Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spontaneous Orders are the Stories We Make

I am reading Don Lavoie's "Economic Chaos of Spontaneous Order? Implications for Political Economy of the New View of Science" (Cato Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3, Winter 1989), and it is like reading something from Frederick Turner (whose work I cannot recommend enough, and not just because he was a dissertation adviser). He sees the "new science" of complexity, emergence, chaos theory, self-organization, information theory, and related theories as an exciting development -- not least because they confirm Austrian insights. Consider, then, these paragraphs:

As Polanyi’s work on science as a spontaneous order shows, the modernist conception of the nature of knowledge is fundamentally flawed. Modernism treats the process of science as if it were a matter of an isolated mind confronting and mastering the natural world. A single scientist follows given methods to bring nature under his rational control. The new view of science urges instead that it is the dialogue taking place in the scientific community as a whole which is the proper locus of analysis for the philosophy of science. It is the uncontrolled “dialogical” process that brings knowledge to the participants, not the strictly controlled “monological” methods of any particular scientist. The process of mutual interpretations and criticisms going on in the scientific community is a good example of an order that emerges out of an apparently haphazard chaos. The process works best precisely when it is not under any one mind’s control but is allowed to evolve by its own logic, taking advantage of the variety of perspectives it contains. A healthy scientific community cannot be designed in detail, it can only be cultivated by setting up conditions where the freedom of individual scientists to pursue their own hunches is protected.

The “order” we find in a spontaneous order process may be closely akin to that of a story whose plot we can “follow” without claiming to be able to anticipate it from the outset. Here the theory of narrative as it has been developed in the study of history and fiction is relevant to scientific explanation. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has shown, the articulation of history has an irreducibly narrative character, and good history shares many of the attributes of good fiction. Essentially to impart the subjective meaning and significance of events in history involves us not in a mechanistic search for determinate laws but in the uniquely human act of storytelling.
There is so much to work with in just these two paragraphs. For example, the way he describes spontaneous orders as a dialogue supports the idea of the arts as spontaneous orders. The artistic canons emerge in the unfolding of history, and are the story of that history, the history of the art in question. Multiple interpretations and criticisms are of course the core of literary analysis -- and literary production. In many ways Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy are different interpretations of William Faulkner's novels. Economists would do well to read more novels and watch more plays and movies. And to learn how to interpret the text of the world.

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