A reply to a reviewer of my DHT

My comment to a friend who sent me his forthcoming review of Defending the History of Economic Thought. The Feyerabend quote I refer to below is “the history of a science becomes an inseparable part of the science itself . . . essential for its further development a well as giving content to the theories it contains at any particular moment” (Against Method p 21).

Dear Anthony

It’s good to see the book being reviewed and it could not be in better hands than yours. And I have learned quite a number of things about my own book by reading your review. But perhaps because of the battles I have been through I see this differently from you and in the end you do not answer the one question that matters: should HET remain within the economics classification and be counted as a social science or should it be removed to the history and philosophy of science and become part of the humanities? And I also do not know whether you think I have made a useful case for studying HET by an individual or for ensuring that there are historians of economics dotted throughout the discipline to keep the others on their toes.

Economics as we teach it is the shifting outcomes of research agenda with the latest manifestations rising to mainstream textbook level, with all of its history embedded in even these answers, but with many other answers given over the entire history of economic thought still in contention amongst some blocs of economists. You cannot make a physicist or a chemist a better physicist or chemist by teaching them the history of their subject but as your own testimony of your own students shows, you can with economics. The sentence you quote on p viii, for example – that HET is economics in and of itself – is a sentence that is explained in the rest of the para which seems perfectly true to me. Having watched the failure of the stimulus over the past five years, and especially in the United States, you may be sure that every aspect of John Stuart Mill’s statement, that “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”, has been more than confirmed for me. Mill to me is not HET but live theory with genuine real world implications you cannot find in your average textbook although you will find it in mine (Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader whose title I took from Henry Clay (1916) – have you seen it?).

That HET is both history of economic ideas (HEA) and intellectual history (IH) is clear enough to me but Winch’s example, which I haven’t read so don’t know, would be part of that history and philosophy aspect which is no more than half of HET and probably less. But it is the other half and more – which you capture with the lovely Feyerabend quote which I’d never come across but will use ever after – is also HET and it is that that needs to be preserved and recognised for what it is. So in your terms, I am trying to preserve HEA as a subset of economics but recognise that IH is also part of HET. And if you think Samuelson is part of IH, then what to do with that killer quote, that to be an academic success “you must read the works of the great economists”. This seems completely to be making the point I am making. Indeed, your conclusion on Heyne, which you state that my view is “not incompatible” with his, but what difference does it make for me here since the book is aimed at another issue, which is the need to study HET if one is to be a better economist and the need to keep HET within the economics curriculum if the economic theory itself is to thrive.

In trying to deal with this issue, a major problem I have found with the academic world is that for all the departmental politics that goes on, academics are politically in the wilderness. My days as a lobbyist really did matter. I am trying to put together a book that defends the position of HET which will wither and die if it is relegated to history and philosophy of science. We have the disdain of the mainstream to contend with while even some of our own stellar lights – Margaret Schabas and Roy Weintraub for example – are trying to remove HET in just that direction. What your review has said is that there are two kinds of HET, this one and that one, and that I did not make this distinction well enough. But since you agree that HET is important to the study of economics, which is the first sentence of the intro, why are you not supporting this? Why are you not saying somewhere that Kates is onto something important and even while it might have been better if it had been done in some other way, at least it has been done, and imperfect though it may be, is a welcome addition to the literature. In real politics, finding agreement is the most important part of what we do. In the academic world, unfortunately, finding disagreement is our bread and butter.

Anyway, I am thinking of having a session on my book at the HES in Montreal which I am going to, funding permitting. If you are going to be there as well, would you be interested in being part of a session that discusses the book? It is a funny thing that we in Australia have been so on this issue from the start, which I attribute to John Lodewijks, who has continually stirred us into action. And funny again, there have been enough genuinely politically minded people who have been able to work together to achieve common objectives on a few occasions. I will copy my reply to you to Robert Leonard who is organising the conference. I’m usually quite happy to stand at the back of the room – a speciality for lobbyists – but on the question of the preservation of HET I can see that if I don’t do it there is no one else who will. Maybe there’s no danger and I am over-reacting, but if you look at the story of the European Research Council, which was as recent as 2011, I would not be all that certain that these same troubles might not arise again.

Anyway, I thank you for the review, and specially for the Feyerabend and Samuelson quotes which are perfect for me. Had I known of them, each would have been at the front of some chapter. And I do hope to see you in Montreal.

With kindest best wishes.

Steve