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The “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” Conference and Maturation in the the Historiography of Economic Thought December 29, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

I have a new article out, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics,” in the 2014 annual supplement to History of Political Economy on MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Following tradition, I’ll talk a little bit about the thinking behind the article in a separate post. However, I would like to start with a few words about the 2013 conference that the supplement was based on.

In short, it was almost certainly the best conference I have attended. To understand why, it will be useful to understand the peculiarities of the development of the field of the history of economic thought (HET), and how it seems to be reaching a new state of maturity.

For some time now HET has been having something of an identity crisis. Traditionally strongly affiliated with economics departments, HET, even more so than economic history, has had problems maintaining its status within the economics profession. Concurrently, HET has moved away methodologically from exegesis on the economic canon (“What did Smith/Keynes mean when they wrote X?”), and more toward something people working in the history of science would be familiar and comfortable with.

Philip Mirowski


Early on, this movement was led primarily by fairly radical voices. In the 1980s Deidre McCloskey (a Chicago Schooler interestingly enough, now at University of Illinois at Chicago) began analyzing the “rhetoric” of economics. Around the same time, Philip Mirowski, at Notre Dame, began to investigate the links between economics and other fields, beginning with 19th-century physics in More Heat Than Light (1989), and culminating with information science and operations research (OR) in Machine Dreams (2002). Both McCloskey and Mirowski use historical, methodological, sociological, and literary analysis to level what they regard as a fundamental critique on the modern economics profession. (Mirowski has even styled himself an “enfant terrible.”)

Meanwhile, a number of figures—Roger Backhouse, Wade Hands, Mary Morgan, and Roy Weintraub being prominent examples, all trained in economics—also developed a “thick” history of economics and the analysis of economic methodology, while, to varying degrees, holding comparatively orthodox views on modern economics and accepting the need to study the intellectual development of the field more or less on its own terms (i.e., not as a debunking exercise). Weintraub has also been instrumental in building up the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, which has become the mecca for HET research, and is where the conference on MIT economics was held.

Monster at the End of the BookFor many years this shift has been piecemeal, producing no focused research program, per se. Those of us outsiders working to make use of the resulting historiography have had to sift through it, and to take what it has to offer. Early in this blog’s history I wrote a post extolling Mirowski’s work because of his ability to see an exceptionally wide range of historical connections worthy of examination. This was true even if his overarching picture seemed geared toward presenting all historical events as either leading toward or resisting “the monster at the end of this book,” i.e. contemporary economics.

Now, however, there are signs that the historiography is approaching a critical mass, so that different historians’ works are starting to interleave into an integrated, critical historiography. This development has been much supported by the diverse work of younger generations of scholars, including many of the good folks associated with the History of Economics Playground blog, represented in this volume by Beatrice Cherrier, Yann Giraud, and Pedro Duarte.

I believe what made the “MIT” conference so good was that it was dedicated to a well-defined topic, so that the interleaving process already underway was substantially focused and enhanced. Some of the papers dealt with the culture and demographics of the department, others with the building up of its faculty, and still others on the evolution of economic ideas within the department. The result was coherent, detailed, concrete discussion, and the production of a shockingly broad and well-integrated picture of economics at MIT, which nevertheless left plenty of room for additional elaboration. HET may well have successfully made an important historiographical turn without losing “its economics.”

Peter Temin

Peter Temin

Encouragingly, the conference was also attended by representatives of the MIT economics department itself, including the eminent economic historian Peter Temin (who delivered a paper on the ride and fall of economic history at MIT), and James Poterba, who is also president of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In conversation with some of the historians of economics who have had regular interactions with economists, I was told that the interaction with the economists at the conference was of unusually high quality, in that the economists actively participated and seemed to take the historians to be serious contributors.

My own paper, as delivered, engaged critically with Mirowski’s discussion of the links between OR and economics in the postwar period, and how that was and was not reflected at MIT. However, it turned out that the picture of economics at MIT was sufficiently robust that no one at the conference really felt the need to engage with Mirowski’s rather sketchy treatment of the MIT milieu in Machine Dreams. (Mirowski was scheduled to attend, but did not.) 

