Research areas

The work of the members of the CWP is devoted to the history of economic and political thought. The CWP is open to a wide range of methodological approaches without loosing sight of scientific rigour. The variety of our work is organized around three themes: textual interpretation, historical epistemology, and contextualisation. Individual PhD projects are pursued under the supervision of the professors of the Centre. In addition, we currently run three projects that are funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.


Even if the task of historians of economic ideas is more prosaic than that of the god Hermes, it covers the same two aspects: to state and to interpret. And even when historians do not transmit the messages and orders of the gods, texts need to be explained and translated from the one into the other. In other words, they need to be interpreted. Thus, by revealing the many layers of a text, the historian of ideas transmits these texts through time. This work of exegesis shows some meanings among the many that the original author might have tried to convey to his contemporaries, and others that were unintended within the author’s own context, but that speak for example to the readers of our time.

Even when the meaning of a text results from a dialectic between text and reader and from the interpretative collaboration between them, there is a limit to possible interpretations. That is why members of the Centre work on editions of texts to stake out these limits. As in other fields of knowledge the question of how to qualify an interpretation is very present in the history of ideas. Beyond the conviction that not all interpretations are equally valid, the work of the Centre in the history of ideas is characterized by a wide spectrum of methodological approaches. To take up a well-known typology, interpretative work covers Geistesgeschichte, as well as historical and rational reconstructions. We consider such plurality natural, and one of the strengths of the work at the CWP.

Historical epistemology

Over the past decades the history and sociology of science has seen the publication of a range of micro and macro studies that substantially shifted the angle of investigation from a focus on theories and ideas to a study that takes the products of science as cultural artifacts that inhabit spatial and material sites, embedded in social settings, crafted by individuals who seldom work in isolation, and that intervene upon social and material cultures. As Ludwik Fleck first demonstrated, the products of science bear witness to their history. This first holds for the historical actors themselves. To understand the theories of economists like Léon Walras, John Maynard Keynes or others, means to understand the conceptions of science against which they wrote their work. But it also holds for their research practices and their results. The insight that ideas and theories bear witness to a history that is situated in material practices in no strange bed-fellow to historians and philosophers of economics, even though it is only recently that they have explicitly turned their attention to the material and social organization of research, the skills and crafts required for modeling and experimenting, and have begun questioning the extent to which the study of material practices changes our views of economics and their practitioners. Studying the material dimensions of knowledge production implies a caution not to take at face value what first actors say themselves about their doings. Epistemological beliefs and practices may diverge and are to be questioned rather than to be taken as point of departure. The rise of the experimental method at the end of the twentieth century entailed a social and material reconfiguration of the economics discipline, affecting what counts as evidence and good practice.

The architectural settings in which parliamentary debates take place affect the results of deliberations; similarly the physical circumstances of the individual act of voting have an impact on the behavior of electors.

For the historian of economics in particular, a shift from theories to practice raises longstanding anxieties. From the days of John Stuart Mill, (political) economists have been anxious to separate their theories, as a body of truths, from their applications; the “science” should be separated from its “art”. Economic theory thus became emptied out, quarantined from the messiness of politics and society: sites, cultures, and communities are found in the world of practice, but not in the world of theory.

The epistemic and ontological tensions that are thus produced, between theory and practice, between concepts and tools and their applications, between the image of economists as scientists and their functioning as individuals or members of groups who (consciously) intervene in the public and political sphere, are all part of a research interest which we pursue from a historical instead of analytical angle.


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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