Archive for May 31st, 2009

At Understanding Society, Daniel Little has an excellent post about the different views towards pragmatism in intellectual circles.

Intellectuals are sometimes accused of being out of touch with the real world. But there is a strong thread of intellectual life that proceeds on the basis of a commitment to linking thought to action, theory to practical outcomes. Karl Marx and John Dewey had at least this in common: they both urged intellectuals to commit themselves to joining the intellectual realm with the solution of humanity’s challenges. This isn’t a universal view; […]

According to a pragmatic perspective, science is not a free-standing system for its own sake; rather, science serves humanity. There should be consequences that flow from research and inquiry that somehow or other lead to resolution of problems that we care about…

A second implication of “pragmatism” in research comes down to expectations about methodology and epistemology. A pragmatic conception of research defines the epistemic values of research results “practically.” A theory or set of measurements should be “good enough” for the needs of the problem, rather than aspiring to an abstract notion of perfect precision…

But there is a little bit of a paradox underlying these comments. We don’t generally know what kind of theoretical advance will be needed or constructive in application to a particular problem. Solving problems requires valid understandings of the mechanisms that give rise to these problems; but discovery of underlying mechanisms may proceed best from apparently unrelated theoretical research. So this seems to imply that the research community as a whole will be most pragmatically successful, if there is some division of labor within the community between “curiosity-driven researchers” and “problem-solver researchers.” (This seems to correspond roughly to the distinction between pure research and applied research.) […]

It is also interesting to realize that there is a parallel theme in Marx’s thought. Marx’s insistence on the unity of theory and practice falls in this general area, as does his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have sought only to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it” (link). Marx didn’t diminish the importance or value of theoretical research; but he insisted on the importance of keeping in mind the relationship between theory and practice, between knowledge and social improvement…

The Chicago sociologists regularly went back and forth between assessment of the current material and social problems that the city of Chicago was experiencing, and formulation of theories and analytical constructs that might assist in better understanding and addressing these problems…

So there is a coherent position to take concerning the relationship between intellectual inquiry and practical outcomes. We might say that one of the responsibilities of intellectuals is to assure that their work ultimately has value, and an important manifestation of value is “contribution to the solution of practical human problems.” However, it is also true that there are other ways in which intellectual work can have value; so the pragmatic approach cannot be considered to be an exclusive one.

Little provides an example of how this balance was struck with Chicago sociologists. Is a similar balance being struck in economics? In general, economics seems to value theoretical work over empirical work. Many Nobel Prize winners happen to be theoriticians (Paul Krugman is the most recent example, although his work is more grounded in practical questions). On the other hand, a number of recent John Bates Clark medalists have been empiricists, notably Steven Leavitt and Emmanuel Saez. I don’t think a discipline is best defined by what happens in the top strata, however. So, this is more of an open question: is economics as a whole putting too much emphasis on theoretical research that leads to little practical application?


Read Full Post »