History of Economic Thought
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Why Study History of Thought?

  • Basic literacy in economics.

  • Dispel misconceptions about famous economists (Smith, Marx, Keynes, and others) that are widely believed, but untrue. This is important, because the supposed ideas of classical authors are often used as "proof texts" in current debates. As Josh Billings (not Mark Twain), a humorist, put it in about 1872, "It is better not to know so much, than to know so many things that ain't so."
  • Learn economic doctrines in their historical and ethical context (i.e., Corn Laws)

    • "A man who has looked into an economics textbook and concluded that economics is boring is like a man who has read a primer on logistics and decided that the study of warfare must be dull."
      Robert  Heilbroner,
          The Worldly Philosophers

  • Rejection of an overly"positivist" approach to knowledge and discovery that has been rejected by most philosophers and scientists:
  • Bruce Caldwell: "A bedrock belief of positivism is that all real sciences are cumulatively progressive, that slowly but surely within science errors are discarded and a widely accepted body of knowledge is created. This view leads naturally to the belief that an understanding of the history of a discipline is simply irrelevant for a scientist, because all knowledge is contained in the most recent working papers. History is for antiquarians and hobbyists, not for real scientists. [In the 1920s, Wesley Mitchell observed that this was a problem in the natural sciences, but not economics]

    If alternative accounts of how science is actually pursued that emerged in the wake of positivism’s demise are correct, then the idea that science develops linearly and progressively is simply false. Historians and philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos offered the initial alternatives to the positivist view, in the process demonstrating that the history of the natural sciences is a much messier affair than previously thought, that no hard and fast criteria for theory choice exist, and that scientific disciplines change emphases and approaches for a host of reasons, both internal and external, that require examination.

  • See that economics is not a fixed set of "revealed truths." It continues to change, and it's path dependent:

    • Mark Blaug: "No idea or theory in economics, physics, chemistry,
      biology, philosophy and even mathematics is ever thoroughly understood except as the end-product of a slice of history, the result of some previous intellectual development... I never understood the Keynesian Revolution until I read Hayek's tortured Prices and Production (1931) and Robbins's confusing explanation of The Great Depression (1934). So it is, I think, with all economic theories. Economic knowledge is path-dependent. What we now know about the economic system is not something we have just discovered, but it is the sum of all discoveries, insights and false starts in the past. Without Hayek and Robbins and Pigou, no Keynes; without Keynes, no Friedman; without Friedman, no Lucas; without Lucas, no ..."

  • In fact, history itself (or the knowledge of it) is not fixed. Consider, for example, the fairly recent revelations of the Tulsa Massacre.
  • Don’t forget what’s already known when attention moves from one hot-button issue to another.

  • Explore origins of our own “practical” ideas

    • “Practical men who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
      John Maynard Keynes,
          The General Theory...

  • It has been a Baylor Tradition (1851 Baylor Bulletin):

  • Baylor1851