The octopus

The debate that began in the comment box has now moved to Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles. I confess that I misjudged this affair. I thought I could jest with DeLong and I now get my comeupings, a good post by him but prefaced by a sort of character assassination that extracts the first two items of our discussion but forgets to pick up the other two (where in my humble opinion I look a bit better… and make clear my motivation is not “protecting my turf” it is calling for better scholarship). And now a lot of angry folks coming over to visit this blog ready to trash at our poor academic ethics.

I think DeLong has been very thoughtful and I relish the chance to answer him. This is not the first time that I read him on the topic. In 2008, I had noted his retelling of formative experiences with the history of economics, and the new post echoes the earlier one.

DeLong’s critique is that an historian should never dismiss the possibility that Adam Smith was offering a composite of economics, psychology and philosophy, and take a priori the alternative claim that Smith’s writings are part of that much broader unity Foucault called Episteme. I don’t see in DeLong’s post a fleshed out the argument about why one should opt for the Janus faced reading. There are a few clues, he rejects my reading as “fastpaced” (and we know “fast is bad”) and the double reading is well, twice a “fastpaced” one. On recall of his earlier 2005 post on the Episteme, I imagine that DeLong is suggesting a test on the episteme thesis. Or perhaps he is just setting up a more layered, plural set of readings, “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I think this is all reasonable.

But what if I don’t want to test the episteme? What if the history of economics is not even about “reading” and nailing down an interpretation?

DeLong’s emphasis is on “reading”, but historians of economics can do about other things too, with other records, with other questions. (As Vivienne Brown has long noted, there is an abuse of the canon in projecting upon Smith the problems of today’s social science. To no other author in economics does this happen as much as for Smith, the poor guy is cited for all kinds of conflicting purposes.) I am no Smithisian scholar, I write on the history of economics post-1945, but I have been privileged to teach the topic. In that setting I have come across some of the Smith literature, extensive as it is. Given that the subject of the working paper that started this all was the place of the economist in society (the worldly philosopher) I would have thought that a more fruitful approach would be to escape the tired debate about where Smith fits in the disciplinary grid. Is he a psychologist? A philosopher? An economist? What a tangle that is, particularly if the authors that argue that moral philosophy was then understood as part and parcel of natural philosophy are right (vide Schabas, vide New Voices), in that sense he would be a physicist too…

And does it get one anywhere? I think an historian of economics approaching this topic might do better by asking what work Smith’s text did in his society. What contexts nurtured its production and what debates it fortified and participated in? Why then not recognize that there is a whole school of political thought, the Cambridge School, Quentin Skinner, Emma Rothschild, and others that have approached Smith from the perspective of political history and seen how this work fits the pre-revolutionary debates of the Enlightenment. (This work, to which Tribe is somewhat associated too, runs into the 19th century in the work of Donald Winch, into the 20th century (this time without economists) with Stephan Collini). What made me cringe is that to look at the disciplinary grid is so far away from the issues and from an understanding of what history can contribute to the question posed.

The same is true of my other complaint that is missing from the re-posting. A reference in the Shiller’s text to the Baltimore Sun as record of the professionalization of economics. This seems to trivialize how momentous the academicization or professionalization of economics was… I would suggest the work of Mary Furner, Robert (Bob) Coats, Dorothy Ross, Ted Porter, Tim Leonard among others that have written about the Progressive Era and its formative influence on the American social sciences? And on the general topic of the profession how about reading the work of the Berkeley sociologist Marion Fourcade.

I don’t want to be writing down a reading list here, it seems inappropriate for this medium. The Shillers’ intuition that history matters for the subjects they raise is absolutely correct. Maybe they can write this history, but in the working paper they are far from it.

