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Histoire de la pensée économique

  • Teacher(s):
  • English title: History of Economic Thought
  • Course given in: French
  • ECTS Credits:
  • Schedule: Autumn Semester 2018-2019, 4.0h. course (weekly average)
  •  séances
  • Related programmes:
    Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Management

    Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Economics



Over the past centuries economics has changed from a largely verbal discipline that studied human agency in commercial settings to a mathematical discipline that has come to incorporate more instruments from the scientific toolbox (such as statistics and laboratory practices). Indeed, some contemporary practitioners identify economics with a tool-based discipline that can design market systems in a manner similar to how engineers construct technical systems. In so doing they discard the rich intellectual genealogy that still underlies many of the concepts and theories used by economists.

The purpose of this course is to retrace this past and to see how modern economics emerged to take its present form. To do this, we will put the development of economic ideas, theories, and methods in their appropriate historical context. The course will emphasize the incisive change of the economic discipline from the interwar to the post-war period. Concomitant to the change in tools, theories and methods of economics, also the persona of the economist changed from princely advisor or public intellectual to policy advisor for governments and firms. The primary aim of the course is to enable students to historically assess the merits and limitations of contemporary economics in addressing major economic and social questions by linking this to economics’ theories, tools and methods and to the roles economists play.

The course consists of two parts. In the first part we will use Roger Backhouse’s Penguin introduction to economics as a background text for our reading of primary texts. Backhouse’s book will offer us snapshots that range from the rise of commercial society in the seventeenth century, via the development of statistical thinking in the nineteenth to the prominent place economists gained in the public and policy domain after the Second World War. The second part of the course will take capita selecta from post-war economics to see how the methodological transformation of economics around WW-II played out in the postwar era. We will chose our instances from econometrics and macro-modelling; game theory; experimental economics; and rational choice theory (which lures behind many of the postwar developments). In our last class recent research in behavioral economics will invite us to rethink the very concept of rational economic man. We will use my own short historical introduction in economic methodology as background reading for this part of the course.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students gain an understanding of fundamental questions concerning the development of economics in relation to other (social) sciences.
  • Students gain understanding of the development of the toolbox of the economist.
  • Students are able to situate economics as a discipline in social and historical context.

Form(s) of Instruction

  • Lectures (in french).
  • Discussion of primary readings
  • It is obligatory to have read the primary texts for the Thursday meetings. Guiding questions will be posted on blackboard.

Contact Information Teacher

Prof. dr Harro Maas, email:, appointment on request.


Weekly Programme (programme is subject to change)

NB! Texts that will be discussed in class are indicated with an asterisk. For most classes, I included a background reading as well, which is not obligatory, but which will add significantly to your understanding of the texts we will discuss.

Week 1: From the ancient world to the revolution in science and trade in the early modern period

In the first week we take a Grand Tour from Classical Greece to the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the seventeenth century. We will see how the concept of the economy was untied from moral and religious beliefs and connected to commercial transactions. The explosion of trade and its concomitant increase in wealth in what became the Dutch Republic led to a destabilisation of received ideas on the moral economy in nature and man and to a search to re-establish the balance of nature. The Dutch physician Bernard Mandeville shocked the English establishment with the elliptic subtitle of his notorious Fable of the Bees: private vices, public benefits. Mandeville thus, perhaps for the first time, treated the notion of selfishness as not only natural to man, but as beneficial to society as well.

Lecture: Backhouse pp. 1-88.

Class: Aristote, Politica, livre 1; Edward Misselden (1622), Free Trade or, The Meanes To Make Trade Florish. Wherein, The Causes of the Decay of Trade in this Kingdome, are discovered, London, Chapter 1: The Causes of the want of money in England*; Bernard Mandeville: The Fable of the Bees (1714), ‘The Grumblin’ Hive’*, Remarks (B)* and (Q)*, pp. 61-63, 181-198 (excerpts).

Background reading: Harold J. Cook (2012). "Moving About and Finding Things Out: Economies and Sciences in the Period of the Scientific Revolution." Osiris 27.1: 101-132.

Week 2-5: The Rise and Fall of Classical Political Economy

Political economy gained a status of its own in the French and Scottish Enlightenments. Yet it only became a separate discipline with the Classics, notably under Robert Malthus and David Ricardo. What were their themes, and why did this subject become so much identified as the ‘dismal science’? Classical Political Economy reached its peak in Karl Marx’s magnum opus: Das Kapital.

