October 19, 2015

Misled by ordinary intuition and common sense

Comment on Edward Fullbrook on ‘The Counterintuitive Problem’


The decisive strength of Aristotle’s physics had been that it was intuitively convincing and, lo and behold, not too much has changed since the old days: “[The] stunning finding was that 87 percent of the students who had had no training in physics gave answers considered incorrect according to modern physics, but consonant with Aristotelian notions of motion and impetus. A further result, which gave even greater pause, was that 27 percent of those who had studied physics gave Aristotelian answers.” (Mirowski, 1995, p. 104)

So much for the power of intuition and common sense which have turned out in the meantime to be the most persistent impediment to scientific advancement “... that the new physics of the seventeenth century, which replaced the older concepts of motion, rest, and change, involved a radical reorientation of the view of the cosmos and the possibilities of an infinite void space, thus yielding an almost entirely new philosophy of nature and a wholly different physics that contradicted ordinary intuition and common sense.” (Cohen, 1977, p. 318-319)

In short, science begins exactly beyond ordinary intuition and common sense as already J. S. Mill told his fellow economists: “People fancied they saw the sun rise and set, the stars revolve in circles round the pole. We now know that they saw no such thing; what they really saw was a set of appearances, equally reconcileable with the theory they held and with a totally different one. It seems strange that such an instance as this, ..., should not have opened the eyes of the bigots of common sense, and inspired them with a more modest distrust of the competency of mere ignorance to judge the conclusions of cultivated thought.” (2006, p. 783)

This crucial insight was lost on the Cambridge School, first on Marshall “Economics for Marshall was the perfection of common sense.” (Hoover, 1998, p. 243), then on Keynes “L’intuition de Keynes lui a fait sentir où se trouvaient les difficultés, mais son insuffisance logique ne lui a pas permis de résoudre les problèmes que son intuition lui avait fait entrevoir.” (Allais, 1993, p. 70) [Keynes intuition led him to the real difficulties but his logical inability thwarted the solution (see also 2011)]. As Moggridge confirmed, “For, if anything, Keynes was the most intuitive of men.” (1976, p. 33)

To reject Keynes’ ordinary intuition is not to reject scientific intuition “... we cannot over-emphasize the fundamental role played in this research by a special intuition, which is not the popular sense-intuition, but rather a kind of direct divination (ahead of all reasoning) ...” (Bourbaki, 2005, p. 1272)

The most misleading intuition is that economics is a science of behavior (2011). It should be clear by now that second-guessing human behavior, animal spirits or reflexive expectations cannot lead to much more than folk psychology, sociologism, storytelling or gossip.

The crucial methodological error/mistake can be traced back to Jevons: “The science of Economics, however, is in some degree peculiar, owing to the fact ... that its ultimate laws are known to us immediately by intuition, or, at any rate, they are furnished to us ready made by other mental or physical sciences.” (Jevons, 1911, p. 18)

This turned out to be the representative economist’s fatal illusion “It is possibly very encouraging for the economist to hear that compared with the natural scientist the psychological method saves him “ages of laborious research” but it is curious and a pity that this huge start has not enabled him to formulate any considerable body of reliable prognoses such as the natural sciences have managed to achieve.” (Hutchison, 1960, p. 132)

What the representative economist has not realized until this very day is that ordinary intuition and common sense are the very hallmarks of proto-science. All depends on taking the decisive methodological step: “Economics inevitably goes beyond common sense and intuition.” (Dow, 2006, p. 15)

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Allais, M. (1993). Les Fondements Comptable de la Macro-Économie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2nd edition.
Bourbaki, N. (2005). The Architecture of Mathematics. In W. Ewald (Ed.), From Kant to Hilbert. A Source Book in the Foundations of Mathematics, Volume II, pages 1265–1276. Oxford, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, I. B. (1977). History and the Philosopher of Science. In F. Suppe (Ed.), The Structure of Scientific Theories, pp. 308–349. Urbana, IL, Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Dow, S. C. (2006). Economic Methodology: An Inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hoover, K. D. (1998). Comment: Keynes, Marshall and Involuntary Unemployment. In R. E. Backhouse, D. M. Hausman, U. Mäki, and A. Salanti (Eds.), Economics and Methodology. Crossing Boundaries, pp. 236–247. Houndmills, Basingstoke, London: Palgrave.
Hudík, M. (2011). Why Economics is Not a Science of Behaviour. Journal of Economic Methodology, 18(2): 147–162.
Hutchison, T.W. (1960). The Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory. New York, NY: Kelley.
Jevons, W. S. (1911). The Theory of Political Economy. London, Bombay, etc.: Macmillan, 4th edition. URL https://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/Jevons/jvnPE.html
Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2011). Why Post Keynesianism is Not Yet a Science. SSRN Working Paper Series, 1966438: 1–20. URL
Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Mirowski, P. (1995). More Heat than Light. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moggridge, D. E. (1976). Keynes. London, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Related 'The Science-of-Man fallacy'.