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History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 705-707

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Book Review

A History of Economic Thought:
The LSE Lectures

A History of Economic Thought: The LSE Lectures. By Lionel Robbins. Edited by Steven G. Medema and Warren J. Samuels. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. xxviii; 359 pp. $39.95.

Verdi wrote Falstaff, that most delightful of operas, in his eightieth year, its tenderness and fun a mirror held up to his own vigorous old age. In their own way these intensely personal lectures, given when Robbins was much the same age as Verdi, [End Page 705] convey much the same sense of serene enjoyment as that opera. Indeed, so personal are they that it is hard to write about them impersonally; I won’t even try.

For many years (the editors do not tell us how many), Robbins gave a series of lectures on the history of economic thought to an audience of advanced undergraduate and graduate students at the LSE. But he never wrote them up for publication, and it was only in 1979–80 and again in 1980–81 that someone, actually his grandson, had the bright idea of recording them. The resulting tapes were then transcribed, with handwritten amendments by Lady Robbins and her son-in-law, and the resulting typescript deposited in the LSE archives in 1989, five years after his death at the age of eighty-five. However, it was not until 1995 that Steven Medema serendipitously discovered this error-laden typescript and arranged for its publication, which involved detailed checking against the original tapes, first by Medema alone and then with Warren Samuels, and then some gentle editing. Their light touch has done wonderfully well in preserving the immediacy of these lectures. One is conscious always both of the student audience and of Robbins’s awareness of that audience (on page 169, for example, “You all know who Godwin was I hope. Anybody who doesn’t? Candour is always a virtue.”).

Understandably, the editors thought it inappropriate to correct Robbins’s relatively few outright slips (both in the text and in his reading list in appendix A), but it does seem unfortunate that footnotes were not added to correct some of the more glaring mistakes. For example, in his discussion on page 253 of Augustin Cournot on costs and competition, the word “increasing” should be replaced everywhere by “decreasing,” although later on (p. 309) he gets it right when discussing Cournot and Alfred Marshall. There are also a few misspellings in the text (which in the nature of the case have to be the editors’ responsibility) and an amusing editorial gaffe in their introduction (xxii), which has Robbins claiming to have read the entire 162 pages of Locke’s Civil Government in “half an hour,” whereas the context makes it plain (105) that he claimed to have read only its 18-page chapter 5 in that brief time.

These minor blemishes aside, the editors are to be congratulated on their fine achievement, as are the publishers on producing a handsome, well-printed volume at a very reasonable price—quotidian virtues perhaps but not so common these days, especially in the history of economic thought.

After reading this book through I found myself wondering why I like it so much. Certainly not for its structure, which is standard enough, beginning with Plato and ending with the late neoclassicals Irving Fisher, Marshall, and Knut Wicksell. Nor for its content. Much of what he actually says about the neoclassical period, for example, is rather old-fashioned in content, concerned primarily with debates that were current in the 1930s, such as those over the development of the marginal productivity theory of distribution. There is indeed little evidence that Robbins had read any of the post–World War II literature that has led to new and often more correct interpretations of older work, such as the game-theoretic significance of F. Y. Edgeworth’s theory of recontract or the Sraffian analysis of David Ricardo’s concerns with a measure of value. [End Page 706]

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