Incommensurability in Economics?

Highlighting the lack of mutual understanding in particular approaches to reality makes up a crucial constituent in Kuhn’s (1970) commentaries on paradigm shifts. Theories are separated logical and conceptual schemes between which the transitions during paradigm shifts are not smooth but rather saltatory. Differences between accepted theoretical frameworks appear even at the level of experiences, so it is not an overstatement to say that researchers working within different traditions observe different worlds. This is particularly true of the equilibrium–disequilibrium approaches in economics to socio-economic reality. Incompatible theoretical frameworks are incommensurable: scientists scrutinizing the one and only reality in different ways are not talking of the same thing. Even if there is an intersection of the phenomena recognized as problems, scientists within individual approaches make efforts to solve the puzzles while following their own particular methodological guidelines. For example, the Lucas-critique can be regarded as the mainstream solution to the problem of macro-social changes. Kuhn (1987: 83) describes paradigm shifts during which there are changes in the way how terms attach to reality—and, moreover, there are changes in the set of entities and phenomena to which such terms attach. On this showing, the ongoing controversy between institutionalism and mainstream economics is the still effective aftermath of a non-fulfilled paradigm shift. Both systems have advantages, their own problems to investigate and even norms. However, on account of selectivity and their complementary character of fundamental importance, none of them can solve the problems to which the rivalling approaches can effectively elaborate answers, respectively. Genuine albeit different ways of turning to reality preserve both approaches within the realist tradition, offering a marvellous example for the circumstances accentuated by Lewens (2005: 569). Approaches to reality are not only shaped by reality itself but also the conventions and the theoretical concepts any scientist shares with his fellow researchers indoctrinated in the same paradigm. The result is a set of theories which are mutually incompatible while true[1] at the same time.

The approach set in the crossfire of the institutionalist critique has not been extinct since the newly emerged theory cannot provide answers to the problems the old one can successfully analyse—and vice versa. What is more, none of them can realise the problems of their counterparts. Due to selectivity, a “crowding out” effect can hardly be a plausible scenario, since right because of the selectivity none of the approaches can outrival their counterparts. This is one of the peculiarities of the history of the economic thought. Each incompatible theoretical system has its own language, so a change in the scientific dictionary must facilitate the occurrence of new observational accounts and their interpretations set on rough-hewn paths. Languages themselves that interconnect the members of each distinctive tradition are the primary causes of locking up in one’s own doctrines. In the case of economics, recognizing this demarcation occurring even at the level of languages may help us to interpret why our debates have stagnated.


Kuhn, T. (1970): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kuhn, T. (1987): What Are Scientific Revolutions? In: Patton, L. (ed.) (2014): Philosophy, Science, and History. A Guide and Reader. London: Routledge. pp. 71–88.

Lewens, T. (2005): Realism and the Strong Program. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 56(3): 559–577.

[1] Here, of course, true refers to approximate truth interpreted according to ones’ own epistemological guidelines.

Pictorial: Thomas Kuhn (via

Thomas Kuhn


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