William Stanley Jevons Biography Theory

William Stanley Jevons Biography and Theory (1835-1882)

William Stanley Jevons was one of the most interesting and enigmatic characters in the history of British economic thought. A man of rare (often esoteric) powers of analysis, he was also one of the most practical professional economists who ever lived. Although his ideas were profound and original, he left no student followers of consequence, and this in spite of the fact that he held a major university post in po­litical economy (at Manchester).

Jevons was born in England in 1835 and was raised in an educated (but nonacademic) Unitarian environment in which economic and social problems were often discussed. Still, Jevons's early training was technical (including mathematics, biol­ogy, chemistry, and metallurgy), and the subjects and tools of his early education permeated his entire intellectual career. Financial problems and a remunerative job offer as assayer at the Sydney Mint led Jevons to interrupt his training and move to Australia at the age of eighteen. He remained there for five years, during which time, his biographer J. M. Keynes claims, he was struck with all the original ideas on eco­nomics that he later developed and expanded in England.

With his interest in political economy awakened, Jevons returned to England in 1859 to continue his studies at the University of London, where he obtained a de­gree in 1865. This early period was especially fecund for Jevons. In 1862, in several communications to the British Association, he outlined (1) the skeletal structure of utility theory (Notice of the General Theory of Political Economy) and (2) the sce­nario for his statistical studies of fluctuations (On the Study of Periodic Commercial Fluctuations, with Five Diagrams), both of which are discussed in this chapter. In 1863 Jevons published a book entitled Pure Logic (one of the most significant and presently neglected areas of his interests), and in 1865 he published The Coal Ques­tion, a book that brought him to prominence in economic circles.

The Coal Question was based upon a questionable analogy between the role of corn in Malthus's theory of population and that of coal in the industrial progress of Britain. Nevertheless, the book attracted a good deal of attention in political and in­tellectual circles, including that of Prime Minister Gladstone. From this point on­ward, Jevons's interests fluctuated from pure logic to economics and back again. His economic interests ran the gamut from statistical analyses of prices and gold (and significant institutional studies of money markets) to pure theory and commercial fluctuations, of which his well-known sunspot theory was one (The Solar Period and the Price of Corn [1875]). In 1871 his greatest finished work on economic theory, Theory of Political Economy, was published; the book was based upon his early ideas on utility theory communicated to (but ignored by) the British Association in 1862.

In 1876, after numerous bouts of nervous and physical exhaustion (at the age of thirty-six he was obliged to give up all work for a time), Jevons left Manchester for a professorship in political economy at University College in London. Renewed ill health and a desire to complete a massive Principles of Economics forced him to re­sign this post in 1880. Unfortunately for the state of economics, this last work was never completed (although fragments remain). In August 1882 an enfeebled Jevons, just short of his forty-seventh birthday, drowned while on holiday on the south coast of England.

Jevons's untimely death deprived the world of an original economic mind. But this assessment has been formed mostly in retrospectives of his work. As noted above, Jevons left no serious students. In addition, Alfred Marshall assumed a disappoint­ingly ungenerous attitude toward him. J. M. Keynes calculated that by 1936 only 39,000 copies of Jevons's nine major works in economics and logic had been sold! How might one account for the distinctly mediocre impact of one whose powers of originality have been favorably compared to Marshall's? Keynes gave us an inter­esting retrospective:

What sort of man was Jevons in himself? There is no strong personal impression of him which has been recorded, and 54 years after his death it is not easy to find a definite imprint on the minds of the few now left who knew him. My belief is that Jevons did not make a strong im­pression on his companions at any period of his life. He was, in modern language, strongly in­troverted. He worked best alone with flashes of inner light. He was repelled, as much as he was attracted, by contact with the outside world. He had from his boyhood unbounded belief in his own powers; but he desired greatly to influence others whilst being himself uninfluenced by them. He was deeply affectionate towards the members of his family but not intimate with them or with anyone ("William Stanley Jevons," pp. 545-546).

Seldom has an economist been more candid concerning himself and his powers than Jevons was in 1858 in a letter to his sister Henrietta (who was reading Smith's Wealth of Nations at the time):

There are a multitude of allied branches of knowledge connected with man's condition; the re­lation of these to political economy is analogous to the connection of mechanics, astronomy, optics, sound, heat, and every other branch more or less of physical science, with pure mathe­matics. I have an idea, which I do not object to mention to you, that my insight into the foun­dations and nature of the knowledge of man is deeper than that of most men or writers. In fact, I think that it is my mission to apply myself to such subjects, and it is my intention to do so. You are desirous of engaging in the practically useful; you may feel assured that to extend and perfect the abstract or the detailed and practical knowledge of man and society is perhaps the most useful and necessary work in which any one can now engage.. . . There are plenty of peo­ple engaged with physical science, and practical science and arts may be left to look after them­selves, but thoroughly to understand the principles of society appears to me now the most co­gent business (Letters and Journal, p. 101).

Even at an earlier age Jevons was sure that he would revolutionize the science of economics, but, paradoxically, he was often filled with self-doubt and apparent in­consistencies. Intractable aloofness and even profound loneliness were part of his character. Very early in his life Jevons recognized that he was not possessed of "per­sonal power" or the ability to use "manners, language, persuasion, to accomplish an end." But he admittedly did nothing to remedy this "great deficiency" in his per­sonality. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy it. In a revealing letter from Australia to his beloved sister Lucy, Jevons bragged that, with one "slight exception," he had never gone to a party and that he had at last succeeded in "impressing upon all friends the fact that it is no use inviting me." And in the same letter, Jevons defended his own aloofness as a way of life:
I cannot say of course that my disposition for reserve and loneliness was originally intentional on my part; it probably originated in bashfulness, which other people think, and which, no doubt, is, a very silly thing. Yet I ascribe to this disposition almost everything I am, and believe that a certain amount of reserve and solitude is quite necessary for the information of any firm and original character. This is in fact almost self-evident; for if any one were brought up in con­tinual intercourse with the thoughts of a number of other people, it follows almost necessarily that his thoughts will never rise above the ordinary level of the others___Solitude, no doubt,produces one class of minds and characters, and society another; the latter may give quickness of thought and some other showy qualities, but must tend to interrupt longer and more valu­able trains of thought, and gradually destroy the habit of following them, while solitude pro­motes reflection, self-dependence, and originality. These, I believe, I possess to a greater or less extent, and I therefore, on principle, do not altogether regret that my habits have been as you know them (Letters and Journal, pp. 85-86).


Jevons apparently never regretted his "habits," for they carried over into his later aca­demic life. Keynes quotes Jevons's less famous colleague, Professor Herbert Foxwell, as saying that " 'There never was a worse lecturer, the men would not go to his classes, and he worked in flashes and could not finish anything thoroughly,' and then after a pause with a different sort of expression [Foxwell continued], 'the only point about Jevons was that he was a genius.' " A look at Jevons's entire lifework bears out Foxwell's opinion. Jevons's legacies to economics are indeed fragmentary, but they are the leavings of genius.