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History of Political Economy 35.2 (2003) 353-356
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The Canon in the History of Economics: Critical Essays. Edited by Michalis Psalidopoulos. London: Routledge, 2000. xvi; 224 pp. £55.00.
Do economists know what they should know from the past? How is the “canon” constructed in economics, and is the past transmitted efficiently to the present? As the profession comes to know the context of the attacks on political economy by the literary sages (Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens, and Charles Kingsley, among others) in the mid–nineteenth century (Levy and Peart 2001–2), these questions take on new significance. They implicitly underscore many of the papers in The Canon in the History of Economics, edited by Michalis Psalidopoulos. In his brief introduction, Psalidopoulos notes that there has been much recent and ongoing debate about the construction and role of the canon in the humanities. Those debates have now begun to spill over to economics. This publication of essays originally presented in 1997 at the European Conference on the History of Economics in Athens is therefore timely.
As in other disciplines, strong feelings are aroused by the notion of a canon in economics. Its definition is, indeed, ambiguous. There is, moreover, no consensus about how the economics canon was (and continues to be) formed or how various [End Page 353] schools of thought or writers became marginalized in relation to it (Forget and Peart 2001). In fact, recent scholarship suggests that the situation of our most well known founder, Adam Smith, is in dispute relative to the economics canon. The famous linguist and political radical, Noam Chomsky, is one in a long line of recent “debunkers” on Smith's contributions to the economics canon, contributions that, according to Chomsky, place Smith in a line of thinking that is much more egalitarian than has been previously thought (Chomsky 2000). All of this suggests that a book which attempts to identify the major figures in economics—including but not limited to Smith—and then makes some progress toward defining the economics canon and examining its construction, constitutes a potentially important contribution to the discipline.
In his introduction to the volume, Psalidopoulos takes the position that “the ideas of great economists of the past are usually described [today] by following a specific mode of exposition. First, a problem gets identified and analysed by a certain author or authors. Certain codifications result, taking the form of text, essay or pamphlet” (xii). That approach may explain the choice of essays in the book. It is of course perfectly reasonable to think of the construction of the economics canon in terms of the development and framing of a set of interrelated problems (as well as those problems that become marginalized at some point in time). But to some extent this begs the central “canon” question: it is by no means self-evident how problems are chosen (and jettisoned) over time. It may be the case that by understanding a set of problems, considered historically, economists will come to understand the canon. But that understanding may offer little insight as to the process that generates the canon (and by which problems are excluded from it).
The volume consists of twelve essays presented chronologically in terms of the topic or figure under consideration. It begins with Louis Baeck's critique of the view that Aristotle is an ancestor to modern economics, an essay that quickly moves through the Aristotelian texts to the Latin scholastics and the Italian humanists of the fourteenth century. Common representations of Aristotle today, Baeck argues, miss much of Aristotle's richness. Thomas Moser then presents a detailed and textually based demonstration of the canonization of the idea of usury that had occurred by the fifth century. The dogma against usury gained ground only once governments acquired the power to enforce the prohibition of lending at interest.
These first two contributions bring to light two themes that may possibly unite the essays in the collection. Baeck maintains that standard representations of a “problem” or a writer strip the treatment of its contextual richness and nuances...