On Revolutions and Progress in Economic Knowledge

By T. W. Hutchison | Go to book overview

8
Economists and the history of economics: revolutionary and traditional versions

I

J. B. Say, the close associate of the English classicals, once wrote about
the study of the history of economic thought:

What useful purpose can be served by the study of absurd opinions and
doctrines that have long ago been exploded, and deserved to be? It is mere
useless pedantry to attempt to revive them. The more perfect a science
becomes the shorter becomes its history. Alembert truly remarks that the
more light we have on any subject the less need is there to occupy ourselves
with the false or doubtful opinions to which it may have given rise. Our
duty with regard to errors is not to revive them, but simply to forget them.1

These views of Say found confident and enthusiastic echoes in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and America, when a 'quantitative revolution' was taking place which led to imaginative comparisons between economics and the natural sciences, somewhat similar to those drawn by James Mill, Ricardo and McCulloch, nearly a century and a half before, when they had claimed a kind of authority for the laws of their new science similar to that generally ascribed to the laws of Newton. Thanks to the new quantitative 'revolution', economics had apparently become more and more a 'science' like physics or chemistry, in its methods and criteria, as well as, apparently, in its simple technical applicability and its promised achievements. It was, therefore, as unnecessary and even demeaning for students of economics to study the history of the subject as it was for physicists and chemists to study the history of physics and chemistry. As J. B. Say had long ago explained such a study would simply be concerned with false or dubious doctrines long ago deservedly 'exploded' (like, for example, the quantity theory of money). Admitting a role for the history of economics would have damaged the 'image' of economics which the ambitious PROs of 'the quantitative revolution' were seeking to build Up.2

____________________
1
J. B. Say, 1828-9, vol. II, p. 540, quoted by C. Gide and C. Rist, 1948, p. 10. Gide and Rist aptly countered Say's claim with an admirable suggestion from Condillac: 'It is essential that every one who wishes to make some progress in the search for truth should know something of the mistakes committed by people like himself who thought they were extending the boundaries of knowledge.'
2
In 1962, even so accomplished a historian of economic thought as Mr Donald Winch was accepting the updated J. B. Say line, holding that historians of economics should

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