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Making sense of economists' positive-normative distinction


  • David Colander
  • Huei-Chun Su


The goal of this article is to provide a slightly different spin on economists' use of the positive-normative distinction by providing some context for its use. The major difference is the following: philosophers and philosophically oriented economists, such as Hilary Putnam and John Davis, see the positive-normative distinction in economics as following from the logical positivist position, and they interpret comments made by economists as reflecting scientific methodological positions that have long since been repudiated by philosophers of science. This article argues that economists' use of the positive-normative distinction developed from the Mill-Keynes methodological tradition, which did not hold logical positivist views. Instead, it had pragmatic purposes and was designed to encourage economists to be more modest in their claims for the implications of economic theory. We conclude by arguing that economist's current use of the positive-normative distinction is problematic, as Davis suggests, but that the best way forward is not to eliminate it, but to reposition it within the Mill-Keynes tradition from which it initially developed. Doing so avoids the problems of associating it with logical positivism, while simultaneously using the distinction to remind economists about the limitations of applying economic theorizing to real world problems.

Suggested Citation

  • David Colander & Huei-Chun Su, 2015. "Making sense of economists' positive-normative distinction," Journal of Economic Methodology, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 22(2), pages 157-170, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:jecmet:v:22:y:2015:i:2:p:157-170
    DOI: 10.1080/1350178X.2015.1024877

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