Conference background

Theoretical Background Statement

There is considerable interest in recent economics in the idea of complexity. There are also many different ideas about what complexity in economics involves, making the subject of complexity in economics itself a complex matter! Thus the plural form of this conference title – Complexities in Economics – is explicitly intended as the point of entry for a pluralist conference on economic philosophy.

Pluralism itself is often taken as a normative conception regarding how economics ought to be pursued. But a complexity focus in economics also entails a descriptive conception of pluralism – how economics and its philosophical foundations are as a matter of fact complex and diverse, as the long history of economics well demonstrates. Moreover, from an evolutionary perspective, it has also been recently argued that economics is currently in the midst of a process of change whereby specialization is causing economics to become increasingly diverse and complex, with this leading to declining opportunities for any research program in economics to become dominant in the manner of postwar, cold war neoclassicism (Colander, Holt, and Rosser, 2004; Davis, 2008; Cedrini and Fontana, 2016).

One issue this raises is how might an increasingly complex and diverse economics actually function, on the one hand, theoretically as a relatively independent discipline with policy responsibilities to society, and on the other hand, sociologically in connection with how it privileges some economists and discriminates against others. And how might these two dimensions of economics interact? Are the cognitive requirements of the discipline compatible with its social structure?
Related to this is the issue of the complex interplay between the possibly increasingly plural nature of economics and a pluralist normative orientation toward economics. Is there now a stronger case for normative pluralism in economics? If so, what are the grounds on which normative pluralism can be promoted? And, is an evolution of economics into a larger and larger number of non-communicating specializations likely to change the nature of and the case for normative pluralism?

Laying the groundwork for these issues depends on:

  1. Explaining Complexity. Among the philosophical conceptions of what complexity involves are intricate interdependency, complex adaptive systems, random and unexpected change, feedback patterns, part-whole system relationships, simulation, nonlinear and chaotic dynamics, phase transitions, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, self-organization, computational complexity, big data, cross-level and within-level interactions, network effects, etc.
  2. Explaining How Complexity Enters into Economics. Here we can distinguish:
    1. How the nature and content of economics itself is complex. Economics is complex in regard to: heterogeneous agents, upward and downward causation, the nature of complex adaptive systems and agent-based models, bounded rationality, dispersed interaction, bubble phenomena, herding behavior, trading networks, non-market interaction in relation to market interaction, post-Walrasian economics, multiple equilibria and out-of-equilibrium dynamics, radical uncertainty, reflexivity and feedback patterns, novelty and emergence, increasing returns, identity formation, open vs. closed systems, hysteresis, econophysics, artificial markets, etc.
    2. How economics is complex in relation to how its nature and content is approached. Problems of complexity arise in connection with: different relationships between economists, social scientists, and the public in regard to the content and roles of economics, relations between different traditions and school of thought in economics, different methods used to introduce complexity into economics, different epistemological and ontological conceptions of complexity in economics, interdisciplinarity and economics’ relations to other disciplines, the relationship between positive and normative reasoning in economics, computational limits, the relationships between induction, deduction, and abduction, problems of self-reference, historical vs. logical analysis, simulation and artificial systems, constructive mathematics, etc.

An Economic Philosophy investigation of Complexities in Economics, then, operates on two interconnected levels: how (i) a complex economics draws on (1) complexity theory, and then on the relationships between (i) the complex content of economics and (ii) the complexity of approaches to that content.

Clearly there are many possible ways in which such an investigation could be undertaken. For example, in terms of the relation between (i) and (ii), one might argue that either frames the other. Alternatively, one might argue that there are particular correspondences between different elements of (i) and (ii). Then one might argue that connections between (i) and (ii) frame overall relations between (1) and (2).

At the same time, there are two overarching dimensions to an Economic Philosophy approach to Complexities in Economics.

First, it combines two disciplinary domains of investigation, Economics and Philosophy, whose respective requirements and strategies influence one another.

Second, the plural emphasis on Complexities frames all of this investigation in pluralist terms, while pluralism itself possesses both normative and descriptive conceptions that have their own complex interplay.

Therefore, complexities in Economics is indeed a complex matter. Yet the subject is nonetheless potentially susceptible of clear treatment, which is the object of this Inaugural Economic Philosophy conference.

Cedrini, Mario and Magda Fontana (forthcoming) “Just another Niche in the Wall? How Specialization is Changing the Face of Mainstream Economics,” Cambridge Journal of Economics.

Colander, David, Richard Holt, and Barkley Rosser (2004). “The Changing Face of Mainstream Economics,” Review of Political Economy 16 (4): 485–499.

Davis, John (2008). “The turn in recent economics and return of orthodoxy,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 32 (3): 349–366.