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Formalization, empty formalism, common sense, nonsense

It would be amusing to put the question whether formalization in science is desirable to Archimedes in Sicily or some three hundred years later to Ptolemy in Alexandria. I can imagine Archimedes, in a characteristic turn of phrase, saying that no man of eminence in philosophy would ask such a question. (Suppes, 1968, p. 651)




Formalization will not answer all questions nor solve all problems, but there is a very instructive lesson to be found in the philosophy of mathematics. Over the past hundred years, methods of formalization have been applied extensively to the foundations of mathematics. It is fair to say that during that period there has been more discernible progress in our understanding of the foundations of mathematics and in the depth of the problems that are considered important than in any other branch of philosophy. (Suppes, 1968, p. 653)


Formalisation was not to be merely a mechanical check on the integrity of scientific reasoning, but through the process of axiomatisation, mathematics was to be an engine of discovery. (Weintraub, 1998, p. 1844),




Now ‘formalism’ is not the same thing as ‘formalization’ or ‘mathematization’ because it is possible to express a theory mathematically and even axiomatically without necessarily degenerating into ‘formalism’, which simply means giving top priority to the formal structure of modelling irrespective of its content; ... (Blaug, 1994, p. 131)




Economics for Marshall was the perfection of common sense. (Hoover, 1998, p. 243)


Formalization of even a part of what goes into our common sense understanding of society would be, as he [Keynes] said “prolix and complicated to the point of obscurity.” Theories constructed with vague concepts paradoxically can maximize precision and economy. (Coates, 2007, p. 8)


It [Political Economy] is an abstract science which labours under a special hardship. Those who are conversant with its abstractions are usually without a true contact with its facts; those who are in contact with its facts have usually little sympathy with and little cognisance of its abstractions. Literary men who write about it are constantly using what a great teacher calls 'unreal words,'— that is, they are using expressions with which they have no complete vivid picture to correspond. They are like physiologists who have never dissected; like astronomers who have never seen the stars; and, is consequence, just when they seem to be reasoning at their best, their knowledge of the facts falls short. Their primitive picture fails them, and their deduction altogether misses the mark — sometimes, indeed, goes astray so far, that those who live and move among the facts boldly say that they cannot comprehend 'how any one can talk such nonsense.' Yet, on the other hand, these people who live and move among the facts often, or mostly, cannot of themselves put together any precise reasonings about them. (Bagehot, 1885, PE.13)


The object of our analysis is, not to provide a machine, or method of blind manipulation, which will furnish an infallible answer, but to provide ourselves with an organised and orderly method of thinking out particular problems; and, after we have reached a provisional conclusion by isolating the complicating factors one by one, we then have to go back on ourselves and allow, as well as we can, for the probable interactions of the factors among themselves. This is the nature of economic thinking. (Keynes, 1973, p. 297)


In the early thirties he [Keynes] confessed to Roy Harrod that he was “returning to an age-long tradition of common sense.” (Coates, 2007, p. 11)




People fancied they saw  the sun rise and set, the stars revolve in circles round the pole. We now know that they saw no such thing; what they really saw was a set of appearances, equally reconcileable with the theory they held and with a totally different one. It seems strange that such an instance as this, ... , should not have opened the eyes of the bigots of common sense, and inspired them with a more modest distrust of the competency of mere ignorance to judge the conclusions of cultivated thought. (Mill, 2006, p. 783), original emphasis


Aristotle builded upon a few deliberately chosen concepts – such as matter and form, act and power – very broad, and in their outlines vague and rough, but solid, unshakable, and not easily undermined; and thence it has come to pass that Aristotelianism is babbled in every nursery, that "English Common Sense," for example, is thoroughly peripatetic, and that ordinary men live so completely within the house of the Stagyrite that whatever they see out of the windows appears to them incomprehensible and metaphysical. (Peirce, 1931, 1.1)


I shall never be able to express strongly enough my admiration for the greatness of mind of these men who conceived this [heliocentric] hypothesis and held it to be true. In violent opposition to the evidence of their own senses and by sheer force of intellect, they preferred what reason told them to that which sense experience plainly showed them ... (Galileo, quoted in Popper, 1994, p. 84)


Bacon, the philosopher of science, was, quite consistently, an enemy of the Copernican hypothesis. Don't theorize, he said, but open your eyes and observe without prejudice, and you cannot doubt that the Sun moves and that the Earth is at rest. (Popper, 1994, p. 84)


... it is precisely the task of science to supersede crude common-sense notions by critical analysis, and further that it is the unsatisfactory state of the foundations beneath the common-sense surface which is the most serious and crippling deficiency of contemporary economic science, ... (Hutchison, 1960, p. 18)


The truth is, that common-sense, or thought as it first emerges above the level of the narrowly practical, is deeply imbued with that bad logical quality to which the epithet metaphysical  is commonly applied; and nothing can clear it up but a severe course of logic. (Peirce, 1992, p. 113), original emphasis




Economics inevitably goes beyond common sense and intuition. (Dow, 2006, p. 15)


A formal approach gives the opportunity to make assumptions explicit and to prove results which may previously have been perceived intuitively, or even to deduce conclusions from self-evident truths. These results can then be communicated unambiguously, because they are obtained within a system of agreed rules. There can only be disagreement about the assumptions or the chosen method itself. (Chick, 1998, p. 1867)


... Suppes sees formalization as having the following pay-offs: (1) formalizing a connected family of concepts is one way to bring out their meaning in an explicit fashion; (2) formalization results in the standardization of terminology and the methods of conceptual analysis for various branches of science; (3) the generality provided by formalization enables us to determine the essential features of theories; (4) formalization provides a degree of objectivity which is impossible without formalization; (5) formalization makes clear exactly what is being assumed, and thus is a safeguard against ad hoc and post hoc verbalizations; (6) formalization enables one to determine what the minimal assumptions are which a theory requires. (Cohen, 1977, p. 111-112)




... it is important to understand that what is put in question by recent destructive results is not formalization in general but rather the particular formalization generally employed in economic theory. That a paradigm should be shown to be deficient does not imply that one should cease to search for a paradigm. (Kirman, 1997, p. 97)


Formalization is necessary in order to achieve objective resolution of conflict. There is no other general means of resolving conceptual conflict in science. (Suppes, 1968, p. 664)


Until recently, students of economics had only the choice between the empty formalism of Orthodoxy and the platitudinous common sense of Heterodoxy. Formalization is not  a major problem of economics. Economists are the main problem because they have been chronically incapacitated for proper formalization. There is no prospect for the existing orthodox and heterodox formalisms to pass the double consistency test. Their acceptance by quite a number of economists does not lend them weight but has to be taken as an indicator for the pervasiveness of gullibility and sloppiness.




Bagehot, W. (1885). The Postulates of English Political Economy. Library of Economics and Liberty. URL

Blaug, M. (1994). Why I am Not a Constructivist. Confessions of an Unrepetant Popperian. In R. E. Backhouse (Ed.), New Directions in Economic Methodology, pages 109–136. London, New York, Ny: Routledge.
Chick, V. (1998). On Knowing One’s Place: The Role of Formalism in Economics. Economic Journal, 108(451): 1859–1869. URL
Coates, J. (2007). The Claims of Common Sense. Moore, Wittgenstein, Keynes and the Social Sciences. Cambridge, New York, NY, etc.: Cambridge University Press.
Cohen, I. B. (1977). History and the Philosopher of Science. In F. Suppe (Ed.), The Structure of Scientific Theories, pages 308–349. Urbana, IL, Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Dow, S. C. (2006). Economic Methodology: An Inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hoover, K. D. (1998). Comment: Keynes, Marshall and Involuntary Unemployment. In R. E. Backhouse, D. M. Hausman, U. Mäki, and A. Salanti (Eds.),
Economics and Methodology. Crossing Boundaries, pages 236–247. Houndmills, Basingstoke, London: Palgrave.
Hutchison, T.W. (1960). The Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory. New York, Ny: Kelley.
Keynes, J. M. (1973). The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Vol. VII. London: Macmillan.

Kirman, A. (1997). The Evolution of Economic Theory. In A. d’Autume, and J. Cartelier (Eds.), Is Economics Becoming a Hard Science?, pages 92–107. Cheltenham, Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar.
Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. (1843).

Peirce, C. S. (1931). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volume I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1992). The Fixation of Belief. In N. Houser, and C. Kloesel (Eds.), The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings., volume 1, pages 109–123.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (1877).

Popper, K. R. (1994). The Myth of the Framework. In Defence of Science and Rationality., chapter Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities, pages 82–111. London, New York, Ny: Routledge.

Suppes, P. (1968). The Desirability of Formalization in Science. Journal of Philosophy, 65(20): 651–664.

Weintraub, E. R. (1998). Controversy: Axiomatisches Mißverständnis. Economic Journal, 108(451): 1837–1847. URL



See also  Objective Principles of Economics  URL


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