Economists Biographers on the Role of Biography

In the many biographies, even those published during the past decade, there is little mention of this literature, the exceptions being Moggridge (1992, pp. xvi-xxvi) and Groenewegen (1995, p. xii). This is not surprising, as biography stands on its own as a genre - one with its own scholarly infrastructure, including the journal Biography, which is now in its 24th year. With economists, there are number of possible justifications for the exercise. One is "nobody has ever written a full biography of the man" - the justification used, for example, by Patricia James - possibly with a subsidiary task of setting the record straight (James, 1979, p. 1). This is the primary justification used by Peter Groenewegen (1995, p. xii), to which he added his subject's relevance to general Victorian intellectual and social history (ibid., p. 2). A similar justification is used for Robert Hall, most of whose career was in Whitehall: "His character and achievements are not widely known. This memoir is designed to tell more people about him" (Jones, 1994, p. 1). There is the related justification "here was an interesting man who lived at an interesting time" (Weatherall, 1976, p. v). Another justification, ignoring Stigler (see below) is that "By knowing a thinker's life and times better, one may obtain a greater insight into his thought" (Ebenstein, 2001, p. 1). This echoes Roy Harrod's view of Keynes, that "an understanding of the background to his thought is indispensable for a correct interpretation of his conclusions" (1951, p. v). Or, as Ian Simpson Ross put it more carefully with Adam Smith (1995, p. xvii), "Plausible reconstruction of the meaning of Smith's discourses from an historical standpoint can be helpfully contextualised by the life story." There may also be a similar logic of justification in Harrod's The Life of John Maynard Keynes, written within a few years of its subject's death:

I cannot conceive how a future student, however conscientious and able, who had first hand knowledge neither of Keynes nor of the intellectual circles which formed his environment could fail to fall into grievous errors of interpretation. (1951, p. v)

This comment displays remarkable contempt for the craft of the professional historian.

There is also what Robert Skidelsky, in his "review of reviews" of the English edition of the first volume of his Keynes trilogy, which included a Stigleresque review by Maurice Peston, called "the itch to explain" (1985, p. xvii). There may be a disciplinary agenda, as revealed in Robert Skidelsky's last substantive sentence in his introduction to the third volume of his trilogy:

If this biography has rescued Keynes from the economists, and placed him in the world of history where it properly belongs, it will have achieved its aim. (2000, p. xxii).

Given Harrod's claim quoted above, it might be a plausible aim. However as his immediate predecessor (Felix, 1999), cited once to correct one error (2000, p. 11n), was a professional historian, and as the biographer before that (Moggridge, 1992) was an historian of economics, the claim is forced. It is clear (e.g., 1983, pp. xv-xxii; 2000, pp. 491-8) that Skidelsky has a "thing" about Harrod.

In addition to "the conviction that the life and work of this great social scientist instructs us in the working of the human mind and the ways of the human spirit," there is an explanatory purpose in Robert Allen's biography of Joseph Schumpeter that "It . . . informs us of how progress in the analysis of society and the economy takes place" (1991, p. xix).

Finally, there is what one might call the moral purpose, clearest perhaps with the Victorians, such as Leslie Stephen, who in his biography of Henry Fawcett, after mentioning several memorials to his subject, continued as follows:

Such monuments are but outward symbols of the living influence still exercised upon the hearts of his countrymen by a character equally remarkable for masculine independence and generous sympathy. My sole aim has been to do something towards enabling my readers to bring that influence to bear upon themselves. (1885, p. 468)

Thus we have a story to tell and something to explain or illuminate. In many cases, the interests of the biographer extend well beyond the discipline. Indeed, in some cases, such as Alan Ebenstein's recent biography of Hayek (Ebenstein, 2001), it could be argued that the last thing to interest the author is economics! The volume provides no indication of how Hayek as an economist was able to win a Nobel Prize for economics. The volume has even led at least one reader to raise the question as to how historians of economics should treat nonhistorians' biographies. The simple answer is "with care." One can think of wonderfully useful contributions to the history of economics by noneconomists; in the case of Keynes, for example, the work of Peter Clarke (1988) and Warren Young (1987). On the other hand, one can think of the case of Robert Skidelsky, where the treatments of both Keynes's own ideas and of other elements of the history of thought leave something to be desired (Laidler, 2002).

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