Constructing Economic Science

On the cover of my new book Vladimir Tatlin and his colleagues are building a model of his Monument to the Third International for the third anniversary, in November 1920, of the Bolshevik Revolution. As conceived by Tatlin, the tower was to be 400 metres tall: taller than the Empire State Building (381 metres, 1931) and dwarfing the Eiffel Tower (300 metres, 1889). Construction was never started because of the enormous amount of steel required; whether it could then even have been built is an open question. It remained a utopian project. As a finished object it was only ever a model, or a drawing:

Pamyatnik III internatsionala. Proyekt khud. E. Tatlina [Памятник III интернационала. Проект худ. Е. Татлина]. Department of Visual Arts of Narkompros, St. Petersburg, 1920

That Tatlin and his colleagues are so absorbed in their work of modelling the future alludes to the theme of the book, tracing the formation and early development of the vision of economics as a modern science, validated by this status. But this visual connection to the theme of the book also has a direct link with the title. For Tatlin was the leading representative of “Constructivism”, a Russian art movement that was the subject of an important exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery from February to April 1971. And more generically of course, social constructionism has been the core of many of the intellectual trends and fashions from the later 1960s to the present. But while the book owes a great deal to Tatlin and his comrades, it owes little to the various post-modernist trends that have come and gone since the 1970s.

In April 1971 I visited the Hayward Gallery exhibition, having a particular interest in early Soviet film-making. The exhibition catalogue (Art in Revolution. Soviet Art and Design since 1917, Arts Council, London n. d.) was introduced by Camilla Gray-Prokofieva, whose 1962 study of modernist Russian art had just been republished as The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. Enthused by Gray’s revelation of the way that early Soviet art simply continued a movement that had already gone through a series of “paradigmatic changes”, I wrote a term paper using her book and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to explore the issues of continuity and change in “revolutionary episodes”.

This founded my interest in Russian literature and art; and writing this now, some fifty years later, I realise my original interest has not waned in the least. By contrast, my interest in Kuhn did not last the year out. During the summer of 1971 I read more widely in the history and philosophy of science, especially the papers of Paul Feyerabend, the writings of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, and Foucault’s Order of Things. During the early winter of 1971, working in West Berlin, I used this reading to draft a long critique of Kuhn’s ideas about intellectual continuity, the nature of novelty and the forces of innovation. I began postgraduate studies in Cambridge in 1972, and discussed my essay on Kuhn with Paul Hirst; he helped me condense it into an article that was then published in Economy and Society later in 1973.

Tatlin’s Tower is a reminder to me that this concern with the relationship between new and old ideas, and the complexities of change and innovation, came before I had developed a specific interest in the history of politics and economics. Around the same time, taking a course on the History of Sociology in my final year at Essex, I had written an essay on Malthus, stumbling across his Principles of Political Economy (1820) in the university library and thinking that here, in political economy, lay the real sources of the social sciences. My doctoral dissertation on the history of early English political economy did not however take shape until later, written up during 1974-75.

And so, looking back, it now becomes clearer that this concern with the complexities of intellectual change preceded its convergence with, condensation into, a lifelong interest in the circumstances shaping the discipline of economics. As I explain in Constructing Economic Science, the book originated in the later 1980s as a development of ideas shaped by an international project charting the institutionalisation of political economy. But the concern with questions of novelty and innovation – how what might now seem new is merely repetition, that what was once, and still is, new gets forgotten – goes right back to my reading of Camilla Gray in 1971. In her early 20s she had been instrumental in recovering the work of artists, designers, and writers who were persona non grata to the Soviet authorities, and virtually unknown everywhere else. We mostly owe to her our present understanding of the sheer inventiveness of Russian artists, designers, architects, film-makers, engineers and writers during the early decades of the twentieth century. She was only 26 when her seminal study on Russian art was published. By the end of 1971 she was dead, aged 35.

Her book is however still in print. In it she contrasts Tatlin’s beliefs to those of Malevich and Kandinsky, who considered art to be an essential spiritual activity, ordering “man’s vision of the world”.

To organize life practically as an artist-engineer, they claimed, was to descend to the level of a craftsman, and a primitive one at that. … In becoming useful, art ceases to exist. …On the other side, Tatlin and the ardently Communist Rodchenko insisted that the artist must become a technician; that he must learn to use the tools and materials of modern production in order to offer his energies directly for the benefit of the Proletariat. The artist-engineer must build harmony in life itself, transforming work into art, and art into work. ‘Art into life!’ was his slogan, and that of all the future Constructivists – not to be interpreted in the naive and sentimental way in which the ‘Wanderers’ and the Abramtsevo colony had taken ‘art to the people’, by idealizing the peasant and his crafts as the source of life, but by utilizing and welcoming the machine. The machine as the source of power in the modern world would release man from labour, transforming it into art. … The engineer must develop his feeling for materials – through the method of ‘Material culture’ – and the artist must learn to use the tools of mechanical production.

Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, Thames and Hudson, London 1971 pp. 246-48.

Empirical Historiography

Some years ago, pondering the way my Birmingham lectures on the history of economics were developing, I remarked to Istvan Hont that I seemed only to talk about text and biography.  “What else is there?” he responded.  I have long taken the position that texts are so many articulations of a language, that we therefore need to study the language, not the person using it;  and so for a long time I avoided biography as a source of an intentionalist fallacy.  Persons were simply historical users of a language with which they composed written texts, and so I eschewed biography as associated with an intentionalism that treated persons as deliberate creators of the language they used.  The persons were the medium for the language, so that the prospects for meanings that they articulated were given in the language, not the person.  Hence there was no point in seeking for the meaning of a text to ask ourselves what the intentions of its writer were.  Instead, I took the view that language used them; that individuals “make sense” by using means and materials that pre- and post-exist them.  The writer is a reader, a bricoleur, making sense with what is available.  To presume that “meaning” was deliberately constructed by an individual, so that we needed to understand the agent’s intention to understand the meaning of what that agent said and wrote, was a fallacy; as Terence Hutchison pointed out in a rather different context, like asking the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock what the time was:

“It is as though one was to sketch out the plans for, or actually construct (as one could actually construct a mechanical model of a community in static equilibrium) some piece of mechanism, say a cuckoo clock, and then ask the cuckoo whether it was because it had perfect expectation of the time that it appeared exactly at each hour.” (The Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory, London 1938 p. 96)

Hence my puzzlement about how I was now teaching; but Istvan’s point was not about intentionality, about access to meaning through the interrogation of biography.  Rather, that we use biography to place language’s speakers as speakers occupying a particular context.  For what “context” is has itself to be constructed with regard to the problem at hand.  It is rarely immediately obvious what the relevant “context” is, which facet of the speaker’s situation is to be mobilised as aiding explanation of the language that speaker uses.  We could say, therefore, that “context” is itself something that has to be constructed, or at the very least assembled.

But this principle brings with it an empirical imperative: that “contextualism” implies a rigorous empiricism in seeking out material that might, or might not, provide us with insight into the motivations of a speaker.  This is not a matter of “psychology”; more something allied to legal argument, in which evidence is adduced and weighed in order to determine the intentions of those committing actionable offences.  And so if we take “contextualism” seriously, it leads us into the realms of what we might call “empirical historiography”, in which the generalising arguments of philosophy or sociology have no purchase.

‘The digression is the story’ (or how to read economics and Weber). An interview with Keith Tribe

Social Democracy and the Rule of Law

Earlier this year in the Financial Times (12/13 January 2019) Gideon Rachman wrote an op-ed about Carl Schmitt. As he writes, “Liberalism’s most brilliant enemy is back in vogue”: Chinese legal scholars, Russian nationalists, the far-right in the USA and Germany, plus the far-left in Britain and France, are reading the “premier legal theorist of Nazi Germany”.

Schmitt is not really back in vogue; he has never been out of vogue. It may be that some on the extreme right have recently discovered his reputation and have attached their own fantasies to it. The account that Rachman gives would suggest this: emphasis is given to Schmitt’s scurrilous reputation as a legal apologist for early Nazi atrocities such as the 1934 “Night of the Long Knives”, asserting the pre-eminence of the SS over the SA by murdering scores of the latter, and including for good measure a former German Chancellor. Integrity and consistency are not personal qualities that one can associate with Schmitt; and since these are qualities that lend legitimacy to democratic political order, his personal values and the career shaped out of them are repugnant.

But his liberal and social democratic contemporaries did not not dismiss him for his reputation, as routinely happens today. Before he was the “Crown Jurist for the Third Reich”, he was the most consistent legal critic of the Weimar Republic. By defining sovereignty as “he who decides on the state of exception” – referring to Presidential powers in the Weimar Constitution – and combining this with a definition of politics in terms of “friend” and “foe”, Schmitt articulated basic political principles for arguments about modern democracies and the rule of law. Constitutional and democratic order were during the 1920s argued out in Germany in legal terms by theorists like Hermann Heller, Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, who sought to rebut Schmitt with legal and constitutional arguments. Both Neumann and Kirchheimer died as Professors of Public Law and Government at Columbia University, in 1954 and 1965 respectively.

During the 1980s I read the work of Neumann mainly in connection with his pioneering analysis of National Socialism, published as Behemoth in 1942/1944; I included an essay on this work in my Strategies of Economic Order (1995/2007). However, in 1987 I also published a collection of the legal writings of Neumann and Kirchheimer under the title Social Democracy and the Rule of Law, posing the problem: how can objectives of social justice and democratic order be given a constitutional basis? Here the German conception of Rechtstaatlichkeit is important – the principles informing the rule of law. Today, when as Gideon Rachman so rightly says, democratic principles are under attack, good arguments are needed in their defence. The Brexit saga has demonstrated at tedious length the lamentable ignorance of politicians, both in government and opposition, of what Rechtstaatlichkeit is, and why its principles are central to the defence of democratic order. As ever in Britain, the myth that “there is no British Constitution” is used as an excuse for a refusal to think about political and legal institutions at all.

