Finding Till Düppe

Earlier this week, I came across Pr. Olav Bjerkholt’s critical assessment of Till Düppe and Roy Weintraub’s recent book, Finding Equilibrium: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit (D&W in the following) Though it begins with a lot of praises on this fascinating account of general equilibrium proofmaking, it ends up with a much more critical assessment of the authors’ work, which is characterized as ‘sloppy’ and inaccurate on a number of details. This is not my task to respond to this critique. The authors will surely do it themselves if they feel that there is any need for justification - in addition, I would not feel competent enough to engage in such a defense. What I think, on the other hand, is that the reviewer is a bit wrong when it comes to the scope and objectives of the book. The work which is represented in D&W belongs to what we have come to characterize as the ‘contextual history of economics’ genre. People who are not familiar with this kind of work often believe that doing ontextual history means that you are writing some kind of erudite account, which is only as good as the sum of historical facts that you are putting forth. It is, I believe, totally misguided. Contextual history of economics is not about these details, it’s all about the bigger narrative - and that’s the case whether you are writing micro- or macro-histories. I am not trying to find any excuse for inaccuracies here, what I am saying is that by pointing to a few details which he thinks the authors got wrong, the reviewer failed to acknowledge the real contribution of the book. So what is it? It’s a book about scientific credit, which means that this is a book about how research in economics becomes crystallized; it is about how people made of flesh and blood are turned into names written in textbooks; it is a book on how Kenneth Arrow, Gérard Debreu and Lionel McKenzie have become - or have not become in the case of McKenzie - ‘Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie’, not the men, but the theorem. This is about what Foucault would have designtated as “the death of the author” and all the human consequences that are attached to that process.

And that brings me to my second - and main - point. What baffled me in the review is how Till Düppe’s input on this book is being underestimated. Admittedly, the author mentions the work Till has done on Debreu in the recent past but his review misses Till’s larger take on the history of economics, which he expressed in his recent book The Making of the Economy: A Phenomenology of Economic Science. Till’s main argument in this book is that economics is produced by actual human beings but that, following the increasing technicity of the field, the human side has been suppressed to produce a feeling of objectivity. In that sense, a lot of the questions expressed in D&W are part of Till’s larger concerns. Of course, because a lot of people are aware of Roy’s extremely influential body of work on the history of general equilibrium theory - and on the history of the so-called mathematization of economics -, and not as informed about Till’s past work, they may end up thinking that it is Roy’s battle and that he just enrolled a younger scholar along the way. It is not true at all and as someone who is lucky enough to know both of these great researchers, I can attest that I clearly see how their two voices are intertwined. This was not so obvious to me in the first place - when I learnt about the making of this book - but now that the final product is between my hands, I can say that I finally found Till Düppe in Finding Equilibrium.

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