The issue of context

Economic and political thought do not develop in a social and institutional void. The Cambridge-Cambridge controversy in economics, for example, was not just about the theoretical questions raised by switching and reswitching of technologies, but also about different cultures of doing economics at opposite sites of the Atlantic in distinct institutional settings. The “Chicago School” of economics does not just refer to a set of doctrines, but to its workshop system and the intervention of economists like Milton Friedman and George Stigler in the public, policy and business domain. One risks misunderstanding the Physiocrats if one does not consider the functioning of the political and administrative world of Versailles.

Individuals form part of networks and communities that are very differently shaped over time. The Literati of the Scottish Enlightenments, the public moralists of the Victorian period, and the many interconnected circles of interwar Vienna ; the Scottish system of higher education, the establishment of institutes of learning for dissenters of the Church of England, and military or business related Think Tanks such as RAND or the Cato Institute ; different forms of patronage over time, from Princes to the Rockefeller Foundation, form infrastructures that nourish and enable individual thinkers to rise to prominence. That Mme de Staël was the daughter of the Swiss banker and French Director of Finances under Louis XVI, may be considered separate from her own work and accomplishments, yet may also be considered an important source of information that may shed light not only on her own personality, but also on her reflections on the political meaning and impact of the French Revolution. It may similarly be important to know that Nikolaj Sieber was not only of Swiss and Russian nationality, but rather half-Swiss and half-Ukraïnian, and well-connected to the Ukraïnian nationalist movement at the end of the nineteenth century for an understanding of his interpretation of Marx. Contexts inform both the textual interpretation and the epistemic and ontological commitments of economic and political thinkers. They represent the third issue we address when we approach the history of both disciplines.

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