On Operationalisms and Economics

Most writers on economic methodology tell essentially the same story about “operationalism.” Operationalism was the philosophy of science popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Percy Bridgman; the main text was his Logic of Modern Physics, originally published in 1927, but a number of different variants of the program appeared in the literature during the period 1930-1950. There was never a definitive rejection of the program, but because of technical difficulties and also because of its general identification with positivist philosophy of science, discussion of operationalism has effectively disappeared from the philosophical literature. Operationalism was most stridently promoted in economics by Paul Samuelson, who offered it as the methodological backdrop for many of his early theoretical contributions, particularly Foundations (1947) and revealed preference theory (1938a). Although operationalism continues to receive a certain amount of ritual endorsement from practicing economists, few, if any, actually abide by (or even attempt to abide by) its methodological maxims.

The purpose of this paper is not to replace this standard story about operationalism with an alternative, equally condensed, view. The standard story is fine as far as it goes; it just does not go very far, and there is a much more complex, and much more interesting, story to be told about operationalism in general and its relationship to economics in particular. Although the following discussion constitutes little more than a few first steps in an ongoing and much larger project concerning the reception of positivist ideas-and the corresponding demise of pragmatist ideas- within American economics during the interwar period, it does provide a very different reading of the intellectual history of opcrationalism and in particular how such ideas might be, well, operationalized in economics. The discussion will focus on the variation among operationalist views (hence the title), and even though the standard interpretation admits that opcrationalism was more of a broad general framework than a single unified position, I will argue that the variation was actually much greater than commonly recognized. In addition, when we turn beyond the philosophical literature to the question of how operationalism was interpreted within the social/human sciences, then the variation becomes even more pronounced. The bottom line is that certain supporters of Bridgman’s operationalism-John Dewey in particular- considered the main operationalist message, and its methodological implications for the social sciences, to be precisely the opposite of the message promoted by Samuelson in economics and by mid- century behaviorists in psychology.

The paper is arranged as follows. The first section will review the standard interpretation of operationalism with an emphasis on its relationship to logical positivism and the so-called received view of scientific theories. The second will consider how operationalism was interpreted in economics, particularly by Samuelson. The third will examine Dewey’s very different, pragmatic reading of operationalism and highlight how antithetical the pragmatic interpretation is to that of Samuelson and the behaviorists. The final section will attempt to answer the so what? question and bring the discussion home to the history and methodology of economics.

Cognitive Significance, Correspondence, and Operations

The operationalist program presented in Percy Bridgman’s Logic of Modern Physics ( 1927) is more often viewed as a friendly amendment to logical positivism than as a new, free-standing framework for the philosophy of science. In particular, it is viewed as one specific answer to the general problem of correspondence rules that played such an important role in the Vienna Circle’s characterization of the structure of scientific theories. According to the early logical positivists, scientific theories consist of three main parts- logical, theoretical, and empirical-and each of these three parts is couched in terms of its own separate vocabulary. The directly empirical part of a scientific theory is restricted to the observational vocabulary; the terms in this observational vocabulary are considered to be directly, and incorrigibly, empirically observable. On the other hand, the purely theoretical aspect of the theory involves exclusively the logical and theoretical vocabularies; it consists of a set of theoretical propositions constructed from various components of these two different vocabularies. Since these theoretical propositions are nonobservational, there must be a tight linkage, a transmission mechanism, that allows such propositions (and the terms in the theoretical vocabulary more generally) to hook up to the empirical domain: the terms and expressions within the observational vocabulary. A fourth component of the positivist view of scientific theories-correspondence rules-performs precisely this necessary linkage. The correspondence rules translate the terms in the theoretical vocabulary into the observational vocabulary and thus into the incorrigible empirical basis of science. Given the logical positiviste’ verifiability criterion of meaningfulness, these rules play a fundamental role in determining the cognitive significance, and thus the legitimacy, of scientific theories. Since empirical verifiability is necessary for cognitive significance, and since, sans correspondence rules, theoretical propositions are devoid of empirical content, these rules provide the essential correspondence between the theoretical propositions of science and the domain of incorrigible observations which guarantee their cognitive significance.

