History (I)

(Methodos V)

Marc Jacquinet


            In order to integrate history – the historical dimension of socio-economic phenomena, the reference to time cannot consist in simple prefatory remarks about the setting of the matter under study before presenting the main results of the enquiry.  It requires changes that lead to different and additive methods of research; different, because history and time demand other tools and additive, because they have to be added to the present tools that have proven satisfactory of relevant to the subject under scrutiny. In order words there is no simple substitution of some tools to the others.

Historical processes cannot be put into an introductory parenthesis and then one keeps going back to business as usual, forgetting that genuine human choice exists, that radical uncertainty and ignorance are essential features of economic actions, and, finally, that the reality is complex and so the tools have to be adapted to this challenge.

I agree with R. L. Basmann when he sustains that “clear recognition of methodological prescriptions […] is an important initial step in establishing effective cooperation between the historian and the economist” (Basmann 1965).  But this is not all; rather, this is just the beginning and defining what the best methodological prescriptions and what are the purpose of the research reveals profound disagreement with the author.  First, before the methodological issue, the ontological question is at stake and in the very matter of history and economics, the problem is serious.  Moreover, in a second phase posterior to the nature of the object of study, the methodological premises (how can we get to know our object of inquiry) are more often than not subject to dogmas or rigid positions that do not contribute fruitfully the edification of cooperation practices between economists and (economic) historians.


The central problem of the ontological question is that history deals with a wide range of very different kinds of phenomena, and among them, the economic change.  So the historian departs from the economics because he focuses the system and not the rational economic agents or any of their aggregates.  This is central to our future discussion.

Three distinctive approaches to history can be outlined here and illustrate the difficulty of establishing a science of historical processes. The first, is the “system” approach exemplified by the German historical school, e. g. Schmoller, the Schumpeter of the seventh chapter of the original edition of Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung, and much of the historians, students of law, and German-speaking scholars of the Humanities, hold the notion system, or the concept of Zusammenhang (what hangs together), as central to their theoretical and explanatory building blocks.  This methodological standing of the past, as we will see, as much to do with the theory of complexity and the complex systems approach of today.  We can see here a philosophical divide between Kantians and neo-Kantians on the one hand, and Hegelians, young-Hegelians and Marxists on the other hand.  The latter, inspired by the works of Marx and Engels, could be considered as a separate tradition.  Historians such as E. H. Carr or J. Fontana inter alia sustain this point (Vilar 19??, Fontana 1982, Carr 1986, Fontana 1992, Hobsbawm 1997, Hobsbawm 1998, Fontana 2001).

The second conception of history is the structuralism, a French tradition that has been on the rise in the end of the 1950s and during two decades and has taken a central standing in sociology and anthropology and the political economy of Latin America, even in the last decade.  The structuralist stance is important both for the concepts and theories it has given to historians and social scientists and for the reactions it has triggered in the works of historians such as F. Braudel. 

The third tradition is the empiricism, mainly in Great Britain and the US.  The philosophical tradition is going back to Francis Bacon, Locke, Berkeley and Hobbes and today is quite present in those historian focusing facts –often called historical facts, i. e. relevant facts– versus, or rather, theories and a priori constructions.  The historical tradition focusing on facts has been very influential and most of the publications in history fall in this category; the theoretical works have been neglected in the empiricist tradition but also in the school of the Annales to a great extend (Fontana 1976).  However, some descriptive works of erudition are of undeniable value.

All those three traditions can be related to and are part of other schools or academic movements and scholarly traditions in history and the social sciences that are not necessarily recent: namely, positivism, history as narrative, the linguistic turn, social and cultural studies, post-modernism, functionalism, etc. [1]


Besides the considerations that can be woven on the different schools of history, there is one central problem, the main one I will tackle in the present research, to the study of historical process: the lack of theoretical work.  If it is often considered that economics gave the primacy of theory over history (Mill, according to Seuket Pamuk)[2] and that historians (including traditional economic historians) proceed the other way around, as often has been reproached to the German historical school to neglect theory and give primacy to historical facts.  This dichotomy is excessive and to a great extent wrong and do not do justice to the variety of analyses in both camps and those that cross over the borders.  Of course, if one just uses history to illustrate the never changing theory throughout times or if one uses theory or theories just to sustain a specific historical narrative without changing the plot, no integration is implemented and no change of the point of departures, results, and methods are imaginable.  History is maintained in a Pandora’s black box while some may pay lip service to historical processes in a stylized facts section of an article or chapter. 

My contribution here is just opposed to that view; historical analysis is not necessarily devoid of theory and economics might be much more historical.  Both could be substantially improved, without pretense, by the use of theory and history relatively.  In the case of history, this is what defends A. R. de las Heras with his concept of theoretical history.  On the other hand, the economic theories themselves can be substantially modified because of the genuine integration of history, i. e. the conclusion that historical processes give us.

