Great ideas are earned through hardship. It is a conviction that requires no argument, inscribed into our collective consciousness. As I have been writing/researching about Milton Friedman’s popular writings, I was surprised by the (popular) claim that Friedman was for many years an outcast in the economics profession, the proof was that such a respectable place as Duke University refused to carry his books (the specific source was a celebration of Friedman’s life by Robert Samuelson in Newsweek).
Milton and Rose Friedman write in their autobiography Two Lucky People, page 341 in the 1999 edition, of a letter sent to them by Mark Rollinson in 1989, who 30 years earlier had been a student at Duke University,
My years at Duke … were not happy ones. … To make matters worse, most of my fellow students and all of my professors held my views on several subjects in overt disdain.
One day after particularly severe ridicule in an economics class I went to the professor after the session and told him that I was quite certain that I was not stupid and I asked him if there were not at least some economists who shared my views. “Oh yes,” he said “as a matter of fact we’ve discussed you frequently here at the faculty level. You’re nearly a clone of some chap in Chicago named Milton Friedman. It’s truly amazing.”
Well, I went running over to the library with your name in hand, only to find that you were in the name catalogue. On consulting with my professor later, he explained that Duke had a system of screening new material by the appropriate department and the Economics Department did not consider your work worthy of carrying.
Whereupon I went to the Dean of Men … and made an offer: put Friedman into the library or take Marx out; otherwise I would write a letter to the editor of every newspaper I could find.
They opted to add you and keep Marx.
When you received the Nobel Prize, I was prouder probably even than you, as you might imagine.
The history of the “young scholar” identity began in 2000, with the first session with that title at the meetings of the History of Economics Society. Conceived by Sandra Peart and nurtured by her, it couples with the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics which began in the same year. (If someone knows when the ESHET young scholars began, let me know…) The HES program has been expanded with the generous help of Warren and Sylvia Samuels.
I came into the program at year 3. And this blog owes its genetic moment to Young scholars program year 8. I can’t recall the exact motivations of our original idea, made worse by our reluctance to write a manifesto or introduction for the blog. Regardless of the good work done with the sessions and summer schools, the term “young scholars” has gained a life of its own. I think that part of what moved us to create the blog was a desire to take ownership of the “young scholar” talk that has contaminated our community.
With very few exceptions “young scholars” are there to be talked at, not talked to. Unfortunately in the few exceptions “young scholars” have been given the pulpit, they have lacked imagination and repeated old themes and solutions. I quickly forgive them, since they were never meant to think for themselves, but were cast to the role of a myth. Here is what i hear: The “young scholars” are nameless. The “young scholars” are not yet ready to be peers and need to be coached and nurtured, condescended upon, “poor things they make so many mistakes.” The “young scholars” are unemployed and they should fear the economics mainstream. The “young scholars” are advised to publish in the economics journals, where the elders are unable or uninterested to place their writings. The “young scholars” should cite the elder’s literature.
In the Barthesian sense of myth, “young scholars” are not breathing, walking and talking persons but a signifier in a semiotic play. They stand for the future of the profession, and importantly they have become a preferred way to present imperialist programs for the history of economics with a soft voice and warm heart.
If this blog was ever intended, even implicitly, to claim this identity, it has failed. I don’t think the label can be rescued from its current abuse. Hence, I need to rename myself, but what should that be?
Few recent concepts have as complicated a historiography as “social Darwinism”. To make a long story short:
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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
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.