Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

David Hume's Model of Man: Classical Political Economy as "Inspired" Political Economy

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

David Hume's Model of Man: Classical Political Economy as "Inspired" Political Economy

Article excerpt

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to analyse David Hume's model of man. We show that three major elements characterize his representation of man: first the weaknesses and limitations of human rationality; second, the psychological foundations of human behaviour, with a particular focus on the role of association in human cognition; and third, the collective dimension of individual learning through a process of communication based on sympathy. Therefore, we show that the theory of human nature and human cognition Hume proposes is different from the narrow view of man as homo aeconomicus that is used by mainstream economists.

Keywords: Hume, associationist psychology, cognition, sympathy, homo aeconomicus

INTRODUCTION

The model of man upon which economics rests is frequently criticized or, at least, questioned. Recently, the debates were revived by the experiments made by psychologists and economists (1) that in effect suggest that human beings do not behave rationally and act only out of egoist motives. The various behavioural anomalies and irrational behaviours thereby revealed seem to imply the necessity "to go beyond homo aeconomicus" (Anderson 2000) and to move from "homo aeconomicus to homo sapiens" (Thaler 2000). Furthermore, such an evolution requires that economics should be "inspired" by other discipline, in particular by psychology (see Frey and Stutzer 2001; Frey and Benz 2004).

From an historical perspective, similar debates have always existed. Indeed, many past economists have already stressed that human beings do not follow the assumptions of economic theory and insisted on the limitations and weaknesses of the standard model of economic man. Thorstein Veblen, Carl Menger and even Friedrich Hayek, or G.L.S. Shackle and Herbert Simon are, among others, quoted as important predecessors from the perspective of a more refined conception of human beings. However, reference is rarely made to the founders of political economy and the theory of human nature or the model of man David Hume and Adam Smith developed. To some extent, this should come as no surprise: the founders of the discipline should not have been expected to have proposed a model of man different from that used by modern economists. More surprisingly, even Austrian economists, consistent critics of the neo-classical model of man (see for instance Boettke et al. 2003), who claim that the theoretical tradition they defend goes back to Smith and Hume, rarely discuss the theory of human nature of the economists and philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment (see, however, Horwitz 2000, 2001).

It nonetheless remains the case that the model of man proposed by the founders of political economy--in this paper, we specifically focus on David Hume--is closer to conceptions of man as homo sapiens than to the narrower view of man as homo aeconomicus used by neo-classical economists. This is the underlying argument developed in this paper. Accordingly, we discuss the theory of human cognition proposed by Hume and emphasize the three major aspects of his model of man. We show that Hume first stresses the weaknesses and limitations of human rationality (section 2); second, he insists on the psychological foundations of human behaviour, with a particular focus on the role of association in human cognition (section 3); and third, he stresses the collective dimension of individual learning through a process of communication based on sympathy (section 4). In other words, Hume's model of man differs from the model of man used by modern economists--and even by modern or new political economists. Thus 200 years of research have carried the discipline away from its foundations, and the need to move from homo aeconomicus to homo sapiens may well be a movement back to the origins of political economy, rather than a move away from economics.

Hume on Human Rationality and Subjectivism

Economists frequently quote the Scottish founders of political economy as representatives of 18th century rationalism. …

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