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Knowledge, Beliefs and Economics

Edited by Richard Arena and Agnès Festré

This book surveys how economists engage with knowledge and beliefs in various fields of economic analysis, such as general equilibrium theory, decision theory, game theory, experimental economics, evolutionary theory of the firm, financial markets and the history of economic thought.
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Chapter 9: The Cognitive Turning Point in Economics: Social Beliefs and Conventions

André Orléan


André Orléan 9.1 INTRODUCTION The concept of belief is not commonly used in economics. The reason is simple: by definition, homo œconomicus does not believe in anything. He is a fundamentally opportunistic being, always acting in pursuit of his own interests. In all circumstances, his conduct conforms strictly to the dictates of rationality. In this kind of framework, beliefs are considered in an essentially negative way, i.e. as an obstacle to the free reign of rational opportunism, which can lead an individual to take ill-considered decisions. This conception, which defines homo œconomicus by abstracting him from all particular beliefs, away from the norms and conventions that structure social life, has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the establishment of economics as an autonomous science, standing separate from all the other social sciences. It has allowed the creation of what has been called a ‘pure economics’, devoted entirely to the principle of rationality. Here, the ‘disembeddedness of economics’, a concept used by sociologists and anthropologists to refer to the increasing autonomy of economic relations from any type of social logic, finds its most complete formal expression. Free from the burden of beliefs, economic individuals act without the restraints of community bonds and moral traditions, recognizing only the authority of instrumental rationality. It is only when we consider the importance of individual or collective representations in other social sciences that we can really appreciate the extreme singularity of economics. We propose the word ‘fundamentalist’ to characterize...

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