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.


The octopus

The debate that began in the comment box has now moved to Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles. I confess that I misjudged this affair. I thought I could jest with DeLong and I now get my comeupings, a good post by him but prefaced by a sort of character assassination that extracts the first two items of our discussion but forgets to pick up the other two (where in my humble opinion I look a bit better… and make clear my motivation is not “protecting my turf” it is calling for better scholarship). And now a lot of angry folks coming over to visit this blog ready to trash at our poor academic ethics.

I think DeLong has been very thoughtful and I relish the chance to answer him. This is not the first time that I read him on the topic. In 2008, I had noted his retelling of formative experiences with the history of economics, and the new post echoes the earlier one.

DeLong’s critique is that an historian should never dismiss the possibility that Adam Smith was offering a composite of economics, psychology and philosophy, and take a priori the alternative claim that Smith’s writings are part of that much broader unity Foucault called Episteme. I don’t see in DeLong’s post a fleshed out the argument about why one should opt for the Janus faced reading. There are a few clues, he rejects my reading as “fastpaced” (and we know “fast is bad”) and the double reading is well, twice a “fastpaced” one. On recall of his earlier 2005 post on the Episteme, I imagine that DeLong is suggesting a test on the episteme thesis. Or perhaps he is just setting up a more layered, plural set of readings, “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I think this is all reasonable.

But what if I don’t want to test the episteme? What if the history of economics is not even about “reading” and nailing down an interpretation?

DeLong’s emphasis is on “reading”, but historians of economics can do about other things too, with other records, with other questions. (As Vivienne Brown has long noted, there is an abuse of the canon in projecting upon Smith the problems of today’s social science. To no other author in economics does this happen as much as for Smith, the poor guy is cited for all kinds of conflicting purposes.) I am no Smithisian scholar, I write on the history of economics post-1945, but I have been privileged to teach the topic. In that setting I have come across some of the Smith literature, extensive as it is. Given that the subject of the working paper that started this all was the place of the economist in society (the worldly philosopher) I would have thought that a more fruitful approach would be to escape the tired debate about where Smith fits in the disciplinary grid. Is he a psychologist? A philosopher? An economist? What a tangle that is, particularly if the authors that argue that moral philosophy was then understood as part and parcel of natural philosophy are right (vide Schabas, vide New Voices), in that sense he would be a physicist too…

And does it get one anywhere? I think an historian of economics approaching this topic might do better by asking what work Smith’s text did in his society. What contexts nurtured its production and what debates it fortified and participated in? Why then not recognize that there is a whole school of political thought, the Cambridge School, Quentin Skinner, Emma Rothschild, and others that have approached Smith from the perspective of political history and seen how this work fits the pre-revolutionary debates of the Enlightenment. (This work, to which Tribe is somewhat associated too, runs into the 19th century in the work of Donald Winch, into the 20th century (this time without economists) with Stephan Collini). What made me cringe is that to look at the disciplinary grid is so far away from the issues and from an understanding of what history can contribute to the question posed.

The same is true of my other complaint that is missing from the re-posting. A reference in the Shiller’s text to the Baltimore Sun as record of the professionalization of economics. This seems to trivialize how momentous the academicization or professionalization of economics was… I would suggest the work of Mary Furner, Robert (Bob) Coats, Dorothy Ross, Ted Porter, Tim Leonard among others that have written about the Progressive Era and its formative influence on the American social sciences? And on the general topic of the profession how about reading the work of the Berkeley sociologist Marion Fourcade.

I don’t want to be writing down a reading list here, it seems inappropriate for this medium. The Shillers’ intuition that history matters for the subjects they raise is absolutely correct. Maybe they can write this history, but in the working paper they are far from it.

Inspiration from the past

Wandering the streets of New York I found myself at a street-side book vendor, and in picking up the Letters of the Younger Pliny I found a wonderful sentiment in the introductory quotation:

Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives.
-Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn on 29 June 1784

I add to that, two definitions  from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906), which constitute my second purchase of the day:

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

Tweeting and digital humanities

I had a twitter account for long. After faint hearted attempts at tweeting (“Going for lunch”, “Really appreciated my week-end in Paris”), I just gave up. What is this service for?

Developing an interest in digital humanities changed my opinion. It is not quite a field yet: I am not aware of established journals devoted to digital humanities, or of international societies with annual meetings. But it is certainly a community of interest. The trouble for this community is that they come from widely different backgrounds: history, demography, philology, but also machine learning and software developing, to mention just a few. How do they get to know and learn from each other?

