[An essay on D. McCloskey’s rhetorical analyzes of the economic science, why it matters that economics is rhetorical, why methodology is not over, and some lingering problems. ]

It is not easy to think of a proposition in economics that all reasonable economists agree to have been falsified by the evidence. It seems that no theory has ever been certified as dead. Yet many economists continue to believe that they are marching under the Popperian flag, and many of them wave the Friedman banner of predictive success. Of course most economists don’t worry about the scientific status of economics and think they could do economics without a methodological fuss. Does it matter that when asked what economists are doing or reflecting on that they come up with unsatisfactory answers? D. McCloskey believes that it does, and I think he is largely right about the reasons why.

McCloskey has no difficulty in showing that economic discourse is primarily “rhetorical” and not “scientific” in the Popperian sense. (The same is certainly true in “science”.) For instance he gives convincing demonstration that the use of literary devices in what appear to be formal arguments by Gerard Debreu, he documents the metaphorical nature of well-known propositions of Friedman, he shows the use of tropes by Solow and of quite straightforward rhetoric by various other economists (i). For good measure he gives his readers practical advice on rhetorical analysis in his essay How to do a Rhetorical Analysis and Why. In this and other works the aim is not to show that the economists are wrong altogether but rather that they were doing something other than what they believed themselves to be doing.

They emerge not as hard-nosed positivist scientists but as persuaders who, often, have all the tools requisite to persuade successfully. McCloskey believes that recognition of the fact that this is what economists are about would not only have the virtue of honesty but also the merit that fruitful debates could take place. People who believe themselves possessed of scientific truths or to be searching for such truths are disinclined to take note of the disciplines which are not regarded as “scientific.” McCloskey believes that for instance literary criticism and linguistics have been neglected by economists at some cost. More serious, it seems to me, is the neglect of history and the absence of any sense of history. The project of a history-free understanding of the economic world is not self-evidently plausible.

To McCloskey, the perceived methodology of economists is “modernist,” by which he means an amalgamation of positivist scientific thinking, behaviorism, operationalism, and hypothetico-deductive models of science. He traces all this back to the Cartesian dogma that “only the indubitable is true” (ii) Modernism’s application to economics is even more problematic than its application to other sciences. But economists only perceive they are modernists, while in truth they are rhetoricians. In fact the philosophers have moved on, and the economists are still carrying around their “methodological necrophilia.” When modernism collapses, this supposedly entails the end of methodology. Bruce Caldwell argues that McCloskey is arguing for the end of methodology (iii). But McCloskey argues that “Rhetoric” replaces modernism. Economists already have replaced modernism with rhetoric. To turn a phrase from Nietzsche, “The will to overcome methodology is ultimately the will of one methodology over another.”

Rhetoric is the ‘art of argument’ in the classical sense, reminiscent of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian, and was eventually “crucified” by Descartes. The best way to define rhetoric in the sense that McCloskey means is the study of the ways interlocutors accomplish things with language. It is critical inquiry. This “disciplined conversation” in economics is a literary matter, heavily metaphorical, and uses a kind of Aristotelian poetics when talking about economics.

The purpose of McCloskey’s own rhetoric is to persuade the reader to accept McCloskey’s view of economic scholarship, both in respect to what it is in practice and what it could be if economists paid more attention to rhetoric in their professional practice. “The subject is scholarship. It is not the economy, or the adequacy of economic theory as a description of the economy, or even mainly the economist’s role in the economy. The subject is the conversion economists have among themselves, for purposes of persuading each other” (iv). ‘Conversion among economists’ and ‘economics as rhetoric’ sounds slightly religious. I am reminded of St. Augustine’s conversion from Manichaeism to Christianity which began after his study of rhetoric. He writes in Confessions that he could not separate the substance of Christianity from its rhetoric in the form of St. Ambrose’s preaching. In that sense, we have an idea of what good classical rhetoric is, that is, the inseparability of rhetoric from substance.

McCloskey never explicitly says what good rhetoric ought to look like, but it’s clear from his prose that his own essays are in fact just that: The Rhetoric of Economics is an example of good rhetoric in the sense that it uses language very well in presenting interesting arguments. But how good his rhetoric is in the sense of being persuasive and thus likely to cause major changes in the beliefs and scholarly behavior of economists, I would not dare to predict after being persuaded by McCloskey that economists are not much good at prediction. Impossible! McCloskey’s articles are written with an elegance which is rare of other authors of contemporary economic thought. So one reads his articles with enjoyment and also is easier to assent to many of his arguments. But one is also left with many doubts.

It is clear that the simple positivism of the postwar years will not suffice either as a description of what we do or as an aim for what we should do. Econometrics at best has turned out to be a useful “filing cabinet” but has not been able to deliver the goods as a tool for the falsification of theories. In any case it has been known for a long time that one of the primary roles of economic theory is to provide a means for organizing our thoughts about a vastly complex world and to provide a means by which economists can discuss their scholarship, that is, understand each other. It is a lack of comprehension of this important role of scholarship which has led some to write off General Equilibrium Theory as useless while others have taken it as a sufficiently accurate description of, say, the present American economy. Rosenberg charges that economic theory is nothing but applied mathematics (v). McCloskey argues that this charge applies only to general equilibrium theory, mathematical economics and armchair discussions of philosophers who fail to see the economic science. Reading McCloskey should help to expose and dispel some of the reasons for these misunderstandings.

