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Symposium on Ivan Moscati’s “Measuring Utility. From the Marginal Revolution to Behavioural Economics”

What We Learn and Do Not Learn from Ivan Moscati’s Historical Account of Utility Measurement

Catherine Herfeld
p. 93-108
Référence(s) :

Ivan Moscati, Measuring Utility: From the Marginal Revolution to Behavioral Economics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 352 pages, ISBN 978-01937277-5

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1In his long-anticipated monograph, Ivan Moscati offers the first comprehensive history of utility measurement in economics. Moscati’s account focuses in particular on the evolution of different approaches to utility measurement within economics as well as on the accompanying changes in economists’ understanding of the concept of utility. In particular, he reconstructs the main arguments and counterarguments given by a number of great economists concerning the measurability of utility since the late 19th century. While Moscati has previously published large parts of this history in a set of papers (Moscati, 2017; 2016a; 2016b; 2013a; 2013b), the monograph goes beyond them, giving a more comprehensive treatment of how economists have conceptualized, interpreted, and measured utility over time, from the marginal revolution up to today's behavioural economics. Moreover, Moscati’s monograph reveals the relationships between the different historical episodes in order to show how the respective contributions of various economists have shaped and informed the positions of succeeding thinkers. Finally, he offers a sketch of different accounts and views on measurement more generally prevalent in other disciplines, such as psychology and physics, for each period and how they changed over time.

2There is no doubt that the concept of utility plays a key role in economic theory. It is therefore surprising that scholarly contributions to the history of its measurement have been rather scarce. Moscati’s study of the distinct ways in which economists approached the problem of how utility could be measured and how their views changed over more than a century is not only an impressive scholarly achievement but is also an essential contribution as it goes some way towards filling a lacuna in the history of economics scholarship. Meticulously researched, skilfully argued, and extensively detailed, Moscati's is an admirable clear account of the problem of utility measurement, of how various attempts to solve it have evolved in economics, as well as of the experimental attempts to measure it from the mid-20th century onwards. As such, there is no doubt that with this monograph, Moscati further establishes himself as an accomplished historian of economics, whose contributions to the history of utility theory and decision analysis are essential for understanding the evolution of a key economic concept. Moreover, because of his focus on utility theory, he also makes a novel and important contribution to the history of measurement in microeconomic theory.

3There is a lot to learn from this monograph and it is well beyond the scope of this review to engage with Moscati’s account in all its complexity. Indeed, Moscati himself is aware of neglected aspects of his story (11, ff.), and of course decisions to ignore some factors and highlight others are inevitable. Thus, one goal of this review is to focus on what Moscati leaves out—how Moscati’s particular historiographical commitments and preferences led him to overlook features that I consider important for understanding the history of the concept of utility. In particular, there are three features that strike me as critical in this regard. First, Moscati is silent about what historiographical choices guided his research and how those choices were justified. Second, while Moscati is at pains to offer a comprehensive reconstruction of the history of utility measurement in economics, his analysis remains primarily descriptive rather than explanatory. In other words, his monograph describes the different views of economists concerning utility measurement as well as how these views, and the related approaches, changed over time. However, in most episodes, there is neither an extensive analysis of possible factors that would explain why certain economists held particular views nor a consideration of what caused these views to change as they did. Third, we learn little about the contexts in which the theoretical and practical contributions to utility measurement were made. Against this background, a second goal of this review is to suggest some possible avenues for further research into the history of utility theory and measurement that Moscati’s account, owing to its historiographical preferences, leaves inexplored.

