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Can Historians of Economics Contribute to New Economic Thinking?

Report from the YSI working group on History of Thought

Wednesday the 25th of May the first plenary meeting of the YSI Working Group on the History of Economics was held in one of the illustrious lecture halls of the Université de Paris I - Panthéon-Sorbonne. Under the management of Jérôme Lange some 20 young scholars from across the world met to discuss what historians of economics have to contribute to new economic thinking. The working group got off to a good start last year through an ongoing series of webinars in which young scholars were brought together around shared themes and with expert feedback from senior scholars. This was the first chance to meet face-to-face and to discuss plans for the future. It was also the moment to celebrate that the famous website on the history of economic thought build by Gonçalo Fonseca was brought back to life with the support of INET.

During the day various young scholars presented the ongoing debate about the use and relevance of the history of thought, through classic contributions on this theme. A number of people emphasized that they came to the history of economics because they wanted to contribute to contemporary debates in economics on development, migration and growth. Others stressed that one of the uses of the past remains the perspective it provides for the present. Although it seems that there was hardly a time in which historians felt perfectly secure and appreciated in the economics department, it was clear that at least this new generation of historians of economic thought was not yet ready to give up the fight. Not for nothing was the group a mixture of people working specifically on the history of economic thought, economists with an interest in the history of their discipline and young scholars working in policy.

The day was concluded by a discussion which included more senior perspectives on the matter. Margaret Schabas, Joseph Halevy, André Lapidus and Richard van den Berg made clear what drove them to the history of economic thought. From Van den Berg’s perspective on the discipline’s role as the memory and museum of economics, to the emphasis of Halevy and Lapidus on the fact that knowledge of the past made them better economists, and Margaret Schabas optimistic perspective on the discipline’s future in times of reorientation, and sometimes confusion in economics, all speakers stimulated further discussion.

But the most important part of the day was the energy that was brought together, not only to continue the webinar series, but also to start new projects such as an international reading group and continued interaction between young historians of economics and those in other parts of the economics discipline.