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Monday, July 31, 2017


Two people posted comments about my bitter sweet reminiscences of a time when it seemed that Marx’s approach to an understanding of capitalism might be staging a comeback.  The first is someone who uses as his or her web name Voltaire’s famous injunction about the Catholic Church, l’écrasez l’infame.”  The second signs him or herself F. Lengyel, which a little Googling suggests might be the name of a mathematician.  On this quiet Monday morning, while I wait to see whether the White House explodes, I should like to respond.

I am delighted that l’écrasez [or, to use his or her proper name, M. or Mme. Infame] found my book, Understanding Marx, helpful and even inspiring.  Indeed, I am thrilled.  That is what authors hope for and dream of!  If it is true that my little book made him/her a Marxist, what could possibly be better?

F. Lengyel also writes about the relation of Marxism to math, with a reference to Herb Gintis, who was, with his colleague Sam Bowles, an early inspiration for me when I was first digging deeply into Marx’s thought.  I have always believed that Sam and Herb [as everyone at UMass referred to them] took a wrong turn when they scuttled Marxism for Game Theory, but that is a large subject for another day.

Modern Neo-Classical economists occupy an odd and fundamentally inauthentic position in the Academy, at least to my jaundiced eye, a position illuminated in a way by the famous essay by the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures.”  Snow writes acerbically about the appalling ignorance of the most elementary science exhibited by supremely self-confident, even arrogant, classicists, historians, and philosophers in Oxford and Cambridge Senior Common Rooms.  The gulf between the two cultures is asymmetric, as Snow makes clear, because whereas even the most prosaic scientist will have at least heard of Shakespeare and Plato and Shelley, distinguished classical scholars experience not a scintilla of embarrassment at their total ignorance of such elementary terms as mass, acceleration, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Economists are housed in Divisions of Behavioral Science, but they queen it around as better than their fellow Social Scientists and Humanists because they make use of calculus and linear algebra.  Now the truth is that these are undergraduate subjects to a math major, hardly worth making a fuss about, but economists make much of their equations, looking down their noses condescendingly at philosophers or historians who never include an integral sign or a Sigma in their professional papers.  Philosophers, eternal wannabes, scatter backwards E’s in their prose, even when there is no conceivable need for them, and write things like “S knows that p” as though they were intoning the Eleusinian Mysteries.


Jerry Fresia said...

Happily, I encountered Sam and Herb before the wrong turn. In fact, Herb was on my dissertation committee. Once, when I was in his office, I noticed a peculiar habit. Herb loved sunflower seeds. He would, apparently, do his work while munching on them but the odd thing was that he would, after cracking open the shell, throw the shell in his desk draw, which was quite full of sunflower seed shells the day I noticed. So upon completion of my degree, I awarded Herb a very large bag of sunflower seeds, still in the shell. He smiled, accepted the gift, and said, "Payola."

Wouldn't it be nice if academics would write for broad audiences and with a flair that was engaging all by itself. I often go to YouTube to enjoy academics give lectures; too often they read prepared texts, using the most turgid, esoteric, and arcane language imaginable. The exceptions, of course, make it all worthwhile.

Écrasez L'infâme said...

After 2008, some people argued the case against mathematics in economics on the grounds that it had helped cause the crash (which is true - it did, or rather human dependence and subservience on mathematical models did). Black-Scholes came in for particular criticism; Schiller took this line. Other people said the crash meant that there wasn't enough maths in economics - we needed to extend and refine the maths to stop crashes happening in the future. Either way, it's clear that nowadays maths in economics is powerful; we wouldn't have been having the discussion if it weren't.

Unlike in the hard sciences, it seems theories in economics and the social sciences can be powerful and destructive even if they're not true. That's basically the Marxist idea of neoliberalism.

I think we're all agreed that maths in philosophy is usually decorative, except in a few fringe sub-categories like the philosophy of logic or of quantum mechanics. It's unclear whether we will someday have a rigorous mathematical philosophy. It sounds unlikely, but sometimes things are only unlikely until they are found to be so.

@Professor Wolff. I've found my old copy of UM! I shall reread. Also, I'm a "he". I had signed my comment "Robert." I adopted the Écrasez L'infâme fifteen years ago, when perhaps I was less tolerant than I now am, and I've kept it because it's never a good idea to run away from our own past.


s. wallerstein said...

In my experience, I'm not so sure that the cultural divide between scientists and humanists is so asymmetrical.

I studied physics in high school. I hated it and got out of it by convincing my teacher that I'd write a paper (which I did) about Descartes's contribution to science.

However, I know about as much about the second law of thermodynamics and what mass and acceleration are as the average scientist (at least those I've met) and the average economist (who claims to be a scientist) does about Shakespeare and Plato. Just as I studied physics in high school (and remember a little bit) over 50 years ago, the average scientist studied Shakespeare and Plato in high school (or in an introductory course on Western civilization as a freshman in college) and remembers about as much about them as I do about physics. What's more, the average economist (at least those I've met and I've met more economists than I have physicists) looks down on Plato and the whole philosophical tradition with contempt, while I am merely indifferent to science.

In fact, there is a whole sect of scientists, whose names I have not bothered to learn, who consider philosophy to be a complete waste of time, while I doubt that you will find a philosopher anywhere, in the analytical or continental tradition, who considers science to be a complete waste of time.

F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...

The second signs him or herself F. Lengyel, which a little Googling suggests might be the name of a mathematician.
I don't deny it.

On this quiet Monday morning, while I wait to see whether the White House explodes ... .
That didn't last. Trump's communications director is out.

I thought you might know about Herbert Gintis's turn from Marxism to game theory. This is a surmise from some distance--I am unaware of gossip. [That academics gossip ought to be a fundamental axiom of behavioral science.] I once met Prof. Gintis after he gave a talk at the CUNY Graduate Center. He was working on The Bounds of Reason and aspects of epistemic game theory at the time. His remarks on socialism in relation to neoclassical economics in the first edition of Game Theory Evolving start around page 44. He writes that

"The Fundamental Theorem [of Welfare Economics] is often considered a justification for a private-ownership market economy." But, Gintis remarks, "... the Fundamental Theorem asserts that any pattern of ownership is compatible with economic efficiency, provided prices are chosen to equate supply with demand.

Lange pointed out that markets and private property play a purely metaphorical role in the neoclassical model: they are alluded to to account for profit maximization and market clearing, but they play no formal role, and many other institutional forms can just as easily be alluded to to account for the same events. There is, in fact, no competition in the common sense of the term, since agents never meet other agents and agents do not care what other agents are doing. The only factors determining individual behavior in the neoclassical model are prices."

A little later Gintis writes, "[t]he socialists won the academic debate, virtually everyone agrees." This is the "socialism debate" between Hayek "... and other supporters of laissez faire capitalism" and Lange, etc. These remarks from the first edition, (c) 2000, were removed from the second edition of Game Theory Evolving, (c) 2009.

Perhaps the turn from Marxism to game theory occurred during that period. Somewhere Gintis writes that worker-owned businesses necessarily leave the worker-shareholders insufficiently diversified. I'm not convinced. Many multinational corporations have interlocking cycles of stock ownership [Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder, Stefano Battiston. The Network of Global Corporate Control]. In the absence of such interlocking cycles of corporate stock ownership, executives of trans-national corporations, often generously compensated in stock (by their truly independent compensation committees), would be in the same boat as worker-owners. What's stopping worker-owned firms from adopting similar strategies?

F Lengyel said...
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chrismealy said...

I actually came to Marx mostly through later-period Bowles and Gintis, so if their aim in translating Marx into game theory was to draw in unsuspecting converts, it worked.