Economics and Philosophy

by Kieran Healy on November 20, 2004

Over at Brian Leiter’s blog the Stanley brothers, Jason and Marcus are guest blogging about Philosophy and Economics. Marcus writes:

I wonder if there are some commonalities between the desire to be “technical” or “scientific” that one sees in economics and some of the things Jason is posting about in philosophy.  It seems to me that the internal academic war between “continental” humanism and “Anglo-American” empiricism has impacted a lot of different disciplines …

The internal narratives of Anglo-American philosophy and modern economics see their paradigm emerging at almost the same time. In economics, it’s the marginal revolution inaugurated by Jevons, Menger and Walras from 1871 or so. In philosophy, it’s the publication of Frege’s Begriffsschrift in 1879 that ushers in the modern era.

Like the idea of the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment, transformative events like these are both immediately appealing (hence their status as canonical moments in the field) and hard to pin down definitively (hence the big literature by historians and sociologists of these disciplines arguing about them). But it’s interesting on its face that they occurred at similar times. These events also immediately show that the notion of an Anglo/Continental Science/Humanism split is a tricky one to defend, seeing as Frege was German and only 1/3 of the Marginal Revolutionaries were English. But the stereotypes are so strong that many people think, for example, that the French really never did much mathematical economics.



John Quiggin 11.20.04 at 11:29 pm

Is humanism the right term here? My impression is that continental philosophy is explicitly anti-humanist. The real divide is between scientific/mathematical and literary approaches, I think.


Kieran Healy 11.21.04 at 12:16 am

Maybe humanist isn’t the right term — whatever it actually denotes, I just meant the continental side of things.


Jason Kuznicki 11.21.04 at 1:01 am

Fascinating post–for its brevity, one of the most interesting I’ve seen at CT. I’ve often wondered if philosophy and economics couldn’t learn a lot more from one another–and not just in Marxist terms. The question here would seem to be as follows: Is there a deep structural relationship that brought both these fields to turning points at very nearly the same time, but that is not apparent on the surface?

I wish I had an answer. As a historian, I’m sure I could make a book out of it.


seth edenbaum 11.21.04 at 1:16 am

Humanism, at this point at least, means the defense of man as something other than mechanism, whether that something is the consequence of metaphysical belief or of an assumption that experience and our ability to learn from it, can not be described by means of number. Continental philosophy is humanist in that it is a defense of the primacy of experience, and therefore of art as such.

Scientific meaning is an oxymoron, but not all defenses of the arts are predicated on religious argument, the argument that meaning- whatever that could be- exists. Over the centuries literature and theater have been more than anything the arts of atheism. And from the standpoint of philosophy, the continuing necessity of rhetoric in legal argument is the rebuttal to any pretense that human behacior can ever be described by mathematics or by science. The wisdom of Solomon will always be of more importance- as a thing of value- than the intelligence of the inventor of the Game Boy or the VCR.


bob mcmanus 11.21.04 at 2:07 am

“to any pretense that human behavior can ever be described by mathematics or by science”

Late 1870’s was also Nietzsche’s period, tho I believe just about claims him. Nobody was quite reading him yet, tho. Michael Blowhard had a discussion of the beginning of modernism (and why) following the Franco-Prussian War, primarily the Impressionists, but perhaps also Rimbaud and Debussy (Wagner?). Non-Euclidean geometry?

I am a Spenglerian kinda guy. Of course they are all related.


Brian Weatherson 11.21.04 at 3:24 am

“Humanism, at this point at least, means the defense of man as something other than mechanism…”

Is this meant to be a definition? It seems humanist enough to me to uphold the value of the kind of mechanism that humans happen to be.

I think we learn a lot more about wisdom by the precise thinking about computation that’s happened in the last century than we do from consulting the Solomons of various ages. But I think Seth wants to reduce all we learned from Frege, Godel, Tarski, von Neumann, Turing etc to the invention of consumer electronics.


s.e. 11.21.04 at 4:45 am

I was being glib, but only somewhat. As to modernism, as an ideology of The Modern rather than merely a description of the situation of the predicament called modernity: it begins with an alienation from the world, along with the desire to create a more perfect order, that some but not all later dream of applying to it. I can give you a spiel about Monet and the escape from descriptions of the social world, the or about nihilism in Seurat but these are not new arguments. Perfect beauty, Fascism, utopia etc. I can’t say a lot about the history of science, it’s not my field or my even my hobby, but the vogue for formal systems was common to many fields, and it’s my assumption most of them were proven inadequate to the cause of describing the world of experience

I’m not saying that planes fly by magic or that planets move in perfect circles, nor even that exceptions interest me more than ‘rules.’ But what is the ‘narrative’ behind neoclassical economics? Is it enough to explain human behavior? And if human beings are a mechanism what does that mean? Is law a mechanism? If that mechanism includes all the bullshit and seduction that good lawyers are masters of I’m happy to call law a mechanism. And if the mechanism of humanity includes my landlady’s refusal to charge me more than what has become 1/3 of market rent while voting the full Republican ticket- choosing both to be humble and to respect those others she knows are rich and powerful but whom she imagines know what’s right for her- than we are a mechanism. But there’s no science of history any more than there is a science of literature. There will be a biography that is hailed as giving us the “George Washington of the first half of the 21st century” and 75 years from now there will be another that will give us the George Washington for the second half of the 21st century.

