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History of Political Economy 36.3 (2004) 445-474

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The Tableau Économique as Rational Recreation

Les sens sont le miroir dans lequel il faut contempler tous ces objets. [The senses are the mirror in which all these objects must be seen.]
—François Quesnay, Lettre sur les disputes qui se sont élevées entre les médecins et les chirurgiens (1737)

In an obscure article, Hans Rieter (1990) has noted the striking resemblance between Quesnay's tableau économique and some unusual clocks that belonged to Gaspard Grollier de Servière, the owner of a cabinet of curiosities (see figs. 1 and 2). Like the other artifacts of Grollier's cabinet, these clocks were meant to be rational recreations: that is, artifacts designed to produce wondrous visual and, more generally, sensory effects.1 [End Page 445] In the eighteenth century, rational recreations served as artistic creations, magical artifacts, engineering machines, pedagogical devices, and tools for scientific experiments. At the time, it was widely believed in France that only that part of science that could be put to the test through sensory experiments (most commonly visual experiments) was "useful science," the rest being metaphysics—"empty science," according to d'Alembert (1756) in the Encyclopédie.2 Quesnay's tableau économique was part of the tradition of rational recreation.

During the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, however, the tableau économique—which, as is well known, was a visual representation of the flow of wealth through the economy—was neglected: words were used to describe or interpret physiocratic thinking, even to depict the tableau itself. No tableau is to be found in the classic two-volume history of physiocracy by George Weulersse (1910), nor in Henry Higgs's study of the physiocrats. In the editions of Quesnay's collected writings published in 1846 and 1888, only the less visually complex "arithmetical formula" was reproduced (Daire 1846; Oncken 1888).3 Similarly, there was no tableau in either form in Schelle's biography of Quesnay or, most unexpectedly, in his 1905 article on the tableau économique (Schelle 1905, 1907). These works were simply unresponsive to the visual representation of economic thinking.

It was not until the 1930s, when visual aids first flourished in economics textbooks and articles, that the tableau économique was rediscovered and began to be the subject of a rapidly growing literature. The tableau was interpreted as a forerunner of modern economic models, [End Page 446]

Click for larger view
Figure 1
Zigzag tableau économique from the frontispiece of Élémens de la philosophie rurale (1767)
[End Page 447]

Click for larger view
Figure 2
The rolling-ball clock of Grollier de Servière (note the name of the engraver that appears at lower left)
[End Page 448]

such as general equilibrium, input-output tables (Phillips 1955), reproduction models à la Sraffa (Cartelier 1998), and the Harrod-Domar growth model (Eltis 1998), or more generally, as a forerunner of modern growth theory (Meek 1962, 292–96; Pressman 1994). Yet, commentators have continued to consider that figure and words were acting on the same level of understanding. By "tableau économique" they have meant not only the figure but also Quesnay's explanation of the figure, without differentiating them clearly. (Conversely, in this article, by "tableau économique" I mean only the figure.) Consequently, in their interpretations and mathematical reconstructions of the tableau, historians of economics have given no special attention to its visual dimension, and the visual changes Quesnay made in the tableau have been interpreted as illustrating theoretical changes made by Quesnay in his economic model (Meek 1962, 277–83; Eltis 1975, 183–94; Herlitz 1996).

In this article, I intend to break with this type of interpretation. My thesis is that Quesnay's tableau économique, like rational recreations, embodies two dimensions. It is both a scientific device and a visual artifact. These two dimensions reinforce each other: the tableau was a visual machine to aid the calculation of the creation and distribution of wealth...


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pp. 445-474
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005

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