Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Hard Cases Make For Bad Laws -- The Case of William Stanley Jevons

William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) is, if you are an economist, a well-known economist; if you are a mathematician, he is a well-known mathematician; if you are a philosopher, he is a well-known philosopher; if you are a computer scientist, he, being the inventor of the Logic Piano, is a well-known early computer scientist. In my model of the relations among the spontaneous orders,this places him simultaneously in the spontaneous orders of the social sciences, math, philosophy, and technology for math and science.

Of course, people can be interested in multiple disciplines, but with Jevons, these are all intimately related to each other. Jevons was a mathematizer of logic and an inventor of a piece of technology that would allow him to mechanically do logical transformations. More, he was part of the British mathematical and logical reformers that included people like Babbage, De Morgan, Cayley, and Boole, among others, and which led to Whitehead and Russell.

Much early British economics has been done primarily by philosophers: Locke, Hume, Smith, Ricardo, and J.S. Mill, to name a few. As a philosopher, Jevons certainly falls into this tradition.

This mixture in Britain had long-term consequences, because, "When the British universities reformed in the 1860's, economics now became academic, meshing with the nearest adjacent disciplines, thus intersecting with both philosophy and mathematics" (Randall Collins, 708). And Jevons, "who developed the marginal utility theory in 1871 to displace the dominant labor theory of value" (708-9) and who "colonized the field [of economics] for mathematical methods" (709), fit right into this intersection.

But this doesn't address the issue of why the mathematicians were philosophers (and, with Whitehead and Russel, the philosophers were mathematicians) and the philosophers were economists. Yet if we take a look at my model of spontaneous orders, we can see that all three areas -- math, philosophy, and the social sciences -- are all abstract orders. It should not surprise us that those attracted to one abstract order should be attracted to other orders as well -- or that they would attempt to "colonize" the other fields. And it happened not just with math doing the colonizing, as it was philosophy which colonized math first by introducing logic to math (with math returning the favor and introducing math to logic).

Thus, Jevons' work in the spontaneous orders in which he participated makes sense. While (apparently) staying out of money/finance (while nevertheless doing social science work about it in his Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875) and Methods of Social Reform and Investigations in Currency and Finance), Jevons worked in both realms of Abstract Wisdom and one of the two realms of Abstract Knowledge (again, doing social science work about the second). Further, he worked in all three orders of Pure Knowledge -- I already mentioned his being a famous mathematician as well as the inventor of the Logic Piano, but less well known was his work as an assayist (a kind of chemist) when he was a young man. Thus we can see him working along the lines of both Practical Knowledge and the Abstract, which intersect at Math.

Jevons seems to be a hard case, but in fact he helps demonstrate quite well the relations among the spontaneous orders as I have categorized them. We can see the logic of his movements, and the reasons he would have brought math to both philosophy and economics (and the reasons he would have made those choices). We can see, too, why there has been a historical relation among philosophers and economists as well as, later, among philosophers and mathematicians. The fact that all three areas are areas of Abstraction means it is easy to justify bringing those methods over into each other. More, the particularity of knowledge compared to the holism of wisdom makes it more likely that math will be transported into the social sciences and philosophy than the other way around (while philosophical logic did contribute to math, math has contributed far more to logic in return).

The case of Jevons might make us think the spontaneous order divisions I have proposed are nonsense, or that they are somehow artificial since we cannot actually disentangle them from each other and from civil society as a whole. I would argue they are no more artificial divisions than is isolating out the circulatory system from the rest of the body is artificial. There is in fact a circulatory system that does certain things only it does, even as it is vital for the rest of the body. And if we have a problem with it, we would want to go to a cardiologist, not a general practitioner. A focus on the whole only, ignoring the parts, makes for bad medicine and bad medical decisions. The same is true of focusing on civil society as a whole and ignoring the real divisions within it. We cannot understand Jevons as a whole person without understanding all the orders. But as mathematicians or computer technologists or economists or philosophers, we neither want nor need to understand Jevons the whole person. We want and need to understand his contributions to those areas. The fact that he had overlapping interests is no argument against this working in a variety of orders.

Thus we can see that though the orders are separate, they do also overlap and influence each other. But there is also a logic to the movements of people participating in those orders, as the case of Jevons (but hardly only Jevons) demonstrates. Further, we can also make sense of the methodological battle taking place in economics between the neoclassical economists (as started by Jevons and Walras) and the Austrian school (as started by Menger), as the neoclassical economists are more enamored of math, while the Austrian school is more enamored of philosophy. As complexity makes more and more inroads into economics and the other social sciences, we will soon discover that both schools of economics are right. But mathematical complexity makes for a very different kind of economics than that of neoclassical economics. Thus, it is the full complexity synthesis -- synthesizing mathematical and philosophical economics -- for which we are waiting.
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