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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 664-667
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Les traditions économiques françaises (1848–1939)
This mammoth collection of sixty-seven essays has been selected from the papers presented at the 1997 conference held by the Association Charles Gide pour l'Étude de la Pensée Économique in Lyons. This volume is hence an imposing testimony to the vigor and popularity of the history of thought in French universities. France undoubtedly hosts one of the largest populations of historians of thought; the discipline is still compulsory in the B.A. program; there is a steady, yearly stream of [End Page 664] dissertations; and half a dozen or so centers are entirely devoted to research in the field. For more than a decade, systematic efforts have been undertaken to revisit and reedit great names in French economics. The masterly edition of Léon Walras's Œuvres économiques complètes is nearing completion, and the first volume of Jean-Baptiste Say's Works and Correspondence is about to be published (both by the dynamic Walras Centre in Lyons). Hence, given this rather rosy environment (at least compared to what is going on in most other countries), the reviewer of this volume was harboring great expectations. Unfortunately, and despite commendable efforts by the editors, this volume not only lacks unity (like most conference volumes) but also contains little wheat and too much chaff. Drastic pruning would have substantially improved the quality of the book.
The main theme of the conference (French economic traditions, 1848–1939) is so vast as to encompass practically everyone who once wrote on any possible topic discussed during a rather troubled political, social, and economic century. The editors' introduction explains why these particular dates were chosen: mainly to exclude the French classical school and to avoid treading the difficult and ambiguous years of the Vichy régime. In short, the reader is largely faced with an extensive review of the troops of nineteenth-century French economics. In the same introduction, and very wisely, the editors make amply clear that there is no such thing as a French economic tradition but more properly several traditions, which are not always exclusively linked to economics. Sociology from Auguste Comte to Émile Durkheim, psychology, law, the connections with historians, and the splendid engineer-economist tradition are central to the understanding of French economics of the period. John Maynard Keynes had already noted in the 1939 French preface to the General Theory that French “economists are eclectic, too much (we sometimes think) without deep roots in systematic thinking” ( 1973, xxxii). With the notable exceptions of Augustin Cournot and Walras, the very few followers they had in France, and the economists in the remarkable tradition of the Grandes Écoles, this volume confirms that Keynes's acid remark applies to virtually all French economists.
The book is organized in ten sections (some of them being split into subsections). Each of them is introduced by editorial comments trying to bring some sort of logic to bundles of contributions often very disparate in terms of interest, quality, and topic.
The first section on methods offers five essays on widely different issues and authors, from Léon Winiarski on social mechanics to a brilliant technical and definitive critique by Claude Mouchot of the central argument of Philip Mirowski's More Heat than Light (prices do not constitute a conservative vector field and, hence, neoclassical consumer theory is not incoherent). Section 2 includes six papers discussing the relationships between economics, history, and geography. The modest impact of the German historical school in France, the influence of Comte on the English historical school (F. Harrison and J. K. Ingram), and François Simiand's role in the making of economic history are used to demonstrate that the liberal school managed successfully to stop any nonorthodox views from threatening its dominant position. [End Page 665] Walras was...