Economic Culture Wars

26 September 2006 at 3:16 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Mark Thoma points us to an old Paul Krugman column on the “economic culture wars.” There Krugman laments the hostility towards economic analysis expressed by many “literary” or “humanist” intellectuals. Invoking C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” distinction, Krugman tries to explain why a magazine editor added (over Krugman’s strenuous objections) the subtitle “deconstructing the income distribution controversy” to one of Krugman’s articles:

[T]here is a continuing struggle between two ideas of what it means to be an intellectual. One culture is humanist and literary; the other mathematical and scientific. The editor of my article, I now believe, was perhaps unconsciously using the language of critical theory as a way of declaring his allegiance in that struggle; he was saying: “I may write about quantitative stuff like GDP and real wages, but my sensibility is literary.”

I think Krugman’s diagnosis is largely on target, with one important caveat. What Krugman describes as the essentially “mathematical” character of economic analysis I would instead call “logical” or “analytical.” The opposite of literary/humanist, in the cultural divide, is logical/analytical (of which mathematical is a subset). Contrary to Krugman, economics did not become a rigorous, technical subject only after World War II, when verbal economics was systematically replaced by mathematical economics; it had always been so.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ln  |  26 September 2006 at 4:58 pm

    With all due respect – I enjoy reading O&M as much as I enjoyed your PhD-course – I believe this might be seen in a different way. Logic is a discipline of both mathematics and philosophy. The former works with the ‘scientific’ approach the latter with the ‘literary’ approach, but both are analytical. As Krugman points out there are ‘literary’ intellectuals, who do not embrace socalled ‘critical theory’. What he is arguing caused a reaction in him was that his editor used a word from socalled ‘critical theory’ (decomposing) to signal ‘literary’. As I read it further, however, Krugman does recognise that signalling ‘literary’ was needed not to scare away potential readers of the specific article.
    Perhaps O&M readers will recognise that relevant, stringent arguments can be put forth in Latin, but would not be comfortable, if an argument was put forth in that tongue. In parallel I believe that most ‘literary’ intellectuals will recognise that relevant, stringent argument can be put forth mathematically, but do not feel comfortable with them when they are put forth this way. And so in order to have readership to the specific article, Krugman’s editor needed to signal that it was ‘literary’ i. e. did not contain an incompresensible way of arguing to the readership.
    If this was off topic I apologise.

  • 2. brayden  |  27 September 2006 at 8:38 am

    I agree with Krugman’s sentiment in most cases. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that social science is absent a literary touch. McCloskey’s excellent book on rhetoric makes that point better than I can.

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