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Blaug on Kuhn versus Lakatos and the marginalist revolution.

Mark Blaug attempted to replace the Kuhnian with the Lakatosian paradigm to explain the Marginalist Revolution [Blaug, 1976; Kuhn, 1967; Lakatos, 1978]. As this paper will show, however, Blaug's replacement of Kuhn with Lakatos fails to answer important questions and raises others of a serious nature. In challenging the conclusions of Blaug, this paper will, first, briefly review the basic concepts of Lakatos' theory in relationship to that of Kuhn's and then move on to a consideration and critique of Blaug's thesis.

Philosophers of science received Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions with a critical attitude [Kuhn, 1967]. Sir Karl Popper was rightly concerned about [Popper, 1970, p. 51-8] "normal science and its danger." Imre Lakatos, who promoted Popperian ideas, along with such theorists as Feyerabend [Lakatos, 1978; 1987; Feyerabend, 1975], proposed a "new" theory of "scientific research programs." Lakatos' attempted synthesis between Popper's logic and Kuhn's sociology of science was a theory he described as sophisticated falsification, as distinguished from naive falsificationism, which regards every scientific theory in isolation and demands a theory's rejection when it does not accord with reality [Lakatos, 1970].

In contradistinction to the Kuhnian paradigm, Lakatos' scientific research program involves the configuration of interrelated theories, no single one of which may be viewed as completely autonomous. Since a research program is a collection of interdependent theories, it follows that the rejection of a single theory must be addressed in the context of the entire program, making it difficult to discard a particular theory. This does not mean, however, with respect to Kuhn's description, that a theory could not be rejected by the process of falsification; it depends on the position and status of the theory within the program.

A central aspect of Lakatos' scientific research program is his division of it into two parts, the negative heuristic and positive heuristic. The negative heuristic is the program's hard core, or the fundamental statements which hold the edifice. It is not normally subject to the Popperian process of flasification and it displays paradigm resistance to change, almost a la Kuhn. In contrast, the positive heuristic makes up the research content of the program. It is more readily testable than the negative heuristic, and it leads to the formulation of further concepts and theories, described by Lakatos as the protective belt.

It thus may be seen that the hard core could survive piecemeal refutations, but the rest of the program would be open to rejection or improvment. In Lakatos' own words [Lakatos, 1970, p. 135]:

"The negative heuristic specifies the hard core which is irrefutable by the methodological discussion of protagonists; the positive heuristic consists of the partially articulated set of suggestions of hints on how to change, develop the refutable variant of research program, how to modify, sophisticate the refutable protective belt."

In short, to Lakatos, the negative heuristic is Kuhnian and the positive heuristic is Popperian, except that, according to Lakatos, even the hard core can change with less resistance than Kuhn described for paradigm.

In this context, a further important distinction made by Lakatos is between two types of research programs, which he called progressive and degenerative. A degenerative program resists change -- even when it is legitimately challenged -- by resorting to ad hoc procedures to defend itself. For an alternative program to emerge, there need not be Kuhn type crisis, since a rival program could develop even when the ruling program is not in doubt. Thus Lakatos pleaded for tolerating budding research programs. (These programs, incidentally, dispense with the Kuhnian description of mature science, which normally would exclude the existence of competing paradigms.)

Lakatos concluded his essay with the following (not so reasoned, for some) assessment of its contribution [Lakatos, 1970, p. 188]:

"Sophisticated falsification thus combines the best elements of voluntarism and of the realists' theories of empirical growth ... [it] does not side with Galileo ... [nor] with cardinal Bellarmino ...."

As may be seen from the above discussion, Lakatos' theory is composed of one (purportedly) descriptive and three normative elements. The descriptive element refers to research programs and the features of their negative and positive heuristics. It is prone to a tautological interpretation reminiscent of Kuhn's account of scientific process. Indeed, Kuhn was quick to charge Lakatos with reading his personal philosophy into the history of science.

The three normative elements are (1) falsifiability (clearly, no falsification, naive or sophisticated would be possible unless theories were falsifiable), (2) the distinction between progressive and degenerative programs, and (3) the plea of tolerance for budding research programs.

