Deirdre McCloskey on Popper and rhetoric

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.

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12 Responses to Deirdre McCloskey on Popper and rhetoric

  1. Dear Rafe,

    Thanks for your engagement with some of my writings on the philosophy of science. The bluster and smart-alec citations actually undermine the core of your case, which seems to be that I do not pay sufficient homage to Popper, and too much homage to post-Popperians such as Feyerabend. I don’t get why you think we should stick with Sir Karl, who seems to me suspended between the Wiener Kreis (uh oh: smart-aleck citation) and post-modernism. Perhaps you could offer something by way of argument?


    Deirdre McCloskey

  2. Rafe says:

    Deirdre, you don’t need to pay homage to Popper, you just need to understand the turns that he introduced into philosophy so you can recognise him as an co-worker in the push for more helpful academic conversations. The ball is in your court to offer arguments for your take on Popper because you have not backed up your critical assertions with arguments and extracts from his books.

    This is a very strange situation, it seems that you have lived a long and productive life in acadamia but never had a colleague or associate who knew enough about Popper to help you to get over the almost universal misrepresentation of his ideas in the literature. Though in the North American philosophical literature he is usually not mentoned at all.

    For the Popperian “turns”.

    And a more helpful reading of Popper as a “fallibilistic apriorist” rather than a falsificationist or an eccentric positivist.

    How Parsons, von Mises and Popper could have ganged up to keep positivism out of economics.

  3. Lee Kelly says:

    Two comments:

    1) It seems obvious that McCloskey has a very shallow understanding of Popper, at best, or she just doesn’t know what she is talking about, at worst. He was certainly not a “modernist” in the sense described. Popper did not always express his ideas particularly well, but nobody could read, for example, The Open Universe and come away believing that Popper rejected metaphysics.

    There are the usual misconceptions, such as confusing proposals for how science might better be conducted for descriptions of how scientists behave, or mistaking Popper’s arguments against “reinforced dogmatisms” for outright rejections of psychoanalysis or Marxism.

    Popper once suggested that a little dogmatism, in the sense of subjective conviction, may be a good thing for science — after all, every hypothesis deserves a thorough and motivated defence. Popper’s “reinforced dogmatisms” actually had little to do with subjective convictions, but rather the objective logical structure of the ideas, e.g. one might have a sceptical attitude and nonetheless become unwittingly entangled by a reinforced dogmatism.

    2) Although McCloskey’s misconception of Popper may irk critical rationalists like myself, it is also such a popular misconception that it serves her argument well. That is, most of her audience will assume these things about Popper anyway, and so making the contrast actually helps explain her point. (And, ironically, its a point which Popper would have agreed with). Since McCloskey’s book is not actually about Popper, her core argument is not affected by these errors, and so they’re not such a big deal.

    In any case, it’s flattering to discover that Deirdre McCloskey has read our obscure little blog (presuming it is really her). I haven’t read much of your work (yet), but I have really enjoyed some of your online lectures.

  4. Rafe says:

    Lee’s comment about Popper not always expressing his ideas particularly well reminds me of a piece of advice from Jeremy Shearmur when I met him in London many decades ago. It was a comment “on the run” and I did’nt really get it at the time. He said something like “you need to understand the rhetoric of Popper’s arguments”. Maybe I should have got it because I had read Wayne Booth’s book “The Rhetoric of Fiction”, a book that McCloskey cites with approval. Drawing on Wik for a reminder of Booth’s thesis “Booth argues that despite the realistic effects that modern authors have achieved, trying to distinguish narratives in this way is simplistic and deeply flawed, because authors invariably both show and tell. Booth observed that they appear to choose between the techniques based upon decisions about how to convey their various ‘commitments’ along various ‘lines of interest’.”

    So when you read “The Clockwork Orange” you are put inside the mind of a psychopathic thug to the point where you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not really an ok way to behave. []

    Unfortunately a lot of Popper’s philosophy of science was written in debate with the logical positivists and this, along with the fact that his first book was on their list of publications, distorted the message and missed the bigger picture of Popper’s work (and the”turns”) that you get from reading Bartley, Agassi and Jarvie for example. In a way Popper was forced into that position because logical empiricism remained the mainstream in the field but his efforts were in vain. His best defenders, in addition to the “Popper circle” were leading scientists like Medawar and Eccles but since they left the scene his profile in the general public has diminished, although a lay audience has kept The Open Society in print despite its absence from college reading lists.

