How Economics Became a Mathematical Science

How Economics Became a Mathematical Science

Science and Cultural Theory

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 6 b&w photos Published: May 2002

Economics, Mathematics, Science and Technology Studies

In How Economics Became a Mathematical Science E. Roy Weintraub traces the history of economics through the prism of the history of mathematics in the twentieth century. As mathematics has evolved, so has the image of mathematics, explains Weintraub, such as ideas about the standards for accepting proof, the meaning of rigor, and the nature of the mathematical enterprise itself. He also shows how economics itself has been shaped by economists’ changing images of mathematics.
Whereas others have viewed economics as autonomous, Weintraub presents a different picture, one in which changes in mathematics—both within the body of knowledge that constitutes mathematics and in how it is thought of as a discipline and as a type of knowledge—have been intertwined with the evolution of economic thought. Weintraub begins his account with Cambridge University, the intellectual birthplace of modern economics, and examines specifically Alfred Marshall and the Mathematical Tripos examinations—tests in mathematics that were required of all who wished to study economics at Cambridge. He proceeds to interrogate the idea of a rigorous mathematical economics through the connections between particular mathematical economists and mathematicians in each of the decades of the first half of the twentieth century, and thus describes how the mathematical issues of formalism and axiomatization have shaped economics. Finally, How Economics Became a Mathematical Science reconstructs the career of the economist Sidney Weintraub, whose relationship to mathematics is viewed through his relationships with his mathematician brother, Hal, and his mathematician-economist son, the book’s author.


“It is an important contribution to the history of economics, it is interesting in all respects, and I recommend it to economists and historians of science. . . . [L]et us salute Professor Weintraub for his excellent and stimulating book. One can only be heartened at Duke’s continuing preeminence in and emphasis on the history of economics.” — Robert D. Tollison , EH.Net

"[A] delightful collection of essays. . . . It is aimed at an audience of economists, but mathematics and historians of science may read this book with pleasure and interest, too." — Daniel M. Hausman, Philosophia Mathematica

"[A] well-documented contribution to the history of economics. . . ." — Bernard Walliser, Journal of Economic Methodology

"[E]xcellent. . . . Weintraub’s discussion is, as always, illuminating. . . . I have enjoyed reading this book and learned much from it. . . . [T]his book is a considerable success."
— Salim Rashid , Mathematical Reviews

"[I]nteresting, parts even delightful. . . . [T]he author has written a stimulating and multilayered autobiography. . . ." — M. Ali Khan , History of Political Economy

"[I]nteresting. . . . [F]ascinating. . . . I have nothing critical to say about the book. It is an important contribution to the history of economics, it is interesting in all respects, and I do recommend it to economists and historians of science. . . . [L]et us salute Professor Weintraub for his excellent and stimulating book. One can only be heartened at Duke’s continuing preeminence in and emphasis on the history of economics."
— Robert D. Tollison , H-Net Reviews

"[S]hould interest a broad, interdisciplinary readership. . . . [S]ucceed[s] in ably demonstrating the virtues of combining different strategies for the analysis and writing of the history of economics itself. . . . Weintraub carefully (and honestly) avoids taking sides in this morality play. His objective is altogether different, new, and significant. . . . Weintraub concludes his extraordinary book with an altogether unusual blending of professional and personal history. . . . It is delightful, at times funny, always warm and touching, and in the end deeply poignant vignette."
— Michael A. Bernstein , Journal of Business History

"[W]ell-written and interesting to read. . . . [A] very important and constructive contribution to furthering discussion." — Giorgio Israel , Economic Journal

"A strength of the book is that it recounts developments in both mathematics and economics, rather than treating one as fixed. . . . The book is definitely a fun and insightful read. The stories are wonderful; they achieve the 'enjoyment' purpose." — David Colander, Journal of Economic History

