The "Homo economicus" Conception of the Individual: An Ontological Approach

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Contribution to Book



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26 cm, 24 p.

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Source Publication

Philosophy of Economics

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This chapter discusses the Homo economicus conception of the individual in economics in its neoclassical formulation from an ontological point of view. Ontological analysis is a relatively recent area of investigation in the philosophy of economics with primary attention having been devoted to the issue of realism as a comprehensive theory of the world. However, if realism implies that the world is populated by real existents, a further issue that arises is how the existence of particular entities to be understood. Aristotle in the Metaphysics (1924; cf. [Ross, 1923]) originated this domain of investigation in connection with the theory of being as such which he conceived of as substance. In reaction to Plato's theory of forms that treated substances as universals, Aristotle treated substances as individual things — not the concrete things we perceive but things in their essential nature — and then advanced a ‘principle of individuation’ for marking off one kind individual substance from another in terms of differences in their forms. This chapter undertakes a related though different approach to explaining existents in economics by similarly setting forth a systematic basis for understanding and evaluating different conceptions of the individual economic agent as a real existent in economic theories. The approach is termed an identity criteria approach, and while only applied here to individual economic agents, it can also be applied to other types of existents in economics, including collections of individuals (such as families, firms, and governments), and states of affairs such as equilibria.


"The Homo economicus Conception of the Individual: An Ontological Approach," in Philosophy of Economics. Ed. Uskali Mäki. Boston: Elsevier, 2012: 459-482. DOI.