The fetishism of mathematics and its secret

Posted: 22 September 2009 in Uncategorized
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Many economists are obsessed with mathematics. That’s especially true among neoclassical economists but not unknown, as I have discovered, among Marxian and other heterodox economists.

Clearly, Krugman’s critique of mathematical elegance has struck a chord:

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.

The latest to have his feathers ruffled and to proclaim that mathematics is the special code of economics is Gregory Mankiw:

mathematics is, fundamentally, the language of logic. Modern research into Keynes’s theories—I have conducted such research myself—tries to put his ideas into mathematical form precisely to figure out whether they logically cohere. It turns out that the task is not easy.

No, mathematics is one among many languages, one set of metaphors among others. But for economists like Mankiw, mathematics has a unique, special status in the way economic analysis is carried out. It’s the blunt weapon used to question the validity of Keynes’s theory and to bludgeon other not-necessarily-mathematical approaches to economics.

That’s what I argued in “The Merchant of Venice, or Marxism in the Mathematical Mode,” an essay published in 1988 (during the period when I taught graduate Mathematical Methods for Economics). When mathematics is assumed to be the special code of economics, it is either underprivileged or overprivileged. Underprivileged, if it is seen to be a neutral medium, and thus does not affect the results of economic analysis. It is the “language of logic,” which all economists should be forced to use. Overpriviledged, if it is taken to be the language of the book of nature, which means that only using mathematical formalisms and models provides access to reality.

Underprivileged or overprivileged, empiricism or rationalism—in both cases, mathematics becomes a special code.

The goal of questioning the fetishism of mathematics is, of course, not to argue against the use of mathematical forms of discourse but to recognize that, like all sets of metaphors, mathematics enlightens and obscures, it needs to be written down and erased, at the same time.


And it all began with the Treviso Arithmetic, the earliest known printed mathematics book in the West, an anonymous textbook in commercial arithmetic written in vernacular Venetian and published in Treviso, Italy in 1478.

  1. richard lloyd says:

    Please can you send me a copy of your article?

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