To this writer, the normative rule of falsifiability is precise, but the distinction between progressive and degenerative science is too vague; it can only be known a posteriori. Even then, what is an ad hoc procedure of defining a program to one observer may be a standing procedure to another. In any case, what if scientific research programs were, in fact, characteristically degenerative? This is exactly what Kuhn attributes, in somewhat different language, to the paradigms of mature science. More important in this regard, what if degenerative programs happened to be successful in some socially defined sense of this term?

The same types of questions apply to Lakatos' plea for the budding research programs. If in practice, for example, this plea were ignored, or found intolerable, or both, could it be justified on the grounds of success? Even if it existed, what would be the nature and degree of tolerance, a passive permission or a critical reception of new ideas?

It follows from the above arguments that Lakatos' theory bypasses the social dimension of scientific research, even though Lakatos makes some attempt to fuse the logic and the sociology, the methodological norm and the social reality of scientific progress. His work is less a synthesis than a compromise. This is probably the main reason it was rejected by Kuhn and ignored by Popper.

Despite this, two distinguished scholars have attempted to apply the Lakatosian synthesis to the so-called Marginalist Revolution, the Nobel Laureate, Sir John Hicks, of Oxford, and Mark Blaug, of the London School of Economics [Hicks, 1981; 1965; Blaug, 1982; 1976]. In the remainder of this paper, the writer will present and challenge Blaug's analysis of Kuhn and Lakatos, which appeared in his paper, "Kuhn versus Lakatos or Paradigm versus Research Programs in the History of Economics" [Blaug, 1976].

In accomplishing this goal, several points should first be emphazised, following Hicks [1976]: The phrase Marginalist Revolution is actually a misnomer; the better description of the marginal school is conveyed by the word Catallactics, which was the appropriate terminology used in those days [Hicks, 1981]. The word marginal is, first, a mathematical term which even Ricardo, who belonged to the old school, used; and the concept of utility was no innovation by the so-called marginalists. It was [Hicks, 1976, p. 231] "there all the time," and "what the catallactics showed was that something could be done with it."

The new school developed out of challenge to the old school, which was partly socialist even though it was individualistic about the goals of society. Hicks maintained that the Catallactics Revolution could be regarded as the rise of Microeconomics, since the catallactists emphasized the theory of Exchange, unlike the earlier classicists, who stressed production. In Hicks' view, much of his Theory of Wages 1932 and of modern growth theory (which, if one looks at it critically, is unlike the Keynesian), and much of the work of Robert Solow is surely, in Lakatos' sense, a research program, capable of much development, and by no means extinct. Thus the chief contributions of the marginalist or catallactist school has been statistical research [Hicks, 1976].

With the above as background and context, one may properly consider the boldest and most rigorous attempt to explain significant changes in the history of Economics in Lakatosian terms, the work of Mark Blaug [Blaug, 1982; 1976]. On the assumption that, since 1870, economic theory has fulfilled the Lakatosian criteria for a mature scientific research program, Blaug's argument would appear to be convincing. Yet this (implicit) assumption violates the facts, and for the reasons given above, the explanation loses its logical (as opposed to tautological) validity.

In an attempt to provide a reasonable explanation of major economic revolutions, Blaug replaced Lakatos for Kuhn. He identified, following Brofenbrenner, three revolutions in the history of economic thought: (1) the Lasissez-Faire revolution, dating from Hume's Political Discourses of 1752; (2) the Marginal Revolution of the 1870s; and (3) the Keynesian revolution of 1936.

With regard to the Marginalist Revolution, Blaug maintained that if economics provides any examples at all of a Kuhnian scientific revolution, it was the Keynesian, which had all the superficial appearances of a paradigm-change. Citing D. F. Gordon, Alexander Coats, Ben Ward, and Martin Brofenbrenner, Blaug emphasized, for example, that [Gordon, 1965, pp. 123-24] "[Adam] Smith's postulate of the maximizing individual in a relatively free market ... is our basic paradigm," and that economics has been [Blaug, 1976, p. 160] "dominated throughout its history by a single paradigm -- the theory of economic equilibrium via market mechanisms."

This hard core of marginalist thinking that initiated from Adam Smith apparently was destroyed by Keynes, who replaced the individualistic, nominalist viewpoint for the societal/institutional, insisting that the state should abandon laissez-faire economics and diminish the role of the individual as it took on a greater -- leading -- role in the economic life of society.