While later logical empiricists allowed for a “comparatively loose and imprecise” (Nagel 1961, 99) specification of the linkage between the theoretical and empirical domains, the early positivists were quite strict about the character of correspondence rules. They required every term in the theoretical vocabulary be given an explicit definition in terms of the observational vocabulary. The correspondence rules thus provided necessary and sufficient conditions for meaningful application of any theoretical predicate. As Frederick Suppe explained, “[i]nitially correspondence rules had to have the form of explicit definitions which provide necessary and sufficient observational conditions for the applicability of theoretical terms; theoretical terms were cognitively significant if and only if they were explicitly defined in terms of the observation vocabulary” (1977, 18). Within the philosophical framework of such strict correspondence rules, the question of the “cognitive significance of the theoretical terms”-an issue of much debate among later logical empiricists-never even surfaced; the correspondence rules allowed the cognitive significance of the empirical basis to be transmitted directly and unimpeded into the theoretical vocabulary. Strict correspondence guaranteed the theoretical vocabulary inherited its cognitive significance directly from the observational domain; the entire cognitive weight of science thus rested squarely on the shoulders of the correspondence rules.

While Bridgman himself was more interested in correcting what he considered to be the bad metaphysical habits of practicing physicists than in solving deep philosophical problems about the cognitive significance of formalized scientific theories, his operationalism was quickly interpreted as just one particular variant of the logical positivist interpretation of correspondence rules. Bridgman’s claims that a theoretical term is meaningful if and only if it “corresponds to” a specific set of operations, and that the meaning of any theoretical term should be defined as (thus is synonymous with) its corresponding set of operations, were viewed as one particular, rather restrictive, specification of the explicit definition of theoretical terms in terms of the observational, in this case operational, vocabulary.

Of course many problems have been identified with the operationalist characterization of such correspondence rules. Perhaps the most significant was initially pointed out in a review of Bridgman 1927 by L. J. Russell appearing in Mind in 1928 (also see chapter 6 of Hempel 1965 and chapter 2 of Suppe 1977); this is the definitional problem associated with multiple operations. If we take Bridgman at his word, and every concept is “synonymous with the corresponding set of operations” (1927, 5, emphasis in original), then every operation defines a different concept. To use an economic example, if we define the macroeconomic theoretical concept of the “price level” in terms of the operations used to measure the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI), then we will define a different theoretical concept by the GDP deflator, the Wholesale Price Index, or for that matter the CPI of some other country. We cannot define theoretical concepts in terms of operations unless we are ready to accept multiple theoretical concepts: one for each operation. If we believe that the “price level” means something more than what is measured by the operations used in the construction of one specific price index, then we cannot accept the narrow operationalist definition of such theoretical terms. This is certainly not the only problem with the correspondence rule interpretation of operationalism, but it is a signi\ficant problem that was recognized very early and never really given an adequate response by the program’s various supporters.

Like other aspects of the logical positivist program-the strict distinction between theory and observation, the foundationalist interpretation of the empirical basis, the analytic character of mathematics and logic, and so on-the original interpretation of operationalism was substantially softened by the later logical empiricists.1 By 1945 Herbert Feigl would say that “concepts which are to be of value to the factual sciences must be definable by operations which are (1) logically consistent; (2) sufficiently definite . . . (3) empirically rooted … (4) naturally and, preferably, technically possible; (5) intersubjective and repeatable; (6) aimed at the creation of concepts which will function in laws or theories of greater predictiveness” (258). This is no longer the stern demands of if-and-only-if operational definition; by the 1940s operationalism seems to have evolved into a kind of generic empiricism.2 But it was not this watered-down version of operationalism but rather the original correspondence interpretation that made its appearance in economic theory in the late 1930s.

The Received View of Operationalism in Economics

It is customary to associate operationalism in economics with the name of Paul Samuelson. Although he was not the first economist to use the term operationalism (1938b) or to defend it as a methodological position-Henry Schultz endorsed it as early as 1928- Samuelson was clearly the program’s most consistent and sustained advocate within the economics profession. The received view of operationalism among economists was clearly received from the pen of Paul Samuelson.4

Although Samuelson’s Foundations (1947) was based on his 1941 doctoral dissertation, which carried the subtitle “The Operational Significance of Economic Theory,” and it consistently emphasized the importance of “operationally meaningful theorems,” his most sustained effort to modify the course of economic theorizing in the operationalist direction was his revealed preference theory, originally presented in Samuelson 1938a.

