Bounded rationality, scissors, crowbars, and pragmatism: reflections on Herbert Simon


The paper locates, appreciates, and extends several dimensions of Simon’s work in the direction of more recent contributions by people such as Gigerenzer and Dennett. The author’s “crowbar model of method” is compared to Simon’s scissors metaphor. Against an evolutionary background, both support a pragmatic rather than strong realist approach to theoretically deep and complex problems. The importance of implicit knowledge (knowhow) is emphasized, for humans (including scientists working forward at research frontiers), as well as nonhuman animals. Although Simon was a realist in some respects, his work on bounded rationality, satisficing, problem solving, heuristics, models, and scientific discovery mark him as a pragmatist. Indeed, he should be regarded as one of the great American pragmatists, alongside Peirce, James, Dewey, and a few others.

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  1. 1.

    He even wrote a short story on this theme (Simon 1991, ch. 11). The maze metaphor was prominent in drafts of Administrative Behavior (1947) but was dropped from the published version (see Simon 1996a, 85f).

  2. 2.

    See Simon (1996b, ch. 3). “Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.” Situational constraints are indeed often undervalued, but I do think Simon’s position on thinking was also too simple and derived, in part, from his focus on conscious human protocols about well-structured problems.

  3. 3.

    For a striking case, see Vickers (2017). A great many models in many walks of life have worked quite well without their authors thinking they captured the real world very accurately. Models from behavior modification to today’s deep learning machines are typically superficial, in the sense of being data-driven and correlational, without pretending to reveal the causal deep structure of the phenomena they predict.

  4. 4.

    The companion paper is a version of the one presented at the Simon Society Conference.

  5. 5.

    This and the Simon-Gigerenzer perspective reminds us of J. J. Gibson and also Donald Norman’s work on affordances. Some research tools provide more inviting opportunities for use than others, in Norman’s agent-centered conception of affordance, here extended beyond ordinary perception to human cognition as rhetorical and heuristic. It is no accident that the ABC Group’s book, Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart (1999), recalls Norman’s title: Things That Make Us Smart (1993). Dennett brings affordances into his account at several points in his (2017).

  6. 6.

    Dennett rightly emphasizes that most research is goal directed, hence a form of directed evolution or artificial rather than purely blind, natural selection.

  7. 7.

    Sophisticated method typically follows rather than precedes frontier research, insofar as it is novel. Here I am with Dennett’s Darwinism. Rejecting “mind first,” Dennett (1995, chs. 1, 3; 2017) implies that we also must reject “method first.” Some cranes are usually available, but no skyhooks, please! Dennett reworks the above-mentioned material in his (2017).

  8. 8.

    An important exception is Baird (2004).

  9. 9.

    See the insightful, multidimensional characterization of the classical pragmatists in the general introduction to Fisch (1996).


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Correspondence to Thomas Nickles.

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In this contribution I elaborate on points mentioned briefly in my Herbert Simon Society paper on the tools-to-theories heuristic discovered by Gigerenzer. That paper was already committed to another publication (Nickles 2018).

Thomas Nickles is Emeritus from University of Nevada, Reno.

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Nickles, T. Bounded rationality, scissors, crowbars, and pragmatism: reflections on Herbert Simon. Mind Soc 17, 85–96 (2018).

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  • Herbert Simon
  • Bounded rationality
  • Models
  • The crowbar model
  • Realism
  • Pragmatism