The Historical Method In England

The Historical Method in England

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a number of English writers criticized orthodox classical theory and advocated the historical approach to the study of economics. These writers did not form a cohesive group like those in Germany, nor were they influenced directly by the German writers. The historical inductive approach was no stranger to the English tradition in economic thought. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was a blend of historical and descriptive material tied together with a loose theoretical structure. Ricardo represented a major shift in the methodology of economics toward the building of abstract deductive models that were almost completely devoid of any historical or institutional content. Senior supported and extended Ricardo's use of deductive reasoning. J. S. Mill and Alfred Marshall, however, moved back in the direction of Smith's methodology, using their great scholarship and knowledge of historical and institutional material to give substance to their theoretical structures.

The leading English advocate of the historical method was T. E. Cliffe Leslie (1827-1882), who directed his criticism of the methodology of classical econom­ics largely at Ricardo and his followers. Leslie maintained that Smith's economic theory was not applicable* to the contemporary English situation but that on balance Smith's methodology was reasonably sound, because Smith made extensive use of historical material in arriving at his conclusions. Although Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883) died at a young age and his great promise as an economic historian was never fully realized, his Lectures on the Industrial Revolution of the Eighteenth Century in England (1884) are a magnificent example of the use of the historical approach to understand the fundamental changes that took place in England and the resulting problems of an industrial economy. It was Toynbee who coined the term Industrial Revolution. The works of William Ashley (1860-1927) and William Cunningham (1849-1919) on English economic history are still highly respected. Other writers used the historical method to analyze specific topics: Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) wrote Lombard Street (1873), a classic study of English banking; and John K. Ingram (1823-1907) published History of Political Economy (1888), the first systematic book on the history of economic theory written in English.