Beyond Positivism: Economic Methodology in the Twentieth Century

By Bruce J. Caldwell | Go to book overview

6

Robbins versus Hutchison—The Introduction of Positivism in Economic Methodology

Prior to Terence Hutchison’s introduction of positivism in the late 1930s, the dominant methodological viewpoint in twentieth century economic thought stressed subjectivism, methodological individualism, and the self-evident nature of the basic postulates of economic theory. 1 This particular vision of the appropriate methods for economics is eloquently expressed in Lionel Robbins’s classic tract, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. Though first published in 1932, his 1935 revision is a more comprehensive statement and will be the edition treated here. The marked contrast between the views of these two English economists makes Robbins’s study a fitting starting point for our investigation of twentieth century methodological thought.


Robbins’s Essay

In the opening chapters of Robbins’s essay there is little that modern economists would view as controversial. Though his phrasing suggests an earlier period, many of his pronouncements ring a surprisingly familiar note. When one lists some of these, such as ‘Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’, 2 or ‘It follows that Economics is entirely neutral between ends; that, in so far as the achievement of any end is dependent on scarce means, it is germane to the preoccupations of the economist’, 3 the source of the familiarity is revealed: these ideas form the substance of many opening chapters of contemporary introductory

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