Yesterday, I learned from his former colleague, June Flanders, that the Stanford economist, Nathan Rosenberg, has died. At his passing he was the Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Public Policy in the Department of Economics. He was an expert in the economics of technology, especially technological change and his work influenced theories about the role of institutions and technological change in economic history and innovation studies (see, e.g., North's Nobel lecture). Some other time I hope to return to his significance in these areas for philosophy of science and science policy.
Not unlike other economists of his generation, Rosenberg was educated in the history of economics and not above making genuine contributions to scholarship in the area and to integrate such scholarship in his contributions to economics. His papers in the area (the most important of which published during the 1960s in leading journals) were collected in The Emergence of Economic Ideas: Essays in the History of Economics (1994).
I never met Professor Rosenberg in person, but I had a significant interaction with him. I read his seminal paper (1960) "Some institutional aspects of the Wealth of Nations" (The Journal of Political Economy) while researching my dissertation (recall also this post). Rosenberg's paper was not unknown, but the only full-length study of Smith that had been clearly influenced by it was Jerry Muller's very fine study, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society (1993); I thought this had not exhuasted Rosenberg's insights. So, the central chapter of my dissertation, an original interpretation of Smith's methodology of the Wealth of Nations (a revised version was published here), was an elaboration of Rosenberg's insights in light of my own reconstruction of Smith's epistemology and philosophy/sociology of science.
Because even widely read professional philosophers (like the supervisors of my dissertation) were not expected to be fully conversant in scholarship in the history of economics, I approached a bunch of economists to read this chapter (assuming incorrectly at the time, that professional economists would be relevant experts). Rosenberg sent me generous and detailed comments on my chapter (which were gratefully acknowledged) as well as a copy of his own The Emergence of Economic ideas. In particular, his comments helped me formulate my central claim about the nature of natural prices in Wealth of Nations in terms that would be familiar to modern readers. Now that I have a become a busy, over-extended scholar (that routinely fails to meet accepted and self-imposed deadlines), I recognize the true generosity of Rosenberg to draw on his most valuable scholarly resource (his time) in order to read and comment on work by an unknown, junior scholar from a different discipline. Because I was abroad at the time, he also offered to fax me his comments.
Emergence also reprints Rosenberg's elegant paper on Mandeville. This paper was published before Hayek's (more) famous lecture on Mandeville and it clearly anticipates several of Hayek's most important claims (as Hayek acknowledges). When I first read it (after Rosenberg had sent me Emergence), it was a total eye-opener on the significance of Mandeville (on Hume and Smith).
I close with a scholarly observation. In going through my correspondence with him, I noticed that I wrote a letter with my responses to each of the paper's of Emergence. (I hope this amused him!) I quote one of these comments (from December 10, 2001) to give a flavor of his significance to Smith scholarship: "Reading your paper on "Adam Smith, Consumer Tastes, and Economic Growth," finally made me see why Smith devotes so little systematic attention to the service-sector in commercial societies. (Something that has vexed me, as I found the obvious answer, services are not that important in his day, unsatisfying.) He had identified services with the backward (and retrogressive stage of) Feudalism in which there were few opportunities for economic growth (p. 368 & 372)."