Thursday, August 26, 2010

Another View of the History of Economic Thought

When I read my friend Pete Boettke's syllabus for his history of economic thought course (there is a link to the syllabus in the post) and compared it to mine, I found the difference fascinating. The way I'd characterize it is that Pete is teaching an economist's history of economic thought, while I'm teaching a philosopher's history of economic thought. As I see it, Pete is teaching economists-in-training the history of their subject that is most relevant to their discipline as it is currently practiced, while I am looking at thinkers irrelevant from that point of view because I am trying to locate the place of economics in human knowledge as a whole. Both approaches, I think, are valid, and, given that Pete is training professional economists and not philosophers, his strikes me as appropriate for his setting. I just found the difference interesting.

By the way, given that Pete's post is a defense of the study of the history of thought, it led me to recall sitting in the faculty dining room at LSE with Pete and a good portion of the LSE economics department in 2004, and hearing one of the faculty members present declare that "A progressive discipline forgets its history." I think that view is very short-sighted. It is true that one can be a competent worker at what Kuhn would call "normal science" and know little of the history of one's discipline. But the scientists who formulate breakthrough ideas almost always know their history -- Newton, for instance, credited his discovery of the calculus to looking back to the ancient Greeks and ignoring the work of the modern "bunglers in analysis" who practiced algebra! Since a newer theory is always devised to solve problems in an older theory, I'd say that one cannot fully understand current theory unless one knows what problems it was intended to solve, and that means knowing history.

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