William Deringer (‘12-‘15)

Assistant Professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program Massachusetts Institute of Technology

William Deringer is an historian of economic knowledge. He received his PhD in the History of Science from Princeton University in summer 2012. At Princeton, he received the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship for 2011-12, the University's highest award given for graduate studies. His teaching and research interests include the history of political economy, financial history, and the history of mathematical thinking, with a particular interest in Britain and the British Empire in the 17th-18th centuries.

Deringer's dissertation, Calculated Values: The Politics and Epistemology of Economic Numbers in Britain, 1688-1738, investigates how Britons used numerical calculation to question, understand, and govern the startling economic changes they underwent in the half-century after the 1688 Revolution. The period witnessed the emergence of many seemingly modern economic forces: a powerful military-fiscal state, increasingly global trade, and vibrant financial markets. Yet during this period of "financial revolution," Britain also lacked modern structures of economic expertise, and in the absence of economic PhDs and CPAs, novel analytical problems about fiscal policy, trade, and finance were contested in the halls of Parliament and in the public press. Self-appointed experts and political critics built creative calculations to overcome informational asymmetries and critique political leaders they distrusted, creating a new style of distinctively quantitative political economy in the process. Calculated Values reconstructs the conjoined political and epistemological issues at play in these calculations by examining the period's most significant computational controversies, such as the disputes over monarchical budgeting in the early 1690s, the calculation of the "Equivalent" payment made at the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, and the Anglo-French "balance of trade" controversy of 1713. Methodologically, Deringer's works relies heavily on the close reading of the numerical texts of the past, excavating historical computations and reconstructing their internal logic in their own, contextualized terms. 

Deringer has a special interest in the history of financial knowledge, and in the mutual construction of computational practices, market behaviors, and ethical standards in the development of financial capitalism. A substantial section of Calculated Values is devoted to the study of early-modern Britain's first dramatic financial crisis, the "South Sea Bubble" of 1720. Deringer explores the range of plausible contemporary computations that sought to assess the "real" and "intrinsic value" of South Sea Company Stock around 1720. His work seeks to contextualize what it meant to be economically "rational" in different historical contexts, and to examine how political, cultural, and moral forces shaped those definitions of rationality.

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.

He is currently Assistant Professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.