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Philosophy of Science

Naturalized Philosophy of Science and Economic Method

Christoph Luetge
University of Munich, Germany

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ABSTRACT: This paper draws a connection between recent developments in naturalized philosophy of science and in economics. Social epistemology is one part of the naturalistic enterprise that has become especially important. Some approaches in this field use methods borrowed from economics, a fact that has often been overlooked. But there are also genuinely economic approaches to the problems of science and knowledge. Some of these approaches can be seen as contributions to an "economic epistemology." While these contributions are certainly fruitful, they have also raised criticism from economists. I overview of these points of criticism and outline possibilities to deal with these problems. In particular, the Buchanan research program offers some help.

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1. The project of naturalizing philosophy of science and epistemology

In recent years, the idea of naturalism has become increasingly popular in philosophy. (1) According to Philip Kitcher (1992), this is a 'natural' return to an approach that philosophers like Descartes, Locke and Leibniz employed. It was only with the writings of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein that the naturalistic way was substituted by an approach that relied primarily on philosophy of language. Kitcher leaves it open whether this was a deviation from the 'proper' philosophical problems or not. But it seems clear that in his view, there is a lot to be gained from naturalism. Kitcher welcomes the new naturalistic movement, which was inspired by writers such as W.V.O. Quine (2) and Thomas Kuhn, (3) but which did not become popular until the late 1980s. Its main thesis is this:

"Questions about how we actually arrive at our beliefs are [...] relevant to questions about how we ought to arrive at our beliefs. Descriptive questions about belief acquisition have an important bearing on normative questions about belief acquisition." (4)

Thus, empirical findings (again) become important for epistemology. Psychology and cognitive science are the disciplines most commonly referred to. (5) But they are not the only possible sources of knowledge on descriptive questions relevant to epistemology. Social sciences are at least as relevant as natural sciences to questions of belief formation. This has been recognized even by the mainstream of naturalistic epistemology. For example, Kornblith admits that "the investigation of social factors in cognition is an essential part of a naturalistic approach to epistemology". (6)

This investigation is usually called 'social epistemology'. I will present some of its main tenets in part 2 of this paper. In part 3, I will discuss several approaches within social epistemology that use economic methods. Part 4 deals with objections that have been raised by economists against these approaches. In part 5 I will try to outline some possibilities to tackle these objections whilst still maintaining the economic approach.

2. Social epistemology as part of naturalistic epistemology

Social epistemology is defined as the "conceptual and normative study of the relevance of social relations, roles, interests, and institutions to knowledge". Social epistemology is opposed to a traditional, individualistic view of epistemology which stems from Descartes's identifying self-knowledge as the Archimedian point of the founding of all knowledge. (7) This traditional view is seen as being exclusively concerned with the individual, its reasonings and its belief formation on the basis of empirical evidence. It neglects, however, the importance of social factors in this process.

There are (at least) two ways in which these social factors can be accounted for in a theory of knowledge. The first one is a "minimal social epistemology" (8) which Kitcher favors. Its main elements are:

"(1) Individuals are the primary subjects of knowledge. To ascribe knowledge to a community is to make an assertion about the epistemic states of the members of the community.

(2) X knows that p if and only if (a) X believes that p and (b) p and (c) X's belief that p was formed by a reliable process.

(3) The reliability of the process that produces X's belief that p depends on the properties and actions of agents other than X." (9)

This program thus maintains the approach of methodological individualism (1) and also the possibility of reliable knowledge (2 and 3). It is this latter notion which is strongly rejected by the second, more radical branch of social epistemology. (10) Relying mainly on arguments from the Strong Program in the sociology of knowledge, (11) from anti-realist philosophy and the underdetermination thesis, the advocates of this version contend that the notion of truth is not only not independent from, but can even be reduced to "what people know, or believe, or what the members of a society accept". (12)

This program encounters various difficulties such as problems of reflexivity, the "chicken debate" (13) and others. (14) For Kitcher, its main danger is that it leads to relativism. He thus wants to avoid the strong program whilst still recognizing the importance of social factors for epistemology. (15)

