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History of Political Economy 36.1 (2004) 212-214

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How Economics Became a Mathematical Science. By E. Roy Weintraub. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. 313 pp. Cloth $54.95; paper $18.95.

In his prologue, the author refers to his project as a "story of the development of economic analysis in the twentieth century.... If the story enchants, delights, and raises the reader's empathetic understanding of the past, it will have done its job" (8). In a direct address to his reader, he underscores his purpose: "to ask some questions and to tell some stories that, as they engage your interest, may change your beliefs, and enable you to tell your own new and interesting stories" (4).

When I approached the book in this spirit, as a reader without authorial ambitions, perhaps even as a listener, I found it interesting, parts even delightful. There are indeed stories within a story—seven of them, in fact: of Marshall and the Cambridge mathematical tripos, of Volterra and his student Evans, of different attempts to appropriate Hilbert, of Debreu and the Bourbaki school, of Phipps and Patinkin, of a paper of Arrow-Debreu and Phipps, of two brothers Sidney and Hal, of the travails of a Swarthmore graduate. The fact that one story concerned the storyteller himself, and another his father and uncle, and yet another an interview, Rushdie-style, with one of his own characters, I took to be in keeping with the modernist impulse—all that an engaging storyteller adds to spice her story. I saw the raconteur as a highly cultivated host, trusting enough in his fellowship to show family letters and photographs, and to talk openly of the "respect boundary" between father and son in a "father's business" (245, 265, 254).

The question did nag, however, as to how all these individual stories coalesced—was there a central person or a central theorem? what was the story "really" about?

The placing and prominence of an interview, and a textual exegesis of the editorial correspondence concerning a 1954 paper, were obvious pointers. Against a background of the first three chapters, and a contrasting foreground of three more, the subject was brought to life. This was a tale of a triumph over a community, Cowles over Chicago (151–53, 167–71): the Arrow-Debreu paper "appeared to bring closure to an argument that was (at least) two centuries old" (183)!

It will not do to question, however delicately, the subject—why Debreu? why this theorem? One does not ask whether Oliver Twist was the most interesting orphan of his time, or whether a particular yogi renounces the world more than any other. Such [End Page 212] questions miss the point of what a story is. Anyhow, is not Mrs. Dalloway also a story of Septimus? Do not all equations equally drive a simultaneous equation system?

It was only in chapter 9, where Weintraub reviews his work as a construction of a history (271) and asks whether his is the best "story of how twentieth-century's economics was remade" (257), that I realized my naïveté. In ignoring the close look at "what happened" (42) and misreading an exercise in persuasion as a mere story, I had juxtaposed the literal and the metaphorical and had landed myself in the midst of the quarrel between literature and history.

If the work is read as a history of the reception of the Arrow-Debreu theorem and the concurrent eclipse of economic dynamics, the seven "facts" apparently cohere: Marshall's "hankering after a mode of exposition in which the dynamical character of the problem is made more obvious[:] happiness as a process rather than a statical condition" (21–22); Volterra's interest in economics and its differential equations (34); Debreu's dislike of economic dynamics in his very own words:

I was very, always very, suspicious of dynamics and that is a view that I have held very consistently.... the contributions made were not important.... So I have always been very distrustful of dynamics and I have mentioned it rarely (146...


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pp. 212-214
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Archived 2005
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