Bridging the Natural and the Social: Science and Character in Jevons's Political Economy

By White, Michael V. | Economic Inquiry, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Natural and the Social: Science and Character in Jevons's Political Economy


White, Michael V., Economic Inquiry


As human knowledge and civilisation progress, these characteristic differences [in human behaviour] tend to develop and multiply themselves, rather than decrease. Character grows more many sided. Two well-educated Englishmen are far better distinguished from each other than two common labourers, and these are better distinguished than two Australian aborigines. [W. Stanley Jevons 1887, 734]

I. INTRODUCTION

Scholars have devoted much attention in recent years to explaining the differences between the basic analytical frameworks of classical political economy and the marginalist supply and demand theories published by William Stanley Jevons and Leon Walras in the 1860s and 1870s. While disagreeing over the precise form of the differences, historians of economics commonly describe the "marginalist revolution" by three interrelated aspects of its analytical domain. As summarized by Winch [1972], these aspects are (1) the type of problems considered to be within the domain of economic science; (2) the criteria used to designate the domain boundary so as to distinguish between "economic science" and other types of analysis; and (3) the conceptualization of economic actors within the domain. More specifically, Winch argues that marginalism is distinguished by its "recognizing scarcity of given means in relation to alternative uses as the economic problem" and explaining this in terms of the "universal application of the laws of human choice" [1972, 328, Winch's italics, 335]. With activity in the domain of economic science "explicitly including both material and immaterial goods and services, moral and immoral," its boundary was set by drawing a clear distinction between "pure and applied science" which corresponded to the distinction between positive and normative propositions. Finally, the depiction of economic actors entailed a "thorough going individualism ... which placed the rational maximizer at the centre of things." In keeping with this account, Cohen and Cohen [1983, 195-197] have argued that, while the concept of social class was a "fundamental aspect" of classical political economy, it was "irrelevant" in marginalism because "individuals form the basic unit of analysis, and individual demand is the driving force of the system. These aspects can be seen most clearly in Jevons's work."(1)

I will argue here that this characterization of the economic domain in Jevons's marginalism is misleading and that it effaces a number of important differences between the ideas propounded in his Theory of Political Economy (hereafter Political Economy) and later versions of supply and demand theory. Using the discussion of reduced working hours in Political Economy to illustrate the analysis, I will show that the theoretical object of Political Economy cannot be reduced to an analysis of "rational behavior" per se and that Jevons did not rely on a distinction between positive and normative propositions. Indeed, he argued that the domain of economic science provided the means to advocate or reject particular government policies. Moreover, although there is an important analytical difference between the social individuals of the classical framework and the abstract individuals of marginalism, references to Jevons's individualism do not explain the significance of the discussion of class and race behavior which pervades his work.(2)

The paper is presented in four sections. The first discusses how Jevons specified the domain of "scientific" political economy using a particular Utilitarian theory of ethics. This enabled him to make a distinction between policy questions which lay within the province of economic science and those which did not because they raised questions of ethics and duty. One policy question which fell outside the domain was legislation to reduce working hours, and the next two sections show why that was the case. Section III considers the "scientific" analysis of work hours in Political Economy where Jevons explained different work patterns in terms of class and race behavior. …

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