Every generation gets the self-help book it deserves. From the nineteenth-century Marriage Manual to the more recent The 4-hour Work Week (2007), books have been telling us how to cope with life. The promises of these books were—and still are—based on new or recycled knowledge about psychology, health, and business, and on common sense advice cloaked in the rhetoric of revolutionary personal change. The writers of these books were also eager to jump on the bandwagon of new tools to organise information. Or so it seems from a book that I found with the intriguing title Kartothek des Ich: A card index of the self.
This contribution is the final post in the four-part blog series on the history of mathematics in economics. For the first post on Philip Mirowski’s account of Irving Fisher, which also introduces the series, click here. For the second post on Marcel Boumans’s study of Jan Tinbergen, click here. For the third post on E. Roy Weintraub’s treatment of Gerard Debreu, click here.
The pieces of the previous weeks discussed different views on the relation between physics and the mathematization of economics. In order, they discussed Philip Mirowski’s thesis that neoclassical economics wrongly and inadequately applied physical theories to the economic domain; Marcel Bouman’s description of the way in which Jan Tinbergen applied physical instruments to economic problems when these problems were structured in the right way; and E. Roy Weintraub’s treatment of Debreu, for whom mathematics was important but any connection with physics was avoided. This final contribution will try to draw lessons from these historical accounts. But first, let us resume what these different historical stories have to say about the relation between physics and economics, the nature of mathematics and the mathematization of economics in general.
This contribution is the third post in the four-part blog series on the history of mathematics in economics. For the first post on Philip Mirowski’s account of Irving Fisher, which also introduces the series, click here. For the second post on Marcel Boumans’s study of Jan Tinbergen, click here.
The previous contributions in the series have made you familiar with two stories in the history of mathematics in economics that reached radically different conclusions. For Philip Mirowski, the introduction of mathematics into 19th-century economics was the result of physics-envy: economists without a proper understanding of physical theory, but with a fascination for its rigidity, borrowed from physics without noticing that these theories did not work in the economic domain. Marcel Boumans, on the other hand, showed how Jan Tinbergen used tools from physics to clarify economic problems by restricting this transfer to domains where the structure of the problem was the same for both fields – and, consequently, without presupposing a substantive analogy between the two disciplines, as was the case for Fisher. This third instalment will introduce the third and final author on the final economist in our series, with E. Roy Weintraub’s discussion of Gerard Debreu (1921-2004).
This contribution is the second post in a four-part blog series on the history of mathematics in economics. For the first post, which also introduces the series, click here.
My previous contribution on Mirowski painted a grim picture of the role of mathematics in economics: Irving Fisher, one of the saints of neoclassical economics, had tried to apply physical methods and theories to economics because he thought there was a substantive analogy between the ontology of physics (particles, force, energy) and the ontology of economics (individuals, marginal utility, value). This translation was wrong, because Fisher did not understand the physical theories that he was invoking, and it was inadequate, because the physical theories that Fisher pressed on economic problems simply did not fit that domain. A different perspective on the use of physical analogies in economics is defended by Marcel Boumans (1993) in his treatment of the exchange between physicist Paul Ehrenfest and economist-to-be Jan Tinbergen. According to Boumans, this case is an example of ‘formal analogies’: Tinbergen drew on physics for his innovative macro-economic models because some aspects of the mathematical form of physical and economic systems were similar, not because of any underlying substantive analogy between the subject matters.
As the dust settles in the aftermath of the economic crisis, we are left to contemplate the nature of the shock that hit us in 2008. Much of the initial debate concerned the ethics of the financial sector: many of the world’s most powerful institutions had been at best naïve and at worst thoroughly perverted by greed, cultivating an incentive system that stimulated risk-seeking behavior in general and the development of increasingly complex and intractable financial products in particular. It was during the public trial of the Wolf of Wall Street, by pundits and politicians alike, that the scope of the public debate gradually broadened to include other suspects. One of those suspects has proven to be particularly elusive: the science of economics itself.
By Ivan Flis
Every scientific discipline has its famous experiments. The case is no different for psychology. In the company of famous psychological experiments, one study is often mentioned as the fulcrum of the behaviorist revolution of American psychology – the story of a little boy named Albert and the attempt to teach him fear.
By Hans Schouwenburg
In a previous article I showed how fraternity students in the Utrecht University Library use phallic symbols to define their mutual identity vis-à-vis other groups. This time, I will look at the researchers who have studied toilet graffiti. I will review four pioneering studies on the subject that were published in the decades just before and after World War II by a recalcitrant etymologist, a famous group of sexologists, an informal seminar at Northwestern University, and a Freudian folklorist respectively. At the end of the 1960s these publications culminated in a true graffiti mania in the social sciences. In themselves they provide four interesting sources about ground-breaking research into dirty topics during a time when such things were strictly taboo.
By Hans Schouwenburg
Until its renovation in 2010, the former Arts and Humanities Library of Utrecht University (Letterenbibliotheek) housed a rather unusual treasure. It was not a rare book, incunabulum, or any other peculiar curiosity from the special collections. Nor was it proudly displayed in a cabinet or carefully stored on a bookshelf. In fact, although all too well known to many, this particular historical source frequently remained unnoticed to the library’s visitors. In order to admire it one needed to walk quite a long way to the study booths on the third floor.