Meet the author

PenguinThe author was Roger Backhouse. And the book was The Penguin History of Economics (UK ed., US ed.).

I teach with Harro Maas, a course “Contemporary Economic thought in a Historical Perspective” at a new venture, modeled on a liberal arts curriculum, the Amsterdam University College. They require the first year courses to have a textbook and since we both admire Roger’s Penguin history we chose that one. It was Harro’s great idea of inviting Roger for a meeting with the students. After discussing the book for 5 weeks, they could ask questions of expansion or clarification or make suggestions to the author on what to write in future editions.

From the 25 students came questions like: what is the best form of economic organization, markets or the state? what works best capitalism or socialism? should we adopt sociological approaches to risk analysis instead of relying on mathematical models? That’s right! Students querying the historian on what economics to believe, and if the past could arbitrate on these dilemmas. Roger did his best to answer and not answer the questions, but not far into the conversation he was politely labeled a Keynesian. The tone was always interested and there was no disappointment from either side, and some questions were properly historical such as why some ideas developed in some countries (often their own) and not somewhere else…

To conclude, a student spoke of a concern that many had voiced before. Roger’s text has too many names, too much happens and it is hence difficult to summarize. The student asked for the ten most important economists of history that would make a summary. Roger gave us then a “Hamlet without the Prince”. The history of economics as the history of its identity, as subordinate to morality, breaking out as a subject in political and moral philosophy, finally in the twentieth century the economic becoming its field of professional and academic expertise.

It was all good! A perfect way to motivate students giving them a sense of ownership of the content… they are on first name terms with the author, and they even drank a beer with him.

(on other reviews Backhouse gets three 4 star reviews on, and one 2 star and one 4 star reviews on, the American shopper is less impressed)

Referencing dilemma – what to do?

I find it frustrating when in-text references read (Keynes 1973) or (Quesnay 1963). This leaves me to go and find the bibliographical notes to try and discover which works are being referred to and when they were written.  Often the when is significant to understand what is being said by Quesnay, or ‘which’ Keynes is writing – the 1943 Treasury Civil Servant or the young man frustrated with the Versailles Treaty in 1919. If an article then refers to Keynes several times from a ‘collected works’ edition, the time context is almost impossible to decipher as every reference is to 1973 and the reader needs to check page-numbers and chapters to find the original dates. Some authors add extra text before every quote and citation which reads “In year xxx, Dr. yyy wrote”.  I feel this makes the reading slow, tedious and I still have to double-check the years after reading a quote or citation. Such referencing, to me, does not work. But what might be the best practice for referencing translated and re-printed works in the text?

Having checked the brief Harvard guide (that’s the system I’m stuck with) there does not seem to be a rule… There is a rule for translated work in the reference section – using the original year first. Similarly for articles in edited volumes the original date is noted first, with the edited volume’s year of publication later in the reference. From this I infer that the reference in the text would be to the original year and not the edited work. So what do you feel is the best practice?

Let’s take an example: There is a poem by Voltaire written in 1736 entitled Mondrain, translated first by Tobias Smollet [as Man of the World] in 1901 and this translation is re-produced (ad verbatim) in a collected volume by Henry Clark in 2003, which I am using. All this detail is in the full reference at the back. The year of the poem matters to the exposition – as Voltaire will write for another 40+ years, so what do you feel is the best reference in-text? Is it (Voltaire 1738), (Voltaire 1901), (Voltaire 2003) or something fourth, or fifth with square brackets perhaps?

No tragedy like a great thesis without the slightest proof

Following up on Loic’s previous entry, what to do with the most brilliant idea for which you find absolutely no proof or information? It starts with those mildly annoying frantic searches for secondary literature on an issue related to your topic which you don’t want to discuss, but want to refer to in a footnote nevertheless. It includes questions such as Was Adam Smith homosexual? (he must have been – I’m absolutely sure). But above all, it encompasses all those daily questions regarding your topic you simply cannot answer because there is absolutely nothing to answer it with. What to do with them?

And PS: What’s  the ratio answerable/non-answerable questions?

Doing the Archives

These last days, I have received – like some of you I guess – two guidelines about how to do a master or a Phd Thesis in history of economics. That is too bad that I completed mine 10 years ago! Anyway, I am not sure that these pieces are really useful for it very much depends on what is the conception of history of economics you have and you intend to convey in your work. The best advice I can give – and that is the way I proceeded myself – is to look a recent Phd Thesis from someone you respect as a scholar and whom you feel shares your general methodological outlook, and use it as a kind of reference document.  Receiving these guidelines made me wonder about the fact that in the blog, which is made by if not made for young (and not so young anymore) scholars there is, indeed, very little information about one organizes his research work.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the would-be historian of economics can safely go on the first day of his research the university library, inquire the librarian about where the complete works of Ricardo (by Sraffa) or the complete work of Marx (or Keynes or Hayek) were and very much sit here for the rest of his Phd Thesis. c4cea1e828This is not the case anymore and it is now common and almost an obligatory requirement for a Phd student to have done some archival work. However, doing the Archives can be a very different – sometime nice, sometime quite painful – experience depending on which Archives you go. A few looks like that:

registres-3But quite often, you end up like this nice looking young researcher on the left. This image might look scary, but you may have gotten the wrong idea. Because for all the reassuring neatness and geometrical perfection of the archive below, the archivist may have done a very lousy job in cataloging it, meaning that you probably would have to open half of the drawers and go thoroughly through their content to get anywhere. Whereas, on the other hand, the half-smiling women might very well be the curator who knows in detail the content of the folders she is actually browsing for preparing the new catalog and you would get what you want in less than an hour!