The stated goal of Samuelson’s “Pure Theory of Consumer’s Behaviour” (1938a) was to rebuild the theory of consumer choice on solid operationalist grounds. Although the complete stabilization of consumer choice theory did not occur until the post-World War II era, most of the main contenders in the late 1930s involved individual economic agents maximizing some version of a well- behaved (usually ordinal) utility function. Samuelson’s stated goal was to eliminate the concepts of utility and utility functions altogether from demand theory-to provide a “theory of consumer’s behaviour freed from any vestigial traces of the utility concept” (71). His approach-what later came to be called the weak axiom of revealed preference-was based on the direct observation of consumer behavior-observation of the various bundles of goods that the consumer purchases at various prices. If, at price vector p^sup 0^, a particular bundle of goods x^sup 0^ is chosen and an affordable bundle x^sup 0^ is not chosen, then bundle x^sup 0^ has been “revealed preferred” to bundle x^sup 1^. If x^sup 1^ is then purchased at a different price vector p^sup 1^, it must be that the revealed preferred bundle x^sup 0^ was not affordable at the new price p^sup 1^. It was argued that by systematically changing prices and recording which bundles were revealed preferred to which other bundles at these various prices, the consumer’s preferences could be “revealed” and thus rendered operationally meaningful by the “operation” of preference revelation. Such revealed preferences can be used to replace the reference to utility in the standard characterization of consumer choice, and so “[t]he whole theory of consumer’s behavior can thus be based upon operationally meaningful foundations in terms of revealed preference” (1948, 157). Employing the tools of revealed preference theory, Samuelson was able to derive most of the results available from ordinal utility theory; the one exception was the symmetry of the Slutsky matrix (integrability) which did not seem to matter (at least initially) since it was linked to the existence of the underlying utility function that Samuelson’s approach sought to replace.

Although this standard story is a reasonably adequate account of the role that revealed preference theory came to play in the theory of consumer choice, it actually understates the radicalness of Samuelson’s original project. First, it is important to note that Samuelson did not use the term revealed preference in the original 1938 paper; in fact the term revealed preference was not used by Samuelson until his 1948 paper. The original project was not to “reveal” preferences; the original project was to eliminate preferences from the theory of consumer choice. Utility theory, in all of its various renditions, characterized the consumer as an intentional and purposive economic agent; the individual was believed to be a certain way-have subjective preferences and/or a utility function-and while these characteristics could be used to predict certain observational behaviors of the agent, these preferences were not themselves given an operational definition and were thus not scientifically meaningful. One solution, and the one that the profession eventually settled on, was to use Samuelson’s revealed preference theory as a technique for uncovering these intentional preferences, but that was not Samuelson’s original project. His original argument was that since utility and related preference concepts were not operationally defined, they were not observational and thus had no place in scientific economics. They would be replaced, according to the original approach, by operational procedures based on the observational-and thus meaningful and scientific-behavior of individual agents. As originally proposed, Samuelson’s theory was eliminativist-its goal was to totally eliminate the subjective, intentional, notion of preference/utility from the theory of consumer choice (and thus all of economics)-and as such it offered a rather radical alternative to the mainstream neoclassical theorizing of the (or this) day. It seems that philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg (1992) who insist that mainstream economics is methodologically flawed because of its reliance on intentional folk-psychological concepts such as belief and desire would be quite sympathetic to the original goal of Samuelson’s operational theory of consumer choice.5

Of course Samuelson’s revolutionary elimination of utility and preference did not come to pass. Over time, Samuelson and the economics profession in general came to see the new theory of consumer choice as simply one particular way one might go about “revealing” preferences and thus-since the standard representation theorems demonstrated that any well-behaved preferences could be represented by an ordinal utility function-revealing utility. Rather than eliminating intentional notions such as preference and utility, revealed preference theory ultimately came to provide scientific legitimization for precisely these same concepts. Utility was re- enshrined as a perfectly legitimate scientific concept: a concept rendered operationally, and thus observationally, meaningful by Samuelson’s theory of revealed preference.

As I have argued elsewhere (2001, 67-9) this is essentially the same thing that happened in American psychology during roughly the same period. Operationalist ideas were introduced into psychology by Edward Tolman, Stanley Stevens, Clark Hull, and others during the late 1930s.6 Here too the original goal was to eliminate the subjective mentalistic concepts that had dominated earlier psychological theory and to replace them with a more operationally meaningful account of human behavior. But, as in economics, the supporters ultimately ended up “turning operationalism inside out” (Green 2001, 49). “Instead of replacing ‘metaphysical’ terms such as ‘desire’ and ‘purpose'” they “used it to legitimize them by giving them operational definitions.” Thus in psychology, as in economics, the initial, quite radical operationalist ideas eventually came to serve as little more than a “reassurance fetish” (Koch 1992, 275) for mainstream methodological practice.

Dewey’s Version of Operationalism

At this point we will briefly leave the discussion of logical positivism, Samuelson, and psychology and turn our attention in an apparently different philosophical direction: the pragmatism of Dewey. While Dewey may seem to be an abrupt change in intellectual direction-particularly for economists who associate Dewey with American institutionalism (in many ways the antithesis of Paul Samuelson’s economics)-philosophers often see a link between Bridgman’s operationalism and the pragmatic tradition. As Feigl summarized the relationship in the 1945 paper mentioned above:

In the perspective of the history of science and the history of philosophy, operationalism represents a recent formulation of some of the essential features of the experimental method and of empiricism generally, accentuated in the direction of pragmatism and instrumentalism (Peirce, James, and Dewey). Bridgman’s formulations of the criteria of empirical meaning, though probably quite original with him, have much in common especially with C. S. Peirce in “How to make our ideas clear” (first published in 1878). (1945, 250)7

While there are clearly similarities between pragmatism and the standard interpretation of Bridgman’s operationalism, and for that matter even between pragmatism and Vienna Circle philosophy more generally, one needs to be careful about overstating the common ground. Yes, pragmatism, like logical positivism, was a “scientific philosophy”; and, yes, both approaches promote the extension of scientific reasoning atthe expense of metaphysics, religion, and idealistic philosophy; and, yes, both are broadly “empirical” and concerned with “experience”; but the similarities essentially stop with these basic points. Dewey in particular had a very “latitudinarian” view of the experimental method of science (Westbrook 1991, 142) and never exhibited the positivist tendency to view “scientific” activity as a narrowly circumscribed endeavor. Dewey was both anti-epistemology and anti-foundationalist and certainly never shared the positivist goal of dictating the proper empirical foundations for all of scientific knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, he considered the scientific form of life to be social, linked to democracy, and not a subject for armchair philosophizing about the ultimate character of knowledge. All in all, pragmatism is a scientific philosophy that is decidedly unpositivistic (in fact un- philosophy of science), and one of the main reasons for its revival during the past few years has been precisely the ways in which it differs from positivism.8

Despite these important differences, Dewey’s Quest for Certainty (1929), published two years after Bridgman’s Logic, contains a spirited defense of operationalism. While Dewey clearly endorsed operationalism, it was a very different interpretation of Bridgman’s program from the positivist-tinted portrait presented above. Dewey’s operationalism was not only different; it was in fact diametrically opposed to the way that operationalism was interpreted in psychology and economics. But this is getting ahead of the story. Let us first examine what Dewey actually had to say about Bridgman’s “operationalism. “

Dewey rejected the entire epistemological framework of modern philosophy, what he called the “spectator theory of knowledge” (1920, 122-23)-the idea that knowledge is about correctly perceiving and representing an objective nature “out there”-and replaced it with a biocentric notion of mankind situated in, and trying to get on in, a specific, and often not very accommodating, physical environment. He rejected the distinction between “knowing” and “doing,” and replaced the mirror metaphor of seeking a true reflection of an objective nature with an experiential instrumentalism of action-oriented reflection that could just as easily apply to a mechanic, physician, or surveyor as to a laboratory scientist. The distinction between Dewey’s view and the standard epistemology-based view of experience and knowledge is captured nicely by Louis Menand:

Philosophers, Dewey argued, had mistakenly insisted on making a problem of the relation between the mind and the world, an obsession that had given rise to what he called “the alleged discipline of epistemology”-the attempt to answer the question, How do we know? The pragmatist response to this question is to point out that nobody has ever made a problem about the relation between, for example, the hand and the world. The function of the hand is to help the organism cope with the environment; in situations in which a hand doesn’t work, we try something else, such as a foot, a fishhook, or an editorial. (2001,360-61)

Given that knowledge for Dewey is always forward looking and active, it is but a short step to the characterization of such knowledge as “operational”; experimental knowledge is not about passive reflection but about performing operations and anticipating operations to be performed. The task of pragmatic reason is not to discover the essence or true nature of the objects of inquiry but rather to be successful in the active interaction with nature, and that success requires anticipation, deliberation, and intentional operations: “experiment is not random, aimless action, but always includes, along with groping and relatively blind doing, an element of deliberate foresight and intent, which determines that one operation rather than another be tried” (Dewey 1929, 110, emphasis added). It is through purposeful and forward-looking operations that conceptions acquire their instrumental or scientific value. “Only operations intentionally performed and attentively noted in conjunction with their products give observed material a positive intellectual value” (1929, 177). Dewey not only endorsed a version of operationalism but he attributed it directly to Bridgman’s Logic and labeled his own approach to knowledge and experimental inquiry “operational thinking” (111).

