Let me tell you everything

Our usual problem in history (of economics) is a lack of information.

Archival sources, if available at all, always present gaps of correspondence between people you just know should be there, and never contain that vital review report, or the minutes of that one crucial meeting. Moreover, if the people you write about are alive and willing to talk, it turns out they’re only human: they’ve forgotten the vast majority of their past, mix up events and people, mistake a recollection they once read for their own memory, or even willfully rewrite history. All too bad, although it gives us the possibility, perhaps even obligation, to speculate, interpret, and fill in. And then of course spend hours and hours discussing with one another whether we have done so correctly.

But now suppose you are lucky enough to not have this problem. Imagine the economist you want to write about maintained a diary most of his life, kept detailed notes of all the courses he attended as a student, as well as of comments on books and papers he read, of articles and books he intended to write, and that also the vast majority of correspondence between this economist and others has been saved. Suppose further that archival sources on his most important contemporaries are abundantly available. You then imagine yourself the situation Susan Howson found herself in when writing her biography of Lionel Robbins (2011).

As much as this may sound like a description of the historian’s Nirvana, it actually presents two new problems. For what will you tell, and what will you leave out? At 1100 pages, Howson clearly had more difficulty deciding what to leave out then what to put in. More importantly, all the detail and description comes at the expense of explanation and interpretation. Partly this is the direct consequence of having so much information – there’s simply no need to fill in blanks and explain gaps. But the reader who is not an expert in twentieth century UK economic history and history of economics frequently struggles to, well, put it all in context. To make it a story with an argument.

I happen to read Howson’s Robbins biography in conjunction with the concluding tome of Jonathan Israel’s Enlightenment trilogy, entitled Democratic Enlightenment (2011). The books are of similar length, but where Howson uses 1100 pages to talk about one man, Israel spends 1100 pages discussing all men (and an occasional woman) who had something to do with the literature, arts, and politics of the Enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century. However, like Howson, Israel wants to tell everything. There’s not a scholar, book or pamphlet in Europe and the America’s that passes unnoticed. On the other hand - and the reason the books make for an unusual but great pair to read together - in terms of explanation Israel has the exact opposite intuition of Howson. All scholars, politicians and events in Democratic Enlightenment are discussed in – one might even say forced into – Israel’s well-known trichotomy of radical, moderate, and counter Enlightenment, among whom he clearly favors the radicals.

Now don’t mistake these minor critical remarks for final assessments. These are exceptional books by outstanding historians. But just as a thought experiment: What would have happened if Howson had written Israel’s book on the Enlightenment, and Israel Howson’s book on Robbins?

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