[OPE-L:1383] Re: Math, methodology and political economy

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Fri, 8 Mar 1996 12:49:43 -0800

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Biting selectively on Jerry's can of worms (a fishy metaphor):

> What do Paul C, Allin, Gil and others make out of the following from Mino

> Those aspects of economic life which
> cannot be expressed mathematically are either ignored or forced
> into a theoretical straightjacket which reduces dynamic and
> multifaceted processes to a static and one-dimensional picture of
> them. Ultimately, one engages in the solution of mathematical
> problems and loses sight of the economic, or social, content of
> those models (if they ever had any).

The rhetoric/analysis ratio is too high here. Mathematical models don't
have to be static, nor "one-dimensional". And if one truly loses sight
of the economic/social content, that is just a mark of bad mathematical
analysis, not mathematical analysis per se. For that matter, plenty of
discursive discussions of Marx's theory lose sight of the real issues
too, but in a welter of quotations and logic-chopping rather than a
welter of equations.

> Independent of identifying examples of dialectical relations, there is
> also the question of whether the Hegelian method of inquiry should be used
> in political economy. What this means concretely, we can discuss. In
> part, I believe it concerns the systematic ordering of topics and their
> analytical inter-relationship. Can this mode of inquiry be replicated by
> mathematical means?

I don't think of the systematic ordering of topics (by level of
abstraction) as something specifically Hegelian, nor as being
incompatible with the use of mathematics. While I don't believe that
_everything_ worthwhile can be modelled mathematically, one can certainly
construct models of varying degrees of concreteness and empirical richness.

> To raise a contentious issue: wasn't the development of ["algebraic
> marxism"] a reflection of the conditions that we find ourselves in
> academia whereby *only* those arguments couched in formal mathematical
> terms are considered to be "serious"? Isn't this a rather large
> concession to non-Marxist, especially marginalist, schools of thought?

I accept that the pressures of academic respectability have played a role
here. But I don't see that the use of mathematics is a concession to
marginalism. Sraffa's analysis, for instance, is mathematical but
resolutely non-marginalist. Also might beworth noting: Among the most
vociferous opponents of mathematical analysis in economics we find the
most rabid right-wing crowd -- the "Austrians" in the mold of the late
Murray Rothbard.

> What about the "new math", e.g. chaos theory?

Well, yes, but it seems to me that most attempts to use chaos theory in
economics, to date, have been tinker-toy stuff. Maybe some day.

Allin Cottrell