Subjectivity and the evolution of economic thought

maurice dobbThis quote, by Cambridge Marxist economist Maurice Dobb, writing in the 1970s, is taken from a chapter on economics and ideology. He argues that an ideology or ‘vision’ of society is inseparable from economic theories, even when this is not acknowledged or operates on an unconscious level. This extract describes the importance of the subjective in the formation of new ideas.

“There is always a subjective element in the march of knowledge, not only in the sense that action and experiment play a crucial role, but that these are preceded and shaped by the formation of concepts. Current problems are something created as much by thought-inspired human action upon an existent situation as by the given objective (but changing) situation itself; and in this sense can be said to represent continually, in varying degree, a contradiction between the two. Problems arising in this way then form the starting-point of new thinking, the formation of new concepts and new theories; and to this extent the latter are always relative to a particular historical context. These changing concepts and ideas represent in part a commentary upon or interpretation of – a ‘reflection’ if one cares to use so passive a simile – the objective situation from the particular perspective in which it is seen. But since inherited ideas and concepts, operating as a refractive medium, affect this perspective and the resulting vision of the situation, new ideas are always at the same time a critique of old ideas which form the heritage of thinking; hence these new ideas are necessarily shaped in part by the antithetical relation in which they stand to the old as well as being empirical statements about actuality.”

Maurice Dobb (1973), Theories of value and distribution since Adam Smith, p.17

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