Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jonathan on Keynes on Methodology

Jonathan has his first post up on The General Theory. I want to read it and respond to it more carefully later than I have time to now (on his blog... I always feel bad that instead of commenting on others' blogs I throw up my thoughts on here), but I did want to throw one question out there. Jonathan asks "Does Keynes ever elucidate on the methodology he applies to theory development in economics?" (with more details on motivation in his post). Nothing immediately comes to mind to me, but I would venture that he's a traditional positivist. Jonathan will find that the book is peppered with statements of the form "this seems reasonable but we will have to find out from experience whether it works this way in practice". When it came to wage cyclicality, Keynes offered a speculation in the General Theory, was proven wrong with data in 1938 and 1939 by Tarshis and Dunlop, and recanted in 1939 in light of the evidence. Anybody have any more specific thoughts on Keynes and methodology? Jonathan also mentions epistemology, and I would carefully segregate this from methodology for Keynes. Keynesian epistemology is best found in his Treatise on Probability (1921).


  1. 1) I know, it's probably a lost cause, but I keep trying: Jonathan is wondering about the method Keynes is using. "Methodology" should mean "the study of methods." Fritz Machlup wrote an entire paper arguing this point, and he was right.
    2) It's fine to ask if Keynes discussed method at all, but if he didn't that should not affect or evaluation of his scientific accomplishments: self-consciousness about method is not a prerequisite for scientific success.
    3) Looking to evidence does not necessarily make one a positivist. Positivism is fairly dead as a philosophy of science, but plenty of people still recommend looking at evidence!

  2. Would a method not be what is adopted in a particular case (as in a "methods" section), while a "methodology" is a broader approach to an algorithm for getting at understanding? Method, in other words, is a specific application of your "methodology".

    I'm simply asking as someone who is likely to be a lost cause, but is used to titling a section in a paper "methods" and talking more generally about "methodology".

    I agree on 2, particularly because the General Theory presupposed later empirical work and revision of theory. No point in laying out a method that you're not going to use in that text. I did not take Jonathan to be demanding a method from him so much as curious about it.

    On 3 - I suppose, but I am speaking of scientific practice and not a philosophical critique. Philosophy of science is perhaps a little more useful to scientists than ornithology is to birds, but as a practical matter I'm not sure positivism is so dead as it is as a philosophical matter. Or perhaps I am misunderstanding - I are you suggesting that its time has come even as a practical matter?

  3. Whatever Keynes method you're right that should not really bare on his accomplishments, nevertheless if you don't believe his accomplishments particularly worthy then analyzing the method of his approach could provide an explanation of why he came to the conclusions he did.

  4. No working scientists were ever positivists, Dan, at least not in their work. It was the realization of its unworkability if it actually had been tried as a way of doing science that killed it in the philosophy of science. (For instance, Goodman was showing a severe shortfall of positivism as a prescription with his new riddle of induction.)

  5. AJ Ayer, at one time the leading proponent of positivism in the Anglo world, late in life was asked what the major defects of logical positivism were. He replied: "I suppose most of the defects were that nearly all of it was false."

  6. OK, but I specifically noted I wasn't refering to nor was I particularly concerned with philosophy of science. I certainly haven't defended logical positivism.

    As a practice or method, what ought I to call it - just leave it to "the scientific method" and presume it is clear. I'm not trying to make a deeper philosophy of science claim where I certainly (if imperfectly) understand the limits of positivism.

  7. OK, but then I'd choose a different term (as you are doing in the last post, of course!) -- people are going to think of the philosophy if you use positivism.

  8. As a general rule methodology is just a mask for ideology.


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