1. What We Learn

4Moscati’s starting point is a problem that has occupied economists since at least the marginalist revolution, namely the fact that utility as a mental phenomenon is not observable and thus cannot be measured in any straightforward way. This problem has repeatedly led economists to search for, and debate possible ways to, directly or indirectly measure utility so as to justify its continuous use and fruitfulness in economic theory (2). Moscati reconstructs the history of those debates with respect to four goals. The first is to historically reconstruct the relevant economic ideas that influenced the development of utility theory in economics. The second is to connect this historical account with the changes in economists’ understanding of measurement, that is, what it means to measure something (3). The third goal is to show how this account of utility measurement in economics connects with discussions about measuring sensations and intellectual abilities in the history of psychology and of measurement theory in general. And the fourth goal is to offer a historically informed clarification of a set of methodological issues that surround utility measurement and that are faced by economists in each period, focusing in particular on epistemological challenges that utility measurement posed.

5Moscati develops his narrative in four parts. Each part tackles a different historical episode. In each part, Moscati elaborates accounts of the history of measurement and how it was understood in the psychology of that age that paralleled the developments in economics, and eachends with an epistemological analysis that discusses the historical findings. Specifically, his epistemological analysis focuses on five epistemic issues. These are the underlying conception of measurement in each particular episode; the scope of the utility concept; the epistemic status of utility; the data that economists at the time used to measure utility; and the aims of utility theory in the particular episode. The book closes with an epilogue that draws attention to ongoing attempts to measure utility on the basis of non-expected utility theory and neuroeconomics. He concludes that, while many attempts have been made to solve the measurement problem of utility in the past 150 years, the issue will surely continue to play a central role in economic debates long into the future.

6There are far too many interesting historical insights and observations to be reproduced here. However, in order to see what we can learn from it, let me sketch a number of mostly novel historical claims that Moscati’s work puts forward about how economists at various times thought about measurement and ways of measuring utility. In Part I, we learn that, contrary to a common historical account holding that the marginalists adhered to an understanding of utility as cardinal and measurable through an interval-scale, Moscati argues that Jevons, Menger, and Walras as well as subsequent economists including Alfred Marshall and Francis Edgeworth were all committed to a notion of measurement as unit-based. He argues that, as such, those economists thought of utility as a unit that was directly or indirectly measurable, at least in principle. To sustain this, Moscati introduces the concept of a “ratio-scale utility” (43, ff.) alongside cardinal and ordinal utility and shows how adhering to such a three-fold understanding affected the positions of economists in the debates about the measurability of utility and its practical challenges as well as about their justifications for grounding economic theories in such a concept.

7In Part II, we learn more about the shift away from an understanding of utility as unit-based towards an understanding of utility as ordinal, a view first held by Vilfredo Pareto, then adopted by a number of protagonists of the Austrian school, and culminating in the seminal work by Hicks and Allen as well as the various debates provoked by their views on utility and its measurement. From these debates, Moscati traces how Paul Samuelson subsequently introduced the technical terminology of cardinal utility into economics as it is defined today, namely utility unique up to positive linear transformations. This terminology stabilized in economics after 1940, despite its peripheral status and rare use before 1945 and its being at odds with the ordinal approach that Pareto and later Hicks and Allen had put forward and that dominated demand analysis at the time. We also learn about pioneering attempts of the psychologist Louis L. Thurstone and the econometrician Ragnar Frisch to empirically measure (marginal) utility by using an experimental design and an econometric approach respectively. Reading this history, it is striking how the protagonists of Moscati’s story were all equally concerned with the measurability problem while often having different academic training, committing themselves to different understandings of utility, working in fundamentally different theoretical frameworks with different assumptions, and having different epistemic goals.

8Part III reconstructs the rather abrupt introduction of an axiomatic version of Daniel Bernoulli’s principle of expected utility by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, a formal theory of decision-making under risk, and its stabilization in economics during the 1950s. As Moscati details admirably, expected utility theory and its new cardinal utility function was slowly accepted by major economists such as Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman after intense debates about the justifiability of its axioms, their general understanding of the measurability of utility, and their interpretation of the theory. Moscati shows how economists—among them William Baumol, Friedman, Jacob Marschak, Samuelson, and Leonard Savage—exchanged views and arguments, and how this exchange ultimately convinced the theory’s leading critics, such as Samuelson. In turn, this allowed expected utility theory to stabilize and to start playing a central role in economics. This is probably the strongest part of the book from a historian’s point of view. By combining published papers with new archival material consisting of personal correspondence between economists of this calibre, Moscati carefully analyses both the formal and informal interactions of those economists, and aptly demonstrates how those interactions affected and mutually influenced their respective views. In turn, this account thereby partly explains why some views (particularly that of Samuelson) changed over time.