But Kitcher's approach differs from others in social epistemology in another respect: It is not mainly concerned with sociology or psychology. As Mirowski (1996, 156) and others (16) have recognized, his approach is an economic one. First, he wants to reformulate the naturalistic epistemological project such as to "take account of the social dimensions of human knowledge" (p.113). The result would be a social epistemology that is seen as part of the whole naturalistic enterprise. But second, within this framework of social epistemology, Kitcher poses a specific question that is really typical of economics: "How do communities of individuals best carry out their distributed cognitive activity for the attainment of impersonal epistemic ends?" (17)

Now this is of course the old economic problem of coordinating the actions of particular individuals pursuing their own interests in such a way as to attain the welfare of all. Kitcher (1993) sees this quite clearly, and he makes use of a version of the invisible hand argument to solve this. I will investigate his use of economics later in this paper; for the moment it suffices to see that within the project of naturalizing epistemology, there is a branch which deals with the social dimensions of science and of scientific knowledge and which makes use of economic arguments.

3. From social to economic epistemology

There are (at least) two possible ways of incorporating economic arguments in epistemology and philosophy of science: (18)

First, there are several attempts, almost exclusively by economists, to explain the behavior of scientists by using economic methods. These conceptions may be regarded as contributions to the economics of science. (19) C. S. Peirce already used cost-benefit analysis in his "economy of research". (20) In 1962, Michael Polanyi examined the functioning of the "republic of science" (21) and argued that it works best without government regulation. Later, Gordon Tullock's "The organization of inquiry" (22) was one of the first genuinely economic approaches to this field. Tullock applied public choice theory to explain what he saw as defects in his own discipline, e.g., the rise of mathematical economics.

During the last years, there have been several new contributions. (23) Partha Dasgupta and Paul David (1994) use economic tools like game theory and econometrics to analyze problems of resource allocation in science reward systems. Their aim is to create a "new economics of science". A somewhat different approach is taken by Arthur Diamond (1997) to examine the effects of specific institutions of science such as tenure. (24) James Wible (1992) has provided a very interesting case study on "fraud in science" as well as a seminal work (addressed mainly to economists), the aim of which is to correct a defect in the methodology of economics, namely, that it has "no economics in it". (25)

The second way of using economics in philosophy is the economics of scientific knowledge, which "considers the behaviour of scientists as rational agents but focusses on whether something that could be called 'knowledge' emerges from this behaviour". (26) This branch is thus more interested in abstract methodological questions, and deals with traditional problems of epistemology and philosophy of science. It is mostly regarded as being part of social epistemology, because it also studies "the relevance of social relations, roles, interests, and institutions to knowledge". (27) But as it uses economic methods in doing so, I prefer to call it economic epistemology. Modern economics distinguishes itself from sociology by its method, not by its objects of study. (28) Consequently, economic epistemology differs from social epistemology in that it deals with the same objects (i.e., scientists), but uses the device of homo economicus as its main analytic tool.

Most of the proponents of economic epistemology are philosophers looking for new tools to solve old problems. Peirce is again a starting point here. He already anticipated some ideas, namely indeterminism and the distinction between the processes of formulating and testing hypotheses (abduction and retroduction), (29) which later became central tenets of Karl Popper's falsificationism. But while Peirce was aware of the economic aspects of science, Popper may be seen as neglecting economics in his philosophy of science. Rescher (1978b, 53) draws attention to the point that Popper's falsificationism is a "matter of blind, random groping". According to Rescher, this cannot be true, because otherwise the scarcity conditions of human beings would have made falsification an impossible task. What Popper is lacking, therefore, is a procedure of deciding which hypotheses should be tested first. Rescher points out that this procedure would involve economics in a fundamental way.

Rescher himself has extended his views on the economic aspects of research in several books (1978a; 1989; 1996). I can only give a short insight into his work that does not do justice to all its facets:

Science cannot escape the economic dimension of costs and benefits. Like every other human activity, the production of knowledge is subject to economic constraints. If one adopts this point of view, several epistemological problems may be seen in a new perspective. On the level of the individual theory, the economic approach can help to clarify otherwise puzzling problems, e.g., the problem of induction, Hempel's raven paradox, Goodman's grue paradox or Popper's problem of "generality preference". (30) Moreover, on the level of science 'in general', Rescher stresses that there are economic limitations to scientific progress: Due to rising costs of technology, scientific knowledge becomes more and more expensive. Its growth undergoes a "logarithmic retardation", eventually slowing down to "the logarithm of a linear transform of the elapsed timespan". (31) It follows that the "extent of our scientific knowledge is inexorably limited - not by imperfect intelligence but by the economic realities of the scientific enterprise". (32)