As Dewey’s later co-author Arthur Bentley explained in his 1938 paper “Physics and Fairies,” Bridgman simply generalized his own hands-on practice as a physicist. Operationalism was just what Bridgman and other physicists did in the laboratory: activities far more mundane and yet scientifically far more interesting than the abstract armchair philosophizing of the positivists. “His matter-of- fact procedure had the effect of providing his very empiricism itself with an empirical origin, so to speak, which was in sharp contrast with the highly rationalized empiricisms of the preceding generations” (1936, 138). According to Bentley and Dewey, Bridgman offered a view of science that was simultaneously naturalist, historically conditioned, and socially situated.

Psychologically what Bridgman did was to make use of the behaving physicist just as he found him in the special case of “himself in the laboratory”-a living, breathing, working organism, dated to his nation and generation, trained to his profession, and set at a definite position in a long historical line of scientific advance. Bridgman opened his eyes and took the man he saw-himself-and put him to work “performing operations” and “having concepts.” (Bentley 1938, 138-9)

Since experimental inquiry is always active and operational, observational evidence is not the “dead” (Dewey 1929, 166) data of traditional empiricism but rather living and active experiential phenomena to be operated on. For Dewey “the evidence” is not simply “given” by nature; it is always interest laden and a product of active human operations. “The history of the theory of knowledge or epistemology would have been very different if instead of the word ‘data’ or ‘givens,’ it had happened to start with calling the quantities in question ‘takens'” (1929, 178). Operations not only play a role in the interest-ladenness of observations but the variety of such operations contributes to the plurality of scientific intelligence; “there are as many kinds of knowledge as there are conclusions wherein distinctive operations have been employed to solve the problems set by antecedently experienced situations” (197). Because of the variety of such operations, there “is no kind of inquiry which has a monopoly of the honorable title of knowledge” (220).

The bottom line for Dewey is that we only come to know objects because they are the objects of inquiry, and since experimental inquiry involves humanly directed operations, knowledge comes to be identified directly with these “directed operations” (1929, 200). This certainly is not the standard positivist-inspired reading of Bridgman’s operationalism, but it is an interpretation of knowledge that is fundamentally contingent on the purposeful operations of knowledge-seeking agents in the context of their interaction with the physical environment. It is clearly an operationalist interpretation of scientific knowledge, but it is an operationalism that is broadly situated within the performative pragmatic conception of knowledge rather than the “quest for certainty” philosophical tradition that conditions the standard reading of Bridgman.

It is important to emphasize how diametrically opposed Dewey’s version of operationalism is to the operationalist project envisioned by Samuelson and various behaviorists within psychology. Dewey employed the concept of operations to give purpose and intentionality a legitimate role in scientific inquiry, while Samuelson and others employed it to get purpose and intentionality out of science. For Dewey science is fundamentally human; intelligence emerges within the context of human interest-laden engagements with nature: “intelligent action is purposive action; . . . distinctively human conduct can be interpreted and understood only in terms of purpose” (1929, 246). For Samuelson and the behaviorists, science exclusively involves the theoretical redescription of given empirical observations, and since purpose and intention are not observable in this sense, they have no place within science. These views reflect fundamentally different notions of “experience” and are about as far apart as two positions can be and still remain within the general framework of scientific philosophy. Dewey’s biological naturalism contrasts with the foundationalist empiricism of Samuelson, behaviorists, and positivist-inspired mainstream philosophy of science; Dewey’s operations are not only directed and purposeful, they are intelligent precisely because they serve human designs, while the operations of Samuelson and the standard view are mere empirically recordable motions that have cognitive virtue precisely because they are mere motions; and, finally, Dewey sees science as something uniquely and enthusiastically human, while for Samuelson and the others what makes science unique is precisely the absence of the human, the disinterestedness of its method. These are not only very different visions of operationalism but they are fundamentally different visions of human knowledge-particularly the role of the “human” in such knowledge.

