History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 587-588
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Historians of Economics and Economic Thought: The Construction of Disciplinary Memory. Edited by Steven G. Medema and Warren J. Samuels. London: Routledge, 2001. x; 360 pp.
This volume consists of eighteen studies of various historians of economics or economic thought, arranged in alphabetical order by the subjects' surnames. A large majority of the authors are American, and there are several Australians. Nearly all the subjects are American or British, and mostly living.
The fairest way of solving the insoluble task of the reviewer may seem to involve setting out a table of contents, which, in summary form, is as follows: Bradley W. Bateman on William Barber; Roger E. Backhouse on Mark Blaug; Neil De Marchi on Bob Coats; Margaret Schabas on Neil de Marchi; Tony Atley and Bruce McFarlane on Maurice Dobb; Kenneth E. Carpenter and Laurence S. Moss on William Grampp; Peter J. Boettke on Friedrich Hayek; Jeffrey T. Young on Sam Hollander; Spencer J. Pack on Todd Lowry; M. C. Howard and John E. King on Ronald Meek; S. A. T. Rizvi on Philip Mirowski; John B. Davis on Donald Moggridge; John Creedy on Denis O'Brien; Ingrid Rima on Joan Robinson; Steven G. Medema and Warren J. Samuels on Henry Spiegel; Charles M. A. Clark on Werner Stark; John Lodewijks on Roy Weintraub; and Geoffrey Gilbert on Donald Winch.
In the hope of discovering some further general aspects, or perspectives, regarding this collection (before facing the problems of either composing eighteen separate appreciations, or, very invidiously, selecting for mention some reduced number), I looked for leads in the brief introduction—rather unprofitably. I soon found myself facing what seemed to me a serious impasse. The editors inform us, to start with, that "the history of economic thought and of the intellectual discipline of economics does not write itself." A number of similarly surprising aperçus follow. In due course, however, two "positions" are distinguished regarding the role of biography in the study of science. "One position is that a scientist's biography helps [one] understand how that scientist did what he or she did and the meaning of it for him or her" (1). So far perhaps so good. The second "position," however, is described as holding that "biography is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of an idea or theory." It seems by no means difficult to agree with both these "positions," although a dangerous ambiguity may, perhaps, lurk in the term "irrelevant." This danger seems at once to be confirmed. For it is maintained that this second position "suffers from both conceit and an illusion." The "conceit" is that "what we know is probably true, because past error has been corrected." I fail completely to see why, if we hold this second position, we should necessarily be guilty of such a "conceit." As for the "illusion," this is described as maintaining that "there exists a coherent, unequivocal, univocal body of ideas, whereas at every point in time multiple points of view have existed." Again, I'm quite unable to see why someone holding this second position must necessarily suffer from such an "illusion."
Having objected so obstinately to part of the editorial introduction of Steven Medema and Warren Samuels, I would like to congratulate them, most warmly, on their contribution on Henry Spiegel (as the first exception to my decision to exclude [End Page 587] further, possibly invidious discussion of individual contributions, which it is impossible to extend to all eighteen). For Spiegel's major books, The Development of Economic Thought (1952) and The Growth of Economic Thought (1971), are two of the most richly instructive works ever published in their field, alongside Mark Blaug's great Economic Theory in Retrospect (preferably the later editions).
I cannot resist making one further exception—I hope not invidious—in the case of a departed economist, of great fame, Joan Robinson. For it was seventy years ago that I began my formal study of economics with a visit to Joan, my first...