On Revolutions and Progress in Economic Knowledge

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I
The Wealth of Nations and the Smithian revolution

I

The centenary in 1876 of the publication of The Wealth of Nations was celebrated in London by a 'grand dinner and special discussion' held by the Political Economy Club, with Mr Gladstone presiding. As a London daily newspaper stated at the time, the centenary celebration of 1876 did not, in Britain, 'coincide with an auspicious moment in the history of the science which Adam Smith founded'.1 In fact, the first centenary took place at a time in Britain especially--not so much elsewhere--of fundamental challenge and uncertainty. Rather suddenly, in the late 1860s, the doctrines of classical political economy, in respect of theories, policies, and methods, which had achieved in Britain such an extraordinary dominance over the subject, and which had enjoyed such confidence and prestige among the articulate public and political élite, were shaken by fundamental criticisms and seemed to lose rapidly and heavily in credibility. By 1876 little firm consensus had emerged regarding the nature and methods of the subject. The centenary celebration in London consisted, therefore, to a considerable extent, of conflicting claims and opposing interpretations regarding the methods and significance of The Wealth of Nations. Representatives of a somewhat desiccated orthodoxy--such as Robert Lowe--were claiming Adam Smith as the founder of 'a deductive and demonstrative science of human actions and conduct'. On the other hand, for some years, historical rebels and critics, like Cliffe Leslie, had been directing fundamental attacks on the abstract and deductive methods of orthodoxy, while calling for a return to the methods of The Wealth of Nations.2 Briefly, on a much smaller scale, something resembling the great Austro-GermanMethodenstreit was played out in Britain (with something of a reversal of roles regarding the 'orthodoxy' of the deductive and historical methods respectively).

Fifty years later, in 1926, at the sesqui-centennial celebration in Chicago, in spite of institutionalist criticisms in the United States, there

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1
See Political Economy Club, 1876; also T. W. Hutchison, 1953a, pp. 1-6.
2
See, for example, Leslie's essay of 1870 "The Political Economy of Adam Smith" (in n.d., pp. 21ff).

-1-

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