Insider Trading

Immersed in economists’ writings, correspondence and diaries (when he is lucky), the historian sometimes spends more time with his subjects than with his closest relatives. He gets acquainted with their more intimate thoughts, with every nook and cranny of their temper. And as befits a family story, he develops his own preferences. He can’t help being repelled by the self-confidence and egocentrism of a scholar, or seduced by the wit and humanity of another (and God knows how important the wit is for a woman…).

But what if, reading the story of an economist’s intellectual development, five colleagues display the same reaction: “what an unpleasant person!” What if the various biographies by family members and the numerous testimonies by former colleagues all emphasize egocentrism and self-confidence, so that the historian is left wondering whether they should be part of the history of his subject’s scholarly work? Would he be accused of lousy psychologism if he underlines their influence?

Does the historian’s personal appreciation of his subjects endanger the value of the story he is telling? And is the right criterion to judge the value of such biographical work “detachment” or something else?

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5 thoughts on “Insider Trading

  1. Sometimes, when you are too much immersed in your research, you end up laughing at Samuelson’s jokes. And then, you know it’s time to go back to the family house…
    More seriously, I think that statements on personality should be included in historical studies, as far as you are able to show it influenced the development of research. And my constructivist/positivist brain tells me that (almost) anything might have an influence on the development of science.

  2. I think this is a problem amplified in biographical writing. I recall Robert Skidelsky’s piece to the TLS, November 1987, “Exemplary Lives” where the Keynes biographer supreme delegitimizes the notion that the life of a scholar can illuminate his science. He replaces that mission by the notion that ancestors are “sources of identity, of wisdom and encouragement.” He states that the biographer’s contract is with the family not the publisher. We might disagree on the principle but I think it is a good description of what most biographers end up doing. Biography is a genre.

  3. Sometimes, that’s true, I can be seduced by the self confidence, egocentrism, meanness and destructive humor of some economists (Chicago economists?) , and sometimes I can be repelled by the (corny) humanity of one another.
    Now, should it be part of the story of the subect’s scholarly work? I would say yes because it’s so interesting, and it has to play some part, somehow. But if you want to clearly show how egocentricity influenced his work (for instance), you might need scientific tools to deal with it, like psychological theory, something rigorous. Otherwise, it would seem easy to accuse you of lousy psychologism.

  4. Dear Beatrice,
    Funny, over the last week or so I was wondering the exact same thing and I ended up discussing it with Malcolm Rutherford during this year’s HES post-dinner finishing of the bottles. I came to conclude that there are two parts of this problem: 1) what to include and what not, 2) What to do with personal preferences for the protagonists. Concerning 1) let me cite Malcolm: If it’s relevant for the story you get it in, if it is not relevant for the story you leave it out. About 2), I don;t know, but I do think that my perception of past scientists’ characters influences my treatment of them. And this somehow worries me a bit because I can’t help thinking that if I could remain more neutral I would write a different and better story. Perhaps it’s for this reason that one should always first extensively read the published papers and books, and only then turn to the more intimate material

  5. Hey everybody,
    I just got back from the land of economists and corned-beef (Chicago) and found out that, once again, Beatrice has provided us with an interest post. Basically I agree with what Floris (and Malcolm Rutherford) said. However I think that there is a little more about it that needs comment.
    First, there are different kinds of biographies that can be classified according to the audience there are aiming at: general or academic audience, and in the latter category you can further discriminate between general history, history of science and disciplinary history (such as history of economic thought in our case). You can further complexify the picture by taking into account the language issue or other subfield (for example gender studies). In each case, your audience will influence the method you use to discuss your author(s). In particular, while it is in general good for publicity and sales to provide some kind of value judgement, it may be considered as a negative point for an academic audience. Moreover, certain value judgement are, in my point of view, prone to cause you and your biography some problems in certain scientific communities. For example, if you make a biography on a very well-known and considered economists and you show that he was a very bad person, you may end up with quite a few not so nice reviews by economists.
    My second point is that in general these issues of nice/not so nice person are oft used as a smoke screen to say something on the authors achievement. Example, if I present the unknown economist economist “X” as someone who was a very nice guy; so nice indeed to the point that he shared his thoughts and research with people who are now much more famous than he is, I am implying his works/thoughts were maybe used by others and that he does not receive sufficient credit for it. On the other hand, when an important economist shows prejudices (Marshall on women) his image as an economist might be degraded, at least for some audiences and up to a certain point.
    That leaves me with a final thought, making judgement as an historian is not necessarily problematic for a scientific biography – in fact I think it is not possible not to have an opinion, whether implicit or explicit – if a) it is not the main purpose of your biography and b) you explain form what vantage point of view you are situating this comment. Hence, one way to facilitate one’s job in dealing with this issue is to “force” one to consider different vantage points by favouring collective biography over individual biography, but it is I guess a matter of personal choice/taste.

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