One of the things that annoys me most about liberals is that in their fixation with the rates of progress in the abstractions of their various unpolitical fields they ignore how little progress there has been in the world itself. A little less science and technology (and philosophy) and a little more freshman lit. would do a lot of good.


joel turnipseed 11.21.04 at 7:37 am

Actually, isn’t this entire dichotomy falsely prejudiced (in favor of the anti-rational)? Frege, Wittgenstein, and even the logical positivists had all read Kant. The analytic project (intelligently-conceived) wasn’t some sort of logic-chopping rationalism as it was an attempt to bound those questions that could be answered reasonably and those that cannot — and even those that cannot so argued, can be structured by reason-guided non-rational means. Isn’t this why, for instance, philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Bernard Williams, Stanley Cavell, Robert Nozick, and John Rawls (especially late Rawls) are so interesting?

Another way: as early as Condorcet’s “Voter’s Paradox” or Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction” it’s been understood that certain things were structured such that a rational/algorithmic approach was either a) not optimal or b) too difficult (and James’ essay is nothing if not an application of complexity theory to creation of fictions–and, to boot, an affirmation of Plato’s notion that no one under 30 — that is, who hadn’t built a solid fund of notions of the world — should study philosophy; IFF, that is, you think that the self has a strong basis in shared narrative, which, say, a long thread from Aristotle to modern research in PTSD would back up). That is: both literary and logical modernists and their precursors can be said to have limned rationality/irrationality quite well and to have understood the workings of both. It is only ideologues who work hard at discounting, tout court, the one or the other.


ogmb 11.21.04 at 9:04 am

One of the things that annoys me most about liberals is that in their fixation with the rates of progress in the abstractions of their various unpolitical fields they ignore how little progress there has been in the world itself.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?


Chris Bertram 11.21.04 at 10:31 am

There’s something a bit odd going on here. In “a post a while back”: Brian Leiter made some interesting remarks about the old analytical/continental division not being much use in tracking what the significant divide in philosophy now is. He suggested that a technical/humanistic divide might capture a more significant division. But what seems to be presupposed in Marcus Stanley’s post is that technical maps onto analytical and that humanistic maps onto continental. That wasn’t what Brian had intended: these distinctions, insofar as they are useful at all, are cross-cutting. There’s also something odd about the identification of analytical philosophy with empiricism as such.

As to dates…. Frege may have produced the Begriffsscrift in 1879, but that hardly marks a founding moment, since no-one was listening at the time. It is only when Frege’s work gets picked up and run with some 20 years later that we get the takeoff of analytical philosophy.


Rob 11.21.04 at 11:35 am

I may be being slightly glib here, but Seth’s point seems to be the old Continental canard that because we are all followers of the Enlightment, we must believe that reasons are not causes, that the world is to be explained by systems of formal logic. By asserting the primacy of experience (and thus art, which I really don’t get: my experience of the world is not co-extensive with my experience of art), Seth tries to claim that all analytical philosophy denies experience, and seeks to reconstruct the world through relations of logical entailment. This is simply not true. The linguistic turn did for all that crude logical positivism. Quine, for example, argued that the very categorical divisions which such an explanation would depend on collapse into each other, and Davidson has stressed the way in which the mental is autonomous of the physical. Both continental and analytical philosophy would do a lot better to actually bother to engage with the other by taking much more seriously the claims of the other to be doing something interesting and worthwhile.
Also, I think the real birth of the distinction comes with Hegel: the methodological commitments of and issues concerning many, if not all, continental philosophers can be traced back to Hegel and his phenomenology.
Finally, I think what Seth means by “One of the things that annoys me most about liberals is that in their fixation with the rates of progress in the abstractions of their various unpolitical fields they ignore how little progress there has been in the world itself” is that liberals ignore the ways that structures of domination perpetuate themselves regardless of our efforts to amielorate through legal reform. If he means this absolutely, this is frankly bollocks. People are more free than they once were: they have more legal rights, more material resources, and therefore more control over their lives. If he means that patterns of thought and social structure which can oppress people can continue to exist despite such reforms, then a liberal has no complaint. If he means that there are particular types of pattern of thought and social structure that do continue to exist and to oppress, he better have an account of which ones they are and how they oppress people. And if he’s making the utterly banal Foucauldian point that all patterns of thought and/or social structures are oppressive, then he can go and live in a theocratic society like Saudi Arabia and be content in the knowledge that he is no less free than in a Western one.


dsquared 11.21.04 at 1:41 pm

It is only when Frege’s work gets picked up and run with some 20 years later that we get the takeoff of analytical philosophy.

