8. The Formalist Revolution

8. The Formalist Revolution - 25. The Formalist Revolution...

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–2. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
25. The Formalist Revolution of the 1950s Mark Blaug Subject Economics » History of Thought Key-Topics formalism DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631225737.2003.00026.x 25.1 Introduction Something happened to economics in the decade of the 1950s that is little appreciated by most economists and even by professional historians of economic thought: the subject went through an intellectual revolution as profound in its impact as the so-called “Keynesian Revolution” of prewar years. I call it the Formalist Revolution after Ward (1972 , pp. 40–1), who was the first to recognize the enormous intellectual transformation of economics in the years after World War II. It is common to think of interwar economics in terms of a struggle between institutionalists and neoclassicists but, as Morgan and Rutherford (1998 , pp. 21–5) have reminded us, “pluralism” is a more accurate description of the state of play in economics between the two world wars, reflecting the considerable variety that actually prevailed in modes of investigation, techniques of analysis, and types of policy advice. The extraordinary uniformity in the global analytic style of the economics profession that we nowadays characterize as neoclassical economics only dates from the 1950. The term “neoclassical economics” as a standard label for the mainstream of modern economics over the past century, going back as far as the Marginal Revolution of the 1870s, is confusing enough because the early pioneers of marginalism saw themselves as post-classicals, rejecting the classical economics of Smith, Ricardo, and Mill, and would have decisively rejected the label “neoclassical” that was invented by Veblen in 1900 ( Aspromourgos, 1986 ). But to apply the same label to prewar and postwar orthodox economics is doubly confusing because, faced with such leading monographs of the 1940s and 1950s as, say, Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947) and Arrow's Social Choice and Individual Values (1951), and with Arrow and Debreu's “Existence of an equilibrium for a competitive economy” (1954) , no prewar orthodox economist could have made head or tail of them. In short, economics underwent a metamorphosis in the late 1940s and 1950s whatever one calls it. I call it a Formalist Revolution, after Ward, because it was marked by extreme “formalism” - not just a preference, but an absolute preference for the form of an economic argument over its content - which frequently (but not necessarily) implies reliance on mathematical modeling and whose ultimate objective is, like the notorious Hilbert program in mathematics, the complete axiomatization of economic theory. It is perfectly possible to employ mathematics elegantly (like Cournot in 1938) or clumsily (like Walras in 1871) and yet eschew formalism in the sense that the mathematics is employed not for its own sake but in order to throw more light on certain aspects of economic reality. It is also possible not to employ mathematics at all (like Joan Robinson in 1956) and yet be highly formalistic in that
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Image of page 2
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Page1 / 14

8. The Formalist Revolution - 25. The Formalist Revolution...

This preview shows document pages 1 - 2. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online