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3 thoughts on “The octopus

  1. Tiago, you do not have to justify yourself that much. Your first post was perfectly legitimate. This is a blog post. You do not have to substantiate the argument much. It is about your primary reaction to something you consider as a faulted piece of scholarship and you are not refereeing it for an academic journal either. Brad De Long’s reaction is as legitimate as your post. He strongly disagrees and you react with a humorous twist – which he obviously did not get right. Fine, this is what blogs are for. Then comes DeLong’s “crucifixion” on his own blog. This becomes far more ambiguous – and a tad vicious, I would say. DeLong does not treat your discussion as something that happened on a blog but as an academic controversy. Now, he can appeal to his credentials as an economist and correct the young foolish historian of economics who thought he could fearlessly correct the economist. The biter bitten. Tu quoque, mi fili. This could end up in a long explanation about epistemes, the methodology of history and so on. My own basic interpretation of the controversy would involve the most-commented two-culture divide and the analytical past vs. historical past dichotomy.
    But this is not the issue, here. What is at stake, actually, is the fact that you (we) believe that the Shillers’ paper encapsulates a poorly drawn historical argument and that the other guys (the crowd of haters who commented on De Long’s post) feel that the young historian with few publications has not right to correct the renowned economists with a publishing list to die for. It is nothing but an authority argument. The truth is that it is ok to write a bad article from time to time. Paul Samuelson committed a few bad historical papers in his own time and yet he did not steal his Nobel Prize – that is my poorly drawn historical argument but I believe I have the right to write it in a comment box on a Saturday morning before having a couple of drinks.
    End of the drama. But in the meantime we can thank Brad DeLong for the unsolicited publicity!

  2. First off, thank you very very much for the reference to Margaret Schabas. I’ve been delving into the history of natural philosophy over the last couple of years on my blog, and was just recently talking about the need for more thinking about the relationship between economic/political philosophy and natural philosophy. Her work is right on target here, and it’s a HUGE gap in my reading. I have already downloaded the entirety of the 2003 History of Political Economy supplement, and will probably be buying a couple of books as well. Much fascinating reading ahead!

    On topic: this whole affair has turned out to be very interesting indeed. For what it’s worth, I’m with DeLong that the “anachronism” in the Shiller piece isn’t really that awful, even if the terminology isn’t 18th-century. I’m pretty sure historians of ideas have, at least sometimes, referred to the “psychology” of Leibniz, or the “anthropology” of Montesquieu.

    That said, I don’t see how your complaint about that particular line — clearly intended as a handy example of what you didn’t like about the piece in general — occasioned a big essay on how to read Smith, or how that bears on the validity of your complaint.

    The issue now seems to me straightforward. I think we can all agree that the Shiller piece doesn’t build a historically rigorous argument. The question is: does it have to?

    I’ve seen enough think pieces that draw loosely on history to see it as a long tradition (cf. Yann’s comment on Samuelson). So it seems arbitrary and in bad sport to me to suddenly start putting the axe down on particular new pieces in this tradition. So, if you do put the axe on it, it seems reasonable to ask for an explanation of what’s so especially bad with the particular piece.

    However, I’d say it’s perfectly legitimate to start demanding, in general, that professional journals in economics make use of the historical expertise that is already available within their own departments, if they allow that historical reflection is indeed worthy of publication from time to time (as well they should).

    I also very much like the approach in this post, which simply points, even if briefly, to the richer material that is available. I don’t think anyone could object to that.

    Finally, thanks for helping lower the tone in this episode — you did better than me in that respect.

  3. Really Yann/Tiago? You do not have to justify yourself so much” if you write that a piece of work is “bad” – we do when it’s good. Then you claim a “sort of character assasination”; while “crucifixion” and “vicious” sneaks into a comment, admittedly on a Saturday morning.

    I’m sorry to say that this is all a bit pathetic. This is an open forum where everyone is welcome, and where we expect sensible and inclusive debate. At least I do. Tiago, you fired from the hip, and when questioned in earnest simply shot off again. There was an argument waiting to be made, but by now we’ve lost that to silly rhetoric and claims that everyone missed the joke.

    When something is written it is there for everyone to read and ask questions of. Maybe next time you’ll have the common courtesy to provide a proper answer when asked. I know you would have done so in person as you tried in the latter half of this post. All that, and it’s nearly midnight 😉

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