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The text in which Thorstein Veblen introduced the phrase ‘neo-classical’

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On this blog neoclassical economics are regularly discussed. Thorstein Veblen is credited with introducing, around 1900, the phrase ‘neo-classical’ (see the excerpt below). A lot of his criticisms of neo-classical authors still apply today: they assume what they should explain. The Keynes in the text is the father of John Maynard Keynes. Veblen was a very talented writer – which shows when you read the excerpt (and the entire text) twice. From the website of the AFEE. Of the foundations of later theory, in so far as the postulates of later economists differ characteristically from those of Mill and Cairnes, little can be said in this place. Nothing but the very general features of the later development can be taken up; and even these general features of the existing theoretic situation

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On this blog neoclassical economics are regularly discussed. Thorstein Veblen is credited with introducing, around 1900, the phrase ‘neo-classical’ (see the excerpt below). A lot of his criticisms of neo-classical authors still apply today: they assume what they should explain. The Keynes in the text is the father of John Maynard Keynes. Veblen was a very talented writer – which shows when you read the excerpt (and the entire text) twice. From the website of the AFEE.

Of the foundations of later theory, in so far as the postulates of later economists differ characteristically from those of Mill and Cairnes, little can be said in this place. Nothing but the very general features of the later development can be taken up; and even these general features of the existing theoretic situation can not be handled with the same confidence as the corresponding features of a past phase of speculation. With respect to writers of the present or the more recent past the work of natural selection, as between variants of scientific aim and animus and between more or less divergent points of view, has not yet taken effect; and it would be over-hazardous to attempt an anticipation of the results of the selection that lies in great part yet in the future. As regards the directions of theoretical work suggested by the names of Professor Marshall, Mr. Cannan, Professor Clark, Mr. Pierson, Austrian Professor Loria, Professor Schmoller, the group, — no off-hand decision is admissible as between these candidates for the honor, or, better, for the work, of continuing the main current of economic speculation and inquiry. No attempt will here be made even to pass a verdict on the relative claims of the recognised two or three main “schools” of theory, beyond the somewhat obvious finding that, for the purpose in hand, the so-called Austrian school is scarcely distinguishable from the neo-classical, unless it be in the different distribution of emphasis.
The divergence between the modernised classical views, on the one hand, and the historical and Marxist schools, on the other hand, is wider, — so much so, indeed, as to bar out a consideration of the postulates of the latter under the same head of inquiry with the former. The inquiry, therefore, confines itself to the one line standing most obviously in unbroken continuity with that body of classical economics whose life history has been traced in outline above. And, even for this phase of modernised classical economics, it seems necessary to limit discussion, for the present, to a single strain, selected as standing peculiarly close to the classical source, at the same time that it shows unmistakable adaptation to the later habits of thought and methods of knowledge.

For this later development in the classical line of political economy, Mr. Keynes’s book may fairly be taken as the matures exposition of the aims and ideals of the science; while Professor Marshall excellently exemplifies the best work that is being done under the guidance of the classical antecedents. As, after a lapse of a dozen or fifteen years from Cairnes’s days of full conviction, Mr. Keynes interprets the aims of modern economic science, it has less of the “hypothetical” character assigned it by Cairnes. that is to say, it confines its inquiry less closely to the ascertainment of the normal case and the interpretative subsumption of facts under the normal. It takes fuller account of the genesis and developmental continuity of all features of modern economic life, gives more and closer attention to institutions and their history. This is, no doubt, due, in part at least, to impulse received from German economists; and in so far it also reflects the peculiarly vague and bewildered attitude of protest that characterises the earlier expositions of the historical school. To the same essentially extraneous source is traceable the theoretic blur embodied in Mr. Keynes’s attitude of tolerance towards the conception of economics as a “normative” science having to do with “economic ideals”, or an “applied economics” having to do with “economic precepts.” (12*) An inchoate departure from the consistent taxonomic ideals shows itself in the tentative resort to historical and genetic formulations, as well as in Mr. Keynes’s pervading inclination to define the scope of the science, not by exclusion of what are conceived to be non-economic phenomena, but by disclosing a point of view from which all phenomena are seen to be economic facts. The science comes to be characterised not by the delimitation of a range of facts, as in Cairnes,(13*) but as an inquiry into the bearing which all facts have upon men’s economic activity. It is no longer that certain phenomena belong within the science, but rather that the science is concerned with any and all phenomena as seen from the point of view of the economic interest. Mr. Keynes does not go fully to the length which this last proposition indicates. He finds (14*) that political economy” treats of the phenomena arising out of the economic activities of mankind in society”; but, while the discussion by which he leads up to this definition might be construed to say that all the activities of mankind in society have an economic bearing, and should therefore come within the view of the science, Mr. Keynes does not carry out his elucidation of the matter to that broad conclusion. Neither can it be said that modern political economy has, in practice, taken on the scope and character which this extreme position would assign it.

The passage from which the above citation is taken is highly significant also in another and related bearing, and it is at the same time highly characteristic of the most effective modernized classical economics. The subject matter of the science has come to be the “economic activities” of mankind, and the phenomena in which these activities manifest themselves. So Professor Marshall’s work, for instance, is, in aim, even if not always in achievement, a theoretical handling of human activity in its economic bearing, — an inquiry into the multiform phases and ramifications of that process of valuation of the material means of life by virtue of which man is an economic agent. And still it remains an inquiry directed to the determination of the conditions of an equilibrium of activities and a quiescent normal situation. It is not in any eminent degree an inquiry into cultural or institutional development as affected by economic exigencies or by the economic interest of the men whose activities are analysed and portrayed. Any sympathetic reader of Professor Marshall’s great work — and that must mean every reader — comes away with a sense of swift and smooth movement and interaction of parts; but it is the movement of a consummately conceived and self-balanced mechanism, not that of a cumulatively unfolding process or an institutional adaptation to cumulatively unfolding exigencies.

Merijn T. Knibbe
Economic historian, statistician, outdoor guide (coastal mudflats), father, teacher, blogger. Likes De Kift and El Greco. Favorite epoch 1890-1930.

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