So… So What?

Even the reader persuaded by the argument thus far might be inclined to say, So what? So, there are substantial differences between Dewey’s pragmatic view of operationalism and the more standard positivist-inspired interpretation adapted by Samuelson and other social scientists in the late 1930s; and, so, it is possible to recruit Bridgman’s words to serve either of these (and perhaps even other) views. So what?

I would like t\o begin my response to the “So what?” question by briefly noting two lines of argument-two paths that might be explored in order to elicit historical and/or methodological insights from the above story-that I will not be pursue here. These lines of argument will not be pursued because they have already been discussed in great detail in the existing literature (in economics, or philosophy, or both) on these two topics. First is the question of the (non) success of revealed preference theory. Despite Samuelson’s insistence to the contrary (1998), it is now well- established that the operationalist-inspired project of basing demand theory on revealed preference was a failure from a variety of different perspectives; see for example Cohen 1995, Hausman 2000, Lewin 1996, Mirowski 1998, Rosenberg 1992, Sen 1973, and the book- length discussion in Wong 1978. Not only did the original project of purging preference and utility from economic analysis fail but the later goal of providing a practical way of “revealing” those preferences was also unsuccessful even on its own (revised) terms. Whatever the reasons are that economists believe in demand theory, the claim that revealed preference theory has provided consumer choice theory with incorrigible operational/empirical foundations doesn’t seem to be-or at least certainly shouldn’t be-one of them.

The second potential line of response that will not be pursued concerns the relative viability of Dewey’s view of scientific observations and operations versus the positivist-inspired interpretation of these same metascientific concerns. It is well- known that most of the major developments within scientific philosophy during the last forty or so years since the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions have emphasized issues such as the theory, social, and interest ladenness of empirical observations; as a result, the door has been (re)opened for pragmatic approaches that are (and have been from their nineteenth century conception) quite sensitive to such issues. Many philosophers now consider some version of pragmatism to be a much more viable way of thinking about debates within contemporary science theory than either positivist-based philosophy of science or any of the various purely sociological-historical approaches. Along with these changes there has also been an erosion of interest in the whole question of correspondence rules in science; “correspondence rules” are no longer considered to be key elements in the philosophical characterization of scientific theories. If operationalism is tied exclusively to such rules, as positivist- inspirecl philosophers of science tend to do, then it too would seem to fade away from our methodological interest (unlike perhaps Dewey’s non-correspondence-based reading of such operations). These philosophical questions, while intriguing, are also not the subject of this final section.

Rather than expanding on these two quite interesting, but fairly well-researched, responses to the “So what?” question, I would like to close by offering two lessons that might be drawn from the above discussion that are just as interesting but are perhaps a little less conspicuous and/or well-traveled. First, I examine how Dewey’s position and its implications might contribute to a reconsideration, or possibly reconstruction, of the history of institutional economics. second, I will reflect briefly on how the story relates to questions about agency, and particularly the consistency of the agency, in social science and the philosophy of social science.

Although it is both standard and proper to associate institutionalist economics with pragmatic philosophy, recent research clearly indicates that the relationship between the two is neither as simple nor as straightforward as is often suggested. For one thing, a number of economists sympathetic to institutionalism have argued that Dewey’s ideas have not always been accurately portrayed-and in particular they have been given a more positivist or behaviorist slant than appropriate-within the existing institutionalist literature (e.g., Hodgson 2001, Lawson 2003, Webb 2002, and others). second, it is clear that while Veblen and Dewey had much in common-intellectually, politically, and at times even physical location-it is also clear that they held contrary views on a number of topics (e.g., Tilman 1998); that Veblen was, in certain cases (Veblen 1919), openly critical of pragmatism (or at least critical of what he believed others thought pragmatism was); and that both pragmatic and positivistic philosophical ideas were used (often interchangeably) by both sides in the intcrwar struggle between institutionalism and neoclassicism (Hodgson 2001; Yonay 1998). Finally, there is the question of which pragmatism and which institutionalism; there are many versions of both, and the degree to which institutionalist economics and pragmatic philosophy line up certainly depends on which element of each of these two sets of ideas one chooses to compare/contrast (see Bush 1993 and 1994, liebhafsky 1993, Mirowski 1987, and Rutherford 1990 for a small sample of the literature on these issues).

