Naturalism in Economics

By Jackson, William A. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Naturalism in Economics


Jackson, William A., Journal of Economic Issues


Social sciences face a dilemma in comparing themselves with the natural sciences. Are they the same kind of undertaking as the natural sciences, or are they different? Should they imitate the natural sciences, or should they develop their own aims and methods? In philosophy, the unity of the sciences is termed "naturalism" on the assumption that all sciences have objects of enquiry rooted in a single natural order. Clearly, however, the social sciences differ in some respects from the natural sciences. They have objects of enquiry that are in part the outcome of human action and perhaps influenced by the ideas and activities of social scientists. They may require, to a far greater extent than the natural sciences, an interpretative understanding of other individuals or cultures. One response to this is an "anti-naturalism" that separates social from natural sciences. Social sciences are thought to necessitate interpretative methods, which replace the empirical and rationalistic methods of the natural sciences. The dilemma, then, is whether to try to establish social sciences on the same footing as natural sciences and share their methods or to stress the peculiar difficulties of social science and draw a firm distinction between social and natural science. Economists have usually chosen the former option.

The possibility of explanatory science implies a realist standpoint: there has to be a reality to be explained. Both naturalism and antinaturalism adopt types of realism, although often implicitly. Naturalism (in its positivistic guises) bases its realism on observation, antinaturalism on interpretation. These implicit types of realism stem from the different methods propounded by naturalists and anti-naturalists and are inconsistent with each other. Neither represents a solid philosophical foundation for scientific activity. Recent philosophy of science has proposed an alterative, more explicit "scientific realism," initially for the natural sciences [Harre 1970; Hesse 1974; Bhaskar 1978; Chalmers 1982] and then, in adapted versions, for the social sciences [Keat 1971; Harre and Secord 1972; Bhaskar 1979; Outhwaite 1987; Sayer 1992]. The goal is to provide a new type of realism that can overcome the naturalism/antinaturalism dichotomy. A realism adapted for social science can lead to a "critical naturalism" that envisages a reality existing independently of the act of investigation but simultaneously recognizes the differences between natural and social science [Bhaskar 1979, 1986]. It will be argued in the present paper that an explicit critical naturalism is a suitable framework for economic theorizing and, in particular, for non-neoclassical economics. The discussion will first set out in more detail the traditional naturalist and anti-naturalist positions, then contrast them with critical naturalism, and finally relate critical naturalism to mainstream and non-mainstream economic theory.

Naturalism and Anti-naturalism

Naturalism unifies the sciences so that there are no fundamental divisions between natural and social science. Human society has no overriding differences from any other objects of enquiry. It is quite feasible to have social sciences in the same vein as the natural sciences: the important distinction is between scientific and unscientific activities, not between natural and social sciences. Such a view was associated with the Enlightenment and later with the positivistic science of the nineteenth century. The hallmark of Enlightenment thought is the denial of metaphysics and thus of any explicit presuppositions about reality. To make ontological statements is frowned on as superstitious and prescientific. Instead, the nature of reality has to be inferred from epistemology, that is, from the approved methods of acquiring knowledge. Naturalism appears in rationalistic and positivistic varieties, each of which has an implicit ontology [Bhaskar 1979]. With a rationalist epistemology, the implicit ontology is an "objective conceptual realism" in which human rationality discovers and gives expression to real concepts, but does not create them. …

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