Is Scientific Economics a "Science of Man"?

"If economics is to be a science of man, it must certainly show that its concern is with a scientifically conceived man, a scientifically abstracted man. But the economic man of the older economists was never scientifically conceived; he was a pseudo-ethical abstraction. And instead of offering economics an escape from ethical and psychological postulates, this conception ratified the connexion. However, the way out of the difficulty is clear, and economic science has already taken it. ' Man', a man of any sort, is not an appropriate subject-matter for any science ; and economics has now come to conceive its material not in the human terms of behaviour, action, desire, satisfaction, etc., but in such quantitative terms as those of cost and price, utility and disutility. Economics is not a science of man for 'man' is not a scientific concept. It is a science of measurements. Its generalizations do not refer directly to a 'human' world, a world of desires, feelings, wants and satisfactions, but to a world of impersonal quantitative conceptions and their relations. The valuations which form the basis of the observations of economic science are, of course, from another standpoint, human desires, but it is not in their character as human desires that economic science is cognizant of them. A valuation in economics is a quantitative measurement; a desire is a price." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 230

It is very interesting that here Oakeshott appears to understand the direction economics is heading, into a world of abstractions that has nothing to do with human actions but is about quantitative relationships between prices, quantities bought and sold, utility, and so on. But what is more, he argues that this is exactly what economics must do to be scientific. Of course this science is not about real human beings, as some ideologues have contended economic science ought to be, because no science can be about real human beings: science deals with an abstract world of quantities. This view does not deny that there are other ways to think about economic matters: one can think about them practically, as does the businessman trying to predict next year's demand for his product, or historically, as does the economic historian, or philosophically, as did Collingwood in his earlier essay (or as Mises often did in Human Action): Oakeshott only seeks to differentiate these approaches from a scientific one.

4 comments:

  1. But the economic man of the older economists was never scientifically conceived; he was a pseudo-ethical abstraction. And instead of offering economics an escape from ethical and psychological postulates, this conception ratified the connexion.

    Is Oakeshott talking about how economic lingo usually mixes into policy/ethical arguments?

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    1. So would he probably be someone who would shake his head whenever someone brings up, say, "people aren't rational" or "scarcity implies property"? I'm trying to figure how similar his sentiments are to mine. I could never understand the relevance of objections like "people aren't rational" or "markets don't self-regulate".

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  2. Do "practical" mean "ethical" here?

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