So how does the above story help? What light can the above story shed on these various controversies within institutionalist economics? Although the issues are clearly complex, it seems that Dewey’s version of operationalism-that is, the understanding and acceptance of Dewey’s version of operationalism-might have eliminated one source of tension within interwar institutionalism and thereby made it less vulnerable to neoclassical critiques. The apparent tension stems from institutionalists’ simultaneous commit’ ment to the importance of empirical evidence and to the relevance of social values. On one hand institutionalists criticize neoclassical economics for not paying enough attention to the empirical evidence- the real facts of economic life-and on the other hand they criticize it for neglecting the importance of social norms and values. Now while different subbranches of institutionalism have their own response to this dilemma, it is clearly the case that positivism puts the tension into bold relief. For positivism, the scientific- empirical-descriptive is one thing (something meaningful), and social norms and values are something else entirely (something meaningless). If the epistemic landscape is parceled out exclusively according to positivist categories, then this tension is inevitable and cannot be removed; one must choose between science and values. Despite institutionalism’s systematic nod in the direction of pragmatism, it is nonetheless the case that many institutionalists simply accepted the philosophical categories of positivist empiricism and were thus condemned to pick one side of this tension or the other. I would argue that neoclassicism harbors a similar tension, but a variety of factors actually allowed it to turn this tension into a perceived virtue, but that is another story for another time (see Mirowski and Hands 1998 for a beginning). For institutionalism it was viewed as a fault; they advocate for a more scientific/empirical economics and also for more value sensitivity (neoclassical eyes role).

Of course one of the main features of pragmatism is that there is no such distinction between the application of intelligence in scientific judgments and value judgments. There is no splendid isolation of fact and value, and nothing but a relative distinction between means and ends. In Dewey’s words: “I also hold that one and the same method is to be used in determination of physical judgment and the value judgments of morals” (1951, 583). There is no tension between doing economic science and being concerned with social values; together they simply constitute the application of intelligence to the questions of economic life. Now as the mass of research in post-Deweyan pragmatic philosophy clearly indicates, this tension-free vision is not without its difficulties, but the argument here is not that Dewey solved every single problem associated with science, values, and the relationship between the two. The argument is simply that, if, during the heyday of operationalism, institutionalists had been more sensitive to Dewey’s version of Bridgman’s position, there may not have been nearly as much defection to behaviorism and positivism, and consequently there would have been less tension to be exploited by critics. If the importance of operations in science had been accepted without accepting the associated positivist demarcational line in the sand, then institutionalism might have been less exposed to the “divide and conquer” of critics; retained stronger ties to pragmatism; been able to muster a serious response to revealed preference theory; and ultimately been in a better position to reap the rewards when the positivist line in the sand became so smeared at the end of the twentieth century. Perhaps that is a lot to ask, but it is an interesting conjecture nonetheless.

My second point has less to do with institutionalism, or any other particular version of economics, and more to do with the overall consistency of Dewey’s position relative to that of Samuelson or other behaviorists. If one asks even the most diehard behaviorists what they are doing when they apply their theories to various social agents, they never reply that they are simply responding to oprant conditioning. They, the scientists in question, have goals and desires; they act intentionally to discover the real causes of human behavior. Of course the causes they ostensibly discover are not the causes they would accept as an explanation of their own behavior as scientists; they are entirely different from the humans they study and what they-subjects-do is entirely different from what they-scientists-do. Samuelson, even when he has been most insistent about the necessity of “objective” and non- subjective-\intentional explanations of human behavior, would never explain his own scientific activity that way; he was trying to find the truth, trying to make economics more scientific, trying to lay the foundations for a science that would solve real economic problems; but in any case he was trying to do something and was not just being pushed around in response to prior stimulus. Of course this is not to say that Samuelson is any worse in this respect than any other, even the greatest, social scientists. Reflexivity is a serious issue. The point is simply that Dewey, and Dewey’s version of operationalism in particular, systematically avoids this particular problem. One of the defining features of pragmatism is that what philosophers do is not fundamentally different from what scientists do, nor is it fundamentally different from what most people do as they get along effectively in the world. There is no bright line between what they do and what we do: whether “they” are scientists and “we” are philosophers contemplating knowledge, or whether “they” are social agents and “we” are social scientists studying them. This is naturalism all the way down, not naturalism until-I-get-to-my-favorite-stopping-point. Again, 1 am not claiming that Dewey’s (or any other) pragmatism solves all such problems to everyone’s satisfaction, nor am I even trying to score easy points by noting how contemporary (and democratic) a philosophical vision it is. Rather my point is just to emphasize how Dewey’s philosophy in general, and his version of operationalism in particular, affirms science without the usual arrogance associated with such a position. Making social science more “operational” was, and is, a legitimate goal, but I hope I have convinced the reader that supporting such a statement does not require allowing positivism to define the rules of scientific engagement, or Paul Samuelson’s epistemic vision to define what constitutes legitimate economic science.


