Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Non-exemplary lives

Recently I read, rather by accident than design,  short lives of several contemporary economists. What struck me was their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).

The lives (i.e. CVs) typically went like this. He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was W. Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on. You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, and the titles of the papers, and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.

I was wondering: how can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).

Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist? To some extent, probably yes. You can be very smart and figure our how people behave under conditions that you have never yourself experienced—nor anyone you know. I cannot say it is impossible. But I think it is unlikely: because it in human nature, however smart we may be, to understand certain things or to look at different and new aspects of an issue, only when we face the problem ourselves. I think that we have all experienced that. Faced theoretically with a given problem, we can provide a perfectly reasonable and coherent answer and even explain well the choices. But then, if faced by the same problem in our own lives, we shall quickly find out that such well-reasoned answer was only partially correct. It failed to take into account a number of secondary issues, many conditions and constraints that, in the abstract case, we either ignored, assumed away, or most likely just never thought about. Or never imagined.

Orderly  and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies.  We all (perhaps except when we are 25) wish to lead such lives. But they are also very limited lives: the range of emotions and choices that we experience is narrow. We may want to have as our teachers in social science people who had to drink poison to make a point (Socrates), or were jailed and tortured (Machiavelli), or were executed on the orders of a national assembly (Condorcet), or banished and killed by a totalitarian regime (Kondratieff); or those who had to flee their governments and reinvent themselves (Marx), or move into incendiary politics (Weber), or migrate to another language and continent (Schumpeter, Hayek, Kuznets, Leontieff), or experience the thrill of forbidden pleasures (Keynes).

But if our life is a CV, can we understand human choices and human nature—a precondition for being a great social scientist? By asking that question, are we not asking whether well-behaved individuals in orderly and rich societies can really produce breakthroughs in social sciences. Or will their lessons remain circumscribed to orderly and rich societies only and to orderly and boring people, and not carry over to the rest of the world? In other words, to use Plutarch’s term, do we need exemplary lives for greatness in social sciences?

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