Week 2: The physiocrats in context (Handing out of assignment I)

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 89-109.

Class : François Quesnay: “Troisième version du Tableau Economique,” Oeuvres économiques et autres texts, pp. 412-439* ; R. Cantillon (1755): Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général. Excerpts (Part One, Chapter 12 - Chapter 13, Part Two Chapter 9)* .

Background reading: Christine THÉRÉ & Loïc CHARLES, 2009. Les textes économiques parlent-ils d'eux-mêmes ? Quelques réflexions sur le bilan et les enjeux de l'édition INED 2005 des œuvres de Quesnay. Cahiers d’économie politique / Papers in Political Economy, L'Harmattan, issue 57, pages 67-100, July - December.

Week 3: Smith and Hume

For much of the eighteenth century moral philosophers felt compelled to accommodate Mandeville’s shocking paradox of which, eventually, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations can be seen the definitive accomplishment. In this class we investigate Scottish moral philosophy in relation to Smith’s Wealth of Nations. A domesticated version of selfish man will become the backbone of political economy.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 110-131

Class: Adam Smith. 1759. Fragments from Theory of Moral Sentiments, Glasgow edition.* Adam Smith. 1776. fragments of Chapter 1 of the Wealth of Nations. Glasgow edition*; David Hume. 1777. “Of Commerce,” In Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, pp. 253-267 (Oxford 1985, Clarendon)*

Background reading: Christopher Lawrence. 1979. The Nervous System and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment. Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture. Barry Barnes and Steve Shapin (eds), pp. 19-40. Beverly Hills (Cal): Sage.

Week 4: Malthus versus Ricardo.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 132-165.

Class: T. Robert Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population, pp. 74-87 (Oxford [1798] 1993: OUP)*; David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 1 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Chapter 3: On rent.*

Background reading: Colini, Stefan, Donald Winch and John Burrow (eds). 1984. That Noble Science of Politics, chapter 3: Higher Maxims: Happiness and Wealth in Malthus and Ricardo, pp. 63-90. Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

Week 5: Marx and classical political economy. Handing out of Assignment 2

Lecture: Karl Marx: Chapter 1 of Das Kapital. Esp. “Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und sein Geheimnis,” Das Kapital I, pp. 85-98 (MEW Bd. 23, 1975).

Class: Karl Marx: “Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und sein Geheimnis,” Das Kapital I, pp. 85-98 (MEW Bd. 23, 1975)*; Friedrich Engels: “Introduction,” Condition of the Working Class in England, pp. 50-64 (London: Penguin, [1845] 1987)*.

Background reading : Louis Althusser et Etienne Balibar (1969) chapitre VII (L’Objet de l Économie Politique) de Lire le Capital II, pp. 23-31. Paris : Maspero.

Week 6-7: From political economy to economics: the ‘marginalist revolution’

In these two weeks we will discuss the so-called marginalist revolution in economics at the end of the nineteenth century, that is connected with the names of Stanley Jevons (UK), Léon Walras (France), Carl Menger (Austria) and John Bates Clark (US). Textbooks sometimes treat the introduction of marginalism in economics as a homogeneous movement, in which utility theory, mathematics, thinking in optimization in choice and equilibria in markets were common ingredients. Though time will prevent us from going in all the details, we will use both weeks to show significant differences in the endeavours of the various named authors.

Week 6: The emergence of marginalism in Britain

The lecture will discuss how the emergence of marginalism in Britain was coupled with the rise of statistical thinking and the split between history and theory.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 166-184; Maas: chapter 2&3.

Class: John Stuart Mill: John Stuart Mill: “Thornton on Labour” Collected Works (1865, excerpts)*; Stanley Jevons, “The Theory of Pleasure and Pain,” The Theory of Political Economy, pp. 77-93 (Penguin: 1970)*.

Background reading: White, Michael V. 1994. "That God-Forgotten Thornton”: Exorcising Higgling after On Labour." Higgling: transactors and their markets in the history of economics, History of Political Economy 26 (annual supplement): 149-183.

Week 7: The emergence of marginalism on the Continent and the US

This week in particular will be devoted to a comparison of different strategies of introducing marginalist thinking in economics. Such a comparison is central if we want to reflect and problematize the monolithic way in which marginalist utility theory went into the textbooks. While economists nowadays may brush aside such differences, they help to see the context in which the various authors articulated their theories and the different set of questions they hoped to solve.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 185-211.

Class: Léon Walras, Éléments d’économie politique pure , Leçon 11 et Leçon 17 (excerpts)*; Carl Menger, Foundations of Economics, excerpts, (1973)*; John Bates Clark, The Distribution of Wealth, excerpts (1899) *

Week 8: Moving Frontiers: From Micro to Macro and from Britain to the US

Statistical thinking opened up awareness to overarching regularities in society. One such regularity was the recurrence of crises in society – the existence of a business-cycle. Especially the British lost their faith in markets. We will discuss how this led to structured thinking about the national economy, to national accounting and macro-economics.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 185- 236; Maas: chapter 4.

Class: Thorstein Veblen, “The Machine Process,” Chapter 2 of The Theory of Business Enterprise (New York, [1904] 1927)*, pp. 5-19; John Maynard Keynes. 1926. The End of Laissez-Faire. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Elizabeth Johnson and Donald Moggridge (eds), Vol 9 Essays in Persuasion. pp. 272-294. Royal Economic Society, 1978*; Joseph Schumpeter. ([1942] 1993). Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Excerpts from part II: Can Capitalism Survive? (The Vanishing of Investment Opportunities, Crumbling Walls). London and New York: Routledge.*

Week 9: How Economists Established their Scientific Neutrality and Came to Dominate Politics

Just before and after the Second World War, economists gained increasing prestige by their ability to incorporate refined mathematics and statistics in their modelling of the economy. On one hand they claimed the high ground of politically neutral theory; on the other they successfully claimed a role as authoritative policy advisers. The classes of this and the following week discuss heated debates between pure and applied and between orthodox and heterodox economists that bring us close to the present day.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 237-268; Maas: chapters 4&5

Class: Jan Tinbergen (1939). "Statistical Testing of Business Cycle Theories: A Method and Its Application to Investment", in David Hendry en Mary Morgan (eds) Foundations of Econometric Analysis, 1995, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 361-381*; John Maynard Keynes. 1939. "Professor Tinbergen’s Method", in ibid, pp. 382-389.*

Background reading: Alain Desrosières La politique des grands nombres: histoire de la raison statistique. Paris : la Découverte, chapitre 9. Walter A. Friedman, Fortune Tellers: The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters, Princeton: Princeton University Press. introduction.

Week 10: Cowles, Chicago and MIT

Rather than downgrading econometrics, as Keynes did, the Chicago free market economist Milton Friedman set out to show the proper limits of econometric modelling. We will consider Friedman’s ideological motives without losing sight of the substantial value of his arguments. The obvious text to read would be Friedman’s famous 1953 essay on positive and normative economics. However, rather than reading this worn-out text, we will examine Friedman’s criticism of the econometric program in detail, that is we will examine the strength and the weakness of the Cowles-commission program. In retrospect, Friedman's 1951 criticism of the Cowles program the decline of macro-econometric structural modelling at a time when it just started rising. A very different attitude towards mathematical economics is found in the work of Paul Samuelson, who considered mathematics the “natural language” of the economist, but was hardly interested in statistical testing. In class we will consider an example of his generic modelling approach (not his phrase) in economics.

Lecture: Maas: chapter 6&9

Class: Christ, Carl (1951), "A Test of an Econometric Model for the United States, 1921-1947", in Conference on Business Cycles, New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, pp. 35-43, pp. 87-89*; Friedman, Milton (1951), "Comment on Carl Christ", in Conference on Business Cycles, New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, pp. 107-114.* Samuelson, Paul A. "Interactions between the Multiplier Analysis and the Principle of Acceleration." The Review of Economics and Statistics 21.2 (1939): 75-78.*

Background reading: Mary S. Morgan. 2012. The World in the Model, section 6.3: Questions and Stories Capturing Keynes’ General Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Week 11: War – and Cold War Economics

Historians have addressed the Second World War as a turning point in the history of economics. In the war effort economists joined engineers and physicists in developing and implementing routines for optimization. The tools they designed established the analytical infrastructure of contemporary economics. This story suggests that we should examine economics as a science of control and management in relation to the military. In this week we will discuss how WW-II has shaped the development and spread of economic tools and ideas.

Lecture: Backhouse: pp. 288-321; Mary S. Morgan and Malcolm Rutherford. 1998. “Postwar economics: the character of the Transformation” in From Interwar Pluralism to Postwar Neoclassicism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 1-26.

Class: John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. 1943. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, introduction and choice axioms. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press*

Background Reading: Robert J. Leonard (1998). “Ethics and the Excluded Middle: Karl Menger and Social Science in Interwar Vienna.” Isis 89(1): 1-26.

Week 12: Coordination Failures: from Micromotives to Macrobehaviour

In this week we further examine ‘Cold War Rationality’ focusing on the work of Kenneth Arrow and Thomas Schelling. In the lecture I will look back at some of our earlier readings. Central stage takes the problematic status gained by one of the main tenets of economists, namely that individual choices coordinate for the common good. To show this, I will draw extensively on a collective volume that recently appeared: How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (U of Chicago Press, 2014).

Lecture : Paul Erickson et al. (2013). How reason almost lost its mind: The strange career of Cold War rationality. Introduction and Chapter 1: Enlightenment Reason, Cold War Rationality, and the Rule of Rules, University of Chicago Press.

Class: Thomas Schelling (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Chapter 4: Sorting and Mixing: Race and Sex. New York, NY: Norton.*; Kenneth W. Arrow (1952). Social Choice and Individual Values. Introduction. London etc.: John Wiley.*

Week 13: The Experimental Turn in Economics

In the 1960 economists turned to the laboratory to explore new ways of getting out of the dead-end street in which the modelling of market coordination increasingly began to find itself. Economists started observing and testing the behaviour of economic agents under controlled conditions. The secondary readings give context to how laboratory results feed back into the real world. Contrary to the other weeks, we will not discuss a primary text in class, but have a look at one of the major controversies among experimental economists around the 1990s, the first price auction controversy. Paradoxically, as will be seen, this controversy helped to get the experimental method accepted within the mainstream of the economics profession.

Lecture: Maas Ch. 8.

Class: Andrej SvorenĿik (forthcoming): The Experimental Turn in Economics, chapter 6: The First Price Auction Controversy. Utrecht University PhD thesis.*

Background Reading: Vernon L. Smith (1994). "Economics in the Laboratory," The Journal of Economic Perspectives 8.1: 113-131; Bruno Latour (1983). "Give Me a Laboratory and I will Raise the World". In Karin D. Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay , Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, pp. 141-170 (London: Sage); Francesco Guala (2001). "Building Economic Machines: The FCC Auctions," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 32A: 453-77.

Week 14: The Demise of Economic Man

Over the twentieth century selfish economic man came to be identified with rational man. The axioms of rational choice were no longer considered foundational for economics, but for other social and behavioural sciences as well (esp. political science, sociology, psychology). In this last class we will discuss some recent literature that questions this image of rationality. While economics imperialised the behavioural sciences for much of the twentieth century, the introduction of the laboratory into economics reversed this state of affairs; under the label of behavioural (and neuro-) economics, cognitive psychology now seems to imperialise economics. Focussing on economic man, this class gives occasion to reconsider some of the themes of our earlier classes as well.

Lecture background reading: Floris Heukelom (2014). Behavioral Economics, A History. Chapter 2: The Incorporation of von Neumann and Morgenstern’s Behavioral Axioms in Economics and Psychology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Class: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (1979). "Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk." Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society: 263-291 (excerpts).* Alan G. Sanfey, James K. Rilling, Jessica A. Aronson, Leigh E Nystrom, Jonathan D. Cohen (2003). “The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game.” Science 300: 1755-1758.*

Background reading: Gerd Gigerenzer and Peter M. Todd (1999). “Simple heuristics that make us smart.” Evolution and cognition: 3-34.


  • Roger E. Backhouse. 2003. The Penguin History of Economics (London: Penguin)
  • Harro Maas, 2014. Economic Methodology, A Historical Introduction (London: Routledge)
  • Reader of selected primary and secondary texts (posted on blackboard)


First attempt

Written 0000 hours
Allowed with restrictions
Not allowed


The assessment will consist of four written assignments. The assignments will be spread through the course.


Written 1h30 hours
Not allowed
Not allowed

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