9Indeed, Part III in particular is an example of history of economics at its best, as it reveals the subtleties, contingencies, and fragility behind the development, adoption, adaptation, and stabilization of an influential and apparently successful scientific idea—expected utility theory. Moscati focuses less on the formulation of the idea itself and more on using a treasure trove of archival material not often available to the historian. He reconstructs in painstaking detail the way in which context both contributes to, but is also a prerequisite for, its eventual stabilization within a community.

10Moreover, Moscati also shows how those debates led to a novel understanding of utility measurement as (i) conventionalist in that the assignment of numbers to objects by a set of operations was to a certain extent arbitrary, and as (ii) prediction-oriented in that the only restriction on this assignment was that the utility numbers assigned should allow for predicting individual choices. Moscati proposes that this understanding led to the broad acceptance of Friedman’s as-if methodology and to a fading away of the strict distinction between ordinal and cardinal utility as an intrinsic feature of utility. It rather came to be understood as two distinct ways of assigning numbers to objects (210). While Moscati does not explicitly discuss it, his analysis also reveals an increasing concern among economists for theorizing about individual choice and a new epistemic role for utility theory. Indeed, this shift accounts for the use of expected utility theory to problems beyond traditional demand behaviour and equilibrium analysis to theorize about market exchange and prices. As the analysis of individual choices became increasingly important, expected utility theory quickly turned into a general decision theory taken up by the social and behavioural sciences at large. In turn, this meant that decision theorists had no longer a background in economics with an interest in utility theory. Rather, ‘decision theory and analysis’ would slowly develop into a new subfield and a ‘decision theorist’ would be the accompanying category.

11In the final part, Part IV, Moscati discusses the major attempts to measure utility experimentally and, on this basis, to make predictions and empirically test expected utility theory. These experimental results were generally supportive of the measurability of utility and the descriptive validity of the theory. Curiously, as Moscati details, experimenters involved in this project had strikingly diverse backgrounds including philosophy (Donald Davidson and Patrick Suppes), psychology (Sidney Siegel), mathematics (Philip Nogee) and statistics (Frederick Mosteller). While some of the results were published in economics journals, Moscati does not explicitly discuss the fact that only few economists engaged in those studies, such as Jacob Marschak or Armen Alchian. Those economists, however, were more open-minded towards psychological research and as such probably less representative of the mainstream. In general, there was a limited reception of the results generated by those experiments in economics at large. An entire chapter is dedicated to reconstructing Patrick Suppes’ representational theory of measurement, which pulls together themes from shorter sequences in previous chapters on the history of measurement in psychology. Moscati’s main argument is that foregone contributions to utility analysis and measurement largely also made by Suppes himself in the context of the “Stanford Value Theory Project” played a crucial role in this development. However, as Moscati makes clear, the direct impact of Suppes’ theory in economics was rather limited (258).

12The last chapter discusses a set of experiments conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s, that showed the inconsistency between different utility measures across experiments based on expected utility. Moscati reconstructs this period of history in terms of a decrease in confidence in the validity of expected utility theory and the measurability of utility. The arising scepticism about measuring utility by using expected utility theory partially originated in a set of laboratory experiments actually testing Maurice Allais’s and Daniel Ellsberg’s well known paradoxes. Allais had supported his paradox by way of a thought experiment in which he showed that a common choice pattern violated one of the axioms of expected utility theory. The lab experiments confirmed the actual existence of the behavioural anomalies that Allais and Ellsberg had argued for. Furthermore, these lab experiments also showed that the measurement results in previous experiments depended on the methods used and that there was an inconsistency of utility measures generated by these methods. Those results called into question the usefulness of expected utility theory as a reliable method to measure utility. They destabilised the role that expected utility theory had played previously in economics. Moscati takes these developments to constitute the early beginnings of what we know today as behavioural economics.

