Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Unity of Science and Disunity of Economics

Cedrini Mario Aldo, Università di Torino
Ambrosino Angela, Università di Torino, Dipartimento di Economia e Statistica "Cognetti de Martiis"

Unity of science has been a very popular topic in history. The twentieth century saw the development of a radical version of this vision, the project of unified science advanced by logical positivists of the Vienna circle, and a series of attempts to build unity on a model of theory-reduction. Critics of this strategy, however, have opposed such efforts – and successfully illustrated the somehow mythical nature of the underlying logic – by emphasizing the irreducible plurality of sciences and the resulting, fundamental disunity of science. The significant difficulties associated with defending convincingly any “unity-of-science” project on traditional bases (ontological, theoretical, or methodological reduction unification) directed the attention of both supporters and critics towards more flexible versions of unity (such as the proposal of unification as “regulative ideal”) and the theoretical and practical foundations of interdisciplinarity – unity being seen in terms of integration between different disciplinary approaches. Some recent proposals for unifying the social sciences have originated within the economics profession. Our aim is exactly to investigate the reasons why economists are increasingly debating on this issue, and the (theoretical) feasibility of such projects, in the light of the current state of the relationships between economics and contiguous disciplines. In particular, the paper focuses, adopting a comparative perspective, on three main “integration” projects, with a view to throwing light on their theoretical underpinnings and expected outcomes: 1. David Colander’s (and others’) idea of a transdisciplinary social science, based on cross-fertilization of methods and approaches; 2. arguments advanced by influential philosophers of social sciences and economics (like Don Ross, Harold Kincaid) that regard disciplinary adaptation (of economics to sociology and psychology, and vice versa) as possible solution to the unsolved problem economics has with the “social” dimension; 3. Gintis’ proposal for a new theoretical framework using the evolutionary perspective and game theory as bridges for unifying otherwise incompatible disciplinary approaches to human behavior. While throwing light on the features of inter-disciplinary relations as conceived in each of these projects, we speculate about these latter’s “implicit” origins, which we generally identify in the disunity characterizing the current fragmented state of economics. We then discuss the potential impact of the integration projects by focusing on the issue of pluralism in both social sciences – which some proposals explicitly want to counteract – and in particular within economics, at a time of pervasive specialization, continuous creation of scientific research niches and declining cross-science research programs.


Keywords: Unity of science, economics in relation to other disciplines, mainstream economics, fragmentation

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