Relativist versus absolutist history of economics

I don’t seem to be able to fully grasp Mark Blaug’s distinction between a relativist and an absolutist approach to the history of economics – first introduced in Economic Theory in Retrospect (1962) – and that is a source of much frustration.

At first sight, the distinction seems obvious enough. Relativist historians emphasize the social, political, personal etc context in which economic ideas were developed; absolutist historians view history as a sequence of Great Economists building on and/or refuting each other’s theories. Obviously, most histories of economics use a bit of both.

To figure out what I don’t get about it, I thought I should perhaps look at that field that is best known for using the relativism-absolutism dichotomy: Ethics. If you evaluate an action or an opinion against the yardstick of country-, social-, and history-specific context (which may differ from your own benchmark), you take a relativist approach. If you judge the action or opinion against (somehow established) universal ethical principles, you take an absolutist approach. Part of Roy Weintraub’s recent essay on Keynes’ anti-Semitism I think seeks to bring that often implicit discussion to the fore in histories of Keynes – but I’m digressing.

The point is that in ethics you support either the one or the other. In the end it really is a matter of personal moral conviction whether you think the death penalty in the U.S. is a culture-specific ethical principle we have to accept, or a violation (or not) of universal ethical principles. But where it concerns intellectual history of economics, I don’t see how relativism versus absolutism is a matter of personal conviction in that sense.

Put differently, if I think theory 1 of economist A should be understood principally within the context of the time and place in which s/he lived, while I think theory 2 of economist B is first of all a response to theory 3 of economist C, that could make for very fine history. But when I say that principle X of People 10 should be viewed in its cultural context, while arguing that principle Y of People 11 is to be judged against universal benchmarks, I would be quickly pushed aside as one more inconsistent philosopher.

Perhaps the real distinction Blaug was after was that between good history and bad history, with bad historians often taking a relativist approach (say Marxist historians). We’re talking 1960s and 1970s here after all.

Then again, it can’t be just that.

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