Handbook on the History of Economic Analysis Volume II

Handbook on the History of Economic Analysis Volume II

Schools of Thought in Economics

Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz

Volume II contains entries on the major schools of economic thought and analysis. These schools differ with regard to their 'vision' of the working of the economic system, the major forces and interactions that shape its path, and the policy recommendations proposed. At any moment of time, several such schools typically compete with one another, striving for dominance within the economic and political discourse. Each Handbook can be read individually and acts as a self-contained volume in its own right. It can be purchased separately or as part of a three-volume set.

Chapter 18: British marginalism

John Creedy

Subjects: economics and finance, history of economic thought


The term “English marginalism” generally refers to the work and outlook of a small group of economists working in England in roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century. These may be thought of as pioneer neoclassical economists and include, as major figures, Jevons, Marshall, Edgeworth and Wicksteed. The latter was later a strong influence on Robbins, who provided leadership for a later generation of marginalists; see O’Brien (1988). Edgeworth was Anglo-Irish, and Jevons developed his earliest ideas in Australia, but it is obviously appropriate to group them under English marginalism. Distinctions along such national lines are of course not necessarily solid, particularly as, following the lead set by Jevons, this period can be regarded as the “high period” in the international exchange of ideas. Also, as Hutchison (1955: 9) stated, “Edgeworth, Wicksteed, Auspitz and Lieben, Wieser, Böhm-Bawerk, Wicksell, Walras, Pareto, Barone and Fisher all drew on a broad, internationally known literature”. Important and original works were, “constructed essentially on the basis of a wide, eclectic, cosmopolitan reading of their contemporaries and immediate predecessors” (Hutchison 1955: 9). However, Hutchison (1955: 10) also makes the interesting point that, despite Edgeworth’s international sympathies, publications by non-English economists in the Economic Journal were negligible. Furthermore, the journal played no part in securing translations of major works, and it seems that the only translation which Edgeworth encouraged was that of N.G. Pierson’s Principles in 1902. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern differences, in views and influences, between English and continental writers during this period. Walras developed his analysis of exchange, quite independently of the English writers, as an extension of Cournot’s model of trade between regions involving a single good. Indeed, despite an extensive correspondence, his relationship with English authors cannot ultimately be described as congenial, particularly after Edgeworth’s review of the Elements where he criticised, among other things, the “exuberance of algebraic foliage”. It is true that there are traces of the influence of Cournot on Marshall’s early unpublished work, available in Whitaker (1975), but the main influence in producing his offer curve analysis of trade was clearly J.S. Mill. Communication among the English marginalists was facilitated by closer proximity, particularly in London. There was, of course, the long-established Political Economy Club, and Herford (1931: 119) reports that between 1884 and 1888 there were regular economic discussions at the house of Henry Beeton. The circle included Wicksteed, Edgeworth, Foxwell, Sidney Webb and Bernard Shaw (Jevons had of course died in 1882). In addition, the Junior Economic Club was formed at University College in 1890. The formation of the Royal Economic Society is discussed below.

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