Spring 2022 Colloquium - Joel Isaac

Social Thought, University of Chicago

Isaac photo

Title: The Science of Imprecision: Neoclassical Economics, the Problem of Induction, and the Limits of Calculation

Abstract: For much of the twentieth century, economics prided itself on formulating principles of consistent choice that relied only on minimal logical conditions.  Rationality had been reduced to formal logic — for scientific purposes, at least.  In recent years this logical ideal of rationality has come under attack.  But how did it gain a grip in economics and the decision sciences in the first place?  And just how new are our misgivings about formal rationality? 

My paper argues that the use of logic to make normative claims about rationality and justification go back at least to the 1920s, and especially to the critical writings of the British philosopher Frank Ramsey on inductive logic.  His contrast between a narrow ‘logic of consistency’ and a wider ‘logic of discovery’ — the latter of which cannot, by definition, be formalized — has come up again and again in twentieth century social thought.  I consider this dialectic between formal logic and ‘human logic’, and suggest that recent histories of 'calculative practices', while deeply illuminating, are prone to miss the ways in which this dialectic reflects an abiding interest in the sources of normativity among mathematicians, philosophers, and social scientists.


Lectures begin at 3:35pm in 125 Nicholson Hall on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus. As a reminder, masks are required indoors by University of Minnesota policy. 

The Program in History of Science, Technology and Medicine and the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science will host a joint lecture series during Spring 2022. At this time, all events will be in-person unless otherwise stated. Please contact hstm@umn.edu for more information. 



Start date
Friday, March 18, 2022, 3:35 p.m.
End date
Friday, March 18, 2022, 4:30 p.m.

125 Nicholson Hall.