Deirdre McCloskey is a passionate advocate of rhetoric in economics as opposed to “big M” Methodology. She is a well-qualified and hugely published economist with a current project to produce several fat volumes of history and rhetoric to demonstrate the role of the bourgeoise virtues in generating the comfort and freedoms that we enjoy these days.
She likes to project the image of a “tough New York broad” and the result is a style that obscures her message. Some of the rhetoric 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 scientism, 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 of course Karl Popper but you would never know that from reading The Rhetoric of Economics, first published in 1985 and reprinted in 1998. The sources that she used to support her case tend to undermine it, at least in my opinion, such as Rorty, Feyerabend, Kuhn and Habermas.
To convey the flavour.
“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 (and why leave it to graduate school?). She could have encountered the sociology of science (which Ian Jarvie called “the social turn”) in Popper (1945), in chapter 23 of The OSE.
“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 critical public discussion (rhetoric) of the profession, or at least the community of interested people (I am wary of professionals and professionalisation).
In a section headed “Modernism is a Poor Method: For One Thing, it is Obselete in Philosophy”
Modernism is a shorthand for positivism.
“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 when this book appeared in 1985 Popper had been 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 so far as Popper and metaphysics was concerned.
“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 the critique that immediately comes to mind (in one of the chapters of Conjectures and his autobiography) was directed at those people (found among devotees of Freud and Marx) 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.