Blaug maintained, however, that the age-old paradigm of economic equilibrium via market mechanisms which Keynes destroyed was actually a network of interconnected sub-paradigms, which could be regarded as a Lakatosian scientific research program. He identified a hard core for classical political economy -- the concepts of equilibrium, maximizing behavior -- and argued that the neo-classical research program, while retaining this hard core, changed its positive heuristic and directed attention to new research problems.

Blaug's argument is cogent, but it loses its force on the following considerations:

First, the positive heuristic of a program, unlike its hard core, is supposed to be open to continuous revision and rejection. In particular, the change of some or all elements in the positive heuristic does not describe a turning point; according to Lakatos, it should be a permanent feature of a research program. Yet in both the 1870s and in retrospect, the advent of neo-classicism was a major turning point in the history of economics.

Second, a positive heuristic, in part or as a whole, is supposed to be able to be refuted by empirical facts and replaced by another more consistent with such facts. What empirical facts refuted the positive heuristic of classical theory? It also may be asked, in what sense was the empirically untestable marginal utility theory more consistent with reality than the tautological self-evident full-cost theory of relative prices?

Third, according to Lakatos, when the hard core of a research program is defended irrationally, that is a sign of the degeneracy of that program. Yet the alleged neo-classical change of positive heuristic was established on the teeth of opposition. As a result, Jevons had anticipated this reaction so much, he concluded The Theory of Political Economy with a long (and unexceptional) eulogy on intellectual openness and honesty [Jevons, 1970]. This, however, was to no avail. The resistance was not even mainly in the form of using ad hoc procedures to defend classical political economy (or the German Historical School) against the new theory: its adherents were, according to Joseph Schumpeter, in danger of losing their academic positions or forfeiting hopes of appointments and promotions [Schumpeter, 1954].

In contrast to the change to neo-classical theory, Blaug described the Keynesian criticism as affecting a change in the hard core of economic theory. He identified a new hard core, positive heuristic, protective belt, with admirable precision. If the hard core of a research program is, however, overthrown, then the new research program should completely supersede the old. Is this true of post-Keynesian economic theory? One significant example which Blaug cites for the Keynesian change in the hard core of economic theory is its emphasis on short-term disequilibrium.

This claim would have been true had economic theory lost its preoccupation with the existence, properties and stability of equilibria in every conceivable problem, including the theory of economic growth. In fact, the Keynesian idea, shifts of emphasis, has done little more than force the theorists to recognize the fact that auotmatically self-adjusting short-term Macroeconomic equilibrium may not be possible. Otherwise, the neo-Keynesian research program has been more concerned with general equilibrium analysis and equilibrium growth theory than any other problem.

As recent microtheoretic work on temporary equilibrium models with quantity contraints or rationing make clear, neo-Keynesian models are most viewed not as models of "disequilibrium" and dynamic adjustment towards equilibrium, but as particular models of non-Walrasian equilibrium. They are fix-price models of Hicks [1965]. (1)

(*) Baruch College. The author would like to thank Emiko Amoye, George Carew, Veronica Henry, Amado Calderon Jr., with anonymous referees for helpful comments. All errors and omissions are the sole responsibility of the author.

(1) For the intellectual origins of fix-price quantity constraint models, see Patinkin [1956].


Mark Blaug, "Kuhn vs. Lakatos or Paradigm vs. Research Programs in the History of Economics," in Spiro Latsis, ed., Method and Appraisal in Economics, London; Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 149-80.

Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect, London; Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Phyllis Deane, The Evolution of Economic Ideas, London; Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, New York: New Left Press, 1975.

D.F. Gordon, "The Role of the History of Economic Thought in the Understanding of Modern Economic Theory," The American Economic Review, 55, 1965, pp. 119-27.

J. Hicks, Collected Economic Papers, Vol. 1, Wealth and Welfare, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

J. Hicks, capital and Growth, New York; Oxford University Press, 1965.

I. Lakatos, Essays in Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

I Lakatos and A. Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

S. Latsis (ed.), Method and Appraisal in Economics. London: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

D. Patinkin, Money, Interest and Prices, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

J. A. Schumpeter, A History of Economic Doctrines and Method, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.
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Title Annotation:author's comment on Mark Blaug's adherence to I. Lakatos' economic theory against that of Bowie Kuhn's
Author:Fawundu, Francis
Publication:Atlantic Economic Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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