May 7, 2007

Economics. Philosophy at Peterhouse.

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 4:46 pm

So one of the reasons I’m doing this blog is I want to teach myself economics. And I want to inflict on you, dear reader (dear James McGowan), my ill formed thoughts on the subject.


Because I need some outlet for the rage and frustration I feel every time I pick up an economics textbook. I need some outlet for the thoughts – all obvious and straightforward – that don’t seem to be included in the discipline’s cramped world.

Every time I look at an indifference curve, or read a discussion of marginal utility, I feel an deep, itchy fog seep through my brain. I want to throw the book I’m reading across the room. I want to write an incoherent blog entry denouncing the discipline. (And I will).

Perhaps economics isn’t the subject for me.

But I know this feeling. I remember it from my first year of undergraduate study.

I went up to Cambridge in 1998, to study philosophy. I went to Peterhouse college. Peterhouse, of all places! Home of Thatcher’s “prophet” Edward Norman; alma mater of Portillo and Howard; chilly hotbed of the New Right. The very stones oozed reaction.

The subject I’d chosen wasn’t as bad as that, but it was bad enough. I didn’t know it then (I didn’t know the first thing about philosophy), but Cambridge was one of the most vocal combatants in the culture wars that have split the modern discipline in two. In 1992 the philosophy department had led the campaign to refuse Derrida an honorary doctorate. D. H. Mellor – holder of the chair once held by Wittgenstein! – had explained his reasoning to Cogito magazine: there is “a permanent running battle in some arts subjects between those who think straight about their subjects and those whom Mrs Thatcher described, all too accurately, as ‘the chattering classes’.”

That first year we were drilled in formal logic. The modern discipline – we were told – had been formed by Bertrand Russell, with a little help from Frege, in the early years of the twentieth century. The introduction of logical analysis had cleared the cobwebs of metaphysical mystification; now all would be empiricist lucidity and reasoned pragmatism. These claims weren’t argued for – they were presented as self-evident. And – Catch 22 – their self-evidence could only be understood once we had mastered logical analysis. So we read, again and again, Russell’s article on the Theory of Descriptions. We spent many weeks considering the dilemma of the present King of France. (He’s bald, the poor man) And any question of urgency or meaning was postponed or derided. But what is time? I wailed to one tutor, naively supposing that this was the sort of question philosophers asked. “That’s a meaningless question”, he explained. “It’s like asking why there is something rather than nothing.” (Not a question philosophers have always disregarded). Or: why aren’t we studying any non-Western thinkers? “You should read Schopenhauer. He was very influenced by non-Western thinkers.”

I read Schopenhauer. I found him more compelling than Bertrand Russell. And I found him illuminating when, all but dropping out of the philosophy syllabus, I turned in part to literature. Proust was full of Schopenhauer, as was Beckett, as was Borges. (“Time is the fire that consumes me; but I am the fire. Time is the tiger that devours me; but I am the tiger.”) I practically stopped reading philosophy. In my second year at Cambridge, I got lower grades than any other student in the subject.

But I still had to spend some time on it. And when I did, I felt the same fog. As I sat in lectures and tutorials, being asked to, respectively, swallow and regurgitate the subtleties of the type/token or use/mention distinctions, I felt in my bones that something was wrong. I felt what I can only articulate now: that the philosophical tools we were being trained to use, so as to be able to tackle more difficult or profound problems, already contained, in microcosm, an entire metaphysics; that far from being given the resources we needed to ask the right questions, we were being given answers: the wrong answers.

Easy to say now. But then I thought it was the discipline itself I hated. It was only when I left the University, and began reading outside the analytic tradition, that I began to be able to articulate the frustration I’d felt back then. Now I can tell you – using the resources of Derridean deconstruction – why a heavy emphasis on the use/mention distinction (such as that deployed in Quine’s theory of meaning) can be part and parcel of a questionable metaphysics. And now I know that studying the great philosophers’ treatment of the question of time would reveal Mellor’s Real Time II as the provincial irrelevance it is.

So much for philosophy. But when I now turn to economics, and feel the same fog descend, I feel I have learnt how to respond. When I pick up an introduction to the discipline, and even its most basic propositions throw me into a turmoil of inchoate dissent, I know: however self-evident we are told certain propositions are, if we believe them to be wrong, we should follow that intuition. And: there is no limit to the intellectual bullying and deceit that institutions or traditions will deploy to protect false claims that are central to their continued existence.

But, of course, the situation is not the same.
Part of the reason for Cambridge philosophy’s reactionary defensiveness was the sheer contingency and fragility of its existence. Whatever analytic philosophy may like to believe, it is still a sideshow in the long history of the discipline: it has yet to prove its enduring value. Analytic philosophers’ refusal to even acknowledge the existence of rival schools of thought reveals their insecurity: cultural isolationism the product of fear.

Economics is different. Economists may be frightened of challenges to their beliefs: but if so they are frightened of reality, not rival schools of thought. In the young discipline of economics, the questionable propositions that drive me up the wall really are pervasive. Everyone who has spent even one or two seconds thinking about it knows that the idea of rational self-interested individuals is a preposterous myth. But the idea remains one of the corner-stones of economic thought. And… but the list is endless. (This blog will try to be that list).

It was, all things considered, fairly easy for me to turn away from analytic philosophy. All I had to do was read some non-analytic philosophers. It’s not clear to me that things are so straightforward in economics. Of course, like any other discipline, economics is cacophonous echo-chamber of debate. And there must be countless important dissenting thinkers whose names I’ve never even heard. I know next to nothing, after all. Still next to nothing.
But I’ve a nasty feeling that I’m going to have to rely far more on my own resources than I did when trying to escape the dead hand of analytic philosophy.

This is, perhaps, why I feel the need to get my thoughts down on paper; or get them up on line. I need to make some solid ground, along which I can advance. Hi there! It’s me! How you doing? Want to talk economics? Always eager for information; always eager for insight. Please get in touch.

Or, this could be a flash-in-the pan enthusiasm, here today, gone tomorrow.

Did I ever tell you about the time I wanted to be a comedian?

They’re not laughing now.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: