Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Economists and Their Definitions: the Classical Economists - The Economic Point of View
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The Economists and Their Definitions: the Classical Economists - Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View 
The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976).
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The Economists and Their Definitions: the Classical Economists
Modern investigations into classical economic thought are gradually providing us with a more coherent picture of the intellectual scenery in early nineteenth–century political economy. Among the more important contributions in this direction is the final interment of the idea that there was ever a happy unanimity of opinion, a generally accepted body of theory in the propagation of which the classical economists were a united band of enthusiastic missionaries. Similarly the notion, once widespread, that the classical economists were as a body unconcerned with the methodological foundations of their work is rapidly disappearing from discussions of the subject.20
It seems worthwhile to dispel the rather common impression that the classical economists were generally unconcerned with attaining and enunciating a precise definition of the subject of their inquries.21 This is by no means the case. It is true that J. S. Mill, writing in 1836,22 felt obliged to apologize for the lack of a definition of political economy “framed on strictly logical principles,” by explaining that the definition of any science “has almost invariably not preceded, but followed, the creation of the science itself.” But many economists had already felt the need to delineate the boundaries of their inquiries. And while it is true that the classical economists were generally in broad agreement concerning what it was that they were talking about, they were by no means agreed about how to demarcate this area of their in- vestigations or even how to conceive the unity and logical nature of their field.
The early economists, in fact, when offering definitions of their science, were often far more earnestly concerned with expressing its true essence and nature than were many of their successors. Although the latter, as Mill asserted, may have been better equipped for this task, they had far less occasion to engage in it. For the thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a real need for a mode of definition that could justify the conception of a new and separate science. While their definitions might only imperfectly indicate the actual character of their inquiries, they still had to demonstrate the peculiarity in subject matter or method of investigation that prevented economics from being subsumed under some wider, extant discipline.
Classical writers could express themselves about the nature of the economic in two distinct ways. They could define the subject known as political economy. Or, having defined political economy as the science of wealth, they could proceed to set forth the nature of that wealth with which it was maintained that economics is concerned. Each of these approaches was freely used both before and after Mill’s own elaborate attempt to define political economy.
Yet it is true that after 1830 a trend toward more sophistication in definition is undeniably visible. Methodological self–examination became a fairly fashionable undertaking. It was in this period that many of the assumptions hitherto implicitly accepted by economists were first brought to light, and most of the important issues that were to be the subject of methodological controversy over the succeeding century were first given explicit statement. As far as the question of the scope of economics was concerned, discussions treated it as a problem in its own right rather than as one merely introductory to a more important topic. Senior, J. S. Mill, and later Cairnes all devoted careful attention to definition, and so also did many lesser–known economists. At a meeting of the Political Economy Club of London in 1835 the question of the scope of the discipline was put up for discussion. (In 1861 Senior proposed a similar question for debate at the club.)23
Moreover this period reflected a significant advance in the actual approach taken to the task of setting forth the nature of the economic. As will be seen in the subsequent chapters of this essay, writers after 1830 began to rebel against the more extremely objective view of it as the science of wealth that the earlier classical economists had generally held. To several writers after 1830 it was becoming increasingly evident that what they were investigating was not so much a set of objective phenomena whose common denominator was wealth as the phenomena resulting from the wealth–oriented actions of men. What the fundamental characteristic of such actions was, and what the precise balance to be maintained in political economy between the facts of human nature and those of the external world should be, were the subjects of lively discussion. But the first step had been taken along the road toward emancipating economics from its ties to wealth and material welfare.24
[]On these points see, e.g., L. Robbins, The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy (London, 1952), p. 3; M. Bowley, Nassau Senior and Classical Political Economy (London, 1937), pp. 27 f.
[]See, e.g., A. Amonn, Objekt und Grundbegriffe der theoretische Nationalökonomie (2nd ed.), pp. 23 f.
[]J. S. Mill, “On the Definition of Political Economy: and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It,” (in Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy) London reprint, pp. 120 f.
[]See the Centenary Volume of the Political Economy Club, London, 1921, p. 44.
[]It was in this period too that one of the earliest denials of a specifically economic side of affairs was put forward by Comte. Any such separation was “irrational” and evidenced the “metaphysical” character of economics. For an account of Comte's criticism of economics and of J. S. Mill's reaction to it, see Ashley's Introduction to his 1909 edition of Mill's Principles, pp. xi f. See also R. Mauduit, A. Comte et la science économique (Paris, 1929); F. A. Hayek, The Counter–Revolution of Science (Glencoe, 1952), pp. 181–182. An early discussion of Comte's views on economics is J. E. Cairnes' “M. Comte and Political Economy,” in Essays in Political Economy (London, 1873).