Economics as a Science, Economics as a Vocation: A Weberian Examination of Robert Heilbroner’s Philosophy of Economics

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The paper analyzes Robert Heilbroner’s philosophy of economics through the lens of Max Weber’s philosophy of science. Specifically, Heilbroner’s position on vision, ideology and value-freedom is examined by contextualizing it within a framework of Weberian science. Doing so leads to a better understanding of Heilbroner’s seemingly contradictory statements about ideology as well as a re-interpretation of his position on the place of value-freedom (or a lack thereof) in economics. This inquiry also leads to a demonstration of (1) the relevance of Weber’s work on methodology of science to contemporary issues in economics, and (2) the identification of a major shortcoming in Heilbroner’s work. Overall, this leads to a clarification and reconstruction of Heilbroner’s vision of economics as a science and as a vocation, which is seen to be a self-reflexive, reflective and dynamic process.

Posted for comments on 22 Feb 2013, 12:00 pm.

Comments (4)

  • Robert McMaster says:

    Daniyal Khan is to be commended for presenting a thought-provoking and interesting papers focussing on an under-rated contributor to economic thought – Robert Heilbroner. Heilbroner’s analysis of capitalism, for me, successfully draws on Marx, Veblen and Galbraith in the tenor of its excoriating insight. Khan directs our attention to a methodological and philosophical dimension of Heilbroner’s work; primarily the seeming contradiction in his view of ideology. Khan insightfully employs Weber as the analytical lens to interrogate the prima facie inconsistency and tension in Heilbroner’s examination of vision, ideology and value-freedom.

    Khan outlines Heilbroner’s seeming inconsistency, more accurately contradiction in his views on ideology. Heilbroner at once seems to denounce ideology as a negative – it involves self-deception and biased discourse amongst other undesirable properties – and then acknowledges that it is intrinsic to vision, which Heilbroner argues should be celebrated due its “immense constructive power”. Khan draws on Weber’s conceptualisation of science as involving there stages – affirmation of presuppositions; scientific praxis as a vehicle for gaining clarity, and reflection on methodology and values – as a means of reconciling Heilbroner’s seemingly contradictory position on ideology. Heilbroner’s concept of vision (and hence ideology) is confined to stage 1 in terms of defining desirable ends. Stage 2 involves scientific praxis during which a scientist is expected to record their various steps, conclusions with “honesty and fidelity” – Weber’s value-freedom. Stage 3 emerges from stage 2 and involves revisiting the vision and ideology of stage 1 in light of the experiences of stage 2.

    Perhaps this rather truncated summary does Kahn’s analysis a disservice (for which I apologise), but his argumentation is interesting and insightful. It raises the issue of definitional elasticity and the relationship between ideology and vision in Heilbroner’s analysis and beyond. Is it possible, for example, to have vision without ideology in economic thought? While Khan’s ambitious attempt to invoke a Weberian framework to resolve Heilbroner’s inconsistency is laudable there are a number of issues with the paper. The first is, as Khan seems to acknowledge, the strength of the Weberian frame – is Weber’ analysis appealing? Is Weber’s appeal to value-freedom in science an act of “self-deception”? Moreover, as Khan further recognises, Heilbroner made no appeal to Weber in order to justify his views of ideology, which, of course begs the question ‘why’? Indeed, why Weber? Why not Dewey with his insightful analysis of the construction of knowledge and the “epistemic warrant”? Given Dewey’s influence on some original institutionalists and Heilbroner’s institutionalist affectations this may seem to be a more obvious association.

    Second, the structure of the paper is a little puzzling – the conclusion is not the conclusion. I feel that sections 5 and 6 of the paper could have been integrated into a more convincing conclusion. Part of the present section 6 – seeking to justify the use of Weber’s approach – could have been included in the introduction.

    Third, and final, some consideration could have been given to the elasticity of Heilbroner’s use of the term ‘ideology’. Does it mean different things in different contexts? For instance, I’m always drawn to Joan Robinson’s argument about the difficulty in defining ideology – she makes the allusion to the difficulties involved in attempting to define an elephant, but then states that she knows one when she sees one. For her, ideology exhibited the same property. This may also be the case with Heilbroner. Indeed, in his Nature and Logic of Capitalism Heilbroner’s invocation of ideology (the ideology of capital) is decidedly Marxist in tone: “The issue of belief takes us to ideology – the deeply and unselfconsciously held views of the dominant class in any social order” (1985: 107). This seems to me to be a rather different rendering of ideology than Khan appears to discuss, and may suggest a multitude of meanings in Heilbroner’s approach. Given Khan’s argument, there does appear to be some definitional ambiguity in Heilbroner’s employment of the term. Perhaps this could be considered by Khan in any future work in this area.

