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The sceptic as an economist's philosopher? Humean utility as a positive principle

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Whereas in philosophy David Hume was long regarded as a negative thinker to be criticized rather than read, many thinkers interested in social and economic theory from Adam Smith onwards found key concepts, distinctions and problems as developed by Hume useful and inspiring. This applies not only to his seminal contributions to technical problems in economics. It is argued that the way in which Hume employed 'utility as a positive principle' (most notably in his 'experimental' moral theory) is of pivotal importance in this context. It allows for:

distinguishing between internal motifs and external circumstances and constraints; and for

making explicit the abstract logic of social interaction structures, mechanisms and processes.

Both are necessary conditions for employing the logic of social situations and mechanisms in the explanation of social institutions and economic processes. It moreover prepares the ground for the use of simplified or cartoon-like models of individual agency in economic and social theory, but also for its critique. On this basis, Hume's influence on various strands of social and economic thought, but also the specific differences with regard to more 'rationalistic' approaches (such as Hobbesianism or important versions of neoclassical economics) can be assessed more clearly.
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Keywords: David Hume; explanatory social theory; general principles; homo oeconomicus; instrumental rationality; mechanism and process; methodology; utilitarianism; utility

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2004

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