More Light and Less Heat: Mirowski on Economics and the Energy Metaphor

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Philosophy of the Social Sciences




I initially approached More Heat than Light with some apprehension. This is not because I suspected that I would disagree with its main thesis but because I feared that I would find the book anticlimactic. Over the past few years, Phil Mirowski has served us a number of delightful appetizers’-so many in fact that I suspected I might tire of the taste before the main entrée appeared. These concerns were wholly unfounded. The main entrée has finally arrived and is of such depth and complexity that it makes the appetizers, well, just appetizers. Mirowski’s central thesis is that neoclassical economics-initially developed during the 1870s and currently the dominant paradigm in economic theory-amounts to little more than a &dquo;brazen daylight robbery&dquo; (p. 4)2 of nineteenth-century energy physics. Motivated by the desire to achieve the status and prestige of the physical sciences, early neoclassical economists created their &dquo;revolution&dquo; by simply substituting &dquo;utility&dquo; for &dquo;energy&dquo; in the physics of their day. In a limited respect, this project was successful-the mathematical formalism of energy physics did (and does) contribute to the scientific respectability of the neoclassical research program-but this status was achieved at substantial cost. Mirowski argues that there were (and are) deep problems associated with the economic appropriation of the energy metaphor; physical systems have properties that make the mathematics appropriate, but these properties are not shared by economic systems. For example, the physical requirement that potential energy and kinetic energy sum to a constant translates into the economic requirement that utility and income sum to a constant. This is a problem because utility and income are measured in entirely different units. Mirowski argues that such difficulties were exacerbated by the scientific naivete of the early neoclassical economists who were trained in science and engineering-they had been exposed to the basic ideas of energy physics-but their knowledge was relatively rudimentary (p. 250). The result was energy physics appropriated in a &dquo;shoddy and slipshod manner&dquo; (p. 108). Mirowski provides a detailed discussion of how this misappropriation of the energy metaphor has surreptitiously influenced the development of modern economic thought. He reconstructs and explains certain generally accepted facts of theoretical life in economics (such as the problems of neoclassical production theory) and exposes some of the fundamental weaknesses of neoclassical theory (such as its inability to explain preference changes). Mirowski also argues that the dominance of the energy metaphor from nineteenth-century physics has prevented economists from taking advantage of more recent developments in physical theory, such as quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. The result, according to Mirowski, is a tale reminiscent of Dorian Gray .... Neoclassicals, by imbibing some mystical elixir of modern mathematical techniques, have maintained the figure of vibrant youth, while hidden away somewhere in the attic is the real portrait, the original metaphor of a conserved preference field in an independently constituted commodity space, growing progressively desiccated and decrepit. (p. 374) My overall evaluation of Mirowski’s thesis is quite positive. I believe that he is entirely correct about the role of the energy metaphor in early neoclassical economics (probably reaching an apogee in Irving Fisher), and he is also correct that the metaphor has been lurking ever since in the background of neoclassical economics. The energy metaphor and its mathematics have been actively influential in the development of modem neoclassical theory, although I would probably weaken its impact from Mirowski’s story by saying &dquo;influenced&dquo; whereas Mirowski would say &dquo;dominated.&dquo; Where I mainly differ from Mirowski is on the implications of his thesis. For Mirowski, uncovering this hidden influence amounts to a scathing critique of modern neoclassical economics (and given the neoclassical dominance of the profession, this means most of modem economics). For him, the metaphor and its mathematics have been both dominant and pernicious. I disagree. While I am convinced that Mirowski has uncovered something important that can be used to further our understanding of the development of modem economic theory, I am not convinced that his thesis entails the kind of critical bite that he would like it to have. Given this overall evaluation of More Heat than Light, I will divide my comments into two sections. The first-more light-lends additional support to Mirowski’s general historical thesis by using it to illuminate two areas of modem neoclassical economics that Mirowski does not emphasize. The second-less heat-offers some arguments against Mirowski’s critical interpretation of his general thesis.