Backhouse and Bateman wants Worldly Philosophers not dentists; not everyone agrees

[Cross-posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Professors Roger Backhouse and Brad Bateman wrote an op-ed for the New York Times a few days ago, arguing that “thanks to decades of academic training in the “dentistry” approach to economics, today’s Keynes or Friedman is nowhere to be found” – we have stopped thinking big they say.

I was trying to channel something similar a few months back when I asked who does original research?. In a reply, erw rightly reprimanded me for taking such a naive view of how to do history, and Yann amplified the point that originality or greatness was not the historical question. Indeed ‘greatness’ should be studied as something relative.

As historians our role is to historicize such work asking for instance “what was it about the time, place, and community that led this particular work to be judged to be “fundamental” at that time? At another time? How did this claim function in a particular scientific or disciplinary community at a time and place?  -erw 26 July 2011

Backhouse and Bateman are saying that “economists, to whom we might expect to turn for such vision, have long since given up thinking in terms of economic systems — and we are all the worse for it.” And what do we as historians and economists reply? The Societies for the History of Economics mailing list (SHOE) has been hot with debate. Ironically they are debating how Backhouse and Bateman may or may not have under-represented the views of Hayek or Friedman, suggesting various books on history to understand ‘great’ economists, and generally performing dentistry. The debate is not about finding new worldly philosophers, and we are all the worse for it.

So what else can we do? If history tells you that we will not be able to see who is doing original or great research I would suggest that interesting work is at least within grasp. If we economists then think that systemic issues or capitalism as a subject is interesting, I guess there could be a shift. And from there on, I guess we have to rely on the concept from literature: You won’t know a classic until 50 years after it has been published. Maybe that’s a hint to write fewer articles and more books? Much like Niall ferguson said at Bretton Woods, and Backhouse and Bateman mention…


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