Abstraction chasing historical time: Another reading of Cournot
Abstraction chasing historical time: Another reading of Cournot
Smith is well known for his interest in technology and technological change as we can see from reading the first book of the Wealth of Nations. However, after Ricardo and Ricardians, technological change is not a central preoccupation for most economists, but it was for historians since the time of the Encyclopédie published by Diderot and d’Alembert. So one question is why to study economics at a time that economists mostly did not consider technology as relevant for research, there were other priorities, a general search for unification through abstraction?
First, the history of economic thought is a never ending field of research, always growing as time passes and classical writes are discovered or rediscovered constantly of cyclically. That is just the case of Cournot, largely ignored in his lifetime, if we except the praise made by Walras in 1877; and which has become fashionable among philosophers and mathematicians in the first quarter of the XX century and in economics with the marginalist revolution and the subsequent game theory growing research programme. The case of Cournot is interesting because of the role he played in formal and mathematical analysis for today’s economics. But most of what he has written about knowledge and method is largely ignored in economics and even in the history of economic thought. Part of my objective here is to illustrate the other and not so well known contributions of Cournot to the social sciences. Some questions of past economists are still topical.
Second, and more importantly, the history of economic thought can be used to understand the economists’ viewpoints on technological change and to bridge a gap with the literature on the history of techniques. Underpinning this stand is the importance given to processes and historical processes. In other words, what relevancy for economics can be attributed to the history of technological change?
Other reasons might be advanced, such as the one made by E. White (White 1996), but they do not interest us here. We will start right away with Comte and then John Stuart Mill.
A note on Comte and positivism
Auguste Comte’s positivism presents interesting features for the history of economic thought. First, his conception of science, under the heading of positivism or positive philosophy is more ambiguous than it is usually thought, even if we abstract the vagaries of his political and spiritual concerns, judged by John Stuart Mill as pitiable (Mill 1865).
Second, his conception of science is based on a specific reading of the natural sciences: physics, but also biology as it is less well known given that the first two books of Comte, the Cours de philosophie positive, are usually cited and do not include his reflections on biology, appearing in the third book, on Lesson n.º 40 et sq. It also contains both a general and specific discussion of the philosophy of science and methodology.
Third, Auguste Comte had a wide knowledge of history but also a specific conception of historical time, much opposed to the circular time of Giambattista Vico, an anti-Cartesian scholar of the XVIII century.
From all these points we can thread a portrait of the legacy of positivism in economics and in history, especially around the theme of the division of labor between economics, history, economic history (and cliometrics), econometrics, and other social sciences (to a large extent, sociology and political science).
The positive philosophy can be defined – as Comte did himself in the preface of his Cours de philosophie positive – as a general system that considers theories of aiming at the coordination of the facts observed. This is the last step of the evolution of mankind and his system of thinking (Comte 1830-42). The science, that results from that general framework, is submitted to a unique method, a uniform way of reasoning – what Mill called ratiocination – applicable to all subjects; this is the positive science, in the classical sense. Comte rejoins Bacon when he says that there is no real knowledge than the one based on observed facts. However, it must be stressed that Comte knew that in order to observe, you need a theory; and this is not very often recognized by the current interpretation of Comte of former empiricist standings.
The second element of Comte’s thought, still very influential in the present teaching of economics, is the mechanistic conception of the economy. The central idea of Comte is the one of order both in science and in society. Some of the key influences on his concept of (positive) knowledge come from Bacon and Newton. His social physics is coming from the monism of his methodological stance: one method for all sciences. The method comes from mechanics and astronomy. The level of abstraction of any science is definitely fixed. Following Malebranche, himself follower of Descartes, there is one science, one knowledge that is finished and formed of results and receipts (Verdenal 1978). Everything is already classified. These prohibitions are no less arbitrary than in other systems of thinking, like the scholastic one. Order in Comte’s thought shed light on his rigid conception of society, where pieces are joined in a certain mechanism (Verdenal 1978).
As it is consensual, the mechanistic view of the society (thus, the economy) was much criticized: surprisingly – but not too much, we find criticisms from Ernst Mach, wrongly reduced to the transition from classical positivism (represented by Comte) and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, but there is much more about him to say; and from Gaston Bachelard, a much neglected and innovative philosopher of science, among other things. Other names could be added, and some will be, but, otherwise, it would lead us too far a field outside economics. There is still one last aspect of Comte that needs consideration: time.
Comte considers that history is important, but he is very contradictory if not almost obsessively opposed to historical time and his vagaries. His positivist method comes from a specific reading of the human evolution. He considers that human beings are linked to history and that it is possible to reverse history. In a way, his concept of linear evolution to the positive state is turning to be a cyclical conception of change. His obsession for order and his fear in front of history lead him to negate evolution ounce the Positivist State is reached.
Beyond the fancy consideration about the immaturity of political economy, the interest of Comte’s ideas for economics is twofold: on the one hand, he exerted great influence on economists such as Stuart Mill, Ingram and Walras and on other scientists and educational systems; and, on the other hand, Comte is a mirror of some dominant ideas (or ideology) of a certain epoch that keeps its stronghold in the scientific culture still today. Now we will consider Stuart Mill assumption of Auguste Comte’s legacy.
 There are several economists that reflected consistently on technology such as Babbage, Marx, Veblen and some members of the young German historical school. Like Schumpeter, they might be exceptions to the rule. The historians did not systematize the history of techniques before War World I, except at the level of professions and techniques in a quite isolated way.
 In the English translation by Harriet Martineau of Comte, Auguste (1896b): The Positive Philosophy, Vol. 2. Kitchener: Batoch Books, the second volume contains the third and fourth books of the French edition: Comte, Auguste (1830-42): Cours de philosophie positive. Paris: Rouen Frères
 It can be argued, nonetheless, that Comte has a circular and deterministic conception of time and historical processes, especially when referring to the positive state and the contemporaneous notion of linear progress of the (Western) civilization.
 It is interesting to note that Comte, on the second page of the first Lesson of his Cours…, urges the necessity to look at the progressive path of the human spirit: « [il faut] jeter d’abord un coup-d’oeil général sur la marche progressive de l’esprit human » and he adds on the next page: any conception can only be well understood through its history, in the original we find: « une conception quelconque ne peut être bien connue que par son histoire » Comte, Auguste (1830-42): Cours de philosophie positive. Paris: Rouen Frères.
 On page 8 we find the following sentence: « il n’y a de connaissances réelles que celles qui reposent sur des faits obervés ».
 We can distinguish two phases of Comte’s life and thought, as John Stuart Mill or Littré have recognized: the first, the positive science, and the second, the positive religion. We will limit our consideration to the first phase, which is still a very confusing and contradictory thought.
 See notes 2 and 4.