On Incommensurability

5:36:00 AM

I’ve been away buried under a tottering stack of papers working on my MSc thesis. My thesis focused on formalizing a theory of incommensurability, which occurs when two things can’t be traded off against each other.

Imagine you’re trying to rent a vacation apartment. The qualities that are most important to you in any apartment are how close it is to the metro station and the amount of natural light it receives (pretend you’re a fan of Nordic design so the natural light thing makes sense).

If you’ve got an apartment that receives an amazing amount of natural light but is two hours away from the metro station, and one that is ten minutes away from the metro but is in what Nigerians would call a ‘face-me-I-face-you’ building: surrounded by other houses on all sides and receiving very little natural light. It becomes harder to choose which apartment you prefer because neither is entirely better than the other. This conundrum, in a nutshell, is incommensurability: you’re not indifferent between the apartments, but you also cannot easily tradeoff between them, causing the decision making process to become both mentally and emotionally taxing.

Some of the resources I enjoyed reading through while working on my dissertation included:

1.   Ruth Chang’s easy to read guide to incommensurability. Chang is a philosopher with a knack for clear and engaging writing.

2.  The Scandal of the Irrational retells a story of the Pythagorean brotherhood who first conceived of the term incommensurability to describe the relationship between two things that can’t directly be measured. They [wrongly] assumed rational and irrational numbers could not be represented on the same scale, capturing a rift between arithmetic (dealing with the rational) and geometry (irrational). Scandal, deaths, and more abound in this tale. This is a chapter in Abel’s Proof which has an even more intriguing history.

3.  There’s relatively little research on incommensurability, but Deparis et al., (2012) in some ways establish the first/second paper directly looking into the issue. The concepts and intuitions are straightforward, the methodology, not so much. But a good read overall.

4.  Economics is very concerned with utility. However, the way utility is used (as a proxy for value) and the assumptions inherent in this use, are quite dissonant. Daniel Read traces the origins of utility from Bentham to Kahneman, in this fascinating read.


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