Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

Alfred Marshall (1842 – 1924)

Posted by Alex M Thomas on January 8th, 2012

Alfred Marshall made lasting contributions to economics. No economist will question that. However, his precise contributions to economics are often forgotten. In a way, the microeconomics that we learn and apply today has strong Marshallian foundations. This post draws on Peter Groenewegen’s excellent (concise) biography of Alfred Marshall (2007) which has been published as part of the Great Thinkers in Economics Series published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Marshall is most famous for his Principles of Economics first published in 1890; the definitive eighth edition was published in 1920. In addition, he wrote Industry and Trade (1919), Money, Credit and Commerce (1923) and Economics of Industry (1879) which he wrote along with his wife, Mary Paley Marshall. Besides these, he also printed and privately circulated his work entitled The Pure Theory of Foreign Trade. The Pure Theory of Domestic Values (1879). Overall, he taught for more than forty years in Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge. The most notable among his students are John Maynard Keynes and Arthur Cecil Pigou.

He took German lessons in order to read Kant in the original. Hegel’s Philosophy of History had a strong influence on his thought. Marshall commenced his study about economics with a close reading of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. He also read the methodological works of Mill on logic and particularly criticised Mill’s conception of the individual as a ‘self-seeking, wealth-maximising homo economicus’. His other economics readings included Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Ricardo’s Principles and Marx’s Capital. Other important influences were Cournot’s Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Wealth and von Thunen’s The Isolated State; they motivated Marshall’s use of diagrams.

For Marshall, ‘the proper work of economic science…was solving economic problems’. ‘The necessity of economic theory, the importance of facts and continual striving to keep economic analysis relevant and practical were all crucial parts of Marshall’s promise to devote his professional life to the improvement of economic science’ (p. 74). It is also quite well known now that, for Marshall, the ‘mecca of the Economist lies in Economic Biology rather than in Economic Dynamics’ (p. 106).

Groenewegen informs us that Marshall had a personal dislike of the use of textbooks in university teaching (p. 77). Not surprisingly, ‘[t]he Principles of Economics remained a leading textbook on the foundations of economics not only during the life of its author, that is, from 1890 to 1924, but for the next quarter century as well, that is, until the early 1950s’ (p. 111).

The use of mathematics in the Principles has garnered lot of attention since he ‘banished’ all equations to the appendix. In any case, Marshall considered economics as ‘form of reasoning’. Perhaps, given the use of mathematics during his time, his relegation of equations to the appendix might have been appropriate. I quote an interesting letter Marshall wrote to his student Bowley: ‘(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples which are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I did often’ (p. 114).

Marshall identified time to play an important role in the theory of value. He developed the concepts of the short and long period. He paid particular attention to ‘elasticity’. Besides these, he laid the foundations for the theory of the firm, use of offer curves or reciprocal demand curves in international trade and distinguished internal and external economies.

This post has only very briefly touched upon the way Marshall viewed economics, especially his use of mathematics and his evolutionary notion. We have not detailed his precise contributions to economics. This post serves the purpose of being a very short introduction to Marshall. As students of (micro)economics, it will be fascinating to read Marshall’s works, especially his Principles.

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