Rizvi on Mirowski

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Philip Mirowski as a Historian of Economic Thought* S. Abu Turab Rizvi The smallest subdivisions of science taken separately are dealt with purely in relation to themselves, -- the general, great sciences, on the contrary, regarded as a whole, call up the question -- certainly a very non-objective one -- Wherefore? To what end? It is this utilitarian consideration which causes them to be dealt with less impersonally when taken as a whole than when considered in their various parts (Nietzsche,
1 Philip Mirowski as a Historian of Economic Thought* S. Abu Turab Rizvi The smallest subdivisions of science taken separately are dealt with purely in relation to themselves, -- the general, great sciences, on the contrary, regarded as a whole, call up the question -- certainly a very non-objective one -- Wherefore? To what end? It is this utilitarian consideration which causes them to be dealt with less impersonally when taken as a whole than when considered in their various parts (Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, sec. 6). People write the history of economics for a variety of reasons. Philip Mirowski reveals some of his own motivations in his Confessions of an Aging Enfant Terrible. Thus, when I read a particular economist's advocacy of regarding children as consumer goods, or another insists that Third World countries should be dumping grounds for toxic industrial wastes since life is cheap there, or a third proclaims that no sound economist would oppose NAFTA, or a fourth asserts confidently that some price completely reflects all relevant underlying fundamentals in the market, or a fifth pronounces imperiously that no credible theorist would recommend anything but a Nash equilibrium as the very essence of rationality in a solution concept, I do not view this as an occasion to dispute the validity of the assumptions of their models ; rather, for me, it is a clarion call to excavate the archeology of knowledge that allows such classes of statements to pass muster, as a prelude to understanding what moral presuppositions I must evidently hold dear, given that I find them deeply disturbing (Mirowski 1998: 216). This passage reveals a number of characteristics of Mirowski's writing: the long sentences with a pile of clauses, forcing you to tarry and absorb the message; the message itself delivered straight on, inviting controversy, certainly challenging and pulling no punches; the mixture of practical economics and high theory; the impatience with small questions and approaches, always looking for the big picture; the discomfiting reference (for most economists) to continental philosophy; and the palpable and very personal opposition to mainstream economics. But most of all, it reveals Mirowski’s concern with why certain claims gain currency in particular intellectual milieus. It is the examination of this issue that stands out in his contributions to the history of economics. Philip Mirowski’s methods of inquiry and influential theses have had an enormous impact on the history of economic thought, precisely because his work is about why “classes of statements” pass muster. To write about this issue of legitimacy and * To appear in Steven G. Medema and Warren Samuels, eds., Historians of Economic Thought: The Construction of Disciplinary Memory( Routledge).2 appeal, Mirowski has had to consider illegitimacy, and has had to take into account areas of thinking beyond economics. This has, in turn, caused his work to be influential and controversial at the same time. Some important Mirowskian concerns discussed in this chapter, with these issue in mind, are the genesis of neoclassical economics, the methodology of economics, the place of the history of thought in the economics profession, the relation between the natural and the social, mathematical expression in economics, and cyborg science. Education and Early Projects Philip Mirowski graduated from Michigan State University in 1973 with a degree in economics. He had moved to economics from anthropology, in which he found a lack of attention to theoretical foundations of the subject. His only undergraduate course in the history of economics was with Warren Samuels. He pursued graduate study at University of Michigan, earning a Ph.D. in economics in 1979. His experience of graduate school was disappointing, and he recalls poor teaching and his own lack of interest in much of what he was taught. His first academic appointment was at Santa Clara University, where he began teaching history of economic thought. (Heinonen 1993: 508). Mirowski’s early publications were in economic history (with history of thought thrown in) on topics ranging from business cycles to eighteenth-century stock markets in England (e.g., Mirowski 1985). Other than Warren Samuels, Mirowski’s early influences included the economic historian Gavin Wright—who joined him in reading books such as Feyerabend’s Against Method—and Larry Sklar, the philosopher of science. Mirowski attributes a great deal to his intensive interaction with fellow members—mostly students—of the Union for Radical Political Economics. (Heinonen 1993: 508-509). Two related features of this early history stand out. First, Mirowski developed some lifelong interests: in history of economic thought, methodology and the philosophy of science. Second, like many economics graduate students with unorthodox tendencies (who have the “moral suppositions” quoted earlier), Phil gravitated towards those fields that have been traditionally most congenial to this outlook. These include economic history which, before the introduction of cliometrics and formal modeling into it, was a refuge for those who wished to address the economic reality in a relatively direct manner, without much help from orthodox economic analysis1; history of economic thought, which permitted consideration of alternatives now forgotten in the march to the current state-of-the-art; and methodology and philosophy, since these too permitted looks into the periphery, beyond the blinkered focus of the majority of economists, and provided legitimacy for questioning the foundations of the field. 