U. Mäki, ed., Philosophy of Economics [Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, vol. 13], Amsterdam, Elsevier, 2012, 903 pp. 

Uskali Mäki’s latest edited collection, Philosophy of Economics, appears as the 13th volume in the Handbook of Philosophy of Science, an Elsevier series presented by its editors as “the most comprehensive review ever provided of the philosophy of science”. Three of the seventeen volumes are devoted to social disciplines: apart from economics there is another one for linguistics, and a joint volume for sociology and anthropology. As Mäki points out in his general introduction, economic methodology is closer today to “frontline philosophy of science” (p. xv) than ever before in its very short life as an independent field. This volume marks its coming of age, and it should be celebrated as such.
Reviewing a nearly 1000 pages volume in about 1000 words seems not easy, so let me try to grasp its significance through a comparison with its obvious predecessor The Handbook of Economic Methodology, co-edited by Mäki, John Davis and Wade Hands for Edward Elgar in 1998. This latter was based on short entries, while the 2012 volume consists of regular size papers. Rather than discussing the content of every one of them –and for the suspicious reader, yes, I spent my Christmas break going through it from cover to cover–, I will try to see what this book as a whole reveals about the philosophy of economics as it is cultivated today.
We should notice first that 12 of the 29 authors in the 2012 volume featured already in the previous installment and 9 of them write on almost the same topics: Mäki on realism, R. Backhouse on Lakatos, M. Morgan on models, K. Hoover on causality, H. Kincaid on economic explanation, W. Hands on the positive-normative dichotomy, C. W. Granger on economic forecasting, A. Spanos on econometrics and V. Vanberg on rational choice and rule following. As the reader may guess, most of these pieces take stock of decades of reflections on each topic and sometimes provide real primers on the author’s views. For example, Spanos’ 70 pages paper on “the philosophy of econometrics” is, in fact, an excellent introduction to the error-statistical approach with a final section on the title. Philip Mirowski’s “The Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in Economics” is a reconsideration of most Mirowskian themes (physics’ envy, computers and markets, etc.) from a new angle (what sort of philosophical approach to mathematics would do justice to its uses in economics). Some of these veterans present instead research conducted after the publication of that first Handbook: for example, John Davis on individuals in economics or Marcel Boumans on measurement.
There are topics in the 2012 volume that have grown beyond anyone’s expectations fifteen years ago. Alan Nelson’s 1998 entry on “Experimental economics” called for further methodological reflections on internal and external validity, now accomplished in Francesco Guala’s piece for the 2012 volume, drawing on a decade of his own work. Herbert Simon claimed in 1998 that “behavioural economics is not so much a specific body of economic theory as a critique of neoclassical economic theory and methodology”. But Erik Angner and George Loewenstein present it in their 2012 paper as a “bona fide subdiscipline of economics”. I could not find in the 1998 index a mention of the ultimatum game, for which there is a paper in 2012 by Cristina Bicchieri and Jiji Zhang (about the incorporation of norms of justice into decision models). Dan Hausman writes about the experimental testing of game theory, another virtually absent topic in the 1998 handbook. Summing up, the papers explicitly addressing experiments claim 133 of the 903 pages of the 2012 volume, whereas they barely add to 10 of the 572 pages in the previous installment.
Other topics have not changed so dramatically. Apart from experiments, it seems as if nothing is radically different in the philosophy of game theory (T. Grüne-Yanoff and A. Letihnen) and rational choice theory (P. Anand). The methodological debate on disciplines such as evolutionary economics, feminist economics and public choice is mostly the same if we judge it from the content of the papers by, respectively, Jack Vromen, Kristina Rolin and Hartmut Kliemt. The piece on the economics of science was programmatic in 1998, whereas now Jesús Zamora Bonilla provides a survey of actual contributions. Most results in judgment aggregation date from this last decade so the short (and helpful) introduction written by Christian List is a real novelty in this volume. Geographical economics is also a new topic, but not because the discipline is new but rather thanks to a philosopher (Caterina Marchionni) who has decided to tackle its methodology.
