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Review of Erickson The World the Game Theorists Made
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  Paul Erickson.  The World the Game Theorists Made  . Chicago: University of Chi-cago Press, 2015. Pp. 384. $35.00 (paper). q1  All self-aware intellectual historians must eventually ask themselves how they  will set out to delimit the complex of ideas/phenomena they seek to explicate.Sometimes they may concede their principles of selection seem a bit arbitrary,and the resulting object of their narrative a bit elusive. (Is there really such a thing as an  “  Age of Fracture ”  or a defensible history of salt?) Yet when it comesto something like game theory, you might think such problems could be safely ignored; after all, aren ’ t there three entries in the  Stanford Encyclopedia of Phi- losophy   devoted solely to game theory? It appears to be a form of mathematics;how much more precise can you get?In practice, this imprecision is the advantage of history as opposed to a text-book or encyclopedia entry: one is permitted to entertain the notion that thereis rather less of substance than  󿬁 rst meets the eye from a more Olympian per-spective. Paul Erickson hesitantly coquettes with this perspective in the book under review, primarily because it is impossible to overlook the fact that gametheory has overpromised to be all things to all people. Erickson struggles withthis checkered past, where some intellectual programs have embraced, and thenrejected, the contributions of game theory  —  which, of course, has itself not re-mained invariant over the last 70 years. This could have been the occasion for a rich philosophical meditation on how a mathematical tradition could becomeentrenched over a substantial stretch of time, often by jumping disciplines, eventhough its actual logical contributions may have been vanishingly small. And when it comes to context, I challenge anyone to desist in thinking   “ Cold War  ”  when hearing the term  “ game theory. ” Nevertheless, almost ruefully, Erickson draws back from this prospect, toretreat to the banal platitude that game theory constituted a set of   “ tools ”  thatseemed useful to various people. Having spent substantial time around econ-omists, I know how this perfunctory appeal to  “ tools ”  tends to be the last ref-uge of the intellectual scoundrel, especially talking about mathematics. Whenit comes to a real tool like a Swiss army knife, the can opener does not neutral- For permission to reuse, please contact journalpermissions@press.uchicago.edu. 1585.proof.3d 1 02/17/17 10:23Achorn International 000  ize the awl, nor does it force you to  “ imagine ”  a corkscrew when confronting a bottle of wine.So if the designation  “ tool ”  is misleading, what then is game theory? Erick-son solves his problem by mostly close reading of a very few texts — and of those,he tends to favor textbooks. I do not mean to suggest that he has not done sub-stantial archival work or digested the secondary historical literature. He knows where many of the bodies are buried; it is just that when one begins to catchthe whiff of corruption, his writerly demeanor turns very pedantic, as thoughit is all so very technical that mere prudence dictates that we must hurry on by.Moreover, in what I consider one of the main weaknesses of the volume, Erick-son omits to treat the histories of operations research and neoclassical economicsin any detail, even though they were the two main citadels where game theory  was incubated and then sent out to conquer the world. And it is curious thatso little of that technical content is examined or explained. Let me try to indicate what I mean by this in a quick   󿬂 yover of the contents of individual chapters.Chapter 2 consists of a close reading of John von Neumann and Oskar Mor-genstern ’ s  Theory of Games and Economic Behavior   (1944). This is the rankestbody when disinterred. The beginning of wisdom is to note the book was notreally about  “ games ”  in the vernacular sense, but rather a set of moves made asinterventions in a number of disciplines simultaneously, with orthodox eco-nomics as one prime suspect. Yet, Erickson elides the important fact that itmounted a frontal attack on neoclassical economic orthodoxy, a fact that haddire consequences for its acceptance down the road. Erickson proceeds to tick the other boxes: it was also about Hilbert ’ s metamathematics, about quantummechanics and the search for an ontological justi 󿬁 cation for stochastic ontology in various disciplines, the use of   󿬁 xed-point theorems and the conjuration of different notions of   “ solutions ”  in the form of minimax and stable sets, the ap-pendix on measurable  “ utility  ”  added as afterthought, and so on. Yet becauseErickson is narrowly focused on the text, none of this will be understood ade-quately by someone not already steeped in the history of the multiple contexts. After all, von Neumann really was a genius, and there were wheels within wheels within wheels of what he was trying to achieve. One must concede there wereindeed  󿬂 aws in the project, but Erickson ’ s verdict that the book   “ in 1944 wasless a secure achievement than a promissory note ”  (73) really just parrots thedismissive modern line on von Neumann (especially in economics) that he shouldstay well and truly buried: hurry on; nothing to see here.Chapter 3 seems set up to deal with the obvious role of the military in theearly life support of game theory, but following recent trends in intellectual his-tory, it more or less rejects the notion that military patronage had substantial ef-fect on the intellectual content and formal development of gametheory (9).First, 1585.proof.3d 2 02/17/17 10:23Achorn International HOPOS  |  The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 