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Formalisation and responsibility

James Mensch

pp. 187-196


If you ask a scientist for the actual meaning of his terms – say, of an electron or a quark – he is more than likely to write an equation. An electron, he will insist, is this formula for the probability–density of its position. Similarly, if you want to evaluate an investment in finance, you use the formula for its net present value, discounting the income it generates by the opportunity costs of its capital. Such formal procedures are, in fact, omnipresent. From the algorithms determining market investments to the reduction of much of the social sciences to statistical analyses, both our claims and our decisions exhibit the formalisation that marks our age. The questions I raise concern the issue of responsibility in this context. How is it to be understood? To whom or what do we respond? I argue that our difficulties answering such questions point to the transformation of the notion of responsibility that formalism occasions. Formalisation abstracts from the embodied particularity of being, thereby abstracting from both the individual that bears responsibility and the individuals to whom he or she responds.

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