Postmodernism and Institutionalism: A Reply to Klein and Samuels

By Hoksbergen, Roland | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism and Institutionalism: A Reply to Klein and Samuels


Hoksbergen, Roland, Journal of Economic Issues


It is a great honor to have well-regarded institutionalists like Philip Klein and Warren Samuels respond to my thoughts on postmodernism and institutionalism, just as it is an honor to be able to reply to them. One of the points I made in my original article was that tensions existed within institutionalism around the ideas of postmodernism, which the responses by Klein and Samuels confirm. While Samuels receives the article favorably and tries to elaborate on it and extend it, Klein greets it with a degree of hostility. In the case of Samuels, I believe we are communicating. I think he understands me, and I believe I am growing in my understanding of him. Between Klein and me, on the other hand, there is more distance. To build my communication with Klein, it is important that we try to get at the heart of our differences. Some probably relate to underlying differences of philosophical approach, especially in our acceptance or rejection of postmodern ideas, but I think others might revolve around a breakdown in communication, as many of his objections are directed at positions I do not hold.

Because Klein interprets my article so differently than I would have expected, I would like to begin by summarizing what I take to be the main points of the article. First, in philosophy today foundationalism is dead. Second, postmodernist philosophies, of various shapes and sizes, have replaced foundationalism. Among these philosophies, I find the hermeneutic tradition the most compelling. Third, institutionalism is in a process of integrating into its discussions, and coming to terms with, the ideas coming out of postmodern philosophy. Fourth, this process of integration can be witnessed in the recent lively debate on relativism, with some participants relying on foundationalist patterns of thought and others bringing postmodern ideas into the discussion. And fifth, the integration of postmodern thinking into institutionalist discussions raises a number of tensions within institutionalism, which I believe would be good to resolve.

Among the arguments I do not make, yet for which Klein takes me to task, are (1) that there are no absolutes or universals, (2) that the concept of truth has no relevant meaning, (3) that the Veblenian dichotomy is wrong-headed, (4) that one tradition is as valid as another, and (5) that institutionalism is a poor theory. Let us take a closer look.

On the first two points, that postmodern philosophies have superceded foundationalism, Samuels seems to be in total agreement, though, as he says, he might make some of the arguments differently. Klein, on the other hand, does not accept the passing of foundationalism, saying that he is not willing "to accept Hoksbergen's view that there is 'no objective standpoint and no neutral language'." It was never my intention really to argue this point. I just wanted to lay some groundwork with it. In fact, I find it almost embarrassing to think of this as "Hoksbergen's view," given the fact that I am just repeating and synthesizing what virtually all of the contemporary philosophical community has come to accept. This leads me to think that the burden of proof is on Klein, not on me. If he wishes to provide arguments in defense of foundationalism, or to make a case for a particular objective and neutral foundation (his candidate is "how well it [theory] does the job"), then I wish him well. But I would advise him to prepare his defense well, for he will be mixing it up with some real heavyweights and not an inexperienced lightweight like Hoksbergen.

What intrigues me about Klein's negative reaction is that one of those heavyweights is Richard Rorty, a self-professed pragmatist and torchbearer in the tradition of John Dewey. Klein criticizes me for belittling institutionalism for its postmodern failings, but by building on Rorty's (and Peirce's and Dewey's) thought, I was actually trying to encourage institutionalists for their historically prescient acceptance of many of the philosophical trends that fed into the rise of postmodernism.

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