More seriously, when looking forward to do an archive, it is very important to understand that the easier you get the information – by browsing on a digitallized catalog for example – the less chance you have to find something really new and unexpected. On the other hand, when you are inquiring about an archive on which you have very little information it is most important to keep a very open mind and to be a little stubborn even when the odds seems against you. Moreover, keep in mind that curators or archivists made mistakes and have limited knowledge of the content of their own archives. When one has been working for a long time in a specific archive, one often knows it better than its own curator.

Let me share a recent – last week in fact – experience I had in the Archives of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  In the context of a research project we are conducting with Yann on the visualization in US economics, we became interested in the Vienna economist and philosopher Otto Neurath and its possible connections on the other side of the Atlantic. As one of the former directors of the MSI was cousin to the economist and philosopher Otto Neurath, we inquired about the possible existence of a correspondence between the two cousins. We were told by an assistant curator that there was no correspondence. Indeed, as I discovered last week, the same assistant curator had been already sollicited, two years ago, by another researcher for the same piece and after working on it for a few days was unable to find it. The same researcher who was preparing a book on Neurath e-mailed the MSI  again a few months later because he would go to Chicago for a conference, asking if it was worthwhile passing by the Museum archives to give a try about the correspondence. As the assistant curator repeated to him that he was unable to find anything, the researcher decided not to come. Hence, when he answered to our query, the assistant curator was pretty sure that there was nothing to find.

Being in Chicago for another project, I decided to give it a try anyway and spend a few days, at least one, in the MSI archives. The first day, I came with my sole computer not knowing if there was anything worthy. Looking through the inventory (made by the same competent assistant curator mentioned above) I did find a few things, enough to spend the whole day there and too decide to come back two days later with a digital camera to save my findings. I did not find the correspondence though: at the letter “N”, there was no folder “Neurath”. However, I found a mention to a letter the former MSI Director received from Neurath in one of the documents I read. It was enough to convince that there might be something that have been missed. On the second day and after digitallizing what I had found , I decided to go ‘fishing’. What I did was fairly simple and obvious, instead of looking  at the name of the person, I looked at the name of the institution he was in charge at the time (the Vienna Museum of Economy and Society). And, indeed, I found the correspondence: dozens of letters and a few important documents that were supposed not to exist. Later on (I came for a third day), I tried to force my luck and repeat the same procedure with another individual. But this time I end up in a dead endd: the box I wanted to look at was nowhere to be found (I was looking for the box with the letter P, but the boxes between M and R were missing). We looked with the assistant curator in the premisses, but nothing! However, instead of calling it a day I asked for another kind of documents (pictures) to spend the two hours that were left for my last day at the archives. The assistant curator took me to the location where the pictures were archived but we were unable to find any of interest for me. Out of sheer curiosity, I browsed the shelves and look at the name on the boxes that were around, just to find the correspondence box I was looking after a few hours before. Inside was indeed the piece of correspondence I expected and a few valuable documents.

To sum up this very long post:

– When there might be a chance you can get an important piece of information or documentation in an archive, but you are told that there is nothing by the archivist. Try to verify it by yourself and take the necessary few days to do it properly. If you find nothing, which happens quite often, you may have lose a few hours or a few days, but if you find something unexpected you may have gain an easy and good article or a chapter from your forthcoming Phd thesis, which may in turn launch or speed up your career.

– When you plan to do an archive, use all the time you have even if the odds are that you ain’t gonna get anything more.

– Keep an open mind, if you do not find something at the obvious location it does not mean it is not there, it might have been placed somewhere else because the archivist does not have the same logic as you (you are thinking names of individuals and he sees names of institutions, or the reverse) or because it have been misplaced (shit happens).

– Do not lose heart. Especially when working on a archive that has not been properly catalogued or arranged. Quite often, the first hours or even the first days are not very useful: you do not know how to begin, what you are really looking for, you do not understand the logic of classification (which is almost always different in each archive). You may have the impression that it is like finding a needle in a haystack, there is however one big difference: when the archives are classified and most of them are, it means that there is a logic to it, you just have to find it! – Needless to say that it is easier say than done.

Research methods as manipulating actors

Historians of economics are well aware of the non-neutrality of the research methods economists use. Or are they? Sure, we know that also research methods – statistics, experiments, field observation, armchairs, you name it – have their histories. And obviously, that makes them an integral part of how economics developed. However, in this reasoning the research method itself has remained a passive and neutral information producing device. Jan Tinbergen became famous for combining mathematics and statistics in a novel way, in which the resulting econometrics was and is understood as a tool that can be applied by anyone alike. Similarly, Fogel and Engerman applied a whole bunch of empirical methods to the history of slavery, in which their tools might have been inappropriately used or interpreted, but in themselves were have been understood as neutral. Despite being aware that the tools have their own histories, historians of economics have essentially maintained a view of research methods as neutral and passive.

