The ontology and the epistemology of Economics as a (social) science: Discussing a lecture by Professor Clive Spash

The first lecture of this year’s Summer School on Alternative Economic and Monetary Systems (AEMS) invited students and organisers alike to question the very foundations of their way of thinking. With his insightful lecture, Prof. Clive Spash took the listeners' hand in his own for a journey into the deeper philosophical bases of Economics and all the other social sciences.

Without pretending to summarise the wide range of topics discussed during the meeting, this blog post will propose a critical appraisal of Prof. Spash's interpretation of the relation between philosophy and (social) sciences. For comparison, the common sense shared amongst most academics and, especially, practitioners is that Philosophy and (Mainstream) Economics have little in common. At most, the two may intersect when it comes to morals (I used morals to indicate the specific field of Moral Philosophy), which can offer a guide for difficult allocative choices. On the contrary, Prof. Spash argues that any sincere endeavour to produce knowledge is to define the object of enquiry. Thus, social sciences cannot avoid to deal with ontology — i.e., to reflect on what is the substance of (social) reality. As important as the ontological discussion may be, however, Prof. Spash does not see it as an end in itself. And here is where his arguments  stand out the most. As a matter of fact, Economics - just like political science - prides itself with offering a distinct methodology to analyse the world. Even though experts in these fields often do not realise it, each methodology and the set of methods it offers entail precise conception of the (social) reality to be studied. Hence, in Clive's reconstruction, the very essence of social sciences as a more or less separated discipline is reconnected to their unspoken assumptions about what the (social) world is made of - and, more importantly, what is considered worth studying. Unfortunately, the word limit of this blog post does not allow to explore the deep repercussions that this radical approach generates, aimed at unveiling the allegedly 'neutral' presuppositions underpinning mainstream understanding of humankind's quest for knowledge, in more detail. However, Prof. Spash's many published works and his relentless activity as  a lecturer and public speaker will hopefully provide many people with a possibility to listen to his remarks.

Notwithstanding the generally very positive reception that this lecture deserves, there are a few critiques to Prof. Spash's arguments which are far from preposterous. For instance, by excluding intuition from the list of legitimate sources of knowledge, Prof. Spash puts himself on a collision course with many great thinkers whom he nonetheless shares many conclusions with. Not least, he deprives his argumentation of the possibility of building on the insights contained in the works of Bealer, Bergson (especially Time and Free Will), Huemer, Pust, and to a certain extent Bertrand Russel himself (see The Problems of Philosophy).

In conclusion, this lecture can easily compete for the title of most captivating of the entire AEMS. Overall, despite being relatively long, the lecture felt more like a fireside tale on the fallacies of the human mind than the usual, pedantic sermon delivered from behind the teacher’s stall.

Written by: Fabio Ashtar Telarico

Based on the lecture "Philosophy of sciences & history of economic thought" by Clive Spash during the AEMS Summer School 2021

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