And Carl Schmitt helps us here. The personal positions he later adopted are repugnant, but the questions that he asked about political order during the 1920s of the first German Republic challenged those seeking to create a secure legal foundation for democratic order. This was all swept away by the Nazis, a minority movement helped into power by an informal coalition formed of right-wing politicians and the KPD. Schmitt forced Neumann and Kirchheimer to focus upon the legal foundations of democratic order; the arguments they made in its defence remain of relevance today. And so I am very glad that my 1987 book has now been reissued by Routledge.

My Iconic Blue Passport

Last year as part of the ongoing Brexit saga the British Government announced that Brexit would see the return of the “Iconic blue passport” that we had all missed so much.  Never mind that all passports are now in a (smaller) standard format, and that there was nothing to stop the British having a blue version of the maroon EU passport in the first place.

So here are some reminders from my own “iconic” passports:

Note that my visit to the Commonwealth country of Uganda was strictly time-limited, although in fact I did not return to Britain until about the second week of October.  How I organised that I do not recall.

Second, visiting Berlin before 1990 by rail or road was a wearisome business:

One way for me to get to my parents in West Berlin was to use the military train from Brunswick, which was effectively free and which ran every day, leaving Brunswick about 1530 and arriving in Berlin about 1930.  This did not involve dealing with the GDR border guards, I was in the care of the British Army, who sorted out all the paperwork with their Soviet opposite numbers.  On one trip, shortly after we entered the territory of West Berlin a soldier cleared his SLR in the corridor outside my compartment.  It was not all show.

Third, as a former member of the CPGB I decided when I first went to the USA that I had better declare this, and so became included with the mafiosi, random criminals and drug dealers in the relevant paragraph of the application.  This way I got a limited visa, but I did get a visa and this meant that if they looked at the files on which my name no doubt was they would not discover anything I had not told them.  So imagine my dismay when, later, the embassy gave me the wrong visa and then cancelled it:

Having a cancellation “without prejudice” for a US visa in one’s passport was not a good thing.

For a British person moving around Europe today this is of course all in the past.  But it is a past that those so keen on the iconic blue passport have entirely forgotten; and it is a past which is on the way back.

Seppel and Tribe (eds.) Cameralism in Practice (2017)

Marten Seppel and I have recently published an edited volume Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe (Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2017) and this is the text of a discussion we recently had about it.

Marten Seppel: It seems that the idea of putting together a volume on the practical side of cameralism has come at just the right time. There has been a growing interest in cameralism over the last five to ten years. A number of substantial studies exploring the essence, impact and spread of cameralist teaching in early modern Europe have appeared. In addition there are some ongoing projects and developing networks related to cameralism. In 1987 Jürgen Backhaus wrote that the only scholarly book-length treatment of cameralism in English was a 1909 work by Albion Small.1 I believe there has been some progress over the last thirty years. Do you think that cameralism has been attracting growing interest in the anglophone literature, and how do you explain this?

Keith Tribe: Small’s book remains very readable, although it is true that it fell into obscurity. And the reasons for that are significant. Firstly, because of a continuing lack of development in serious historical understanding of the social sciences – Small founded the Department of Sociology at Chicago which he then headed for years, and he also was a founder of the American Journal of Sociology. And he wrote a book on Adam Smith too. So out of all that one might ask how these things that might seem unrelated to us today were not then unrelated. And secondly, because the implication of the first point is that we should always keep in view historiography: how these things fitted together for Small, but why cameralism, and Small himself, fell into obscurity. That has a great deal to do with the way that the history of economic thought developed as a sub-discipline in the latter part of the twentieth century as primarily an anglophone history – it became primarily a story written by anglophone economists about other anglophone economists, and so if it meant anything at all “cameralism” meant “German mercantilism”.

Fortunately, things are changing: the annual conferences of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought are dominated by young French and Italian scholars; the developing field of intellectual history has upgraded the quality of work done in the history of economics; and from the later 1970s onwards the history of eighteenth century political thought has emerged as a very sophisticated field, within which the study of cameralism no longer seems such a minority interest. It is from this last area in particular that I have drawn for my own work, and where I also find the readiest reception.

Marten Seppel: When it comes to the essence of cameralism, you have stressed that cameralism was first of all a language and an academic discipline. It is clear that cameralism was a pedagogy, a discourse(s), a genre of literature and a way of thinking. However, our collection still does not offer any more concrete definition of cameralism. Do you think that cameralism is at all definable? We still somehow recognize the specific logic of cameralism. Or is it easier to say what cameralism was not (e.g. compared to mercantilism, though I know that you have tried to avoid the concept of mercantilism at all in this context).