E. Roy Weintraub

E. Roy Weintraub

So, for the published version of the paper, I reconfigured my presentation to concentrate instead on the intellectual affinities and dissimilarities between economics, OR, cybernetics, and industrial dynamics at MIT as part of an examination of the “MIT style” of economics, a subject in which there was significant interest at the conference. I’m not sure that Roy Weintraub, as volume editor, really picked up on this change, as his introduction to the volume has me slaying the radical Mirowski/Amadae beast in the historiography of economic thought, insofar as it disengages economics somewhat from “Cold War” intellectual projects. I don’t think my published piece quite does that.

But one thing (among many) that the conference taught me is that, when a historiography begins to run on all cylinders, empirically and intellectually and sociologically, there is not as much need to overturn ideas as there is to develop them, taking what is valuable from what has been done, and simply leaving behind what cannot be supported by historical research.

Institutionally, HET remains in a very fragile state, largely dependent on economists’ willingness to allow positions to occupy valuable budget in their departments. At the same time, the state of the field is unusually strong, and economists’ interest in understanding the divergences in economists’ varying interpretations of economic phenomena is… extant, although there seems to be a sense that the economists can do this themselves, impressionistically, and on the fly. For my part, I hope historians of science and technology prove willing to engage with historians of economics, to learn from them, and to strengthen their hand to the degree that we can.



1. Will Thomas - December 30, 2014

Readers interested in the evolution of the HET field should definitely also consult Yann Giraud’s post on the subject from last July.

The Robert L. in the comments is Robert Leonard, who wrote a very useful book on the history of game theory to the 1950s. (Paul Erickson has a book on the later development of game theory coming out this summer.)

2. simon j cook - January 1, 2015

The maturation of HET is one way of describing recent developments. Another would be the the *castration* of HET. This latter perspective is perhaps less visible to someone whose historiographical focus is twentieth-century science. The HOPE crowd (of which the History of Economics Playground seems to be an online graduate offshoot) do indeed appear to have successfully negotiated the (very difficult) job of keeping both economists and historians happy; but they have done so – or so it seems to an outside such as myself – only by contracting their perspective so that the history of economics has become synonymous with the history of North American economics in the twentieth century. When it comes to earlier periods the situation looks very different; abysmal, would be the word that springs to my mind as a description of the current state of HET, while ‘a travesty of intellectual history’ strikes me as a suitable phrase (albeit, of course, with a few notable exceptions).

Will Thomas - January 1, 2015

Hi Simon, and happy new year. One might well say the same about the postwar sciences, generally, despite the profusion of interest in them. The difficult task of developing a well-refined intellectual history has not really begun, and has in some ways been hampered through the prevailing interest in connecting them all to their Cold War milieu. In this case, I’m somewhat optimistic that the understanding developing in HET (for, as you properly point out, the postwar American milieu) can spread in that direction.

I’m also somewhat optimistic that it can spread backward and across the Atlantic, and be accepting of a picture that more properly interconnects political economy with anthropological, historical, antiquarian, linguistic, biological, and philosophical thought for Marshall and other figures. Clearly you, Chris, and others will have, for the time being, to carry the torch for a better unraveling of the 19th-century problem. But I know that Chris has had a good conversation or two with at least one member of the HOPE crowd about his interests. And I notice you’re on the docket at the 2015 HOPE conference, so perhaps something can be made of that opportunity as well.

