Reorienting Economics, by Tony Lawson. London: Routledge. 2003. Paper, ISBN 0415253365, $39.95. 416 pages.
In setting forth the thesis of this book, Tony Lawson contends that the "mathematical-deductivist" methodology of mainstream economics "constrain[s] economics from realising its ... potential to be not only explanatorily powerful, but scientific in the sense of natural science" (p. 22). It is Lawson's intention to lay the groundwork for a reorientation of economics that would strengthen both its explanatory power and its scientific warrantability by applying the principles of critical realism to a reformulation of economic methodology. "Specifically," he argues, "modern economics can profit from a more explicit, systematic and sustained concern with ontology than has been its custom" (p. xv).
In classical philosophy, ontology, the philosophy of being, was the primary playground for metaphysical speculation, involving, among other things, the contemplation of such matters as the "essence" of being or existence. Contemporary versions of ontology generally entail somewhat more modest ambitions, restricted as they are to inferences drawn about the existence of entities subsumed in theories of the natural and social sciences. "Ontological realism," of which Lawson says "critical realism" is a version, is one of a bewildering variety of realisms (Maki 1989). There are at least two other versions of critical realism; one is ascribed to George Sanders Peirce by John Patrick Diggins (Diggins 1994, 175). The other emerged in the immediate post-World War I period (Drake 1920). But Lawson's critical realism is not related to either; his has evolved out of the Marxian philosophical literature and is based primarily on Roy Bhaskar's "scientific realism" (for example, Bhaskar 1986).
It is Lawson's desire to reorient economics "away from merely (or mainly) a priori stances towards realist social theorizing" (p. xxii). This desire is shared by a large cross section of heterodox economists, including institutional economists (of the "original" or "old" variety [OIE]) who have pursued this goal for over a century. Much of what Lawson has to say on the subject will be welcomed by heterodox economists. But how far they are able to follow him down the path of critical realism will depend on their willingness to adopt the metaphysics peculiar to its ontological arguments, including, but not limited to, the notions of "layers of reality," "emergence" of social entities from lower to higher layers, and "transcendental analysis (or argument)."
The philosophical foundation of this effort is...