Foundations of Economic Evolution: A Treatise on the Natural Philosophy of Economics

By Ross, Don | Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Foundations of Economic Evolution: A Treatise on the Natural Philosophy of Economics


Ross, Don, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics


Review of Carsten Herrmann-Pillath's Foundations of economic evolution: a treatise on the natural philosophy of economics. Edward Elgar, 2013, 704 pp.

There is no settled view among economists about the place of their discipline in the general architecture of the sciences, but in their methodological remarks one finds two common ways of side-stepping the issue. Some, for example Edward Leamer (2012), maintain that economics is not a science, but is rather a craft aimed at policy engineering. Leamer directs his criticisms against a more traditional alternative, which defends the scientific credentials of economics, and at the same time distinguishes economics from other sciences, by reference to applications and extensions1 of a set of axioms descended from Paul Samuelson (1947). The discipline's most influential textbooks (such as Mas-Colell, et al. 1995), present economics according to the latter approach, which finds its logical apotheosis in the work of Bernt Stigum (1990). In this context it is straightforward to identify relationships between economics and similarly axiomatized domains of inquiry, such as the psychology of decision making, by comparing axiom sets. I refer to this philosophy as a way of avoiding substantive questions about interdisciplinary relationships because it displaces them by purely technical ones and, more importantly, because it renders by fiat all questions about the place of economics among those sciences that are not axiomatically structured implicitly ill-formed and therefore unanswerable. This point applies to the majority of behavioral and social sciences.

Since the demise of logical empiricism, few philosophers of science have supported the idea that the boundaries of empirical sciences can be literally identified with formal structures. This does not force us over to Leamer's view, because the dichotomy he assumes is too restrictive. It is possible to agree with him that economists are and should be practical in their focus and opportunistic in their use of sources of evidence, while nevertheless believing that economists have managed to collectively discover some theoretical generalizations about the structure of the social world. That is enough to motivate interest in how these generalizations can be true of the same world as claims in apparent tension with them that emerge from related disciplines such as sociology (Coleman 1990), demography (Clark 2009), cognitive science (Simon 1957; Clark 1997; Ross 2005; Kahneman 2011), neuroscience (Glimcher 2012), evolutionary psychology (Ofek 2001), the psychology of motivation and personality development (Schelling 1978, 1980; Ainslie 1992, 2001), ethology (Noë, et al. 2001), and the histories of technology (Ziman 2000; Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2012), business (Schumpeter [1911] 1982; Porter 1980, 1985; Ghemawat 1998) and political institutions (North 1990, 2005; Bates 2001; Grief 2006; Aligica and Boettke 2009). As noted, the formalist approach does not allow one to even begin to get purchase on most questions of this kind, though sometimes-as in Coleman (1990) and Glimcher (2012)-explicit implications for formal relationships are drawn from informal inductive reflection.

Once we get as far as asking whether it is worthwhile to explore pairwise relationships between economics and specific other disciplines, we can generalize this style of questioning to ask what, if anything, might be said about the place of economics in the overall architecture of systematic inquiry. There have been very few sustained investigations of this type. The investment required is considerable, as it demands broad and synaptic mastery of the history and philosophy of multiple fields of study; and the expected return is relatively meager, as even the minority of economists who find value in cross-disciplinary comparisons are often skeptical about the practical point of studies that necessarily cast their focus far from the empirical ground. Yet, for all that, the general question once raised is irresistible, even if only for late-night reflections with a glass of wine, to any economist who is self-conscious about her discipline's roots, limits, and future. …

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