Sunday, April 23, 2017

by Sarah Wieten

The question of the proper scope and subject of the social sciences, remains, in certain ways, open. This is especially the case in economics. Crespo argues that the social sciences ought to engage on several levels a) a statistical descriptive level, b) a causal explanatory level, c) a teleological explicative level, and d) a prescriptive teleological level. He further identifies the teleological level and the prescriptive teleological level as especially overlooked in current practice. He worries that this neglect of the teleological level results in an economics in which theories which embrace accounts of human rationality other than rational choice theory or expected utility theory are considered irrational anomalies.

Crespo derives these levels from Aristotle’s four causes, and makes use of an Aristotelian framework throughout the project. He understands this Aristotelian framework as especially relevant in light of the sort of renaissance “causes” are experiencing in philosophy of science. Aristotle’s account of the four causes, the material, formal, efficient and final causes, remained prominent until modern scholars critiqued the system, especially final cause, as overtly anthropocentric and sought to reduce some of the causes to a more unified account or supported a different theory of causality entirely. Such critiques of the final cause were especially damaging to the theory as a whole as Aristotle considered the final cause ontologically, if not chronologically, primary.

For Crespo, the natural sciences are sciences of generalizations and need empirical contrast. Aristotle, he argues, does a good job of providing such contrast, given his forays into both more abstract accounts of causes and his biological (On the Part of Animals, The History of Animals), physical (Meteorology), and practical (Ethics and Politics) studies. This is especially true in “the human sciences,” “because of the particularity and complexity of human situations and that humans are free.” According to Crespo, this complexity also brings into focus an additional tension in social science: the trade-off between realism and scientificity. As social science becomes more realistic (that is, singular and embedded in a particular context), it supposedly becomes less scientific (that is, universal).

Other contemporary accounts of causality, Crespo says, too often tend to reduce the various kinds of causality to only the efficient cause. Instead, making use of Menger’s classifications of the role of economics, four levels of inquiry, mapping onto Aristotle’s four causes, can be derived:

  1. The descriptive and classificatory level of statistics.
  2. The level of theoretical causal explanation, focusing on matching means and ends; it is the place of explanations by efficient causes.
  3. The teleological explanation level, seeking the reasons (final causes) for our actions –i.e., the rational explanation of preferences. Current examples of economists already working at this level include capability approaches and happiness economics.
  4. The level of normative principles dealing with preferences and the means to attain them (teleological explanations are normative).

According to Crespo, the real effort must be put forth to allow for the third level, the teleological explicative level, to be included in mainstream social science practice—but then the fourth prescriptive teleological level will inevitably follow. When all four levels are meaningfully engaged with by economists, the outcome will be a causal story that balances realism and scientificity.

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