The use of economists' biography, II.

Excerpts from “Retrospect and Prospect,” the concluding remarks Bob Coats presented at (or maybe wrote after) the History of Economics conference held in 1972 at Bellagio to commemorate and reassess the 1870s “marginal revolution” (full proceedings here).

The most explicit clash of opinions at Bellagio arose in connection with the role of biographical research in the history of economics. Discussion of this Issue was focused on the conflicting views of William Jaffé and George Stigler….In this controversy Stigler played his accustomed role of principal iconoclast, claiming that the historian who merely collected biographical facts was setting himself too easy a task and arguing that too much knowledge of an individual’s biography might well cloud the historian’s judgment of his intellectual performance (as, for example, in the case of Wicksell). Others readily acknowledged the difficulty in deciding which facts to collect and when to stop accumulating data, but proposed no simple method of determining which facts were relevant. Thus there was general support for Jaffé’s conviction that the details of Walras’s toilet training and sexual procllivities seemed, a priori, to have little or no bearing on the genesis, development, or eventual significance of his general equilibrium theory. But it was less easy to say why this was so or to feel confident that these matters were totally irrelevant to Walras’s professional career and effectiveness as an economist.

For some purposes it was necessary to know precisely how and whence an economist derived his ideas -whether from formal instruction, casual reading, or word of mouth- and this was as important in studying the diffusion of ideas as in studying their origin and development. At other times it was desirable to know why a given individual decried or rejected the currently accepted ideas or problems in his field, while elevating others to a central place in his work. Biographical information might also help to explain an economist’s mode of presentation, not merely in a general sense (e.g., Jevons’ eagerness as contrasted with Marshall’s caution), but also in particular matters. The much-debated subject of marginalism and mathematics was relevant here…. and much the same was true of the sociology of economics, for example, in the processes of academicization and professionalization. Personalities and motivations were obviously important in the careers of key figures, those with leadership qualities or influence in developing and implementing institutional controls over the training, appointment, promotion, and publications of their students and colleagues….

There is no doubt that the most significant point of disagreement during the entire conference arose from the question whether biographical infomation was more than just a source of convenient ad hoc explanations in the history of ideas. Was it true, as Jaffé had argued, that we must seek in any argument or theory “the distinctive individuality of its author … [since] a great original discovery or…innovation, be it in economics or in any realm of scientific or artistic endeavor, is…the product of the imagination of some one individual whose identity marks the achievement indelibly in a thousand and one subtle ways.” At Bellagio there was a clear division of opinion between those who (like Stigler and Blaug) called for a more explicitely analytical treatment of biographical data and those who (like Jaffé and Black) resisted the temptation to impose order and consistency on a man’s life, since so many variables, including chance, play a part in determining hisvactivities and achievements. The dangers of undue reliance on intuitive methods were recognized by all the participants, since efforts to explain a man’s intellectual development in terms of this personal history could lead to bias and selectivity in the use of evidence, to the search for simple correlations between ideas and biography while subconsciously discarding evidence thart failed to fit the model…As Blaug remarked, while conceding that biographical information “shed light” on the development of economic ideas, he could not be sure precisely what was meant by such a statement.

No doubt some readers will regard this discussion as disappointingly inconclusive. Yet as far as I am aware, the methodological problems of biographical analysis in the history of econonuics were faced more clearly on this occasion than ever before.

Bob Coates

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