Tony Lawson

Professor Tony Lawson is a trained mathematician located in the Faculty of Economics at Cambridge University, where he holds the title of Professor of Economics and Philosophy. Lawson’s work spreads over various fields, but it focuses primarily in the philosophy of social sciences, in particular: social ontology. Amongst his publications are the Routledge monographs ‘Economics and Reality’ (1997) and ‘Reorienting Economics’ (2003) and his most recent, The Nature and State of Modern Economics (2015). Lawson’s views are much debated in the international academic community, for example, see Edward Fullbrook’s ‘Ontology and economics: Tony Lawson and his critics’ (2009).

Articles & Papers

Lawson, T. (2012). Ontology and the study of social reality: emergence, organisation, community, power, social relations, corporations, artefacts and money. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 36(2), 345-385.

The conception of social reality I have previously defended (and here extend), positing features such as social relations, positions and powers, is thoroughly naturalistic and even consistent with modern interpretations of quantum field theory. It also serves to ground a social science that can be scientific in the sense of natural science. This is the thesis defended here. Central to the argument is an emphasis on a ‘strong’ form of emergence and the category of ‘organisation-in-process’. To bring out various salient features of the position defended, I take the opportunity to compare aspects of it with relevant components of the contribution of John Searle, whose ontological conception appears at once to be both very similar yet also very different.

Lawson, T. (2012). Mathematical Modelling and Ideology in the Economics Academy: competing explanations of the failings of the modern discipline?.Economic Thought, 1(1), 3-22.

The widespread and long-lived failings of academic economics are due to an over-reliance on largely inappropriate mathematical methods of analysis. This is an assessment I have long maintained. Many heterodox economists, however, appear to hold instead that the central problem is a form of political-economic ideology. Specifically, it is widely contended in heterodox circles that the discipline goes astray just because so many economists are committed to a portrayal of the market economy as a smoothly or efficiently functioning system or some such, a portrayal that, whether sincerely held or otherwise, is inconsistent with the workings of social reality. Here I critically examine the contention that a form of political-economic ideology of this sort is the primary problem and assess its explanatory power. I conclude that the contention does not fare very well. I do not, though, deny that ideology of some sort has a major impact on the output of the modern economics academy. However it is of a different nature to the form typically discussed, and works in somewhat indirect and complex ways. Having raised the question of the impact of ideology I take the opportunity to explore its play in the economics academy more generally.

Lawson, T. (2013). Emergence and social causation. Powers and Capacities in Philosophy, London, Routledge, 285-307.

Lawson, T. (2013). Emergence and Morphogenesis: Causal Reduction and Downward Causation?. In Social morphogenesis (pp. 61-84). Springer Netherlands.

What is the relation between the causal powers of complex systems and those of their organised components? Whilst causal reductionists tend to contend that the former powers can be accounted for in terms of the latter, certain advocates of downward causation have it that causal powers of systems can act back on their own components. Focussing upon processes whereby systems are actually formed, I question both of these contentions. Typically missing from arguments for both, I argue, is an adequate analysis of the manner in which the components of a system are organised in relation to each other, and indeed of the causal contribution of any such organising relations.

Lawson, T. (2013). What is this ‘school’ called neoclassical economics?. Cambridge Journal of Economics, bet027.

What is this school called neoclassical economics? Does it exist? Should it? Where does the term ‘neoclassical economics’ come from, and is there any connection between any of the current interpretations of the term and its original meaning? How do we make sense of competing current interpretations? Is there a sustainable formulation? These and related questions are raised and answered in an attempt to bring clarity to ongoing economic discussion and debate, thereby to under-labour for a more relevant academic economics discipline.

Lawson, T. (2014). A speeding up of the rate of social change? Power, technology, resistance, globalisation and the good society. In Late Modernity(pp. 21-47). Springer International Publishing.

Various commentators express the view that society is accelerating in some manner. In this chapter I assess what this might mean and seek to identify factors that could explain the widespread acceptance of this view. In the course of so doing I elaborate an account of social reality that allows me to identify the nature of social stability and thereby of the kinds of factors that might work to undermine it. In particular I examine the nature of recent developments in technology and of their take up in capitalist development. Conclusions are drawn as to whether society is indeed accelerating in some way, and speculations offered as to the sort of society for which ongoing developments could lay a basis.

Lawson, T. (2013). Soros’ Theory of Reflexivity: a critical comment. Revue de philosophie economique, 14(1), 29-48.

Modern academic economics is not explanatorily successful. Although this situation has long been evident, it has become widely recognised only with the onset of the recent economic crisis. With the situation now widely acknowledged, however, various initiatives have been launched in the hope of achieving something better. One highly significant such initiative has stemmed from George Soros’ insight that whilst reflexivity is a widespread feature of social reality, the sorts of economic theories that have dominated academic economic output are fundamentally inconsistent with it. Here I argue that whilst Soros’ contribution contains insight, it does not go far enough, and risks having the insights contained neglected due to the inclusion by Soros of various questionable assessments that are in any case unnecessary to the central argument.

Lawson, T. (2013). Ethical naturalism and forms of relativism. Society, 6(50), 570-575.

Lawson, T. (2014). “A conception of social ontology”. Social Ontology and Modern Economics, 19.

Lawson, T. (2014). 13 Critical ethical naturalism: an orientation to ethics1.Social Ontology and Modern Economics, 359.

Lawson, T, “What is an Institution?”, 2014, in Stephen Pratten (ed.) Social Ontology and Modern Economics, London and New York: Routledge.

Lawson, T, “The Nature of Gender”, 2014, in Stephen Pratten (ed.) Social Ontology and Modern Economics, London and New York: Routledge.

Lawson, T. (2015). The nature of the firm and peculiarities of the corporation.Cambridge Journal of Economics, 39(1), 1-32.

Insights from social ontology are utilised to provide a novel, or at least clarified, conception of the firm. The latter is shown to be a particular form of social entity that is both of an economic and legal nature. The limited company or ‘corporation’ is shown to be a specific form of firm. A central distinguishing feature of the argument is that positioning matters in social identity constitution and different sorts of phenomena are positioned in different ways. The company/corporation is constituted in a manner that is a hybrid of other forms of positioning. Notions such as legal fiction and legal personality that abound in the related literature, often in confused ways, are also clarified. Various consequences are drawn for further analyses at the levels of method, theory and policy.

Lawson, T. (2015). The Modern Corporation: The Site of a Mechanism (of Global Social Change) that Is Out-of-Control?. In Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order (pp. 205-230). Springer International Publishing.

The modern corporation, in particular the multinational, is assessed by many as being the site of an unstoppable mechanism of frequently unwanted, often far-ranging, social change. My concern here is to identify the structural conditions that underpin the workings of the corporation that ground these assessments. Specifically, my concern is to identify the fundamental nature of the corporation and specifically the multinational, examine how the structural conditions that underpin its workings emerged, and briefly question whether these conditions, now firmly established, are at all susceptible to constructive transformation.

Conferences & Workshops

Workshop on Critical Issues in Social Ontology, Caius College Cambridge, May 2014, “Comparing Conceptions of Social Ontology: Emergent Social Entities and/or Institutional Facts?”