Talk: Brian Epstein

Friday, March 15, 2019 - 1:30pm to 3:00pm

Claudia Cohen, Rm 402

Brian Epstein

Associate Professor of Philosophy

Tufts University

Title: The Nature and Design of Robust Institutions


Herbert Simon (1991) imagines a Martian gazing down on Earth with a telescope that could pick out social structures. He points out that most of what the Martian would see would not be markets, nor nations, nor governments. Instead, the dominant features of our social landscape are organizations and institutions. These have long been a central topic in sociology, but only recently are having a renaissance in the economics literature. Acemoglu and Robinson (2012), for instance, argue that the character of a nation’s institutions are the main determining factor in that nation’s long-term growth.

The prevailing theories of institutions regard them as made up of cognitive structures, such as sets of rules or attitudes, and they hold that institutions generally have the function of affecting cognitive structures, such as incentives, payoffs, and choices. I argue against both of these, describing more heterogeneous building blocks of institutions than just cognitive structures, and more general functions that institutions have than affecting such structures. If we are to explain and design large-scale institutions, it will have to be different basis than the prevailing one. I explore more realistic approaches to the nature of institutions and examine how these can affect the design of robust institutions in the real world.


Bio: Brian Epstein is an associate professor of Philosophy at Tufts. He researches the social world. What are groups? What are corporations? What are languages, dollar bills, or artifacts? Objects like these are the furniture of our everyday world. But we still have a poor understanding of what these things are. Epstein’s research aims to enhance our understanding of the social world, and improve our models in the social sciences.