[OPE-L] Schumpeter on the role of history in theorising

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Feb 07 2007 - 19:46:08 EST

Hi Jerry,

I cannot give you a really substantive answer to you questions yet. I just
acquired an old copy of JAS "History of Economic Analysis" which I have to
work through yet, I had read some of his other writings, but really have to
read this one.

But, essentially, I think S.'s concern was similar to Marx's, i.e. by what
processes do we actually arrive at our generalisations, and here the
historical context is often very important - among other things, by placing
things in broader perspective, and showing the true proportions of problems,
so we don't make mountains out of molehills and vice versa. Schumpeter does
raise the question, "Is the history of economics a history of
ideologies?"and he acknowledges Marx's importance, but argues Marx was blind
to the ideological elements in his own theory, that he operated with a too
crude class-reductionism of economic interests, and too hastily condemned
statements which "display ideological influence" as ipso facto 'fake' in
some sense. S. discourses at length about "ideological bias", and possible
ways to overcome it or prevent it.

Just two illustrations that just came to mind, about the importance of
history in theorising:

1) when I was a varsity student in New Zealand, leftwing people were all
raving about Althusser, and when I first studied Marx in a course I was
introduced to Althusser and so on. It was like, he was the Talcott Parsons
of Marxism. But, anyway, what did I really know about Althusser himself?
Well, nothing. What did I know about the intricacies of the politics of the
PCF? Nothing. It was in a sense disembodied theory, insofar as I lacked
biographical or historiographical context, only later do you read more
around the subject, and can understand better what it was really about.
Still later, I learnt he'd gone a bit mad and strangled his wife, came as a
shock to me even although I had already decided he wasn't a good guide to
Marx anyway (the best thing he did, was to say "Lire le Capital" which I
did, with a lot of struggle - his co-thinker Etienne Balibar really was, I
think, a far superior thinker).

2) Or to take a more topical example: how can we really understand anything
about the conflicts in Iraq at the moment, without understanding anything
about the history of it? I quoted on OPE-L previously a soldier who said -
somewhat surrealistically -  he didn't really get all that much from the
preparatory powerpoint presentation (it reminded me of that Dire Straits
popsong, "Ride across the river"). Of course, the pragmatic policymakers in
Washington don't care too much about history, it distracts from action -
things are true if they work, if they are effective or successful, and if
they aren't, you try something different. That's pragmatism. Of course,
things are not true because they work, they work because they are true, "in
some sense", and discovering exactly what that sense is, requires a real
analysis. Plus of course they don't want to look at history anyway, insofar
as it would reveal unpleasant facts - such as, how the CIA assisted
Hussein's rise to power, arms sales to Iraq, the bloody record of foreign
interventions in that country, the legalised looting etc. History is okay,
if it helps to justify present policy etc. I recall protesting against the
first Gulf War, and having a devil of a time just trying to work out what
was really happening there. There is a much better literature on it now,
people realise it's importance. Even so, the most grotesque claims are still
made about Islam, things that it would never occur to anybody to say about
Christianity, which in truth had a far bloodier history.

Understanding the history of something can demolish a lot of bunkum, but
equally history can also invent or revive justifying myths. As they say,
history is usually rewritten by the victors in battles, to cast themselves
in an especially good light, and insofar as pragmatism is all about
successful action, a pragmatic view of history may not illuminate very much
about the real course of events, beyond providing cases of apparently
exemplary people or actions to learn from. Historical truth is perpetually
contested, and offers no epistemic guarantees, which helps explain why
pragmatism often has little use for it.

My gut feeling about your question though, is that theory uninformed by
history = generalisations undisciplined by the relevant facts of experience.
And if this is so, then it cannot provide a reliable guide for behaviour. At
best, we could in that case creatively and flexibly change theories as soon
as experience showed theory to be inapplicable. A scholar might do that,
insofar as his own intellectual metamorphosis is of little consequence, or
has little practical import. But in that case, we are really dealing with a
more or less creative eclecticism, frivolity and dilletantism, i.e. with an
inability to genuinely theorise something, in such a way that it will stand
the test of time. If people bother with Marx at all these days still, it is
presumably because he applied a profoundly historical mode of thinking,
which could separate out enduring trends from more episodic and temporary
developments, in a rather comprehensive way. This involved obviously taking
theory seriously, but also, being very aware of the historical context in
which it was formed and in which it developed.

It is BTW IMO interesting how, in his notes on Adoph Wagners "Textbook of
Political Economy" (1881), Marx says irritably that: "I do not proceed from
"concepts," hence neither from the "concept of value," and am therefore in
no way concerned to "divide" it. What I proceed from is the simplest social
form in which the product of labour presents itself in contemporary society,
and this is the "commodity." This I analyse, initially in the form in which
it appears." etc. etc. Thus, Marx's own claim is very much that he starts
his analysis from observables, and not from theory or concepts. The concepts
and theory are introduced to help explain observables (a point that is often
forgotten I think). If the theory and concepts do not do that, you might as
well ask, "what is the point of theory?". And the only point there can be,
in that case, is a subjective one: to interpret something in a way which is
personally satisfying in some way, or dare I say it, "self-interested". And
it's exactly there that postmodernism can become a plague, rather than a
real liberation from theory that talks in a rootless language never heard in
real life.


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