European Society for the History of Economic Thought

Dinner speech at the 2014 ESHET Conference in Lausanne by Bertram Schefold

31 May 2014

Dinner speech at the 2014 ESHET Conference in Lausanne by Bertram Schefold

Dear Colleagues,

We have had a wonderful conference – in spectacularly beautiful surroundings – the local and the scientific organization have justly been praised. I was naturally tired, when I walked to my hotel, and I remembered the verse by Mallarmé:

La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir! là-bas fuir! …

The Poet, tired of books, imagines a ship and wishes to see the anchor lifted – well, even before leaving, we had a wonderful dinner yesterday on the ship on the lake with wind, clouds and a sunset reflected on the mountains.

ESHET has now been in existence for nearly twenty years. We have been in beautiful places before, but our conferences have, though mostly academically fruitful, not always been as idyllic, for, when we began with rivalling societies, an American colleague exclaimed: „There was blood on the floor!“ James Joyce says somewhere: „I am I by memory.“ We wanted to create a European society. At the conference in Graz, some colleagues protested and did not want to attend, because a populist and nationalist movement had just before gained ground in the election. That was fourteen years ago, I had just become President, and in order to promote understanding, I recalled the story of a German diplomat who risked his career and helped my parents, when the Nazis rose to power and the family emigrated to Switzerland.

Now we have had a European election in which populist movements have gained ground in a number of countries, partly in reaction to the specific problems created by the introduction of the Euro, partly despairing of European integration altogether. As a Swiss of German and Jewish descent, living in Germany, I asked myself why the European values are so weak. It is indeed not easy to identify specifically European values. Those of Ancient liberality and of eighteenth century liberalism are really cosmopolitan and we hope that they will continue to spread with globalization. Nineteenth century nationalism, on the other hand, has tended to taint previously more universal values in national colours. Universities and schools, religions and churches, forms of political governance, even the organisation of public finance, and all forms of cultural expression received more and more national traits and diverged from the common roots of the Roman empire, of Christianity and humanism.

The European idea must be very weak, if Europe can fall apart about economic policy. Its unity is in its history – „I am I by memory“. We must cherish and share the diversity, which has arisen. The Italians like to speak of their Patrimonio storico, visible in art and embodied in literature. Such commonality does not presuppose a common language, as the Swiss example demonstrates.

We experience European diversity and commonality every day in our work as historians of economic thought. To transmit this heritage is probably our most noble task. We may be proud of our achievements when our historical work adds to the theoretical knowledge or when we have made a nice discovery in an archive. But, as a profession, we are not primarily like engineers employed to invent new gadgets, but the task is, like that of the humanities in general, to preserve a heritage, and that means in our case to make students and a larger public understand how European economic thought arose in conjunction with modern capitalism. We thus help to create a consciousness of European values. To examine how the European ideas spread to other continents and to discover parallel developments in other cultures, apparently independently developed as in the Far East or in obvious interdependence as in the case of the Arabs, will be a complementary task.

But it is not only a task: it is a pleasure; it can become a passion. This conference has shown it again.

Bertram Schefold
President of ESHET, 2000 – 2002