William Deringer

Associate Professor, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Fellow, SOF/Heyman, Columbia University (2012–2015)

William Deringer is an Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research focuses on economic and political knowledge and the practices through which they are made, especially calculations. His research ranges from the early-modern period to the present, and his particular interests include the history of the social sciences, historical and social studies of finance, and the history and sociology of quantification.

Deringer’s first book, Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age (Harvard University Press, 2018), is a history of how numerical calculations became an authoritative mode of public reasoning. Focusing on Great Britain, Calculated Values argues that a pervasive, public reverence for “facts and figures” first emerged in the half-century following the Revolution of 1688, through political debates about public finance. Examining the numerical controversies that frequently arose in British politics, including during prominent events like the Union of England and Scotland in 1707 and the 1720 South Sea Bubble, Calculated Values offers a new explanation for how numbers became so esteemed in public life: their use in antagonistic argumentation. While in the 21st century, we are likely to assume that numbers get deployed in political arguments because numbers are seen to be an especially “objective” form of knowledge, in the 18th century this process worked in the other direction. Eighteenth-century Britons came to believe that numbers were a special form of knowledge because of how they were deployed in political arguments. Paradoxically, a common belief in the honesty and disinterestedness of numbers grew out of a political culture in which partisan calculators used numbers to do cynical and highly interested things. Calculated Values was awarded the 2019 Oscar Kenshur book prize for the best book in eighteenth-century studies, awarded by the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies at Indiana University.

At the Society of Fellows, Deringer revised Calculated Values for publication and to began work on a new project--a broad, diachronic study of how financial value has been understood, calculated, and taught from the 18th-20th centuries. He also continued work on a shorter project, exploring the "mercantilist" circulation of elite mathematical intelligence in Restoration England. In spring 2014, he organized the conference Calculating Capitalism at the Heyman Center for the Humanties at Columbia.

For his second book, Deringer plans to look at the very long history of a single computational problem: present value, the problem of determining what future property ought to be worth today. Deringer’s other recent research interests include the history of eighteenth-century political economy, the history and epistemology of financial bubbles, and the history of computational technologies, notably computer spreadsheets, in 20th-century finance.