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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 655-661

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Response to Bruce Caldwell

Heath Pearson

Bruce Caldwell's thoughtful critique of my threefold negation has three facets of its own, which I shall address in turn. His first point is that my claims, when true, are quite uncontroversial; this would seem to apply particularly to my argument that “historical” economics was neither distinctively German nor dogmatically antitheoretical. Well, yes, to a degree: my claims are of course unoriginal and uncontroversial—uncontroversial, that is, among those scholars who have devoted much of their lives to the study of nineteenth-century political economy. The problem is that this segment of humanity could fit into a small conference room, if not a large elevator; and if we limit our population to “new institutionalists,” graduate students, and undergraduates, I suspect we are dealing with a nearly empty set. Such at least was my conclusion from perusing the standard histories of economic thought, a sobering encounter that originally motivated the article in question. A good pedagogical rule of thumb is that when you're dealing with something that is both true and important, the point is not to say it till it's been said (i.e., once), but till it's been understood. To note that we've not yet reached understanding is putting it mildly, and my shameless crib from Voltaire, one of the great pamphleteers of the ages, was meant to get us on track. [End Page 655]

Caldwell's second objection is that my proposed remedies are procrustean, that I would see all non-Ricardian economists forced into a “cultural school,” an “evolutionary school,” or some other such unholy amalgam. Again, my response runs along the lines of “Yes, but.” Yes, my goal was to simplify. Yes, simplicity exacts its toll in terms of precision. And yes, it would be truly appalling if I had envisioned razing the temple of the German historical school only to erect another, even ungainlier school in its place. But this is emphatically not what I envisioned. I studiously avoided attaching the word school to any of my alternative denominations, and if I nevertheless gave the impression of such intent, let me herewith apologize and clarify. My general position is that too many of us teach intellectual history the way Chagall painted, in bright monochromes and broad brushstrokes: the result is generally pleasing, but naive and phantasmagorical. What we need instead is something more akin to pointillism, where forms are permeable to diffuse colorations, and where more differences are of degree than of kind. Only the most impermeable figures in such a landscape would deserve the label “school.” Thus I agree fully with Caldwell's claim that “the identification of well-defined schools of thought in economics is often very difficult.” I would merely add that school is also a term of abuse, and one need not be a Foucauldian to see in its deployment a discursive strategy of deligitimization, a brushstroke of tar. It was done to Smithians (by List); it has been done to Austrians (although not by Caldwell, who seems to prefer a softer focus on the Austrian “tradition”); it has been done to Chicagoans; and it has been done, not least, to Germans. I would question the term's fairness in each case, and I would in no case wish to add to this dismal tradition.

This leads directly to Caldwell's third and major objection, that the GHSE really was a school, even by this more damning standard. Specifically, he points to the supposedly despotic and arbitrary “Althoff system,” and to its role in enforcing grim uniformity on the German university system. For German economics the result was apparently a ruthless Lysenkoism, with Schmoller playing the role of that deluded agronomist. Once again, let me start by acknowledging the grain of truth in Caldwell's position. Friedrich Althoff did gain great fame for challenging the ancient privileges of the university faculties under his administration. Needless to say, this made him many enemies, some of whom charged him with quashing academic freedom. Nevertheless I consider Caldwell...


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