"Natural History" as a trap for nascent sciences

But this does not mean that all thought, coming under the general head of economic thought, is scientific in character nothing: indeed is clearer than that economics as a science is hindered by extraneous interests and led astray by false pursuits. But in this respect, also, it is not unique among sciences. If economic science is not yet free from the concepts and requirements of so-called Descriptive Economics, a kind of natural history such as is found in the infancy of every science, the same is true of biology and scientific psychology. Natural history and science are, of course, not inimical to one another; but a science must be more critical of its friends and relations, with whom it may become entangled, than with its enemies from whom it is well and securely enough distinguished. Descriptive economics, because of its connexion with the world of practice, is a dangerous companion for an economic science. And it is, perhaps, on account of this connexion that economic science has not yet learned that it can borrow and carry with it into its own world no element of the world of perception which it has not discovered how to transform, that it has not yet learned that a science must make its own material as well as its own conclusions. And again, economic science is more intimately connected with the attempt to apply its conclusions to the world of practice than is healthy in a young science. Physiology has become a science not on account of its connexion with medicine, but in spite of it. This interest in practical life is not, of course, illegitimate; it is merely dangerous from the standpoint of scientific thought. And when we consider the confusion which this connexion with practice has caused merely in the vocabulary of economics 'economic conditions', 'economic events', 'economic consequences', 'economic needs'—it is difficult to dismiss the danger as negligible. Setting aside the merely misconceived attempts to apply the generalizations of economic science directly to the practical world, this underlying preoccupation with practical life and practical problems can still be seen to lead economics aside from the path of science. And where applicability to the practical world, the capacity to foretell a situation, is taken to be a criterion of the validity of the generalizations of an economic science, what was merely irrelevant turns to actual error." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, pp. 232-233


  1. Isn't "descriptive economics" a science?

    1. Oakeshott (and I) would place it in the "natural history" category.