Mill, James
George, Henry
Clark, J. B.
Dulles, E.

Honorary member's speeches

After Dinner Speech at the 2007 ESHET Conference in Strasbourg by Jean-Claude Perrot

My dear colleagues, my dear friends,
My intellectual culture is different from yours, and my knowledge comes from a different academic field: history, and more precisely 18th century history, and even more precisely 18th century economic and urban history.
Hence, tonight, you generously welcome at your dinner table a nearly baggage less traveller. I could, of course, rely on the rich tradition of novels of initiation and tell you the detailed story of my research. But I shall be brief and just say a few words on my departures, and on my arrivals.
Just after the Second World War, two famous professors taught economic history in Paris. One of them, Fernand Braudel was introducing us to European research network and would invite post-doctoral students to give papers at the “Economic History Weeks” in Prato. The high reputation of the place and the skys of Tuscany would often attract a few “Nobel” laureates.
The other was Ernest Labrousse, who instructed us both with conjonctural quantitative history and with what was then taught in the French Faculties of Law and Economics. And, in both his theses, in history and in economics, one could find a great number of footnotes and references to 18th century authors.
In the mid 1950s, I was heading towards my first works in demography and urban economics. With the friendly support of Alfred Sauvy, I began to read the huge 18th century administrative archival material, together with some published and unpublished manuscripts. I then discovered a very large number of government memoranda, political and philosophical essays, engineers and merchants writings, and notes from urban architects or physicians. I could see how different representations of reality were formed, through the very raw material of the major theoretical quarrels of the times : the sharing of the commons, the steps of progress in agriculture, the role of banks and of money, the justification of credit, the freedom of trade, the luxury quarrel, the disputes over depopulation, the competition with Great Britain. In a word economic theories could be seen at birth : in statu nascendi.
In the lengthy work in urban history which came out of this research, I tried to cross examine material history with intellectual history. I tried to identify how contemporary observers could conceive the interactions between the two. I also tried to identify the role played by quantitative datas in these interactions. I wanted to follow the shifts in vocabulary, as well as examine the necessity to create new concepts and tools. In France, from the abbÈ de Saint Pierre, through the demographers (Messance, Moheau), to the Physiocrats, Turgot, Condillac, or Isnard, all argued in favour of the invention of specific terms. Thence, each step recalled a history of scientific abstraction. I could find signs of this in the daily professional language, in law, accounting and even popular writing.
A good example is given by the role of space in economic thought, so elegantly described by Pierrre DockËs and Claude Ponsard. In the mid 18th century, the setting of a technical group of road engineers (the Ponts et ChaussÈes) in most European kingdoms,as well as the necessity to accelerate trade relationships with Great Britain, enhanced both the material need for a new access to the cities, and a new representation of the roads, rivers and canals networks. Hence, in association with economic thinking, a new geography appeared, simplified, based on the triangulation of modern cartography invented by the Cassinis, and this association in turn produces new theories : in England, a theory of tolls; in France, a science of public tarification, with Dupuy, in the 19th century; or in Germany a new theory of price formation with Heinrich von Th¸nen.
Thus economic theory appears twice in this historical narrative : first as a reflexive domain, second as a domain where diverse interpretations are constructed. And it also appears under two types: as a science of practices and as a science of norms, both being strongly subjugated to a hypothesis of rationality.
One could consider that this “new science”, as Dupont de Nemours qualifies it, is outrageously complex, or even conjectural; but it definitely is not an arbitrary science : it just shares the historicity of the societies it aims at observing.
Let us take the example of the notion of equilibrium. Its semantic origins are old and bring us back to Renaissance architecture and fine arts. In the 17th century, the term conquers the domains of physics and mechanics (scales and communicating vesselss), then, during Louis the 14th’s last wars, it also conquers the language of politics and trade. At each step, the scientist appears both as an inventor and as a producer; as an observer and as a witness of situations of equilibrium. As for the basis of its introduction in economics, one could identify the development of political arithmetics, which generates the hope of measuring and comparing equilibria; or the designing of private interests as a homogeneous spring for human behaviour.
Hence the notion of equilibrium metaphorically sneaked in through economic thought, with the consent of Royal officials, of philosophers, and of natural scientists, such as Hume, Turgot or Isnard, although it will not be discussed as such before the 19th and 20th centuries.
Thence, if, like in genealogy, it is of some interest to look for the past of present questions, it is even more interesting, like in archaeology, to scrutinize the past of past questions.
In a word, great economic texts should be judged by the suitability of their hypothesis with the knowledge of past times. And as a historian, I can here feel close enough to my roots to open your books with less timidity.

Jean-Claude Perrot
(English translation: Annie L. Cot)




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