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Economics As A Humanistic Study

March 26, 2010

David Brooks forwards the following:

One gets the sense, at least from the outside, that the intellectual energy [in economics] is no longer with the economists who construct abstract and elaborate models. Instead, the field seems to be moving in a humanist direction. Many economists are now trying to absorb lessons learned by psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists. They’re producing books with titles like “Animal Spirits,” “The Irrational Economist,” and “Identity Economics,” about subjects such as how social identities shape economic choices.

But after citing the importance of Carmen M. Reinhart’s and Kenneth S. Rogoff’s This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, and noting that the book “is almost entirely devoid of theory,” Mr. Brooks fails to mention historians in his list professionals influencing the field of economics. What gives? – TL

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  1. I've always thought that Brooks was a poor historian of ideas, but I'm still amazed at how wrong he can be with something so simple: does he have any understanding of the term “humanism”?

    Brooks says economics is moving toward humanistic study and then mentions “psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists.” These are his humanists? At best they would probably be better located within the field of “social science,” obvious stress on the science. It's these people who are also more interested in predictive theories, LIKE ECONOMISTS!

    Modern-day humanists, however, are less interested in predicting what society will look like (as historians, we abhor prophecy) and more interested in telling stories about how things are put together and the logic they are built upon. For economics to be a part of “humanism” as it's currently constructed, the discipline would have to swear off prediction. I'd be happy if they did, but I doubt that will ever happen.


  2. Ryan: You're right. Brooks doesn't exhibit, in this article at least, a real understanding of humanism. For economics to have a firm place in humanistic learning, it would also have to commit itself to qualitative studies and communicating its ideas broadly. Those things can involve prediction (humanists like to prophecy too—whether secular or religious), but you're right in that the focus has to be removed somewhat from that aspect economics as a discipline. – TL


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