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Mathematics as the role model for neoclassical economics (Blanqui Lecture)

By Nicola Giocoli

Abstract

Born out of the conscious effort to imitate mechanical physics, neoclassical economics ended up in the mid 20th century embracing a purely mathematical notion of rigor as embodied by the axiomatic method. This lecture tries to explain how this could happen, or, why and when the economists’ role model became the mathematician rather than the physicist. According to the standard interpretation, the triumph of axiomatics in modern neoclassical economics can be explained in terms of the discipline’s increasing awareness of its lack of good experimental and observational data, and thus of its intrinsic inability to fully abide by the paradigm of mechanics. Yet this story fails to properly account for the transformation that the word “rigor” itself underwent first and foremost in mathematics as well as for the existence of a specific motivation behind the economists’ decision to pursue the axiomatic route. While the full argument is developed in Giocoli 2003, these pages offer a taste of a (partially) alternative story which begins with the so-called formalist revolution in mathematics, then crosses the economists’ almost innate urge to bring their discipline to the highest possible level of generality and conceptual integrity, and ends with the advent and consolidation of that very core set of methods, tools and ideas that constitute the contemporary image of economics.Axiomatic method, formalism, rationality, neoclassical economics

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