Mathematics, Science and the Cambridge Tradition

Nuno Ornelas Martins


In this paper the use of mathematics in economics will be discussed, by comparing two approaches to mathematics, a Cartesian approach, and a Newtonian approach. I will argue that while mainstream economics is underpinned by a Cartesian approach which led to a divorce between mathematics and reality, the contributions of key authors of the Cambridge tradition, like Marshall, Keynes and Sraffa, are characterised by a Newtonian approach to mathematics, where mathematics is aimed at a study of reality. Marshall was influenced by the Newtonian approach that still characterised many aspects of the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos, where the emphasis was on geometrical and mechanical examples rather than on symbolic (Cartesian) mathematics. Keynes, who criticised (Cartesian) symbolic mathematics, was indeed an admirer of Newton and of his method. Sraffa’s mathematical constructions are also in line with the Newtonian approach where arithmetic and geometry were strictly separated, since Sraffa’s mathematical constructions typically use arithmetic without engaging in the mixture between geometry and arithmetic that occurs in the Cartesian approach.

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Published on 11th December, 2012, in Economic Thought Vol 1, No 2, 2012