On abstraction and idealization in economics

20 January, 2015 at 10:18 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments

When applying deductivist thinking to economics, neoclassical economists usually set up “as if” models based on a set of tight axiomatic assumptions from which consistent and precise inferences are made. The beauty of this procedure is of course that if the axiomatic premises are true, the conclusions necessarily follow. idealization-in-cognitive-and-generative-linguistics-6-728The snag is that if the models are to be relevant, we also have to argue that their precision and rigour still holds when they are applied to real-world situations. They often don’t. When addressing real economies, the idealizations and abstractions necessary for the deductivist machinery to work simply don’t hold.

If the real world is fuzzy, vague and indeterminate, then why should our models build upon a desire to describe it as precise and predictable? The logic of idealization is a marvellous tool in mathematics and axiomatic-deductivist systems, but a poor guide for action in real-world systems, in which concepts and entities are without clear boundaries and continually interact and overlap.

Or as Hans Albert has it on the neoclassical style of thought:

In everyday situations, if, in answer to an inquiry about the weather forecast, one is told that the weather will remain the same as long as it does not change, then one does not normally go away with the impression of having been particularly well informed, although it cannot be denied that the answer refers to an interesting aspect of reality, and, beyond that, it is undoubtedly true …

We are not normally interested merely in the truth of a statement, nor merely in its relation to reality; we are fundamentally interested in what it says, that is, in the information that it contains …

Information can only be obtained by limiting logical possibilities; and this in principle entails the risk that the respective statement may be exposed as false. It is even possible to say that the risk of failure increases with the informational content, so that precisely those statements that are in some respects most interesting, the nomological statements of the theoretical hard sciences, are most subject to this risk. The certainty of statements is best obtained at the cost of informational content, for only an absolutely empty and thus uninformative statement can achieve the maximal logical probability …

hans_albertThe neoclassical style of thought – with its emphasis on thought experiments, reflection on the basis of illustrative examples and logically possible extreme cases, its use of model construction as the basis of plausible assumptions, as well as its tendency to decrease the level of abstraction, and similar procedures – appears to have had such a strong influence on economic methodology that even theoreticians who strongly value experience can only free themselves from this methodology with difficulty …

Science progresses through the gradual elimination of errors from a large offering of rivalling ideas, the truth of which no one can know from the outset. The question of which of the many theoretical schemes will finally prove to be especially productive and will be maintained after empirical investigation cannot be decided a priori. Yet to be useful at all, it is necessary that they are initially formulated so as to be subject to the risk of being revealed as errors. Thus one cannot attempt to preserve them from failure at every price. A theory is scientifically relevant first of all because of its possible explanatory power, its performance, which is coupled with its informational content …

The connections sketched out above are part of the general logic of the sciences and can thus be applied to the social sciences. Above all, with their help, it appears to be possible to illuminate a methodological peculiarity of neoclassical thought in economics, which probably stands in a certain relation to the isolation from sociological and social-psychological knowledge that has been cultivated in this discipline for some time: the model Platonism of pure economics, which comes to expression in attempts to immunize economic statements and sets of statements (models) from experience through the application of conventionalist strategies …

Clearly, it is possible to interpret the ‘presuppositions’ of a theoretical system … not as hypotheses, but simply as limitations to the area of application of the system in question. Since a relationship to reality is usually ensured by the language used in economic statements, in this case the impression is generated that a content-laden statement about reality is being made, although the system is fully immunized and thus without content. In my view that is often a source of self-deception in pure economic thought …

A further possibility for immunizing theories consists in simply leaving open the area of application of the constructed model so that it is impossible to refute it with counter examples. This of course is usually done without a complete knowledge of the fatal consequences of such methodological strategies for the usefulness of the theoretical conception in question, but with the view that this is a characteristic of especially highly developed economic procedures: the thinking in models, which, however, among those theoreticians who cultivate neoclassical thought, in essence amounts to a new form of Platonism.



  1. The problem of the content-less models or the immunity of the models from reality, and perhaps from commentary and criticism, is that they are depoliticized. That is, political considerations have determined the funding for and selection mechanisms for the theory construction and its evaluation, and thus make the models appear nonpolitical.

  2. […] of articles and books since 2008, as well as in heated blog debates at places like Noahpinion and Lars P. Syll‘s blog, and I won’t rehearse it […]

  3. Hans Albert: “Information can only be obtained by limiting logical possibilities”.

    I like it. Schumpeter said something similar: “… The distinction is, in a sense, quite unrealistic. But if we do not make it, we shall never be able to say more than that everything depends upon everything.”

    From “The Analysis of Economic Change” in Readings in Business Cycle Theory (1951).

  4. […] Syll quotes an interesting passage from Hans Albert on the weird use of theoretical abstraction in economics; […]

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