chapter
4 Pages

Introduction

The role of the concept of economic rationality is essential to economics as a

scientific discipline. It serves as the fundamental behavioural premise in

every economic explanation, and in neoclassical economics it even guaran-

tees the very existence of the discipline. The history of a concept goes far

beyond its official definition by his or her founder. It often involves discover-

ing implicit assumptions or mental representations in order to reveal par-

ticular expressions acting as indirect manifestations of an underlying

conceptual development. This book is about the central concept that every

economist or social thinker uses to describe how people behave in their eco-

nomic relations. Still, the widespread idea about this concept, even between

economists, is that it has a unique meaning universally accepted, from Adam

Smith to the present. Thus, the concept of economic rationality commonly

stipulates that every person is supposed to behave as a rational maximizer,

which entails the calculation of the gains and losses from every economic

decision that one takes. This is the widely portrayed image of the homo oeconomicus. Our purpose here is to establish that “economic rationality” is neither a unique nor a universal concept and has different, and often conflict-

ing, interpretations in the evolution of the economic discourse. To achieve

this, we will trace the historical evolution of the concept of economic ration-

ality. It will be thus confirmed that this concept has many – no less than 12 –

different meanings since the end of the eighteenth century. It is on the rich

details of this conceptual transformation that we will focus in establishing

the overall historical character of economic rationality.