Philosophy in/of Economics – Call for Ideas

OK folks. As we build out our schedule for the next year, I've promised that we are going to do something on Economics. I'm in the process of doing the research now and would like to solicit input from the community.  What we need is a digestible text (or several) that lay out some of the central philosophical assumptions of Economics or which represent economic philosophical presuppositions well.

It seems to me that economic theories make very clear assumptions about human behavior and what motivates it - that's one direction to go.  Another is to look at political, social or moral implications of specific economic positions (e.g. importance of reducing unemployment vs. managing inflation).  Yet another would be to examine the stated or unstated goal(s) of economic practice - wealth creation, human flourishing, political stability, etc.

So send us your suggestions.  I'll be asking some friends and sending hope mail to eminent Econ profs as well.  As an aside, listening to economists argue about Economics sounds a lot to me like philosophers arguing about Philosophy.  I'm far from convinced that it's any different from other liberal arts and certainly isn't a science.  I'm also slowly becoming Hayekian.



  1. Andrew Selfridge says

    I’d love to see a series of shows juxtaposing the Keynesian and Classical Liberal or “Austrian” schools of economics.

    You could look at:

    Keynes’ own General Theory:

    Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action:

    If you need more Austrian-school style books, there’s a ton of free books on the site here:

    A look at competing views of business cycle theory would also be very interesting.

  2. CM says

    Yes, a Marx episode of some sort is certainly in order, whether or not its part of this economics show.

    You may be interested in looking at Joan Robinson’s Economic Philosophy, if only for an overview of relevant issues.

    Also: Ricardo and Sraffa.

  3. Ethan Gach says

    If Marx, the Economic and Philosophical manuscripts, not Capital.

    Also, Amos Tversky towards something regarding behavioral economics.

  4. Ginger says

    What about multinational corporations as agents within the Social Contract. Multinationals as the new aristocracy: amassing wealth, out of touch with ‘the people’. You can throw Friedmann in as well!

  5. Profile photo of Daniel Horne says

    By the way, Seth, you mentioned Hayek, so another worthwhile reading might be Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

    Perhaps also include a discussion of George Orwell’s review of the book:

    I liked Orwell’s summary of the whole socialism vs. capitalism dilemma:

    “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.”

    Finally, if Adam Smith seems to old-school, perhaps consider John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, which you can read online here:

  6. Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

    Thanks for all of the suggestions folks. A couple of responses:

    1. Marx will probably get his own episode separate from a general ‘economics’ discussion. Too much Hegel and otherwise in him.
    2. I don’t really want to do a ‘figure’ focused episode first, e.g. Smith or Keynes or whoever. I’m looking for something that more broadly hits on what economics purports to be doing and what it believes about human beings/society.
    3. I’m inclined after a conversation with a friend who’s an MA Econ/JD to look at the movements or schools: classical, mathematical, behavioral but I’m not sure how to approach it textually. He suggested “The Worldly Philosophers” from Heilbroner”, but I think we’d have to supplement it.

    One of the interesting things that he mentioned was that, according to the Supreme Court and other institutions, the purpose of economic policy was ‘Consumer Welfare’. What you see in debate of policy is differing interpretations of this: e.g. what counts as a consumer (individuals or corporations), what is welfare (wealth, health, access to capital, etc.). That might be a good lever on which to turn the discussion as well.

    I think the first Hayek I want to read is The Counter Revolution of Science because it seems to treat a topic very relevant to many of our discussions here: the use and limits of reason and which kinds of knowledge are appropriate for what kinds of studies.

    Thanks again and I’ll keep working on this!

  7. C.E. says

    I also recommend Mises’s Human Action, specifically Chapters 37, 38, and 39, which all deal with the general role of economics in everyday human existence.

