Throwing down the philosophical gauntlet at Hodgson

In Uncategorized on February 9, 2010 by ariew

I’d like to pick up a theme in Jenny’s last post.

It is hard for me to learn what I should from Hodgson’s paper.  The fallacies come too thick and thin.  On the good side there’s a lot for philosophy students to sink their teeth into.  The challenge for Randy is to make sure that the conversation does not go too deep into Hodgson’s simple errors.  I fear a mutiny!

Here’s just one example.  Hodgson shows where Alex Rosenberg contradicts himself about the scope of evolutionary theory.  So?  Separate people from propositions.  The question is whether an application of evolutionary theory provides any useful insights to economic activities among humans.  The substantive question goes untouched by one person’s contradictory statements.  Nevertheless, there is no contradiction in the substance of Rosenberg’s claims.  Distinguish A) “Darwinian theory is a remarkably inappropriate…theoretical framework for economic theory.”  B) “Evolutionary theory describes a mechanism…that operates everywhere and always throughout the universe.”  Where’s the contradiction?  A and B have different consequences.  To see, think of the theory of general relativity.  It may be true everywhere and always but that fact says nothing about economic activity.  Same for Rosenberg: evolutionary mechanisms might be true and everywhere but irrelevant to the subject matter of economics.

The reason why I worry about Randy’s challenge is that Hodgson’s errors are so basic and numerous that a class of philosophers might be too distracted to get much out of it.

For more substance, we might ask what’s an “analogy”?  Hodgson doesn’t say much even though the (informal) logic of analogies is well known (even to PHL 101 students!).  So, for philosophy students: how could the logic of analogies help give us a grasp on what to make of the analogy between economic activity and evolutionary processes.  If you want to peek at what I think, see here. (The paper appears in (2009) M. O’Brien and S. Shennan (eds.), Innovation in Cultural Systems: Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology) . MIT Press.)


3 Responses to “Throwing down the philosophical gauntlet at Hodgson”

  1. “Separate people from propositions.”

    Agreed. This needs to happen a more than one level. What does Hodgson say about what others have said in the scientific conversation? (Remembering that he has his own perceptual and analytic biases) Take that as given, for the moment. How does the content of the proposition (valid or not) enter OUR conversation? Eventually, we will treat Hodgson as a good source or not — distinct from the propositions. As André warns, getting caught up in Hodgson’s choices ( sorry…) and interpretations is something of a trap.

    “The reason why I worry about Randy’s challenge is that Hodgson’s errors are so basic and numerous that a class of philosophers might be too distracted to get much out of it.”

    This is, in large part, why the seminar topic exists! If the philosophy of science was applied to the issue of the relationships that do and do not exist between biological science and the social sciences of economics and management, how would the resulting papers improve upon Hodgson and Witt? I’ll give you my take this afternoon on metaphor, analogy, heuristics, and (with some trepidation) ontology. As I have seen them in literature you have not been forced to read.

    And, BTW, I have always thought the Witt paper had more flaws than Hodgson’s.

  2. I certainly agree that Hodgson (and Witt’s) philosophical shortcomings are worth noting (and frustrating), but there is no need to discuss (or beat) the dead horse. However, I have two things to mention briefly to perhaps put a more positive take on the discussion today.

    First, both papers seem to demonstrate precisely the lack of clarity that, I presume, has Randy so frustrated by the use of evolutionary terms and analogies in the economic literature. I see both authors as terribly unclear about what the positions they present really amount to, or the lack of real philosophical progress being made by thier discussions. This is where (as Randy points out) philosophers need to help! Rather than focusing solely on what is misguided, confusing, and frustrating with the two papers from a philosopher’s perspective, I think the they very clearly demonstrate that there is some serious work that needs to be done to clear up the mess concerning the application (in various forms) of evolutionary theory within socio-economic contexts. Removing ourselves from the more tedious details might prove a useful starting point. I agree with Randy that philosophers of science need to help improve/revamp the debate, rather than joining the confused existing landscape.

    Secondly, the confusions that arise at several points in these papers wil be influenced by our previous discussions concerning, “what is evolutionary theory?” and our upcoming discussions concerning modeling and other general phil science topics. Any appeal to ‘universal Darwinism’ obviously forces the questions, “what is Darwinism?”, “is it the same as contemporary evolutionary theory?”, “what are the necessary and sufficient condtions for evolution to occur?”, “what sorts of explanations does evoultionary theory offer?”, “are those explanations applicable to other domains; e.g. economics?” I could keep going, but it seems clear to me that there is much philosophical work to be done here before philosophers can really lend a helping hand to the larger issues that arise out of these papers. Also, as André mentioned, although I’m clear on what an analogy is, their place in science is not all that lucid. Especially when we are trying to employ them as a means to eventually providing explanations and methodology across domains of inquiry. I find it really interesting that although biology and socio-economics are supposed by sharing methods, models, and explanatory patterns, I’m not all that sure what exactly they are sharing and what they are stealing from one another (with all the normative force that entails).

    In short, I understand Hodgson and Witt as (unwillingly) crying out for philosophers help. Will we answer the call, or silence our iphones?

    P.S. don’t take the call during seminar.

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