The International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) recently published the Inclusive Wealth Report 2012, in which the authors propose a measure of wealth based on the stock of capital present in a country, as opposed to the flow measure of GDP. It is an important step towards a more explicit recognition of the sustainability of the economy’s use of resources, and is so obviously analogous to the standard assets-based way of accounting and estimating wealth in the corporate sector that one wonders why on earth it took so long to appear on the scene.
Last Friday, philosophers from the University of Leiden hosted the symposium ‘Between Science and History,’ in an attempt to figure out what the differences are between practicing scientists’ use of history and historians use of history. The organizers had conjured up the nice experiment of letting a scientist and a historian in one session give a talk on a famous historical figure – Einstein, Darwin, Christiaan Huygens. (Plus there were a few idiosyncratic talks, interesting in other respects, but let me leave those out here.)
Our usual problem in history (of economics) is a lack of information. Archival sources, if available at all, always present gaps of correspondence between people you just know should be there, and never contain that vital review report, or the minutes of that one crucial meeting. Moreover, if the people you write about are alive and willing to talk, it turns out they’re only human: they’ve forgotten the vast majority of their past, mix up events and people, mistake a recollection they once read for their own memory, or even willfully rewrite history. All too bad, although it gives us the possibility, perhaps even obligation, to speculate, interpret, and fill in. And then of course spend hours and hours discussing with one another whether we have done so correctly.
I don’t seem to be able to fully grasp Mark Blaug’s distinction between a relativist and an absolutist approach to the history of economics – first introduced in Economic Theory in Retrospect (1962) – and that is a source of much frustration. At first sight, the distinction seems obvious enough. Relativist historians emphasize the social, political, personal etc context in which economic ideas were developed; absolutist historians view history as a sequence of Great Economists building on and/or refuting each other’s theories. Obviously, most histories of economics use a bit of both.
The title of the conference, "Paradigm Lost," is an obvious combination of two references. "Paradigm" refers to Thomas Kuhn's use of the term, as the dominant and imposing mode of thinking of a particular group of scientists. "Lost" refers to John Milton's Paradise Lost. Based on Kuhn, the title of the conference says: Too many anomalies have built up, and we're looking for the new paradigm that will replace the old. Fine, and very true. The reference to Milton is more complicated, however. Is the paradigm that we lost a paradisiacal world we (should) seek to regain? By relying on Milton, the title suggests a romantic longing for an innonence that we lost during adolescence and that we forever struggle to regain during the rest of our lives.