“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” R. Pirsig (1974)

I know what you’re thinking: how on Earth does narcissistic 1970s hippie philosophy have anything to do with the “new and interesting economics research” this site supposedly discusses? Though I’m tempted to claim lese majeste, in fact there is an interested point about economics within this book which I think is underappreciated.

Pirsig notes that math and science are not disinterested sciences, but rather are arts. If you’ve read, say, Hardy or Poincare or Polya or any of the other great monographs in mathematics, this is not surprising. The point is that scientific methods can evaluate hypothesis, but they cannot create hypotheses. It is observation, combined with the ability to filter observations and interesting questions, that drives the creation of knowledge, and knowing how to choose interesting questions and methods, or how to write “beautiful” proofs rather than inelegant proofs, is a fundamentally aesthetic problem. I am wary of economists who do not appreciate good art or good design, because in doing so they reveal a lack of aesthetic sensibility that is damaging to the economic enterprise. Even to the extent that we need proofs to be completed, elegantly or not, surely we agree that fifty years from now, such proofs will be done by computers, while the choice of interesting questions will remain a human problem.

A quick word also about methodology: though I write about methodology here a lot, it should not be confused with economics. Knowing how to do economics well: that is an methodology problem. Knowing how to do economics in the first place, however, is not. To relate back to Pirsig, a good motorcycle mechanic knows to be in the right frame of mind before beginning a maintenance project, but he must also know how to take apart the engine, else knowledge of frames of mind is not very useful. Though economics needs more methodology, and indeed more history of economic thought, we should be wary of going the way of some other social sciences which have forgotten their core mission, and are instead concentrating their efforts on discovering new and greater biases and methodological problems which inhibit their ability to discover any results at all.

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2 thoughts on ““Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” R. Pirsig (1974)

  1. jenizaro says:

    “Though economics needs more methodology, and indeed more history of economic thought, we should be wary of going the way of some other social sciences which have forgotten their core mission, and are instead concentrating their efforts on discovering new and greater biases and methodological problems which inhibit their ability to discover any results at all.”

    examples?

  2. Ben says:

    Just saw this post, but I love it, one of my favorite books.

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