Every six months or so, I find myself reading parts of Phil Mirowski’s Machine Dream…and a few –sometimes angry- reviews of the book. That’s the thing when someone is ambitious enough to write his version of postwar economic history as a whole. Whatever you research on in this period, you end up confronting some of his claims (from this book or his recent work on the Chicago School and the Mont Pelerin Society).
Most reviewers eventually address the same issue, namely the consistency of Mirowski’s collective history with the various individual histories they have produced (Boland’s review is characteristically titled “zoomed-in vs zoomed-out”). Sometimes relying on archival sources, they fault Mirowski for overestimating the influence of such funding body or military organization on the individuals they have worked on (or on themselves, see Binmore’s review), or for caricaturing them as laqueys of Von Neumann or Hayek. And yes, I confess being hurt by his rough picture of such and such character I’ve lived with for years, reading their articles, drafts, private correspondence, diaries and most intimate thoughts.
But is there any road from individual to collective history? Is there any positive counterpart to the word “caricature,” a way of selecting a few characteristics from each individual, some that would together account for the shape of economic science, without distorting individual pictures of these individuals? Or do those willing to write collective history start the other way round, from these global forces that inform, filter and possibly distort individuals’ intellectual development? And how are these forces to be selected, if not on the basis of individual cases? Is collective history essentially a puppet history?
HOPE’s 2007 conference on biography and autobiography brought the question to light, but provided no answer to my obsessive question:
Is the kind of individual history I’m trying to write of any help to fashion the big picture?