Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960

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Overview

Drawing on a wealth of new archival material, including personal correspondence and diaries, Robert Leonard tells the fascinating story of the creation of game theory by Hungarian Jewish mathematician John von Neumann and Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern. Game theory first emerged amid discussions of the psychology and mathematics of chess in Germany and fin-de-siècle Austro-Hungary. In the 1930s, on the cusp of anti-Semitism and political upheaval, it was developed by von Neumann into an ambitious theory of social organization. It was shaped still further by its use in combat analysis in World War II and during the Cold War. Interweaving accounts of the period’s economics, science, and mathematics, and drawing sensitively on the private lives of von Neumann and Morgenstern, Robert Leonard provides a detailed reconstruction of a complex historical drama.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Robert Leonard toiled for more than a decade on his manuscript on the creators and creation of game theory. I can attest to the reader that the end result was well worth the wait. Leonard's nuanced account is 'thick history' at its best; he captures the protagonists and their milieu with precision and flair. It is a signal achievement." - Bruce Caldwell, Duke University

"The publication of The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in 1944 was hailed by one reviewer as 'one of the major scientific achievements of the first half of the twentieth century.' Another reviewer signaled that 'the techniques applied by the authors in tackling economic problems are of sufficient generality to be valid in political science, sociology, or even military strategy.' In this exemplary study in the history of economics, Robert Leonard has given us a masterful account of the gestation of this work, starting with the importance of chess in European intellectual life at the beginning of the twentieth century and ending with the military applications of game theory at the RAND Corporation during the middle of the century.
"In a superb example of scholarly detective work, Leonard has given us absorbing parallel biographies of von Neumann and Morgenstern, while painting a fascinating background of the Hungarian mathematical scene and the Viennese economic world. It is a drama with dozens of characters, each of whom influenced the final history. Every practitioner of game theory and every student of twentieth-century intellectual history should read this book." - Harold W. Kuhn, Princeton University

"Robert Leonard excavates a multifarious genealogy for John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's pioneering Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by following the trajectories of its two authors across a landscape that features some of the early twentieth century's key sites of mathematical aspiration, economic disputation, and political and personal tragedy." - Ted Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

"Leonard unpacks the contributions of developments in psychology, philosophy, mathematics, economics, and politics during the first half of the twentieth century to the origins of game theory. He shows how external events - the rise of Nazism, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War - interacted with the personalities of von Neumann and Morgenstern and their successors to shape the development of the theory itself and the unanticipated uses to which it has been put. The result is a book that combines the rigor of a textbook with the excitement of a historical novel." - Marina von Neumann Whitman, University of Michigan

"For anyone interested in early twentieth century preliminaries to the development of the theory of games, this book by Robert Leonard is well worth reading. It is the product of many years of careful scholarship and presents much information that was basically unknown to those who came to game theory after the 1940s." - Martin Shubik, Yale University, Journal of Economic Literature

"Because of the major historical developments in Europe in the early to mid twentieth century, this text provides a fascinating account of the men making major mathematical and economic advances during the period."
-Thomas Philip Wakefield, Mathematical reviews

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Product Details

Meet the Author

A Dublin native, Robert Leonard writes about the history of twentieth-century economics and the social sciences in scientific and cultural context. His work has appeared in a range of journals in economics and the history of science, including the Economic Journal, History of Political Economy and Isis. His 1995 article in the Journal of Economic Literature, from which the present book grew, won the Best Article Award of the History of Economics Society. Leonard is Professor of Economics at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

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Table of Contents

Introduction; Part I. Struggle and Equilibrium: From Lasker to von Neumann: 1. 'The strangest states of mind': chess, psychology and Emanuel Lasker's Kampf; 2. 'Deeply rooted yet alien': Hungarian Jews and mathematicians; 3. From Budapest to Göttingen: an apprenticeship in modern mathematics; 4. 'The futile search for the perfect formula': von Neumann's minimax theorem; Part II. Oskar Morgenstern and Interwar Vienna: 5. Equilibrium on trial: the young Morgenstern and the Austrian school; 6. Wrestling with complexity: Wirtschaftsprognose and beyond; 7. Ethics and the excluded middle: Karl Menger and social science; 8. From Austroliberalism to Anschluss: the Viennese economists in the 1930s; Part III. From War to Cold War: 9. Mathematics and the social order: von Neumann's return to game theory; 10. Ars combinatoria: writing the theory of games; 11. Morgenstern's catharsis; 12. Von Neumann's war; 13. Social science and the 'present danger': game theory and psychology at the RAND Corporation, 1946–1960; Conclusion.

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