Reply to Baldwin Ranson: New Continua Are Not a Substitute for Deweyan Inquiry

By Webb, James | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Reply to Baldwin Ranson: New Continua Are Not a Substitute for Deweyan Inquiry


Webb, James, Journal of Economic Issues


I appreciate Baldwin Ranson's care and irenic intent in his comments on my article and subsequent commentary (Webb 2002; DeGregori 2003; Webb 2003). But I must reject his premise that terminological inadequacy is the primary problem affecting institutional economics (as a theorizing enterprise). The problem with (self-conscious) theorizing in institutional economics is that too often big words--"concepts"--are merely labels given to the outcomes of complex processes in lieu of the detailed, critical empirical study required to describe and explain how the processes generating the outcomes are functionally distinguished from other processes. The device used in Ranson's solution--development of a new technical vocabulary based on binary oppositions as the extrema of a series of continua--is not without its own problems.

I believe that Deweyan/Peircean pragmatism as it has been elaborated and extended into the present by contemporary classical pragmatism provides the most fruitful philosophical perspective for inquiry in economics and social sciences. Institutional economists following Clarence Ayres have done a great deal of good, policy-relevant research, have bashed neoclassical economics frequently, and have talked to each other about institutional theory, as they see it. I concur with most of the policy conclusions and mainstream bashing. American institutional economics, at least as a theorizing enterprise, seems to be increasingly marginalized and dismissed from the outside. (1) From the inside, American institutional economics seems to me to be increasingly a theoretically eclectic heterodox melange. I believe that Ayres' inadequate treatment of John Dewey's pragmatisra has played a role in both.

Ayres and the Economics Department at The University of Texas were under constant siege from reactionary state legislators. The technology/institutions dichotomy depersonalizes what is at heart a radical doctrine, especially in the context of Texas state politics of the era; it also provides effective pedagogy for students who are children of reactionary ranchers and fundamentalist Christians. But rhetorical efficacy and scientific inquiry are not equally well served by the Ayresian dichotomy.

Dewey strove to avoid any unbridgeable metaphysical or epistemological separations (1929, 1930, 1938). Dewey's analysis of inquiry enables relevant functional distinctions to be drawn. Function is a verb referring to the operation of some specified process; function is a noun referring to the role played by the specified process in some larger system. Science could be seen as one long series of establishing (and adjusting) relevant functional distinctions.

Dewey's functional distinction between science and technology is not meant to create an invidious distinction between (high-brow) science and (middle-brow) technology but to bring the advantages of the scientific habit of mind to morals and politics. (2) The antithesis of the scientific habit of mind is sham reasoning in which the conclusion is given and argument--from exegesis, selective examples, analogy, citation of authority--is shaped to yield the foregone conclusion.

Ranson's fact-based< >fashion-based continuum appears to be a new name for the instrumental< >ceremonial continuum, which recast Ayres' technology/institutions dichotomy as a continuum. Ranson's continua seem intended to demonstrate the continuity underlying apparent disagreements among institutional economists.

The original Ayresian dichotomy conceptualized technology and institutions as separate and distinct forces (or as the dialectic between the dynamic force of technological accumulation and the static resistance of institutions). Ayres' dichotomy was based on functional distinctions resultant from differences in the internal dynamics of each of these separate and distinct processes. Ayres' dichotomy has a considerable amount of analytical traction and insight that the continua proposed by Ranson do not have.

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