2. What We Do Not Learn

2.1 Historiographical Reflections

13The first issue I want to raise is that we do not learn anything substantial about Moscati’s historiographical position in approaching his history of utility measurement. While he informs the reader about his goals, he does not extensively elaborate on his selection of sources, his approach to these sources, his general historiographical framework, and the reasons why he considers this framework the best one for his purpose. This absence of historiographic reflection is not limited to Moscati’s particular narrative but rather holds for many contributions in the history of economics. However, in Moscati’s case, it is a surprising omission, mainly because his previous work has been quite explicit about his historiographical views (Moscati, 2008). Indeed, in ongoing discussions about historiography in the history of economics (Düppe and Weintraub, 2018; Schabas, 1992; Weintraub, 1996; 2018), Moscati has clearly positioned himself as a critic of what he calls HET-as-science-studies approach, which studies scientific ideas in the material contexts within which they develop. He contrasts this approach with the traditional ‘history-of-analysis approach’ that focuses on the internal developments of economic science and with ‘intellectual history,’ which he defines as the study of economic ideas as part of the cultural landscape of a given historical period (Moscati, 2008). Moscati considers the HET-as-science-studies approach often to be too thin as it tends to focus on material contexts and primarily the sociological processes that led to the production, acceptance, and transmission of scientific ideas within a community, rather than studying the scientific ideas themselves.

  • 1 In turn, Blaug takes these definitions from his reading of Schumpeter’s historiographical views. No (...)

14Granting that there are explicit discussions of historiography in Moscati’s other works, the omission in this monograph is, I would argue, unfortunate especially given a project of this importance and scope. It is not the case that there is no mention of methodology at all. Moscati introduces his account rather informally as a “story” (5) and aligns it with his recurrent talk in the monograph about offering a “narrative” of the history of utility measurement. However, there is no further specification of his understanding of “narrative” and of kind of narrative history he chose. Moscati also uses the label of a “historical reconstruction” of economists’ ideas and discussions without further elaboration (2). This terminology was originally introduced by Mark Blaug, who famously introduced ‘historical reconstruction’ into historiographical discussions in the history of economics. Blaug equates historical reconstructions with intellectual history, i.e. the reconstruction of the ideas of great thinkers in the context of their time and the interpretation of their ideas “in their own terms” to arrive at descriptions that those thinkers would have accepted as accurate (Blaug, 2001, 151). Blaug had contrasted this approach with rational reconstructions, i.e., a history of economic analysis that reconstructs past ideas with modern vocabulary (Blaug, 1992; 2001, 150).1

15Given this elaboration of historical reconstruction, large parts of Moscati’s monograph do indeed fit Blaug’s approach of historical reconstruction. However, other aspects of his execution do not neatly conform to it. Moscati offers a descriptive account of ideas about utility theory and measurement that the protagonists, i.e., the utility theorists would most likely have accepted as accurate. His focus is on the ideas of those economists whose works contributed to establishing what is now considered canonical, who have doubtlessly shaped and significantly advanced economic scholarship in profound ways with their ideas. William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, Carl Menger, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, Irving Fisher, Alfred Marshall, Vilfredo Pareto, John R. Hicks, R. G. D. Allen, Paul Samuelson, John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern and Milton Friedman all feature prominently in Moscati’s account. In light of this focus, Moscati takes the history of utility theory to primarily consist of a reconstruction of economic ideas formulated by a set of great (solely male) economic thinkers. Another aspect that speaks for a historical reconstruction is that Moscati grounds those factual descriptions largely on the published works of the economists he engages with as well as their correspondence to describe their views, contributions, and how they changed over time. Thus, from his account we primarily learn in detail about the specific ideas that previous generations of economists thought about, agreed about, and disagreed about concerning the concept of utility and its measurement, as found in their books and articles.