            I want to contest this view. Research methods are not neutral tools, but actors that actively shape economists’ view of the social world. The exact same experiment makes Vernon Smith and Richard Thaler see two different social realities, and makes these two economists develop their own theories in diverging ways. It is not just that economists like Smith and Thaler have different economic views, and in particular it is not the case that their views converge because of the laboratory experiment, data collection, or field experiment. Quite the contrary, the experiment actively diverges Smith and Thaler’s economics. Research methods are not neutral and passive tools, but actively manipulating actors who need to be treated as such.

American exceptionalism

American eagle and flagWhen reading Dorothy Ross’ The Origins of American Social Science, I was surprised to see that she relied on the concept of “American exceptionalism” -which I understood as the belief that the US had a kind of special destiny in this world, a belief which impregnated the social thought of the 19th and 20th century.

This concept put me ill at ease, as it was not clear whether “American exceptionalism” was a belief (among others) held by the intellectuals studied by Ross, or if Ross herself thought that indeed, there is such a thing as a unique and distinctive “Americaness” to be accounted for by historians.  I had forgotten all this, until I read this morning in a history of the labor standards:

The study of the American role in the international labor standards movement also contributes … to an  understanding of general American history and the American policy process. It clarifies the extent and nature of American exceptionalism, that is, the tendency for the United States to follow an especially distinctive or restrained social policy course compared to other industrial democracies.
(Edward C. Lorenz. 2001. Defining Global Justice. The History of U.S. International Labor Standards Policy, Univ. of Notre-Dame Press, p. 8).

I am really not sure of the fruitfulness of this distinction. To be clear, I find it irrelevant and parochial. Of course, nations have their particularities, their traditions, etc. And if the American people see themselves as having a particular destiny in history, then it is a relevant intellectual feature to be taken into account by the historian. But it seems to me that the historians have no use of this concept to characterize their own work. After all, on what ground should a country’s history be declared “exceptional”? I am sure their is an extensive debate in historiography about this, and I would be glad to learn more about it!

Is social Darwinism a myth?

Few recent concepts have as complicated a historiography as “social Darwinism”. To make a long story short:

Geoffrey Hodgson

– Thanks to a beautiful bibliometric study by Geoffrey Hodgson published in the Journal of the History of Sociology, we know for sure that the expression “social Darwinism” was not much in use in Anglo-Saxon academic literature before the 1940s – and why.

Richard Hofstadter

In 1944, historian Richard Hofstadter’s wrote a study of evolutionary analogies in American social thought during the 1870-1920s, and called it “Social Darwinism in American Thought.” Since then, the term has been ubiquitous. Because of Hofstadter’s book success, most people inferred that “social Darwinism” was indeed widely used in the historical period covered by the book, and that it designated a corresponding intellectual movement, with its representative figures and texts, etc.

In 1979, Robert Bannister wrote “Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought”. In my opinion, Bannister’s project was ambiguous.

Robert Bannister
Robert Bannister

One could say that he rightly tried to clear up the misunderstanding that had developed since 1944 and Hofstadter’s book. Social Darwinism was not widely used as an expression in the US of the late 19th century, nor did it represent a coherent body of thought, as a too-quick reading of Hofstadter’s book would have it.

But one could also say that Bannister was defending something stronger than that. He really seemed to imply that social Darwinism was a myth – that in fact, the denomination covered no relevant meaning at all.

In 1984, Donald Bellomy wrote one of the finest pieces in intellectual history that I came across.  In “Social Darwinism” revisited, Bellomy ponders Bannister’ claims that social Darwinism was really a myth.

Donald Bellomy
Donald Bellomy

The scholarship Bellomy displays is simply *huge*, and his reflection is so very nuanced. Right from the introduction, he clarifies that the “myth question” is simply not the relevant one:

– There is no consensus on what “Social Darwinism” really is? Far from proving that the concept is a myth, it should merely recall us that “confusion over the definition of a term is not itself cause for dispensing with it; virtually any designation of a broad cultural phenomenon can be distressingly malleable, as Arthur O. Lovejoy demonstrated in his dissections of romanticism, primitivism, and pragmatism.”
– No one thought of himself as a “Social Darwinist”? That “needs not trouble us unduly. After all, medieval schoolman, classical republican, and romantic poet were not categories available to individuals at the time but were imposed, with more or less finesse, by later generations.”

After over 100 pages of careful study, Bellomy concludes that “Whether or not “Social Darwinism” was a myth, in the restricted sense by which Bannister interprets myth, every serious thinker had to come to terms with Darwinism and evolution.”

This is were I had left the historiographical debate on social Darwinism. But in 2009, the “myth” interpretation gets a new boost, with a forthcoming article by one of the most prominent members of our profession:

Leonard, T.C., Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2007.11.004

Tim Leonard
Tim Leonard

Leonard’s article focuses on the Hofstadter episode of this historiographic saga, and endorses Bannister’s revisionist views on social Darwinism – that it should be considered a myth, essentially built by scholars from the Left who distrusted laisser-faire policies. Surely, calling something a myth is not an invitation to further historical investigation of the cultural phenomena it pretends to denominate. And I think more historical investigation is precisely what is needed here, as Bellomy had emphasized in his conclusion:

“Finally, a determination of Darwinism’s influence will emerge only through immersion in the intellectual artifacts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They must be studied in their own terms, not simply as antecedents of contemporary social and political arguments or fields or research, if our goal is to comprehend either the past or present.”

