History and philosophy of rational choice theory

Semester 4

Dorian Jullien

First, a lecture introduces some prerequisites for understanding the overall structure of rational choice theory, distinguishing its central concepts (utility, preference and choice) and its main areas of application (decision under certainty, under uncertainty, over time and with respect to others), before presenting a set of contributions to the history and philosophy of rational choice theory. We explore both “classic” works such as Nicola Giocoli’s Modeling Rational Agents (2003) or Sonja Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy (2003) and more recent works such as those of Wade Hands, Catherine Herfeld, Ivan Moscati and others on consumer theory, expected utility theory, nudges, problems of interpreting concepts of utility, preferences and choice, etc. The objective is to identify the themes that have not been much studied in these works in the light of the overall structure of rational choice theory introduced at the beginning of the course.

In a second step, one of these themes (or another one suggested by the students) is the object of a collective work that aims at building a draft article. Reading and writing workshops are then at the heart of the sessions, in order to accompany the students in a concrete practice of academic research in history and philosophy of economics.


  • Amadae, S. M. (2003). Rationalizing capitalist democracy: The cold war origins of rational choice liberalism. University of Chicago Press.
  • Erickson, P., Klein, J. L., Daston, L., Lemov, R., Sturm, T., & Gordin, M. D. (2013). How reason almost lost its mind. University of Chicago Press.
  • Giocoli, N. (2003). Modeling rational agents: From interwar economics to early modern game theory. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Hands, D. W. (2014). Paul Samuelson and revealed preference theory. History of political economy, 46(1), 85-116.
  • Mirowski, P. (2002). Machine dreams: Economics becomes a cyborg science. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hands, D. W. (2017). The road to rationalisation: A history of “Where the Empirical Lives”(or has lived) in consumer choice theory. The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 24(3), 555-588.
  • Hands, D. W. (2020). Libertarian paternalism: taking Econs seriously. International Review of Economics, 67(4), 419-441.
  • Herfeld, C. (2017). Between mathematical formalism, normative choice rules, and the behavioural sciences: The emergence of rational choice theories in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 24(6), 1277-1317
  • Herfeld, C. (2018). From theories of human behavior to rules of rational choice: tracing a normative turn at the Cowles Commission, 1943–54. History of Political Economy, 50(1), 1-48.
  • Herfeld, C. (2020). The diversity of rational choice theory: A review note. Topoi, 39(2), 329-347.
  • Herfeld, C. (2021). Revisiting the criticisms of rational choice theories. Philosophy Compass, e12774.
  • Małecka, M. (2020). The normative decision theory in economics: a philosophy of science perspective. The case of the expected utility theory. Journal of Economic Methodology, 27(1), 36-50.
  • Moscati, I. (2021). On the recent philosophy of decision theory. Journal of Economic Methodology, 28(1), 98-106.