Keith Tribe: When I studied the literature of the Cameral- und Staatswissenschaften in the 1980s I was reading works that defined themselves as part of this genre, generated by the practical demands of university teaching. In some cases, as with the German reception of Physiocracy, you could also see that this body of writing was more or less entirely peripheral, and so that distance itself became something that one could explore and think about. I do not think it very helpful to allow subsequent classifications to dictate how one approaches and filters past writing – this is the most general criticism one can make of the idea that there ever was such a thing as “mercantilism”. Of course, in the English language we use the label “cameralism” in part because of the idiosyncratic way that “science” has become defined, so it is an “ism”, not a “science”. As a shorthand way of designating material for study “cameralism” is fine, but it is not something that can bear a lot of analytical weight.

If there is a “logic” to “cameralism”, however, then it could be described as a literature of economic management. Thought about this way, it then becomes more obvious quite why it is so hard to define, since there is no strictly equivalent body of writing in contemporary languages such as English and French – Italian is different, but here again, the older conventional anglophone bias of HET meant that some French material would be included, but hardly anyone outside Italy read Italian in the later twentieth century, and the Italians themselves have only relatively recently shown an interest in making Italian economic material accessible to non-Italians.

Marten Seppel: Cameralism has been given various chronologies. A very broad approach starts looking for a cameralist tradition already in the 16th century (e.g. Albion Small, Magdalena Humpert, more recently Jürgen Bachhaus and Richard Wagner). More popular is the view that cameralism was only an eighteenth-century discipline. Or does the truth lay somewhere between these two extremes? How do you see the genealogy of cameralism, and the time frame of this tradition?

Keith Tribe: This follows on from the previous point: that we should begin with the way in which writing defines itself, and not seek to create a special category of “cameralism” that we then use to sieve through economic literature. Etymologically “Cameralwissenschaft” is a discourse founded upon the emergent tasks of later seventeenth century domain administration that developed into a discourse about state administration in general. Although a Wissenschaft is not exclusively a body of learning linked to a university, that was what Cameralwissenschaft meant by the early eighteenth century, when the first proposals for systematic training in domain administration were made. That the practice of state administration deviated to a greater or lesser degree from arguments about the rational organisation of state administration should not blind us to the importance of studying arguments that sought to systematise economic activity.

Marten Seppel: The present collection focuses on the practices of cameralism. In the 1930s August Wolfgang Gerloff argued that eighteenth-century cameral science was “die Lehre von der Staatspraxis, die Lehre von der praktischen Politik” (a doctrine directed to state practice, to practical politics).2 However, Andre Wakefield writes that cameralism was a kind of fantasy fiction or even a utopian theory, rather than any particular plan that could be followed by administration. He believes that cameralist authors did realise that their teaching was too theoretical. What is your impression of this issue, and do you think that our collection has contributed to this debate – whether cameralist teaching was merely theoretical, and detached from cameralist practice.

Keith Tribe: I think the idea that theory and practice are distinct and contrasted is unhelpful; but I also dislike the invocation of “practice” that one encounters today, as if by talking of everything as a “practice” we can avoid the hard work of describing exactly what people do, why they do it, how they understand what they do and why they do it, how they came to be able to do what they do, and hence also the institutional frameworks that make all of this possible as a social activity. Cameralism is an interesting way into all these things because it is a discourse about administration, about organising activity, which both in its exposition and execution is exposed to greater or lesser slippage. In our book we have contributions that look at forestry, mining, manufacture, insurance, labour organisation and iron-making – areas of practical activity that are themselves the object of arguments over state management. When Gerloff talks of a Lehre he is referring to “a systematic collection of ideas and principles” that is first of all interrogated in terms of quite how systematic it is. What we have done in collecting together these essays on various practical fields of activity is to shift the attention from the examination of this “system” to its relationship with those areas of activity to which it is addressed. But those “real people” conducting this activity are themselves part of this “system” insofar as they are not blank pages, nor automatons simply following orders.

Here again, we could say that the value of studying cameralist literature is to open up these issues – about how “an economy” “actually works”.

Marten Seppel: It has become more and more clear (as argued also our collection) that besides Germany and Austria, cameralist literature on state and economy also had great influence in Sweden, Russia, Denmark and even Portugal. At the same time, you have written that “cameralistic writers were largely indifferent to contemporary developments in French, English, and Italian economic literature -a lack of interest that was entirely reciprocated”. This quote can easily cause misunderstandings. What did you mean by this conclusion in the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (ed. by Alan Charles Kors)?

Keith Tribe: I would stand by what I wrote in the mid 1990s about France and Britain, but I then knew less about Italian literature than I do now. All the same, the first part of the statement is true enough – my study of the German language literature had demonstrated to me the general lack of engagement with non-German language literature, and my study of translations into and out of the German language reinforced this. Subsequently I was criticised for this, although as I pointed out in my Cambridge History of Eighteenth Century Political Thought entry, the geographical space within which cameralism was “confined” was extremely large, including the Baltic, Eastern Europe and Russia. This is very much reflected in the work of our contributors.

Furthermore, already in my Governing Economy (1988) I cautioned about using library catalogues as a prime source of evidence about translations and diffusion. Certainly German libraries did not systematically acquire translations into the language; while the existence of a translation is only preliminary evidence of diffusion. Fania Oz-Salzberger’s book on Adam Ferguson and the German Enlightenment, Translating the Enlightenment (1995), remains the classic study here. Then as now, books were more often cited than read, and to track down the pathways through which ideas and arguments diffuse you need to be able to demonstrate more than that a book was published in one place, or can be found in a library somewhere else. Alexandre Mendes-Cunha and Roger Bartlett do an excellent job in the book of showing exactly how “ideas travel” – whether to Brazil or to Russia.

Marten Seppel: One of the main goals of our book was to bring out the innovative tendencies associated with cameralist discourse in the eighteenth century.So a short and concrete question to you – did cameralism change the world? Or could we pose such a question at all? In fact, at the beginning of the editing of this collection I was willing to talk about a “cameralist turn” or even a “cameralist revolution”, but you persuaded me to abandon these kind of titles as being little more than empty phrases and entirely unhelpful.

Keith Tribe: I think that we need to be cautious about hanging our ideas on a slick phrase or image to which a historical narrative must then be bent. There are many “revolutions” that, at best, end up where they started out – look at the “French Revolution”, it only took the French just over eleven years from executing a king to acquiring a new Emperor! And if that was not bad enough, it all happened again from 1848 to 1851! More seriously, as with my comments about needing to be aware of the historiography, it is too easy to assimilate ideas of “progress” to a present-centred history lacking an understanding of past historical commentary and argument. While it would be wrong to suggest that cameralism in some way changed the world, what we can say is that it changed the language with which the world was conceived. Whatever the outcome of cameralist “practice”, by the later part of the eighteenth century there was a new language of state administration that became transformed into the financial sciences of the nineteenth century, and thence became part of the language of public administration. It gave “practitioners” a way of talking to each other about the way in which they conducted their affairs.

Another important point to which Paul Warde drew our attention was the way that in one way or another most reforms fail. To measure cameralism by “success” or “failure” implies a sense of progress that Herbert Butterfield characterised as “Whig history”, and while the details of his argument are now mostly forgotten, it is generally accepted that this kind of retrospective history is solipsistic. The idea that cameralism promoted practical or innovative measures should be separated from any sense of “progress”, and our evaluation of cameralist ideas and principles should not be dominated by any question of their degree of “success”.

Marten Seppel: So what is the future of cameralism studies? How might this work develop in an interesting way? Do you believe that cameralism will become as familiar in textbooks as mercantilism? Has the concept of cameralism established itself as a central historical concept in Central European history and beyond? For example, in 1958 Hans Rosenberg wrote his well-known monograph on the development of bureaucracy in the long Prussian eighteenth century without ever mentioning once the word ‘cameralism’, or authors like Justi. Do you think this remains a valid approach to the period? Though one must admit that the twin-brother of cameralism, the police sciences, are already accepted in historical writing.

Keith Tribe: What the study of cameralist literature has brought to light is the extent of our ignorance about early modern Europe, its politics and administration, its economy and society. The sheer volume of material that recent work has revealed compels us to think about new ways of exploring networks of activity and argument. Rosenberg’s work on Prussia remains important, but today it would not be appropriate to write a history of bureaucratic rule without examining the language of administration. The key to that lies in the study of cameralist literature and its language, and in a new approach to the work of administration in the European states of the eighteenth century. As I suggest above, my problem with “mercantilism” is that it presents a grid that obscures from us both diversity and convergence in early modern economic literature. Insofar as our book on cameralism and administration shows the sheer diversity of this material, I hope that it provides encouragement to others to explore this literature more systematically than has ever before been attempted.


1Juergen Backhaus, Richard E. Wagner, “The Cameralists: A Public Choice Perspective”, Public Choice 53 (1987), p. 3 (3-20).

2August Wolfgang Gerloff, Staatstheorie und Staatspraxis des kameralistischen Verwaltungsstaates (Breslau, 1937), p. 35.


A couple of years ago I collapsed in the Brecons in the middle of an all-day yomp from one aircraft crash site to another, and wrote about it in a previous post (Brecon Beacons, March 2015). I was airlifted to Swansea Hospital and thoroughly checked out but nothing much came of that, for as my GP cheerily said, “It will have to happen a few more times before we know what is the matter with you.”

This February, while riding in the Malvern Hills one foggy and rainy night, I came off the bike backwards and hit the back of my head. The shock detached my helmet light and I saw it a few yards away, winking red. I still have no idea how it happened, nor any memory of the few minutes leading up to the crash. I did not lose consciousness, but felt very strange. Reading Elizabeth Lopatto’s post, “Diary of a Concussion”, reminded me of all that.