Somewhat similar to Peirce's rational project selection is the idea of a 'rational theory preference' that was put forward by Gerard Radnitzky, a philosopher in the critical rationalist tradition. His main goal is to defend and improve Popper's methodology by using cost-benefit analysis. While cost-benefit thinking, according to Radnitzky, "does not solve any methodological problems", it at least "helps us to recognize what exactly the problem is". (33) He reconstructs two problems of philosophy of science in this way: the accepting of basic statements and the rational selection of theories. Both may be seen as being analogous to the economic problem of allocating scarce resources of time and effort. The problem of the empirical base is seen as a subjective investment decision: The question is whether or not to invest time and effort into developing a particular basic statement into a falsifying hypothesis. (34) This decision cannot be avoided and is made by scientists every day. It constitutes no major problem for methodology. Rational theory preference, on the other hand, is a serious methodological issue: It involves an objective evaluation of the costs of defending a theory. (35) These costs may become unbearably high as falsifications of this theory take place. To sum up, it is my impression that Radnitzky uses economics rather as an analogy or metaphor than as a set of tools provided by the actual economic discipline.

Another philosopher who uses economics as a metaphor is William W. Bartley in his last book "Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth" (1990). Influenced strongly by Popper's evolutionary epistemology, Bartley makes use of economics in order to show (like Polanyi, cf. above) that science is much too regulated by government intervention and that the 'free marketplace of ideas' (36) really is the proper form of organization for science. Knowledge is a form of wealth which - guided by the invisible hand - emerges from the marketplace of ideas like the general good emerges from the interaction of individuals on the marketplace for commodities.

The same argument is put forward by Alvin Goldman and Moshe Shaked (1991). But their article differs from Bartley's or Radnitzky's work in that it employs formal methods of decision theory to strengthen its point. Rather than relying on loose analogies, Goldman and Shaked insist that factors like variation in cognitive resources or reputation operate to the effect that there is "no necessary incompatibility between the goal of professional success and the promotion of truth-acquisition". (37)

A similar point lies at the core of Philip Kitcher's book "The Advancement of Science" (1993) and some of his other works (1991, 1994). Of course, it is not possible to give a just account of Kitcher's views in a few sentences. Therefore, I will try to concentrate on the main issues relevant to the use of economics in philosophy of science, having already outlined his position concerning social epistemology in general (cf. part 2).

As Hands has noticed, Kitcher's motivation for using economic methods is different from Radnitzky's or Bartley's in that it is "not the speculations of one particular philosopher who just happens to have an interest in economics". (38) Instead, Kitcher responds to what he sees as a real problem for traditional philosophy of science (what he calls the "legend"): (39) He wants to counterattack the seemingly devastating critiques from (among others) the sociology of scientific knowledge whilst at the same time taking into account some important issues that these critics have pointed to. (40) By using formal methods borrowed from economics he tries to show that even given the assumptions that all science is socially embedded and that scientists pursue goals very different from those of the 'scientific ethos', it is nevertheless possible for scientific progress to emerge from this process:

"[T]he operation of social systems in ways that we might initially view as opposed to the growth of knowledge can be dependent on the use of complicated reasoning and can contribute to the community's attainment of its epistemic ends." (41)

This 'operation of social systems' is modelled in a way that is a usual procedure in economics: Given certain assumptions about a) the actors' preferences, b) the constraints of the situation and c) the behavior of the agents according to the rationality principle, it is shown that there exists some equilibrium point to which the interaction process converges. This does not mean that this point will necessarily be reached in reality, but it is a possibility.

