The Tale of Three Universalisms, or How Mainstream Economics Meets Analytical Philosophy, They Both Roll Up Sleeves and Get to Work

Some time ago, in a conversation, a colleague of mine referred to John McCumber’s book «Time in the Ditch» and I saw the reference to the same book in Roy Weintraub’s recent text on McCarthyism and the mathematization of economics. This coincidence – and the fact that I had known McCumber before as an important Hegel scholar – made me look more closely at the topic I’ve been brooding about since quite a while. Yes, we know, after the work of Phil Mirowski and Sonja Amadae, that Cold war mattered for American economics in pushing it closer to the ideal of a ‘hard science.’ Well, somehow, almost simultaneously, in the beginning of the 2000s, McCumber told us that American philosophy had also been made more scientific in response to Cold war challenges. My claim here does not bear directly on Weintraub’s argument (that the influence of McCarthyism on the research practices of economists has been exaggerated and is not really supported by the evidence), but rather invites to reflect on the more general affinities between mainstream economics and analytical philosophy prompted by this historical research.

The analogies (noted once to me by Eric Schliesser and, as far as I know, never really thematized – but I would be most grateful for any references) do matter for me both historically (as parallels in what was happening in – largely Anglo-American – philosophy and economics in the last century) and systematically (in teaching us what kind of knowledge mainstream economics and analytical philosophy were and, to some extent, continue to be).

Meanwhile, along with and after McCumber’s book, a number of important studies emerged – such as Steve Fuller’s portrayal of Thomas Kuhn as a Cold warrior; George Reisch’s analysis of the formalization happening in the postwar American philosophy of science; or Joel Isaac’s detailed and fascinating story of Donald Davidson’s entanglement with Patrick Suppes and other economists and decision theorists. Philosophy, along with behavioral sciences, economics, and operations research, has thus taken its place in the thick historical narratives documenting the shift to a more applied (but not pragmatist!) and, at the same time, more formalized, rule-based, algorithmically oriented kind of knowledge. This shift involved, among many other things, the move away from humanities (broadly conceived) in search for transparent and universally comparable knowledge regime following a ‘tool shock’ (Isaac, again).

Now, is there any sense in juxtaposing analytical philosophy and mainstream economics? Apart from some obvious thematic overlaps – such as, in the case of Davidson and Suppes, value and action theory – there are general aspects worth thinking about. I would tentatively call them three universalisms and I’d abstain, on purpose, from any strict separation between internalist and externalist perspectives. Of course one can find a lot, a lot of counterexamples, but what I sketch here are just general tendencies, to be beaten only by equally general and more plausible ones. It’s not a comprehensive history, it’s a perspective that might help illuminate the history and sociology of the economics and philosophy professions.

The first kind of universalism is fairly obvious: both disciplines value universal knowledge, they clearly prefer generalizations over historical situatedness, abstraction over the entanglement into cultural contexts, and formalized reproducible truths supported by the hard data over the relativisms of interpretation. One could elaborate, but I’d just leave it here.

The second universalism is mostly rhetorical, and perhaps could be found in other disciplines, too. It consists in colonizing the words and continuously reproducing the pars pro toto trope, with certain type of economics suddenly becoming the whole of economics, with certain type of philosophy suddenly representing the whole of philosophy (even Isaac could not avoid this), and with an extremely tough and protective boundary work (see, e.g., Tiago’s important paper on that).

The third universalism consists in a democratic and inclusive nature of both communities. We know it can be a spurious effect, we know that status and prestige play a role everywhere in the academia, and still, in contrast with heterodoxy and continental philosophy very much centered around ‘big’ figures, dead or alive, we cannot ignore the salience of the collective and collaborative nature of the profession on the other side (just think of the increasing population of Daron Acemoglu’s co-authors). In mainstream economics and analytical philosophy, the thinkers and poetic geniuses make way ‘to humble, competent people, on a level with dentists,’ most problems are technical, and the solutions are near at hand. But this makes any exception, any unusual constellation, any identity shift even more interesting, both sociologically and in terms of intellectual history.


2 thoughts on “The Tale of Three Universalisms, or How Mainstream Economics Meets Analytical Philosophy, They Both Roll Up Sleeves and Get to Work

  1. Awesome post. I have been thinking about the historical links between economics and philosophy a lot lately, coming from a different angle, namely, Richard Tuck’s history of modern political philosophy (chapter 3 of this book ) . He essentially argued that philosophers and political scientists alike have been characteristically unable to provide big work in political philosophy between 1870 and 1970, because economists have hijacked this expertise. And they did so by developing formalized and seemingly universal ethical principles, namely the impossibility of interpersonal comparisons and the reliance upon Pareto optima to judge alternative social organizations and policies.
    Quote Tuck: “nevertheless, the universality of the principles on which they were basing their subject encouraged late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century economists, and their admiring colleagues in the schools of political and social science, to suppose that it was now possible to talk about an ‘objective science’ of man. Philosophers and political scientists reclaimed their expertise at the turn of the 1970s because:

    1) economists’principles began to appear as less universal, in particular because they had recognized that “it is necessary in a modern society for citizens to make decisions about the moral basis of public policy,” but failed to provide “objective” mechanisms whereby individual values could be aggregated into a social preference

    2) because, equipped by the language of analytical philosophy, Rawls managed to provide a new framework for political philosophy

    3) and paradoxically, because the likes of Skinner and Dunn provided powerful critique of the idea that political thought could yield universal and a-historical principles

    I was advised to read that paper as I was finishing JB and I’s research on the history of collective decision. We had showed a rise, then a marginalization of economists’ interests in collective decision from the 1980s onward, but we couldn’t explain the latter. Tuck seemed to offer an explanation (philosophers and political scientists learning the language of economists and reclaiming their expertise – game theory may have played a role in that too). But the more I thought about it, the less I found it convincing. I felt it was extremely unlikely that philosophers had bowed to economists’ ideas for a century without any reaction. I began searching for histories of the ties between the 2 communities, but was left with only questions. There is a lot of literature that compares the epistemological foundations of both disciplines, but making Tuck’s claim requires a serious knowledge of the historical relationships between various stripes of economiSTS and philosophERS, a history of flesh and identities rather than a history of ideas. Joel Isaac’s story of Davidson and Suppes is a great beginning, but we would need a more systematic account.

    If your ideas about the three universalisms are true, then it is doubtful that economics has managed to supersede a branch of philosophy during a century or so. Or, maybe philosophers’ identity is less centered on a “core” than economics was in the postwar? Tuck suggests that the development of analytical philosophy and some kind of historicist reaction were concomitant. And continental post-structuralism has to be fitted into the picture as well, which suggests that a huge difference between the two disciplines might be internationalization (with economics more unified worldwide and philosophy still divided?) Hell, I really don’t know enough about the history of the disciplinary identity of philosophers to say. Any references?

    Also, it is not clear whether the development of analytical philosophy made economists and philosophers collaborators (as in social choice) or competitors.

    1. Thank you!! Well, on the whole I would say that even in that change the disciplines were close: mainstream began to open up a bit, and hardcore analytic philosophers started to embrace pragmatism (I think of John McDowell or Hilary Putnam) or get interested in historical and political questions (one could even compare Rawls 1971 with Rawls 1993 to see that) and in many, many other things. Internationalization was also an issue in both cases, it would be helpful and instructive to compare how both disciplines made their way in Europe, and the struggles are still around, while the fighters on the both sides are already quite different from what they were before. So, perhaps philosophers did not just take over the topic, they had their own traditions of dealing with it – as they do have their traditions of dealing with game theory.

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