    • Daniyal Khan says:

      My thanks to Prof. McMaster for his critical and extremely useful comment. His summary of my paper is more than satisfactory, indicating that he has been able to identify key points [“the issue of definitional elasticity”, for example] which I had hoped to convey. What follows below is my response to three broad points raised by Prof. McMaster.

      First: he is absolutely on the mark when he points out that “[g]iven Dewey’s influence on some original institutionalists and Heilbroner’s institutionalist affectations this may seem to be a more obvious association.” However, it is exactly because Weber is a less obvious choice that I was drawn to using his work as the analytical lens. This point needs some explanation. Just as there is a link between Dewey and Heilbroner through the institutionalists, there is, I believe, a fundamental intellectual affinity between Weber and Heilbroner, either as a direct influence or through some other scholar; this draws me to employ a Weberian analytical lens, the same way that the link between Heilbroner and Dewey might draw someone else to employ Dewey’s work as the analytical lens. Now, to support this claim of a link betweens Weber and Heilbroner would possibly require another research paper in itself, but I shall try to explain this as convincingly as possible without this response turning into another essay.

      What convinces me that there is such a fundamental intellectual affinity between the two? Mainly, two points in Heilbroner’s writing which seem to express, in a different context, what are at their core Weberian ideas. I will present these two points by presenting what Heilbroner writes in the context of economics in particular, followed Weber’s ideas in the context of science in general. There is bound to be, in what follows, some repetition of the idea already discussed (albeit inadequately) in my paper.

      The first instance; consider the following passage from the article “Analysis and Vision in the History of Modern Economic Thought” (Journal of Economic Literature, Vol 28, no. 3, pg 1112), in which he quotes another of his own passages:

      “Thus, the validity of underlying visions cannot be inferred from the success of prognoses built on them. Rather, visions remain beyond objective testing. As I have written:
      “Our visions are concerned with such matters as the inherent orientation of human society toward hierarchy or toward equality; the pacific or aggressive “nature” of the human species being, and its capabilities for socialization; the resemblance of social systems to biological orders; and yet other fundamental preconceptions about social reality. Such general preconceptions cannot be proved or disproved-or worse, can all too readily be “proved” or “disproved” by appeal to historical example or introspection. History and introspection will provide support for many such general assertions, but it will also yield evidence for contrary kinds of generalizations. This is because the human psyche is itself full of contradictions, all aspects of which are mirrored in historical experience.” (Heilbroner 1988, p. 197)”

      At the heart of this passage, it appears to me, is the central Weberian idea that certain values, taken as starting points of worldviews, ultimately stand opposed to each other and their “validity” cannot be proven or disproven in an absolute sense. In Heilbroner’s context, this would mean differing – even opposing – visions taken as starting points of different kinds of analytical paths.

      The second instance: Heilbroner proposes that “the conventional predictive orientation of economics must change to what Adolph Lowe has called an ‘instrumental‘ – that is, means-end directed – purpose. That is, “the use of analysis [will be] to infer the policy best suited to attain a necessary [social] end result.” [Heilbroner and Milberg, The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought, pg. 125]

      At the core of this passage, I believe, is Weber’s conception of the last of three contributions of science mentioned in “Science as a Vocation,” namely, “clarity.” This is what Weber has to say about science and the clarity it seeks to provide:

      “We are in a position to help you to a third objective: to gain clarity. Of course, it is presupposed that we ourselves possess clarity. As far as this is the case, we can make clear to you the following:
      In practice, you can take this or that position when concerned with a problem of value–for simplicity’s sake, please think of social phenomena as examples. If you take such and such a stand, then, according to scientific experience, you have to use such and such a means in order to carry out your conviction practically.”
      (, pg. 13-14)

      This is the same instrumental orientation of science which is so important for Heilbroner in the context of economics. In fact, if one reads Heilbroner’s discussion of the instrumental orientation of economics in the article “The possibility of a political economics,” one realizes that Heilbroner ends up placing a limit on the role of the economist in that he cannot make judgment calls about what social ends are or are not more or less desirable [pg. 18]; for my purpose, this is not so interesting in itself as much as it is when one sees that Weber reaches the limits of sciences in general in the very same manner in “Science as a Vocation.”

