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Is There Progress in Economics?

Knowledge, Truth and the History of Economic Thought

Edited by Stephan Boehm, Christian Gehrke, Heinz D. Kurz and Richard Sturn

This thought-provoking book discusses the concept of progress in economics and investigates whether any advance has been made in its different spheres of research. The authors look back at the history, successes and failures of their respective fields and thoroughly examine the notion of progress from an epistemological and methodological perspective.
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Chapter 6: On progress and the history of economic thought

Knowledge, Truth and the History of Economic Thought

Roger E. Backhouse


Roger E. Backhouse INTRODUCTION As a community, historians of economic thought entertain very diverse attitudes towards the notion of progress in economics. Faced with this diversity, many individuals find themselves torn in different directions. They want to agree with both Mark Blaug (Chapter 2, this volume), who regards progress as the most important question confronting the historian of economics, and Donald Winch (Chapter 1, this volume), who is doubtful about whether it really matters. The question I focus upon here is whether such an attitude is coherent or reveals an element of schizophrenia. The obvious way to reconcile the views of Blaug and Winch, of course, is to argue that there are many questions the historian can try to answer. For some of these progress will be important but for others it will not. In other words, Blaug and Winch are interested in different things and the discipline should embrace both perspectives. There is, however, more to be said. To see this, consider a slightly different question: ÔDoes it make sense, in writing a history of economic thought, to follow Winch on the transition that took place in political economy from Smith to Malthus, and then to follow Blaug when the story gets to the twentieth century?Õ I hope to show that the answer is ÔYesÕ. WHOSE CONCEPT OF PROGRESS? The concept of progress is an inherently normative term Ð it is about things becoming better in some sense. However, it is frequently used as if it were a positive term....

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