Who Killed the History of Economics?

26 August 2006 at 5:30 pm 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

As discussed here before, economists are not generally familiar with the history of economic thought. Roy Weintraub offers this explanation: Heterodox economists often specialize in the history of economic thought, so mainstream economists come to associate doctrinal history with heterodoxy, thus turning them off to the history of economics itself. (Thanks to Mark Thornton for the cite.)

This explanation strikes me as misguided, for two reasons. First, many heterodox economists publish in history-of-thought journals, attend history-of-thought conferences, and the like not by choice, but because they cannot get their work published in mainstream journals. The perceived link between heterodoxy and the history of economic thought is thus endogenous, begging the question of why mainstream economists are willing to tolerate heterodoxy as history but not otherwise.

Second, and more important, mainstream economists’ lack of interest in doctrinal history is more likely due to the general Whiggishness pervading modern social science. If economics is a Real Science, the argument goes, there is no need for economists to know the history of economic thought, any more than physicists need to know the history of physics. All truth in the economic theories of yesterday is already incorporated into the textbooks and the latest journal articles. In other words, the association of heterodoxy with the history of economic thought is more likely the result of economists’ lack of interest in doctrinal history, rather than the cause.

I’m curious to hear from readers in other disciplines. How do sociologists regard the history of sociological thought? What about political science, anthropology, organizational psychology, and the like?

Entry filed under: Austrian Economics, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. brayden  |  26 August 2006 at 8:43 pm

    I think our history of sociological thought is very outdated. We know a lot about Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, but much less about the growth and history of American sociology. (Where are the great books on the rise and fall of sociology at Harvard and Columbia?) European academia has always seemed to be more diligent in recording and tracing their intellectual evolution.

    I see the problem as resulting from a lack of incentives. Most sociologists who have insider access to the discipline spend their time writing books and articles about sociological thought and doing empirical research. Introspection isn’t rewarded in the same way.

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