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History of Political Economy 36.3 (2004) 413-443

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The Origins of Lionel Robbins's

Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science

An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science by Lionel Robbins (1932, 1935, 1984) is often credited with bringing Austrian economic theory and methodology into English economics, as well as providing the still most widely used definition of economics: "Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses" (1932, 15). The footnote attached to this first statement of the definition cites works by Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, F. W. Fetter, Richard Strigl, and Hans Mayer. Denis O'Brien (1988, 24) in his intellectual biography of Robbins has pointed out, however, that the sources on which Robbins drew were "threefold: English classical economics, Jevons and Wicksteed, and the Austrians." In his evaluation of Robbins's Austrian connection, [End Page 413] O'Brien (1990, 155) argued that "the task of disentangling the roots of his microeconomic views can never be completely solved, because in this area his primary source was undoubtedly Wicksteed's Common Sense, while he drew from the Austrians precisely those elements which coincided most directly with what he had drawn from Wicksteed." In the preface to Nature and Significance Robbins (1932, ix) acknowledges "especial indebtedness" to Mises and Wicksteed. The survival of notebooks containing lecture notes and reading notes from the 1920s and early 1930s in the Robbins Papers provides an opportunity to examine again the origin and the nature of his first major work. One notebook contains a set of lecture notes that Robbins labeled "first draft of final form of N & S." The contents of a filing box containing correspondence and reviews of the book also throw light on the drafting of the first edition as well as changes made in the second edition.1 In this article I focus exclusively on the origins of the ideas presented in the first edition.

Because Robbins claimed that the origins of his Essay went back to his early years at LSE, I shall first describe his undergraduate education and then his own first attempts at teaching introductory economics at LSE and Oxford before turning to the drafting of the book. His undergraduate experience left him with a set of puzzles as to the scope of economics and the nature of its subject matter, which he then lectured on at Oxford in 1929 and LSE in 1930 and 1931. His lecture notes show he had arrived at his famous definition of economics by the end of 1928. They also show the evolution of his views on the methodology of economics. Comparing them, especially those written in 1930–31, with the published Essay makes it clear that the Austrian references in the first edition were late additions, made partly under the influence of Hayek and mainly in order to mention the most recent literature. He made similar updating alterations to the second edition. The first edition had been extensively reviewed, often very critically, and he had received many letters from his friends, English, American, and Austrian, who were also critical as well as complimentary. But the revisions that he made (or did not make) in consequence must be the subject of another paper. [End Page 414]

The Definition of Economics

According to Robbins (1971, 146),

The beginnings of [the Essay] lay some time back in the past. The fundamental textbook on the elements of economics when I was a student at L.S.E. was Cannan's Wealth; and the first chapter of this truly excellent work was devoted to elucidations which defined its subject-matter in terms of the causes of material welfare. Shortly after I joined the staff as a teacher, I was put to lecture on a special course for Army officers on the Economics of War and readiness for war; and I had not been long engaged on my preparation for this task before it was borne in upon...


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