Exordium: The Rhetoric of Economics
Over twenty years after the publication of “The Rhetoric of Economics” in the Journal of Economic Literature (1983), Deirdre McCloskey remains one of the most controversial contemporary economists. In her many texts following this paper, McCloskey has launched a small but vigorous community of economists studying the discipline’s rhetoric along the lines suggested by Joan Robinson (see opening quote). While many of her ideas were borrowed from the humanities, it is in bringing them to bear on the rhetoric of economics that she has intervened in the history, philosophy, and methodology of economics. Many in the academic community studying the history of economics have recognized that McCloskey’s rhetoric has had a significant impact on the field and she is mentioned in almost all texts pertaining in some way to the current understanding of how theories function in the social sciences (otherwise known as metatheory). Unfortunately, while McCloskey herself is often mentioned, very rarely are her ideas seriously discussed. I will argue that the onus is on the majority of economic philosophers who, to use McCloskey’s tongue-in-cheek terminology, have not done their homework on recent developments in the philosophy of science, literary and linguistic studies, and that bête noir: epistemology. Once this context is developed, McCloskey’s remarkably accessible prose takes on a host of nuances that most of her highly sophisticated critics have missed. My first goal is to situate and clarify the linguistic, literary, and philosophical approaches applied by McCloskey. Second, to present and criticize the language-theories she adopts, and to develop several modifications and extensions. Finally, I will attempt to criticize and evaluate her contributions and their potential consequences for economics and the social sciences in general.