The proposal has been put forward that ecological economics seek to become substantive economics (Gerber and Scheidel 2018). This raises important issues about the content and direction of ecological economics. The division of economics into either substantive or formal derives from the work of Karl Polanyi. In developing his ideas Polanyi employed a definition from Menger and combined this with Tönnies theory of historical evolution. In this paper I explore why the resulting substantive vs. formal dichotomy is problematic. In particular the article exposes the way in which trying to impose this dichotomy on history of economic thought and epistemology leads to further false dichotomies. Besides Polanyi, the positions of other important thinkers informing social ecological economics (SEE) are discussed including Neurath, Kapp and Georgescu-Roegen. The aim is to clarify the future direction of ecological economics and the role in that future of ideas raised under the topic of substantive economics.