Economics and Knowledge

“Economics and Knowledge.” Economica N.S. 4 (February 1937): 33–54.


“The ambiguity of the title of this paper is not accidental. Its main subject is of course the role which assumptions and propositions about the knowledge possessed by the different members of society play in economic analysis. But this is by no means unconnected with the other question which might be discussed under the same title, the question to what extent formal economic analysis conveys any knowledge about what happens in the real world. Indeed my main contention will be that the tautologies, of which formal equilibrium analysis in economics essentially consists, can be turned into propositions which tell us anything about causation in the real world only in so far as we are able to fill those formal propositions with definite statements about how knowledge is acquired and communicated. In short I shall contend that the empirical element in economic theory—the only part which is concerned, not merely with implications but with causes and effects, and which leads therefore to conclusions which, at any rate in principle, are capable of verification—consists of propositions about the acquisition of knowledge.

Perhaps I should begin by reminding you of the interesting fact that in quite a number of the more recent attempts made in different fields to push theoretical investigation beyond the limits of traditional equilibrium analysis, the answer has soon proved to turn on one question which, if not identical with mine, is at least part of it, namely the question of foresight. I think the field where, as one would expect, the discussion of the assumptions concerning foresight first attracted wider attention was the theory of risk. The stimulus which was exercised in this connection by the work of Professor F. H. Knight may yet prove to have a profound influence far beyond its special field. Not much later the assumptions to be made concerning foresight proved to be of fundamental importance for the solution of the puzzles of the theory of imperfect competition, the questions of duopoly and oligopoly. And since then it has become more and more obvious that in the treatment of the more ‘dynamic’ questions of money and industrial fluctuations the assumptions to be made about foresight and ‘anticipations’ play an equally central role, and that in particular the concepts which were taken over into these fields from pure-equilibrium analysis, like those of an equilibrium rate of interest, could be properly defined only in terms of assumptions concerning foresight. The situation seems here to be that before we can explain why people commit mistakes, we must first explain why they should ever be right.”