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“Decisions and Dynamics”: An Ad Hoc Exploration of Intellectual and Institutional History January 3, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Weintraub, MIT and American Economics

This post offers some background information on my new paper, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics.”

The 2013 “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” conference was one of those conferences where the invitation arrives years before the event. When I agreed to attend, I thought I would just offer a complement to the conference’s focus on MIT economics with a discussion of the early history of operations research at MIT, a subject I already knew a lot about.

What I didn’t realize until the run-up to the conference was that it was part of the annual series, which results in the publication of the annual supplementary volume to the journal History of Political Economy. I had already published pretty much all my material on MIT in my 2009 Science in Context article on Jay Forrester’s industrial dynamics, and in my 2012 Business History Review article on OR at MIT and Arthur D. Little. So, that scuppered my plans for an easy recycling job.

The obvious direction in which to go was to discuss the intellectual relationship between economics and operations research. The problem with this plan was that, while there are many interesting things to say about that relationship, the relationship at MIT was pretty thin throughout the 1950s, the period I’ve studied carefully. At this point I didn’t have the time to try and suss out any subsequent relationship (if it was even substantial) through the publications record, nor, being based in London at the time, did I have much chance to do new archival research.

What did seem like a good opportunity was to engage with the thinking of the only historian to publish on the relationship between OR and economics, Phil Mirowski.

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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 2 October 21, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an interlude in my look at Cold War Social Science. It paves the way for further discussion of that book, but contains no reference to its contents.

A new whig historiography of the social sciences, which I began to describe in part 1, posits a crucial role for intellectual figures’ ideas in history. These ideas need not be the source of the broader (non-intellectualized) ideas that drive social and political trends. Intellectuals’ ideas do, however, at least have the power to reinforce such trends by helping to prevent alternative ideas from instigating change. Thus, in this historiography, past intellectuals’ ideas tend to be illiberal ideas.

The historiography is whiggish rather than anti-intellectual in that it is constructed from the narratives of intellectuals who purport to represent the advent of a genuinely liberating intellectual movement. To understand the narrative features of this historiography, it is important to understand how it retains elements of narratives generated by a long line of purportedly liberating intellectual movements, and how it claims to diverge from them.

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“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*

I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach.  This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications.  Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.

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McCumber and “Rational Choice Philosophy” June 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Operations Research.
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I often say that the first college-level history course I ever took was the history of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany with Peter Hayes at Northwestern University.  However, on Monday I was reminded that my first history course there was really in the philosophy department: History of Philosophy, II: Medieval Philosophy* with John McCumber.  McCumber, who it turns out studies the philosophy of the German tradition, had a piece in the New York Times’ The Stone series called “The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy” which wanders into what has come to be my favorite historical terrain.

In his piece, McCumber begins by citing Hegel to the effect that “history is idea-driven,” and then makes the common historical and critical move of connecting the rise of theories of rational decision with the present dominance of a market-oriented polity, authorized by a selfish ethics implicit to a purportedly neutral analytical framework.  In another move that is itself common enough to have been brilliantly parodied by the Simpsons in 1994, McCumber identifies the RAND Corporation (est. 1946) as the key vector for the translation of intellectual work into the realm of political and social ideas “(aided in the crossing, to be sure, by the novels of another Rand—Ayn)”:

Functionaries at RAND quickly expanded the theory from a tool of social analysis into a set of universal doctrines that we may call ‘rational choice philosophy.’

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