Traditional epistemological theories have fostered an endless debate on dichotomies characterized by forms of objectivism, on the one hand, and forms of relativism/skepticism on the other. Currently, among the deep global social and cultural challenges, the crisis in epistemology is characterized by a radical questioning of the whole matrix within which such dichotomies have been drawn.
Taking into account the evolution of Economics as a science, the need for a deep epistemological has already been pointed out by outstanding economists. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, rejected the kind of economic thought that mainly favours deductive methods of inquiry – based on mathematical reasoning- because this habit generates analytical unrealistic results that are irrelevant to solve the real-world economic problems. Also John Maynard Keynes warned that the understanding of the economic phenomena demands not only purely deductive reasoning, but also other methods of inquiry along with the study of other fields of knowledge- such as History and Philosophy. Today, Schumpeter’s and Keynes’s criticism could be certainly addressed to those economists whose beliefs ultimately privilege the adoption of a nominalist bias because the dialogue between the economic theories and the economic reality turns out to be abandoned not only in academic research but also in the policy making process.
Considering this background, the shift to Complexity in economic thinking can contribute to substantive epistemological insights in order both to face the contemporary theoretical and methodological challenges and to reject the Cartesian theorization of knowledge under an anthropocentric foundational model of rationality, complete order and truth. Descartes reinforced the analytical-synthetic process of reasoning. Following the deductive method of pure inquiry, human knowledge grows throughout a rigorous chain of ideas. As a consequence, new thoughts arise while the human subject applies deductive reasoning so as to create a chain of ideas that links the most simple to the most complex ones. In this attempt, true knowledge can be obtained. The Cartesian method represents an attempt to extend the mathematical method of inquiry to all of human knowledge in the form of the mathesis universalis. Indeed, this extension is at the center of the a priori foundations of scientific knowledge in Neoclassical Economics.
Edward Fullbrook, in his book Narrative Fixation in Economics, also highlights that the Cartesian view of human reality has deeply shaped the way Neoclassical Economics theorizes about the economic and social existence (2016, p. 45). Indeed, while emphasizing the relevance of the pure thought of a disembedded human subject, Neoclassical Economics has reinforced the relevance of the Cartesian method of inquiry that moved the so called scientific (true) knowledge out of the general flux of experience.
Indeed, the dialogue between the economic theories and the economic reality is complex and a dialogical approach should be considered in any attempt to build realistic economic theories, as Keynes warned.
The changing environment of real-world markets through time -that is irreversible- refers to a certain degree of ontological indeterminacy that should be considered in realistic economic theories. In thruth, a shift to Complexity in economic thinking can favor the adoption of a realist standpoint that relates to
- A non-anthropocentric approach
- A social ontology that is rooted in actual experience
- A new approach to rationality
- An evolutionary approach based on the coexistence of laws and change
- Ontological indeterminism
- Epistemological fallibilism
- An endogenous approach to norms and ethics
Considering the relevance of this topic in economics education, students should be aware of the consequences of different epistemological approaches. Complexity in Economics is not just a new label, but represents a way of rethinking economics as a science.