Twitter happens to be a very convenient space for this purpose. It is commonly used by computing scientists, who tweet furiously about their ideas, results, and the events they organize. And some social scientists started participating in the discussion. They are very few for now, but the principle of twitter is that each “tweet” can quote links and keywords which can then be followed (and re-tweeted, etc.) So that their voices are amplified, and at the end one gets quite a broad view of social sciences in the digital humanities.


For instance, what triggered the writing of this post was reading a fascinating blog post by a Princeton scholar on the design of databases for historians, which I discovered by following a link on twitter ( The point I want to make is that, instead of following the work of this Princeton guy in particular (even if in this case that might be a good idea!), it might be actually a better idea to use twitter and take advantage of its “echo chamber” effect, which will bring you a view on his work when he gets referred in links, and a much vaster view of the digital humanities in general by simply tracking a few keywords and individuals.

If you are tempted, here are a few of my favorites to follow on twitter:

#nltk (for textual analysis)
#sna (for social network analysis)
@jonathantray (a professional journalist and a computer scientist, works now for AP, the news agency)
@wmijnhardt (an exec at my univ, tweets a lot about science management)

He does not tweet, but gets cited a lot in the chatter: Elijah Meeks from Stanford – another fine scholar in the digital humanities.

Happy tweets!



[EDIT: again following a link on twitter, I found this contribution by Anthony Grafton, worrying about the conspicuous absence of historians in one large Harvard history project in digital humanities (“culturomics“):]

Time for historians to make a move!]

The wrong SHOE

From PJ O'Rourke, Eat The Rich, p. 110

A few weeks ago, one contributor to the SHOE (Societies for the History of Economics) list asked a seemingly simple question: “Why did Marshall reverse the axes?”. In economics, indeed, supply and demand curves for a given commodity are usually drawn with prices on the vertical axis and quantities on the horizontal one. It may seem quite puzzling to undergraduate students who cannot understand why they do so, whereas prices are generally considered the independent variable and thus, according to standard practices in graphical representation at least, should be drawn on the abscissa. As another contributor quickly pointed out, the more common answer to this question is given in Mark Blaug and Peter John Lloyd’s Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics: Marshall used to draw his demand and supply schedules this way because he considered price to be the dependent variable. As most early 20th century English-speaking economists got their economics from Marshall’s Principles, they followed this tradition, even though they rather took prices as the independent variable.

The answer, as Roger Backhouse cleverly notes, is not completely satisfying from a historical point of view, even though it may hold as a methodological explanation. A historical understanding of why Marshall reversed the axes should explore the way he and his contemporary fellow economists considered the place of geometry in mathematics, the way markets operated and more generally how they regarded the status of economics as a field. Though there might not be simple and direct answers to all these questions, one can find useful elements in the existing literature on Marshall, such as Peter Groenewegen‘s or Simon Cook‘s books.

Other contributors to the SHOE list do not seem more satisfied with Blaug and Lloyd’s answer than Roger but their reasons are diametrically opposed. One scholar, for instance, complains that common explanations refer to “tradition” or “precedent” and think there should be a more “penetrating” answer. But what is history about if it is not about the construction and persistence of  “traditions”? What is a historical explanation if it does not deal with “precedent”? Instead, most SHOE list members who contributed to the topic pursued, message after message, a non-historical line of inquiry. For them, there should be an ontological explanation to Marshall’s reversing of the axes: in other words, the answer should lie in the ‘very nature’ of supply and demand itself and of the mathematical equations that underlie their graphical representation. This is of course wrong from a historical point of view but it is also misleading because it offers a poor view of how visual representations operate. Sociologist of science Bruno Latour has argued, for instance, that two-dimensional representations are useful because they are both immutable and recombinable. We can manipulate them, superimpose them, even though they have different origins and scales. We can even merge them with geometry and use tools upon them – though we cannot measure the sun, we can measure a picture of the sun. The consequence of this is that we cannot reduce graphs to mathematical equations. Supply and demand graphs are not only visual representations of preexisting mathematical equations, they are artifacts that can be used subsequently to produce or spread economic knowledge. This is what economists do when they construct Edgeworth boxes or multiple quadrant diagrams – who complains about “axes reversing” in that case?

Furthermore, in the particular case of Marshall and his contemporaries, the idea that graphical analysis is separate from mathematics is obvious. As Judy Klein correctly pointed out:

According to Marshall, the method of diagrams should be seen as separate from the method of mathematical analysis. By the 1870s, graphs were not substitutes of equations or tables pegged, with apology at the end of a work for the mathematically illiterate; they were tools for exploring and describing phenomena that could not easily be captured by algebra, calculus or words.*

Therefore, it is an anachronism to want to explain Marshall’s use of supply and demand graphs by referring to the equations of supply and demand functions which we are used to think of as premises of these visual representations but which in fact were not viewed as such by Marshall and the likes at that time.

