Historians and the History of Economic Thought: An Analysis of Three Biographies of Keynes

By Kates, Steven | History of Economics Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Historians and the History of Economic Thought: An Analysis of Three Biographies of Keynes


Kates, Steven, History of Economics Review


Robert Skidelsky. Keynes: The Return of the Master. London: Allen Lane. 2009. Pp. 240. ISBN: 9780141930633. 9.99 [pounds sterling].

Peter Clarke. Keynes: The Twentieth Century's Most Influential Economist. London: Bloomsbury. 2009. Pp. 224. ISBN: 9781408803851. 16.99 [pounds sterling].

David Felix. Keynes: A Critical Life. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1999. Pp. 312. ISBN 0313288275. US$131.95.

Abstract: The history of economic thought is the branch of economics which makes its area of study the historical development of economic theory. HET has many purposes, ranging from pure curiosity through to its use as an analytical tool to think through the inadequacies of existing mainstream thought as a prelude and guide to the future development of economic theory. Most studies in HET are undertaken by economists, but there are a number of areas, with the study of Keynes and the Keynesian Revolution being amongst the most prominent, where professional historians have made their own contributions. This paper looks at three recent biographies of Keynes to examine whether useful additional insight and analytical technique are brought to the study of economics itself when historians undertake studies in HET. A review of three biographies of Keynes is embedded within this analysis, although this is incidental to the main point of the paper.

1 Introduction

Studies in the history of economic thought are almost invariably undertaken by economists. Although there is some controversy over where HET belongs and what its role happens to be, a major reason for the study of the history of economics is as an input into the future direction of economic theory and policy. This is what economists do and HET is part of that process.

There is, however, one aspect of HET that attracts the interest of professional historians. It is in examinations of Keynes, and not just his biography but also his economics and policy prescriptions, that there have been a number of historians who have not only looked at the genealogy between The Treatise on Money and The General Theory, but have also seen fit to pass judgement on the content of the Keynesian Revolution itself. The question therefore is whether historians when doing work in HET bring anything to the study of economic theory and policy that economists do not. And the answer, which is discussed below, is that no, historians in undertaking HET do not bring additional knowledge, skills or tools to the study of economics not possessed by economists who make the history of their subject their field of study.

In reaching this conclusion I wish to be clear about what I do and do not mean. What I am specifically focusing on is whether historians add anything to our understanding of economic theory. I would not deny that historians add an enormous range of insight and detail to our appreciation of the surrounding historical circumstances in which theories were developed. Historiographical techniques and methodologies can assist in uncovering evidence of influence and relationships.

But on the question of whether historians are able to shed light on economic theory, and help us to understand the economic issues involved, it is the contention of this paper that historians bring nothing to the table that has not already been brought by economists. Historians do not deepen our knowledge of economic questions nor do they add to our understanding of economic theory. Indeed, the flow of causation is in the opposite direction, where historians base their own understanding on the prevailing economic theories they find themselves discussing.

There are three books by historians discussed. The first is Robert Skidelsky's Keynes: The Return of the Master, the second Peter Clarke's Keynes: The Twentieth Century's Most Influential Economist, and the third, David Felix's Keynes: A Critical Life. The first two were published in 2009 to capitalise on the renewed interest in Keynesian economics following the Global Financial Crisis. …

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