Tony Lawson

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Tony Lawson
Tony Lawson at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, 2010
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolCritical Realism
Main interests
Philosophy of economics
Notable ideas
Social Positioning Theory
Critical Ethical Naturalism
Contrast Explanation
  • Jochen Runde
    Stephen Pratten
    Phil Faulkner
    Steve Fleetwood
    Jamie Morgan
WebsiteHomepage at University of Cambridge

Tony Lawson is a British philosopher and economist. He is professor of economics and philosophy in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge.[1] He is a co-editor of the Cambridge Journal of Economics,[2] a former director of the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, and co-founder of the Cambridge Realist Workshop and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group.[3] Lawson is noted for his contributions to heterodox economics and to philosophical issues in social theorising, most especially to social ontology.[4]



Lawson's early contributions were on philosophical topics such as uncertainty, knowledge and prediction as well as on substantive analyses of the labour process and the industrial decline of the United Kingdom.[5][6][7] Lawson's further work has focussed on achieving greater relevance in social theorising, especially economics. This has involved developing an ontologically informed critique of mainstream economics and elaborating methods more relevant to social analysis. Perhaps most importantly, Lawson has introduced ontological reflection into all aspects of economic discussion, including methodology, basic theory and history of economic thought.[8][9][10][11][12][13] Lawson argues repeatedly that if social science is to be successful then it must fashion methods that are appropriate to its subject matter.[14] He argues that this requires an explicit orientation to social ontology. The reason that mathematical modelling in economics fails to provide insight, he reasons, is simply because such methods are quite inappropriate, given the nature of social material.[14][15] Lawson develops dialectical methods that he systematises as contrast explanation. More basically Lawson advocates pluralism in method for modern economics.[4][16]


As a result of his argument that economics should concern itself with ontology, Lawson has developed and defended his own theory of the constitution and nature of social reality.[3] The main philosophical influence for this is the Cambridge Social Ontology Group. An early influence was the work of Roy Bhaskar.[17][18][19] Indeed, in his early work, Lawson joined Bhaskar and others in referring to the account of social reality defended as "transcendental realism".[14] Since 1997, however, Lawson has developed his own conception of social ontology, largely in collaboration with the Cambridge Social Ontology Group, and refers to it as social positioning theory.

Social ontology[edit]

Lawson's conception of social ontology has been in part derived through transcendental argument.[14] He defines as social anything "whose formation/coming into existence and/or continuing existence necessarily depend at least in part upon human beings and their interactions”.[3] Lawson argues that there is a level of emergent – from human interaction – reality that is reasonably demarcated as social.[20] This comes about through processes of social morphogenesis.[21] In general, Lawson argues, “we human beings for the most part do not create social reality, but rather, on finding it given to us at each moment, each draw upon it in acting in always situated ways, pursuing our particular situated concerns, in conditions clearly not of our own making, with understandings that are always fallible and extremely partial at best, and in so doing thereby contribute, along with the simultaneous actions of all others, to the continuous reproduction and transformation of social reality in a manner that is mostly unintended and poorly understood”.[22]

The result is a world in which human agency and social structure each presuppose the other though neither is reducible to, or completely explicable in terms of, the other. More specifically, Lawson argues that social reality is everywhere constituted through positioning people and things as components of social totalities, whereupon human actions and uses of positioned objects are guided by rights and obligations associated with the positions. Whole communities can also be so positioned, as in the formation of corporations. The result is a social realm organised by various forms of social structure of which there different types such as communities, collective practices, norms, social rules, social positions, powers, social relations, and artefacts.[13][15]


Lawson defends a conception of ethics named Critical Ethical Naturalism in which the goal is a society in which we all flourish in our differences, and the mechanism ever nudging us towards it turns on the fact that the flourishing of any one of us depends on the flourishing of all and at some level we all recognise this.[23][24]


Lawson has engaged in debates with numerous contributors, including, early on, over the use of econometrics, and later, regarding the value of ontology to social theorising, including to feminist theorising. In addition, Edward Fullbrook’s Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and his Critics, contains a series of debates between Lawson and leading heterodox economists.[25] Recently Lawson has debated the relative advantages of competing conceptions of social ontology with several ontologists such as John Searle, Doug Porpora and Colin Wight.[22] Moreover, he has debated the nature of specific social existents, such as money, with Searle and Geoffrey Ingham.[26]


Books (single author)[edit]

  • Lawson, Tony (2019). The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0367188931. OCLC 1082243306.
  • Lawson, Tony (2015). Essays on the nature and state of modern economics. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1138851023. OCLC 907773349.
  • Lawson, Tony (2003). Reorienting Economics. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415253369. OCLC 810086031.
  • Lawson, Tony (1997). Economics and Reality. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1134735105. OCLC 225574891.

