Against Mechanism

Philip Mirowski

Why I looked at this book

Economics has a reputation for being more about difficult mathematics than about discovering how our economy works. How did it get that way? Philip Mirowski claims that it was heavily influenced by 19th century physics, in particular thermodynamics. I'm interested to read his arguments for this, and hopefully to learn something about the history of economics along the way.

First impressions

Just reading the sample I have severe doubts about this book. Mirowski claims to be against 'physics envy', that is trying to make economics laws looks as certain as those of physics, but then argues that the laws of physics are far from certain - which begins to look like physics envy to me. He goes on to complain of the way physicists want to reduce all other subjects to physics, which looks more on track. But what evidence does he give for this? Well, in the introduction Richard Feynman is taken to represent the physics community, and in the early 1950's Feynman succumbed to what he called a 'disease of middle age' - getting involved in philosophical discussions. But Feynman felt that mostly this involved 'great clouds of fog'. As far as I can tell, this view of those he talked to was reasonable, and hardly justifies Mirowski's attempt to pin reductionism on all physicists.

But there's more. Mirowski summarises what he found on page 125 of Feynman's book The Character of Physical Law in the following words: "the study of human society should be reduced to individual psychology, and thence to biology, then chemistry, and finally to physical law.". Pretty reductionist you might think. The trouble is that what Feynman actually says is very much against reductionism. "To stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake. It is not sensible for the ones who specialise at one end and the ones who specialise at the other end, to have such disregard for each other. (They don't actually, but people say they do)" Mirowski is clearly counted among such people.

Many problems in just a few pages. I'll go on reading this book, but more with an eye to finding fault with it than with any hope of it improving.
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