Eminent mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943) is not known for his interest or works in economics. In fact, Hilbert never did any work in economics. His primary obsession was mathematics, and sometimes—such as when he raced Einstein to find the field equations of general relativity—mathematical physics. He primarily did work in geometry, algebra and logic. Indeed, he is credited as one of the founders of proof theory and the discipline of mathematical logic.

Yet still, Hilbert’s influence on economics has been a topic of debate among historians of economics. How so? Well, from Hilbert’s emphasis on axiomatization in mathematics—working backwards from statements towards the fundamental axioms such statements rest on—one can present a narrative of influence from his work, to his pupil John von Neumann (1903-57), to Ka…