Pareto on the History Of Economic Thought as an Aspect of Experimental Economics

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1) Introduction

The recent A Companion to the History of Economic Thought (Samuels, Biddle and Davis 2003) is a very useful resource for historians of economics, mainly because the second of its two parts is devoted entirely to historiography.1 It critically considers Whig history, rational reconstruction, historical reconstruction, the sociology of knowledge, textual exegesis, biography and a range of other topics in historiography. A priori, scholars familiar with Pareto’s work may have expected some discussion of his views on historiography to be included in this part of the book. In addition to being a major economic theorist, his enduring contribution to sociology primarily concerns the sociology of knowledge and he wrote, in some detail, on the purpose of histories of economics and the role of textual analysis when undertaking such studies. However, the part of A Companion to the History of Economic Thought that deals with historiography completely ignores Pareto on this subject.2

However, these comments are not a criticism of A Companion to the History of Economic Thought. Rather, they are intended to highlight a fact: Pareto has had no influence on the development of research methods in the history of economics, at least not in the English speaking world. In this regard, the author has been unable to identify any work on historiography that examines Pareto’s rather unique and well considered views on the relevance and methods of the history of economics. In some ways this is perplexing, because his work on textual analysis in the history of economics appears sophisticated, even by today’s standards. Furthermore, intellectual historians have failed to investigate Pareto’s views on the relevance of the history of economics to the development of theory concerning economic phenomena.

The purpose of this paper is to review and evaluate Pareto’s position on treating the history of economics as an aspect of experimental economics. Emphasis is given to “Economia Sperimentale” (Pareto [1918] 1980), as this is the Giornale degli Economisti article in which Pareto most clearly and unequivocally reflected on the relevance of the history of economics, and to the aspects of his Trattato di Sociologia Sociale (Pareto [1916] 1935) that provide the interpretive context for much of “Economia Sperimentale”, especially the sociological basis for textual analysis in the history of economics.

Section 2 commences by considering what Pareto meant by ‘experimental economics’ and, in this experimental context, highlighting his distinction between theories pertaining to the economic part of the economic phenomenon and theories pertaining to the sociological part of the economic phenomenon. Section 3 considers the manner in which Pareto treated the history of economics as experimental economics. It is suggested that the objective of his history of economics is not purely historical; rather, it is intended as an instrument for developing theory of the sociological part of the economic phenomenon. However, the means of realising this objective are historical. Section 4 examines the implications of Pareto’s approach: it contrasts Stigler’s principle of scientific exegesis with Pareto’s use of textual analysis in the history of economics and considers the discipline that scholars should come from to undertake Paretian studies in the history of economics. It also considers whether Pareto’s approach has value to modern historians of economic thought. The paper concludes, in Section 5, with the finding that historians of economics should find Pareto’s work on the history of economics relevant in the case of: (i) purely historical studies of Pareto’s experimental economics, because he treated the history of economics as a core aspect of experimental economics; (ii) purely historical studies of historiography, to consider why Pareto’s approach to the history of economics did not prove influential while his experimental economics did; and (iii) contemporary studies of historiography, because it has the potential to complement modern research methods for the history of economics.

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