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Why we should all read Phil Mirowski March 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,

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.


1. Will Thomas - March 9, 2008

Incidentally, I should also point out that Mirowski (like Fuller) is a major critic of argumentative trends in science studies writing. See especially his review of Fuller, “What’s Kuhn Got to Do with It?” reprinted in Effortless Economy. (He thinks Fuller is blaming Kuhn for things we should criticize ourselves for). So, in this sense, Mirowski’s work is also close to what we’re trying to do here at the blog.

2. Juan - May 6, 2011

“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).”

Incidentally, if you want to know more about his approach to epistomology, you should read “The mirage of an economics of knowledge” (if you haven’t already done so) that I’ve found among a stack of essay by him and about him in this backwater of the internet:


He pretty much does what you fault him for, and although to me he is mostly spot on with his arguments. It helps (or rather, hinders me;)) that I share most of his social democratic sensibilities, which are what drives a lot of his work. Also, more than faulting the pilfering of theories from other sciences, Phil likes to make the point that economists have effectively forgotten about all this, and so tend to develop an aversion to historic of economic and methodology. Phil trained first and foremost as an economist, and so I get the impression that he is aiming his historical work more at his fellow kin (as a “wake up” slap to the face), than at the wider historian community.

Btw, have you ever watched Adam Curtis? He’s a documentary maker here in Britain who makes these big historical essays for the BBC. In one of his, “The Trap”, he recounts a lot of what is said in “Machine Dreams” (I think he used the book as a basis for the project), and even interviewed Phil for it. You can watch it for free here:


He also made an excellent documentary series in the early 90’s focusing on different periods in the history of 20th century science. Watch here:


“To the Brink of Eternity” in particular deals with the sort of OR economic and scientific history you and Phil are interested in, and in a better way than he does so in “The Trap”, which all over the place and is to a greater degree guilty of the kind of normative thesis done by Phil in MD. I like him a lot but you have to take what he says with appropiate amounts of salt.

Btw, Phil has a new book out called “Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science”, it’s history of modern science with an unashamed critique of our neo-liberal overlods (who else). I haven’t seen it reviewed anywhere, so if you could take a look and then come back to the blog to give your impression that would be cool… ;)


“Steve Fuller points to him as an exemplar of “Tory” history)”

THE Steve Fuller, social constructivist and sociologist extraordinary. The man is a fool who’s made stupid critique of science and he imagines, and even came out in favour of a creationist school board in a judicial dispute concerning the teaching of evolution. Seriously, the man has nothing to say to serious scholars and sensibly minded people. IIRC Phil even damned him with the worst insult he could bestow on anyone, that of an unwitting “neo-liberal”.

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