Descartes the Mechanic
The standpoint of economic theory is Cartesian.
These are the roots of the homo oeconomicus,
as narrow a concept of man as can be imagined …
Myths, faith, and religious teachings were thus far a determining key for explaining the surrounding world, including its “economic” characteristics. The arrival of the scientific era brought changes with it (or, as we will later see, should have brought changes). The era of scientific thought set a goal of pushing through a method of examining the world that would not allow doubt and would be free of any subjective, disputable dimension. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the modern era has been the change in emphasis from the question why? to the question how? This shift is, so to speak, from essence to method. The scientific era has tried to demystify the world around us, to present it in mechanical, mathematical, deterministic, and rational garments and to get rid of axioms that cannot be empirically confirmed, such as faith and religion. But alas, even in the dimension of how? the world around us to this day certainly keeps its secrets—and needs faith and belief to function.
While economics is classified as a social science, it relies the most (mainly mainstream economics) on a mechanical, mathematical, deterministic, and rational world. Thus, it is important to give appropriate attention to this tectonic maneuver. Understanding of the ideas of René Descartes has crucial importance for economists who consider these things, because “an economic position is Cartesian.” 1
Descartes’s scientific approach to perceiving the world unquestionably represented a huge breakthrough, and this is doubly true for economists. We have seen that the notion of the invisible hand of the market existed long before Smith. Homo economicus has gained his (a)moral side from
1 Mini, Philosophy and Economics, 24.