The question that arises for Kitcher as well as for economics in general is the following: Which is the appropriate institutional framework that fosters the attainment of the (in this case, epistemic) goals? With regard to science, "the general problem of social epistemology, as I conceive it, is to identify the properties of epistemically well-designed social systems, that is, to specify the conditions under which a group of individuals, operating according to various rules for modifying their individual practices, succeed, through their interactions, in generating a progressive sequence of consensus practices." (42)

Finally, I want to point to an important issue: As Kitcher's way of reasoning is a fundamentally economic one, all critics of his method must be aware that they are not only critizing Kitcher, but a large part of the usual practice of economists as well. Of course, this does not mean that these critics are wrong. My intention is just to draw attention to this point.

The last conception of economic epistemology I want to sketch here, is Larry Laudan's "normative naturalism". Laudan's problem situation is the same as Kitcher's: He wants to "breathe new life into the beast", (43) the beast being the traditional, normative philosophy of science. According to Laudan, a normative role for methodology can be saved by regarding methodological rules not as "categorical imperatives, but rather as hypothetical imperatives". (44) Such a rule gives advice only under the assumption of a specific goal: If you want to achieve a minimal description of the world, then you should look for reductions of one theory to another. If your aim is to solve practical problems, then you should try to give your theories as much empirical content as possible.

Laudan thus holds an instrumental theory of rationality. Consequently, the question "which rules are going to promote our ends?" becomes the central question of methodology. We can actually investigate empirically whether certain rules lead to the attainment of the desired ends. The chief aim of such a 'naturalized' yet still (at least hypothetically) normative methodology is thus "to discover the most effective strategies for investigating the natural world". (45)

Laudan does not recognize (or at least he does not make it explicit) that his notion of rationality is identical with the standard economic view of rationality. Economists are instrumental rationalists in that they try to find out what is the best strategy for achieving an actor's goals (i.e. his preferences). In Hands's words, "Laudan has reduced the philosophy of science to the same class of problems that has traditionally characterized microeconomics." (46)

4. Economic critiques of economic epistemology

It is not my intention to discuss any critiques of these approaches that have been raised by traditional philosophers of science. (47) Instead, I want to concentrate on critiques by economists. As the proponents of economic epistemology turn to economics in order to find new tools for old problems, it would undermine their approach if these new tools had already failed to 'deliver the goods' in the science of economics itself.

The main economic objections against economic epistemology are the following:

1) The more radical 'free market vision' of science advocated by Bartley and Radnitzky fails for economic reasons. First, the underlying theorem of welfare economics, "that every competitive equilibrium represents an efficient allocation", (48) holds only under certain assumptions like perfectly competitive markets, equilibrium prices, etc. It is not at all clear whether these assumptions are met in the case of science. It might be that the structure of science is completely different from that of 'ordinary' markets, but it might as well be that it is not. What matters is that this would have to be shown in detail. Bartley and Radnitzky fail to do so. (49) Kitcher, on the contrary, is much more reluctant about the use of the invisible hand argument, emphasizing that "particular kinds of social arrangements make good epistemic use of the grubbiest motives". (50) Consequently, he does not categorically state that the competitive, market solution is always the best one.

2) The second objection is perhaps the most important one, and it applies to nearly all the other approaches as well. They share a common problem: the old welfare economics problem.

The idea of discovering a 'social welfare function' failed in economics for two reasons: First, it was recognized that there is just no way to add up individual preferences consistently. (51) Second, this approach is at odds with the concept of subjective cost that is common in economics. Costs are always related to some individual being; they exist "in the mind of the decision-maker and nowhere else". (52) It is not possible to measure 'welfare losses' objectively and in advance. Therefore, it becomes especially problematic to derive normative conclusions (such as policy suggestions) from a descriptive pareto optimum.

The welfare economics problem can be found both in Kitcher's (53) and in Laudan's (54) writings. Kitcher claims that while scientists pursue their own goals, nevertheless universal goals for science do exist and can be made explicit by achieving "a broader set of representations that would incorporate the Western biological views and the non-Western social understanding in a system that would preserve both sets of successes". (55) Consequently, the success of science can be demonstrated and is not dependent on some particular culturally bound rationality.

