Kenneth Arrow died on Feb. 21 at the age of 95. I am not a scholar of Arrow’s work, per se, but inasmuch as I’ve studied him in the context of my broader work, I’ve always found him to be a thoughtful and intriguing person. My book, Rational Action, even gives him the last word.
My point, channeled through Arrow, is that the people who developed fields like operations research and decision theory and who formalized economics were not advocating an exotic, revolutionary, or naive concept of rationality and governance. Rather, they worked to understand and explicitly describe rationality as it exists in the world and to use and improve on that rationality so as to improve decision making and policy. In 1957, Arrow described building formal (i.e., mathematics and logic-based) models of decision making as striving toward a final destination that could never be reached. But, drawing on Goethe’s Faust, he regarded the very act of striving as offering a chance at intellectual salvation. (“He who ever strives, him can we save” / Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, Den können wir erlösen.)
But to what end was Arrow actually striving? I would argue that, certainly early in his career, it was not primarily toward more faithful descriptions of reality—his craft remained far distant from that destination. Rather, his paramount interest was to use models to build an improved critical understanding of cutting-edge concepts and ideas—their presuppositions and logical consequences, their possibilities, and their limits. In this, Arrow was not so different from the humanistic (literary, historical, or philosophical) critic. Yet, his methods were, of course, very different.