Yann - January 9, 2015

Dear Will and Simon: thank you very much for this excellent post and the publicity that you give to the History of Economics Playground group – of which I am no longer an active member by the way. I enjoyed the conference very much myself and I am also quite optimistic about the fact that it brings a new group of young scholars to the for. Yet, like Simon, I am also very skeptical about the relation between economists and historians of economics. The MIT conference might have been an exception because it deals with people who are still alive and quite interested in what historians have to say about them, but on the whole I still believe that history, and especially the kind of archives-heavy history we do, is of little interest to them. A recent paper that I have written with my friend and fellow Pedro Duarte shows that the kind of HET that mainstream economists are still willing to publish from time to time (in the Journal of Economic Perspectives for instance) is most of the times, either anecdotical or celebratory (sometimes both). Econometrica will publish a detailed biographical account of Ragnar Frisch’s life and career to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Econometric Society and that will be the occasion to publish a good historical paper, but it is just a ‘coup’, not a sustainable strategy for historians or an evidence that the field is becoming more appreciated. In fact, our paper with Pedro was primarily intended for an audience of economists, not historians, and we quickly realized that wa had been a bit overconfident that our subject would interest them. After a couple of desk rejections (or quite lukewarm comments from potential Editors), we eventually submitted the paper to an HET journal instead. Simon: I understand very well why we may be considered as an offshoot of the HOPE crowd but let me just note that 1) except for Roy Weintraub, none of the HOPE guys were really supportive of our blog in the first place; 2) I completely agree with you on the fact that modern HET is too much oriented toward postwar economics in the United States. I think that one reason that explains why historians of economics have tended to work more on this topic is because there was not much on the subject twenty of thirty years ago and because it is easier to find the materials to do that work (and to apply for grants to get some funding to do it as well!). For me, on the other hand, it is primarily a question of personal interest. I am interested in contemporary economics for the same reason that I am interested in modern arts (I am quite bored with the distant past) and I study US archives because I love to travel to American cities/campuses and I am interested in US culture in general (besides, the information is easily available whereas I doubt that a lot of French economists have considered giving their papers to their home institution). But I also love the interwar period very much and I am interested in the British economics of this period (unfortunately a few referees thought otherwise when I submitted my papers on the subject!).

Will Thomas - January 10, 2015

Yann, thanks very much for your comment and assessment of the state of affairs in HET, especially concerning economists’ (lack of) interest in it. I think this post may mark the first time where the general consensus is that I am too historiographically optimistic!

I expect you are correct, and that there is a long way to go before there can be practitioner-historian harmony. I’ll just say, in reply to both you and Simon, that my own take on historiographical reform is that it is not like flipping a switch where everyone suddenly comes to their senses and starts writing and reading “good” history, whatever that is.

I think it would be something more like a community achievement, which is why I emphasize the interleaving of different studies, abetted by focus on a particular topic. In fact, because it is so difficult, I think it has to start with particular topics, and then slowly stretch beyond them. I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog that I think historical studies of alchemy have also reached this critical state.

For those of us who are interested in the last 50-100 years, there are opportunities to interleave our interests with those of current practitioners. This can’t be ideal—we’ll have to make our peace with Festschrifts and such, and they’ll have to have some respect for our projects. But I think it’s a worthy long-term goal. In the meantime, we can be glad that HET and science studies seem to be working together reasonably well.

3. Christopher Donohue - January 1, 2015

Simon and Will both underscore key points which I addressed in my “19th century problem” post – the only methodological post on this site which I’ve produced which I still hold unreservedly to- that the intellectual history of the 19th century (I can speak only authoritatively on the US, Russia and France, less so these days on Germany and the UK.) is so poorly understood that it is impossible to determine whom/what is “relevant.” Because of the inability to deal with adequately with relevancy, or to assess figures without an established historiography, almost all histories of scientific ideas/intellectual history which address nineteenth century topics (which a few notable exceptions) do so with a certain mixture of correctness and teeth-grinding awfulness, sloshed together with good measure with a healthy dose of present-ism.

My impression is also that in their books and articles most scholars as soon as they can run screaming from the nineteenth century and/or append hasty concluding chapters which foggily address post-WWII developments, trumping up the importance of their nineteenth century case studies. This produces some exceedingly bizarre continuities- such as the similitude of French ethnography from the Third Republic to Vichy, as has recently be contended. This also jars with the case studies- which are frequently quite good. Why does this state of affairs exist?

1. Most scholars (nor their students) have neither the time nor the patience to wade through all of the complexities presented by the sciences before disciplines. Historians have been trained to think of knowledge in neatly defined categories with specific features- sociology, psychology, (social) anthropology (more on that in a minute.) So, if inquiries appear to intersect or cross over boundaries, then it is difficult even for historians to narrate these exchanges- so wedded are historians to the idea of disciplines. Simon’s lovely work on W.H.R. Rivers for the Grote Club (http://groteclub.org/2014/12/12/meetings-of-people-rivers-diffusionism/) illustrates the depth of knowledge which is lost through this historiographic and pedagogical tick.

