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History of Political Economy 35.2 (2003) 341-343
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Nouvelle histoire de la pensée économique. Edited by Alain Béraud and Gilbert Faccarello. Paris: Éditions la Découverte. Volume 1: Des scolastiques aux classiques; 1992; 620 pp.; 315 FF. Volume 2: Des premiers mouvements socialistes aux néoclassiques; 2000; 614 pp.; 320 FF. Volume 3: Des institutionnalistes à la période contemporaine; 2000; 525 pp.; 295 FF.
This three-volume book, comprising nearly eighteen hundred tightly printed pages, is the result of an ambitious project, the gestation of which was quite long. In a brief foreword, the editors contrast a contextual and historical approach to the history of economic thought with an analytical approach, according to which theories evolve more or less autonomously toward some kind of “truth.” Progress in the discipline has been made in the last decades by overcoming this dichotomy and reviewing objects and methods, joining somewhat these two approaches. This book intends to give evidence of this progress, by offering the reader the results of acute researches into the main periods, themes, schools, and authors of economic thought. The contributors are specialists, and the vast majority of them, 27 out of 31, are French. In France, contrary to the situation in North America or elsewhere in the world, history of economic thought has never ceased to be an important part of the teaching of economics (on this, see Deleplace 2002). Much of the important work that is being done in that country is not sufficiently known, and this book provides information on some of the best research carried out in Voltaire's homeland.
It is of course impossible in this review to remark on all contributions (there are forty in all), so we must be content with a few general comments. The papers are grouped in nine parts, each preceded by an introduction, on the following themes: scholasticism; mercantilism; the affirmation of liberalism; classical economics; social reformers, socialists, and Marx; marginalists and neoclassicals; historicists and institutionalists; the years of high theory; and the contemporary period. On the whole, the reader reaps a rich and diversified crop, with many new insights and much new information, by contributors who are already well known for their writings in their field. The papers are all followed by detailed, and sometimes annotated, bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Unfortunately, these bibliographies are not presented in a consistent fashion. Such lack of consistency is in fact one of the shortcomings of this book.
The chapters vary much in length—from less than 10 to nearly 150 pages—in style, in degree of specialization, and in methodological approach. On this last point, the majority of authors clearly tend to privilege an analytical and internalist view of the evolution of economic thought. Whether it be scholasticism, mercantilism, physiocracy, classical and neoclassical economics, or historicism and institutionalism, the emphasis is placed on analytical problems, concepts, and theories. There are short biographies of authors, but very little information on their political and ideological positions and, in most cases, nearly nothing on the context in which they developed their theories; the chapters in which we do find interesting and pertinent contextual information are the ones devoted to the monetary debates in nineteenth-century [End Page 341] England, to controversies about the Marxian theories of crises, to theories of the socialist economy, to international economics, and to development theories.
Many papers are specialized in their approach and presuppose on the part of the reader a good acquaintance with the primary and secondary literature. The chapters on Ricardo, Say, and Malthus, on Marx, on the English neoclassicals, and on Keynes are good examples. But we also find papers whose authors do not expect their readers to already know a good deal about the subject, such as, for example, the presentations on Cantillon, Hume, and Walras, on the German historical school, on institutionalism, and on general equilibrium theory since 1939. This last example illustrates the fact that a complex subject can be presented clearly. Of course, this is not a value judgment on the degree to which the two kinds of...