On Abstraction and Homo Oeconomicus

It can be easily argued that abstraction is an elementary methodological tool in several social sciences. Social sciences have definite and different man concepts that highlight those aspects of man and his behaviour by idealization that are relevant for the given human science. Homo sociologicus is the man as sociology abstracts and idealizes it–depicting man as a social being. Moreover, we could talk about homo cyber sapiens (the man who can extend his biologically determined intelligence thanks to new technologies), or homo creativus (who is simply creative).

Abstraction (combined with Weberian idealization) plays a crucial role in economics. Breaking away from directly experienced reality was a common trend in 19th century sciences, and this was the effort which was fundamentally determined the way economics tried and still tries to approach social life. It is abstraction that we meet in the case of both Newton’s physics and the neoclassical economic theory, since the goal was to grasp the unchangeable and timeless essence of phenomena. For example, Newton created the concept of the material point by following this abstraction method so that he abstracted from the dimension and shape of any perceptible object, preserving only inertia and translational motion. Material point is the ultimate and common feature of all bodies. Neoclassical economists created the indefinitely abstract notion of homo oeconomicus by following the same procedure. Economists abstract from all individual and personal qualities in order to get to those characteristics that embody some essential features of economic activity. Eventually, it is the substance of the economic man that they try to grasp. Any characteristic beyond that only disturbs the functioning of this essential core.

Published by Peter Galbács

Researcher and an ethusiastic defender of the theory and methodology of mainstream economics. Author, 'The Theory of New Classical Macroeconomics' (Springer, 2015).

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