, I was advised when the issue was discussed during my defense. But if I force an economist’s vision in my own frame, I feel that I am destroying his integrity, that I am caricaturing the subtle, ramified and often frail and shaded structure of his scientific thinking. And if I let my characters speak on their own, I end up with a collection of locked-in minds incapable of communicating with each other, that I hopelessly watch from my own conceptual prison without being able to grasp.


Any suggestion? Any exemple of historical accounts where the issue is well handled?     



7 thoughts on “Locked-in

  1. I think that the answer to your question lies in one word : nominalism. Words, like anything else, have a history and the positive/normative distinction is no exception. If you feel that Marschak’s use of the term is different than that of Friedman, then, you have a story. So you’re not locked-in anymore.
    I noticed a few years ago, when I was a TA at Nanterre that the professor who gave the introduction to economics lectures had an opposite view on the positive/normative distinction than the one one upon which I relied myself. I relied on Neville Keynes’s conceptions (through Colander’s article in the JEP) and in this conception, positive economics is related to “pure” economics, i.e. the study of relations between various variables. On the other hand, normative economics deals with ethics and moral in the society, this is the study of the goals the society wants to achieve. For the professor at Nanterre, it was almost the contrary. Normative economics is the world of models, and positive economics is the study of the economy through facts and figures. I don’t know which conception is the most accurate, but I realized as time goes by, that a lot of French economists and methodologists have the same understanding of the positive/normative distinction. This has a consequence. Whereas someone sticking to Neville Keynes’s framework would certainly classify a book like Foundations of Economic Analysis in the positive economics section, the French professor would probably call it normative.
    One would probably want to criticize one of those two positions, but I think this is useless. They probably correspond to two incommensurable conceptions of the conception between “science” and “reality”. What you can do on the other hand is to try to identify those two conceptions (the British vs. the Continental) and to determine why Marschak adopted the latter and not the former. Congratulations, Beatrice, you’ve got a new article !

  2. I would suggest to re-read Philippe Fontaine’s articles on altruism.

    His solution to your problem (as I see it at least) is not to take the word “altruism” for granted when his historical characters use it, because just as you said it would then create a cacophony between characters holding different definitions of what “altruism” is in economics, + it would not necessarily fit Fontaine’s own view of how altruism should be defined.

    So instead of being embroiled in his historical narrative with the many definitions of “altruism”, his paper uses mainly the expression “seemingly unselfish behavior”.

    First I did not see the need for such a complicated way to talk about “altruism”, but I realized that it gives in fact a reference point from which you can then methodically disentangle the various notions of “altruism” in HET – and there are plenty!

    This way, you respect the plurality of meanings and still are able to keep a distanced point of view. Not the least, this way of writing also gives the opportunity to the reader to picture the complexity behind the apparently simple semantics of “altruism”, without being imposed a particular view by the author.

  3. Intellectual history in general should be filled with this stuff, comparing + contrastig differing notions of evolution, homo oeconomicus, rationality in economics, quantity theories of money. Maybe have a look at Stephan Collini’s work, although it might be a bit heavy going.

    Ultimately, I don’t think you can have the cake and eat it too. There is no felony in having authorial voice in comparing, or telling a story/history. It might even elucidate issues that the original materials could never have addressed.

  4. I agree—this is the most exciting thing a historian can be confronted with. If the meaning of actors’ statements is ambiguous, then it is not only the historian’s right, but the historian’s responsibility to attempt to clarify the actor’s meaning and intentions for the modern reader by analysis of context, particularly what specific problems the actor was responding to. Then, in a further step, one can figure out the ways that conceptual ambiguity affected the way events unfolded at the time.

    My whole book is about the way different ideas of operations research, systems analysis, and decision theory affected the way these related fields transformed themselves and positioned themselves institutionally and intellectually with respect to each other and with respect to policymaking. Marschak even shows up in a section on inventory theory, as he also does in Judy Klein’s forthcoming book!

  5. I will just jump head in first and suggest that Marschak’s argument could be read as using exactly the definition of normative that Friedman is using in the ‘methodology of positive economics’…

    In particular when it comes to efficiency;

    Friedman’s methodological idea is that one should do positive economics and thus study imaginary objects which can be ‘tested’ against the real world, and choose the better performer. In doing so, he makes the implicit assumption that the ‘best’ theory is the most efficient theory…

    Why should efficiency matter? That is a normative choice. Positive economics is meant to be verifiable against the facts, but in prescribing that the most efficient model is the better one, there is a normative argument within the positive position.

    So you could take Marshak’s point to be in the spirit of Friedman’s definition, while it effectively refutes Friedman’s theory, because positive economics by its very nature is normative.

    Oh, and I thoroughly enjoyed the near poetic end to your post – keep that coming.

  6. Yann : yes, that’s precisely the problem. How to write a short and consistent Marschak paper without indulging in having a sub-paper on the positive-normative distinction within it (and one on diverging notions of planning in the forties, and so on). How to keep my thread in the face of incommensurables visions.

    Clement: creative my on vocabulary. Interesting strategy, but difficult when the subject of the paper is a person, not a notion.

    Will: showing the ambiguity, not crushing nor rationalizing it. The skill is hard to master

    Benjamin: Friedman’s use of “normative” is one level ahead that Marschak’s use of “normative.” Impossible to compare the two then. Anyway, my point is precisely how NOT to engage in such controversy in the paper, how to locate him quickly within the intellectual landscape of the forties-fifties, how to convey a picture of the lanscape that would be rough but not distorted, no caricature.

  7. Béatrice, please excuse this late response to your message. I read the blog occasionally.

    Your post struck a chord with me. I think sensitivity to the different meanings attributed to words by different people is critical to historical work. Part of getting to know a particular subject with any degree of intimacy is becoming familiar with the nuances and particularities of their language. Indeed, linguistic traces are a large part of what we have to work with. Thus, were I faced with a recalcitrant Marschak, not using language the way I thought he would or should, I’d take it as a sign that I needed to get to know him better, rather than, so to speak, reach an accommodation with him.

    I was particularly struck by your remarks about a “conceptual prison”. I have found the biggest struggle to be learning to stop, or suspend, thinking as an economist. A training in economics is a necessary point of departure, but it can also quickly become a yoke around one’s neck when it comes to writing history, especially a history that tries to embrace the subtleties of language and human behaviour. For that, I’m inclined to view novels and other fiction as better preparation.

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