The many faces of rational choice theory
Online Event “META Lecture”
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, theories of rational choice have been extensively employed in economics and the social sciences more generally. They have been used in the hope of solving a variety of distinct conceptual, methodological and epistemic problems and are thus to be found in nearly any context in which economists aim at generating knowledge about the economy. At the same time, theories of rational choice have been attacked from various sides. As they have been empirically falsified countless times, they have often been identified as responsible for the explanatory and predictive shortcomings of economic models and theories. In this talk, I aim to provide a fresh perspective on persistent debates about the epistemic potentials and limitations of rational choice theory. First, I suggest that rational choice theory has many conceptually and methodologically distinct faces that remain prevalent in contemporary economics, but have emerged from a history of earlier attempts to conceptualize the behavior of human agents. By looking more closely at a set of historical and contemporary cases, I argue that the way in which rational choice theories have been used and justified in economics has depended crucially upon the problems that economists addressed. They should accordingly be evaluated against the backdrop of precisely those problems they were meant to provide a solution for. Second, I argue that even if economists could draw upon an empirically more adequate theory of human behavior, it remains to be seen whether they have found an appropriate solution for the empirical difficulties that economic models and theories actually confront.
Catherine Herfeld is an Assistant Professor of social theory and philosophy of the social sciences at the University of Zurich, where she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Sociology. Her research interests are broadly located history and philosophy of the social sciences. Among other topics, she is interested in issues such as the history and foundations of rational choice theories in economics, concept formation in economics, the challenges of cross-disciplinary transfer of scientific models, as well as in the potentials and limitations of rational choice explanations in the social sciences.
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