ARCHIVE - The usage of metaphors in the theorization of crises, cycles and equilibrium

meta19_image.jpg (Making of „Tsunami“ (by Unknown Tourist, 2004), 2015)

24-26 October, 2019 - Château de Dorigny - Lausanne


Economics, like most other disciplines, is partly cast in figurate language. Terms, concepts, methods, laws, models, and the very understanding of the discipline, often borrow to a greater or lesser extend from other disciplines or from common knowledge. This applies, although with different modalities, to both literary explorations of the subject and to the apparently dry and technical treatment of mathematical economics. Metaphors, analogies, similes and other tropes (henceforth ‘metaphors’, for short) are used with various purposes beyond a purely ornamental function: for instance pedagogical (they convey meaning by explaining something new by means of something with which the reader is more familiar), rhetoric (by persuading the reader by reference to a better established science), heuristic (by understanding an object by means of a comparison with another, or the transference of a selected set of properties from an object to another), analytical (by modelling an object in terms of another), or epistemological (by transferring to one process the kind of laws or reasonings governing another one).

There is nothing new or much contentious in this statement: a vast literature on the usage (and misuse) of analogies and metaphors in both economics and the ‘hard sciences’ has argued the case at length. There is, however, plenty of room for specific inquiries on the role individual metaphors concretely play in the construction and transmission of certain economic theories and reasonings, both as case studies of a general metaphorical approach or as whether and how the specific usage of metaphors can bring to light unstated premises and perspectives in economic arguments that would otherwise remain implicit. The latter is the purpose of a research project carried out by the Centre Walras-Pareto of the University of Lausanne, which targets a specific episode in the history of economics: the theories of equilibrium and of crises around 1870, with the purpose to throw new light on the alleged antinomy between equilibrium and crises/cycles theories.

We would like to extend the examination of such issues in a broader temporal context by convening a conference to be held in Lausanne on 24–26 October 2019 on the usage of metaphors and other tropes in the theorizing of crises, cycles and equilibrium in the history of economic thought (no temporal restriction). The conference will focus on specific aspects relating to this topic, in particular (but not exclusively):

  • How some specific metaphors, such as the pendulum or illness and disease, have been used to discuss crises, cycles or equilibrium by specific authors or schools of thought;
  • How the notions of crises, cycles and equilibrium have been contrasted by means of metaphorical transfers (e.g., the couples disease vs. health, or storms vs. clear weather);
  • The methodological and/or historiographical issues relating to the study of crises, cycles or equilibrium theories in terms of the usage of metaphors;
  • The possibility of characterizing the development of the historical usage of the families of metaphors (e.g., medical, weather, mechanical, etc.) used for our subject;
  • Reflections on whether there has been a shift in the prevalence of the usage of certain figures of speech in the comparison of certain epochs/schools of thought with others, for example a shift from mechanical, to biological to chaotic metaphors to describe and understand cycles, crises and equilibrium.

The emphasis will be not so much on generic metaphorical references but on the specific features and relationship transferred from other domains to crises and/or equilibrium.

In order to guarantee an informed discussion, the papers will be distributed in advance to each participant (deadline for delivery of the first draft: 7 October 2019). Accordingly, presentation will be short (about 10 minutes) and will be followed by a plenary discussion

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