However, great care must be taken not to go to the extreme of “insights,” “intuition” and all economics as poetry. Without some rules a chasm opens for cranks and madmen to frolic in. Without rules one can only hope that intuition of economists will keep back the madmen. It is no surprise then that McCloskey, who has an aversion to epistemology and follows Rorty with a kind of “no-nonsense” pragmatism, has practically nothing to say on this matter (vi). Indeed he reminds me of some evangelicals who believe that society’s problems can be solved by enjoining everyone to just love everyone else. Just so, McCloskey urges us to engage in honest and open-minded conversation but on the grammar of this conversion he has little to say.

There are rules of logic and indeed of evidence that are desirable even when they are open to some philosophical doubt. Yes it’s all rhetoric, but it follows certain rules. In any case McCloskey opens the floodgates without telling us what, concretely, to do with the ensuing tide. This is the most serious failing of his article The Rhetoric of Economics. My own view is this: no really drastic changes are needed in the manner in which much of economic research proceeds at present, although it would be a great advantage if it were to encompass a great deal more than it does regarding the social ontology as other disciplines have provided. There is much evidence that does not come from a ‘time series’. But it is highly desirable that we should know what we are doing and what sensibly we can hope to do. On this matter McCloskey is a very good guide.

Inevitably McCloskey’s enterprise on meta-economics dips into every aspect of doing economics. Mainstream economists preach and pretend to practice the research in economics by developing falsifiable hypothesis and confronting the data. Such methodology (modernism, logical positivism, rationalism, all from Cartesian methodology), as advocated by Milton Friedman, McCloskey criticizes as being too narrow and misleading the science. His basic insight is that economic science involves more than the strictures of falsification; more fundamentally, it involves rhetoric, the argument or discourse using facts, logic, metaphor, and storytelling. Economists rely quite heavily on stories to make their points.

The example McCloskey uses is the Keynesian and the Monetarist, where the Keynesian tells the story about how “oil prices went up, which caused inflation” (vii). But the monetarist says the story “ends too soon, halfway through the second act.” The monetarist, McCloskey says, is “not morally satisfied” unless the story reaches some morally reasoned conclusion (that is, the monetarist wants to place blame on the Federal Reserve.) The dramatic departure is the insight that it is the economist, the person, who works out the story morally and therein gains knowledge, thus economic knowledge actually relies on his introspection. An economic argument is not complete without an appeal to rhetoric, which appeals to other economists’ introspection. It is clear how important rhetoric is.

I agree with McCloskey’s general argument on economic modernism. But his argument about prediction is troubling. Before McCloskey makes his argument about prediction and control, he says “Economists agree on more than is commonly understood. The disagreement about prediction and politics give them an unhappy reputation, yet they agree on many things: the index number problem, the law of demand, the logic of entry” (viii). But what is the law of demand if it is not a prediction? And what is it that economists agree on? That price and quantity purchased are, or will be, inversely related? But there are many examples of and explanations for a direct relationship.

Nonetheless, I am in general agreement. We would in my opinion be more honest and useful if we would do more ‘economics as rhetoric’. This would mean simply making good arguments to support what we know about economies and positions. We would say in effect that this is the best case I can make. It is based on this evidence and these arguments. I am not certain an am willing to listen to alternative arguments. The assumption is that the discourse among scholars and practitioners will bring us closer to useful descriptions of what is and what might be. To be avoided is the argument that the conclusion must be correct because it is based upon science or a scientifically verified theory. That is dishonest within the framework of logical positivism or without it.

Finally, I believe McCloskey’s argument would have been more persuasive had he expanded its scope to address some of the implications for the current content of economics. For example, are economic theories a series of metaphors used to support particular ideologies? What is the role of ideology in economic rhetoric? If we are persuaded by McCloskey’s arguments we have a lot of work to do in scholarly discourse answering the question—so what?

(i) How to do a Rhetorical Analysis and Why. D. McCloskey. New Directions in Economic Methodology. Routeledge: 1994
(ii) Ibid. (i)
(iii) Comment on McCloskey. Caldwell and Coats. Jstor.
(iv) Ibid. (i)
(v) If Economics Isn’t Science, What Is It? Alexander Rosenberg. The Philosophy of Economics. Cambridge: 1994.
a. Modern Epistemology Against Analytic Philosophy: A Reply to Maki. D. McCloskey. Jstor.
b. You Shouldn’t Want a Realism If You Have a Rhetoric. D. McCloskey. Fact and Fiction in Economics. Cambridge: 2002.
(vii) Ibid. (i)
(viii) Ibid. (i)