2. The nineteenth century-as I’ve noted before-does not have the geo-political, social history benchmarks which serve as key to the organization of research proposals (and which allow especially outside granting committees which disperse funds to understand the import of a topic) and which aide to easily integrate “context” into narratives about ideas, scientific or otherwise. Although discussions of Cold War science are becoming less “sledgehammery” in how they introduce social context and more nuanced in their considerations between ideas and environment- periods and events such as the World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, provide touchstones which the nineteenth century lacks.

Rather, in the nineteenth century, it is ideas and methodologies (e.g. Hegel, experimental-ism and introspection in psychology, phrenology, diffusion, “social selection” and natural selection, field-work), which can serve as useful signposts to describe the contours of intellectual development until the First World War- rather than social and political developments which are intensely local and which do not have the same epoch making quality as the Cold War, ect.

Exceptions abound: e.g. the British Reform Acts, the emancipation of the serfs, the French Second Empire, the revolutions of 1830, 1848, the rise of Prussia and the Franco-Prussian War. Any of these exceptions did not however influence Europe in a continental way. All were viewed distantly by Russia- though with varying degrees of worry. America was sparsely effected by European politics, with the most important developments being Whig politics, the various religious controversies and Awakenings, the slow improvement of the university system and scientific infrastructure. Hegel, by the way, reached every Russian intellectual (though in most cases only the prefaces were read by everyone- the censors and their overlords had to read the entire manuscript- hence my contention of the great conservative censor Pobedonostsev as Russia’s most well-informed nineteenth century intellectual).

3. Much of nineteenth century intellectual history depends upon incomplete evidence. For every Marx figure where much survives, we have ten Buckles or Morley Roberts who wrote the delightful “Warfare in the Human Body” which was referenced in Julian Huxley’s “Essays of a Biologist” (https://archive.org/details/warfareinhumanbo00robeiala). One of the major issues with 19th century authors is their early death and the destruction of their literary remains. Or their scattering (as in the case of Alexander Carr-Sauders) For the vast number of figures I write about their are no archives to speak of.

This is significant since many dissertations and first books depend upon archives and in the profession- history and history of science- archival research is a mark of the craft of the historian and too defines the project. Such an emphasis upon archives often helps the field- such as Simon’s work on Marshall, your work on OR- but it also makes people avoid nineteenth century intellectual history somewhat. As importantly, in the 20th century archives demarcate the amateur from the professional, the university luminary from the outsider. These boundaries do not exist in the 19th century and as such, the remains of this centuries intellectual activity are scattered all about.

Because of 1,2, and 3 and many other factors which I am now not thinking of, the disparities between those who study 19th and 20th century history are enormous.

Finally, because there is such a disparity, there appears to be a kind of 20th century historiography imperialism going on. Work by Sam Moyn and Neil Gross have made significant methodological advances in transnational intellectual history and the so-called “new sociology of ideas.” When I was in Moscow, I objected very very strongly to this conception, contending that what Gross and Moyn clarified was intellectual life in the 20th century, among clearly defined disciplines in universities. So what they were really doing was defining intellectual history in the 20th century and the sociology of ideas in the 20th century. Both however believed they were addressing intellectual history across the centuries. This is what Simon objected to in your discussion.

When you, Will, noted the new dawn in HET, it was from a 20th century perspective. There are many bright people working in this area- including Till Duppe, who has supported my work and whose own work I adore- but I totally agree with Simon that the field otherwise is a mess in the nineteenth century ( I can not speak to other centuries before that as much)-for all the reasons I outlined above.

simon j cook - January 5, 2015

There is also – to add to your list, Christopher – the fact that historians of political thought have recently so overhauled the received wisdom as to the ‘enlightenment’ that the early C19th has become a sort of no-man’s land that nobody wants to enter for fear of stepping on one of many recently laid late -C18th mines.

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