Malthus v. Bailey on the Measure of Value: A Lesson in "Methodological Humility"
That Malthus was guilty of egregious error in his claim to have established the labor-commanded magnitude as an "invariable" unit of value is well-known. Even his modern biographer could appeal only to a "kink or a crotchet, some kind of cerebral block" to excuse Malthus's persistent failure to recognize the manifestly tautological character of his position. Yet the familiar form of Malthus's argument, as it appeared in his later work, differed in several respects from its earliest statement in the first edition of his Principles. In this essay we trace out the several changes made to Malthus's argument, often in response to his many critics; and we find in the midst of those alterations a common characteristic that serves to reveal the character of that "kink or crotchet": an obsession with mathematical operations producing a unit outcome. We draw two lessons from this sorry episode in our history. First, the sterility of the debate between Malthus and his critics serves to highlight the central importance of a precise and commonly understood vocabulary of scientific expression. This was, it is true, no more than a dispute over words; but as they are the vessels of our thoughts, words-of precise and commonly understood meaning-are critical to the progress of a science. Second, the heat of that debate highlights the insidious capacity of practitioners to mistake for scientific principles what are no more than "intricate series of definitions," a lesson which, when taken seriously, cannot fail but to impart a salutary "methodological humility."
|Date of creation:|
|Contact details of provider:|| Postal: 500 E. Ninth St., Claremont, CA 91711|
Phone: (909) 607-3041
Fax: (909) 621-8249
Web page: http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/rdschool/papers/
More information through EDIRC
References listed on IDEAS
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:
- Blaug,Mark, 1997. "Economic Theory in Retrospect," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521577014, October.
- Zinke, George William, 1942. "Six Letters from Malthus to Pierre Prévost," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 2(02), pages 174-189, November.
When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:clm:clmeco:2002-17. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.
For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: ()
If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.
If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.
If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.
If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.
Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.