The issue of historical epistemology

Over the past decades the history and sociology of science has seen the publication of a range of micro and macro studies that substantially shifted the angle of investigation from a focus on theories and ideas to a study that takes the products of science as cultural artifacts that inhabit spatial and material sites, embedded in social settings, crafted by individuals who seldom work in isolation, and that intervene upon social and material cultures. As Ludwik Fleck first demonstrated, the products of science bear witness to their history.

This first holds for the historical actors themselves. To understand the theories of economists like Léon Walras, John Maynard Keynes or others, means to understand the conceptions of science against which they wrote their work. But it also holds for their research practices and their results. The insight that ideas and theories bear witness to a history that is situated in material practices in no strange bed-fellow to historians and philosophers of economics, even though it is only recently that they have explicitly turned their attention to the material and social organization of research, the skills and crafts required for modeling and experimenting, and have begun questioning the extent to which the study of material practices changes our views of economics and their practitioners. Studying the material dimensions of knowledge production implies a caution not to take at face value what first actors say themselves about their doings. Epistemological beliefs and practices may diverge and are to be questioned rather than to be taken as point of departure. The rise of the experimental method at the end of the twentieth century entailed a social and material reconfiguration of the economics discipline, affecting what counts as evidence and good practice.

The architectural settings in which parliamentary debates take place affect the results of deliberations; similarly the physical circumstances of the individual act of voting have an impact on the behavior of electors.

For the historian of economics in particular, a shift from theories to practice raises longstanding anxieties. From the days of John Stuart Mill, (political) economists have been anxious to separate their theories, as a body of truths, from their applications; the “science” should be separated from its “art”. Economic theory thus became emptied out, quarantined from the messiness of politics and society: sites, cultures, and communities are found in the world of practice, but not in the world of theory.

The epistemic and ontological tensions that are thus produced, between theory and practice, between concepts and tools and their applications, between the image of economists as scientists and their functioning as individuals or members of groups who (consciously) intervene in the public and political sphere, are all part of a research interest which we pursue from a historical instead of analytical angle.

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