In many previous articles, Leonard contributed a marvelous analysis of the eugenic views of the economists in the Progressive Era. We need more of the same kind of work on the intellectuals and businessmen labelled as social Darwinists.

Note: it is a pity that the article by Bellomy, of the size of a small book, was published in a journal impossible to find in most European libraries (except for the LSE library, as far as I can tell). The reference is:

Donald C. Bellomy, “Social Darwinism’ revisited,” Perspectives in American History 1 (1984): 1-129.

Should the historian missmarple?

Lately, I’ve been dwelling on a recent comment by Robert Leonard on this blog:

“I have found the biggest struggle to be learning to stop, or suspend, thinking as an economist. A training in economics is a necessary point of departure, but it can also quickly become a yoke around one’s neck when it comes to writing history, especially a history that tries to embrace the subtleties of language and human behaviour. For that, I’m inclined to view novels and other fiction as better preparation.”

I have never been able to face the use of the novels and fiction I read without a good share of guilt. Using them to immerse in a time, to understand its beat, its fears and hopes I find acceptable (to myself), but using them to get into people’s mind with hope of better understanding people (and thus economists’ and scientists’) motives, wants, ambitions… this really decent? Doesn’t it make up for my lack of empathy, sensibility, observation, openess? Why am I unable to explain why I sense that my interest in science fiction should eventually permeate my historical research?

But do I have any other mean to refine this ability to “embrace the subtleties of human behavior” that makes a good historian? Also, when I’m calling in the psychological description of such character to flesh the sense of collapse and uncertainty and a jewish emigré may have felt in the early thirties or a graduate student may have experienced in Vietnam, for instance, I feel I’m making the implicit –and unwarranted- assumption that there is something permanent in the human nature that transcends times and cultures.

miss-marple-investigates-n71727lThis unmistakably bring me back to my old missmarpling dilemma. Miss Marple is this armchair detective by Agatha Christie who is able to solve various crimes by drawing parallels between the riddles she faces and seemingly unrelated and insignificant incidents she had witnessed in her little village of Saint Mary Mead. Her idea is that “human nature is much the same everywhere” the same and that to gain insight into human motives, observing a small microcosm is sufficient. I wonder how much missmarpling historians can/ should afford? Can we write good history by comparing situations we witness or experience (including our professional tribulations) with those of previous economists, even though their individual history, context and, of course, abilities are different? Are we allowed as historians to fill the holes left by published and unpublished records, to flesh the skeleton and endow it with the voice that reflects the murmurs of our empathy for our subjects?

How I then travel from Miss Marple to Carlo Ginzburg is unclear. Is it the detective analogy that is so often used to describe’s Ginzburg’s work? Is it noting that empathy toward one’s characters is not something an historian studying witches in the XIVth century can afford, but remembering that arousing the reader’s empathy toward unknowns’ histories –microhistories- is how Ginzburg intends to restore justice and truth in history? Is it directly because of his awareness of the relationships of history to litterature (taken from this interview)?

TRG: Would it be correct to say that one of those challenges confronting history is its relationship with literature? You have often written of your interest in the modernist tradition. But literary modernism’s critique of the traditional representations of reality is frequently adduced as one of the chief examples of the impossibilities inherent in traditional historical projects.

CGinzburg: To me, that is yet another artificial contradiction. To regard history and literature as two wholly disparate fields is both mistaken and unhistorical. They have always existed in dialogue, more or less overlapping. The fact that historical writing sometimes devolves into fiction and that, furthermore, it often relies on literary models, should not surprise us. A much more challenging approach – to history and literature alike – is to start out from the fact that both disciplines share an obligation to the truth, and to see how this has been lived up to at different times. I consider literary modernism first of all as an attempt to discover new forms of truthfulness, not least on a formal plane. In that respect it is highly relevant to me as an historian.

Every literary device – be it in a fictional or historical text – makes reality visible in its own way, conveys its vision of reality. Specific linguistic forms are related to specific forms of truth, one might say. There is a kind of formal constraint at work here ­- every literary form forces us to discover one thing and ignore something else. The traditional narrative, for example, has its own innate limitations, it imposes a kind of sequential contstraint: something has to come first, something else later. When I wrote The Cheese and the Worms, I dreamed of writing the whole book on one gigantic page, so that I could escape this straitjacket. It was, of course, a ridiculous idea. But the literary form employed by the historian will always be one of the two central filters that separate the historical work from the reality it sets out to portray. The other filter is the sources themselves. Both these filters in reality imply an infinite number of potentially distorting factors. In that way, the idea of a simple historical narrative is as absurd as the idea of irrefutable historical proof.

TRG: Ever since you published your very first scientific treatise, you retained your own highly distinctive style of writing and composition. Your texts are structured in series of freestanding paragraphs or short chapters, which gives the writing a disjointed, essay-like character, even in a large work like Ecstasies. What induced you to adopt such a style ?

