Reflecting on the exchange between Ann and myself about economists and the study of imperfect competition, I was reminded of a fact that has long struck me concerning the ways in which our understandings of the social world arise and then, like as not, are lost. The purpose of this little post is to share these thoughts with you.
Let me start with a wonderful story, possibly apocryphal, about the great French philosopher Rene Descartes, who was born in 1596 and died in 1650. In 1641, Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy [which is to say, the questions discussed by Aristotle in the work that now bears the name Metaphysics], a slender book of six chapters or parts that turned western thought on its head and defined the central themes of philosophy for the next three hundred years. As soon as the Meditations were completed, Descartes sent copies to all of the greatest philosophers of the age [the work was in Latin, so there were no translation problems], with a set of strict instructions. The recipients were to spend one day reading each of the six Meditations [resting on The Lord's Day, presumably]. Then they were to go back to the beginning and spend one week studying each Meditation. After they had completed this regimen, Descartes said, he would welcome their comments and responses. To his horror, written objections to his arguments started coming in virtually by return mail. Descartes, it is said, was furious, but he wrote out lengthy replies to each of the objections, and sent them back.
The objections and the replies have been preserved, and can be read today in an English translation. They are, or used to be, a standard reading assignment in graduate philosophy courses, and constitute an extraordinary Continental seminar on the most important questions of philosophy. The Meditations themselves have been read and studied now for three and a half centuries. The astonishing fact -- and the point of this long anecdote -- is that virtually every one of the most powerful objections that three hundred and fifty years of philosophers have been able to discover to Descartes' theses can be found right there in the responses that flowed in virtually immediately after their publication.
It is a fact that those first presented with a new phenomenon or a new argument are frequently better able to see deeply into its significance than those who come later, at a time when the phenomenon or argument has become old news. Marx, writing when capitalism was in its infancy, saw more deeply into its essential nature than generations of economists who have come after him, even though many of those later scholars have been his equal in intelligence [if not in literary skill and encyclopedic knowledge]. The very earliest Chruch Fathers saw clearly all of the deepest problems with the new Christian doctrines of the Trinity, of the Incarnation and Godhead of Christ, of salvation and damnation. And -- this is what got me thinking -- economists in the first third of the twentieth century recognized the challenge that oligopoly and imperfect competition posed to their theories of laisser-faire virtually as soon as those phenomena appeared.
The same, at a very deep level, can be said about the understanding of bourgeois economy and society achieved by Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Frederick Tonnies, Werner Sombart, and the other sociologists writing at the dawn of the contemporary era. Modern sociologists, with their penchant for public opinion surveys and other ephemera, have actually lost that depth and complexity, with the result -- contrary to received opinion -- that we now understand less about our social world than our predecessors did.
All of which is an old man's argument for not overlooking the wisdom of the graybeards sitting around the communal fire.