1. It is useful to note that Percy Bridgman softened his position over time as well. In particular he dropped the requirement that operational definitions be necessary and sufficient for scientific meaningfulness; they became merely, and more reasonably, necessary but not sufficient. There were other softenings as well, and by 1954 he was willing to admit that he had “created a Frankenstein” (Green 1992, 310).

2. The context of Herbert Feigl’s remarks helps to accentuate the softening, and substantial variation, that existed among even those sympathetic to operationalism by the 1940s. Feigl’s remarks appeared in a Psychological Review symposium on operationalism published in 1945. Other participants included the psychologists E. G. Boring and B. F. Skinner, as well as Bridgman himself. The amount of disagreement among these various supporters is quite extraordinary (sec table 1 in Green 1992, 306-7, for a question-by-question tally of the various responses).

3. Notice his first use was irv a relatively unknown paper on utility theory (1938b) and not in Samuelson 1938a, the paper where he offered his own example of operationalism at work in economics.

4. Even critics like Donald Gordon (1955) and Fritz Machlup (1966) only questioned the program’s applicability to economics, not Samuelson’s interpretation of Bridgman.

5. Alexander Rosenberg is not sympathetic to revealed preference theory (see 1992, 118-24, for instance), but that is because he does not believe that revealed preference was successful in achieving its eliminativist goals.

6. The most influential of these early contributions were the papers by Stanley Stevens (1935a, 1935b, 1936, and 1939). Since Stevens was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard in 1935, there may have been a personal connection to Samuelson, but at this point I do not have any evidence on the matter.

7. Moyer 1991 provides a detailed discussion of operationalism’s links to pragmatism, even suggesting (239) that John Oewcy may have been im anonymous referee for Macmillan on Bridgman’s original Logic manuscript.

8. I discuss these issues in much more detail in Hands 2001 (213- 30).

9. Not only does Dewey call his own view “operational thinking” but he even argues that operationalism is a better label for his theory of experimental inquiry than “pragmatism” because of the “ambiguities” that surround the “notion of pragmatism” (1929, 111, note t).

10. It is interesting to note that pragmatists not only have a different view of Bridgman’s operationalism but they also have a different reading of the evolution of Bridgman’s position. On the standard reading Bridgman simply softened his view by recognizing that operational definitions were only necessary and not sufficient, and by generally weakening the requirements for legitimate “operations.” Notice how this “softening” interpretation of Bridgman corresponds to the related softening of various positivist philosophical concepts (the theory versus observation distinction, the explicitness of the correspondence rules, the nature of verification and/or testability, etc.) by the later logical empiricists. The pragmatists also argue that Bridgman’s view changed over time, but for them it was because Bridgman started listening to philosophers and tried to modify his earlier matter-of-fact notion of operations to fit an abstract empiricist conception of the “foundations” of knowledge. As Bentley put it, the changes that appeared in Bridgman’s 1936 book were a result of having been “worked on by the Brethren of the Hobgoblin” (Bentley 1938, 136).

11. As Paul Bush has explained: “But perhaps the most common deviation from pragmatic instrumentalist position in the institutionalist literature is empiricism. The repeated stress on the issue of realism in the institutionalist critique of neoclassical thought has often been premised on the kind of empiricist epistemology that Dewey explicitly rejected. The charge of a lack of realism in the basic postulates of neoclassical thought is often presented as if a straightforward appeal to the facts would provide definitive grounds for the rejection of neoclassical postulates. Such commentary continues to rattle about the back corridors of the institutionalist literature” (Bush 1993, 95).


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The author is Professor of Economics at University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington, USA. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought, University of Crete, Rethymnon, in March 2002 and in the Philosophy Department Colloquium at the University of British Columbia in September 2003. The author wouid like to thank John Davis, Alan Richardson, Margaret Schabas, Esther- Mirjam Sent, and a number of participants in both sessions for helpful comments. Errors and omissions are solely the author’s responsibility.

Copyright Association for Evolutionary Economics Dec 2004

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