Home > Uncategorized > The Mathesis Universalis and Neoclassical Economics

The Mathesis Universalis and Neoclassical Economics

from Maria Alejandra Madi

As Edward Fullbrook highlights in his recent book Narrative Fixation in Economics, the Cartesian view of human reality has deeply shaped the way Neoclassical Economics theorizes about the economic and social existence (2016, p. 45). Indeed, while emphasizing the relevance of the pure thought of a disembedded human subject,  Neoclassical Economics has reinforced the relevance of the Cartesian method of inquiry  that moved the so called scientific (true) knowledge  out of the general flux of experience.

In the second part of the Discourse of Method, Descartes presented some principles that should be followed in order to acquire knowledge: 1) human beings cannot  admit any ideas that are not absolutely clear; 2) human beings must divide each problem in so many parts as appropriate for its best resolution; 3) human beings should apply deductive reasoning to organize their  thoughts from the simplest to the most complex ones 4) the analytical-synthetic process of reasoning leads to true knowledge.

According to Descartes, the first principle of his method focuses the importance of “never accepting something as true that I clearly don’t know as such” (Discourse of Method, Part II). Indeed, Descartes inspired himself in Geometry as a model of Science. As a result, he considered the postulates of Geometry not only as universal and necessary but also as clear and distinctive ideas related to intellectual intuition. Only these clear and distinctive ideas  are considered to be the pillars of true knowledge.

Based on the second principle, Descartes builds his research method of analysis that isolates the clear and distinctive ideas from the most complex ones. His emphasis on the order of thoughts strengthens the role of Mathematics in the Cartesian method of pure inquiry. Moreover, the third principle of his method leads to a special kind of organization of thoughts. In his own words, the organization of thought should start “with the simplest and easier to gradually rise, as if by means of steps, to the knowledge of the more composed, and assuming an order between the ones that don’t precede naturally each other” (Discourse of Method, Part II).  read more

  1. Susan Feiner
    May 23, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    The Flight to Objectivity, Susan Bordo, makes a strong feminist case that “objectivity” ala Cartesian world view is a psychological attempt to contain & order the massive anxiety produced by the reams of new knowledge challenging Catholic orthodoxies about natur, power, right.

  2. May 25, 2017 at 6:36 am

    This is an interesting post. I am not a deep student of the ideology of Descartes, but I’ve long thought he had d’cartes before d’hors. There are ideas in this post that I realize can retard system thinking, a focus I’ve applied to both forestry and economics.

    Quoted here: “human beings must divide each problem in so many parts as appropriate for its best resolution”. Too often we practice this reductionism to the detriment of finding the resolution. It is as if, to understand a lego construction, we pull it apart, examine the pieces that are most interesting, then go off to explore something else, leaving all the lego pieces in a jumble on the table.

    A life system, such as a naturally healthy forest, is ultimately irreducible and quite complex. It can be conceived as systems within systems, itself a system within a larger system, and embracing systems within itself. One such system is forest soil, a marvelously complex life system. We can focus on soil and, if we are not careful, attend so much to the parts that we ignore the relationships and functions. We can reduce soil to its minerality and mass and consider that its purposes are to, somehow, provide nutrient minerals to the trees, and use its weight to bear down on the roots to keep the trees upright. We can further think of that soil as a commodity to bag and sell at Home Depot, leaving behind “empty” space to support the construction of a subdivision. Too much of such focus and the forest dies.

    A parallel reductionist focus in neoclassical economics and we have a dead economy.

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