Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

In Defense of Herbert Spencer

July 10, 2013


by Mario Rizzo

This my letter as it appears in today’s Financial Times (July 10, 2013):

Sir, John Kay (“Darwin’s  humbling lesson for business”, July 3) makes good points about evolutionary  theory and the social sciences. But he is wrong about Herbert Spencer, the noted  English philosopher and evolutionist. Spencer was not a Darwinist of any kind  nor an advocate of eugenics. He had his own theory of evolution that predates  Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species by a few years.  Spencer was broadly speaking a Lamarckian.

In other words, he believed in the heritability of acquired characteristics.  He further believed that a free market would produce a discipline on individual  actions that would, at once, make them more efficient and more moral. Since  these traits could be passed on to future generations, there was no need for  eugenics.

The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences

August 31, 2012

by Gene Callahan

Let’s take social science broadly, in the sense of German wissenschaft, so that The Republic and Politics and The Social Contract are social science. (I would contend that they are, in fact, often much more scientific than the latest regression study of how detergent use correlates with the suicide rate.)

So what, then, are the most important ideas ever put forward in social science? I’m not asking what are the best ideas, so the truth of them is only obliquely relevant: a very important idea may be largely false. (I think it still must contain some germ of truth, or it would have no plausibility.) Think of it this way: if you were teaching a course called “The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences,” what would you want to make sure you included?

Here’s my preliminary list. What have I left off? What have I mistakenly included? Read the rest of this entry »

The Limits of Bayesian Inference

July 26, 2012

by Gene Callahan

Dan Klein’s Knowledge and Coordination has something interesting to say about Bayesian inference, although he never explicitly addresses that topic. Consider the following:

Here, we have the distinction between responding to the realization of events within a framework of recognized variables and relationships and the discovery of a fresh opportunity to embrace a new and better framework or interpretation. This element of epiphany, of finding fortune by interpreting the world differently, is the subtle and vital element in human decision making. Yet, it is absent from equilibrium model building. In equilibrium stories, agents never have a “light bulb” moment… (p. 13)

Kirzner’s alertness is the individual’s re-interpretation of that world [of a world of already-interpreted "facts"]. (p. 14)

“Equilibrium” is meaningful only in reference to a specified model… (p. 28)

Bayesian inference, similar to equilibrium theorizing, works within a fixed frame of interpretation: it “is meaningful only in reference to a specified model.” It cannot extend across instances when a new interpretive framework takes the place of the old. Read the rest of this entry »

“Rationality” isn’t always Rational

February 2, 2012

by Mario Rizzo

Over the past two years I have been reading more than I ever dreamed about rationality in economics, especially in the standard neoclassical theory of choice. I have done this because I want to get at the root of the controversies concerning whether people’s behavior is, in particular contexts, rational or not.  Claims about the rationality of individual behavior are very closely linked to important policy questions about state paternalism. The highly abstract is working its way down the line to practical policy issues.

In all of this I am well-aware of the argument that “rationality” is the result of market processes and of decisionmaking institutions. I have nothing per se against this line of reasoning. Nevertheless, I want to approach the issue on the terms espoused by many choice theorists and behavioral economists themselves. This is the idea that the axioms of rational choice have a normative importance in and of themselves. By and large, behavioral economists accept the normativity of standard rational choice even as they reject the descriptive reality of rational choice.

The funny thing about all of this is that, initially, the axioms of rational choice were supposed to shed light on how people actually made choices. Then a sleight of hand occurred. It was claimed that they shed light on how rational individuals would choose – without addressing the issue of whether people were in fact rational in the sense of the axioms. Finally, it was alleged – in the face of empirical evidence that people often did not choose rationally – that the axioms defined the norms of choice. They told us how rational individuals should choose. More than that. Since being rational is taken as “good,” they show us how people should behave – full stop. Read the rest of this entry »

Generalizations in the Social Sciences

April 1, 2011

by Gene Callahan

On his blog, Daniel Kuehn notes that “relations in economies are not stable.” In fact, we can go further:  Relations in the social sciences are not stable. As an illustration, consider Zipf’s Law as applied to city size.

