Naturalizing the Subject of Economics: From Following the Norms of Natural Science to Owning the Laws of Nature

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One of the central threads in the historical development of economic science since the 18th century is the search for ways to turn the economy into a discipline resembling natural science, to put it on a solid empirical foundation expressed in mathematical language completely devoid of subjectivity while it apprehends the laws of nature. The article reviews the epistemological history of economics as a discipline through confrontations between epistemic virtues ("moral certainty" and
more » ... objectivity"), research strategies (empiricism and mathematical rationality) and institutional status (science or art). In this regard, the authors analyze the transitions from understanding economics as a "moral science" through the marginalist and formalist revolutions to taking economics as a field for formal ontologies and abstract mathematical models and tools. They then focus on tracing economic theory's consistent adherence to the epistemological standard of scientific knowledge which was set by classical mechanics — the historical core of science in the modern era — together with the costs incurred by mathematical presentation and rejection of the ideal of "moral certainty". The authors show how the loss of the empirical component and the growing issue of the substantive component of formal models have resulted in the "empirical turn" in economics. Using the example of neuroeconomics as the most radical attempt to naturalize the subject matter of economics, they outline the modern attempts to saturate economic research with empirical content and return to the project of a "physicalist" economics that will discover the laws of nature as the natural sciences have done. The authors argue from the ambivalent nature of the purposes and results of neuroeconomics to show that the empirical path of neuroeconomics, which was adopted in order to link the formal concepts of neoclassical economic theory with the experimental data and material models of neuroscience, leads instead to further degradation of the subject matter of economics as social objects are replaced with their presumed material infrastructure (neurophysiological correlates of social facts) without solving the problem of the empirical foundation for economic theory.
doi:10.22394/0869-5377-2020-3-21-50 fatcat:gg5hvdqkp5a5xemcn6p64qppeq