Toward an Intellectual History of Uncertainty

Download paper


Economists discussing the problem of radical uncertainty commonly invoke Frank Knight’s classic definition in Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, but only rarely venture to explore the broader contours of his argument.

Those who do so are soon confronted by a striking disjunct between Knight’s methods and those adopted by most economists writing on the subject over the past half-­‐‑century. As some here may recall, Knight began his graduate studies at Cornell in the philosophy department, only transferring to economics when his original advisors decided he was too skeptical.

His subsequent treatment of the concept of uncertainty and the origins of profit remained closely engaged with problems at the boundaries of economics, ranging widely to explore the epistemological and political-­‐‑philosophical implications of the concept.

Risk,Uncertainty and Profit reads less like a doctoral dissertation in economics than a treatise of social philosophy.

In our discussion today, I would like to return to Knight’s text to consider two of its implications for those working on problems of uncertainty. First, he helps us to recover a set of complex questions about the relationship between uncertainty and social theory that economists have long marginalized. Second, he reminds us that uncertainty itself has an intellectual history. In recent years scholars have developed ever more elaborate a sophisticated histories of risk and probability; what might we learn if we turned our attention to uncertainties that elude quantitative methods altogether?