She was hit by a car turning in front of her, and was seriously injured. My own experience was much less severe, but this itself is of interest; since even falling backwards wearing a good cycle helmet ended up with me dazed and disoriented for the next couple of hours.

I knew I was in the Malvern Hills, but could no longer visualise where. Tony and Russell were ahead of me, and I remembered that; I started calling for them since I was conscious something had happened to me. We came down off the track and cycled back to the pub along the road. I still had no real idea where I was. I was cold. In the pub I warmed up and drank a pint of water. I knew I had been working at home all day but could not recall what I had been doing. I tried to visualise what my house looked like inside and failed. Tony took me home in his car – from the pub to home is 20 minutes fast downhill, but I would have frozen with the damp and cold. I got in the bath to warm up, my lips were blue and I was still disoriented. I promised my wife I would go and see the GP in the morning.

I was especially concerned because the following Saturday I was supposed to fly to Brazil to take part in a summer school, and doubted whether this would now be a good idea. My GP thought it no big deal – if, she said, this was “the holiday of a lifetime”, the risk was worth taking. I might be a bit uncomfortable as my brain swelled during a 10 hour flight in a low pressure cabin, but hey! life is an adventure. She said she had recorded it all “for the insurance”, and I wondered: whose?

I immediately decided it would be a very bad idea to fly to Brazil.

Lessons learned: Matt at Detour looked at my tyres (Racing Ralphs) and sucked his teeth – these are for downhill racing, really, he said. He sold me a set of Hans Dampfs, which have certainly slowed me down slogging up to the Hills since I run them at 24/28 lbs, but which have transformed the bike through mud and loose stone. Magic Marys would be ideal, but even slower climbing, and there is a lot of that in the Malvern Hills. I fitted flats instead of SPDs. Although it was not the cleats that were the problem, I had cleanly detached from the bike mysteriously backwards and landed on my back. I bought a new helmet.

Teaching the History of Economics

Yesterday Roger Backhouse and I sent off to the publisher the files of the book we have been working on since last autumn, The History of Economics. A Course for Students and Teachers.  As with the book that I edited with Pat Hudson and published last year, The Contradictions of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Agenda will quickly turn these files into a well-produced book and publish it in October this year.  Conceived around this time last year, the book itself was written alongside our teaching the HET course to third-year economics undergraduates at the University of Birmingham, a course of twenty two-hour lectures covering a period from the later seventeenth century to the present day.  Our plan was to convert our lecture presentations into a written form as a template for the teaching of the history of economics.  This seemed quite a manageable task alongside all our other work, but it turned out to be more demanding than we had anticipated.  Nonetheless, this was itself instructive.

The History of Economic Thought mostly disappeared from its former home, the undergraduate economics degree, by the later 1970s.  Since that time no-one could hold out much hope of being hired in an economics department in Britain or the USA on the strength of expertise in the history of economics.  Terence Hutchison had become Mitsui Professor in Birmingham in 1956 mainly on the strength of work in the history and methodology of economics.  At the time, the Department of Economics was, with Nottingham, one of the strongholds of mathematical economics in Britain; even then, the idea that a Professor might be appointed on the strength of historical expertise met with resistance.

Criticism of the limitations of economics teaching in universities predated the Financial Crisis, its insistence on the esoteric at the expense of the blindingly obvious reflecting the institutional dynamics of career structures and research funding that have, if anything, since become more acute.  But in the wake of the Crisis it became more common in the media to advocate the reintroduction of economic history and the history of economic thought, if only to provide students with some wider perspective than the imperatives of the immediate present.  Besides the predictable resistance of the established profession, two problems stood in the way of this project: who would teach it? What would they teach?

Since hardly anyone has been able to make a living teaching the history of economic thought over the last forty years, the present stock of specialists is sharply divided between the remnants of an older generation (like Roger and myself) and a younger generation typically in their 20s or early 30s.  This is not so obvious in Britain, but very obvious in France, Italy, Australia and the USA.  it would be the younger generation who could teach courses, but since many had not themselves ever been taught such a course they lacked an accessible point from which to begin.

Which brings us to the purpose of our book: to provide a practical template for such teaching.  it is not a textbook, in the sense of providing a comprehensive overview of a field.  I think of it as a “coursebook”, a guide to structure and materials in approaching the history of economic thought of the kind that lectures seek to convey.  In presentation it mimics the lecture format: it is a sequence of twenty-four lectures, each of which begins with aims, a chronology, an annotated bibliographic guide, before presenting an outline of the material and concluding with questions for discussion.  It is assertive: it seeks above all to present a defensible account, but does not become entangled in defending the way in which this account is put together.  The purpose of lectures is to provide a point of entry to a subject, not deal exhaustively with it; our book has the same aim.  At the same time, it has a larger purpose: to provide a framework around which novice lecturers might construct new courses.