CGinzburg: I came across this way of setting out material when, as a young man, I read an essay by Luigi Einaudi, a distinguished economist and economic historian who eventually became president of Italy. He was the father of Giulio, the well-known publisher. The essay was constructed as a series of numbered paragraphs ­- a device which appealed to my own fascination with cinema and montage. Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process. It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write ­- I try to portray my own hesitation, so to speak, to enable the reader to make his own judgement. Historical writing should aspire to be democratic, by which I mean that it should be possible to check our statements from without, and that the reader be a party not only to the conclusions arrived at but also to the process that led to them.

From Leonard to Miss Marple and Miss Marple to Ginzburg, the relationships of historians to litterature is a fascinating one

To the bone

Reading some of the comments on a previous post of this blog, I can’t escape thinking that there still exists, even among the members of our community – by “our” community, I don’t mean historians of economics in general, but more narrowly, postmodern and SSK-inflected historians of economics (whatever that is) -, some misunderstandings related to what postmodern thought is, to its influence on the history of science and on SSK. Words such as “postmodernism” and “relativisn” can be used in a quite loose – and sometimes harmful – way. I will not pretend here that I have more knowledge than anyone on that matter, but I know at least one person who does: Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Professor Smith has been trained in psychology, literary criticism and cultural theory and those who haven’t read my review of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on your Own Time, will surely wonder what literary criticism has to offer to those who study the history of economics. The answer is: a lot, actually.

In her last book, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human (2005), Smith elucidates, in less than 200 pages, some of the questions we are asking ourselves on this blog, with unequaled accuracy, thoughtfulness and what I would call a jubilatory bent for intellectual jousting. This is hardly Smith’s first endeavour in the field of the History and Philosophy of Science. Her previous book, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (1997) dealt with the same kind of material. Though she proudly acknowledges she is no philosopher, nor is she a social scientist, Smith is a fine reader of science. It is no secret that she is herself a radical relativist/constructivist but the power of her analysis comes from her ability not only to criticize, but also to understand the point of view of those who try to beat postmodernism. She can literally strip her opponents’s arguments to the bone, as to reveal how empty and meaningless they are. If you intend to contradict her, then, choose your words carefully! I will not detail the book chapter after chapter as I did for Fish’s essay, but I will try to give you a hint of a material that certainly repays study.

The general objective of the book is to revisit two decades of science wars and to review all the harms that have been made on contemporary cultural theory and behavioral sciences, tracking the last bits of anti-relativism and positivist philosophy in newspapers articles, feminist writings and recent works in evolutionary psychology. The author does not think that all people criticizing postmodernism are idiots. In her opinion, indeed, most of them are doing interesting – if not fascinating – things but they are also misled by unjustified preconceptions on constructivism. To contradict these authors, Smiths appeals to what she calls pre-postmodern relativists such as Ludwig Fleck and Carl Becker.

The meaning of the title is dual: it refers both to the fact it is often said that “knowledge, or the problem of knowledge, is the scandal of philosophy” (1) and to all the scandalized critiques of postmodernism, which assert that the latter is a threat against the highest values of our society: the ability of making moral and aesthetic judgements, the possibility of scientific progress and nothing less that the pillars of Western democracy. Smith’s response to that critique is that in fact, relativism is an attack against one and only one thing, traditional (i.e. positivist and judgemental) philosophy. But, as Smith observes: “[w]hile it is not clear that the scandal matters to anyone but philosophers, philosophers point out that it should matter to everyone … [f]or, they explain, unless we can ground our claims to knowledge as such, which is to say distinguish it from mere opinion, superstition, fantasy, wishful thinking, ideology, illusion or delusion, then the actions we take on the basis of presumed knowledge – boarding an airplane, swallowing a pill, finding someone guilty of a crime – will be irrational and unjustifiable” (ibid.).
This is a rather serious claim. In chapter 2, Smith illustrates some examples of the implications of it in recent controversies, examining Deborah Lindstadt‘s thesis that postmodern theory is responsible for the rise of Holocaust denial (a thesis that has been given credit by other academics and journalists) and Edward Rothstein‘s contention that the same stream of skepticism has been discredited by 9/11. She observes that such sets of linkages are generally based on no actual quotation from postmodern thinkers. “Who among the figures commonly associated, properly or improperly, with ‘postmodern’ theory maintains that all truth is subjective or that one man’s narrative is as good as another’s? Michel Foucault? Jacques Derrida? Jean-François Lyotard? Hayden White? Richard Rorty? Stanley Fish? David Bloor? Bruno Latour? Actually, of course, none of these” (20). The real problem, she suggests, is that those who support such misleading conclusions often do so because they want to sustain values that they consider beyond scrutiny: “A denunciation of relativism amounts to a demand for dogmatism – for predetermined judgement armoured against new thought” (23).

