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CPP Colloquium: Uncertainty and Technocracy in Economics and Rawls

  • Eric Schliesser
11 November 2015
CPP Colloquium 2015-2016 & 2016-2017
Reuvensplaats 3-4
2311 BE Leiden

The Centre for Political Philosophy (CPP) at Leiden University is pleased to announce that the next colloquium will welcome Eric Schliesser(University of Amsterdam), presenting a paper on:

Uncertainty and Technocracy in Economics and Rawls 


This paper has two aims. The main objective is, first, to put the rediscovery of genuine Knightian uncertainty after the (2008) financial crisis in conceptual perspective; I do so by way of an extended analysis of the changes in twentieth century economics. The second, more tentative aim is to offer a characterization of the significance of uncertainty and technocracy in twentieth century mathematical economics and Rawls’s political philosophy. I will argue that despite the strong criticisms of Rawls by Arrow and Harsanyi, the three share a commitment to what I will call ‘technocratic conception of politics,’ which finds it very difficult to accept genuine uncertainty. 

This paper proceeds as follows in four main sections: first, I use a remarkable, recent self-study by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) as an exemplar of the re-discovery of uncertainty in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and, in particular, to illustrate how difficult it is for policy economists to find a way to characterize uncertainty with their conceptual apparatus. Second, I then turn back in time in order to sketch the pre-1945 approach to uncertainty in economics. In doing so I make two main points: A) uncertainty was accepted by thinkers as politically and intellectually diverse as Frank Knight and John Maynard Keynes. B) I distinguish between epistemic and metaphysical versions of uncertainty. Third, in the next second, I describe what happened with uncertainty in the context of the formal revolution in economics that is associated with names such as Samuelson and Arrow and subsequently the social sciences more generally. 

The key claim I secure is that during the formal revolution, uncertainty got displaced by successor concepts that are neither identical to it nor to each other. That is, I argue that there is, as Samuelson suggested, a radical break by the early 1950s with earlier political economy. This radical break was necessary for what I call ‘a technocratic conception of politics’ to emerge successfully in economics. In the fourth section I argue that Rawls also embraces the technocratic conception of politics that is characteristic of post-WWII mathematical economics even though he is more sensitive than Arrow to the place of uncertainty.

About Eric Schliesser

Eric Schliesser (PhD, University of Chicago) is Professor of Political Science, with a focus on Political Theory, at the University of Photo: Dirk GillissenAmsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. His research encompasses a variety of themes, ranging from economic statistics in classical Babylon, the history of the natural sciences and forgotten 18th-century feminists (both male and female) to political theory and the history of political theory and the assumptions used in mathematical economics. Schliesser's interest in the influence of Chicago school of economics has increasingly 
moved his research toward the study of the methodology and political role of economists as experts. 

Schliesser is BOF research professor and associate professor of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University. He was previously affiliated with Syracuse University and Leiden University, among others. Schliesser is the co-founder of the Ghent Complex Systems Institute, an interdisciplinary research group that studies critical events in complex social systems. He has published prolifically on Newton, Huygens, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, Adam Smith and Sophie De Grouchy, and is currently writing a book on Adam Smith as a systematic philosopher as well as working on the proofs of Sympathy, a History of a Concept: from Plato to Experimental Economics (Oxford). He keeps a daily blog Digressionsnimpressions and is a member of the Dutch-language group blog Bijnaderinzien.

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