“Philosophy of Economics” or “Philosophical Economics”

The economist and philosopher Erik Angner has an interesting post on his blog about the proper label to give to academic works at the intersection between economics and philosophy. He claims that “philosophical economics” is the appropriate label, rather than the more usual “philosophy of economics” or “economic philosophy”. In some way, Angner is right that both philosophy of economics and economic philosophy are too restrictive. Not only they suggest that most of the work is done by philosophers from a philosophical point of view. “Economic philosophy” seems to refer to a particular kind of philosophy, while “philosophy of economics” tends to indicate that all the studies belong to a subfield of the philosophy of science. Clearly, this does not correspond to the actual practice: a great part of the work located at the intersection between economics and philosophy is done by economists; this work is not committed to a particular kind of philosophy ; a substantial part of this work as nothing to do with philosophy of science.

Still, Angner’s suggestion sounds awkward to me, in part because it is also restrictive. Maybe a better way to approach the problem is to look at the work done by economists and philosophers that can be reasonably considered as being at the intersection between economics and philosophy and to try to make some kind of typology. Here is my proposal. I see four not mutually exclusive types of work belonging to this intersection. A first category can be referred to as “economic analysis of philosophical issues” (in the same way that we have the economic analysis of law). In this category, we will find all the studies that use economic tools and theories to study what are generally considered as philosophical problems. The most significant examples are all the works using game theory (bargaining game theory, evolutionary game theory) and rational choice theory to study issues like the evolution of morality and moral norms. The references are too numerous to be cited (see some articles and books by Binmore, Gauthier, Skyrms, Alexander, Young, …). Also in this domain falls the works belonging to what is called the “economics of scientific knowledge”.

A second category is what is traditionally called “economic methodology”, i.e. the study of the methods and practices of economists to produce knowledge. Economic methodology is generally divided between two subparts: “Methodology” with a capital “M” and “methodology”. The former tackles the big questions which are standard in the philosophy of science (causality, scientific progress, measurement) but with an application to economics. The latter deals with more specific issues related to the practice of economists (e.g. how economists build and use models, specific issues related to the use of econometrics or natural experiments, …). The third category corresponds to what I would call the “ontology of economics”: the inquiry into the nature of economic kinds and objects (e.g. the work of Uskali Mäki). Writings in social ontology fall also in this category since they generally tackle the same issues. Finally, the fourth category corresponds to what I would call “philosophical investigations of economic topics” or maybe “philosophical economics”. This may sound similar to economic methodology but actually they are not identical. Works belonging to this category either attempt to clarify and to refine the economists’ use of some concepts (e.g. Dan Hausman’s work on the concept of preference), to assess the normative commitments of economists (e.g. the explosion of writings – most of them critical – about libertarian paternalism and the nudge approach) or more generally to investigate the ethical dimension of economic theories and categories (e.g. many of Sen’s writings on ethics and economics).

I said above that these four categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they probably overlap. The use of Venn diagram may help to visualize this:


What about the intersections? First, note that the size of the intersections in the diagram is arbitrary and does not necessarily reflect the amount or the importance of works belonging to it. There are nine intersections and so I will not comment on them all. Maybe some of them are actually empty. For instance, I am not able to cite works belonging to intersection I, except maybe for the writings of Don Ross on economic agency and the relationship economics and other social sciences (Ross uses game theory to explain the emergence of economic agency, builds on a theory of intentionality, makes claim about the proper interpretation of economics concepts such as preferences and choices, …). Other intersections are clearly relevant. For instance, Dan Hausman’s work about the preference concept mentioned above belongs both to economic methodology and what I call “philosophical investigations of economic topics” (intersection B). The economics of scientific knowledge arguably both belong to the economic analysis of philosophical issues and economic methodology (intersection A). As an illustration of intersection C, I would modestly cite my work on salience and on constitutive rules in game theory. Tony Lawson’s and some of Mäki’s writings are clearly an instance of intersection D or even E. Michael Bacharach’s and Robert Sugden’s work on team reasoning seem to me as being great examples of intersection F. And so on. Note that the construction of the diagram assumes that some intersections are logically impossible: economics analysis of philosophical issues/philosophical investigations of economic topics, and ontology of economics/economic methodology. Maybe this is wrong, but it seems to me that in both cases a third category is required to make sense of such intersections.

In the end, how should we call the whole field represented by the four circles and their nine intersections? Maybe simply “Economics and philosophy” is the more appropriate, as it points out the intersection between two fields, without any commitment regarding any priority of one field over another or the preference for any particular perspective. By the way, this is also the name of one of – if not the major academic journal in this domain.


2 thoughts on ““Philosophy of Economics” or “Philosophical Economics”

  1. I have a major issue with your position that the intersection between ontology of economics and economic methodology is logically impossible. It seems to me that a deep understanding of the nature of economic objects (ontology of economics) is mandatory to decide which methods are applicable to the investigation of economic phenomena (economic methodology) and that the failure of conventional mainstream economics is due to the fact that economists use methods that are incompatible with the nature of the objects and phenomena they pretend to analyse.


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