Economics (I) – The Difficult Path to Be Taken


(Methodos X)

Marc Jacquinet


We can consider today’s economics as being at a crossroads with several routes lying ahead: mainstream, Austrian, evolutionary and historical economics, just to mention a few and non-exhaustive possibilities.  Albeit to some economists the decision appears seemingly obvious or does not even exist as if knowledge was perfect and “the logic of choice complete and compelling” (Loasby 1976); we will see that current (economic) knowledge is imperfect, uncertain – both within and about economics – and the future  lies open, where genuine choice exists well and truly. 

Few authors in economics have triggered as many controversies, misunderstanding and further research perspectives as Joseph Schumpeter.  The controversies are not foreign to the very ambiguous features of Schumpeter’s economic thought. There is, now and from quite a long time, a vast literature not only on Schumpeter, but also on the different interpretations of his work.  The so-called Schumpeterian hypotheses are a good case in point of a denaturing translation of the author’s writings.  These conjectures are partly inspired by Schumpeter’s work but not very Schumpeterian in terms of method as advocated in his paper on Gustav Schmoller, “Gustav v. Schmoller und die Probleme von heute” (Schumpeter 1926); his History of Economic Thought, (Schumpeter 1954); his 1908 book, Das Wesen und der Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie (Schumpeter 1908); and the first edition of the Theory of Economic Development (Schumpeter 1911).  The historical leaning of Schumpeter has been defended recently by Ebner (Ebner 2000).[1]  I will come back to this in a brief moment (ver post Mainstream economics and technological change, a critical assessment).

Here, however, I will discuss Schumpeter on four grounds: the state of the so-called Schumpeterian literature, the methodological issues, the focus on history, and the perspectives on evolution, the last three one coming from the very works of Schumpeter.  


It is important to grasp the problems imparted by technological change and to proceed at an appraisal of our understanding of the economic change that is conterminous to it.  This appraisal leads us to the discussion and treatment of methodological issues that are not often tackled in the vast majority of the economic literature and going back to Schumpeter has been and still is fruitful.   Indeed, discussion of the author’s the conceptions of innovation, as an engine of change has not lost steam.  I will focus the idea of system that lies behind Schumpeter theory of economic evolution.

I will make clear what is my standing in relation to the mainstream economic literature in order to situate better my integration of theoretical history, historiography, and the theory of evolution.

With due wariness, like cliometricians conceiving their discipline – or more exactly, their sub-discipline – as a synthesis between economics and historiography, a theme to which I will return later on (see chapter II, xxx); I could conceive the brand of economics I nurture as being historical and evolutionary, or simply, historical; consisting of a tentative to realize a synthesis between a general and abstract theory of evolution and the study of historical processes, combining concrete and theoretical history.  The evolutionary side of economics is backing the study through some general ideas and theories while the latter, history as a discipline, integrates historical time of the economy and the socio-economic systems that compose our universe into a theoretical framework, without neglecting empirical results that are relevant to the issue under investigation. This needs some clarifying comments.  

First, conversely to the traditional scholarship relying on some prejudices since the time of Aristotle, history is not just about facts, specific events, and other particulars while evolutionary theory is not just about the general.  The matter for both is more complex.  Both present a drive for abstraction and another one for empirical research and factual description and explanations.  Second, the articulation between evolutionary ideas and history has been studded with –if not chock-full of- errors, shallow concepts, and spurious results aplenty. Two famous cases in point are Spencer’s view of social evolution and social sciences and the unilinear evolutionism with its follower, neo-evolutionism including precursors such as Ferguson (18th century), L. Morgan (19th century), H. Sumner-Maine (Ancient Law, 1861) and Durkheim (in one of his first books published in 1893: De la division du travail social).[2]  Evolutionary metaphors have greatly suffered from the setbacks that followed the reductionism and its concomitant erroneous principles for the study of human evolution of the socio-economic system (Rouland 1988, 1995).  Some have inveighed against evolutionism; others have just neglected or forgotten it.  But, hopefully, others, still, have taken evolutionary concepts and the theory of evolution seriously, like Norbert Elias.

Lately, however, the revival has been notorious, as seen by the increasing number of “evolutionary” publications, books and journals.  This upsurge is worth consideration, this is none of the central message of the thesis: evolutionary ideas are a progressive component of political economy.


One more and last remark, the specificity of economic and social phenomena must be stressed, i. e., its ontology including being and becoming.   I will not discuss further the ontological question in the coming chapters but I have to recognize first and foremost its central and unavoidable for economics.  Indeed, any scientist or scientific practice must presuppose what the reality is and what are the consequences for the research method and practice.  The postulate I adopt here consists in a clear recognition of the socio-economic reality as a complex and changing object through time.  The consequences are important, both at the level of the results that can be expected, which posit the necessary modesty of what we can know, and at the level of method.  The two issues are the expected results of research and the question of method.  Both are consistent with the general framework of evolutionary theory, social history, theoretical history (as I will define it) the theory of complexity and evolutionary economics.  That is what I will argue in what ensues in the next pages and posts.  

I will start with some plain methodological issues before positing the problem of technological change.

[1] See, for example, among many studies, a relatively recent paper on the Schumpeterian hypotheses by Symeonidis, George (1996): « Innovation, Firm Size and Market Structure: Schumpeterian Hypotheses and Some New Themes, » OEDC Economic Department Working Paper, nº 161, pp.  This is a good introduction to the issue which is not settled yet.  Other references on Schumpeter can be found in the Graz Schumpeter Lectures series such as Metcalfe, J. S. (1998b): Evolutionary Economics and Creative Destruction. London: Routledge, Loasby, Brian (1999): Knowledge, institutions and evolution in economics. London: Routledge.

[2] See the treatment given by Norbert Rouland (1988 and 1995), which gives an up-to-date critique of the unilinear approach to legal systems extendable to other areas of scholarship, including economics.  Mainstream tradition in political economy, with its focus on rationality and utilitarianism is also a very particular anthropological conception of the human beings and the social realm.

Cite this article as: {Jacquinet, Marc}, Economics (I) – The Difficult Path to Be Taken,"{Management Critique}," in {}, 02/12/2019,

Marc Jacquinet

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