In 1700, London had about 575,000 people. According to Zipf’s Law, the next-sized city should have had about 280,000 or 290,000 thousand. What was the actual size of the second largest city? As far as I can determine, it was Norwich, with a population of about 30,000. (My source for the population figures is 1688: The First Modern Revolution.) Zipf’s “Law” is off by a factor of about ten in this instance.

What I suspect is that there is some historical circumstance that leads to Zipf’s Law applying to city size in recent centuries, which was not present in 1700. As political scientist Terry Nardin put it: “Generalizations about how people usually behave are not scientific generalizations about a truly time-independent class of phenomena; they are more or less well-disguised descriptions of customs specific to a particular historical situation.”

Risky Behavior at Wittenberg

March 21, 2011

by Chidem Kurdas

Watching Wittenberg at the Pearl Theater in New York took a group of us back to our graduate school days. This is a surprisingly entertaining comedy, creating merriment out of a mash of classical characters, modern themes and serious philosophy.

The year is 1517.  Two academics at Wittenberg University, Martin Luther and John Faustus, are more or less cordial colleagues but intellectual antagonists.

Both are dissatisfied. Dr. Faustus holds four graduate degrees – in medicine, law, philosophy and theology – but has found all this knowledge lacking. On top of that, the woman he loves leaves him.  Father Luther detests the Church’s selling of indulgences but feels he can’t do anything about it. Their star pupil, a Danish prince named Hamlet, is confused. Read the rest of this entry »

Further Thoughts on The Sensory Order

December 4, 2010

by Roger Koppl

Over at Austrian Addiction, Dan D’Amico responds to my recent post on The Sensory Order.  Dan wants to know “what Hayek’s theory of neuorscience is really adding here that a more basic understanding of subjective preferences does not already imply?”  Dan is not the only one with this question.  I think enthusiasts for The Sensory Order have given pretty good answers to Dan’s question, but it seems clear that we need to do a better job. Read the rest of this entry »

When Good Historians Go Bad

October 15, 2010

by Gene Callahan

I had posted about something that Thomas Sowell wrote on the history of economic thought over at my other blog, and received a comment to the effect that, “You can’t trust Sowell on history: he thinks that England conquered Scotland!” (Rather than the two nations having joined together in a union.)

This comment both illustrates an important misconception as well as highlights an important distinction. The misconception is that someone is a good historian if they know lots of “facts” about history, and rarely get anything wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

The Method of History

September 24, 2010

by Gene Callahan

I’m currently reading Bryan Sykes excellent book, The Seven Daughters of Eve. Well, excellently written, and, I have to assume, excellent on the genetics. But there are a couple of fundamental misunderstandings of history present in the book, that I think are worth noting, because of the frequency with which people believe them.

The first such error is that Sykes keeps referring to “prehistory,” “recorded history,” “the beginnings of history,” and so forth. These phrases are symptomatic of the error, exploded decades ago by Collingwood, that there is something especially “historical” about written records, that they represent the “recording” of history by those “witnessing” it, and that, in their absence, we only have some fuzzy “prehistory” with which to deal. Read the rest of this entry »

Just the “Basic Facts,” Mam

August 23, 2010

by Gene Callahan

I was recently in a conversation with a very bright economist who declared “We are in agreement about the basic historical facts here; we are just interpreting them differently.”

This is a common but very damaging misunderstanding of historical knowledge: that there are a set of “basic facts” that historians are “given” to start with, and what historians then do is apply a “theory” to fit an interpretive scheme over those facts. That this view cannot be correct becomes obvious once one realizes that no such thing as the “basic facts” this views relies upon can exist in history. Read the rest of this entry »


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