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Historians of Economics and Economic Thought: The Construction of Disciplinary Memory

Author(s):Medema, Steven
Samuel, Warren
Reviewer(s):Frantz, Roger

Published by EH.NET (October 2002)

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Steven Medema and Warren Samuels, editors, Historians of Economics and Economic Thought: The Construction of Disciplinary Memory. New York: Routledge, 2001. x + 360 pp. $110 (hardback), ISBN: 0-415-18581-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Roger Frantz, Department of Economics, San Diego State University.

The title accurately describes this interesting book. The book is about historians of economic thought — their philosophies and research agendas, as well as the divisions within this subgroup of economists — more than it is about the history of ideas. The volume contains an Introduction by Medema and Samuels, and eighteen chapters, covering the work and philosophies of eighteen historians of economics. The historians written about include Neil De Marchi, Roy Weintraub, Philip Mirowski, Donald Moggridge, William Barber, Bob Coats, Mark Blaug, Samuel Hollander, Werner Stark, F.A. Hayek, Joan Robinson, and Maurice Dobb. The authors of these eighteen chapters are twenty-two other historians of economics including Roger Backhouse, Kenneth Carpenter, John Davis, Neil De Marchi, Steven Medema, Howard Pack, Ingrid Rima, Warren Samuels, Margaret Schabas, and Jeffrey Young. There is a great deal to learn about the “life of the mind” from the forty historians who comprise the volume.

One theme made clear is that many historians of economics feel besieged by the majority of economists who do not care about the history of the discipline. The authors of the volume are, on the whole, a bit defensive about the subject. Even on page one of their Introduction, editors Medema and Samuels express this by addressing the idea that the history of thought is irrelevant. The orthodox view is that knowing about past economists does not help one understand ideas and theories. Medema and Samuels refer to this as a conceit — that in essence the history of economics is not needed because everything of value from the past has been incorporated into current theory. They call it an illusion to believe that, having discarded all the errors, there now exists a “coherent, unequivocal, univocal body of ideas” (p. 1).

The defensiveness is understandable given the thrust of the economics profession. But it is also a bit odd given the character of both those written about and the authors. Reading about historians of economics by historians of economics will give the reader the clear impression that both groups consist of scholars; individuals of far reaching intellect, and; people interested in economics, history, and philosophy to mention but three fields. Having met William Barber at the History of Economics Society 2002 Conference, my impression is that here is a gentleman and a scholar. Reading about him in this volume gives the same impression. There is a chapter on Philip Mirowski, whose interdisciplinary work is far reaching, to say the least. In another chapter John Davis writes about Donald Moggridge, the co-editor of Keynes’ Collected Writings (a 28-year undertaking) and the author of a major biography on Keynes. Reading about these people by these people might make you wonder why people of such intellectual expanse would, on the whole, feel under siege in their profession. If you think that it is because the rest of the profession are simply their intellectual superiors, then think again.

Certain descriptions of the historians being discussed appear frequently, revealing the personal and work characteristics valued by the authors, and the sub-discipline in general. These descriptions include: breadth of reading; intellectual curiosity and passion; an interdisciplinary approach to economics, via a study of the law, institutions, culture, and history; a desire for deep understanding (that does not come solely from econometric results); appreciating the larger aspects of economics; a writer of books; and valuing knowledge for its own sake. There is also a distinction made between the narrowness of neoclassical theory and the broadness of the historians being written about, and a disdain for heroic abstractions. In one interesting case, Kenneth Carpenter and Laurence Moss compare George Stigler’s methodology and philosophy, unfavorably to that of William D. Grampp.

A second major theme follows from the first: how historians of economics are different from other economists. Most economists turn their attention to the history of economics during a later part of their careers. A chapter by John Lodewijks on Roy Weintraub shows an exception to this rule. Weintraub turned to the history of economics relatively early in his career, bringing with him a solid background in mathematics. I, on the other hand, am apparently not an exception to the rule. History of Thought was one of my favorite undergraduate and graduate classes. I always had more books about history of thought in my office than my colleagues, and I could never understand the arrogance of my colleagues who would say with pride, “Anything published before 1970 is worthless.” I never placed a great deal of emphasis on math, and I started teaching the history of economics relatively late in my career, at approximately age fifty (five years ago). I read parts of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and it was clear to me that in his own terms, Smith was speaking about intuition and the difference in brain functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the neocortex. (Neuroscience presented evidence about this more than two hundred years later.) It was then that I began teaching the history of economics.

A third major theme is how and why we should study the history of economic ideas. This volume makes it clear that simply knowing what economists of the past have said is not the major reason for studying the history of economics. In his chapter on Werner Stark, Charles Clark sums it up nicely. It is not that Smith, Mill, Marshall, Keynes and the like “discovered the ultimate ‘Truths’ … but that they have discovered relative truths, insights into the economic and social realities of their respective epochs. If we correctly learn this lesson from the history of economics, then as a discipline it has served its purpose of better preparing economists for the task of critically understanding and explaining their own economic and social realities” (p. 317). If you want to read about mature scholars written by other mature scholars, then I recommend this book.

Roger Frantz is a Professor of Economics at San Diego State University. His latest publication is “Herbert Simon: Artificial Intelligence as a Framework for Understanding Intuition,” Journal of Economic Psychology, (in press). He is completing a manuscript with a working title, Intuition in the History of Economic Thought, to be published by Kluwer in 2004.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII