Sunday, January 2, 2011

Narrative and Logic, Meaning and Function

People love stories, and always want to know "what it means" -- it is in human nature to organize our experience and understanding in stories  -- stories, which compound judgment, cause and effect, intent and effort, into meaningful, sequential drama, drama that satisfies our emotional needs.

Scientific analysis, on the other hand, of the functioning of a system?  Interesting in its way, but not compelling in the manner of a dramatic narrative, though analysis has enormous practical implications, in the relation of science to technology, for engineering the means to actually do things, to control the processes of production.

This poses a problem for Economics, and for politics and society, in general.  What is the relation of meaningful story to functional analysis?

The problem of meaning and function -- or meaning v. function -- is an intellectual one for the science of economics, and also, a problem of epistemology: how does one "know" something, or discover something, about the world, about social reality, about how the world functions?

The problem of meaning and function is also a practical problem, because stories are a means to organize and motivate people, drama is a functional part of the social systems of political economy.

One might naively imagine that the critical question is,  Is the Story True?

That question -- is the story true? -- tries to make the problem, a scientific one.  Not incidentally, it makes the Story of Science into a Quest for Truth, assigning dramatic meaning to the activities of scientists and their results, while dismissing pre-scientific understanding -- whatever its literary merits, psychological usefulness, or religious importance -- as Myth.  Truly epic political and cultural struggles have ensued, from Science publishing Truth, which contradicted Myth.

In fact, Science Overturning Myth is a defining myth of the modern age.

I don't know that the "truth" of a good and satisfying story is the same quality or quantity as the "truth" of a sound functional analysis.  The story tells us why, the functional analysis tells us how; the story organizes our subjective experience in a meaningful way, functional analysis organizes our understanding of how the world -- objective reality -- works.

Analysis of function is about identifying functional relationships, systems and mechanisms.  Stories are about meaning, values, purpose.

There's a deep entanglement of analysis and story in Economics, where story can be functional.  There's also a lot of confusion, where story, and its moral imperatives, are mistaken for mechanism and system.

The Analysis of Supply and Demand, which becomes a choice of Supply or Demand, followed by a Story of Supply or Demand -- the subject of a previous post -- is just one example of how Economics slides between analysis of mechanism and narrative stories, without much awareness.

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