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Essays on the History of Economics

Author(s):Samuels, Warren J.
Henderson, Willie
Johnson, Kirk D.
Johnson, Marianne
Reviewer(s):Paganelli, Maria Pia

Published by EH.NET (January 2006)


Warren J. Samuels, Willie Henderson, Kirk D. Johnson and Marianne Johnson, editors, Essays on the History of Economics. New York: Routledge, 2004. xiii + 340 pp. $165 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-70006-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Maria Pia Paganelli, Department of Economics, Yeshiva University.

The unifying theme of Essays on the History of Economics may not be obvious from simply looking at its table of contents. The volume has four essays. Willie Henderson and Warren Samuels write on “The Etiology of Adam Smith’s Division of Labor: Alternative Accounts and Smith’s Methodology Applied to Them” with an appendix by Henderson on “How Does Smith Achieve a Synthesis in Writing? Evidence from His Propensity to Truck, Barter and Exchange.” Warren Samuels, Kirk D. Johnson and Marianne Johnson write the second essay, titled “Should History-of-Economic-Thought Textbooks Cover ‘Recent’ Economic Thought?” as well as the third essay, “What the Authors of History-of-Economic-Thought Textbooks Say about the History of Economics.” The last essay is a solo by Samuels on “Thorstein Veblen as Economic Theorist.”

What connects these four essays is summarized by Samuels in the introduction: “If John R. Hicks is correct that no one theory can answer all our questions, then perhaps there is room for multiple theories of capital, of cost, and so on, each devoted to inquiring into different questions. As it stands, most economists seem compelled to believe that only one correct theory of capital or of cost, etc. can exist and then adopt their favorite one — all the while using it as a tool or element of design strategy. Historians of economic thought can enrich economic theory by educating future economists along the lines of theoretical pluralism” (p. 6).

If a goal of history of economic thought is to show that economics and its history is not a monolith, but rather a discipline with a plurality of socially constructed theories and concepts, this is a successful work of history of economic thought.

The first essay deals with the plurality of interpretations of Adam Smith’s sources of the division of labor. Through a meticulous textual analysis, the authors show that in addition to the oft-mentioned propensity to truck, barter and exchange and reason and speech, four additional sources for the division of labor can be argued for. Division of labor may emerge because individuals take advantage of opportunities, because of the presence of a commercial society, because of the “nature of human nature” or because of human desire for approbation. The interpretative conflicts and paradoxes associated with the language are numerous.

The second essay is explicitly meant to challenge Joseph Dorfman’s answer to the question: Where does history of economic thought end? In The Economic Mind in American Civilization (1959) Dorfman claims that time must pass for us to gain knowledge and perspective. The authors show that history of economic thought is able to handle recency in a more variegated way than Dorfman is willing to admit. The authors go though 73 textbooks in their various editions (a total of 124 textbooks) to see how recency is handled. They report for each whether the problem of recency is explicitly discussed, how the design changed over the years to account for recent materials, the extent of coverage of recent materials, and the frequency of citations and references to prominent post-war economists. The results are mixed: there is no clear end of history of economic thought, which contradicts Dorfman’s rule, and supports the idea of pluralism in the history of economic thought. Dealing with recency may reduce the risks of a history written by the survivors or by the winners. Also, the multitude of histories of economic thought seems to dispute Dorfman’s assertion that the one correct story will be revealed with the full knowledge generated by the passage of time. Another conclusion from this chapter seems a challenge to trained historians of economic thought: “most of recent history-of-economic-thought work is undertaken by economists (and others) who are not historians of economic thought” (p. 179) through survey articles, literature reviews, specialized encyclopedias, biographies and the like. Pluralism in the discipline comes also from the diversity of writers of the history of the discipline.

The third essay reports the historiographic position of 63 textbooks. It successfully shows that “the history of economic thought does not write itself” (p. 264) but is filtered through the interpretive eyes of the textbook writer. By analyzing the design strategies of the textbooks, this chapter is a testimony to the pluralism of the discipline. The diversity of interpretations is visible in the choice of starting and ending time, in the individuals and schools covered, and especially in the focus on theories or on ideas. The work presented seems immense, as for each historiographic question there is a list of authors who provide an answer and the answer itself. Given the amount of information presented, it seems like an electronic version of this chapter, with the option of electronically searching it, would be useful as a working tool for a scholar interested in this kind of research.

The last essay challenges the hegemony of neoclassical economics in defining theory. The interpretation of the work of Thorstein Veblen is used to demonstrate the limits of such supremacy. The same author (Veblen) can be interpreted as an anti-theorist as well as a theorist, depending on how theory is defined. If by theory we understand only neoclassical theory, a la Blaug, then Veblen is an anti-theorist and offers no theory. By expanding the definition of theory to include non-neoclassical theories, Veblen is a theorist (a non-neoclassical one) and is not anti-theory (while he is anti-neoclassical).

The volume is an immense work of scholarship, as shown by the rich twenty-five pages of bibliography. It is a dense picture of the state of the discipline today, a picture that shows a dynamic cacophony of different voices, rather than a unified but maybe more monotonous tune.

Maria Pia Paganelli is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Yeshiva University. She works on eighteenth-century money theories and on Adam Smith.


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