Until I began teaching on the Birmingham course in 2005 I had never had the opportunity to teach the subject, although this had long been my main interest.  Putting together my first lectures on Smith to Keynes I was pleasantly surprised to find that, over the previous thirty years, I had covered enough of the material to be able to make a course work.  During the past few years, where I have been responsible for teaching the period up to 1900, what was originally a series of topics has become developed into a story about the European dimension of the history of political economy.  What originally appeared to be predominantly a British story has now been rewritten in a European framework that, in the course of the nineteenth century, extends to the USA.  And so what began as a course of lectures in a British university has been revised and corrected into a story about political economy as a broadly European discourse, since the later seventeenth century at the latest.


The Piketty Opportunity

One of the projects that I have been pursuing over the last year or so is now available, and Pat Hudson and I are very pleased with the way it has turned out. We planned the collection in the autumn of 2015, recruited contributors who all delivered on time, it was copy-edited over the summer and went to the printers in early October. Not only are we very grateful to all the contributors for being such good citizens, our publisher Agenda has done a truly excellent job in seeing the project through.  The details can be found here: Agenda Catalogue.

Pat and I are presenting the book at the Core Seminar in Cambridge on 10 November, and there will be a more formal launch event at the LSE on 26 January 2017.

From the Safety Bicycle to Robotics

One winter’s day late in the 1970s, driving south on the M6 in steady rain, I saw something very strange flash by in the outside lane going north: a two-wheeled vehicle that looked as if it was a prop from Star Wars, its rider serenely powering through the traffic.  It was a Quasar.  My question is: why don’t all bikes today look like this, rather than the basic design that has advanced so little since the the Safety Bicycle circa 1890?  If you were starting out today designing a powered two-wheeler it seems obvious you would come up with something like the Quasar.  But it never caught on, despite its advantages: it steers, corners and brakes more safely than a conventional motorcycle, the rider is protected from the elements, rider and machine are much lower, which aids stability and decreases the machine’s profile, so while it was comparatively underpowered it was fast and used about half the fuel of a conventional motorcycle – about 90 mpg. (see

Also for the general argument and configuration

An answer to the question would include both the resistance of consumers to anything that unfamiliar, and the reluctance, for a number of reasons, of producers to move beyond variations of the familiar.  In a world supposedly obsessed with novelty and innovation, the failure of motorcycle design to have made much progress at all for about a century is striking.  This rather suggests that much of what is passed off today as novel has been “novel” for rather a long time – a basic lesson of David Edgerton’s excellent book, The Shock of the Old (2006).

Some kind of explanation for this failure of invention to be followed by innovation can be found in the history of the unpowered two-wheeler, aka the pushbike.  A recent article in Nature (Brendan Borrell, “The bicycle problem that nearly broke mathematics”, 20 July 2016) demonstrates that, while the safety bicycle quickly proved stable and useable, nobody really knew how it worked as a two-wheeled vehicle with a human power source.  What role, for instance, does counter-steering play?  When in normal motion, the rider first pushes the left hand forwards to make a left turn – which is counter-intuitive, and is most probably done unconsciously.   On a motorbike with a longish wheelbase, like my Guzzi Le Mans, you could do this deliberately, dropping the bike into a bend by pushing the left hand forward while opening the throttle with the right.  Again, what role does the relation of the front wheel’s contact point to the frame geometry play?  And for a long time it was thought that the gyroscopic forces in a spinning wheel explained a bicycle’s stability, but this also turns out to be only a part of the answer.

The one real innovation in post-Safety Bicycle design – the recumbent, where the rider sits low, as in a pedalo (see David Gordon Wilson, Bicycling Science, 3rd. ed. MIT Press 2004 pp. 444-450) – likewise evolved over a long period of practical experimentation, in the absence of any real idea of what contributed to two-wheeled stability, and what diminished it.  As the Nature article shows, this would require some mathematical modelling that could satisfactorily account for all the mundane things that a bike does, with or without a rider.  It was not until 2007 that a full set of mathematical equations was published that accounted for all of these things.

Whereas much of modern economics has begun with a set of equations borrowed from somewhere else and then forced economic life into mathematical form, in the case of the bicycle we have an object that functioned satisfactorily, but no-one really knew why.  Modelling the motion mathematically gave insight into what happens when a bicycle turns or wobbles, and why some configurations feel better than others.  This turned out to be much more than an academic question.

Unpowered two-wheelers have two principal components: a bike, and a rider who is the power source.  The interaction of these two components has also been a source of mystery.  Million upon million of children have learned to ride a bike, but how they learn and what they learn, these are both very obscure.  At last some kind of progress has been made with the latter, but the motor skills needed to control a moving two wheeler are similar in complexity to those needed for a toddler to take its first steps.

