On Operationalisms and Economics

By Hands, D. Wade | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2004 | Go to article overview

On Operationalisms and Economics


Hands, D. Wade, Journal of Economic Issues


Most writers on economic methodology tell essentially the same story about "operationalism." Operationalism was the philosophy of science popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Percy Bridgman; the main text was his Logic of Modern Physics, originally published in 1927, but a number of different variants of the program appeared in the literature during the period 1930-1950. There was never a definitive rejection of the program, but because of technical difficulties and also because of its general identification with positivist philosophy of science, discussion of operationalism has effectively disappeared from the philosophical literature. Operationalism was most stridently promoted in economics by Paul Samuelson, who offered it as the methodological backdrop for many of his early theoretical contributions, particularly Foundations (1947) and revealed preference theory (1938a). Although operationalism continues to receive a certain amount of ritual endorsement from practicing economists, few, if any, actually abide by (or even attempt to abide by) its methodological maxims.

The purpose of this paper is not to replace this standard story about operationalism with an alternative, equally condensed, view. The standard story is fine as far as it goes; it just does not go very far, and there is a much more complex, and much more interesting, story to be told about operationalism in general and its relationship to economics in particular. Although the following discussion constitutes little more than a few first steps in an ongoing and much larger project concerning the reception of positivist ideas-and the corresponding demise of pragmatist ideas-within American economics during the interwar period, it does provide a very different reading of the intellectual history of operationalism and in particular how such ideas might be, well, operationalized in economics. The discussion will focus on the variation among operationalist views (hence the title), and even though the standard interpretation admits that operationalism was more of a broad general framework than a single unified position, I will argue that the variation was actually much greater than commonly recognized. In addition, when we turn beyond the philosophical literature to the question of how operationalism was interpreted within the social/human sciences, then the variation becomes even more pronounced. The bottom line is that certain supporters of Bridgman's operationalism--John Dewey in particular--considered the main operationalist message, and its methodological implications for the social sciences, to be precisely the opposite of the message promoted by Samuelson in economics and by mid-century behaviorists in psychology.

The paper is arranged as follows. The first section will review the standard interpretation of operationalism with an emphasis on its relationship to logical positivism and the so-called received view of scientific theories. The second will consider how operationalism was interpreted in economics, particularly by Samuelson. The third will examine Dewey's very different, pragmatic reading of operationalism and highlight how antithetical the pragmatic interpretation is to that of Samuelson and the behaviorists. The final section will attempt to answer the so what? question and bring the discussion home to the history and methodology of economics.

Cognitive Significance, Correspondence, and Operations

The operationalist program presented in Percy Bridgman's Logic of Modern Physics (1927) is more often viewed as a friendly amendment to logical positivism than as a new, free-standing framework for the philosophy of science. In particular, it is viewed as one specific answer to the general problem of correspondence rules that played such an important role in the Vienna Circle's characterization of the structure of scientific theories. According to the early logical positivists, scientific theories consist of three main parts--logical, theoretical, and empirical--and each of these three parts is couched in terms of its own separate vocabulary. …

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