Alla conquista del consenso: a proposito di un articolo di dinamica formale

Economia Politica IX:1, April 1992, pp. 13-38.

[How to win consent. Reflections about a Paper in Formal Dynamics]


Recent studies in the history of science have shown that, even in the hard sciences, the invention of new theories and concepts does not follow the prescription of any a priori method valid once and for all. This does not imply the absence of any boundary to scientific theorizing. On the contrary, both the formulation of concepts and their acceptance by the scientific community are the result of a dialogue involving a multitude of factors.

The scientist communicates with his or her object, asking questions and obtaining answers, but he also has to persuade his or her fellow scientists.

This article presents a case study: Richard Goodwin's well known 1951 paper on nonlinear dynamics, the purpose of which was to convince economists that the only appropriate approach to the study of persistent business cycles is by means of non-linear functional equations. The paper focuses on Goodwin's implicit rhetorics, in particular on the mechanisms he used to ensure the conditions for his thesis to be understood and recognized as pertinent and relevant his fellow scientists.

Generally speaking, such conditions are far from being automatically satisfied. On the one hand, by introducing a shift in perspective, a new theory or concept breaks with a tradition of thought. In order to fill the gap, the author must re-interpret the history of the problem as capable of generating and integrating the new approach. The new thesis has to be presented as a natural development of past achievements: discontinuity has to be integrated within continuity.

On the other hand, the choice of a procedure, a point of view, and a set of analytical instruments, analogies or models, has to be presented as the only one capable of solving the problem, as necessarily related to the nature of the object. The strategy of persuasion adopted by the scientists thus seems to consis in presenting a thesis as independent of its author's decisions. Such was surely Goodwin's case.