Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren
Chapter 17: Epistemology
Edward Fullbrook Empiricism and ethics In the social sciences, economics especially, epistemology and ethics are inextricably linked. Within any science, different perspectives on a particular field may suggest different possibilities for human intervention in that field; or they might suggest the same interventions but evaluate them differently. In the social sciences these possibilities relate directly to the human realm and so inevitably pertain to ethical and political judgements. Historically, economists have glossed over this interdependence between their epistemological choices and ramifications for ethical issues. One can regard economics as a science in a post-Enlightenment sense only to the extent that it is grounded on an empirical epistemology. Empiricism, in the broadest sense, is the idea that experience is fundamental to our knowledge of the world. Unlike rationalism, empiricism exhibits caution regarding claims to knowledge. It refuses notions of privileged access to the world. Instead, it recognizes the eccentricity and incompleteness of all perspectives, and therefore discrepancies between conceptions of things and the things themselves. In lieu of appeals to authority, empiricism democratizes science by making the replication of observations carried out from the same cognitive perspective but by different individuals the criterion of authentic science. One consequence, often overlooked, of this epistemology is that it relativizes knowledge to the kinds of experiences we have. Experience-based knowledge depends not only on the object of inquiry but also on the cognitive perspective (questions asked, criteria for selecting facts, conceptual categories, framework of analysis and so on) that the inquirer brings to the...
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