Economics as a doctrinal discipline

In science, empirical disciplines such as physics, chemistry, history, and parts of sociology and political science, reason from facts.

By contrast, doctrinal disciplines such as law, philosophy, and parts of sociology and political science reason from doctrines, or dogma’s. While doctrines must of course have a grounding in the empirical world, this relation is much harder to grasp. Moreover, to understand the doctrine and its derivation it is as much necessary to appreciate the context in which it was formulated, to understand the person first formulating it, and to assess the development of amendments subsequently made over time.

In the nineteenth century, economists practiced economics as a doctrinal discipline almost without exception. In the twentieth century the doctrinal approach was tossed aside to similar universal acclaim. Yet, economists would do good in re-introducing a bit of doctrinal reasoning in economics. Sociology and political science could serve as examples in that regard.

Dogmengeschichte, or doctrinal history, originates in German-language Christian theology. In theology, a doctrine or dogma is a foundation or essential element of a particular religion. Examples include the authority of the Pope, the trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit, or the liturgy during Sunday’s service. A doctrine is one element of what defines different individuals to belong to one religious group. Following the Reformation and the Renaissance, scholars of different Christian denominations began to investigate the historical origin of their dogma’s, and the social, cultural, and political contexts in which these dogma’s had arisen. As such, doctrinal history was a new form of Christian apologetics.

During the nineteenth century, scholars started to employ this method of doctrinal history to describe the history of academic denominations, or disciplines. Not surprisingly, this included first and foremost those disciplines such as law, economics, mathematics and philosophy that, like the Christian denominations, were not understood as grounded in the new Renaissance methods of experiment and empirical evidence. Like the doctrinal historians of Christianity, these historians investigated and canonized the dogma’s of their disciplines through an investigation of the cultural, economic, political, and scientific contexts in which these foundations had arisen and had developed. As such, they provided an historical understanding of the discipline, but at the same canonized and defended a set of dogma’s upon which the discipline was and should be based. The most prominent doctrinal histories of economics undoubtedly are Joseph Schumpeter’s Epochen der Dogmen- und Methodengeschichte (1914) and History of Economic Analysis (1954).

The reason that economists should re-instate some of the old doctrinal reasoning is that in addition to all the empirical fact-gathering, statistical analysis and model building, economics will always be partly grounded in doctrines. Convictions that greed is good (within limits), that demanding interest is ok (up to say 25%), or that all production in the world can be divided into Capital and Labor, are doctrines. They are connected to the empirical world somehow, but can only really be understood if assessed against their historical origin and development.

Share your perspective