Economic Theory in Retrospect

Economic Theory in Retrospect

Economic Theory in Retrospect

Economic Theory in Retrospect

Excerpt

This is a study of the theories of the past, not of theorists and their times. It concentrates on the theoretical analysis of leading economists, neglecting their lives, their own intellectual development, their precursors, and their propagators. Criticism implies standards of judgment and my standards are those of modern economic theory. This would hardly be worth saying were it not for the fact that some students of the history of economic thought have held out the prospect of judging a theory of the past on its own terms. Literally speaking, this is an impossible accomplishment. What they have meant to say, however, is that ideas should be weighed sympathetically in the context of their times, lest the history of economic thought degenerate into a boring exercise in omniscience. The danger of arrogance toward the writers of the past is certainly a real one--but so is ancestor worship. Indeed, there are always two sorts of dangers in evaluating the work of earlier writers: on the one hand, to see only their mistakes and defects without appreciating the limitations of the analysis they inherited and the period in which they wrote; and, on the other hand, to expand their merits in the eagerness to discover an idea in advance of their times, and frequently their own intentions. To put it somewhat differently: there is the anthropomorphic sin of judging older writers by the canons of modern theory, but there is also what Samuelson once called "the sophisticated-anthropomorphic sin of not recognizing the equivalent content in older writers; because they do not use the terminology and symbols of the present."

The conflict between those who regard earlier economic doctrine as consisting of little more than elementary blunders and fallacies and those who view it as the repository of a series of remarkable insights, goes deeper than economics. It is a fundamental division of attitude toward intellectual history as such. With a little training in German philosophy it is possible to represent the conflict in terms of two polar . . .

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