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

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Part of Historical Perspectives on Modern Economics

  • Date Published: June 2012
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107609266

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About the Authors
  • 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.

    • Reveals how game theory emerged out of discussions about psychology, behavior and mathematics of chess in the early twentieth century
    • Shows the crucial importance of social upheaval and the rise of anti-Semitism to the further development of the theory
    • Demonstrates how von Neumann intended game theory to be less a theory of individual strategic behavior than a new analysis of the social order
    Read more


    • Winner (in Hardback) of the 2011 Joseph J. Spengler Best Book Prize, History of Economics Society

    Reviews & endorsements

    "Robert Leonard toiled for more than a decade on his manuscript on the creators and creation of game theory. His 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 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'. 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. 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. 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 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 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

    "This fine book provides a rich context for the understanding of the Austrian school of economics together with the mathematics of Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere that culminated in the theory of games. It is the product of many years of scholarship and presents much information basically unknown to those who came to game theory after the 1940s."
    Martin Shubik, Journal of Economic Literature

    "Von Neumann and Morgenstern's landmark 1944 book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, has long proven enigmatic. As is well known, the book's immediate impact on economic theory was minor, yet it has been widely cited as the inspiration for game theory as it has infiltrated economics since the 1980s … What is clear is that [this] book represents immense achievement in the way it links the histories of science, economics, and cultural and social history through the early careers of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. To a broader audience, its attention to social and political context will make parts of the book read like a page-turner, while it will remain a rich resource for the scholarly initiate."
    Journal of Economics and Philosophy

    "Leonard's masterful fresco follows the development of game theory from its prelude in turn-of-the-century Vienna chess cafes and the mathematical circles of Hungary to its multifarious first steps in the writings of Borel and Zermelo …"
    Giacomo Sillari, History of Economic Thought and Policy

    "… a fascinating account of the men making major mathematical and economic advances during [this] period."
    Thomas Philip Wakefield, Mathematical Reviews

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2012
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107609266
    • length: 422 pages
    • dimensions: 226 x 152 x 23 mm
    • weight: 0.64kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    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, 1946–60

  • Author

    Robert Leonard, Université du Québec à Montréal
    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.


    • Winner (in Hardback) of the 2011 Joseph J. Spengler Best Book Prize, History of Economics Society

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