chapter  1
4 Pages

One The Infl uence of the Natural Sciences on the Social Sciences

In the course of its slow development in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the study of economic and social phenomena was guided in the choice of its methods in the main by the nature of the problems it had to face.1 It gradually developed a technique appropriate to these problems without much refl ection on the character of the methods or on their relation to that of other disciplines of knowledge. Students of political economy could describe it alternatively as a branch of science or of moral or social philosophy without the least qualms whether their subject was scientifi c or philosophical. The term science had not yet assumed the special narrow meaning it has today,2 nor

1 This is not universally true. The attempts to treat social phenomena ‘scientistically’, which became so infl uential in the nineteenth century, were not completely absent in the eighteenth. There is at least a strong element of it in the work of Montesquieu and the Physiocrats. But the great achievements of the century in the theory of the social sciences, the works of Cantillon and Hume, of Turgot and Adam Smith, were on the whole free from it. [French social and political theorist Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) is remembered today not for the elements of scientism in his work, but for enunciating in his Spirit of the Laws (1748) the idea of the inevitability of confl ict among interests in democratic and monarchical regimes, and hence of the importance of the separation and balance of powers for their survival. François Quesnay (1694-1774), the leader of the physiocrats, was also the court physician for Louis XV, and in his economic writings drew analogies between the circulation of money and the circulation of the blood. While serving as the comptroller-general of fi nance from 1774-76 under Louis XVI, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-81) attempted to reduce barriers to trade among the French provinces and to abolish privileges of corporations, but these reforms were so unpopular among the upper classes that he was removed from offi ce. The Irish-born French economist Richard Cantillon (c. 1680-1734) was author of Essai sur la nature du commerce en général (1755). Though infl uential in eighteenth-century France, his work had to be rediscovered in the nineteenth by William Stanley Jevons, who lauded his book as the fi rst treatise on economics. For a translation of an early essay by Hayek on Cantillon, see chapter 13 of his The Trend of Economic Thinking.—Ed.]

2 The earliest example of the modern narrow use of the term ‘science’ given in Murray’s New English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888-1928) dates from as late as 1867. But John Theodore Merz, A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1896) vol. 1, p. 89, is probably right when he suggests that ‘science’ acquired its present meaning about the time of the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831).