Dulles, E.
Keynes, Nevile
Menger, C.
Robinson 2

Honorary member's speeches

Honorary Member's Speech at the 2013 ESHET Conference in Kingston (London) by Odd Langholm

Mr. President, Mr. Chairman of the Council, Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues and friends!

When I enrolled as an undergraduate student at the Norwegian School of Economics in 1951 at the age of 23, there was little to indicate that I should stand here today as an emeritus, at the age of 84, and speak to you about the history of medieval economic thought.

In the post-war period, the idea of establishing new mathematical methods in economics appealed to the new generation of scholars. While teaching costing theory with a leaning toward microeconomics, I was attracted by these trends, including their crowning achievement, John von Neumann and Oscar Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. We used to tell our students that calculating expected profit of competing strategies with uncertain outcomes might fail if estimated in monetary terms. Hence the invention of a value that waives empiricism but preserves the logic of the Theory of Games. I quote Von Neumann and Morgenstern (Princeton 1953, p. 28): “We have practically defined numerical utility as being that thing for which the calculus of the expectations is legitimate.”

It can be argued that the Theory of Games is not a regular part of economic science but more in a class with those occasional additions that appear due to times and circumstances. Let us check it against some early masters of economic analysis. Here is Alfred Marshall (Principles of Economics, London 1907, p. 16): The study of human acts and motives belongs in the domain of the philosopher. “But the economist studies mental states rather in their manifestations than in themselves; and if he finds they afford evenly balanced incentives to action, he treats them prima facie as for his purpose equal.” In other words, modern economists are not directly or primarily concerned with motivation; need and greed are all the same as regards their effect on demand. Even more striking and explicit, consider Vilfredo Pareto’s indifference curve analysis (Manual of Political Economy, [1907] 1971, p. 57): A mechanic world is constructed, in which choice is predetermined: “Having thus left us a photograph of his tastes, the individual can disappear.”

A notion of value that evades measurement and the individual did not put a stopper on economic thought in the following centuries. But it made me see that I did not belong in that virtual world of modern economics. Having a fair knowledge of Latin and of history, I did what many had done before me: I turned to Aristotle. The time of that reversal could not have suited me better. In 1970 a four-volume edition of the Ethics was published. The last three volumes contain the text and commentaries. The first volume, by R.A. Gauthier, is a history of the Nicomachean Ethics, not merely as to its content, but as a book. Having been used as a textbook in the Schools, it left a wealth of commentaries, from its translation in 1247 to the end of the Middle Ages. Following Gauthier, and roaming a bit on my own, I located a surprising number of texts. Some are held by the libraries of the main European cities, but many were found in small and unpromising collections, particularly in Italy.

In 1982 my book Price and Value in the Aristotelian Tradition was published. Positive response indicated that I was on the right track. Aristotle’s Ethics deals with other economic subjects besides price and value. The properties of money, and debasement of the currency, were constant sources of unease to the Aristotelians. Usury was a main theme; as well as economic coercion and the nature of the voluntary. These subjects are not only found in separate Aristotelian commentaries, but in works dealing with other themes as well. They may derive from canon law, from regular or special disputations, or from treaties of contracts. Upward of half a dozen of my books are based on this combined material, including a monster covering 633 pages. At present I merely write an article now and then. It is less taxing and much more fun.

I thank you for listening to these ruminations.

I thank you for inviting me to come here and for the honor bestowed upon me.