"Few scholars, at least in the Anglophone world, have done more to advance learning in the history of economic thought than . . . Roy Weintraub. . . . In a remarkably thought-provoking, stimulating, and at times quite moving book, Roy Weintraub adroitly combines autobiography and biography to analyze the profession’s ‘putative engagement’ with the ideas of twentieth-century mathematicians. . . . He brings to the narrative the expertise of an immensely skilled mathematician and economist and the gifts of a graceful and engaging writer. . . . Weintraub carefully (and honestly) avoids taking sides in this morality play. His objective is altogether different, new, and significant. . . . [An] extraordinary book. . . ." — Michael Bernstein , Business History Review

"I was not prepared to enjoy this book. I knew Weintraub to be a lively writer, but his topic was daunting. I was half expecting a forthrightly pedantic and in the end ploddingly dull monograph that followed the usual formulaic listing of ‘seminal contributions’ on the road to full mathematization. . . . To my great good fortune, Roy Weintraub’s How Economics Became a Mathematical Science is neither pedantic or dull. It is, in fact, an altogether extraordinary book. . . . This, then, is an enjoyable book to read. But it is also an important one. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that How Economics Became a Mathematical Science itself promises to change the way that people view the relationship between mathematics and economics. . . . How Economics Became a Mathematical Science is a gem, the work of a mature historian of thought at the peak of his powers. It is also a book that virtually any economist will enjoy. Whether you call it a late holiday present or anticipated beach reading, treat yourself to this book."
— Bruce Caldwell , Southern Economic Journal

"The diverse essays that make up this book should appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of economics, particularly general equilibrium theory, and the politics of 'making it' in academia." — Roy J. Epstein, Journal of Economic History

"This book . . . demonstrates brilliantly the potential advantages of a wider perspective that draws from multiple disciplinary traditions."
— Ted Porter , Journal of the History of Economic Thought

"This book is not only an excellent contribution to the history of economics, clarifying how economics became mathematicized in the twentieth century, it also provides valuable insights into the epistemological roles mathematics plays in the special sciences." — Marcel Boumans , Philosophy of Science

"Weintraub’s book bring to the fore an interesting and well-documented story full of insight on the complex interplay among pure scientific ideas, images of these ideas, and no less than that, institutional and historical factors. . . . Weintraub’s book makes it clear that there is also much to learn from a similar, detailed study of the history of economics. But more in general this book will make interesting reading to readers with a broader scope of interest in history of science at large. . . . I do believe that Weintraub’s book embodies the kind of research that can positively help practitioners of the discipline realize the kind of insight to be expected by studying the history of their field when presented in a stimulating, well-researched and authoritative way as is the case here."
— Leo Corry , Journal of Economics

“Roy Weintraub retells the history of twentieth-century economics through a series of engagements—duels of intellect and imagination—between individual members of two scientific communities: the mathematicians and the economists. A totally original, idiosyncratic, and highly personal account which illuminates brilliantly not just how economics became mathematized, but how mathematics cut free from the objects of science.” — Mary S. Morgan, London School of Economics and University of Amsterdam

“The mathematization of economics is probably the most important development in the history of twentieth-century economics. This book provides fascinating accounts of important episodes in this process and should interest anyone who wants to understand how and why it took place.” — Roger Backhouse, University of Birmingham


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

E. Roy Weintraub is Professor of Economics at Duke University. He is the editor of Toward a History of Game Theory, also published by Duke University Press, and the author of numerous books, including Stabilizing Dynamics: Constructing Economic Knowledge.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. Burn the Mathematics (Tripos)

2. The Marginalization of Griffith C. Evans

3. Whose Hilbert?

4. Bourbaki and Debreu

5. Negotiating at the Boundary (with Ted Gayer)

6. Equilibrium Proofmaking (with Ted Gayer)

7. Sidney and Hal

8. From Bleeding Hearts to Desiccated Robots

9. Body, Image, Person



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Winner, 2005 Joseph J. Spengler Book Prize, History of Economics Society

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2871-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2856-8
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