Chapter 7. What, Then, Can We Say of the Status of Economics?

Table of Contents

The Distinction Between Positive and Normative Theorising, Particularly in Economics
The Questionable Status of Economics within the Human Conversation
Can Moral Philosophy Assist Economists in Providing Policy Advice?

I think that Aristotle was profoundly right in holding that ethics is concerned with how to live and with human happiness, and also profoundly right in holding that this sort of knowledge [‘practical knowledge’] is different from theoretical knowledge. A view of knowledge that acknowledges that the sphere of knowledge is wider than the sphere of ‘science’ seems to me to be a cultural necessity if we are to arrive at a sane and human view of ourselves or of science.

— Hilary Putnam[1]


In the previous two chapters, we looked at the critique that has developed of the Enlightenment project and the implication of that critique for the status of science in general. That critique challenges also the right of reason and philosophy to be the final arbitrators of moral issues.[2] The Enlightenment’s utopian search for epistēmē in moral, political, economic, legal and social theory more generally has failed and will continue to fail. It is now time to turn towards a more detailed application of those ideas to economics. This is necessary because most practising economists retain positivist methodological beliefs that philosophers have long since abandoned.[3] As we have seen above, no science and particularly no social discipline can claim to produce absolute knowledge. Rather, the insights of any conversation, of any story, of any discipline, are forever subject to revision. Economics has sought to appropriate the prestige attached in modern societies to the natural sciences because of their success in the past several centuries in unravelling some of the mysteries of the natural world. Accordingly, we saw the claim in Chapter 1 that economics is the universal grammar of the social sciences—or, as some would say, the queen of the social sciences. A little later, I will have something to say about the attempt of economics to appropriate the particular language of physics. For the moment, however, let us concentrate on the distinction that economists claim can be made between positive and normative theorising.