Smith also points out that many disparaging commentaries on relativism are made by people who often happen to be relativist in the sense actual relativists define it (she illustrates this paradox by quoting from feminist theorician Donna Haraway and from … Proust !). She shows that debates similar to those who appeared at the end of the twentieth also occurred in the 1920s and in the 1930s as Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf or Pablo Picasso were often linked to the more perilous evil of those times: Bolshevism. In fact, she observes, there existed an important stream of pre-postmodern relativism, represented by people like John Dewey or Margaret Mead, during a period “marked by a confident positivism in the natural sciences and a related scientism in much academic philosophy”. Those original thoughts were mostly swept away by decades of “popular beliefs and cultural associations that made-up the Cold War; the global eruption of various radical social movements … ; and throughout the century, dramatic technological developments and widespread demographic shifts” (31). All those events fostered in the same way social conservatism and a “renewed … commitment to the idea and ideals of objectivity” (32).
Related to this historical context is Smith’s account of Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, published in 1935. Fleck’s book was overshadowed by a more popular one, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published the same year. Fleck was rediscovered and praised by Kuhn and later by Latour (whose Pasteurization of France, Smith argues, is in some way a reinvention of Genesis and Development). Yet it is no surprise, given the peculiar intellectual environment of the early postwar period that Fleck was ignored and that scientists, in search of legitimacy, preferred the demarcating epistemology offered by Popper. In addition, Fleck was a Polish Jew whose work in chemistry did not draw the attention of Western scientists. He was arrested during the war and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Nonetheless, he survived the war and emigrated to Israel, where he died in 1961. His conceptions in Genesis and Development were influenced by his practice of chemistry. The book tells the development of the Wassermann reaction, a chemical process that allowed for the detection of the syphilis pathogen. Fleck shows that the Wassermann reaction occured within the development of various beliefs, techniques, theories, methods, political and professional interests (yes, it sounds a lot like SSK !). The following passage, quoted by Smith (57), shows how radical Fleck’s relativism was:

It is true that modern doctrine is supported by much more sophisticated techniques of investigation, much broader experience, and more thorough theory. The naive analogy between the organs of both sexes has disappeared and far more details are at our disposal. But the path from dissection to formulated theory [and pictorial representation] is extremely complicated, indirect and culturally conditioned … In science, just as in art and in life, only that which is true to culture is true to nature.

In addition, Smith shows that Fleck also provided the demonstration that his conceptions of science had nothing to do with the idea that all theories are equally valid because the latter is actually the opposite of the assertion that “the validity of a theory depends on its position in a network of historically specific connections” (64). Smith observes that this justification is similar to Latour’s distinction between relative and absolute relativism.

I will not try to detail the rest of the book. Smith’s wordings are too precise and subtle to withstand summarization. Trying to reconstruct her thought would result in unproductive paraphrase. Nonetheless, I can’t finish this review without saying a few words on Chapter 6, devoted to Evolutionary Psychology. In this chapter, she addresses the claims of contemporary evolutionary psychology, whose most notable advocate is Steven Pinker. She shows that contrary to what evolutionary psychologists assert, the alternative to the claim that all human behavior – “from incest avoidance and female-adolescent anorexia to past-tense formation and a taste for Victorian novels” (130) – can be explained by our genes, is not dogmatic theology or ideologically driven humanities, but a set of more sophisticated models of development, such as those theorized by Susan Oyama in her book The Ontogeny of Information, giving rise to developmental or ecological psychology. Evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker operate within a mechanical conception of the brain, in which the latter is considered as an information processing computer. This conception rejects – or ignore – major works in biology which explain human behavior in terms of  interactions between cells and their environment (involving “complex social and perceptual coordination”, as well as “internal feedback mechanisms”). The relation between those issues and what has been studied earlier in the book is that evolutionary psychologists often strengthen their claims by discrediting alternative theories as dubious – if not dangerous – postmodernism. Frequently, those claims mistake constructivism for social constructivism (or social constructionism): they identify the claims of alternative theories as the idea that everything is socially/culturally constructed, whereas these theories  simply claim that there is no clear separation between nature and nurture. These distinctions are particularly rich and subtle and one is not even obliged to share Smith’s skepticism to examine them carefully. Those interested in the relations between economics and biology might want to give special attention to these debates.

In her course on “Biological Issues in Cultural Theory” at Duke University, Barbara Herrnstein Smith teaches graduate students in philosophy, theology and natural sciences that Bruno Latour has been the most important theorist over the last twenty-five years. If only to hear that once in my life, I think I have been fortunate to sit in on her class. I hope I have conveyed the pleasures one feels reading her writings, that his, the pleasures of being scandalized.

The Historian, the Economist and the Scientist

Back from Amsterdam where I attended the Observation in economics and natural sciences, historically considered‘s conference ( In the conference, several discussions have focused on whether there was some difference between observations in natural and social sciences (at least  for the sake of history).

bad-economyWhile opening the Saturday issue of Le Monde, I found an article (reproduced from the NYT) titled: “Physicist Tried to Outwit Wall Street. They Failed”, that put (at least for me) these discussions in an interesting perspective. One of the quotations from the main character, the former physicist turned professor of finance, Emanuel Derman, is interesting. He wrote in his biography: “In physics there may be one day a Theory of Everything; in finance and the social sciences, you’re lucky if there is a usable theory of anything.” I take this quote as representative of what many scientists , who believe that there is a lot of differences between natural and social science, think. The question is: does it matter to us, historians. I do not think so. In the face of history, all sciences are equal!