  5. It seems that Sir Karl has been relegated to “straw man” status. If people actually read him they might be in for a surprise or two about how topical the issues he addresses are for this new century. In the age of Google and Wikipedia his conjecture of the Third World and its relation to our mental and social life and our DNA is pretty exciting and relevant. I have yet to read a book on phenomenology for instance that is not narcissistic nor that gets near to the rigour of Popper’s thought. I can enjoy reading even Carl Jung and Goethe as well as Sir Karl, and even more as a result of his critical revolution. I don’t understand why Sir Karl has been relegated to foot notes in Phd theses… it is a pity for the new generation of students.

  6. John Ray says:

    Deidre certainly sounds an airhead

  7. Charles Dahl says:

    What “bluster” ? What “smart-aleck citations”? It seems the lady welcometh not criticism.

  8. Rafe says:

    She is in the awkward position of reaching a position of some emminence with a lot of strong statements on the record about philosophy, some of which make sense and some of which do not.

    She could have strengthened the good points of her position by drawing on Popper.

  9. Dear John Ray,

    Oy. I am accused of not reading enough Popper, or not reading him sufficiently sympathetically. Maybe. His autobiography confirms my reading, I think, but I’m open to instruction. You, it appears, are not, and are accustomed to insulting people without reading a line, yes? I take it you’ve not ventured into any of my writings. Oh, well. It’s the rhetoric of blogs, I fear, encouraging people to think they are engaging in intellectual discussion, blessedly free of the irritating requirement to read anything except the last posting.


    Deirdre McCloskey

  10. Rafe says:

    I have to apologize for allowing John Ray’s comment to stand without a rejoinder. I respect and admire the work that John has done over a lifetime of scholarship and criticism of unhelpful fads and fashions on psychology and the social sciences.

    Unfortunately he is (or was) clearly not aware of the lifetime of work by Deirdre McCloskey which has resulted in over a score of books (published, edited or equivalent or almost completed) and countless articles in the “respectable” literature (as opposed to the less respectable literature of blogs and websites where we can say what we like).

    I am especially excited by Deirdre’s current project which has picked up a theme that Popper casually threw out in the one paper that he delivered to the Mont Pelerin Society in Italy in 1954. That theme is the importance of the moral framework of a society or a civilization.

    “Among the traditions that we must count as the most important is what we may call the ‘moral framework’ (corresponding to the institutional ‘legal framework’) of a society. This incorporates the society’s traditional sense of justice or fairness, or the degree of moral sensitivity that it has reached… Nothing is more dangerous than the destruction of this traditional framework. (Its destruction was consciously aimed at by Nazism).”

    Deirdre has been engaged in a massive historical study of the shifts in the moral framework regarding what she calls “the bourgeois virtues”. This is really exciting work and it points to the importance of the “cultural agenda” that classical liberals have to pursue. Circa 1990 at the Fall of the Wall it was apparent that we could win all the philosophical and economic arguments and still lose the policy war because our opponents control the high ground in education and social and cultural commentary.

    “When bourgeois virtues do not thrive, and especially when they are not admired by other classes and by their governments and by the bourgeoisie itself, the results are sad.”

    For sad, read devastating like the state of the Greek economy and most of the EU.

    I think if the dust ever settles it will be apparent that John and Deirdre are pretty much fellow travellers in scholarship and classical liberalism.

    John’s comment is based entirely on the fragments of critical commentary of Karl Popper that I cited and I would really like to work with Deirdre to clean up our differences on the interpretation of Popper’s work. As a critical rationalist I am committed to being open to instruction and I want that work to proceed.

    It will be helpful to have some more explanation of the way Popper’s autobiography confirms the interpretation that I challenged in my initial rejoinder to Deirdre’s critical comments.

  11. Dear Rafe,

    You seem to be an actual critical rationalist, rather than someone who takes the title in order to avoid reading anything that does not start and end with Popper. I love your quotation of Popper at Mr. Pelerin on the centrality of ethics, and will go back and read his essay entire. I have a paper coming out in a few weeks (I think: one never knows, do one?) in the Journal of Institutional Economics that makes the same point, a trifle belatedly it would seem.


    Deirdre McCloskey

  12. Rafe Champion says:

    Thanks Deirdre, that is a truly generous response, in the spirit of CR and I am really pleased that we can now put our best feet forward in partnership.

    It is unfortunate that Popper did not expand on the theme of the moral framework in that paper or anywhere else and so the heavy lifting of scholarship in that area fell to others, notably Deirdre.

    It had an impact on me to the extent of including “robust moral framework” among the pillars of classical liberalism. Sadly, it became difficult to talk about morals when the debate was hijacked by religious “moralists’ who focussed on sexual behaviour.

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