As a graduate student I met Arjo Klamer through my professor Don Lavoie. At the time Arjo had just published Conversations with Economists, and I had read the book with great pleasure and benefit. He was then working with David Colander on their project The Making of an Economist -- in fact, while that project was focused on the training of economists at the elite institutions, Arjo interviewed Dave Prychitko and myself and a few others (David Colander did as well, but he doesn't remember that!). Arjo commented at the time how interesting he found it that students at GMU, and students at the New School, were similar in their enthusiasm for economics as subject, where the students at MIT, Harvard, etc. were not so enthusiastic about economics, but were focused on the professional climbing. (Again, David said that as well, but he doesn't remember the conversations). During those visits with Klamer, he stressed to us the interrelationship between science and culture. Economics, he said, does not exist outside of the general intellectual culture of its time. And then he said the following --- modernist economists in the hands of Lucas is the same as modernist art. The modernist endeavor had evolved in such a fashion that only other modernists could appreciate what was going on. He mentioned at the time, but didn't elaborate Mondrian as an example.
Well that stuck in my head and I concocted a story about Mondrian's move from realism to pure abstraction back again to an effort to reintroduce realism as similar to the intellectual arc in Austrian economics from Menger to Kirzner. Here is that story. Mondrian started out drawing trees and painting landscapes. They were realistic depictions, but he became obsessed with the pure form of those trees and moved in the direction of "geometric abstractions". See this depiction of his evolution.
It turns out that Mondrian -- the Dutch painter -- was in correspondence with mathematicians and economists to discuss concepts related to geometric abstraction, such as equilibrium properties. His realistic trees and landscapes become pure form and lines hoping to capture the underlying mathematics of nature. Or at least this is my reading of the evolution. But, by the time he is in NYC (1938-44), his abstractions he feared had lost sight of the beauty of the trees that were not captured in the pure geometric abstraction. Instead, one had to bring realism back in, so the evolution was to run in the opposite direction. This resulted in, e.g., his unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie.
So with this story in my head (not that it would pass any critical examination by an art historian), I started thinking through the development of neoclassical economics from the marginal revolution of the 1870s to the model of general competitive equilibrium as articulated by Arrow-Hahn-Debreu. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" had been subjected to the same geometric abstraction, and similarly had lost sight of the beauty of the complexity of productive specialization and peaceful social cooperation. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, Israel Kirzner sought in Market Theory and the Price System and then Competition and Entrepreneurship to resolve the conundrum of the pure form by way of reintroducing the Misesian purposeful human actor -- the entrepreneur -- back into the picture of the market economy. Kirzner, in this narrative, had produced the economic theory version of Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie. When MOMA in the mid-1990s ran an exhibit of Mondrian's works, I went I believe 4 times to look, read, and think about this project. I have books on my shelf, I listened to lectures about Mondrian, and I have studied his paintings. I have never written a paper let alone published a word on this. (BTW, I don't consider blogging publishing, I consider it thinking aloud so I still haven't).*
But I believe strongly that scientific disciplines do not exist in an isolated fashion from the cultural and historical context in which they are developing. Philosophical and cultural trends necessarily influence the activity of scientists, including shifting definitions of what constitutes science and its advance and its application. I disagree with those who argue that recognizing this means that we cannot critically examine ideas disembodied from this context -- no, arguments can still be examined for their logical coherence and their empirical relevance across contexts -- but I do agree that richer intellectual history always entails the recognition of context.
To give an example, I often tell audiences when I am asked to talk about Austrian economics that it depends on which word you choose to emphasize -- Austrian economics, or Austrian economics. If the first, then works such as Robert Leonard's Von Neumann, Morgenstern and the Creation of Game Theory provide the exemplar, whereas if the second, then the work of Mises, Hayek, Kirzner, Rizzo, O'Driscoll, Garrison, White and Wagner provide the exemplar. But here is the tricky point, what is the relationship between the two? I actually one cannot understand the evolution of the Austrian school of economics without asking that question, and studying the interaction, and identifying not only the evolution of thought, but what gets lost in the translation of the ideas from one cultural context to another. It also relates to what it means to be an "economist" in different historical eras and in different cultural contexts. One cannot deny that both Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis played the trumpet, and that both played jazz, but there are significant differences in that transition from early jazz to high modernist jazz. Both Armstrong and Davis are brilliant performers, no doubt geniuses in their art, but "jazz" is not quite the same in their respective hands.
What is gained and what is lost in this transitions is fascinating in its own right to study -- in art, in music, in literature, in philosophy, and yes, in economics. The broader culture influences the way disciplined are practiced in any given epoch, but the culture of any discipline also shapes the way the science is practiced. We have a constant interaction between the broader culture of a society and the specific culture of a science.
Erwin Dekker's The Viennese Students of Civilization is one of the best works ever written that tackles seriously this interaction between culture and science. It is a brilliant work full of insight and capable of producing a "mind-quake" in the reader if they are receptive to the message. Watch this video discussion of his work to get a sample.
To bring this post full circle, Dekker's work is based on his doctoral dissertation written under the direction of Arjo Klamer. #how cool is that
*My other unpublished idea comes from a passing reference again while I was in graduate school by Deirdre McCloskey and focused on Daniel Defoe, who not only wrote novels, but wrote on political and economic topics. Anyway, Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719, and published Moll Flanders in 1722. One story can be read as the allocation and economizing activity of an isolated individual, while the other is about exchange and social positioning. Economists grabbed on to Defoe's 1719 work to provide a central metaphor, I want to ask what would economics had looked like if instead they would have taken Defoe's 1722 work as providing the central metaphor. My suspicion is that Buchanan's message in "What Should Economists Do?" would have been more widely accepted.