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A Companion to the History of Economic Thought

Author(s):Samuels, Warren J.
Biddl, Jeff F.
Davis, John B.
Reviewer(s):Boianovsky, Mauro

Published by EH.NET (December 2003)

Warren J. Samuels, Jeff F. Biddle and John B. Davis, editors, A Companion to the History of Economic Thought. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. xvii + 712 pp. $134.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-631-22573-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mauro Boianovsky, Department of Economics, Universidade de Brasilia.

The publication of this companion is a major event in the history of economic thought field. Warren Samuels, Jeff Biddle (both at Michigan State University) and John Davis (Marquette University, Wisconsin) have put together an impressive collection of thirty-nine essays covering the state of the art in the history of economic thought and historiography. The volume is divided into two parts — “Historical Surveys” and “Historiography” — plus an introductory chapter. The contributors are well-known experts in different aspects and periods of the history and methodology of economics.

Twenty-eight surveys comprise Part I, arranged chronologically from ancient times until postwar economics. Chapters 2 to 11 provide surveys of traditional topics such as ancient Greek and medieval economics, mercantilism, physiocracy, political arithmetic, Adam Smith, classical economics, and Marx. Chapters 14 to 18 and 23 cover the German and English historical schools, American economic thought before 1900, English and Austrian marginalists, early general equilibrium analysis and interwar institutional economics. Macroeconomics is discussed in chapters 21, 22 and 26, including pre-Keynesian business cycle theory, Keynes, and postwar monetary economics. Microeconomics is the theme of chapters 19, 20, 24 and 25, on interwar imperfect competition theory, perfect competition and the neoclassical synthesis, and postwar general equilibrium and game theories. Chapter 28 is divided into five subchapters surveying several branches of postwar heterodox economics. Other chapters (12, 13 and 27) deal with topics such as non-Marxian socialism, utopian economics and the economic role of the government. Although most of the entries in Part I may be described as surveys of the literature, some are written as papers where authors develop new insights about certain episodes in history of economic thought (e.g. chapters 9, 21, 25 and 27 on homogeneity and race in post-Ricardian economics, “the stabilization of price theory” between 1920 and 1955, “the formalist revolution” of the 1950s, and changes in the interpretation of the role of the government in the economy, respectively).

The only other collection to date that can be compared to the Companion in scope is the (1987) New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, which included several entries on the history of economics. In the early 1990s a few thematic paperback volumes (on general equilibrium, capital theory, monetary economics, etc.) were made out of the entries in the New Palgrave, but there was no specific volume collecting the entries on history of thought. From that perspective, the Companion fills a gap in the literature. Many of the entries in the Companion refer to their matches in the New Palgrave (e.g., chapters 7, 11 and 16 on Smith, the surplus interpretation of classical economics, and English marginalism, respectively) and/or provide updated references to the vast secondary literature that has come out since the late 1980s. Some chapters do neither (e.g. chapter 8 on classical economics).

Although Part I of the Companion provides a comprehensive treatment of the main topics in the history of economics, a few gaps may be noticed. The organization of the collection according to schools of thought and/or time period has several advantages, but also some drawbacks. Important topics such as trade theory, public finance and the theory of public goods, and econometrics are barely mentioned. Other examples are Wicksell’s contribution to capital theory and Ramsey’s model of optimal growth. Malthus’s approach to effective demand is discussed in just one brief paragraph (pp. 123-24). Despite the positive reference to studies of “neglected” economists in the introductory chapter (p. 3), most of those economists continue to be neglected in this Companion (e.g., J. Dupuit and H. Gossen on price theory, F. B. Hawley and N. Johanssen on saving and investment).

Part II is formed mostly by new material, reflecting the intense debate that has taken place in the last few decades about historiographic matters in economic thought. Chapter 1 is a summing up of the main arguments of the second part of the Companion (there is no similar introductory chapter for the first part, presumably because the historical surveys deal with more familiar material). Chapter 29 provides a useful overview of the main themes of modern historiography in general and in economics. The next chapter discusses in detail the contribution of the recent “science studies” approach to the history of economics. Chapters 31 to 33 provide a fascinating account of the several aspects of textual exegesis in HET, including an assessment of the use of mathematical modeling in the rational reconstruction of texts of the past. Developments in economic methodology after Kuhn are surveyed in chapter 34. Chapter 35 takes up the role of biography in HET, a topic that was the object of heated debate between G. Stigler and W. Jaffe in the 1960s. The next two chapters study some crucial features of the use and acceptance of economic ideas associated with the history of the formulation of economic policy and of the transmission of economic theories across international boundaries, respectively. Chapter 38 claims that HET should be seen in the broad context of the history of ideas in general. The last chapter raises the important issue of the use of HET by both supporters and critics of orthodox economics.

One interesting exercise is to do some cross-reading of the two parts of the Companion in order to check in what extent the historiographic concerns discussed in part II are reflected in the historical surveys of the first part. It is worth noting, for instance, that although much attention is paid to the “constructivist” approach in the historiographic discussion, there are very few signs of its influence in the first part of the book, as witnessed by the relative lack of references to authors such as M. Foucault and P. Mirowski in the interpretations of physiocracy and of the marginalist revolution, respectively. In the same way, the reader would benefit from reading chapter 28 (on postwar heterodoxy) together with chapter 39, where the problems involved in the relation between HET and heterodoxy are taken up.

Given the range and diversity of views of this Companion, it is representative of some of the best work that has been done in HET recently. As the editors inform the readers (p. xvi), there are plans to put together another Companion dealing only with HET in the postwar period. One can hardly wait.

Mauro Boianovsky is associate professor of economics at Universidade de Brasilia. His main field of research is the history of macroeconomics. Recent and forthcoming publications include “Patinkin, the Cowles Commission, and the Theory of Unemployment and Aggregate Supply,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought (2002); “Wicksell, Cassel, and the Idea of Involuntary Unemployment” (with Hans-Michael Trautwein), History of Political Economy (2003); “Some Cambridge Reactions to the General Theory: David Champernowne and Joan Robinson on Full Employment,” Cambridge Journal of Economics (forthcoming, 2004); and “The IS-LM Model and the Liquidity Trap Concept: From Hicks to Krugman,” History of Political Economy (2004).

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative