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  • “The True Logic of the Future”:1Images of Prediction from the Marginal Revolution
  • Keith Clavin (bio)

In 1892, the American economist Irving Fisher described his profession as having the following aims:

The effort of the economist is to “see,” to picture the interplay of economic elements. The more clearly cut these elements appear in his vision, the better; the more elements he can grasp and hold in his mind at once, the better. The economic world is a misty region. The first explorers used unaided vision. Mathematics is the lantern by which what before was dimly visible now looms up in firm, bold outlines. The old phantasmagoria disappear. We see better. We also see further. (emphases added)


A characterization such as this places remarkable stress upon the work of the eyes and on “seeing.” While Fisher operates in metaphors, there lurks an implied literalness, almost as if the ideal economist would somehow “grasp and hold” a knowable future. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that economists developed “images” in order to help map courses for chance and probability and to reach a point where they could envision, if not predict, the future. Fisher’s description of the economist’s function emphasizes optical understandings of the future but is part of a tradition that had been building for the better part of a century.

Tracing the progression of economic records from lists of numbers into more rhetorically fluid documents, Mary Poovey explains that eighteenth-century economic discourse began to engage in a practice of exchange with contemporary literary techniques. The ways journalists and government officials treated financial information became “essential to creating the public confidence” necessary for the system to function properly, and these written depictions of financial relationships were the “most visible signs” available (“Writing about Finance” 39). But how to represent risk plagued Victorians as well. In response, nineteenth-century economic writing developed a series of discursive techniques that attempted to pacify readers’ anxiety of the future’s intrinsic unseen hazards. Elaine Freedgood describes this process as part of a cultural mechanism intended to “banish panic” by “analyzing, explaining, predicting,” and eventually “expunging” risk (“Banishing Panic” 210–11). [End Page 91] For instance, during the 1820s and 30s, texts such as Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34) performed the important cultural work of “popularization, propagation, or diffusion of scientific knowledges” through models that could be more readily grasped by laypeople (Klaver 32).2 Martineau arranged the principles of laissez-faire policy in a collection of narratives containing “illustrations of certain truths” that avoid a “cold dry form” (Martineau 139, xi). As the period progressed and economic theory became even more complex, a desire to create a “translation of market activity” into legible form began to take precedent (Jaffe, Affective Life 20). By the late nineteenth century, one of the primary options for this endeavour was graphical writing, which Audrey Jaffe claims extended beyond the literal sketches of charts and grids to become a “mode of perception” in and of itself (Affective Life 2). Graphs and diagrams inspired by the stock market’s constant fluctuations came to signify a new relationship between statistics and public understanding. Graphs thus “illustrate” the ebb and flow of economic life even as they are situated at the border “between the solid and the ephemeral, between safety and risk” (Jaffe, “Trollope in the Stock Market” 145).

In the following pages, I will outline the development and purpose of several models of economic illustration with which late nineteenth-century professional economists engaged risk and will discuss the cultural complications associated with those images. I will position the work of William Stanley Jevons and Alfred Marshall as central to the project of blending image with the higher aspirations of economic forecasting. Both Jevons and Marshall are considered seminal figures within the fields of political economy and logic. Diagrammatic reasoning appears with equal frequency in their respective work, although they maintain distinctive opinions about its ends. When regarded in comparison, their separate approaches provide the two poles necessary for a balanced understanding of graphic economic theory during the Victorian period. Jevons is fascinated with diagrammatic tools for logic and probability that might...


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pp. 91-108
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