Deirdre McCloskkey The Rhetoric of Economics

Second Edition, Uni of Wisconsin Press, 1998

Deirdre McCloskey is a passionate advocate of rhetoric in economics as opposed to "big M" Methodology. She likes to project the image of a "tough New York broad" and the result is a style that obscures her message. The bluster and smart-alec citations actually undermine the core of her case which is (I think) that we need to lift our game in critical arguments (which she calls rhetoric) instead of being over-awed by defective statistical analysis and especially by the ruling fashions in the positivist philosophy and methodology of science.

One of the best sources to support that case is Karl Popper but you would never know that from reading this book.

"I started again to read philosophy of science (I had stopped in graduate school, just short of the Karl Popper level). More important, around 1980 I came upon history and sociology of science that challenged the reigning philosophy. Scientists, these crazy radicals claimed, were not the macho saints that Popper said they were." (xi)

Not sure what it means to stop just short of the Karl Popper level, possibly it means she stopped short of reading Popper. She would have encountered the sociology of science (which Ian Jarvie called "the social turn") in chapter 23 of The Open Society and its Enemies, where Popper wrote:

"Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring..."

So much for Popper's description of scientists as "macho saints". To round out Popper's point, whatever objectivity science enjoys does not come from the "objectivity" of individual scientists but from the quality of the discussion (rhetoric) in the profession. This is probably the point that McClosky is trying to make and it is a pity that she did not make it as clearly as Popper did.

In a critical section on modernism (essentially the positivism of the Vienna Circle and the logical empiricists who followed them) she "The logical positivists of the 1920s scorned what they called `metaphysics'. From the beginning, though the scorn has refuted itself. If metaphysics is to be cast into the flames, then the methodological declarations of the modernist family from Descartes through Hume and Comte to Russell, Hempel and Popper will be the first to go." (147)

However Popper was talking about the uses and the value of metaphysical theories in print since the mid 1950s and in lectures since the 1940s. McCloskey was 30 years behind the play and she could have draw on his work to support her case, especially the Metaphysical Epilogue to the third volume of Popper's Postscript to the LSD.

Pressing on with the critique of modernism she wrote "The intolerance of modernism shows in Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) which firmly closed the borders of his open society to psychoanalysts and Marxists - charged with violating all manner of modernist regulations." (158)

I don't recall Popper writing very much about psychoanalysis in the OSE and his main target was not Freud or Marx themselves but people who refused to contemplate any criticism of the master. That does not close the borders to psychoanalysis because Popper considered that there was probably a lot of truth in Freud's ideas if only they were developed under the control of various forms of criticism.

The same applies to Marxism. Popper reacted against doctrinaire and fadist Marxism in the same way that he reacted against doctrines and intellectual fads of all kinds. Of course he regarded Marxism as much more than a fad and so he devoted several hundred pages of analysis to bring out the strong and weak points of it. So where did McCloskey get the idea that Freud and Marx would be banned from Popper's open society? Not from reading The Open Society and its Enemies.

These carping comments do not detract from the positive core of the book if only you can find it amidst the distracting rhetoric, but it seems that she was more concerned with showing off her wide reading than making a clear and helpful case. The silly comments on Popper indicate that none of her friends and associates, or the publisher's readers, or the reviewers of the first edition, know better, which is a sign of something seriously awry in the US house of intellect.

Review by Rafe Champion, May 2011

IndexFull IndexThe Popper page