History of Economic Thought

What weight can we place on what economists say? Economics, because it is a social science, is an arena of controversy: every pronouncement of the discipline has implications for policy – and every policy has winners and losers. To appraise today’s economics requires an understanding of its origins and the agenda and standpoint of its originators.

Dr. Andy Denis, City University


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Not only is History of Economic Thought (HET) useful and intellectually stimulating, it’s also packed full of incident, drama, and personality. We might learn not only about the Wealth of Nations but also about the time a young Adam Smith was kidnapped – and then rescued at gunpoint by his uncle. We might find out whether the Phillips machine was actually any good at modelling the economy or just a quick way to cover the floor with coloured water. And we might explore why there’s a dead economist in a glass box (Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon) in the corridor at University College London. A good HET course will turn up some surprises for the student!

HET courses vary widely. A typical survey course will attempt to chart the development of the discipline – from Adam Smith to the present. Some courses focus on trying to show how the past has formed the present – how ideas such as demand curves and different market structures first emerged and how they evolved to their present form. In others, the emphasis is on the emergence and submergence of ideas in the controversies of the past. Just because an idea has been forgotten does not necessarily mean that it can be assumed to be without merit, and the fact that it has changed shape need not necessarily imply progress. Other HET modules might illustrate the history of the discipline by reference to a case study – how, for example, economists have articulated the case for the particular economic role of the state that they advocate.

HET is often confused with Economic History, but they are distinct areas. Economic history is the history of the economy (an examination of the depression of the 1930s, for example), rather than the history of the study of the economy (for example, the emergence and reception of Keynes’s General Theory). There is clearly a link: what is happening in the economy should affect the development of ideas in economics. Some HET courses will teach the development of the discipline by referring to changes in the economic world at different times. Others may take a more austerely intellectual approach, with the development of the discipline explained by reference to the inner logic of the ideas themselves.

Finally, an understanding of the history of the discipline is extremely helpful for evaluating the claims of the various minority schools of thought in the discipline today, including Marxians, Austrians, Feminists, Post Keynesians, Institutionalists, and Critical Realists, and some HET courses will give some attention to the emergence of these trends, what divides them, and what they share with the neoclassical mainstream.

Web links

Website on history of economic thought at the New School for Social Research

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