Like Schumpeter, Marshall saw himself in a very superior position in the whole world of economics, and even towards his hero, Ricardo, there is more than a touch of condescension. Ricardo is given to an excessive love of abstraction, no doubt, says Marshall, the result of Ricardo's "Semitic" heritage. great biological developments of the nineteenth century had their dark side in the use of science to justify racism, and this example is far from the only one in Marshall.) (3)
Keynes did not confuse an antiquarian interest in seeing Sraffa produce a good edition of Ricardo with any excessive respect for an obstacle to what he saw as correct thinking. His understanding of past economists was primarily dictated by their consistency with his current thought. (6)
It would be too far from the aim of this essay to examine whether or to what extent the criticism of Ricardo by his successors was motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the fear of giving aid to the enemies of capitalism. Like any historical inquiry, it would have to be conterfactual, and it is not very clear what would count as relevant evidence.
Instead let me make a few remarks about the fundamental character of Ricardo's system, as I see it. I am a practicing theorist, not a scholar in the history of economic thought, and my reactions are no doubt influenced by my own views. Indeed, it is hard to write intellectual theory and, for that matter, any kind of history, without framing the past through the perspective of the present. It can justly be remarked about history that it is as revealing about the time when it was written as about the time which is its ostensible subject matter. Nevertheless, it is morally incumbent on us to try as far as possible to put ourselves in a position contemporary with that of our author. (8) K. Arrow , "Ricardo's Work as Viewed by Later Economists,"
The great theorist, Arrow (recall yesterday and last week, and here), treats the writing of history as, in part, a moral exercise. He does not explain why he thinks this, but it's clear that he believes that what economics is about is, in part, not just focused on ideas or theories, but also the evaluation of authors. Throughout the essay, Arrow shows an interest in authors' (and their critics') motives, which are linked up to their political, ideological, and even racist commitments. Even in the quoted passage above, where Arrow self-consciously does not explore the motives of the critics of Ricardo, he makes a point of mentioning them anyway. But the core historical method he embraces is that qua historian, we have to "try as far as possible to put ourselves in a position contemporary with that of our author." Note that Arrow is not claiming that we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the author, but rather we have to take up a kind of counterfactual position that makes us a kind of contemporaneous observer when we evaluate the quality of an author's thought. But in so doing we bring along, as it were, our knowledge.
Arrow, in fact, exhibits this methodological stance throughout the essay. He is very careful to avoid Whiggish criticism (and criticizes others for doing so), but he always takes up two perspectives while writing the past: he shows the strengths and limitations of an author's thought both (i) from the hypothetical then contemporary perspective (noting what could have been criticized and appreciated with the technical tools at hand) as well as (ii) from the present perspective in which the implications of some tools are better known or new concepts have been introduced to make theoretical relations more transparent.*
As an aside, Arrow is frank about the fact that the counterfactual that goes into (i) is really itself a kind of art: it is, after all, (a) "not very clear what would count as relevant evidence." He does not note another problem with his stance toward (i); it is not entirely clear (b) what counts as contemporary -- how long is the present? -- especially, if there is not a historical agent that can be connected to the perspective. It is worth noting that the complications involving (b) especially have been explored by critics of Quentin Skinner in recent (!) discussions about the methodology of the the history of philosophy (see, e.g., Laerke and my observations on Koen Vermeir).
Arrow recognizes that (ii) runs the danger of generating a superior position that is to be avoided. He does not explain how this is done, and he recognizes, remarkably (recall also my post on Marshall's criticism of Ricardo), that science itself can be a source of -- let's say -- unjustified or unearned feeling of elevation. (It's allied to expert-overconfidence, and mistaken self-understand as magnanimous but not the same to each.) Presumably by engaging in the practice of (i), one can learn to avoid the hubris associated with (ii) or (iii) the kind of sectarian yet Whiggish interest in the present that Arrow associates with Keynes's treatment of the past (see the quote above).
Often, when one reads the other two great historians of economics who also were Nobel-laureates, Samuelson and Stigler, one gets the sense that they recognize that maintaining control over history matters (in ways Kuhn has described) for the identity of the present paradigm. (They were both intimately familiar with Kuhnian ideas before Kuhn wrote Structure [see here and here])** It's not impossible that Arrow also thought this. But I wish to entertain another speculation.
Strikingly, Arrow does not treat being a theorist in such moral terms. Yesterday, I noted that Arrow has a tendency to treat theorizing, in part, as a form of intellectual combat in which opposing views are destroyed. (That's perfectly compatible with him being a generous and kind person in all kinds of ways.) One may speculate (and Arrow explicitly recognizes the legitimacy of such speculation) that for Arrow writing and teaching history of thought was, in part, a kind of intellectual therapy to guard against his own intellectual vices. (Recall also my exchange with Susan James.) As he himself noted the historian's craft can also be quite revealing "about the time when it was written" as well as its author.
*"I do not intend to engage in the process of scoring Ricardo for his adequacy in anticipating subsequent developments in economic
theory. But some deficiencies should have been clear."
**They also saw it as a pastime appropriate to the intellectual legislators (like themselves). There is a remark in an obituary of Viner by Samuelson that taught me this. I hope to recover it before long.