Entelechy vs equilibrium – is morphic resonance the concept to make Lachmann’s critique of Mises more generative ?


This is a vital but difficult topic that constitutes an essential part of the variant perspective on the economy and markets I have formed after observing and participating in them for a couple of decades.  This is my first stab at writing something public on the topic – I will need to return again and again to elaborate, refine and illustrate these ideas:

  • Marshallian approach – system of partial equilibrium.  short medium and long run
  • post-Walrasians – complete contracting across all scenarios.  but assumes away the very aspects of the situation that we are interested to understand – true risk, Knightian and plu-Knightian radical uncertainty (where even the structure of the problem is unknown) and true learning.
  • Rothbardian reading of Mises – equilibrium is like the mechanical rabbit being chased by the dog.  We never reach it, but the economy is always tending towards the equilibrium implicit in the current state of affairs.
  • Lachmann (and to an extent GLS Shackle) – in a kaleidic economy, equilibrating forces are always overtaken by unexpected change, and so how can one speak of a tendency towards long-run equilibrium.   Accused by traditional Austrians of nihilism, because if one accepts his beliefs, what really can one say about the economy?

I believe that Lachmann and GLS Shackle strike us as disconcerting mostly because of our insistence on a linear conception of proximate cause and effect.  If one returns to older conceptions of causality at multiple levels, including the operation of field effects, one avoids the false dichotomy of either the swirling kaleidoscope or the clockwork economy, and is liberated to once again speak of the obvious order in the economy (after all, most of the time, ‘Paris does get fed’) without denying its essential characteristics of ignorance, uncertainty and change.

Lachmann does actually speak of the importance of trade fairs, journals, and organized stock markets in co-ordinating expectations, and there is obviously a connection between Sheldrake’s emphasis on habit and the role of habit and routines in various schools of institutional economics.

I am somewhat at a loss as to how best to elaborate this insight further in only a few lines, so I shall return to it when I have more time.

Here are some key snippets from Prof Bruce Charlton that help make sense of the applicability of Sheldrake’s approach to fields beyond those Sheldrake discusses in his books (emphasis mine):


Perhaps the single most important thing I am getting from my readings of Rupert Sheldrake and ideas of morphogenetic fields, morphic resonance etc – is an awareness of how limited was my view of causation.
I had a very linear view of causation resembling a series of idealized billiard balls colliding: A hits B making it move and hit C; or A causes B causes C.
I term these causal chains.
This was always at the back of my mind when doing science – that for science to be potentially testable and potentially useful it ought to have clear causal chains.
As a theorist it was my function to suggest causal chains which were aimed at being reasonably correct descriptions of highly selected bits of reality; but much simpler than reality therefore being comprehensible and predictive.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to do this, except that – in the usual way for humans – I come to believe that what I did was the only thing that could properly be done; so that I would evaluate all knowledge on whether or not I could reduce it to clear, simple causal chains; and to assume that that which could not be so reduced was not comprehended and so was useless.
(This seems to me the great hazard of expertise of any sort – but especially intellectual expertise. That having trained oneself into specialist cognitive expertise, that becomes the dominant and most authoritative mode of thought, and the exclusions and assumptions which underpin that mode of thought fail to be recognised as exclusions and assumptions; such that they are taken to be facts and discoveries…

But I have found that there is another way of thinking, in terms of fields, which is qualitatively different from causal chain thinking, yet is similarly clear and simple and predictive.
It is not that field thinking is more true, necessarily, nor better (both causal chains and fields are extremely simplified models of reality, both are gross reductions of reality) – but that field thinking is at least as true, and has different applicabilities – so that problems not amenable to causal chain thinking may yield to field thinking.

However, field thinking is qualitatively different from causal chain thinking, and they cannot be combined; one can merely decide which mode to use in a specific situation; or use them hierarchically (typically with fields regarded as primary and general, and causal chains as secondary, specific, and local).
This is the deepest reason which Sheldrake’s ideas are not as influential as one might expect them to be.
Even when a scientist is convinced of the validity of this mode of thinking, he finds that it is incommensurable with his existing knowledge – which is in the form of causal chain thinking.
The scientist can place his own causal chain thinking inside a larger, inclusive framework of field thinking, perhaps – but that will not affect the nature of his own specific knowledge and work.
Field thinking is thus experienced as abstract and optional with respect to his day-to-day practise.
The alternative is, for someone with experience and expertise, too radical to contemplate – to discard everything he ‘knows’ and re-explain it in terms of fields.
To give-up and start again!
Yet this seems neither necessary nor sensible; since causal chain thinking has been very useful in many situations.