Selected articles[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]


  1. ^ Administrator (2016-12-09). "Professor Tony Lawson". Retrieved 2017-10-11.
  2. ^ "Editorial_Board". Cambridge Journal of Economics. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2017-10-11.
  3. ^ a b c Pratten, Stephen (2015). Social Ontology and Modern Economics. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415858304. OCLC 891449934.
  4. ^ a b Ontology and economics: Tony Lawson and his critics. Fullbrook, Edward. New York: Routledge. 2009. ISBN 978-0203888773. OCLC 227191562.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ Lawson, Tony (1985). "Uncertainty and Economic Analysis". The Economic Journal. 95 (380): 909–927. doi:10.2307/2233256. JSTOR 2233256.
  6. ^ Lawson, Tony (1987). "The Relative/Absolute Nature of Knowledge and Economic Analysis". The Economic Journal. 97 (388): 951–970. doi:10.2307/2233082. JSTOR 2233082.
  7. ^ Lawson, Tony (1994-07-01). "The Nature of Post Keynesianism and Its Links to Other Traditions: A Realist Perspective". Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. 16 (4): 503–538. doi:10.1080/01603477.1994.11489998. ISSN 0160-3477.
  8. ^ Lawson, Tony (1999). "What Has Realism Got To Do With It?". Economics & Philosophy. 15 (2): 269–282. doi:10.1017/s0266267100004016. ISSN 1474-0028. S2CID 153432601.
  9. ^ Lawson, Tony (2001). "The Varying Fortunes of the Project of Mathematising Economics". European Journal of Economic and Social Systems. 15: 241–268.
  10. ^ Lawson, Tony (1999-01-01). "Feminism, Realism, and Universalism". Feminist Economics. 5 (2): 25–59. doi:10.1080/135457099337932. ISSN 1354-5701.
  11. ^ Lawson, Tony (2003-01-01). "Ontology and Feminist Theorizing". Feminist Economics. 9 (1): 119–150. doi:10.1080/1354570022000035760. ISSN 1354-5701. S2CID 9622266.
  12. ^ Lawson, Tony (2006-07-01). "The nature of heterodox economics". Cambridge Journal of Economics. 30 (4): 483–505. doi:10.1093/cje/bei093. ISSN 0309-166X. S2CID 28097842.
  13. ^ a b Lawson, Tony (2012-03-01). "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. doi:10.1093/cje/ber050. ISSN 0309-166X.
  14. ^ a b c d Lawson, Tony (1997). Economics and reality. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415154208. OCLC 34545173.
  15. ^ a b Lawson, Tony (2003). Reorienting economics. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415253369. OCLC 810086031.
  16. ^ Economic pluralism. London and New York: Routledge. 2013. ISBN 978-0415747417. OCLC 859038420.
  17. ^ Bhaskar, Roy (1978). A realist theory of science. Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press. ISBN 978-0391005761. OCLC 4614842.
  18. ^ Bhaskar, Roy. The possibility of naturalism : a philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences (Fourth ed.). London. ISBN 978-1138798885. OCLC 872522672.
  19. ^ Lawson, Tony (1989-03-01). "Abstraction, tendencies and stylised facts: a realist approach to economic analysis". Cambridge Journal of Economics. 13 (1): 59–78. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.cje.a035091. ISSN 0309-166X.
  20. ^ Powers and capacities in philosophy : the new Aristotelianism. Groff, Ruth, 1963-, Greco, John. New York: Routledge. 2013. ISBN 9780415889889. OCLC 800035791.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  21. ^ Social morphogenesis. Archer, Margaret Scotford. Dordrecht: Springer. 2013. ISBN 9789400761285. OCLC 828794257.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  22. ^ a b Lawson, Tony (2016-12-01). "Ontology and Social Relations: Reply to Doug Porpora and to Colin Wight". Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 46 (4): 438–449. doi:10.1111/jtsb.12128. ISSN 1468-5914.
  23. ^ Lawson, Tony (2013-12-01). "Ethical Naturalism and Forms of Relativism". Society. 50 (6): 570–575. doi:10.1007/s12115-013-9712-7. ISSN 0147-2011.
  24. ^ Lawson, Tony (2014-12-01). Critical Ethical Naturalism: An Orientation to Ethics.
  25. ^ Ontology and economics : Tony Lawson and his critics. Fullbrook, Edward. New York: Routledge. 2009. ISBN 9780415476133. OCLC 227191562.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  26. ^ Lawson, Tony (2016-07-01). "Social positioning and the nature of money". Cambridge Journal of Economics. 40 (4): 961–996. doi:10.1093/cje/bew006. ISSN 0309-166X.