Shadow-boxing with reality

Mulling over the debate under way about general equilibrium and macroeconomics, I picked up Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis for the first time in ages. In the foreword to my 9th (1979) edition, he wrote: “In a hard, exact science a practioner does not really have to know much about methodology. … By contrast, a scholar in economics who is fundamentally confused concerning the relationship of definition, tautology, logical implication, empirical hypothesis and factual refutation may spend a lifetime shadow-boxing with reality.  In a sense therefore, to earn his daily bread as a fruitful contributor to knowledge, the practitioner of an intermediately hard science like economics must come to terms with methodological problems.” Hmm. We have a lot of shadow-boxers, I fear.

(Samuelson adds: “I stress the importance of intermediate hardness because when one descends lower still, say to certain areas of sociology that are almost completely without substantive content, it may not matter much one way or the other what truths or errors about scientific method are involved – for the reason that nothig matters.” Although this probably reflects the view of some economists still, it’s clearly wrong. Financial regulators might not be paying attention to the sociology of banking but they should be – see for example Swimming With the Sharks.)

Interestingly, the early reviews quoted on the back of this edition make it clear that it was seen at first as a book about economic methodology, specifically price theory, rather than a book setting out economics in equations, which is how it was introduced to me back in the day. Rather optimistically, Samuelson also says in the introduction that whereas every educated person used to need to know their Milton and Hazlitt, Greek and Latin, now they should read a mathematical exposition of basic economic theory. Although the book ran to many editions, I suspect it has had few readers who were not economics students. Fewer still these days – all the editions available on Amazon seem to cost a minimum of around £50, though there’s a $40 edition on