Before I began thinking in terms of fields as the main cause of things, then I had pretty much a ‘billiard ball’ model of causation, of one thing as causing another in long chains of cause and effect.
But now it seems to be obviously impossible to account for the regularities of the world in terms of such chains of cause and effect; because there are innumerable interacting chains of causation in the world, and each chain is exquisitely sensitive to the specifics of its initial event – such that imprecisions expand with each step in the chain or with distance from the cause – to become chaotic and/ or noise overwhelms the signal.
We could never make sense of the world (or so it now seems), could never predict or control things, if reality really was constituted from vast numbers of interacting causal chains.
Isolating, studying and understanding one specific linear causal pathway out of dozens which also interact is futile (looking for a needle in a haystack), yet studying them all would take too long and even if we did then how could we understand the vast possibilities for interaction including the interaction of imprecision and error?

Only if these multiple specific and interacting causal pathways are ordered by larger scale principles (fields) could we make sense of such overwhelming complexity and indeterminacy as the world present.
For the world to be understandable, predictable and controllable I therefore think that (if we insist on such meta-explanations – as apparently I do) we rationally need to assume a metaphysic which begins with form, where forms are finite (in principle), and where we ourselves begin with an inbuilt knowledge of (at least some) forms.
Sheldrake emphasizes that we understand the world (when we do understand it ) in nested hierarchies.
So we understand biology in terms of living things, the various families, order, species etc, individual organisms and their organs, cells and the cellular components.

But for such understanding to be more than detached factoids, the explanation must include (whether implicitly or explicitly) form, fields, or principles of organization which descend from the higher to lower levels.
Such forms are not detected, nor discovered, they are recognized.
Once recognized they can be used. If there has been an error, and a form falsely recognized and ascribed, then they imputed forms will not be very useful – will lead to internal contractions, failed predictions, inability to control.
And it seems that the different sciences, the different specialties, and sub-specialties within science, could never amount to anything ordered (anything comprehensible) unless they were in nested hierarchies of fields.
Lacking this, the different scientific disciplines or specialisms (such as the scores of branches of ‘neuroscience’ or ‘brain science’) are incommensurable, atomic factoids (as, in practice, they currently are).
So, instead of merely accumulating findings ad infinitum, science needs to proceed in a theoretically-informed fashion, recognizing that facts are worthless unless organized by form: form structuring fact-finding, facts and what count as facts.

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3 Responses to Entelechy vs equilibrium – is morphic resonance the concept to make Lachmann’s critique of Mises more generative ?

  1. W. Peden says:

    A fascinating and difficult topic.

    Coming from a philosophy background, I actually find the theory of causation parts easier to follow than some of the more basic equilibrium notions. In particular, what's the difference between the Misean/Rothbardian view and the Marshallian view? As you describe the various views, I find myself sympathetic towards the Misean/Rothbardian view, BUT I always thought that that was the Marshallian view. So I'm puzzled.

  2. cantillonblog says:

    How interesting! I would not have expected that a conventional training in philosophy, c. 2012, is especially conducive to appreciating the world from the perspective of morphic resonance and formative causation.

    My intent here is more to focus on what is not explained by a static understanding of expectations and knowledge, rather than to get into the nitty gritty of discussing conventional economic thinking. I would start with Man, Economy, and State and Marshall's Principles to gain a better understanding of the latter.

  3. W. Peden says:


    A conventional training isn't, but moving beyond the billiard-ball/thunder-and-lightning concept of causation has been one of the most important (though gradual) changes in metaphysics since about the 1940s. As early as 1954, Gilbert Ryle had realised it was inadequate (in "Dilemmas") and by 2012 there are plenty of attempts to get a more sophisticated philosophical understanding of causation by philosophers like Nancy Cartwright and James Woodward.

    I've been starting to read the Lachmann/Shackle literature, but yes: it turns out I need to go back historically to Mises and Marshall first.

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