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Section IV Epistemic Objects II

Chair: Marcel Weber (University of Basel)

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Margaret Schabas (University of British Columbia, Vancouver): The Economy as an Epistemic Object

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Summary

According to Karl Polanyi, Aristotle discovered ‘the economy’.  We have reason to believe there was one in Athens, or the Mediterranean region, and ever since Moses Finlay (The Ancient Economy, 1973) we have reason to believe it was very extensive and sophisticated.  But there was no concept of an economy as an object of inquiry in Aristotle’s texts  (notably his Politics and Ethics), nor even in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).  Smith never referred to an economy, though he made use of the more traditional term oeconomy either to mean personal frugality or  to appropriate the Linnaean sense of the oeconomy of nature.   Smith’s analysis of wealth is deeply and directly imbedded in natural processes and the discourse of natural philosophy; there is no appeal to a separate realm of producers and consumers.
Michel Foucault observed correctly that it was only in the early part of the nineteenth century that ‘the economy’ became an object of discourse, although he argued wrongly, in my view, that this came about because wealth was reconceptualized as an ‘object’ after serving for two centuries as a ‘representation’ (Les mots et les choses, 1970).   What I will argue here is that part of the conceptual work that enabled David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill to see a realm in which laws of production and distribution operated had much to do with the concept of human agency, and that this became increasingly explicit by the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The market phenomena they studied were the result of what John Searle has called ‘collective intentionality’ and bear all the markings of Searle’s institutional facts (self-reflexivity, inscribed regulations, evolution).  In sum, they were Durkheimians in the making, seeing features of the economy such as the interest rate as autonomous of individual agency (there were no individual characteristics to attend to as in contemporary economics, e.g. attitudes to risk or time).   For some of the leading contributors to economic discourse in the nineteenth century the key phenomena had become objective social facts that could be detached from physical nature and studied as part of a realm known as the economy.
My aim in this paper is twofold.  First I will offer evidential support for the above claims, drawing on the history of economic discourse and the literature in the philosophy of the social sciences.  ‘The economy’ emerged as an object of reference for economists circa 1820 and endures to the present as an epistemic object.  At some point, like the history of the concept temperature, it became part of everyday speech as well.  Clearly, the economy can not be perceived directly, though we appeal to ‘leading indicators’ such as the interest rate or rate of unemployment to talk about its overall performance and efficacy.  ‘The economy’ must be constructed out of a conviction in the well-behavedness of certain phenomena in the market place (money, prices, labour supply, etc.). The source of that nometheticity stems from certain distinct commitments to the uniformity of human agency independent of the natural order.
Second, I will argue that discovering ‘the economy’ owed much to the drift toward secularism that so characterized the long eighteenth century.  Part of this intersected with the novel speculations of an evolutionary nature that we associate with Buffon or Hutton among others.  Economics, in short, was at the vanguard of secular thought and thus tugged the human sciences more generally in the direction of a separate and distinct social realm. 
My paper will propose that social facts such as ‘the economy’ are emergent on other branches of knowledge and thus must necessitate some historical account to make sense of this object. The transformation of a science of ’the wealth of nations’ to a science of ‘the economy’ required an evolutionary (historical) and secular sensibility that emerged over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Discussion

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Uljana Feest (Technical University, Berlin): Remembering (Short-Term) Memory: The Death of an Epistemic Object?

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Summary

In chapter X of his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn suggests that after a paradigm shift, “familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well” (p. 111). This statement is commonly taken to mean that paradigms provide the conceptual structures that allow us to parse up the world in particular ways. While this idea has been especially hotly debated in relation to paradigm shifts, i.e., grand restructurings, the focus of this paper is rather on a more fine-grained question, namely, how taxonomic changes can take place within the context of what we may – for lack of a better phrase – refer to as “normal science”. I will argue that within the context of such normal research the line between the familiar and the unfamiliar is much more fragile and dynamic than the above quote might suggest: phenomena become objects of research precisely because there is an unsettling sense of unfamiliarity associated with them, even when they seem very familiar. At the same time they can become objects of research only insofar as some things about them are taken for granted. To study the process whereby a phenomenon is investigated empirically, therefore, is to study the productive interplay between scientists’ conceptions of what they know and what they don’t know.
In this paper I will present an analysis of this dynamic relationship in psychological research. I will do so by means of a particular example: shifts in the way that short-term memory is taxonomized. I will argue that the experimental study of memory is guided by specific conceptual presuppositions about the object in question, namely that to have memory is to have the disposition to display behavioral indicators of past experience. This presupposition, in turn, is closely tied to a particular paradigm of investigating the object empirically: by experimentally manipulating research subjects in ways thought to actualize this disposition. In conjunction with other constraints, however, this method has led researchers to the surprising result that some memory phenomena are not really memory phenomena at all.
I will relate my story to the topic of historical epistemology in two ways. First, I will suggest that my account can provide an analysis of Rheinberger’s idea that the “blurriness” of an object is an essential aspect of its knowledge-generating capacity. According to this analysis, we need to distinguish between the notion that an epistemic object is only partially understood and the notion that in order to do any research at all, scientists need to operate with a preliminary concept of the object. Second, I will argue that since preliminary conceptions of epistemic objects are closely tied to norms of experimental research, this opens up a way of reconciling the descriptive aims of a historical account with the normative ones of an epistemological account.

Discussion

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Commentator: Chrysostomos Mantzavinos (Witten-Herdecke University)

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General discussion

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