Laudan, on the other hand, wants to empirically investigate the effectivity of certain methodologies for attaining certain goals. It would then be possible to propose a methodology when a particular goal is given. But this does not say anything about which goals we should choose. The choice of goals is the subject of a meta-inquiry, axiology. According to Laudan, axiology is to proceed in the same (naturalistic) way as methodology, i.e., by empirically investigating which scientific goals are effective for our meta-goals. (56)

3) The other objections can be summarized as general critiques of a narrowly understood concept of neoclassical economics. According to this view, traditional neoclassical economics

- is a static theory and cannot account for an evolution of institutions (this is a problem especially for Kitcher), (57)

- presupposes a very narrow notion of rationality that ignores any social considerations, (58)

- does not discover the actors' real preferences and therefore has to restrict itself to examining a type of agents whose "goals are sufficiently structured (like having a strictly quasi-concave continuously differentiable utility function)", (59) so that the preference can possibly be revealed,

- depends on a version of folk psychology. (60)

In my view, all these critiques are not lethal to the general project of economic epistemology. But in order to really profit from economics for philosophical questions, it is necessary to use the most advanced branches of economics instead of traditional ones. I can only hint at the possibilities of such an approach; it will have to be elaborated in a much longer paper. The concluding section can thus be seen as an overview of this project.

5. Outline of a possible economic solution to these critiques

Before talking about the economic solutions to the criticisms raised in the previous section, I would like to mention two points that will have to be elaborated in the forthcoming project. First, it will be necessary to exactly state the presuppositions of applying the economic approach to philosophy of science. It seems that in order to accept economic epistemology, one will at least have to

- accept naturalistic epistemology in general,

- accept the relevance of social factors for the content of science, and

- accept (imperialist) economics as social theory

Second, it must be made clear what is to be gained from using an economic approach to epistemology and philosophy of science. What lessons are to be learned from economics? For a start, one of them seems to be that 'objectivity' or 'truth' may emerge as an unintended consequence from a social process. Thus economics could be used as a tool for the philosopher to refute the claims of the Strong Program in SSK. But Kitcher's argument can be made even stronger by using more advanced economic methods. We therefore will have to deal with to deal with the objections made in the previous section.

The first point, i.e., the failure of a free market approach to economic epistemology, can be dealt with rather easily. It is, of course, correct that a market without any regulations does not work. But this has long been recognized by economics. Economics is not an advocate of radical libertarian dreams, but is well aware of the influence that the institutional framework has on the outcome of market processes. James Buchanan's work, e.g., is an attempt to show how institutional rules and constraints can be profitable for individuals although they limit their freedom. (61) What economists can do, is to analyze the consequences of different institutional frameworks and thus give positive advice on the normative question of how to set up such a framework in order to achieve a specific goal. This does not imply that a completely deregulated market is necessarily the best means.

The second point, the welfare economics problem, can also be clarified with regard to Buchanan. Buchanan's critique of welfare economics (WE) is twofold: (62) First, WE compares real 'imperfect' markets to the idealized standard of perfect competition. Consequently, all real life arrangements end up as being inefficient. Buchanan solves this problem by comparing real arrangements to other alternative real arrangements that are subject to different constraints.

Second, WE lacks a criterion for evaluating economic as well as political orders. For Buchanan, this criterion is the democratic consensus of citizens. These two corrections lead to a new economic research program that focuses, as mentioned already, on the analysis and evaluation of alternative institutional settings.

The other critiques of neoclassical economics do not pose any grave problems either when seen from this point of view. For example, the narrow neoclassical concept of rationality is substituted in Buchanan's research program by a much broader notion that incorporates the possibility of 'altruistic' or 'social' preferences. Moreover, the revealed preference and also the folk psychology critique must be regarded as misunderstandings of the aim of economic analysis. The problem of economics is entirely different from that of psychology. Economic analysis uses the device of homo economicus to solve practical problems of institutional design. Thus, for the purposes of economics, it is not necessary to enrichen behavioral assumptions by psychology unless there is some chance to tackle these practical problems more successfully.

6. ConclusionL

The economic approach to epistemology is part of the project of naturalizing epistemology and philosophy of science. Several recent contributions to this field have been criticized by economists for their uncritical use of economic methods. In my view, these critiques can be dealt with by abandoning the traditional neoclassical approach to economics. A modified economic epistemology would instead make use of more advanced economic approaches, particularly the Buchanan research program.

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(1) Cf., e.g, Kornblith 1994a, Callebaut 1993, Giere 1985.

(2) Cf. Quine 1969.

(3) Cf. Kuhn 1970.

