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Don't forget epistemology! Economists and (social) epistemologists have a lot to learn from one another. Alvin Goldman has drawn on economic concepts and models. In general, epistemological naturalism blends into economics. I should mention Shackle's Epistemics and Economics, Chapter 12 of the General Theory, and Hayek's knowledge papers. Some philosophers are even doing experimental studies relating to epistemology: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jk762/ExperimentalPhilosophy.html

Wittgenstein & Popper were on the right track -- philosophy works out the hard problems when science or everyday thinking crashes into a brick wall or gets tied in conceptual knots.

A great example: the very productive work of the philosophers of biology, e.g. David Hull, Alex Rosenberg, Elliott Sober, who have made tremendous progress working out ideas about the unit of selection, the grounds for laying out hereditary trees, problems with tautological uses of the "fitness" notion, and on and on and on. Stuff that has gone straight into the hard core of biological science.

And note well -- the self interest of biologists has left almost no biologists working on the core problem of working out the global explanatory project of Darwinian natural selection, e.g. making sense of the relation between the pure mathematics of population genetics and the explanation of actual problem raising biological phenomena in the real world.

Biologists themselves once set up a committee to address this problem.

Ernst Mayr was perhaps the last prominent biologist working in this area.

If the philosophy of economics was as institutionally established as the philosophy of biology, you would see a vibrant community working on like problems in economics. As it is, there are few working on these issues -- in part because the unhealthy state of economic science itself channels philosophers to work on unproductive problems which start from the same pathological assumptions as the economists begin from -- rather than from a perspective which focuses a spotlight on these pathologies, and works on putting together a better understanding of the global problem situation / causal empirical solution set.

But you still see some good work, taking for granted the pathological problem situation assumed by mainstream economics, e.g. the work of Hausman and Rosenberg.

Thomas Kuhn's work is full of spontaneous order social science compatible with Hayek's social science -- dealing indeed with the central problem of group co-operation and competition, and the coordination of plans, which leads to open-ended progress without any possibility of planned design or top-down imposed efficiency and design.

But neither Hayek's work nor Kuhn's work fits within the mainstream conception of the mathematics "market efficiency" -- although folks like Philip Kitcher has sought to put Kuhn's work into a welfare economics optimization framework, where government can optimally plan and coordination the scientific community, and others have done the same with Hayek (e.g. Arrow & Hahn).

Philosophy is looking at the totality of experience without any preconditions .

Economics is an abstraction of the totality of this experience .

It’s lens is smaller and more precise but nevertheless it cant be coherent in relation to the totality of experience .

Thus, I think it a nonsense to talk of a philosophy of economics.

How economics as an abstraction or an incomplete part of experience relates to philosophy is another matter.

Sorry Pete, I know I am an arm chair amateur observer here, but I think this approach of some of your commentators is wrong.

Philosophy of human action. Epistemology. Philosophy of science. Philosophy of economics (no, it is no more nonsense to talk about a philosophy of economics than it is philosophy of science -- science is "natural philosophy" and thus is a subcategory of philosophy in one sense, but there is also philosophy of science, so there can of course be a philosophy of economics). Ethics. Metaphysics. Ontology.

I think economists would do well to clarify their underlying epistemologies, ethics, metaphysics, ontologies, etc. I would be happy if most of them would clarify what they understand to be the physis of the economy. That would go a long way to demonstrating where so many are going so wrong. What is the nature of the thing being studied? I see Austrian economists dealing with that -- but who else? Besides the CAS theorists?

It might be important to remembrer Hayek's important words: "Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist—and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger."

I've always interpreted this quote more narrowly as being a statement against formalized 'pure theory' where applications and validation are mere afterthoughts. I don't know which essay it is from.

First paragraph above should have been between quotation marks.


"Thus, I think it a nonsense to talk of a philosophy of economics."

This quite wrong. There are many areas of all sciences that are in need of conceptual clarification in a way that goes beyond the traditional blinders of any disciple. For example, economists are very good in taking ideas in economics and developing them and applying them. But sometimes economics gets stuck in intellectual boxes of its own making that fail to connect with the experience of everyday life or fail to be internally coherent or economists think they are making substantive statements when they are only dealing in tautologies. Philosophers can and do perform a valuable function here. One has only to look at Daniel Hausman's new book "Preference, Value, Choice and Welfare" to see this.

Economists have also been very affected in their theories by philosophers but often in an indirect and mangled way. For example, Paul Samuelson was affected by the behaviorist revolution in psychology and positivism in natural science to construct his "revealed preference" approach. Lionel Robbins was highly influenced by the Humean fact-value dichotomy in his famous "Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science." Ludwig Mises was affected by Edmund Husserl's call to give science a certain foundation in his development of praxeology. Robert Lucas obliterated the distinction between the observer and the observed.

Of course, many of these influences are below the surface and the economist may not be aware of them or, importantly as in Mises's case, have them garbled.

Unfortunately, the economics does not stand or fall on its own. Certain criteria of success or coherence or simplification must be used and these are philosophical issues.

It is better to be explicitly aware of the philosophical aspect of economics (or any science)than not. Too often economists think they are simply facing tough technical problems when they are facing fundamental philosophical problems.

Pete is right.

What Pete and Mario have said.

Everyone has a philosophy. It is best made explicit and critically examined. This is especially true when technocrats proffer "scientific" solutions to philosophically loaded questions.

Yes. But the dominant schools of the 20th century practically shut down the kind of philosophical discussion that could help scientists. Hans Albert wrote a nice paper that described how the Continental (Husserl and the Austrians) and Analytical (Bertrand Russell) schools were looking good at the start of the century but Wittgenstein derailed one lot and Heidegger killed the other.

Barry Smith is probably the best value at present among living philosophers (assuming he is still alive, he didn't reply to my email last month). Check out his stunning work on the Aristotelian metaphysics that Menger picked out of Austrian philosophy and used to launch Austrian economics. Actually it is interesting to see the overlap with the best of the non-living Austrian philosophers.


Rafe, thanks for the intro to Barry Smith. His article on Aristotle, Menger and Mises is fascinating!

Good Morning Mario,

What I am saying here is philosophy *is* the master subject with economics a branch of it, as are all other subjects.

That branch that you sit in, economics, has been so abstracted to become almost irrelevant to daily life. It is with great credit to the people who visit this blog and write for it, that they try to make economic relevant as it should be. They cross over into many different subject areas and skilfully bring relevance to their issues.

Thinking without any preconditions , thinking of the totality of knowledge is a philosophical project across everything , there are not sub departments to thinking philosophically .

Thinking philosophically about economics only is an impossibility, you will only be thinking reflectively about this branch of knowledge.

Barry Smith is one of the authors of an excellent paper on the debilitated state of philosophy at present.


One of the problems is detachment from problems outside philosophy, not looking out the window as Pete would say.

Stanley Wong provided a paradigm case of how to do the philosophy of economics, he was smarter than most academics and he went off to become a senior partner in a law firm.


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