Category Archives: Social Science

Kenneth Arrow and Formal Modeling as a Form of Criticism, Part 1


arrowKenneth 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.

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What did Warren Weaver mean when he spoke of “the rational life”?

In 1947 Air Force Project RAND—then a branch of Douglas Aircraft, but soon to become the independent RAND Corporation—decided that it needed to recruit social scientists to aid it in its studies of prospective military technologies. As a step forward it held a conference of social scientists that September. The director of natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, mathematician Warren Waver, delivered the conference’s opening remarks.

The beginning of Warren Weaver's speech to open the RAND conference on social science

The characteristically jokey opening to Warren Weaver’s opening remarks to the RAND Corporation’s 1947 conference on social science. People from technical fields moonlighting in the social sciences are prominently mentioned. The president of the New Jersey Telephone Company was Chester Barnard, who would soon become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Document source: Papers of Edward L. Bowles, Box 44, Folder 4, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Asking the rhetorical question of why they had assembled there, Weaver began by explaining: “I take it that every person in this room is fundamentally interested and devoted to what you can just broadly call the rational life.”

As I note in a parallel post at Ether Wave Propaganda, the remark was first quoted in journalist Fred Kaplan’s 1983 book The Wizards of Armageddon, where it is truncated and explained in such a way that it appears to augur an attempt to marshall social scientists into an attempt “impose” a rational order on military strategy and national policy. The “rational life” quote has been used by a number of other authors since Kaplan’s book appeared, and the meaning of the term has always been taken for granted. This post explores what Weaver had in mind.

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Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis, and in Modern Life

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Max Weber (1864–1920)

For my first post on Rational Action, I’d like to offer a summary of Max Weber’s classic analysis of rationality and social action in his posthumously published Economy and Society (E&S, 1922).1 This subject has not exactly wanted for attention. Weber’s discussion is unquestionably an important reference in twentieth-century thinking about rationality, and we will no doubt have ample opportunity to link back to this post in the future.

A central feature of Weber’s sociology was his belief that sociological inquiry should be grounded in the analysis of how individuals attach “meanings” to their “social actions.” For Weber, an action was social and subjectively meaningful to the actor insofar as it embodied some consideration concerning how others had acted and would act. Individuals’ social actions collectively gave rise to observed forms of social organization.

Rationality and Social Action

In Weber’s view, social actions could be classified into four types: “instrumentally rational (zweckrational),” “value-rational (wertrational),” “affectual,” and “traditional,” though he noted that this list was not necessarily “exhaustive” (E&S 1.1.2).

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