Bruce Caldwell - Why Economics Needs the History of Thought

About the Interview

Who is going to teach fields like economic methodology and the history of economic thought if these fields aren't taught to current graduate students? Bruce Caldwell is filling this hole in the graduate curriculum. The Hayek scholar is ramping-up the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University to educate a generation of future professors – a generation that is well-versed in the history of economic thought, and that communicates with other social sciences and the humanities. These are the seeds of new economic thinking.

About Bruce Caldwell

Bruce Caldwell is a Research Professor of Economics and the Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. He is the author of Beyond Positivism: Economic Methodology in the 20th Century. For the past two decades his research has focused on the multi-faceted writings of the Nobel prize-winning economist and social theorist Friedrich A. Hayek. Since 2002 he has been the General Editor of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, a collection of Hayek's writings. Full profile



Very good initiative. Time to put an end to that generation of economists that look at nothing more then 5 years of historical data and then compile models that calculate prices with precision to the fifth decimal point, whuch means absolutely nothing, yet can not forecast a major crisis.


I am very interested in this program,and perhaps a visit to your school at some point. I have currently completed 60% of my MBA at Southern NH University, but I'm stuck because I've run oout of money. Perhaps Duke can help me?


Is this in your archives yet? ;-) But seriously, what you have noted on the lack of a historical context, I guess is not surprising. I look forward to your INET involvement. Is it not the case that Keynes and Hayek might have worked together better than their followers have?


I wonder - perhaps naively - if some time along the process of studying the History of Economic Thought, academics will stumble upon Stuart Mill's long term perspective for the capitalist system and, for example, Ricardo's «transformation problem» and the explanation for that problem proposed by the old and devilish bearded «Oracle of Trier»... 8-)


Perry Mehrling is too intelligent to be pitching softball questions for a whole interview, especially to a lightweight like Caldwell. The obsequiousness was worse than "At the Actors' Studio", because here the distinguished character actor was interviewing the body double.

The history of economics attacks persons too intellectually timid or mathematically ill-prepared to do research on real economic problems, and who prefer to sit in the over-stuffed chairs of the faculty lounge carrying brandy sifters and toasting themselves for their broad education and critical thinking. There is work to be done, and what has Caldwell or any of the HOPE cult contributed?

In writing about the history of economics, mainstream economists are often more interesting than historians of economic thought. Economists like George Stigler, Paul Samuelson, Ken Arrrow, and Amartya Sen are far more interesting when they write about historical economics than the HOPEd-up mediocrities. Why?

There are two reasons. First, they have a far better understanding of economic theory and so can better appraise previous graspings at propositions. There has been progress in economics, and much of it is due to mathematization, so we now understand the sloppiness of previous discussions of aggregation and general equilibrium. Second, they are more intelligent.

How can an honest and intelligent economist waste time with writing "Beyond positivism", which could have been written by a sociology "theorist" in 1975. It was just ignored by philosophers. Apart from having a Hungarian-American sugar daddy, how does this guy come off lecturing the economics profession about the needs of graduate students?



I had wished that a polemical style would provoke debate and discussion. Now I am disappointed that nobody has commented on my opinionated criticism or others' praise.

However, your posting my criticism, despite its harsh tone, exemplified the open-society spirit of Soros's economics-project.


Do you think the sense of "value" did exist before the birth of first ape on the planet earth?

Harshad Dave


Jim, I will reply to your post, even though its more than 2 years old.

Well the HOPE cult probably hasnt accomplished much in the last 5-10 or so years. But this is not surprising, as they are heavily marginalized academically and financially. Even with the part funding from Soros.

They have also for a long time had the age of the spirit against them. Since the dominating ethos of neoliberalism is really just the political extension of much of neoclassical economics.
If politicians dont see any point in funding historical research critical of the reigning spiritual orthodoxy, progress will be slow and filled with obstacles. On top of this, there is a lot of resistance towards these kinds of intellectual projects from the entrenched economics profession.

So I really think that you are setting unreasonable expectations. Changes like these take time, maybe even decades. And it also requires certain amounts of goodwill from the surroundings.

Your intellectual thrashing of Caldwell is really uncalled for. You are criticing a book more than 30 years old. So of course parts of it will seem outdated. Besides "Beyond positivism" is meant for a larger economics audience, possibly as an economics undergraduate introduction to the philosophy of science. Its not just a collection of research articles.

Besides, is it really fair to compare Caldwell to nobel prize winners in economics? The majority of economists will come off as "lightweight" when you compare them to the small minority this group comprises. And just to set the record straight, Sen has an extensive trainning in philosophy under his belt, so he is in some ways partly a specialist himself in the philosophy of economics.

It really seems like you are missing the point. Intellectual history will rarely solve real world problems in themselves. But it can function as a tool for the larger enterprise of economic research. And it serves an important objective of educating the next generation of economists, who very likely will go on to solve "real" problems themselves once they graduate. So it is actually a teaching device meant for the long term transformation of the mentality of the profession.
But to succeed in this endeavour you need specialists in the field, who are not preoccupied with a host of other research projects.

So concluding, I really think your critique misses the mark.

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