Lawrence Durrell and canonical history

In the comments of the previous post (“Days of Future Passed”), Tiago Mata suggested that my vision of History of Recent Economics and History of Old Economics is influenced by my desire to write THE history of recent economics, which I understand as the “true” history. Of course my first move was to resist this claim. Such accusation I would make against one who argued that some of my claims about Friedman were mistaken because he was influenced by his Mont Pelerin membership rather than by his understanding of the Great Depression or his childhood; I do not believe that it is possible to disentangle the personal motives underpinning such and such article clearly enough to choose between them. But my statement that studying Cowles, Rand, and the Chicago School rather than MIT, the IMF, the NBER, the Brooking Institute or the Fed result in biased (maybe I should have written “partial” instead) history is not as strong as these statements on Friedman, and not even of the same nature.

Tiago’s remark is nevertheless true in some sense, for I do not agree with his vision that writing history is about “pick[ing] interesting threads out of…social science in action, social science as a fundamental resource in the shaping of our societies… [I] will not worry if it offers me THE thread or the right weight of threads to encompass the history of recent economics.”

Do you know the tetralogy of novels The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell? It’s the same story (and a lengthy one where cultural, psychological, political motive are interwoven in a complex set) from four viewpoints, four different individual perspective. The whole is subtle enough so that it is extremely difficult to answer this question: “can these four accounts of the same set of events be true at the same time.” The accounts contradict each other, so that they cannot be viewed as part of “multifaceted” history. At the same time, I do not view them as mutually exclusive. Put together, they make the main characters appear as complex and sometimes inconsistent in their reasons. It’s Durrell’s Quartet, not Samuelson or Stigler’s histories that is my ideal. I don’t dream of writing THE right history, but to find THE four histories of such and such event. I dream some days I’ll be skilful enough to picture an economist with all his intellectual inconsistencies and ambiguities, and that the story would nevertheless be understandable. I would read with pleasure an altogether different account by another historian, possibly acknowledging that each of them own part of the truth, but I would still have this “truth” yardstick, however complex, inconsistent, and certainly forever buried this truth is (and if our histories turn out to be incompatible, yes, I may even think “I’m right” and “he’s wrong”).

Am I inconsistent in my quest?

2 thoughts on “Lawrence Durrell and canonical history

  1. I’ve thought about this problem in the context of the history of science, and I pretty much share your view. It seems to concern the problem of the role of the individual history versus a balanced historiography. While it is true that it is not possible to write a single narrative of, say, the history of economics, if a historiography as a whole is imbalanced, it inhibits our ability to discern what is “interesting” and “important” in any given time and place. Is it sufficient to write one history of the NBER against ten histories of the Chicago school, and claim that it serves as a sufficient corrective to the vision of economics as a purely theoretical pursuit, and then continue merrily writing histories of theory as the most “interesting” thing to write about. But should the idea of “interesting” be so subjective?

    If empirical economics employs far more people than theory and has a much more significant impact on day-to-day business and government than even Friedman’s work, wouldn’t it be fair to claim that there is some responsibility among historians (as a group) to “make” it interesting? No individual historian of theory is, of course, responsible for an imbalanced historiography, but it seems to me that historiographical critiques like yours and Yann’s are necessary to produce a more complete picture— particularly if misleading claims about, say, the importance of Friedman in the grand scheme of things are being made without qualification or question (I don’t know the historiography of economics too well, so I don’t know if that’s the case).

  2. “interesting” is both subjective when we consider what is interesting for each individual (me, you, Beatrice) and socially constructed. What is of interest is what a community of readers or listeners found interesting, if the community is small then what is said is not very interesting, when it is large it is interesting. That is why for example Friedman is a more interesting subject of study than say, the dean of the economics department in a small provincial town from the US: more people are likely to listen to you when it is about Friedman. Hence, the disinterest for empirical economics stems from the fact that the H of E’s community is more likely to hear when it is about high theory than when it is abouth the run-of-the-mill empirical economics. To change this course, you have either to change the culture of the H of E’s community from the inside, or to integrate the H of E community in a wider community (the history of science, the cultural history for example) that would be embrace a different kind of narrative, or one can try to do both. That is, in my opinion, what we should aim for.

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