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A friend clued me in on a series of lectures that George Soros gave on his theory of reflexivity last October at the Open Society Institute. I was surprised by how much it resonated with other critiques I’ve read about neoclassical economics, albeit from deeper-than-usual philosophical underpinnings. Here are some excerpts from this first lecture, which introduces the theory:

I can state the core idea in two relatively simple propositions. One is that in situations that have thinking participants, the participants’ view of the world is always partial and distorted. That is the principle of fallibility. The other is that these distorted views can influence the situation to which they relate because false views lead to inappropriate actions. That is the principle of reflexivity. For instance, treating drug addicts as criminals creates criminal behavior. It misconstrues the problem and interferes with the proper treatment of addicts. As another example, declaring that government is bad tends to make for bad government.

Both fallibility and reflexivity are sheer common sense. So when my critics say that I am merely stating the obvious, they are right-but only up to a point. What makes my propositions interesting is that their significance has not been generally appreciated. The concept of reflexivity, in particular, has been studiously avoided and even denied by economic theory…

Economic theory is built on the concept of equilibrium, and that concept is in direct contradiction with the concept of reflexivity…

The concept of reflexivity needs a little more explication. It applies exclusively to situations that have thinking participants. The participants’ thinking serves two functions. One is to understand the world in which we live; I call this the cognitive function. The other is to change the situation to our advantage. I call this the participating or manipulative function. The two functions connect thinking and reality in opposite directions…

In the real world, the participants’ thinking finds expression not only in statements but also, of course, in various forms of action and behavior. That makes reflexivity a very broad phenomenon that typically takes the form of feedback loops. The participants’ views influence the course of events, and the course of events influences the participants’ views. The influence is continuous and circular; that is what turns it into a feedback loop.

Reflexive feedback loops have not been rigorously analyzed and when I originally encountered them and tried to analyze them…Feedback loops can be either negative or positive…

According to Popper, scientific laws are hypothetical in character; they cannot be verified, but they can be falsified by testing. The key to the success of scientific method is that it can test generalizations of universal validity with the help of singular observations…

These difficulties do not preclude social scientists from producing worthwhile generalizations, but they are unlikely to meet the requirements of Popper’s scheme, nor can they match the predictive power of the laws of physics.Social scientists have found this conclusion hard to accept. Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call “physics envy.”

There have been many attempts to eliminate the difficulties connected with the human uncertainty principle by inventing or postulating some kind of fixed relationship between the participants’ thinking and the actual state of affairs. Karl Marx asserted that the ideological superstructure was determined by the material conditions of production and Freud maintained that people’s behavior was determined by drives and complexes of which they were not even conscious. Both claimed scientific status for their theories although, as Popper pointed out, they cannot be falsified by testing.

But by far the most impressive attempt has been mounted by economic theory. It started out by assuming perfect knowledge and when that assumption turned out to be untenable it went through ever increasing contortions to maintain the fiction of rational behavior…

I contend that situations that have thinking participants have a different structure from natural phenomena. The difference lies in the role of thinking. In natural phenomena thinking plays no causal role and serves only a cognitive function. In human affairs thinking is part of the subject matter and serves both a cognitive and a manipulative function…

I had to abandon my reservations and recognize a dichotomy between the natural and social sciences because the social sciences encounter a second difficulty from which the natural sciences are exempt. And that is that social theories are reflexive. Heisenberg’s discovery of the uncertainty principle did not alter the behavior of quantum particles one iota, but social theories, whether Marxism, market fundamentalism or the theory of reflexivity, can affect the subject matter to which it refers…

I propose a simple remedy: recognize a dichotomy between the natural and social sciences.  This will ensure that social theories will be judged on their merits and not by a false analogy with natural science. I propose this as a convention for the protection of scientific method, not as a demotion or devaluation of social science. The convention sets no limits on what social science may be able to accomplish. On the contrary, by liberating social science from the slavish imitation of natural science and protecting it from being judged by the wrong standards, it should open up new vistas. It is in this spirit that I shall put forward my interpretation of financial markets tomorrow.

In my class on Marxian Economic Theory, I was taught that Marx’s materialism, in which real conditions shape our consciousness, was introduced against the idealism of Hegel, which allows ideas to shape reality. Soros’ approach seems like a synthesis of these dialectics, and it’s unsurprising that the upshot is a lot more uncertainty about what shape the world will take. Anyways, there’s a lot more in Soros’ other lectures, which I’ll post about at another time. 

 

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