Observer and observed

This Thursday and Friday I observed attendance to a workshop organized by my colleague at the University of Amsterdam, Harro Maas. The workshop was the first major event of a 4 to 5 year project considering methodologically and historically the practices of observation in economics. Following the “house rules” the project will draw comparisons between the social and the natural sciences. In attendance of the workshop were a number of big names (and brains) in the history of science and economics, and I felt this strange weight on my shoulders as I awaited my turn to speak. The presentation was about how Leonard Silk used drama to communicate with economists and his readers, and was itself tragic. No one was really sure what my paper had to say about observation.

vdbpanopticonI had not thought hard enough about what I knew about observation and what I wanted to say about it. In studying economic journalism I try to consider it as a an observational practice, but it is hard to follow journalists as they skim through a sea of sources, interests, pressures, conventions. I have tended to leave that part of my story for a later date. Instead, I have studied how, between 1950 and 1970, stories about economics changed, and how the status and place of economic journalism has evolved in the publishing business. Yet, as I follow journalists in conversation with economists, with readers, with editors, can I say that they are only producing content and not collecting it? Can I say that there is no observation in communicating?

Considering other papers in the workshop among my favorites was Tom Stapleford’s story of how “field agents” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics turned from “experts” with a intuitive knowledge of communication, into “operatives” following well designed data collection scripts. The BLS was disciplining its employees. This kind of “panoptic” observation seems to be the rule of modern bureaucracies. The observer is himself observed by an architecture of procedures. The observer observes the other to gather data and himself to enforce rules of objectivity.

peephole_portrait_011This takes me to the relationship between the observed and the observer and how many combinations one might have. Ted Porter’s story of Le Play noted how class and ideological membership separated the social scientist from his subject, requiring the intermediation of town mayors. The same problem was manifest in Anne Secord’s account of studies of the condition of the Manchester poor (F. Engels gained access through his Irish lover). It may be that natural science observation has contently employed various forms of eye holes, while social sciences, people studying people, has required a different kind of optical/social technology. Although at times social scientists will remain behind the door, looking in silence, they will often engage their subject. In this sense, journalists ad my story seem less exceptional. Journalists communicate, and they observe while communicating, and they develop strategies to construct identity and difference from their subjects: the economists and the public. They do it to seduce and provoke. They do so to initiate a conversation and a relationship without which there is nothing to observe.


Throughout his career, Jacob Marschak repeatedly pointed out that since the rationality and efficiency concepts on which conomics is built are intrinsically normative, economics is primarily a normative science. His use of the term ‘normative’ was certainly not akin to the one found in the “Methodology of Positive Economics” by colleague –and adversary- Milton Friedman. Nor does it reflect the definition given by my fellow historians confronted with the positive/normative distinction. Nor does it fit the framework with which I try to make sense of his life and work.

All the same for his idea of “planning.” And several other notions. My work is overcrowded with these  irreconciliable –historically or logically- conceptual frameworks.

“You have the power, you impose your own framework on your story”, I was advised when the issue was discussed during my defense. But if I force an economist’s vision in my own frame, I feel that I am destroying his integrity, that I am caricaturing the subtle, ramified and often frail and shaded structure of his scientific thinking. And if I let my characters speak on their own, I end up with a collection of locked-in minds incapable of communicating with each other, that I hopelessly watch from my own conceptual prison without being able to grasp.


Any suggestion? Any exemple of historical accounts where the issue is well handled?     



History of Economics as Culture (Histoire des savoirs économiques)

I must say that I feel slightly uneasy about giving an account of the workshop since I organized the meeting.  I will try however to be as honest as possible.

gmdh02_00954There were six papers presented (the full program can be viewed here: – 2 in the morning, the others in the two afternoon sessions.  The Q&A was reasonably interesting and I think most of the presenters would benefit from it. The first paper was from Regis Boulat, a young French historian, on Jean Fourastié – author of several popularization essays on economic topics from the 1940s to the 1970s. The second paper was on Haavelmo and presented by Eric Chancellier.

In the afternoon, Evelyn Forget from Manitoba University (re)opened fire with a paper which discusses XVIIIth and XIXth century practices of translating scientific and economic texts in interaction with the problem of authorship and gender. She was followed by a very nice presentation by Peter Knight (American Literature – Manchester University) with a lot of interesting visuals on the place of the stock ticker in late nineteenth-century financial market culture.

gmdh02_009004After a short break, we listened to Roei Davidson (Communication department-Haifa University) who spoke about the role of the business press as an agent of economic culture. And, last but not least, we had the pleasure to attend to Tiago’s Mata very lively and thought-provoking presentation on the media history of the on-going financial crisis. I was then suppose to open a general discussion, but it was late and we were all tired so I call it a day and everybody packed and went home.

I will not comment on individual performances, although there was as usual great diversity in this regard, but rather try to summarize the different impressions I got from organizing and attending this workshop.

First, I was pleased by the general atmosphere that emanated from the workshop. In particular, the fact that non-economists did not feel the need to differenciate themselves rhetorically from the economists (or the reverse). I have seen too many economists’ conferences/workshops with one or a few other social scientists that displayed every signs of being very aware to be strangers in a strange land (or the reverse) to not appreciate that this was not the case here. Everybody simply presented his/her piece of research without any need to situate it into a specific disciplinary context. Hence the conversations were lively and tended to focus  on content rather than audience. I believe that the notion of culture had been crucial in this respect, because many social scientists can relate to economic culture or the culture of economists but feel estranged to economics per se.

