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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 649-654

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There Really Was a German Historical School of Economics:
A Comment on Heath Pearson

Bruce Caldwell

Echoing Voltaire's wonderfully wicked jibe about the Holy Roman Empire (“it is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”), Heath Pearson (1999) recently issued a similar warning about the German historical school of economics. The title of his article is put in the form of a question: “Was There Really a German Historical School of Economics?” The purpose of my comment is to suggest that, despite his many well-justified claims to the contrary, there still are some good reasons for historians of thought to believe that there really was.

On one level, there is little to quibble about here, for surely most of Pearson's claims are uncontroversial. When he states that the school was not particularly German, he is simply noting the well-known fact that there were historicist movements in countries other than Germany (555–56). No one disputes this. Indeed, A. W. Coats (1954) emphasized this very point by using the term “historist” to distinguish the English variant of the movement from those in other countries.

When Pearson says that the German economists were not historical, his arguments are more diverse, but not more startling. He points out, for example, that the differences between the analyses of “older” German historical school members like Wilhelm Roscher (who provided “historical sauce on a classical dish”) and the British classical economists whom Roscher criticized (for being ahistorical) were not all that great. [End Page 649] He notes, too, that professional historians like Fritz Hartung were often severely critical of the attempts by economists to write history. Pearson also reminds us that even Gustav Schmoller, whose analyses came closest to following the methodological pronouncements of the school, in later years backed away from the strong claims he had made in the heat of the Methodenstreit (548–52). Again, there is nothing to dispute in the facts as Pearson reports them.

Pearson's last claim is equally plausible: the collection of German historical economists should not be considered a school because, well, there were considerable differences among them in terms of their analyses and interests (557–58). The same could be said, of course, of just about any purported “school.” Modern-day Austrians include a priorist followers of Ludwig von Mises and radical subjectivist followers of Ludwig Lachmann; the label “post-Keynesian” has been applied to followers of Piero Sraffa and to those of G. L. S. Shackle. When one recognizes further that many Austrians, including Lachmann, were admirers of Shackle, it becomes clear that the identification of well-defined schools of thought in economics is often very difficult.

If Pearson's arguments about the facts surrounding the German historical school are mostly uncontroversial, the same perhaps cannot be said about the implications he draws from them. Pearson's conclusion is not the expected one—that historians of thought should be more careful and precise when they discuss the works of members of this putative school. Rather, he calls for further aggregation and homogenization. Were he to have his way, students would recognize the German historical school of economics as being one component of a larger “evolutionary,” or “institutional,” or “cultural” tradition in economics. Such a tradition would link together the previously distinct analyses of early Austrians like Carl Menger and Friedrich von Wieser, the “social law” movement of Karl Diehl and Rudolf Stammler, Walter Euken's Ordo movement, such disparate figures as Adolf Wagner, Joseph Schumpeter, and Max Weber, and perhaps most controversially of all, members of the Marxist tradition (554–55).

Pearson's justifications (559–60) for this proposed amalgamation are not very convincing. He argues first that such a grouping would be simpler, and that it would deepen our students' recognition of the breadth of the historical movement. Given that the main thrust of his article is that oversimplification is no virtue when doing history, though, it is curious that Pearson should conclude that a...


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