1 Mirowski himself has asserted the “fact that Fogel and his cliometrics movement were the vanguard of the penetration of neoclassical economics into a stronghold of institutionalists, historicists, and other disgruntled types united by their distaste for the atemporal character of neoclassical economic theory” (1988, p. 123).3 Histories of economics And question the foundations of the field he certainly did. Mirowski is best known as the author of More Heat Than Light. In this work, he made a series of claims, most famous among which is the view that “the progenitors of neoclassical economic theory boldly copied the reigning physical theories in the 1870s…they copied their models term for term and symbol for symbol, and said so (Mirowski 1989: 3). Naturally, then, his work has been controversial. Many historians of thought and economists generally have found it hard to know what to make of Phil Mirowski. Where was he coming from? Where did he fit? In order to answer this question, let us consider the more usual approaches to the history of economics, so that Mirowski’s can be seen in relief. For some time, it seemed that histories of economic thought fell into several categories. Of course, some histories spanned more than one category. First there were those historians who did careful work with the primary texts, paraphrasing and clarifying major themes and figures, constructing chronologies of ideas, illuminating primacy issues, publishing and annotating manuscripts and the like. This was history of economics pretty much for its own sake. The watchwords here are painstaking, careful, and rather dry. Given the paucity of new texts, and the esoteric nature of the work, this was not to be a flourishing breed within the economics profession. Here, one is reminded of Mirowski’s disparaging remark about the “antiquarian pursuits” of historians of economics (1989a, p. 202). Others, those in the next two categories, seemed rather more motivated by particular economic doctrines. Thus the elder statesmen and others of the neoclassical persuasion would seek precursors of their current ideas in previous writings. This accounts for much work on utility, marginalism, demand, and so on. Mirowski certainly disparaged the Whiggish “business of searching for precursors of neoclassical economics theory [which] does seem to be one of the few precarious niches that most historians of economic thought have carved out for themselves in the modern economic profession” (1989: 202). For neoclassical economists, the history was in a sense optional. It contributed little to contemporary economics other than providing a pedigree and some legitimacy. The real economics was done elsewhere. Here, too, one can see that historians of thought would not be a growing school. A third approach belonged to those who did not appreciate such appropriation of their favored historical figures. They sought to revive the true message of a particular economist, and adapt it to the modern context. They opposed the mainstream contemporary theory and sought an alternative foundation in earlier writing. Hence the interest in history of thought for Marxists, post-Keynesians, neo-Ricardians and Austrians who want to clarify what Marx, Keynes, Ricardo or Hayek really meant in contrast to what these figures mean to those with a neoclassical mindset. But since these historians championed an alternative to the orthodoxy, they were not a thriving camp, either. Mirowski has little praise for most historians of thought, citing the field as a moribund specialty (1992a, 1994f). He pulls no punches as he talks of its “catastrophic failure,” inability to provide reflexive distance and perspective, its obsolescence, repetition, incapacity to surprise and entertain, and its irrelevance (Mirowski, 1998: 13- 14). We shall have occasion to return to his views on the profession shortly. For now,4 what is important is that while Mirowski shares something with many of the historians in the three categories, that is not the whole picture. That he shares something with those in the first and third categories is clear. He has worked in the first mold and is certainly responsive to issues surrounding the historian’s craft. He has edited some of Edgeworth’s papers (Mirowski 1994c) and five volumes of Thornton’s collected economic writings (Mirowski 1999). Nearly all of his writings show familiarity with familiar as well as obscure texts and the relevant archival record. He has sniffed manuscript dust with the best of them. Moreover, he can be seen as being united with the third group in his opposition to the mainstream. Yet he has not been a champion of particular figures in the way of the third group. While he certainly shows a great deal of respect for economists such as Veblen and Georgescu-Roegen (and dedicated More Heat Than Light to the latter), his own positive contributions to economics (Mirowski 1991, Mirowski and Somefun 1998) are not based on reconstructions of these figures. Since his view of economics as being analogous to contemporary physical theories does not exclude Ricardo or Marx, say, the current champions of these figures have themselves disputed Mirowski’s claims. Overall, it is difficult to place Mirowski in one of the three categories. But if Mirowski is not “just” doing history, finding precursors, or rehabilitating a historical figure, what is he doing? My suggestion is that he represents a way of writing history of economics that is more aware of contemporary intellectual trends than any of the categories of historian I described. While Mirowski is certainly not the only one to do so, he has responded to (though he has certainly not always agreed with) the intellectual currents of past three decades. Upheavals in the philosophy and anthropology of science, the rise of science studies, feminist thought, postmodernism, structuralism, constructivism, hermeneutics, relativism and so forth—that is, some of the trends that more conservative historians such as Blaug have caricatured as mere anti-modernism, anti-foundationalism, post- structuralism, hermeneutical deconstructivism, discourse analysis, radical relativism, end- of-philosophy critique (Blaug 1994: 130). One example of Mirowski’s broadening of what constitutes legitimate history of economics can be seen when he writes that: …some of the most profound and imaginative work in the history of economics is done by historians such as Lorraine Daston, Ted Porter, and Tim Alborn, and that the history of economics must shake off its Smith/Ricardo/Marx/Keynes complex and its Whiggish bias and evince a truly interdisciplinary imagination if it is to survive. (Mirowski 1992: 221) In this quotation, he finds a great deal of value in the work of (general and science) historians rather than in the typical occupations of historians of economic thought. The expansion of the disciplinary landscape makes Mirowski’s work challenging for a traditionally trained historians of economics, but also makes it more contemporary. This background also helps to explain Mirowski’s reluctance to stay safely within the boundaries of typical economic discourse. Economics is “de-centered” by being seen as part of general intellectual trends; similarly, its history has also to be part of general intellectual history. We will return to this theme.
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