Why we should all read Phil Mirowski March 9, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Bruno Latour, Paul Feyerabend, Philip Mirowski, Philip Mitcher, Steve Fuller
I don’t want things to get too cynical here at the History of Science Blog, so today I want to talk about an author on my top 5 most exciting historians list, Philip Mirowski of Notre Dame (an arch cynic himself). Mirowski does history of economics, and also has a training in economics. Operations research, my speciality, is an area that Mirowski’s done quite a bit of work in, so I’ve had some decent exposure to his work.
Nobody writes like Mirowski. He’s not at all disciplined as a writer (to his detriment) and is extraordinarily sarcastic, especially toward historical actors. He has a strong agenda; namely to demonstrate how economics lost its epistemological soul, which means his work gives off strong whiffs of Whiggism (Steve Fuller points to him as an exemplar of “Tory” history). The place to start with him is unquestionably his compilation, The Effortless Economy of Science? which leads off with his autobiographical reflections, “Confessions of an Aging Enfant Terrible”.
I pretty adamantly disagree with most of Mirowski’s conclusions; I don’t think he takes the epistemology of economic theory seriously on its own terms (we could get into this, but that would take a full-on essay; in short, he feels these terms were borrowed from other fields along with their analytical techniques). But this also reflects why I think Mirowski is so exciting–his arguments are ones that can be disagreed with. No “I write only to highlight a discourse”; no “science is not context-independent” here. His argument runs along the lines of: let me show you, step by arduous step, how the context of economics robbed it of a soul independent from physics and information theory. Stringing piece after piece of evidence together he puts together such a strong narrative that it bleeds into the genre of conspiracy theory.
Mirowski is also an author with an oeuvre–his work is much richer if you read it as part of an ongoing project. As one of only several authors in the history of economics to move beyond the march-of-theories paradigm of writing, he probably waves the sociology of science magic wand a little too strenuously, but he seems to see his primary battle as being with the philosophers of science (again, see Effortless Economy, especially his broadside on Kitcher), and I think the sociologists see themselves as an antidote to the idea that science has a coherent philosophy (he likes his Feyerabend).
As I’ve said, I tend to see the sociologists and philosophers as all of a kind, but unlike a lot of the sociology school, Mirowski functions incredibly well as an historian, too. To get books like More Heat Than Light, and Machine Dreams, close reading is rewarded. History is not merely window dressing on a basic Latourian sociological point. In the case of the latter book, you need to do a lot of brushing up on material behind his narrative to even have a chance of getting what’s going on, because he makes no effort to explain his historical references. But history should hinge on the details, and if an author at least shows how you have to really understand the ins and outs of the history to see what’s going on, that author has done their job. Nobody writing seriously on the history of OR or economic theory can afford to ignore Mirowski’s narratives. I’ll probably say more about the goals of his oeuvre at a later date.