    Some quotes that get at the broad role economics should play in our intellectual lives:

    “Economics must not be relegated to classrooms and statistical offices and must not be left to esoteric circles. It is the philosophy of human life and action and concerns everybody and everything … There is no means by which anyone can evade his personal responsibility. Whoever neglects to examine to the best of his abilities all the problems involved voluntarily surrenders his birthright to a self-appointed elite of supermen. In such vital matters blind reliance upon ‘experts’ and uncritical acceptance of popular catchwords and prejudices is tantamount to the abandonment of self-determination and to yielding to other people’s dominion. As conditions are today, nothing can be more important to every intelligent man than economics.

    “Economics does not allow of any breaking up into special branches. It invariably deals with the interconnectedness of all the phenomena of action.

    “Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that economics cannot remain an esoteric branch of knowledge accessible only to small groups of scholars and specialists. Economics deals with society’s fundamental problems; it concerns everyone and belongs to all. It is the main and proper study of every citizen.”

  8. Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

    There are no coincidences: Philosophy Bites just posted this episode about Adam Smith with Nick Phillipson.

    He focuses on “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and suggests that Smith’s contributions as a philosopher were overshadowed when he was co-opted by economists. I’ll have to listen again, but it sounded like Phillipson’s thesis (collected from painstakingly putting together notes on Smith since he had many of his papers destroyed) is that Smith had an idea of the self as constructed through ‘commerce’ with others and a state-of-nature like theory of morality that begins with the concept of property. A comment on the site refers to EconTalk, which has been my entry into the subject.

  9. says

    Hi Seth

    Unfortunately I have missed a great many of your podcasts. Did you end up doing any on any of the people and ideas mentioned above? If so can you please point me in the right direction?


    Steve Williams

  10. Dan Rera says

    I would be very interested in hearing this, but I wouldn’t necessarily let Hayek and Mises steal the show. There is much in them that is philosophical, but others to consider would be Joseph Schumpeter, Thorstein Veblen, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Bell, Milton Friedman, among others.

    • Adam Y says

      A Friedman (or Friedman plus others) episode is a really good idea. His work on the methodology of economics seems to me to be the perfect way to approach economics from a philosophical perspective. What counts as an appropriate methodology for any science is really a philosophical question anyway. Also, Imre Lakatos, a genuine, bona fide philosopher of science wrote a paper critiquing Friedman’s methodology, which might be as good a starting point as any.

      There is so much dodgy (in my opinion) methodology in economics, from Friedman’s (and many more neoclassical’s) instrumentalism, to Von Mises’ praxeology. I have only fairly recently begun trying to get to grips with economics, and it really is the methodological questions that keep jumping out at me, as someone with a longer term interest in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science. I keep finding myself thinking, “Really, you guys are allowed to get away with that? Static models of dynamic systems and deductive theories of human action?”

      Schumpeter is also a good call, but I would add Sraffa to your list too.

  11. Roy Spence says


    May I suggest that, as opposed to examining economics directly, PEL take an indirect route via Political Philosophy and the Philosophy of Science. Regarding the former, PEL has noted in the past an intent to have a podcast on Rawls, and I expect this would be contrasted with Robert Nozick. This provides an opportunity to discuss Sraffa (as requested above by both CM and Adam Y) Kenneth Arrow, Amartya Sen, and comment on lots of current events (from the PEL Facebook page:

    The Philosophy of Science (as per T.S. Kuhn, and somewhat less so Lakatos) is applicable to so much of economic research – in particular, macroeconomics.

    In my collection of non-textbook economics (eclectic by most standards), I have not been able to find anything that lays out the central philosophical assumptions – without the extensive use of mathematics.


  12. Andrew Davies says

    For great writing, the best book on human behavior I’ve ever read is “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” written in 1951 by Eric Hoffer. I first read it in college in my “Survey of International Terrorism” class in the mid-90’s. Short and brilliant, it changed my life.

    The best behavioral economics I’ve ever read is the 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He’s a very thoughtful guy with a lot of experience, and he literally wrote the book on the still-emerging study of behavioral economics that is becoming very influential very quickly.

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