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Schabas on Economics and the Engineering Mentality June 15, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The central argument of Margaret Schabas’s The Natural Origins of Economics (2005) is that, over the course of the 19th century, economic thought abandoned links to natural science and began to concentrate on the object of “the economy” which was perceived as being purely social in character.  In a previous post, I observed that Schabas makes the argument well, but that it remained unclear that nature was ever central to economic thought, and thus it was unclear why a shift away from nature should be a key concern in assembling a history of economics.

I think the best case to be made is that Enlightenment-era political economy attempted to establish explanations for a diverse set of perceived phenomena, which would attribute them to the interplay of basic processes.  As Chris’s posts on this blog illustrate so nicely, this project continued through the 19th century in literatures spanning political economy, history, ethnography, and biology.  However, the analysis of constrained but precisely defined economic phenomena as products of patterns of human thought and choice branched off from this project in a process playing out from David Ricardo (1772-1823), to the analyses of Léon Walras (1834-1910) and William Stanley Jevons* (1842-1924), to the revolt of the social science of Max Weber and others (1864-1920) against the German “Historical School”.  What Schabas calls the “denaturalization of the economic order” is certainly a part of that process, but it is far from its defining characteristic.

Schabas does not go into great depth about her reasons for placing the question of nature at the center of her story, but she does offer some brief hints.  (more…)

Margaret Schabas on the Concept of Nature in Economic Thought June 6, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In my first post on the need for historical studies of the relationship between scientific and economic thought, I was greatly remiss in not discussing a scholar who has done a great deal to develop and organize work in exactly this area: Margaret Schabas of the UBC philosophy department.  Thankfully, a quick reference by Tiago Mata over at History of Economics Playground set me aright.  For a first pass through the existing literature, I’d like to take a look at her book, The Natural Origins of Economics (2005).

The book is a critical-intellectual history.  As an intellectual history, it sticks to an analysis of the published works of (mainly) canonical authors.  Where a straight intellectual history might recount the arguments that historical authors explicitly made, critical-intellectual histories draw out continuities and breaks over time in authors’ lines and methods of argumentation.  Like many intellectual historians, Schabas is mindful of detailed arguments in the secondary literature, and does a good job of acknowledging, consolidating, communicating, and building on the gains of that literature.

Schabas argues that where 18th-century philosophers of political economy understood their subject to connect deeply to nature and natural philosophy, economics began to explicitly frame itself as a science of peculiarly social phenomena following John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), the rise of the idea of “the economy” as an object of study, and the rise of neoclassical economics in the late-19th century.