16Other aspects of the monograph, however, seem to go beyond historical reconstruction. At times, Moscati complements his textual reconstructions by drawing—when available—on professional correspondence and, in some cases, even outlining some fragmentary details of his protagonists, professional biographies, personal connections, institutional contexts, and educational backgrounds. However, such contextualizations are introduced rather unsystematically and are often not clearly shown to directly connect to the views of the economists themselves. Moscati is also at pains to link his history of utility measurement to the different ways in which psychologists and physicists understood the meaning and practice of measurement as well as how psychologists approached the task of measuring mental states. One goal is to show how economists’ ideas about the measurability of utility were connected to their understanding of what it meant more generally to measure something. However, such connections (or absences thereof) are often not further analysed to deepen our understanding about the relationship between economics and other fields. Moscati also details the experimental practices of economists and psychologists after 1940 in their attempt to measure utility. Yet, the purpose of such detailed contextualizations seems to be to offer a descriptively accurate yet internalist history of utility measurement in economics. Thus, while attempts at contextualization shine through here and there, their epistemic role seems unclear.

17Historiographical reflection is needed in the history of economics for various reasons. It increases transparency, furthers the comprehensibility of any historical analysis by fellow historians, and is as such an important mechanism that ensures compliance with high scholarly standards. Especially in Moscati’s case, such neglect is unfortunate because it is a missed opportunity to lead by example and demonstrate that making one’s historiographical position explicit is an essential part of high-quality scholarship in any historically informed discipline. Even more importantly, in Moscati’s case, an explicit and careful formulation of his historiographical approach as it applies to the history of economics could function as a touchstone for other scholars. There is a certain diversity of methods used in the history of economics. However, the dominant task of the historian of economics has traditionally been “developing a more complete and more correct understanding of the theoretical creations of those whom history has identified as great and/or influential economists … [on the basis of] textual exegesis” of published texts (Biddle, 2003, 2). Moscati’s account is not too far from the traditional one. A systematic elaboration of his historiographical position and the justification thereof could serve scholars who are engaged in similar projects as an exemplar and starting point to historiographically situate themselves. I thus would like to invite Moscati to outline in greater detail his historiographical choices and methodological views that are reflected in this monograph.

2.2 Missing Explanations

18The second issue I want to raise focuses on the substance of the book. Moscati skilfully gives us detailed historical reconstructions of the different accounts of utility measurement, the main theoretical and conceptual connections between these accounts, the arguments scholars have given for and against them, and the experimental practices they engaged in to measure utility. His account mainly consists of factual descriptions of economists’ views of, and contributions to, utility measurement, and he explains that those views and contributions changed over time. In several cases, we also learn from Moscati’s history how they changed. However, there are gaps in the story that leave room for further research. One major and systematic gap is that we learn little about why economists held those views and why they changed them, that is, about the explanatory factors underlying Moscati’s factual descriptions. In short, in several cases it is unclear how various observations that Moscati foregrounds would be explained.

19Certainly, historians often do not aspire to offer explanations of historical phenomena Thus, that Moscati’s account is descriptive might just follow from his historiographical position. After all, the primary goal of historical reconstruction à la Blaug is descriptive accuracy judged from the actor’s point of view. However, understanding the ideas of past thinkers by reconstructing how and why those ideas developed and changed through time is an integral part of an intellectual history (Biddle, 2003, 2). Thus, if historical reconstruction is what Moscati is doing and if historical reconstruction and intellectual history amount to the same thing for Moscati (as for Blaug), then offering some explanations for his observations should be an essential part of his account as well.

20Take Moscati’s reconstruction of the early marginalists’s position on utility measurement. Moscati observes a tension in the positions of economists like Jevons or Walras between their commitment to ratio-scale and a unit-based conception of utility on the one hand and their explicit acknowledgement that utility was in fact unmeasurable on the other hand. Moscati points to their awareness of the inconsistency. As Moscati claims, Jevons was committed to what is currently called a “mentalist view” of the status of utility, i.e., to the view that the concept actually refers to some existing mental entity (5). At the same time, these economists were well aware that utility could not be measured as a unit. Yet, both continued using economic theories that were grounded in an unmeasurable concept. Moreover, this commitment to a unit-based conception of utility is especially curious because of their serious concern about enhancing the scientific status of economics on scientific grounds.

21To resolve this tension, Jevons offered a set of more or less convincing arguments for why the measurement problem might not be an immediate problem. However, this dodge raises the question of why these marginalists were ultimately not as concerned about solving the measurement problem as they should have been. Indeed, if utility measurement was a key concern for them, why did they ultimately not dismiss an economic theory that was grounded on an in-principle non-measurable concept or, alternatively, dismiss the unit-based understanding of utility? These questions become even more pressing because, as Moscati shows, psychologists around the same time opted for the same move. Thus, an interesting historical contribution would be to explain economists’ ultimate acceptance of this tension beyond the reconstruction of their views and arguments. Indeed, such an explanation would have been an important step towards one of Moscati’s self-set goals of exploring the relation between the history of empirical psychology and the history of utility theory (4). Specifically, it would have allowed him to identify where economics and psychology have intersected and where they have been independent from each other.

22Given that Moscati’s account is so rich in historical observation, offering explanations of these observations would have been illuminating. To take another example, the fact that Louis L. Thurstone’s experiments did not influence Frisch’s pioneering attempt to measure utility asks for an explanation, which would in turn have substantiated Moscati’s account. More generally, offering explanations as to why, despite the parallels between psychology and economics, the mutual influence was often absent could have been a major outcome of the book.

23A further example is the aforementioned shift towards using expected utility theory as a general theory of choice not only relevant to economists but also to decision scientists more generally. Indeed, the book shows how, from the 1940s onwards, the main contributors to decision theory and the measurability of utility were often not economists but scholars whom Moscati labels “utility theorists” trained in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, and the social sciences. Similarly, the set of experimental procedures conducted from the 1950s onwards relied heavily on interdisciplinary research to measure utility.

24It stands to reason that part of why this shift took place was the increasingly formal and mathematical nature of economic theorization from the mid 20th century on. However, what remains unexplained is why decision theory became a field largely separate from traditional economics. For instance, Moscati himself remarks that there was no broad reception of experiments and their results within the economics discipline at large. But he does not discuss the underlying factors that could contribute to an explanation of this turn. Why would the measurement problem suddenly attract the attention of people in fields other than economics? Why did economists come to view it as such a pressing problem that they would ultimately collaborate with psychologists while they did not do so in the decades before? Why did decision-making under risk, the explanation of individual choice, and the measurement problem become major issues for economists once von Neumann and Morgenstern had made their contribution? Parts of the explanation can be found in the histories of the increasing stabilization of decision sciences in the United States during the Cold War period recently elaborated on by other historians of postwar social science (Erickson et al., 2013; Erickson, 2015; Thomas, 2015). Moscati’s history of expected utility theory and the measurement of utility could have benefitted from an engagemeny with this literature.

25In reply to these worries, one might argue that Moscati does not take historical analysis to also encompass explanations. Alternatively, one might contend that Moscati does not consider explanations of these observations as being a relevant and interesting aspect of his story. If he took the first route, it would have been helpful to know more about his historiographical commitments. If he took the second route, it seems that a tension emerges from aiming at an internalist account on the one hand, while elaborating at times on contextual features one would not consider to be relevant to such an internalist account on the other. To clarify, I would therefore like to invite him to say a bit more about the role of description versus explanation in historical research more generally and for his account in particular.

