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The “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” Conference and Maturation in the the Historiography of Economic Thought December 29, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

I have a new article out, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics,” in the 2014 annual supplement to History of Political Economy on MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Following tradition, I’ll talk a little bit about the thinking behind the article in a separate post. However, I would like to start with a few words about the 2013 conference that the supplement was based on.

In short, it was almost certainly the best conference I have attended. To understand why, it will be useful to understand the peculiarities of the development of the field of the history of economic thought (HET), and how it seems to be reaching a new state of maturity.

For some time now HET has been having something of an identity crisis. Traditionally strongly affiliated with economics departments, HET, even more so than economic history, has had problems maintaining its status within the economics profession. Concurrently, HET has moved away methodologically from exegesis on the economic canon (“What did Smith/Keynes mean when they wrote X?”), and more toward something people working in the history of science would be familiar and comfortable with.

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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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