Dobb's Philosophical Ontology and Methodology

Dobb did not theorize using abstract mathematical modeling. His philosophical ontology began with historical observations and stylized historical facts. This philosophical and methodological approach was crucial, according to Dobb, for understanding the internal articulation of an economy, or mode of production. With some emphasis, Dobb maintained that the lack of a historical understanding of social institutions, or an absence of social institutions characteristic of mathematical modeling, contributed to the ‘mystification about the essential nature of capitalist society’ (Dobb 1946: 32).[1]

Dobb’s methodological achievement is impressive, although underappreciated. Amartya Sen has underscored ‘Dobb’s deep concern for descriptive richness’ (Sen 1990: 33). Cambridge economist Tony Lawson (1997) has praised Dobb’s methodological insights in general and underscored his process of abstraction in particular. Indeed, Dobb’s philosophical ontology anticipates and shares many commonalities with Lawson’s support for critical realism (Despain 2011: 495-528 models Dobb’s [implicit] philosophical underpinnings and methodology).

Dobb insisted, with Marx, that social science requires a process of abstraction. As Marx wrote, ‘in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both’ (Marx 1976: 90). In its most simple formulation, the process of abstraction is the emphasis on certain aspects of something to the (momentary) deemphasis of other aspects (Lawson 1997: 227).

This process of abstraction is central to all science. When a science attempts to achieve a more precise refinement and comprehensiveness, ‘abstraction is required’ (Dobb 1937: 4). Human beings must employ the process of abstraction to comprehend any moment of reality: ‘Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs’ (Ollman 1993: 24). Space does not allow us to unfold the details of Dobb’s philosophical ontology (see Despain 2011: 495-528).[2] [3] Suffice it to say that Dobb was a precursor to, and developed a position quite consistent with, Lawson’s critical realist philosophy of science.[4]

Dobb’s methodological and philosophical achievements are substantial. He rejected the empiricism and the logical positivism that were in vogue dur?ing the first 70 years of the twentieth century.[5] He further insisted that the boundary lines between social sciences such as history, economics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology were arbitrary and obscured human problems and an understanding of historical conditions and social being more generally (Dobb 1946: 32, 1951: 230). Dobb’s groundbreaking path, especially in Studies, influenced and inspired many historical theorists to overcome these boundaries. He most certainly should be seen as an initiator of the convergence of history and social theory. It is these achievements that maintain Dobb as a rich source of theoretical and political-economic insights. Dobb recognized, as did Marshall, that classical political economy did not suffer from the same ahistorical ontological pitfalls of neoclassical economics and the empiricist tendencies of the new emerging econometrics.

Dobb demonstrated that classical political economy, especially Marxism, beheld a multitude of ontological and theoretical virtues that had been absented following the ‘Jevonian revolution’ (Dobb 1973: 166-210) and neoclassical developments (Dobb 1969: 3-116). He was painfully aware that his attempt at an ontological shift would be met with resistance and skepticism. In the ‘Preface’ to Studies Dobb writes:

A work of this kind, which is concerned with generalizing about historical development on the basis of material already collected and arranged by other hands, runs a grave danger of falling between two stools, and of displeasing both the economist, who often has little time for history, and the historian, who may dismiss it as insufficiently grounded in the first-hand knowledge that comes from actual field-work. To the economist the author may appear as an irrelevant wanderer from his proper territory, and to the historian as an intruding amateur. Of this danger and of his own imperfect equipment for the task the author has, at least, not been unaware. He has, nevertheless, been encouraged to persevere by the obstinate belief that economic analysis only makes sense and can only bear fruit if it is joined to a study of historical development, and that the economist concerned with present-day problems has certain questions of his own to put to historical data. He has been fortified by the conviction that a study of Capitalism, in its origins and growth, so much neglected by economists (other than those of a Marxist persuasion), is an essential foundation for any realistic system of economics (Dobb 1946: vii).

In 1946 perhaps it was merely an ‘obstinate belief’ to maintain that ‘any realistic system of economics’ depends upon an appropriate convergence of history and theory as ‘an essential foundation’ of social science. However, 70-odd years since the publication of Studies, Dobb’s methodological ‘wanderings’ and philosophical stubbornness have now found substantial intellectual warrant within the disciplines of history, social theory, political economy, and philosophy.[6]

  • [1] Shenk (2013a: 185) captures Dobb’s position well when he writes: ‘The bulk of [Dobb’s] colleagues...had been seduced by promises of formal sophistication into contriving models of dazzling complexitywhose premises had become increasingly detached from the actual mechanics of economic life. It was asavvy way to get tenure, but an awful mode of economic analysis. The triumph of a cult of mathematicshad left the discipline vulnerable to what the book’s subtitle [Dobb 1969] labeled “a commonsense cri-
  • [2] tique.” No amount of mathematical fireworks, he charged, could redeem models based on shaky logicand cartoonish assumptions about human behavior’.
  • [3] Despain (2011) argues that Dobb’s process of abstraction rests on five basic theses, one of which is moremethodological and the other four more ontological. First, the ‘theory thesis’: Theory is necessary to bothscientific activity and historical analysis alike. The second is the ‘material thesis’: Ideas and motives ofhuman beings are conditioned by practical and material experience. The third is the ‘internal articulationthesis’: Societies are structured and differentiated sets of social relations. Fourth is the ‘historical thesis’:Social relations are transitory; hence so, too, is theory. Finally, the fifth is the ‘agency thesis’: All humanaction potentially has epoch-making effects.
  • [4] This is not at all surprising when we consider that Lawson argues for important philosophical affinitiesbetween critical realism and Post-Keynesianism (Lawson 1994, 1999). Certainly, Dobb was an importantCambridge Post-Keynesian very familiar with the methodological disputes between Post-Keynesianismand other Keynesians, and between Post-Keynesianism and economics more generally. Likewise, manytheorists have drawn attention to the affinities between critical realism and Marxism (see the articles inBrown et al. 2002). Thus, Dobb’s strong affiliations to Post-Keynesianism and Marxism would suggest onthe surface that we would expect positions consistent with critical realism.
  • [5] In fact, Dobb’s primary complaint against Robinson’s interpretation of Marx (Robinson 1942) was thatshe was overly reductionist. Her reading of Marx was dogmatically as a logical positivist (see Kerr 2007).
  • [6] The more prominent historians combining history and social history include Barrington Moore, Jr.,Reinhard Benedix, Alvin Goulder, Daniel Bell, Fernand Braudal, Perry Anderson, Charles Lemert, andImmanuel Wallerstein. As Anthony Giddens (1979: 230) correctly asserts, ‘There simply are no logical oreven methodological distinctions between social sciences and history — appropriately conceived’. Dobbshould certainly be understood as inspiring and helping to bring about a convergence between history,social theory, political economy, and philosophy.
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