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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 162-163

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Book Review

Economic Theory and Policy in Context:
The Selected Essays of R. D. Collison Black

Economic Theory and Policy in Context: The Selected Essays of R. D. Collison Black. By R. D. Collison Black. Aldershot, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar, 1995. 261 pp.

R. D. Collison (Bob) Black was a leading member of the small but distinguished group of British scholars responsible for the remarkable post-1945 efflorescence of research on the history of economic thought. His first publication appeared in 1945, and the essays included in this volume span the period 1967 to the mid-1990s, testifying to the continuing vigor and high quality of his contributions. No doubt posterity will regard his magisterial seven-volume edition of the Papers and Correspondence of William Stanley Jevons (1972-81) as his most valuable and lasting scholarly achievement. Yet without questioning that judgment, my personal favorite among Black's writings is his outstanding study of Economic Thought and the Irish Question, 1817-1870, published in 1960. It was a major synthesis of economic ideas, economic policy, and general history: a perfect exemplar of the meaning of "in context."1 [End Page 162]

This selection of twelve from among Black's many essays is divided into three parts: Political Economy and the Irish; In and Out of the Mainstream; and From Political Economy to Economics: The Work of W. S. Jevons. The final part includes two previously unpublished lectures delivered at the University of Manchester in 1982--"Transitions in Political Economy I: Economic Analysis," and "Transitions in Political Economy II: Economic Policy," which have been updated. The volume begins with a twenty-page autobiographical introduction describing Black's long career in Irish universities and explaining how his undergraduate interest in international trade theory led him to become a historian of economics, via his research on Mountifort Longfield.

Like the author, a reviewer of this volume needs to be selective. In Part 1 the most impressive essay is "Economic Policy in Ireland and India in the time of John Stuart Mill" (1968), a fascinating comparative study of the application of classical economics to two very different societies, which nevertheless had somewhat similar economies. To a striking extent English economic theorists and policy makers thought within the same framework "without questioning its general applicability" (33), and unfortunately Ireland's geographical proximity blinded them to the major differences between England and Ireland in land tenure, politics, religion, and culture.

The essays in part 2 are centered on individuals, and they admirably display Black's skills as a biographer, enabling the reader to share the pleasures of discovery that can reward diligent and perspicacious historical research. Two are from relatively inaccessible sources: "Dr. Kondratieff and Mr. Hyde Clark," from Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology; and "Ralph George Hawtrey, 1879-1975," from the Proceedings of the British Academy. I suspect that few historians of economics are familiar with the latter source, which contains some invaluable and lengthy memoirs.

In addition to the Manchester lectures referred to earlier, part 3 contains two studies of Jevons's contributions, plus a balanced and thoughtful essay entitled "Jevons, Marshall, and the Utilitarian Tradition" (1990). As one who ventured into the utilitarian minefield some years ago, I can readily testify to the value of the author's meticulous scholarship and wise judgment that are so conspicuous a feature of all his work.

Reading or rereading Black's essays is a rewarding experience strongly recommended to readers of this journal.

A. W. Coats
University of Nottingham


1. I still recall with pleasure the thrill of reading the unpublished manuscript, which Bob lent me at one of the early history of economic thought conferences. I did not get to sleep that night until after 3 a.m. The book was indeed what is nowadays termed a page-turner!



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