Saturday, 4 September 2010

New book by McShane: physics, economics, history

Just went through - went through is the right word, I went through it without really pausing, slowing down, attempting to digest - McShane's proposal for a new book, with the title Bernard Lonergan's View of Physics, Economics and History: A Heuristic Gauging Structure for Human Ecological Survival. McShane received a rather encouraging reply from his prospective publishers just as he was setting out for the airport to come to India, and so forwarded the mail to me, with a request for a printout, and an invitation to read on if I could. I did. Impressive.

Impressive first of all because, while there is much Philtalk, there is much less of it than is usual. On the whole the proposal reads beautifully, and does communicate without too much unexpected (Joycean) jargon.

What is Phil trying to do? "To break through to a heuristic of history" by drawing on and then expanding Lonergan's writings. The expanding will involve creative integration from the two sciences that were Lonergan's greatest interest: physics and economics, the one a natural science and the other a human science.

More specifically, the project intends to follow Lonergan's advice to select "the conspicuously successful science of our time" - which is physics, and to use it to lift up the conspicuously unsuccessful science - which Phil identifies with economics. And all this, in the service of working out "an integral heuristic of history." Thus: "The writings of O'Raifeartaigh are key here: can I lift O'Raifeartaigh's work, both in physics and in the heuristics of dialectic, to a level where I can identify, heuristically and effectively, a future dynamics of both physics and economics that I discern in the history of macro-hydrodynamics[,] a history which powerfully nudges us to conceive of a beginning of ecologically-responsible economic dynamics?"

Economics as a non-science is, I think, one of the claims made by Lonergan and pushed by McShane in many of his works, including the recent issue of Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education 21/2: Do You Want a Sane Economy? edited by him.

He wants to do for economics (and for history), I think, what Lochlainn O'Raifeartaigh did for gauge theory in physics, with his The Dawing of Gauge Theory and other works.

What is impressive are Phil's credentials: his original training was in theoretical physics; he went on to take a D.Phil. in Oxford; his interest in economics began in 1968 when Lonergan requested him to "find [him] an economist"; and his publication record is "excellent" in the words of the two editors of the current proposal.

But, but: what on earth is a heuristic of history? This is related to Lonergan's search for an integral heuristic structure, "a symbolic indication of the total range of possible experience". The sought after heuristic of history is "a key sub-structure of that search". In Lonergan's words, the problem of general history "is the real catch". The problem is fundamentally solved "by a functional specialist theoretic of the merging - through sloping up from isolated research - horizons of disciplines." "The core of the present project is the tackling empirically of that issue of sloping, in both history as lived and as written, in the disciplines of physics and economics and their ecological technologies."

And: why search for a heuristic of history? Hints: liberation from "contemporary myths of maturity of humanity or of science or industrialization"; reaching "a coherent and humble heuristic that is remote from contemporary disorientations regarding physics, economics and ecology"; a meshing of economic and ecological concerns in Lonergan's writings on history and economics that "anticipate elements of the openness of present leading ecologists, reaching out to a post-industrial culture of leisure, self-attention, and creative post-industrial and nano-innovation of such dimensions as would warrant the global implementation of Lonergan's pragmatics of long-term cyclic economic innovations"; "a beginning of ecologically-responsible economic dynamics".

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