Footnote to howl

Our profession seems to be delighted that the Journal of the History of Economic Thought is now published by Cambridge University Press. New publisher means new packaging. I have to say I really liked the Journal’s previous appearance, with its straight and clear layout and its elegant glossy paper, and I hope that those features will remain unchanged. Now, I am particularly impressed by the new cover, which reproduces what I assume to be one page of Marshall’s Principles of Economics. Yet we do not see the center of the page, which is hidden by the journal’s banner, but a footnote that contains a supply and demand schedule. Economic diagrams and various figures are often used to symbolize economics toward a larger audience – this blog is no exception – and they are consequently reproduced on a number of economics books covers. Marshall’s diagrams are doubtlessly among the great canonical figures in economics, they hold great historical significance, so I am not surprised that they have been chosen to represent history of economic thought. Yet we know that Marshall himself chose to put his economic diagrams in footnotes, because he considered them subsidiary tools that were not very helpful as expositional devices – think of the famous ‘Burn the Mathematics’ he addressed to Bowley. Marshall’s followers, on the other hand, gave much more importance to those elements. They took them out of the footnotes section and turned them into relevant working objects, on which the creation and diffusion of economic research heavily relied .

According to Wikipedia, “[f]ootnotes are most often used as an alternative to long explanatory notes that can be distracting to readers”. What do we want to tell about history of economics as a field when we use a footnote to symbolize it ? That contemporary economists should not bother with it because it could distract them from their own work ? Or that those seemingly useless footnotes, like Marshall’s diagrams, could become the material on which future research would be built upon ? Maybe this is too complicated and it actually means that historians of economics are the only people to bother themselves with old manuscripts, prefaces, appendices and footnotes …

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