(4) Kornblith 1994b, 3.

(5) Cf., e.g., the contributions in Kornblith 1994a, and also Goldman 1986.

(6) Kornblith 1994c, 101. It is interesting to notice that Kornblith thinks only of sociology as a means of analyzing these social factors (p. 94). As we will see in part 3, an economic approach can be just as fruitful.

(7) Schmitt 1994b, 1.

(8) Kitcher 1994, 113 (italics in original).

(9) Kitcher 1994, 113.

(10) To be precise, this branch consists of several sub-groups, not all of which are consistent with one another. But for the sake of the present argument, I have grouped them together.

(11) Cf., e.g., Bloor 1991.

(12) Kitcher 1994, 120.

(13) Collins and Yearley (1992).

(14) Not to mention the 'Sokal war'.

(15) E.g., he offers a "compromise model" between rationalist and antirationalist models of science, see Kitcher 1993, 200f.

(16) Cf. Hands 1995, 618. Kitcher himself talks about "microeconomics" only in side remarks (cf. Kitcher 1993, 305 and 1994, 116).

(17) Kitcher 1992, 111. Cf. also Kitcher 1990, 6.

(18) Hands (1995, 612f.) mentions two more possibilities which are less relevant in the present context: first, an "economics and science approach" focusing on technology issues and second, the numerous contributions to economic methodology.

(19) It should be noted that the economics of science deals with individual behavior as well as with collective issues. For the distinction between "economics of science" and "economics of scientific knowledge", see Hands 1994a, 87. Hands (1995, 618f.) admits "that these distinctions are not very crisp nor are they very rigid; nonetheless I find the distinction useful".

(20) Peirce 1958. See also Rescher 1976 and Wible 1994.

(21) Polanyi 1962.

(22) Tullock 1966.

(23) Cf. Stephan 1996.

(24) Cf. Diamond 1997, 11f., and also Diamond 1996.

(25) Wible (forthcoming, 15).

(26) Hands 1995, 613.

(27) Schmitt 1994b, 1 (cf. section 2).

(28) Cf., e.g., Becker 1976. It is true that in this view, some authors that regard themselves as social epistemologists are in fact economic epistemologists in disguise. Cf. Hands 1994a, 85.

(29) Cf. Rescher 1978b, 41f.

(30) Cf. Rescher 1989, ch. 6.

(31) Rescher 1978a, 113 (italics in original).

(32) Rescher 1996, 113.

(33) Radnitzky 1986, 319 (italics in original).

(34) Cf. Radnitzky 1986, 307.

(35) Cf. Radnitzky 1986, 317. These costs are opportunity costs, and they consist in loss of empirical content by immunization and "loss of the good explanations that can be constructed with the help of the rival theory" (Radnitzky 1986, 319; italics deleted).

(36) Cf. Bartley 1990, 25-30. Bartley's view of markets is inspired mainly by Hayek and Coase (cf. Bartley 1990, 29).

(37) Goldman and Shaked (1991, 32).

(38) Hands 1995, 615.

(39) Kitcher 1993, 3.

(40) Cf. Kitcher 1994.

(41) Kitcher 1993, 388.

(42) Kitcher 1993, 303.

(43) Laudan 1987, 19.

(44) Laudan 1987, 24.

(45) Laudan 1987, 27f.

(46) Hands 1994b, 769.

(47) Cf., e.g., Siegel 1996.

(48) Hands 1993, 186.

(49) See also Wible (forthcoming, 201-215). In particular, Wible contends that Popper is no good example of market failure in science and philosophy.

(50) Kitcher 1993, 305 (my italics).

(51) Cf. Sen 1970.

(52) Buchanan 1969, 43.

(53) Cf. Mirowski 1996, 160 and 163.

(54) Cf. Hands 1996, 144-146.

(55) Kitcher 1994, 128.

(56) Cf. Laudan 1990, 47f.

(57) Cf. Mirowski 1996, 164f.

(58) Cf. Hands 1996, 148.

(59) Hands 1996, 147.

(60) Cf. Hands 1996, 149. This objection was originally made by Rosenberg 1992.

(61) Cf. Brennan and Buchanan 1985.

(62) Cf. Pies 1996, 26.


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