It is quite puzzling – and even saddening – to observe that people who deem themselves ‘historians’ of economics and as such contribute to a ‘history’ of economics list systematically choose to bypass the historian’s toolbox in their discussions.

* Klein, Judy L. (1995) The method of diagrams and the black arts of inductive economics. In Rima Ingrid (ed.) Measurement, Quantification and Economic Analysis. London, UK : Routledge, p. 113.

The impossible art of oral history

Throughout my PhD years, I have consistently avoided conducting interviews. The reason I was giving was that my protagonists were either too dead or had already given too many interviews so that nothing new would emerge from an additional one, and anyway, what was the point of asking economists about their “worldview”? The true reason was that I was totally freaked out by the sole prospect of having to seat in front of a figure of the past, ask a few questions carefully crafted and wait for them to jump in.

When I began to work on MIT, it quickly became clear that this time I would have to face the necessities of oral history. While several of my narrative’s protagonists have been interviewed over and over, they had very scarcely been confronted with questions dealing with their home institution, with the daily organization of research, with the design of curricula, with recruitment, etc.

To overcome my apprehension, I set out to read, listen, and watch economists’ interviews. But historically oriented interviews are not so common. And the bulk aims at getting information on such and such contribution of the interviewee, or on his contribution to such and such school of thought. Only the list of questions prepared by Ross Emmett for his Chicago Oral history project echoed my intent to catch the daily humming and diffuse zeitgeist of an institution. And unfortunately, neither the audio/video files nor the transcripts are publicly available to date.

Then, I questioned those of my young fellows who were seasoned veterans of oral history, and who even unbelievably seemed to take pleasure at such ventures. Questions on the first contact, the unfolding of the interviews, the kind of questions to ask, the traps to be avoided, the different techniques for face to face interviews and email requests.

Their responses consistently stressed the importance of having the least possible influence/ imprint on the researcher interviewed, whether in the initial message sent, the attitude adopted, the open and scarce questions asked, the lack of comments made about the economist’ responses during the interview. It seemed important that the interviewee knew the least possible about our projects, our frameworks, the historical narrative we wanted to supplement or challenge. And of course, oral history was much much preferred to written contacts, even if I had to wait months or years for an encounter. These advice did nothing to soothe my fear and left me with a feeling of uneasiness, although I could not pinpoint its underlying cause.


Then, I screwed up my first interview. Because of an unexpected encounter with my “target” that I discovered would not be subsequently available, I had to ask unprepared questions without any record device and “over the counter,” or rather over a plate of cheese and pasta with two hundreds persons and a pianist filling the background with laughters, murmurs and worn out jazz standards. My questions lacked the most basic diplomatic veneer (So black and glossy/ On my word, sir,/
With voice to match/ You were a bird, sir/
Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days….), and anyway I couldn’t even hear half of the responses.

The following week, my brand new -and still unused- recorder got stolen from my suitcase during my hectic trip back to Europe. A sign, for sure.

These trials and tribulations at least brought the reason for my uneasiness to the fore. The underlying thread of all the tips I received was that the economists interviewed should truly be considered as objects of study. But I did not see them as objects, I saw them as witnesses. As partners. I did not want to hide my intentions, my research, at least not in the second part of the interviews. In case I wouldn’t get substantive answers to my questions, I wanted to be able to confront the interviewee with his history, to put the copy of a 1957 letter from Solow to Fisher on the table and tell him : here’s what he (you?) was writing at that time. I wanted to be able to say “Emmett has shown in recent research that the workshop system was essential in building a common intellectual ground for the Chicago School, what about MIT ?”, and I wanted to be able to consider the response (in this case “Workshop only came late to MIT because Samuelson was opposed to them. He thought the worskhop system was the end of economic generalists”) worthy of consideration, even if biased. And they were telling me I shouldn’t.

Now I’m sitting at my desk, gloomily looking at the stack in front of me: the oral history reader, a book on the voices of the past, a few articles (list in Mata and Lee 2007). I wonder whether after swallowing these hundred pages with like a bottle of Lagavulin, to give me courage, after buying a new recorder and giving a first set of interviews, I’ll be back into the ranks of wisdom, I’ll agree with them. And from time to time, the possibility that the situation is even worse crosses my mind. Maybe deep down I don’t consider the interviewee as a witness, but as a suspect? In this case, will this literature and a baptism of fire will make me a good cop, will turn the Harry Bosch in me into an Adamsberg?


Politics as History of Economics

Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.

But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.

Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….