Arguably true of economics too, as nobody really paid that much attention to the Lausanne School until they got the imprimateur of Marshall & Edgeworth.


Alex 11.21.04 at 4:58 pm

“many people think, for example, that the French really never did much mathematical economics.”

Louis Bachelier?


John Emerson 11.21.04 at 8:55 pm

Wittgenstein said a number of interesting things about the questions raised by Seth, both in the Tractatus and the PI. I recommend Finch’s two books on the earlier and the later Wittgenstein respectively, as well as Gudmunsen’s “Wittgenstein and Buddhism”.

If this debate gets frozen into a Continental vs. Anglosphere debate, it will be a waste of time.

Wittgenstein: “It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and the darknes of this time, to bring light into one brain or another — but of course, it is not likely”. Seemingly W. was talking about his first-generation students and disciples, but it may have a more general relevance.


Jason Stanley 11.22.04 at 12:27 am

On the Leiter blog this week, we’ve been interspersing all of this with a lengthy and involved discussion about exactly which distinctions are supposed to be tracked by Brian’s discussion of the ‘technical-humanist’ divide. I think the general conclusion to draw from everyone’s contributions has been — a number of different cross-cutting ones. But I’m sure the same is true of the corresponding case in economics.


seth edenbaum 11.22.04 at 4:34 am

It’s been a long hard day. I just found out my 14 years as the recipient of Catholic charity are over. The building is crumbling and my landlady can’t afford to repair it. She’s selling. I hope I have more than 2 months.

A few comments:
An architect is not as a result of his or her education a bricklayer. He may know the structures and tolerances of various blocks but he will not be able to lay 800 bricks a day. A bricklayer’s knowledge can only be learned by the repeated act of putting morter to block and placing them in the wall. Similarly, but more complexly, a violinist’s knowledge as heard in performance can not be taught as a series of notes. Heifetz’ knowledge can not be translated. It can only be talked ‘around’. That’s what’s called art criticism. Craft at its highest is a form of communicated knowledge that can not be isolated from it’s material or temporal form.

Heifetz and the brickelayer both want to be ‘good’ at what they do. In Heifetz’ case [less so with the bricklayer] his skill combined with personal idiosyncracies, as heard in performance, make his process interesting to others who pay attention to details of his playing. His playing is therefore not only technically good but distintive. He is not seen to be copying patterns but changing them and adding to them in new or even foreign ways.

A lawyer in a court room is interested primarily in being a good lawyer. So is his opposition. Neither needs to have any interest in truth to do his job. But no one doubts the moral seriousness of the profession.

Conditioned response is a mechanism. Reason is a mechanism. Computers can calculate and microscopic creatures have reflexes but neither are conscious. Consciousness is the result of the conflict between reason and reflex in those creatures who have access to both. Consciousness is not rationality but doubt.

As far as irrationalism is concerned. I find it irrational that Brian Leiter refers to himself as a leftist while being such an incredible snob. I find it equally irrational that Steven Weinberg should even hint at the possibility of backing George W. Bush as he did in a recent NYRB article, as a result of their shared support of Israel. But in either case it’s not the contradictions that bother me, it’s the blindness to the fact that they exist.
Irrationality is inevitable. Willed blindness should not be


Marcus Stanley 11.22.04 at 5:28 am

Agreed, 100% that “continental/anglo-American” is too simplistic a distinction. The French produce ferociously mathematical economics to this day (Jean Tirole, anyone?). The reason I didn’t adopt John Quiggin’s distinction between literary and mathematical is that I wanted to make the point that mathematical modeling/measurement is itself a form of narrative or storytelling, though the languages differ. As an econ teacher John probably knows you can restate almost any model verbally and almost any verbal story in mathematics.

The distinction I was groping my way toward (and didn’t really get there I think) was one between a discipline like e.g. anthropolgy that takes cultures internally generated narratives about what has value and meaning for them seriously, as a determinant of “truth” as that discipline studies it, and a discipline that does not. The attempt to study a culture, or a morality, or a language purely from the “outside” is what to me is scientistic as opposed to humanistic.

Although I was aiming at thinking about a “technical-humanist” divide, my posts and Jason’s are pretty different on this, as we did not have the chance to discuss/coordinate our efforts so well and our disciplines are so different.

I have put up two more posts on the matter:

The second might be most interesting to people here as I would bet stuff in the first has already been covered somewhere on CT.

You also wouldn’t want to miss my post on naked newscasters!


seth edenbaum 11.22.04 at 1:23 pm

As my old roomate David Graeber once described it to me, the paradox of anthropology that you can not understand a culture fully from inside or outside. To be an outsider is as limiting as to belong.
Marcus Stanley might agree. But I’m not sure many of those present here think the humanist side has much of a use value.


Mo MacArbie 11.23.04 at 8:07 pm

My, oh my, pretty highfalutin’ stuff for ol’ Carter and Ralph…


se 11.23.04 at 11:55 pm

Ralph sings real good too.

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