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The Origin of the Term "Dismal Science" to Describe Economics


  • Dixon, R.


Generations of students and the reading public have been taught: (a) that it was Thomas Carlyle who called economics (political economy as it was known) "the dismal science" and (b) that he did so as a reaction to the pessimistic predictions of Malthus in relation to population growth and its consequences. I shall demonstrate that proposition (a) is true but proposition (b) is, strictly speaking, false. I shall also demonstrate that Carlye first used the term in the context of a debate which was unrelated to Malthus's writings on population (indeed unrelated to Malthus at all) and that the specific context is not only interesting but also uplifting. For both reasons, the origin of the term "dismal science" is worth exploring with students. In addition, in an Appendix I provide information on the origin and original meaning of the term 'Captain(s) of Industry'. This is another of Carlyle's inventions.

Suggested Citation

  • Dixon, R., 1999. "The Origin of the Term "Dismal Science" to Describe Economics," Department of Economics - Working Papers Series 715, The University of Melbourne.
  • Handle: RePEc:mlb:wpaper:715

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    Cited by:

    1. Fine, B., 2000. "Bringing the Social Back into Economies: Progress or Reductionism?," Department of Economics - Working Papers Series 731, The University of Melbourne.
    2. Robert Dixon, 2006. "Carlyle, Malthus and Sismondi: The Origins of Carlyle’s Dismal View of Political Economy," History of Economics Review, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 44(1), pages 32-38, January.
    3. Fazekas, Károly, 2015. "Rosszkedvünk tana. Értelem, érzelem és közgazdaság-tudomány [The dismal matter of our discontent. Reason, sentiment, economics]," Közgazdasági Szemle (Economic Review - monthly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Közgazdasági Szemle Alapítvány (Economic Review Foundation), vol. 0(9), pages 952-971.
    4. LL. M. Fabrizio Esposito, 2017. "A Dismal Reality: Behavioural Analysis and Consumer Policy," Journal of Consumer Policy, Springer, vol. 40(2), pages 193-216, June.

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    JEL classification:

    • B00 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - General - - - History of Economic Thought, Methodology, and Heterodox Approaches


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