Heterodox Economics And The History Of Economic Thought

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Heterodox economics and the history of economic thought
Carlo D’Ippoliti and Alessandro Roncaglia
This is probably all one can ask of history, and of the history of ideas in particular: not to resolve issues, but to raise the level of the debate. (Hirschman 1977, 135)
The declining role of the history of economic thought (HET) in university research and teaching has been increasingly under debate. Many historians often recall the relationship between HET and heterodox economics (HEC), considering it as a strength of HET and/or one of the reasons for its damnation among mainstream economists. In this contribution we reconsider the reasons for such connection focusing on the converse and less debated side of the issue—that is, the role of HET for and within HEC.
Such a topic seems a fitting theme for a tribute to Frederic Lee, who shares with us both heterodoxy and an active interest in HET. He even combined these elements in his research on the history of heterodox streams of economics (see Lee 2009). It is also a way of recalling the first meeting of both authors with Fred: with Alessandro Roncaglia, the lecture hall of a course in HET in the Fall semester 1978, when Alessandro was a visiting professor at Rutgers University and Fred was a research student; and with Carlo
D’Ippoliti, at a conference on the impact of journal and department rankings on heterodox economics, organized by Fred and Wolfram Elsner at the University of
In the following section we consider the main reasons that HET and HEC are often practiced together. We then proceed to delineate why, in our view, they should mutually reinforce each other, by briefly reviewing the debate on the existence of


different streams of heterodox economics. We suggest in this section that the history of economic thought can play a crucial role in precisely defining a program of research and thus in defining the scope and limits of heterodox economics. In what follows we highlight our own perspective on how HET should play such a role, by shortly recalling the paradigmatic contrast in price and value theory between the marginalist and the
Classical-Keynesian approaches. Our ‘mundane’ conclusions will instead recall a number of more “tactical” reasons for forging pluralist alliances between historians of economic thought and heterodox economists.

A longstanding liaison: history of economic thought and heterodox economics

The close connection between heterodox economics and the history of economic thought is a literary topos among scholars in the latter field. For example, Blaug (2001) claims that there are two types of like-minded economists: those originally attracted by the mathematical mastery of social phenomena, and those inclined to philosophical research on these phenomena. In his view heterodox economists and historians of economics share the latter approach and thus find themselves reflecting on similar topics, meet at certain conferences, often happen to be the same people. Weintraub (2002b) adds that

the traditions of heterodox economics utilize historical argumentation in ways quite different from the practices of neoclassical economists … in the way that game theorists would not appeal to a point of interpretation in The Theory of Games and


Economic Behavior in order to assess the merits of a particular form of an auction.

At the same time, he notes, the history of economics community has been a “big tent” and even a “welcoming tent” for heterodox economists (Weintraub 2002b, 8). But while the expedience and relevance for HET to include heterodox perspectives has been frequently discussed (including in the essays contained in the mentioned Weintraub
2002a), the importance of HET for heterodox economics has mostly been taken for granted, often without adequate reflection. In fact, in the passage quoted above
Weintraub might be read as suggesting that heterodox economists make use of HET in order to ‘appeal to authority,’ while