Thursday, January 08, 2015

Naturally, It Is Naturalistic!

Mary Morgan's The World in the Model obviously is giving me a lot of food for thought, as you know if you have been reading here recently. It attempts to understand the role of modeling in economics by looking at the history of modeling in economics. One thing it reinforces for me is something I learned from Collingwood, which is that to fully understand some subject, one must understand its history: you can know all about the state-of-the-art for some field, but until you grasp why it became the state-of-the-art, and what the competing alternatives were, you only know half the story.

But I do have a couple of minor gripes. One is about her use of the word "naturalize." (Or "naturalise": a related, even more minor annoyance is that the book switches back-and-forth between the American and the British spelling, probably a fault of the publisher, and not of Morgan.) Let me offer some examples of her usage, along with my comments:

* "Yet, its ambition is to offer both a history of the naturalization of modelling in economics and a naturalized philosophy of science in economics." -- xv

More on the first usage after the next quote. The second one seems to mean (Morgan does not explicitly explain further) that she is going to approach the subject through studying its history. This is, in fact, what she does, which supports that reeading. But why in the world should that procedure be termed a "naturalized" study?

* "The Naturalization of Modelling in Economics" -- 6

This is the heading for a section on the history of modelling entering economics, and how economists came to embrace it. So here, it is being used like a plant "naturalizing" in one's garden: it is becoming at home there. But while this term seems apt for a flower or a bird, it is kind of weird to use it for a skill: "Driving naturalized in Gene between the ages of 17 and 25"?!!

* "When a model becomes fully naturalised in a field, the creativity and imaginative leap that were required to overcome the cognitive difficulties in its construction are usually lost." -- 175

Here, Morgan seems to mean nothing fancier than, "When you get too used to something, you often begin to take it for granted." Why is the unnatural word "naturalised" introduced when the more homely version appears to capture her meaning just fine?

* "The [London] Tube map, long regarded as a classic piece of graphic design, naturalises the way we see the relationship of places to each other." -- 406

Now the meaning of the word appears to be getting stretched like taffy: here, it seems it is being applied to learning a very unnatural way of understanding spatial relationships. Before the Tube map, I doubt anyone ever thought of London as looking like this:

Are we in the presence of a shibboleth? Is Morgan using this word simply because "naturalism" is currently trendy in philosophy, so it is "a good thing" if one's philosophy of science is "naturalized"?

PS -- I am reminded of a friend once telling me that he tried to take a "naturalistic" approach towards sex. By this he meant he would sleep with whatever women he wanted to and who were game, and not feel guilty about dumping them afterwords. That sounds a lot better when you call it "naturalistic," doesn't it?


  1. I hate, hate, hate, hate this kind of bandwagoning. I see it all the time in magazine and online articles. There's some trendy new concept and the writer feel the need to link it to something. An example would be "What Science Says About Society".

  2. Gene: The first use seems to me to echo the sense used in the term "naturalized epistemology," which is the idea that out of the base gold of what we have in fact done can emerge the gold of what we ought to do - a position that seems to me arrant nonsense.



"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb