Catherine Herfeld

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I am currently assistant professor of Social Theory and Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the University of Zurich. I work in philosophy and history of the social sciences, focusing on economics and with an emphasis on methodological questions. I also have an interest in sociology of science and social theory. Before coming to Zurich in March 2017, I was a postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (LMU Munich). I completed my doctoral studies at Witten/Herdecke University in 2013 and while writing my dissertation, I spent some time at Columbia University, the Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. I developed my interest in philosophy of the social science after receiving a degree in economics and working in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Currently, I am finishing two books that are concerned with the epistemic status of rational choice theories in economics (hereafter RCTs). RCTs are among the most prominent approaches to human behavior in the social sciences. But upon closer inspection, they prove hard to ‘define’; specific instances include Expected Utility Theory, Gary Becker’s ‘Economic Approach to Human Behavior,’ Revealed Preference Theory, or Ordinal Consumer Choice Theory. What those approaches have in common is that they conceptualize human behaviour as rational behaviour (albeit understood differently in each of them). The empirical value of RCTs has been the subject of intense debate. On the one hand, scholars have defended RCTs as the best theories of human behaviour that we currently have in the social sciences and argued for their use until a better alternative comes along. On the other hand, scholars critical of RCTs have attacked them vigorously as psychologically or behaviourally unrealistic, as failing to offer adequate explanations of actual behaviour and as making predictions that are contradicted by empirical evidence. Those shortcomings have sometimes been identified by some as major causes for more substantial empirical difficulties that economic theories and models are said to confront.
My motivation is to support a more nuanced critique of RCTs. First, one thing I try to do in both books – albeit in distinct ways – is to sensitize critics to the fact that there is no such thing as a unified ‘rational choice theory’. Rather, I argue that the label of ‘rational choice’ refers to a set of different approaches that share a set of characteristics but that are conceptually and methodologically distinct and have been developed for very different problems. To better assess RCTs, their critique should therefore pursue what I refer to as a ‘local’ perspective (adopting a term that Michael Weisberg has attributed to Philip Kitcher’s approach in Philosophy of Biology). Such a local critique should consider what I label the ‘epistemic context’ within which a specific framework is developed and applied. Arguably, what ‘epistemic context’ means has to be further specified and to this end I take the history of economics to be of fundamental importance. If we consider the intellectual traditions from which the various RCTs behaviour have emerged, the problems they were originally meant to address, the larger theoretical frameworks they were often part of, and the justifications given by practitioners for their use, then we come to see not only how exactly they differ, but also what their scope of application is and should be.
In the first book, entitled The Many Faces of Rational Choice Theory, I offer an epistemologically enriched historical account of RCTs in economics that enables such a local critique. Furthermore, I show that throughout the history of economics, economists have argued that conceptualizing the human agent as a rational agent would indeed not help them to explain actual behaviour but might allow them instead – in different ways – to theoretically cope with better understanding larger economic systems, which they considered to be extremely complex. Those systems cannot be easily understood with a psychologically, behaviourally or even neurologically realistic account of human behaviour as long as the so-called aggregation problem, i.e., the problem of how economists could aggregate the behaviour of individuals in such a way that it is analytically tractable and at the same time leading to properties characterise of those systems. Thus, one lesson we can draw from the work of earlier thinkers, I think, is that instead of focusing too much on how to conceptualize the individual agent, economics could benefit from applying methods from computational social sciences that allow for detailed descriptions of social interaction processes that bring about social phenomena. It is against this background that the question of how realistic an account of human behaviour has to be should be answered.
The other book that I am working on takes a different approach towards tackling those issues. Entitled Conversations on Rational Choice Theory, it contains interviews I have conducted over the past years with economists, psychologists, and philosophers who have contributed to the development and application of RCTs or have been engaged in the debates regarding their empirical usefulness. By exposing practicing scientists and philosophers to each other’s arguments and engaging with their positions, those interviews allow for addressing a number of important but as yet neglected issues in the debate, such as clarifying the object under discussion, viz. RCT, understanding how practitioners justify rational choice theory for their various purposes, and where they take their empirical usefulness to be limited.
Besides those two larger projects, I investigate in a side project the historical context within which RCTs emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Those three projects are the outcome of my time as a doctoral and postdoctoral researcher.
Much of my work is interdisciplinary, mainly regarding the methods I use. I combine traditional philosophical approaches – such as case studies – with quantitative-empirical methods in history and philosophy of the social sciences. I do archival research in my historical research and use historical case studies in philosophy; and conducting interviews allows me to get into closer contact with scientific practitioners. For example, in my new habilitation project, I take a sociological, a historical, and a systematic perspective to address the question of how knowledge in general and scientific innovations in particular spread within and across (interdisciplinary) contexts. Together with my colleague Chiara Lisciandra (University of Groningen), I am currently editing a Special Issue for Studies in History and Philosophy of Science: Part A, which addresses questions about knowledge transfer from an interdisciplinary viewpoint. The goal is to distinguish between different kinds of knowledge transfer and examine whether it is possible find commonalities among them; maybe even beyond a specific field or discipline. Another example is a project in which, together with psychologists and sociologists, we research the gender gap in academic philosophy as well as whether female-only events can have a positive effect on female students continue to pursue an academic career.
For more on those and other projects as well as for contacting me, see my website: http://catherineherfeld.weebly.com