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Were Jevons, Menger and Walras really cardinalists? On the notion of measurement in utility theory, psychology, mathematics and other disciplines, ca. 1870–1910

The paper investigates how Jevons, Menger and Walras conceived measurement in general,and the measurement of utility in particular. It argues that these three marginalists understood measurement in the so-called classical way, which is different from the representational understanding of measurement underlying current cardinal utility theory. In accord with the classical view of measurement, Jevons, Menger and Walras associated utility measurement with the possibility of identifying a unit of utility rather than with the ranking of utility differences. Thus, and contrary to the canonical narrative of the history of utility theory, the three marginalists were not cardinalists in the current sense of the term. In order to better understand the actual approach of Jevons, Menger and Walras to utility measurement, the paper situates their thought in the context of ideas of measurement in philosophy, physics, psychology, mathematics and areas of economics not related to utility theory. Focusing on the years 1870-1914, the period in which the three were active, the paper arrives at two conclusions: on the one hand, the classical understanding of measurement dominated not only economics but also other disciplines; but on the other hand, the direct relationships between the reflections on utility measurement by Jevons, Menger and Walras and contemporary noneconomic debates on the topic were negligible

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Paper provided by University of Turin in its series CESMEP Working Papers with number 201003.

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Length: 41 pages
Date of creation: Dec 2010
Handle: RePEc:uto:cesmep:201003
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