2.3 Contexts

26This brings me to my last issue, which is closely connected to the previous two. I would argue that some of the missing explanations that are required to address the kinds of questions raised above could be found, had Moscati adopted a historiographic approach that took the contexts of knowledge production and scientific practices more seriously. To sustain this point, let me briefly specify what I mean by “context.” To begin, Moscati acknowledges the contextual nature of knowledge production (2008, 86) and elaborates on the kind of context that an intellectual history (and thus for Blaug, a historical reconstruction) draws on. Moscati contends that the relevant context for an intellectual history should include studying a scientific idea as part of a cultural landscape and its relationships to contemporaneous political and philosophical ideas (Moscati, 2008, 85). Indeed, historical reconstruction à la Blaug requires the inclusion of such contextual features in the analysis, provided that they are relevant for the self-prescribed goal of accurate descriptions of historical phenomena – including the ideas and views of great thinkers - and why they occur. Initially, Blaug outlined rather broadly and unsystematically what contextual factors should enter into historical reconstruction and cited elements like “Zeitgeist, social milieu, economic institutions and philosophical currents” (Blaug, 1985, 7). Later, he refined his view and narrowed the factors down to the accurate description of the intentions of economic thinkers behind those ideas (Maas, 2013, 79). However, both definitions of “context” appear to be vague and contingent.

27In his critical discussion of the HET-as-science-studies program, Moscati has questioned the primary focus of historians on material contexts, such as the cultural, political, or academic, as opposed to what is actually written in the texts that economists produce: “the main action does not take place in streets and assemblies, but on paper, in economists’ articles and books” (Moscati, 2008, 86). Thus, without further elaboration, Moscati rejects the idea of studying those material contexts because such accounts have an implicit commitment to a materialistic ontology that appears questionable to him. Indeed, such science studies accounts, while apparently aiming at “thick” contexts, often ignore the actual ideas of economists and so are incomplete and as such far too thin according to Moscati (2008, 86). Thus, the proper and “thick” context to focus on in the history of economics is what economists meant and intended, enshrined in their ideas, not the institutional, social, disciplinary, or political contexts that science scholars analyse.

28While Moscati appears to prefer traditional approaches such as intellectual or conceptual history, he does not decisively position himself in his 2008 article. He primarily offers a negative critique of the HET-as-science-studies program. However, at times the article also reads as a positive call for methodological pluralism in the history of economics to adequately capture a targeted historical episode. Indeed, his account of the history of utility measurement does not fully adhere either to his methodology of historical reconstructions stated in the monograph or to his 2008 reflections on the proper historiography for writing the history of economics. In light of his criticism of the HET-as-science-studies program, I assume that Moscati would want to abstain from writing an externalist history; his account certainly cannot be classified as externalist. However, it is not a proper internalist history either. As mentioned above, he draws on correspondence, and points the reader to relevant conference settings; and he discusses disciplinary backgrounds, and institutional affiliations to increase our understanding of the changes in particular ideas or practices. In later chapters, Moscati even details the experimental research practices to show how utility was measured. This goes beyond historical reconstruction in that it includes contextual features Moscati should have, by his own standard, ignored as irrelevant.

29Indeed, Moscati goes even further with his attempts to place his history of utility measurement into the larger context of measurement practices in psychology and, while less so, in physics as well as of the changing understanding of measurement more generally. This makes it appear as though he wants to further contextualize his account, choosing to highlight those details that “explain why and how certain economists engaged in the theory or practice of utility measurement” (2). While Moscati tells his “story” largely without any substantial analysis of how economic ideas of measurement were intertwined with similar views in psychology and physics, the space concerned with this parallel history in the monograph is significant, provoking the question of the epistemic role of such contextual features in a seemingly internalist story, or a historical reconstruction as Moscati understands it.