This is rather different from the conclusions of B. Holmstrom and J. Tirole in their chapter “The Theory of the Firm” in the notorious Handbook of Industrial Organization :


“Despite the tremendous progress made by organization theory over the last fifteen years, we still have a weak understanding of many important facets of organizational behavior.  There are at least three outstanding problems that need attention. A first (theoretical) step is to develop and apply techniques that deal with non-standard problems such as incomplete contracts, bounded rationality and multi-lateral contracting.  The second step ought to integrate observations from neighboring fields such as sociology and psychology – in a consistent (not ad hoc) way into the theoretical apparatus.  The third step will be to increase the evidence/theory ratio, which is currently very low in this field.”[3]


Let me just do two brief comments. First, there is no consideration of the issue of time and historical processes.  Second, nothing in interdisciplinary of dangerous for the tenets of mainstream economic theory of industrial organizations is acceptable.  The limit of the cooperation is too narrow and does not permit the development of the full potentials of a true historical economics. 

There is a fundamental irreducibility in history that does not permit the use of absolute laws of determination.  Causality is imprecise and needs a stochastic approach (Moles 199?, Eells 1982, 1991).  Contrary to the expectations that a reader of Critique of Political economy could have about the often stated determinism of Marx’s Capital, Marx, responding to criticisms against the Capital, wrote, in a letter to the editor of the Russian journal Notes on the Fatherland in November 1877, that: “[…] events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results.  By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historical-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical”. Xxx ref xxx


Fig 1 (better resolution here A2): Relationships between the subject of analysis (technological innovation) and the disciplinary perspectives (economic and evolutionary theories and history (History I)) and the historical reality (History II), supplementing a new vision of history for the economics (economic history or cliometrics).[4]  It has to be noted that this comparison is based on the criteria of integration of time as a relevant dimension.  Other criteria could lead to very different mappings.




Let me give here a brief comment of the picture.  In order to avoid overloading the figure, I joined the two notions of history: first, the reality, and then, the academic discipline.  The former is part of the object and the former part of the discussion about the object, id est, the discussion on the economic theory, the theory of evolution and the economic history (that includes but is not limited to a theory of history).  [5]

            In the figure, the simple (single) lines reveal undefined relations between two elements.  The double or parallel one indicate a relationship of complementarity (to be specified) and the single arrows are just thematic relationship between two elements whose nature is to be determined in the thesis.  Finally, the double arrows represent a paradigmatical opposition such as the evolutionary theory of Nelson and Winter and the neoclassical economic theory, narrowly construed.  Moreover, I oppose different conceptions of history that reveal to be of paramount importance in the definition of the object of my research.  On the one hand, the historical economics that I defend is a theoretical history that do combine theory and history in a very different mode than the one practice in cliometrics and in the profession of historians, often neglecting the theoretical work necessary to give a satisfactory account of historical processes in their fundamental complexity.


* * * * *


Let me close the consideration on history with a citation from Giambattista Vico, one of the key figure in the historiography of the XVIII century, quite relevant for the effort of a genuine historical economics and a logic of the included middle:

Les philosophes ont engourdi les esprits avec la méthode de Descartes en prétendant, avec leur perception claire et distincte, retrouver sans dépense ni fatigue tout ce qu’il y a dans les bibliothèques.  Descartes s’est acquis une grande suite, grâce à cette faiblesse de notre nature humaine, qui voudrait tout savoir dans le temps le plus court et avec la moindre peine.   [VICO, 1726][6]


[1] Strangely enough, some authors include marxism under the cultural studies and gender labels as if the Marxists historians and economists had never existed.  See Fontana for a critique of this situation xxxx.

[2] See the presidential address of Seuket Pamuk at the European Historical Economics Society of 2001 : Peuket, Ramuk (2001): « Introductory Address, » European Historical Economics Society ‘s Annual Conference: EHES R. Peuket.

[3] Bengt Holmstrom and Jean Tirole (1989) “The Theory of the Firm”, conclusion of chapter 2 in R. Schmalensee and R. Willig Handbook of Industrial Organization, Volume I, Amsterdam: Elsevier.


[4] The methodology of the current exposition of the concepts follows the works of M. P. Dias and Antonio Rodrigues de las Heras, the latter being the professor that has renewed my perpection of history as a scientific discipline. 

[5] The modern economic history (historia moderna) could be a third conception of the historical method if associated to the positive cliometrics. Vide Alberto Baccini and Renato Giannetti, Cliométria, [Spanish translation], Barcelona, Crítica, 1997.  There will be a posterior development of the thesis on the basis of a vast literature: Hicks, E. White, D. McCloskey, J. Mokyr, D. Landes, P. Temin and Paul David, just to mention some of the most important authors.

[6] Apud Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie, Vol. II, XVIIe –XVIIIe siècles, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, [19853, 19382], p. 324, citing a study from Maugain, Étude de l’évolution intellectuelle de l’Italie, p. 196, note.


Cite this article as: {Jacquinet, Marc}, History (I),"{Management Critique}," in {https://critiquema.hypotheses.org}, 19/11/2019, https://critiquema.hypotheses.org/277.

Marc Jacquinet


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