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A Monolithic Perspective on Economic Methodology

Victor Aguilar

posted on 14 November 2013

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“Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices?  Mainstream economic models have been discredited.  But why aren't political scientists and sociologists offering an alternative view?” asks Aditya Chakrabortty.


Answer:  because the pluralists banned the axiomatic method.  The Journal of Philosophical Economics declares in their mission statement, “This journal eschews monolithic perspectives and seeks innovative work that is intellectually pluralist.”


So, instead of a real, all-encompassing economic theory, we get conferences that “devote as much time to discussing the holistic massage industry (‘using a Foucauldian lens’) as to analyzing financiers.”


I would like to start a discussion on these topics:


  1. Is there any difference between the methodology of mathematics and physics?


  1. Who the hell is Bourbaki?  Does anybody care?


  1. Who the hell is Debreu?  Does anybody care?


Let us consider these questions in turn:


  1. Nicola Giocoli denounces “economists’ decision to pursue the mathematicians’, rather than the physicists’, route.”  The way he talks, you would think that mathematicians and physicists spit at each other as they pass in hallways, so venomous is their methodological debate.  Yet I have studied both subjects in depth and I do not recall any conflict.  This paper includes several examples of the work of physicists that fly in the face of Giocoli’s thesis.


If Euclid and Newton were resurrected and put in the same room with each other, would there be any dispute between these two founders over method?  Are Newton’s laws of motion not an axiomatic system in the same spirit as Euclid’s geometry?


I call bullshit on the idea that there is any difference between the methodology of mathematics and physics!


  1. I have a degree in mathematics and, while I remember hearing my professors mention the name Hilbert, I am sure that I have never heard any mathematician mention Bourbaki.  It was only after I published my book, Axiomatic Theory of Economics, that I heard the name Bourbaki, and then only from economists.  With spittle flying, they would accuse me of being a follower of this person/committee or whatever the hell it is.  I was like, “Who?”


I call bullshit on the idea that Bourbaki is anything but a whipping boy for economists! 


  1. I minored in economics (1992) and yet I am sure that I never once heard the name Debreu.  It was only after I published my book in 1999 that I heard of Debreu and was accused of being a follower of this guy, who apparently published something or other in 1959, forty years earlier.  I was told that he personifies mainstream economics.  I was like, “What does the word mainstream mean if it is possible to get a minor in the subject without having ever heard of the man?”


I call bullshit on the idea that Debreu represents mainstream economics!


It is a rite of passage for mainstream economists (in the literal sense of the word; e.g. the 99% majority) to dig up Debreu’s moldering corpse and stick yet another knife in its skeletal ribs.  Giocoli should get a Nebula Award for his use of the header, “Beware the Underdog.”  Yet he is actually a moderate.  Giocoli writes:


With the benefit of hindsight, can we be so sure that our old pal Boccardo would have placed Hilbert in his black list of the supporters of a purely formal view of mathematics in the social sciences?


Deirdre McCloskey is furious that Giocoli made this concession to Hilbert, as she would blacklist anybody who employs the axiomatic method, regardless of whether they cite Hilbert or Bourbaki.  Indeed, it matters not to her what their axioms are; consistency/inconsistency proofs are beyond her ken and, anyway, it is the method that she despises.


Slaying a straw man, turning “I hate math” into a philosophy and calling a 99% majority “underdogs” is really all that economists have accomplished in the last thirty years.  How sad.