30That being said, perhaps Moscati has changed his historiographical views. However, yet again, this would make an explicit account of his historiography critical. But even if Moscati aimed to write a proper internalist history of utility measurement, his narrative has to be grounded in at least the kind of context that a proper internalist history would have demanded namely an epistemic context. In turn, this would require a contextualization along the lines of the epistemic goals of the scientists, the respective theoretical framework or practices they use, and the role that scientific ideas or concepts play in these. Whether utility theory is part of Walras’s economic theory of the market and whether it is applied independently of any theoretical framework with the goal of predicting individual choices made huge differences to economists regarding the utility concept they accepted, the understanding of measurement they committed themselves to, and the kinds of compromises they would allow themselves to make when thinking about abandoning one or the other. In turn, acknowledging the epistemic context in which utility theory and the attempts to measure it were embedded would have allowed Moscati to point to a set of relevant, potentially explanatory, factors that would have gone beyond the purely descriptive. I would like to invite Moscati to elaborate further on what he takes to be a useful contextualization in the history of economics in general and the respective contextualization that his history of utility measurement would benefit from.

3. Outlook

31I would argue that the three issues closely hang together. Given Moscati’s implicit historiographical choices, offering explanations might have been less of his concern. Large parts of those explanatory factors for a history of utility measurement are best sought in the context in which the ideas were formulated, shaped, and changed. Regardless, it seems as though Moscati believes that historiographical choices have relieved him of the burden of offering explanations of the factual events he describes. Given this, it just follows that this larger context is held to be largely irrelevant by Moscati. As such, while it is only natural for him to not investigate more carefully those contextual factors, it is up to other historians to follow up and complement his history by providing explanations.

32I stress that the three issues discussed are not meant to question the project that Moscati has set out for himself. He has provided a comprehensive reconstruction of the various ways in which utility and measurement came to be understood by economists, the ways in which it came to be measured, and the arguments provided to accept or reject approaches to its measurement. This is surely an impressive piece of scholarship by any metric. Rather, the three issues raised above are meant to open avenues for further historical research on this part of economics. For instance, Moscati’s narrative provides the ground for any historian interested in writing a proper history of decision theory. Such a history, as mentioned before, should not necessarily be constrained by a narrow focus on the use and development of decision theory in economics. Rather, since von Neumann and Morgenstern’s expected utility theory imfluenced fields far beyond the social and behavioral sciences, this would be a history that also goes beyond economics and, thus, extends Moscati’s focus.

33Furthermore, such a history would surely benefit if it were framed as a history of the relationship between economics and psychology. A comprehensive account of this history, while recently getting more attention by historians of economics (Bianchi and De Marchi, 2016), is still missing. And Moscati’s monograph provides a wonderful starting point for it. It contains, for instance, several discussions and (implicit) observations of how measurement procedures and the very understanding of measurement throughout the history of psychology might have or might not have connected to the history of utility measurement in economics. In any case, I maintain that the next step in research is to focus our accounts on giving explanations as to why mutual influence was present or absent during particular historical episodes. Moreover, it seems to me that such explanations would have to go beyond purely epistemic contexts and internalist histories.

34Finally, the history of utility measurement and the utility concept is undoubtedly closely connected to the history of rational choice theories in economics. A comprehensive historical account of the latter is also still missing. Further research should attempt to make explicit how utility theory and rational choice theories are connected, and address the question of whether or not they might even be the same during some historical episodes. These issues too could be some possible avenues for future research.

35Of course, in all cases, and depending on one’s preferences for research questions and historiographical approach, Moscati’s monograph opens the way to many more interesting avenues to explore. Indeed, while such research would go far beyond his monograph and some of them might not align with his tastes, none of the avenues could be taken without extensively drawing upon Moscati’s analysis.

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1 In turn, Blaug takes these definitions from his reading of Schumpeter’s historiographical views. Note that there is a tension in the distinction between rational and historical reconstructions and that Blaug’s terminology and his historiographical positions have shifted (Maas, 2013).

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Catherine Herfeld, « What We Learn and Do Not Learn from Ivan Moscati’s Historical Account of Utility Measurement », Œconomia, 9-1 | 2019, 93-108.

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Catherine Herfeld, « What We Learn and Do Not Learn from Ivan Moscati’s Historical Account of Utility Measurement », Œconomia [En ligne], 9-1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2019, consulté le 27 juin 2019. URL :

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Catherine Herfeld

University of Zurich

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