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Making Choices in Time
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In his paper, Dan Raff challenges us to “do something with time.” It is a challenge business historians should take seriously. The discipline has given little time to methodological issues; nonetheless, as Raff himself notes, “some careful thought about method can be helpful before confronting evidence.”1 As a community, we can seem epistemologically naive, convinced of our ability to tell the truth through (re)constructing narrative accounts of past events. We also tend to be very interested in outcomes; why did this firm succeed where another failed; why that industry there and not here? These sorts of questions can seduce us toward overly determined answers. The result is, in Raff’s terminology, backward-looking history (and the history of winners for the most part). Integral to this backward-looking history is a particular conception of time—time’s arrow ran straight and true, in one direction, and hit its target. What this view rarely stops to consider is how people experience and behave in time. For the most part, this experience of being in time is a much more chaotic, uncertain, and unsettling one than that recounted by history. This is where Raff’s most important emphasis lies—instead of ends and outcomes, he suggests we switch our focus to experience, acting, and, above all, choosing and deciding. If we are to take seriously the claim “that moments of decision-making, suitably embedded in operating environments and cash constraints, are a more revealing and less distorting focus than outcomes,” then we must also recognize that “Time plays a central role in any such analysis . . . as the medium through which understanding, and the imagination of possible future courses of action, develop.”2 In other words, if business history is to develop forward-looking understandings of how our subjects acted and chose, then it needs to consider not only historical time but also time qua time. I entirely agree.

Raff’s paper is wide ranging, but I will concentrate on just one issue, which I believe to be fundamental; the way in which we understand decision making. I want, first, to think about the temporal context of choosing. Here, I begin with a basic proposition derived from the work of English economist G. L. S. Shackle: the future does not exist. Like Raff, Shackle was very concerned to find a way to write nondetermined history and his work gives us some fundamental principles for thinking about decision making in time. Second, moving forward from this position, I want to think about how actors choose in such a temporal context. If we want to write forward-looking history, we have to ask what it is that actors face when they look forward, that is, in to the as-yet nonexisting future?

Decision and Time

It is patent that men’s decisions are not choices among actual but among imagined outcomes.3

Shackle was preoccupied with the interlinked themes of choice, decision, imagination, and creativity. Critically, he explicitly considered decision’s positioning within our experience of time and how that positioning affects how we make choices and from among what options we choose. In turn, this interest in decision making within time leads Shackle to forge a nondeterminative vision of history. Shackle’s vision of history is one exhibiting not only a “wild play” but also constantly “coming into being,” thus being fundamentally antiteleological. The unfolding brings with it a profound tension that is “beyond uncertainty”—what Shackle called “unknowledge.”

For Shackle, the assumptions within economics with regard to the completeness, knowableness, and timelessness of choice sets, of perfect information, of unbounded rationality, and stable preferences motivated by the always-fixed ends of maximization and optimization render the notion of choice and thus also of decision entirely redundant (Raff relaxes these assumptions very considerably, but we will return to that). In such a “determinist world, decision is illusory; . . . [and] in a world of certainty, it is empty.” If, on the other hand, we fully reject these assumptions and retreat to a vision of a “world without discernible order,” then decision is “powerless.” All space for “the truly and strictly inceptive thought” is closed down. This is the paradox of decision under most...

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