Which brings us back to the humble Safety Bicycle, progenitor of the motorcycle, thence the automobile, and then the control technology of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flying machines.  Now that bicycle mathematics are, after a century of pondering and struggle, on a firmer footing, they turn out to lay the foundations for the future: robotics and prosthetics.  A clearer understanding of the behaviour of two-wheeled vehicles and the nature of their interaction with a human rider can be used to improve the design of artificial legs, and also improve the mobility of robotic devices.  Now there is even a robotic bike than can balance itself simply by steering, without the use of gyroscopes.  Forget about the driverless car: the riderless bike is already here.

“Dasselbe ist niemals das Gleiche”

Last December, at a translation conference in Graz, Lavinia Heller drew our attention to the Marini translation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Essere e Tempo, Milan 2006), specifically to the manner in which this new Italian translation incorporated and developed Hildegard Feick’s Index zu Heideggers “Sein und Zeit” (1961), a 104-page glossary of Heidegger’s terminological usage. Later I came across the special issue of Studia Phænomenologica (Vol. V 2005) devoted to the history of the translation of Sein und Zeit into Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.  This is much the best illumination of the problems of scholarly translation I have ever read.

Heidegger sought to articulate Ancient Greek metaphysics in modern German, in so doing creating a work whose language is relentlessly arcane.  His purpose was to bypass the history of Western philosophy, which had migrated first from Greek into the Latin language and thence into the emergent dominant languages of Western Europe.  Beneath the majority of Heidegger’s terms there is a Greek original that has been stripped of its Latin accretions and transformed into contemporary German (Christian Sommer, “Traduire la Lingua Heideggeriana” in Studia Phænomenologica V p. 306) .  By insisting on a meticulous exploration of the possibilities offered by the German language he initiated a deconstruction of language use, a process that turns into the discovery of thought. Since thought is not independent of the natural languages in which it is expressed, the structure of a natural language represents so many possibilities for and obstacles to the formulation of philosophical problems.  In a sense, this is what Sein und Zeit is “about”.

Hence the “thought” embodied in Heidegger’s language cannot be recovered through a simple transposition into another language – rather, that language has to use its own resources to reinvent the thought.  Translation thus involves the transposition of thought into a language which conceives the same thought, but in a different way – as the title to this post suggests, the same is never identical or equivalent.  Or I could write: equi-valent. As Sommer suggests, if one wants to remain true to the Heideggerian conception of translation, then it is necessary to be un-faithful: the text has to be transformed interpretively (p. 312).

However, there is a difficulty with the purity of Heidegger’s project, for natural languages borrow freely from each other.  “Ausdruck” looks “German”; and “Druck” is certainly Old High German, according to the the Grimm Wörterbuch.  On examination, the term “Ausdruck” is a strict equivalent for “ex-press” (as in squeeze out), an English verb taken from Old French in the fifteenth century, according to the OED, hence latinate; and the sense in English of “representing by word or sign” came later, in the eighteenth century.  And, it turns out, that is when the new word “Ausdruck” appeared in German, to signify “expression” in the English sense of representation.  True, it uses German roots, but to signify a latinate neologism.

Further, the discussion in Studia Phænomenologica of translation into Hungarian and Finnish throws up further problems, since these languages are Fenno-Ugric, and not directly Indo-European.  While other Scandinavian and Slavic languages borrowed freely from Western European languages throughout early modern history, Finnish seems today a language apart, almost hermetic and impenetrable for a Western European native speaker.  But this is an illusion, for the language has several layers of accretion – while the terminology of fishing, hunting and foraging is ancient, terms related to religion, trade and agriculture are mostly of Russian origin, and words related to urban life and civil administration have been taken over from Swedish ((Tere Vadén, “Probing for Indo-European Connections”, Studia Phænomenologica V p. 302).  As the contributor on Hungarian translation remarks, if Heidegger had used a standard philosophical terminology there would have been no problem in translating his texts; it is the use of idiomatic German that creates the difficulty.

Translation is not lexical lego, finding matches and slotting them together consistently into a new structure.  For Heidegger, translation involved re-interpreting thoughts; and as Groth has observed in Translating Heidegger (2004, p. 108), “improving” existing translations involves improving our understanding of his thought, not “finding the right English words to stand in for his German terms.”  An English translation of Heidegger would have to reach back into the history of the English language in the same way that Heidegger sought to reach back into German, seeking clarity in etymological awareness.  Of course, the English language draws both syntactically and lexically on a wide range of sources.  Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 draws on Saxon syntax and Saxon vocabulary to produce a translation that has the immediacy of everyday speech.  And after the Saxons, of course, came the Vikings, and so Old Norse is also there in the mix.  Perhaps an opportunity to read Tolkien through Heidegger?

As Sommer also noted, “Traduire Heidegger, c’est traduire une traduction.” (p. 305)  And Gadamer observed that “Sein und Zeit was one of those great books that one should never write off.  It seems to be one of those books that undergo periodic resurrection.  Perhaps somewhere else.  Perhaps one day it will be translated back into German.” (Studia Phænomenologica V p. 224)