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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…)