Economics revolves around a central character: “economic man.” As historians, we are all familiar with various episodes in the history of this character, and we appreciate his ever-changing aspect even while many of our colleagues in economics think the rational economic agent of neoclassical economics is the same kind of person as Adam Smith's economic man. The fact that this is a familiar history means that I can focus on a few salient examples—a “short” history, rather than a complete history— to provide the raw material for my account which has a more specific agenda than simply a history of economic man. My aim is to re-consider the history of economic man as a model man. This leads to two further questions: What kind of a role has this model man played in relation to the science he inhabits? And, how can we characterize the processes by which economists have arrived at their model characters?
To illuminate this history of economic man, I adopt ideas from philosophy about how scientists arrive at models and use them in science. Of course, economists have always had their own ideas about such matters. So in effect, there are two intersecting strands in this account: one is how economists have discussed their strategies in creating these characters, and the other is how philosophers of science have—at the time and since—labeled and thought about such strategies. These discussions, from the economists and from philosophers, will enable us to explore the usefulness of the concept of idealization, a standard way of thinking about model construction in philosophy of science. They will also allow us to consider model man as an ideal type (using Weber's concept) or as a caricature (to follow Gibbard and Varian's label). These analytical labels—ideal types, idealization, and so forth—relate to questions about the status of models and their construction that are sometimes evident, and sometimes lie below the surface, but always remain important in the historical discussions about economics as a science. My account is concerned then with constructions of the persona of economic man, how he has changed over the last 250 years, how far we can regard that character as a model, and with reflections on his role in the changing science of economics.