How to Combine Rhetoric and Realism in the Methodology of Economics

Economics and Philosophy 4 (1):89 (1988)
The tone of this paper is largely critical. Therefore, I would like to begin by praising Donald McCloskey and Arjo Klamer for their exciting and provocative initiative in the metatheory of economics. They have done us a great favor by opening our eyes to some hidden aspects in the intellectual practices of economists. They have shown that economics is rhetoric; it is persuasion, discourse, conversation, and negotiation, to use their favorite phrases. They have provided plausible arguments and illuminating examples to convince us of the literary character of economic reasoning, notwithstanding the formal languages used by economists and the positivist pretensions typical of the self-image of the discipline. However, McCloskey and Klamer have been less successful in trying to convince us of what economics is not. In particular, it concerns me that they have opened up a gap between rhetoric and realism. They seem to think that because economics has a rhetorical character, it cannot be understood in realist terms. I will argue that this view is mistaken: rhetoric and realism do not exclude each other, but rather they are capable of being combined in a coherent methodology of economics. It is a valuable contribution to import the insights of the newly rehabilitated rhetoric to the metatheory of economics; but it is unnecessary to marry them with enthusiasm about the fashionable anti-realism of Richard Rorty and others. While this is my overall thesis, it is clear that only initial steps towards its substantiation can be taken in this paper. I intend to proceed as follows. I will first make an attempt to locate the problem at hand in the history of the metatheory of economics. Then I will point out those elements in rhetorical metatheory as practiced and defended by Klamer and McCloskey that apparently have anti-realist or non-realist assumptions or implications, either directly or via considerations of scientific rationality. Next I will formulate a few concepts of realism, the differences between which have been ignored in the methodology of economics to this day. Then I will make preliminary attempts to inquire into the mutual compatibility of the rhetorical insights provided by McCloskey and Klamer and realism in this context. I will show that, in principle, there should be no insurmountable obstacles to combining the two; in some of its senses, realism will even turn out to be presupposed by the rhetorical approach. I do not primarily intend to argue for realism as such in this paper. Instead, I will argue for the compatibility of realism and rhetoric. The argument is based on Klamer's and McCloskey's own commitments; in this sense, the argument is immanent to their rhetorical approach. As a final point, I will argue that one should not be indifferent about realism: it does make a difference in economics and in the methodology of economics whether rhetoric is accepted with or without realism.
Keywords Realism in Economics  Rhetoric
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DOI 10.1017/S0266267100000353
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Uskali Mäki (1988). Realism, Economics, and Rhetoric. Economics and Philosophy 4 (1):167.

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