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History of Political Economy 35.1 (2003) 173-174

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The German Historical School: The Historical and Ethical Approach to Economics. Edited by Yuichi Shionoya. London: Routledge, 2001. xi; 224 pp. $90.00.

This collection of essays originated in a conference of the Japanese Society for the History of Economic Thought in 1996 and therefore includes exclusively Japanese contributors. As usual with such collections, the individual contributions vary in quality, and even as a whole they fail to provide the kind of overview that the topic demands. The range of the contributions is extensive: chronologically they begin with an essay on Adam Müller's Agronomische Briefe of 1812, and end with two essays on Ordoliberal writers of the 1940s and 1950s—Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke, and Alfred Müller-Armack. These latter contributions are rather anomalous, since Eucken was himself a vigorous critic of the historical school, and none of the Ordoliberals shared the ethical and historical approach of later nineteenth-century German historicism. Adam Müller is sometimes mentioned in passing as a precursor of the historical school; the contribution made here presents no clear argument for doing so, besides a general shared antipathy to “Smithian economics.”

During the nineteenth century there were distinct national styles of economic thought: at mid-century it was for example a comparatively simple matter to discriminate clearly between contemporary writing originating in Britain, France, Germany, and America. The German historical school can be dated from a lecture outline published by Wilhelm Roscher in 1843 in which he proposed that a wide-ranging historical and comparative study of economic systems was desirable so as to identify the laws of development of economic life. He was broadly critical of English classical economics on the grounds that the supposed generality of its economic principles was based on the “English model” of development; but he was generally eclectic and moderate in his approach to economic analysis. In fact his chief contribution was to be a detailed history of German economic thought; and it can be said that what was later identified as the “older school”—Roscher, Bruno Hildebrand, and Karl Knies—conceived the history of economic systems as a history of economic thought. It was this that distinguished the “younger school” of the final three decades of the nineteenth century: Gustav Schmoller, Lujo Brentano, and Max Weber among many others refounded the study of economic history as the history of social and economic organization. The original project of using this history to inform the development of economic theory, the subject of the dispute between Carl Menger and Schmoller, was generally abandoned by the end of the century, and the school was largely moribund by 1914. Mainstream academic economics in interwar Germany [End Page 173] was parochial and limited, the emigration of the 1930s accounting for the majority of younger, more internationally oriented economists.

The subject of this book then is varied and diffuse, and it should be no surprise that this is reflected in recent writing. Here Kiichiro Yagi draws on his extensive knowledge of Carl Menger to uncover the social and institutional aspects of his work; Sachio Kaku provides an interesting overview of Brentano's contribution to social insurance; Tamotsu Nishizawa contributes a fascinating account of the transmission of German ideas to Japan through Brentano's student, Tokuzo Fukuda, whose interest in welfare economics also made him a close reader of Alfred Marshall and A. C. Pigou; and Osamu Yanagisawa's discussion of Werner Sombart, Ludwig von Mises, and Eugen Schmalenbach as read in 1920s Japan has much to recommend it. Other topics covered include Knies's conception of political economy, Schmoller and Sombart, Max Weber, and Joseph Schumpeter. However, many of these last contributions are clearly limited in scope and detail by their origin as conference contributions, and this collection is rather less than the sum of its parts.


Keith Tribe ,
King's School, Worcester



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pp. 173-174
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Archived 2005
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