Eighteenth Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and Their Contemporaries

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

2

Thoughts on the emergence of economics as a science1

The historical interpretation and explanation of theories put forward in the past is the first and foremost task which the historian of political economy has to fulfill. But besides this great problem, which might be called his material problem, he is confronted with several others more or less formal in character. Three of them are of outstanding importance. They are indicated by the following questions: When did political economy arise? What were the phases in its evolution? How can it be defined and divided from other fields of thought? … The first problem - the problem of origin - naturally and necessarily arises with regard to any science, but it is especially intricate in political economy.

(Stark 1944: p. 59)

The above quotation is useful as a starting point for this chapter because it places its subject matter in some perspective. In reflecting on the emergence of economics as a science, this chapter discusses a formal question in the history of economics of considerable importance, and one which, unfortunately, has not received a great deal of attention in the past. 2 Most historians of economics - as issues of the journals clearly testify - have been more concerned with the ‘historical interpretation and explanation of theories put forward in the past’.

It should be noted that in the discussion of the emergence of economics, Stark’s other two formal problems cannot be ignored. In fact, this can be put more strongly: these two other problems must of necessity be treated in a discussion of the emergence of economics as a science. Much of the content of this chapter illustrates this proposition.

The argument may be briefly stated as follows. A study of the literature of the history of economics quickly reveals that the question of the emergence of economics as a science has been treated in different ways, and that these different ways not infrequently can be explained by differences in the scope, subject matter and objectives of economics accepted by the historian. Hence there is a strong relationship between the treatment of the emergence of economics as a science, and the definition of economics as a science, different definitions generally, but not always, leading to different periods of time, and to different individuals or groups to whom or to which the emergence can be assigned. At the same time, it appears also self-evident that the problem of the

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