The incomprehensible 19th century

I’m a twentieth century guy, a post-World War Two US guy even. This means that whatever happened in economics there after 1945 I can grasp. I might need some time, but in the end I always have the feeling to understand what the issues are about. The first half of the twentieth century already gets trickier. I read, but it always remains, I don’t know, a movie your parents absolutely love but you simply fail to have an opinion about. The 19th century is worse. I mean, they didn’t even have movies back then.

So, when I have to teach 19th century economic methodoloy (which must be an oxymoron), as I had to this afternoon, I’m soooo grateful for Wade Hands’ Reflection without Rules (2001). It gives you everything you need to know about J.S. Mill, Nassau Senior, Cairnes and all the rest of them. Well, enough to teach about them anyway. The only thing I did not understand was, why were all those nineteenth centurists so concerned with defining method and content of political economy (as Hands presents them)? Why did for instance Mill go to such great lengths to construct the a priori method? Why did Nassau Senior felt compelled to define political economy on the basis of four general principles? What was all the fuzz about?


5 thoughts on “The incomprehensible 19th century

  1. Mark Blaug simplifies history of thought into two categories: 1) the relativists 2) the absolutists. Depending on what you are seeking to do you can choose one of these approaches. It seems, from you post, that you are looking into a more relativist approach, trying to understand what they themselves were thinking. I think there is more to be gained by the second approach which tries to understand the reason the debate was necessary for the development of later theories. The reason we need to know more about this story is so that we do not repeat the same mistakes of our founders by simply being unaware of them. I would then say that the relativist approach is merely consumption.

    The absolutist approach then becomes more comprehensive than it would initially seem. We need to know more about the reasons the a priorist reasoning was necessary to either build future plans or to dismiss after careful denoting the grounds where it was not applicable. Fortunately I think some post war economists have already summarized this ground. Anything Knight wrote after the war is a start, I also am biased towards Buchanan. Cost and Choice is more informative than I would have initially thought. There are collections of his essays, and of course the appendix to The Calculus is very impressive. Not a complete list, but my favorites (and well cited should you find more time to devote to this topic).

    Happy searching.

  2. Aren’t the absolutists a sort of “historical tourist”? They go to history but they don’t really care about it, they wouldn’t want to live there. You take a few pictures to show your friends and they buy the t-shirt.

    Now the relativists are more like “anthropologists,” they like living with the natives and thinking the way they think, at least attempt it with all the contradictions involved. They take notebooks home which are hard to show to anyone else.

    Floris having not lived with the natives cannot really get them. Short of traveling into the XIX century and reading about the world of the political economist, its parlor games, and the norms of educated discourse, he should maybe interview an “anthropologist”.

  3. I think I agree considerably with Tiago’s statement. We should all embrace our specialization, those of us cursed to find 18th century and early 19th century debates inexhaustible could work out some system of trade with those who find the 20th century ready ground for developing an articulated, coherent, and unified story.

    However, to my mind there is still room for understanding how Greg Mankiw’s articulation of scale economies in returns to capital addresses the constraints placed on economics in the early 20th century as a result of misleading analysis of the middle 19th. This seems to be a 20th century question which requires rather deep understanding of the choices made in these older debates. How much an understanding of Marx leads to the proper formulation of these questions (going forward) is a costly empirical question.

  4. As an alternative, you could use Blaug’s manual on metholodology of economics. I have a good memory about it (unlike Economic theory in retrospect which I never like that much).
    To answer Floris’s question(s), I guess one needs to put oneself in Mill and the contemporary political economists’ shoes. They were living in a time when the status of this science was not very clear. The institutionalization and secularization of political economy in academia is a late nineteenth-century thing: It was in the 1890s time, not before, that political economy became an independent tripos in Cambridge (before it was integrated in the moral philosophy tripos). In this context, it is not surprising that classical economists were so engaged with definitions of economic concepts and methods, to separate their discipline from either from politics, philosophy or competing research programs (such as comtian science sociale). They were in particular very eager to show that political economy was a science akin to natural philosophy, and to prove this they need to show that it has scientific concepts and methods.
    As the place of political economy/economics became stabilized in the academia and as a scientific discipline (even if they were from time to time dissenters), the search for definition of content and methods became marginalized – in general, only outsiders and dissenters (such as Polanyi) have seriously engaged with this kind of problems as part of their research.

  5. I’m glad Loic answered in this way, as that is what I was teaching last week! A good entrance is the first 3 chapters of John Neville Keynes’s Scope and Method of Political Economy. Here you can see JNK navigating forward between Marshall and Sedgwick, while glancing behind him at J.S. Mill. The Church of England’s hold on Oxbridge positions was under siege, and Darwin’s ideas made the foundations of ethics, the moral philosophy of the Tripos in Moral Philosophy, rather unsteady. JNK wanted to carve out a place for Political Economy without abandoning ethics for mathematics. The positive-normative distinction allowed him, it appears, to believe that economics was not necessarily Godless or amoral.

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