The Origins of the a Priori Method in Classical Political Economy: A Reinterpretation

By Prasch, Robert E. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the a Priori Method in Classical Political Economy: A Reinterpretation


Prasch, Robert E., Journal of Economic Issues


It is well known that the American institutionalists, and their predecessors in the English and German Historical schools, defined their research program as fundamentally opposed to the a priori tendencies that were, and still are, the mainstay of the orthodox approach to economic theory. John Kells Ingram contrasted "inductive inquiry" with "a priori speculation," labeling the latter a "vicious proceeding" [Ingram 1888]. Similar sentiments are expressed in the work of the historicist T. E. Cliffe Leslie [1875; 1876; 1879] and the institutionalist Richard Ely [1884]. Thorstein Veblen, in an important series of articles on the preconceptions of economics, contrasted the Continental with the British approach to economics and was pleased to report a more developed sense of the importance of "the commonplace" in the latter [1919, 144-5]. Nevertheless, even as Veblen found the British economists increasingly concerned with the incorporation of facts into their analysis, he observed that they remained steadfast in their adherence to ". . . the terms of normality and natural law" [1919, 68].(1)

While all of these scholars lamented the flawed method of analysis embodied in classical political economy, few attempts were made to trace its origins. When these origins are explored, the dominant, and erroneous, tendency is to suppose that a rationalist or Cartesian methodology was imported to England through the example of the Physiocrats or under the direct influence of Jean Baptiste Say. This interpretation is advanced in the influential work of Elie Halevy: "At this time it was this same French rationalism, which, transmitted from the physiocrats to the ideologues, was once again influencing English thought, . . ." [Halevy 1928, 270; Rima 1991, 188]. Halevy's position is reflected in the work of Terence Hutchison who is, however, hesitant to ascribe a completely French methodology to the English economists:

There had subsequently entered into classical political economy a strong rationalist and a-priorist infusion, partly from French sources and partly via the unselfconscious [sic] deductive procedure of Ricardo . . . When Cairnes, for example, claims that "the economist starts with a knowledge of the ultimate causes," he is describing very closely the rationalist Cartesian approach of the Physiocrats. But neither Mill, Senior, nor Cairnes would have gone so far as to diverge fundamentally from the empirical tradition of Locke and Hume . . . [Hutchison 1953a, 18].

Hutchison's book does not dwell on the subject of classical methodology. However, it is his position that the classicals tried to work within the methods proposed by both the Cartesians and the English Empiricists. As such, Hutchison leaves his reader with the conclusion that the classical economists were somewhat confused or, as he puts it, "unself-conscious" with regard to scientific procedure. This result is unsatisfactory, given the education and prominence of some of the theorists, such as Nassau Senior and Richard Whately, who contributed to the formation of the classical position on economic method. For example, it is difficult to place Jean Baptiste Say in the rationalist tradition. Say plainly states, in his Treatise on Political Economy, that he strongly favors empirical methods:

Having no particular hypothesis to support, I have been simply desirous of unfolding the manner in which wealth is produced, distributed, and consumed. A knowledge of these facts could only be acquired by observing them. It is the result of these observations, within the reach of every inquirer, that are here given [Say 1821, xiv].

Statements such as Say's appear too frequently in classical writings to be ignored. This paper will argue that the classicals were far from "unself-conscious" in their methodological thinking and for this reason the specifics of their arguments need to be reexamined and standard interpretations reconsidered.

The place to begin is with the widely acknowledged founder of the classical school, Adam Smith. …

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