000   while operations research is mentioned, it is treated as though it were coex-tensive with the rather limited concept of   “ military worth, ”  as though nothing more than a bean counter technology of budgeting and allocation. Althoughthe central role of RAND gets acknowledged, at no point does Erickson really explain why game theory initially was treated there favorably, only in the spaceof a decade to be jettisoned like yesterday  ’ s newspapers. Yet transience left itslegacy: RAND also served as the incubator for the premier anti –  von Neumannsolution concept, the Nash equilibrium. Erickson cannot be bothered to explainthis concept and its weaknesses in any detail, even though it subsequently be-came the solution concept of choice in many disciplines post-1970. The factthat such a solution concept, postulating a hostile war of all against all, was ren-dered temporarily plausible by the Cold War is something Erickson does notentertain. Neither does he attempt to counter the baleful in 󿬂 uence of the bestseller and movie  A Beautiful Mind   on popular understanding.Chapter 4 wants to suggest that game theory then jumped to the so-calledbehavioral sciences; but in fact, mostly it documents the brief romance of somenarrow segments of psychology with game theory, only to divorce soon there-after. Primarily it consists of a close reading of Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa  ’ stextbook   Games and Decisions   (1957). Although Erickson hints that this was allbound up with 1950s enthusiasms such as cybernetics, information theory, andcomputational metaphors, he neglects some important work by Hunter Heyck on the role of   “ decision theory  ”  in the 1950s in the effective separation of   “ thedecision ”  from the decider. A serious historical epistemology would regard thisstrange rei 󿬁 cation of the  “ decision ”  as something inhuman as unprecedented, andthus a fruitful entry point into numerous questions of how   “ rationality  ”  grew tobecome so weirdly unrecognizable in this period, particularly in game theory.It also had some relation to the surreptitious importation of German thought(Carl Schmitt ’ s decisionism, realism in international relations, neoliberalism) into American social science. But Erickson appears impervious to larger intellectualtrends in the relevant disciplines.Chapter 5  󿬁 nally confronts the usual linkage of game theory to nuclear war but downplays the direct military funding in favor of the treatment of game the-ory in the  󿬂 eeting quasi discipline of   “ peace research. ”  The stalking horse in thischapter is the work of Anatol Rapoport and his textbooks  N-Person Game Theory  (1970) and  Prisoner  ’    s Dilemma   (1965). There is something unbalanced in hisfocus on this critic of game theory, since the more orthodox choices would havescrutinized John Harsanyi and Robert Aumann, heroes of a more conventional Whig history, and inventors of some of its more important modern technicalmanifestations. But of course, shifting attention to the latter would have docu-mented the rather more belligerent in 󿬂 uence of war (and economics) on game 1585.proof.3d 3 02/17/17 10:23Achorn International Book Reviews  |  SPRING 2017 000  theory instead of the counterintuitive narrative of   “ peace studies. ”  It would alsohave better contemplated the reasons that the military more or less abandonedits dalliance with formal game theory by the 1970s in favor of more free-form war gaming, just as the economists began to warm to it.Chapter 6 recounts the migration of game theory to mathematical biology in the guise of   “ evolutionary game theory. ”  John Maynard Smith and WilliamHamilton are the chosen protagonists; Erickson seeks to portray their work as “ a relatively indigenous tradition with weak ties to Cold War patronage ”  (205);but he conveniently tends to overlook the ways in which it was a direct expro-priation of models from economics and operations research, a fact often attestedby some of the protagonists. Erickson seems intrigued by the notion that ra-tional choice theory could be stripped of   “ rationality  ” ; but this ignores the factthat the evanescence of agency is the hallmark of more modern rational choicetheory in general.In my view, we still lack the insightful history of game theory that wouldcomprehensively tackle the really interesting issues. First would be the ques-tion, How can a mathematical tradition end up saying so very little of any pre-cision and speci 󿬁 city, while composed of bits and bobs borrowed from statis-tics, linear optimization, and topology, lacking any substantial agreement onsolution concepts, and yet stand as the pinnacle of technical pro 󿬁 ciency for somany different disciplines? Maybe someone willing to plumb the details of themathematics, but also grounded in a more capacious sociology of knowledge andhistory of the natural and social sciences, could take up the challenge. Philip Mirowski ,  University of Notre Dame  1585.proof.3d 4 02/17/17 10:23Achorn International HOPOS  |  The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 000  QUERY TO THE AUTHOR Q1.  AU: Your review has been edited for grammar, clarity, consistency, andconformity to journal style, including issues of hyphenation and capitalization.The Chicago Manual of Style is followed for matters of style and Webster  ’ sDictionary for spelling. Please read the article to make sure that your meaninghas been retained. Journal style is to avoid a lot of italics for emphasis. May beused for terms that are de 󿬁 ned. If any italics have been removed that changeyour meaning, they will be restored. Note that we may be unable to make re-visions that con 󿬂 ict with journal style or create grammatical problems. 1585.proof.3d 5 02/17/17 10:23Achorn International
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