Terence W. Hutchison, the History of Economic Thought and Me

I have just learned that Terence W. Hutchinson died last Friday. I have never met the man personally, but one of his books had a direct influence on my becoming an historian of economic thought. The book is Before Adam Smith: the emergence of political economy, Basic Blackwell, Oxford, 1988. Here is the story.

As many young lads aged 20 or something, I was kind of looking for something to do with myself. I had followed a course in history of economic thought at the University of Paris I and liked it. To integrate a master degree with a major in HET, I had to choose a subject for the final dissertation and read several books to look for an idea. I finally found it in Hutchison’s book (the subject was on Ferdinando Galiani and the French grain trade). Moreover, I loved the whole book and read it from cover to cover a couple of times.

Why was it that this book was and remains so important to me? First, there was the scope of the book. It was (and still is) probably the only book that offered a whole panomara on the pre-smithian period (1662-1776). Some would say that there is Schumpeter, well… Not really. Schumpeter’s Histoy of economic analysis is very much a personal compilation of opinions, of anecdotes, of bits of analysis on authors Schumpeter liked, but there is no main thread that unifies the book and the narration is quite chaotic. Going back to Hutchison, a second feature that attracted me in his book was that its narrative is very fluent: you had no break between context(s) (I prefer speaking of contexts rather than context) and content, you could drift easily from the personal details of one’s author life, to his role in matters of economic policy, to his findings in economic theory. This point is fundamental since most of traditional history of thought tend to dissociate the contexts (the personal life of economic writers, the economic facts, the economic institutions and policies of the time) from the content (theories). I always felt that it was simply wrong and that there were connections between these different histories and that each of them enlightened the others in a way (and it is our task as historian to find in which way). Needless to say, the profession has changed a lot since the publication of Hutchison’s book in 1988 and it may look a bit old-fashioned to someone trained in the SSK. Still, I think that it should be on top of the reading list of every graduate student who wants to work on pre-1776 social sciences.

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