      As I admitted before, to show that Heilbroner has an intellectual affinity with Weber on certain fundamental issues is a project in itself. Also, as I have suggested in the paper, this belief (which a project devoted to assessing whether this “affinity” is actual or perceived might show to be ill-founded) suffices for the purpose of providing a workable framework to help understand and interpret Heilbroner’s point of view from a unique angle.

      Second: having reviewed my paper in light of Prof. McMaster’s comment, I concede without argument to the issue he raises pertaining to the structure of the paper. When the paper is edited for re-submission, I will follow the reviewer’s suggestion to come up with a stronger and more comprehensive conclusion. Also, it would also make sense to better address the selection of Weber’s work as the analytical lens in the beginning of the paper, rather than leaving what is a very important point for the conclusion.

      Third: the issue pertaining to the elasticity of the term “ideology” as it is employed by Heilbroner.

      Perhaps it is helpful to try and define ideology by referring to Charles Peirce’s essay “How to make our ideas clear.” Peirce writes:

      “It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” [, concluding lines of Section II, emphasis added]

      So what are the effects of ideology? Perhaps we can refer to Heilbroner himself to understand what the effects of ideology might be. Going back to Heilbroner’s own words, it would not be unreasonable to think that ideology would have numerous effects acting in different “directions.” For example, we know from common experience that ideology very often leads to biased discourse and/or claims of universality (“all,” “always” etc.). It also leads to both thought and action which displays an impressive conviction – something important for the beginning of scientific inquiry itself. (Regardless of whether this conviction is praiseworthy or not, for it may be the case that the conviction may be based on entirely mistaken concepts).

      The definitional elasticity and context-based reading of “ideology” is actually a point I have tried to convey in the paper, perhaps not satisfactorily: that our understanding of ideology will change depending on which of the three stages of the process of scientific inquiry is chosen as the point of reference. Far from trying to provide a final “bottom line” on the definition of ideology, the paper hopes to emphasize that our understanding of ideology will remain elastic, even fluid, within the fluid process that is economic inquiry.

      Now, the crucial issue of the ideology of capital. Before having read the reviewer’s comment, I was not aware of any instance in which Heilbroner thinks of ideology in terms of any particular social class. I have since gone back and read the relevant chapter (The Ideology of Capital) of Heilbroner’s “Nature and Logic of Capitalism.” Having done so, I would now have to add a significant qualification to my argument.

      Heilbroner appears to be discussing ideology on many different levels, in many different contexts. As far as I am aware, he discusses ideology at least in the following different contexts. So ideology can mean ideology of a number of different individuals or groups. (So it would be important to ask “ideology of what or whom?” the same way Sen asks and stresses: “equality of what?”) Suffice it to say, Heilbroner’s view of ideology is consequently incredibly messy to deal with. (This is an observation, not a condemnation). All the more important that the context be well-defined to be able to intelligibly discuss ideology.

      The qualification I would thus add to my general argument is as follows. Let us envision an economist. He lives and works within a scientific community. That scientific community itself, in its varying material conditions, may find within itself people belonging to different classes. These classes, nevertheless, live within a larger social setup which we can identify as capitalism, and we can see that members of a larger scientific community can have links with other groups within capitalism; industry, for example, or finance. In this small exercise (during which I have Galbraith’s novel “A Tenured Professor” at the back of my mind), we have moved from the individual economist to capitalism in general. Ideology, now, permeates all these different layers or levels of social life in different ways. My paper merely discusses Heilbroner’s view of ideology in the very specific context of how the individual economist thinks and works within the scientific community, with a particular purpose of trying to understand better the internal dynamics and process of economics as a social science in Heilbroner’s view, and nothing more.

      Heilbroner of course thinks that the social scientists’ points of view are related to their position in society, as I have mentioned in the paper. Those parts of his work where he does discuss this point would help us make the link between 1) ideology of economists as individuals, groups and as members of a scientific community and 2) ideology of capital(ism). My paper however, merely addresses the former. This in no way implies that the latter is not important in terms of how we understand the former. In fact, the influence of the latter on the former may well be indispensable in understanding not only the economics discipline as it is today but also how it has come to be the way it is today. These themes are, however, beyond the scope of the current study and may be explored in the future.

      To conclude, I am grateful to Prof. McMaster for his critical comment which has forced me to further clarify the points I wish to convey in the paper and look into Heilbroner’s view of ideology further. I hope that I have been able to respond to the reviewer’s concerns in a satisfactory manner.

  • Mark Peacock says:

    Daniyal Khan makes an interesting attempt to clarify Robert Heilbroner’s methodological remarks by reading the latter from the perspective of Max Weber’s lecture: Wissenschaft als Beruf (1917). Heilbroner insists on the necessity of “vision” in economic analysis. He also rejects value freedom because the economist “infuses meaning into his data” and cannot detach herself from the social context from which she writes. Khan points to a tension whereby Heilbroner tries to steer a course which avoids “ideology” but depends on “vision” and thus cannot arrogate to itself the status of value freedom. Khan delves into this conceptual thicket with Max Weber as a fillip.

    The danger of the mission is that Weber and Heilbroner are sailing very different ships through these invidious waters. “Vision”, for Heilbroner, includes “the political hopes and fears, social stereotypes, and value judgments … that infuse all social thought” (cited in Khan, p. 3). “Moral values”, too, comprise vision. All of this is perfectly legitimate, indeed unavoidable, in the practice of social enquiry, writes Heilbroner. By contrast, “ideology” consists of “biased discourse” and “unknowing deception of the self” (Khan, p. 4) which is to be expunged from social enquiry.

    Turning to Weber, we already see grounds for concern: are Heilbroner’s “political hopes and fears” not elements that Weber would have us banish from scholarly pursuit (“Politik gehört nicht in den Hörsaal”, p. 14 of the Studienausgabe: Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf (Tübingen: Mohr, 1994))? If we add to the notion of vision “our individual moral values”, we seem to be at least close to the sort of value judgement which Weber claims to be inimical to Wissenschaft (“… wo immer der Mann der Wissenschaft mit seinem eigenen Werturteil kommt, [hört] das volle Verstehen von Tatsachen auf (ibid., p. 15)). Of course, Weber does not seek to banish all presuppositions of Wissenschaft; indeed, as Khan recognises, Wissenschaft has its “Voraussetzungen” which are non-demonstrable in scientific terms but essential prerequisites of Wissenschaft (ibid., p. 13). But the presuppositions Weber mentions – “the validity of the rules of logic and method”, and the belief that the results of academic work are “worthy of knowing” (wissenswert) – are tightly circumscribed vis-à-vis the capaciousness of Heilbroner’s “vision”.

    Perhaps, then, vision is better understood as a correlate of the seemingly mystical aspects of Wissenschaft, of the “intuitive inspiration” or “passion” (Eingebung, Rausch, Leidenschaft) which is essential to scientific advance though not captured (or amenable to capture) in any algorithm (ibid., pp. 6-7). This is not a suggestion that Khan pursues. Instead he develops a three-stage view of science, based more on what Weber tells us at the end of his lecture regarding those things which we can expect academic study to give us (ibid., p. 19; Khan, p. 8). One can certainly agree with Khan on the need for deep self-reflection on one’s own academic practice as well as his insistence – drawing on Karl Löwith – that values are ever present in Wissenschaft and to be brought to the fore in academic work.

    To close with a comment on value freedom: Weber seems to place some value judgements at odds with Wissenschaft, e.g. those of a political nature and those regarding questions of how to live, which the professional academic is poorly equipped to answer. There are also those value judgements which underlie Wissenschaft which are simply presupposed in and by academic endeavour, the validity of which cannot be proven by academic study, e.g. whether academic study be a worthy pursuit; the answer to this question is a value judgement which should not enter the lecture theatre (Weber, 1917, p. 20). Here we meet a contextual facet of Weber’s lecture, namely, that he is preoccupied with the Beruf of the university professor and his (in Weber’s time, they were all male) role vis-à-vis those whom he teaches. The site of the lecture theatre is crucial to Weber’s remarks, and he equally admonishes students not to demand leadership qualities of their professors. Although Weber compares German with US universities a number of times in the lecture, the late twentieth-century context in which Heilbroner offers his remarks is dissimilar in many ways. Daniyal Khan gives us a vision of scientific practice which we would all do well to uphold; to what extent his vision stands without the crutch of Max Weber is something to which I would encourage the reader to give more thought. Khan’s is a worthy undertaking for its methodological standpoint, and a brave one given the irremediably enigmatic nature of Weber’s lecture.

    • Daniyal Khan says:

      [References to “Science as a Vocation” are cited as SV, using the pdf file cited in my response to Prof. McMaster’s comment. This is done for the sake of convenience, and a published version of the lecture would, of course, be cited in the final revised version of the paper.]

      My thanks to Prof. Peacock for his constructive and critical comment on my paper. It appears that he is raising two main issues which I need to address. The first is the issue of Weber’s exclusion of “political hopes and fears” from science and his concern that “whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases.” [SV, 11] The second is that of value judgments which are at odds with science: “e.g those of a political nature and those regarding questions of how to live, which the professional academic is poorly equipped to answer.” The larger context of these issues is what he calls the “contextual facet” of Weber’s lecture.

      First: Weber’s statement that “politics is out of place in the lecture-room” [SV, 10] has a very specific meaning of barring political activism from the classroom. This is shown by the fact that he immediately follows it up with an image of students raising a ruckus and disrupting the lecture on political grounds – a situation which Weber condemns without qualification and consideration of the specific political leanings of either the students or the professor in question. Such activism is clearly denounced, whether it is perpetrated by students or the docent. The paragraph that follows that image is in a similar vein, and further clarifies the point: “To take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another.” [SV, 10] An inclusion of political hopes and fears in a scientific lecture is legitimate to the degree that one is scrutinizing “the internal structure of cultural values.” [SV, 11]. In as much as such hopes and fears are particular manifestations or expressions of cultural values whose internal structure is to be studied, it does not seem possible to keep them out of the classroom. That such hopes and fears may be shared by the docent is a possibility that certainly makes his task difficult, but there does not seem to be a way around it besides an exceptional self-discipline on part of the professor. The professor’s personal value judgments become a problem the moment they begin “putting over a political position to the student.” [SV, 10] Furthermore, I do not see how a teacher can help students acknowledge “facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions” [SV, 11] without bringing particular party opinions – and the associated political hopes and fears – into the discussion in the first place.

      Second: the issue of science’s inability to answer questions of a political nature and questions on how life ought to be lived. Such a view is not entirely alien to Heilbroner. His exposition of what political economics, or an instrumental re-orientation of economic, is meant to be makes clear that it is not for an economist to prescribe socio-political goals. The determination of these goals is a socio-political project and as such lies outside the expertise of the economist. Where Weber is concerned with the relationship between the professor and his students within the lecture theatre, Heilbroner is concerned with the role of an economist on an even larger stage: society. Where Weber asks students not to seek leadership qualities in the professor, Heilbroner places explicit limits on the social role of the economist and thus speaks, albeit indirectly, to all those who would place economist in a position of privilege and would pose this question to economists: “What social and political ends shall we pursue?” It is clear that for Heilbroner, this question is not one for economists to answer. While Weber’s context is indeed different from Heilbroner’s, it is similar enough to serve our purpose: to help better understand Heilbroner’s work.

      Hence, Weber and Heilbroner are indeed sailing very different ships. What is crucial is that they have to weather the same storms, and so it does not come as a surprise that their methods of navigation are not entirely different. If a Weberian examination of Heilbroner’s work “gives us a vision of scientific practice which we would all do well to uphold,” I would consider the purpose of my paper fulfilled, for it is all too easy, among the mechanistic institutional routines of academia, to forget that there are other ways of imagining and practicing science besides those which currently prevail. In as much as Weber’s work helps us do that, it is more a powerful analytical lens than it is a crutch.

      [Prof. Peacock’s suggestion that “vision may be understood as a correlate of the seemingly mystical aspects of Wissenschaft” is something that – much to my surprise – completely went by unnoticed to me. This will surely be included in a revised version of the paper. Once again, I am grateful to Prof. Peacock for his comment which has helped me clarify my position.]