This leads to my second point, which is the sentiment I have from this workshop, as well as from contacts I had prior to it with individuals that could not come,  is that history of economics as culture seems to be a worthwhile field of investigation for those historian of economics interested in interdisciplinary research – I am eager to know the feeling of readers of this blog on this issue.

My third point is a reflection on what I had in mind with the double title “History of economics as culture – Histoire des savoirs économiques”, for the English title is open to some interpretation and the French title meant something apparently quite different from the English – at least several participants questioned me on these issues. What I was interested in (and still is) was having a set of papers that cover two grounds:

1. To consider the possibility of a cultural history of economics, that is to study the interactions between the medium that conveys economic knowledge and its content, either intrinsic or perceived content.  To this category belongs I think Boulat, Davidson and Forget’s paper.

2.  To account for the interactions between economic knowledge in whatever form (text, media documents, objects) and specific cultures, be it professional, artistic or more general.  To this category belongs I believe Chancelier, Knight and Mata’s papers (though the latter can also claim to partly belongs to the former category). In this regard one of the things that I would have liked to be more prominent (only Knight’s paper deals somewhat with this aspect) was the representation of economic relationships and knowledge in the arts – literature and visuals arts being my most obvious candidates.

To conclude, I intend to repeat the experiment next year.

gmdh02_008885All the little men and women are appearing by courtesy of the Gerd Arntz web archives (

“What is history?”

carrTo initiate the student in the practice and controversies of history, the LSE’s Economic History Department had us read E.H. Carr’s What is History?, originally the 1961 Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge U. That’s a while ago. One expects a terse piece dealing with some debate that have since been “obviously” resolved or obsessed by some minor quibble that made a generation squander time and effort. There is little of it: passing protest about Oxford scholars and a passionate disdain for Professor Butterfield (the one that coined “whig” history), Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper. The pages of my copy were yellowed by the Cold War, Carr was a scholar of Soviet history. Yet, the text feels surprisingly fresh and current. Not like 1961 methodology of economics, or economics proper, sciences of “progress.” Carr’s defense of “causal history” feels a bit overstressed – looking for causes to rank them and identity interconnections; but I did not feel tempted to suggest any editing. I found some bits useful for my polemics. As when he writes,

To describe something as mischance is a favorite way of exempting oneself from the tiresome obligation to investigate its cause and, something tells me that history is a chapter of accidents, I tend to suspect him of intellectual laziness or low intellectual vitality. — p. 102.

Carr is superb in his discussions of history in relation to morality, to biography and the dramatis personae, to the dialogue of past, present and future.

How can that be? How can problems of history feel so much the same? Is there no progress in history? Are there no major quandaries in the theory of history after we’ve settled into a moderate materialism and sociologism? Carr knew the answer in 1961. History is not about method development or the reaching up for some Truth. It’s an open ended labour of imagination and curiosity, playing past, present and future in a mutual construction. History is the celebration of change. Party on!

The Wheel of Misfortune (in the archives)

If you definitely want to prevent an undergrad from doing research in HET, you just have to show him Box 1 of Patinkin’s papers at the Duke Library. This is where are stored the raw materials Patinkin has collected to write his 1973 AER piece on Frank Knight’s “Wheel of Wealth”.  The archives show that Patinkin has looked at many books, textbooks and documents to find the origin of the diagram Knight used in the classroom and in his Economic Organization to represent the allocative functions of the price system in a capitalist economy.

The list of books Patinkin has scanned for this research is pretty impressive: it goes from Cantillon to Taussig and includes the works of Bastiat, Cannan, Marshall, Ely among many others. Most often, it ended up with a “no relevant diagram or text” scribbled under the reference. Then he went on with the books and textbooks that contain diagrams and pointed them out, noting the relevant pages and adding some stark comments: “some diagrams are pictures, not analytical diagrams” (on Fisher’s introductory text), “a lot of diagrams” (on Marshall’s Principles, which he didn’t bother to enumerate). He wrote to the University of Chicago’s archivist, obtained some copies of Knight’s unpublished manuscripts, wrote to Samuelson (the letter is mentioned in Knight’s article on “Frank Knight as Teacher”, which is also included in the same issue of the AER, but is not in the archives at Duke), wrote to McGraw-Hill, scanned the first eight editions of Economics, observed that Knight is not mentioned (except in the 2nd edition).

As you can expect, the result of all that is rather meager. The 1973 article does not locate the origin of Knight’s Wheel of Wealth, noting that it is possible that “it seems to have been original to him” (p. 1044). For the contemporary historian of economics – especially for the author of these lines -, it is also very frustrating. Like the 1973 piece, the archives show that Patinkin was fascinated (if not obsessed) by Knight’s diagrams but never unveil the reasons for this fascination.

Quite depressing, uh?

Well, yes …and no … because in fact, Patinkin’s unfruitful research produced two articles published in the AER (!) … and if we, the kids, could expect such a prestigious output every time we embark on a bibliographical research of that sort, I guess we would have already been considered for a tenure somewhere …