Sunday, March 16, 2008

Adam Smith, Chess Boards and Looking Outside Our Windows

Marshall Manson writes ‘Academics Getting Too Specialised?’ (here) 16 March:

For the last couple days, I attended a conference that involved a number academics. Listening to the discussion got me thinking: Has academics become too specialized?
Not too long ago, I read the excellent book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Among other things, it focuses on Scotland during the Enlightenment, and it reminded me how great thinkers of that era were not specialists. The most famous, of course, is Leonardo da Vinci. He was a painter, inventor, scientist and mathematician. As such, he was aware of the many other great thinkers of his age.
Like Da Vinci, famed father of modern economics, Adam Smith, was an enlightenment era academic. But he famously spent huge amount of his time in the coffee houses of Edinburgh and Glasgow exchanging ideas with the greatest minds of his age from a wide range of disciplines.

Mutli-disciplinary expertise wasn’t limited to Smith and Da Vinci. Surgeons were naturalists. Geologists were moral and natural philosophers. Lawyers were interested in physics and chemistry. (Check out this list for many more examples.)
As such, the great thinkers were constantly challenged by the best ideas from other disciplines. Myopia induced by specialization was impossible.

Over the last few days, I listened to hours of academic presentations. Only once did a speaker suggest looking to other disciplines for guidance. And his remarks, it seemed, were met with skepticism among the assembly.

Why shouldn’t the principles that underly physics or philosophy or psychology impact the theory and practice of communications? It seems to me that it should. And it seems to me that professors of all stripes could benefit from looking beyond their own fields a little more often.

Apart from one or two minor quibbles, I completely agree with Marshall Manson’s sentiments. Modern economics is now a sub-branch of mathematics and not much advanced for all that. It is obsessed with predicting the future, where it track record is not good, and pretty useless in dealing with the present, and as for the past, that is a foreign territory. It is not often that they ‘look outside their windows’.

Adam Smith was interested in mathematics, both as a student and as a professor and, later, a gentleman scholar, but he was very clear on its limitations when dealing with people as if they were wooden pieces on a chess board (Moral Sentiments, VI.ii.2.17, p 234), absent a ‘principle of motion of their own’.

Fortunately the tide is turning. Neuroscience is providing some welcome insights into phenomena normally preserved by what is called still, mainstream economics, as is anthropology, sociology, history, evolutionary psychology, primate studies, biology, philosophy, jurisprudence, languages and linguistics, and evolution. Some of these take us back to where the Enlightenment was located and where Adam Smith was in his element.

It is not the mainstream economics is totally useless; it’s just inadequate. Like Adam Smith, I think we should prefer to look outside our windows.


Post a Comment

<< Home