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History of Political Economy 36.3 (2004) 475-495

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The Common Sense of Political Economy of Philip Wicksteed

Unhappily the lay disciples of the economists have a tendency to adopt their conclusions and then discard their definitions.
—Philip Wicksteed, The Alphabet of Economic Science (1888)

Philip Wicksteed (1844–1927) holds a curious place in economics. For those familiar with his work, it is certainly a conundrum that he has not received more attention from the academic community. Although some economists recognize the innovation and merits of his work, the general consensus among historians is that Wicksteed was simply a disciple of William Stanley Jevons, one of the founders of marginalist economics. This essay takes issue with that consensus and argues that Wicksteed made his own contribution to economics. As I will show, at the heart of Wicksteed's original contribution is a conception of economics as a moral activity and practical science—a conception that Wicksteed derived from Aristotle. His economic methodology rested on his own notion of "common sense," which provided a contemporary argument for [End Page 475] economics as a moral science based on individuals' daily experiences in all their complexities and psychological nuances.

Wicksteed and Aristotle

Wicksteed was a scholar of Aristotle, and there are many similarities between Aristotle's approach to ethics and economics and Wicksteed's in his major work on economics, The Common Sense of Political Economy ([1910] 1933). As an examination of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics reveals, Wicksteed has adopted many of the principles defended by Aristotle in this book. For instance, Aristotle (1987, 365–66) argues that an inquiry into human choice and behavior must begin with what is familiar to us because "facts are the starting-point" of any inquiry. It is very important to begin the analysis from first principles that are well established, because on them depends the whole analysis. As Aristotle has put it, "For the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it" (372). There is no better description for Wicksteed's Common Sense than to say that it is a book where "the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole." Another aspect that should be mentioned is Aristotle's view of wealth as something instrumental. Wealth, he argued, "is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else" (367). The view of wealth as a tool, so important to Wicksteed's argument on "economic nexus," altruism and "economic relations," is an intrinsic part of Aristotle's view that practical reason without moral excellence is not possible. Choice, the origin of action for Aristotle, "cannot exist either without thought and intellect or without a moral state; for good action and its opposite cannot exist without a combination of intellect and character" (418).

Aristotle praises the picture of the "wise man" (376), the man who is "able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself" (420) and who demonstrates excellence. This man is not concerned with things that he cannot reflect upon, nor is he preoccupied with universals. Rather, the wise man "is concerned with action," with judging the risks and rewards of the particular situation he faces and responding accordingly. As Aristotle argued, "A man has practical wisdom not by knowing only but by acting" (446). The idea behind this principle is that because conduct deals with particular cases, they are considered "truer" than general ones. For this reason, individuals' final conduct depends on [End Page 476] their judgment of particular cases, "for not only must the man of practical wisdom know particular facts, but understanding and judgement are also concerned with things to be done, and these are ultimates" (427).

However, the most remarkable similarity between Aristotle and Wicksteed consists in Aristotle's principle of mean, which becomes in Wicksteed's hands the principle of marginal utility. This similarity has been noted by Terence Hutchison (1953, 99), who pointed out...


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pp. 475-495
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