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Our interpretation (and hopefully clarification) of Witt’s original categories.

In Uncategorized on February 15, 2010 by collinrice

Josh and I met over the weekend to write up our interpretation of Witt’s distinctions.  The overall goal of our paper is to demonstrate the problems with Witt’s original distinctions and provide a better carving of the terrain for understanding evolutionary economics in terms of the categories Josh and I propose (which he has already posted).  Below is our understanding of Witt’s distinctions.  Any feedback would be much appreciated.

Witt’s ontological distinction is not really ontological at all, in the sense that there is not a difference of opinion about the metaphysical state of the world.  Rather it specifies whether the domain of inquiry of economists is unified with (interdependent, reliant upon, beholden to) the domain of inquiry of biologist.  For Witt, the ontological options are monism and dualism.  The dualist treats the domain of inquiry of economists as distinct from the domain of inquiry of biologists in the sense that they ignore, “possible influences on economic evolution that result from its historical embeddedness in evolution in nature” (Witt, 2008, 550).  In contrast, the monist claims that these domains of inquiry cannot be addressed independently.  That is, they believe, “the mechanisms by which the species have evolved in nature under natural selection … have shaped the ground for, and still influence the constraints of, man-made, cultural forms of evolution, including the evolution of the human economy” (Witt, 2008, 550).  Therefore, the monist claims that biological information must be taken into account when studying economic systems.

Witt causes a great deal of confusion in calling this distinction an ontological one.  Ontology concerns the structure of the world; Witt’s distinction concerns the relevance of the structure of the world to economic inquiry.  As such it is a heuristic distinction not an ontological one.  This of course causes confusion given that the other distinction in Witt’s 2×2 matrix is supposed to describe differences at the heuristic level.

Witt also distinguishes between the heuristic strategies of utilizing “generalized Darwinian concepts” and a “generic concept of evolution”.  The former strategy is employed by economists who find most useful, in investigating economic evolution, the Darwinian concepts of variation, selection, and retention.  The alterative strategy is employed by those who find useful an abstraction of evolution to the most generic terms, which Witt identifies as those of “emergence and dissemination of novelty” (Witt, 2008, 559 footnote 8).  Within biology, emergence and dissemination of novelty occur according to the Darwinian principles of variation, selection, and retention.  Yet, in economics evolution may occur according to other principles.

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One Response to “Our interpretation (and hopefully clarification) of Witt’s original categories.”

  1. I think Witt’s ontological distinction can be interpreted as the question on the autonomy of the discipline. For monism, economics is not autonomous in the sense that biology needs to fill in some explantoy gaps, if I may use the term. For dualism, economics is autonomous, for it can handle the problems it wants to address all by itself, that is, without the help of biology.

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