At this point, the reader might be wondering what has been left behind in economic methodology. The most significant loss is the history of economic thought: organized in short dictionary-like entries, in the 1998 volume there were many about particular economists; but in 2012 only Mirowski adopts a full-fledged historical approach. Is this is a sign of how the profession is evolving? Whereas many of the senior contributors had a separate career as historians (Backhouse, Hands, Hoover, Morgan, etc.), this is less common among their junior peers (Angner is probably the most significant exception). However, there is an increasing (but still far from consensual) advocacy for an integration of History and Philosophy of science among practitioners of this latest discipline (e.g., Hasok Chang). Given how prominent this integration has been during decades in the case of economics, I think a more explicit reflection on the virtues (or flaws) of doing philosophy in such close connection with history could have been useful.
The second, but minor, loss is Marxism. In the 1998 Index it was explicitly mentioned in about 30 pages. In 2012 it is just mentioned five times, all in the same paper. In it we find, I think, the more original contribution to this volume, as compared to its predecessor. Don Ross’ “Economic Theory, Anti-economics and Political Ideology”, classifies five principled objections against economics as a purely positive endeavor and proceeds to refute them. Ross argues that economists defending the efficiency of markets are not promoting partisan views, if their arguments are read literally or, if they do, they are not representative of the profession. “The economic attitude –he claims– is consistent with policies drawn from anywhere on the left-right spectrum that acknowledges scarcity as fundamental to political and social organization” (p. 280). Ross’ strategy is to subvert the popular understanding of economic theories drawing on a combination of conceptual analysis and historical acumen (an integrated HPS, after all?). The reader will find another take on the same approach in his other paper in this compilation, “The economic agent: Not Human, But Important”, where he defends his well-known thesis that economic agency reliably captures bug-like decision making, but still is useful to understand ours. In other words, economics is a perfectly positive science, provided you have the proper concept of what economics and science are. I was unable to find anyone so bold about it in the 1998 volume.
It is significant that both Don Ross and Harold Kincaid have two papers each in this volume (unlike every other contributor), totaling 130 pages. In a decade of joint work, they have renewed our understanding of the philosophy of the social sciences putting forward a variety of naturalism that combines their own versions of contextualism (Kincaid) and structural realism (Ross). Following the path of Uskali Mäki, Alex Rosenberg or Dan Hausman in the 1990s, they have addressed economics in connection with broader problems in philosophy of science –in this respect, I guess it would have been fair to include a chapter by/about Nancy Cartwright’s views, the other great contender in this league. This is probably the take home lesson of this volume for newcomers in the discipline: stay close to actual practice (e.g, experiments) and make your philosophical position as general as possible (as Kincaid and Ross have done).
But speaking of newcomers, I should say something about the audience of this volume. Namely, that I do not see very clearly who their readers are. Its size and price (165 EUR) make it clearly a reference work for libraries, but not every paper is suitable for just the curious reader or first year student: all of them are very good, but some are very long, some are narrow in their approach (or very personal) and few suggest the reader where to go next. In addition, I think that, as an intellectual community, we are about to exhaust the Handbook genre for pure lack of diversity (and I plead myself guilty since I have contributed to three similar volumes in the last five years). Ross and Kincaid have their fair share of Mäki’s compilation, but they have edited themselves two other Handbooks for Oxford, where they extensively present their views (and so do Mäki, Vromen, Guala and a few other authors of this volume). I also read Ross, Guala and Knuuttila in another Handbook co-edited by Zamora Bonilla for Sage. This is probably the Matthew effect, but I wonder if our university libraries will really benefit from acquiring all these collections every ten years. Perhaps we should invest more in new editorial formats (like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that perform more or less the same function in a more updated and accessible way. de
{December  2012}
{Journal of Economic Methodology, 21.1 (2014)  96-98 }

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