TSElosophers meeting 28.5.2021. Erkki Lassila, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl.

Reiss, J. (2017). Fact-value entanglement in positive economics. Journal of Economic Methodology, 24(2), 134-149.


The article by Reiss (2017) outlined historical developments of thinking in positive economics based on David Hume’s ”fork”, i.e. the separability of facts from values. Hume’s fork maintains that factual statements can be known without referring to non-epistemic values such as beauty, good, right, bad and wrong.

Hume’s fork is frequently applied in generating the distinction between normative and positive economics, argued forcefully for instance by Milton Friedman. In this mode of thought, the former are arguably about values and the latter about scientific facts.

The article reiterates, through examples from various aspects of conducting research, the already elsewhere made argument that economics is hardly able to provide a purely positive theoretical body and intricate statements presented as such are only seemingly so. A central theme of the article is that it may be that whenever generalizations are made beyond the immediate observations like that “this leaf here is green”, we may not be able to avoid the inclusion of non-epistemic values.

Our discussion

After many-sided and also critical discussion, TSElosophers came to the conclusion that Reiss manages to do what he wishes to achieve: supporting the blurring of the distinction between positive and normative economics. However, neither Reiss nor we are saying that science would become impossible to distinguish from opinions as Reiss elaborates a cognitivist metatheoretical stance to ethics that emphasizes human capability for reasonable argumentation about normative statements as well.

Thus, the blurring of the separability thesis enables more active role to economists who may now discuss about the normative hues that unavoidably shade the scientific inquiry – coming from e.g. the underdetermination of epistemic values and the expectations about the use of theories. Acknowledging this would allow economists to excel in this and leverage their role in the society with greater awareness and transparency about the values impacting one’s theoretical work.

Most importantly, the blurring of the separability thesis need not become a crisis in economics. Even if positive and normative statements cannot be sharply distinguished, some statements are still more based on facts than others; and academia places considerably more weight on the epistemic values in knowledge-production than happens outside of it.

TSElosophers sympathized with the use of separability thesis as a rhetoric device, although it doesn’t fully capture the complexities of science-making. Hence, it seems to function partly as an unrealistically straightforward solution to distinguish between the more and the less epistemic argumentations. Employing the separability thesis may be helpful in the context of economists’ theorizations when they are challenged in societal discourse; they still need a way to signal the convergence of their theorizations with the epistemic body of economics.

It was pointed out, however, that careless usage of such rhetorical devices may, however, corrupt the credibility of science in the long run. They are always political because they exclude some approaches from discussions instead of others without a watertight basis.

We concluded that a critical mindset and keeping one’s conflicting non-epistemic interests in a tight rein should be among the key strengths of all academicians – regardless whether one supports or rejects the facts-values dichotomy.