South African Journal of Philosophy

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Setting the scientistic cat among the humanist pigeons Don Ross. Economic theory and cognitive science: Microexplanation

A Gouws


This is a review article of Ross (2005), a book which attempts to show the
implications of cognitive science and economics for each other. Ross makes neoclassical economics central to the unification of the behavioural sciences, and defends its fundamental health against its critics. He locates the source of the empirical and conceptual problems besetting neoclassical economics in the mistaken assumption that the economic agents neoclassicism talks about refer directly to real, whole people. Ross argues that people are atypical as economic agents; bugs and other non-social animals are much more typical, and neoclassical economics applies to them in a straightforward way. How then does economics apply to the atypical agents that people are? Ross’s answer builds on Ainslie (2001), who models people as being the result of strategic interactions between successive economic agents, and on Glimcher’s (2003) work on the neuroeconomics of game playing in monkeys which, Ross argues, can be extrapolated to humans. The author is impressed by the boldness of Ross’s vision, and the arguments offered to support it. However, doubts remain about Ross’s theory of the self, the lifespan of the proposed successive economic agents out of which real people are composed, the implicit suggestion that in economics approximations can be overcome, and finally the conclusiveness of Ross’s case against the need for revolutionary reappraisals of neoclassical economics.

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