Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Economist of The Week - Wilhelm Roscher

Throughout the 300-year old history of modern economic thought, various schools of thought have risen and fallen out of favour as new ideas and theories took their place. And while some of these approaches have been holding sway since the end of the 19th century, there is one school in particular, which, albeit fell out of favour by now, have once held an enormous sway on both European and American economics. The school's name is the German Historical School of Economics, and this article discusses the life of it's founder, Wilhelm Roscher.

Source: Wikimedia

Early life

Wilhelm was born in 1817, into a well-off Hanoverian family of government officials and judges. This strong tradition of civil service was then combined with his early academic experiences - his Gymnasium headmaster was a famous epigraphist (scientists studying engraved pieces of writing), who played a large part in the decipherment of the ancient Persian writing system. Such influences have likely persuaded Wilhelm to start studying History himself, firstly at the University of Göttingen and later at Berlin.


Starting in 1835, Roscher was a student of the University of Göttingen for three years, studying History and Ancient History and participating in community life (he became a member of the school's fraternity). In 1838, he wrote his doctoral thesis about the historical teaching methods of Greek Sophists - it was likely this paper where his lifelong historical approach of social sciences and economics originated. He then continued his studies in Berlin obtaining his Habilitation (roughly the German equivalent of a PhD) once again in Göttingen, in 1840.

Career and research

Roscher chose an academic life upon graduation, and he has risen considerably fast in the hierarchy - starting as a lecturer at Göttingen in 1840, he became an associate professor in 1843 and a full professor in 1844. Besides teaching, he started research as well, firstly writing about the Ancient Greek historian and political philosopher Thucydides in 1842 - the man who is considered as the 'founding father of scientific history.'
It was probably this line of research which attracted Roscher towards the social sciences, especially political economy - his first major publication on the topic was published in 1843, just a year after his first publication.


Roschler's first major piece of work was his short book with a rather long title, the Grundriss zu Vorles-ungen tiber die Staatsurithschaft nach geschicht-licher Methode in 1843 - the book was half-theoretical and half-educational, originally a lecture plan for fellow educators, urging them to teach political economics based on the principles of historical investigation, rather than what he dubbed as the 'philosophical' method used by the classical economists. Later, he expanded his views in his 5-book long series entitled System der Volkswirthschaft, published between 1854 and 1894 - the first two books, about Natural Economy and National Economy respectively, later became the leading textbooks at German economic faculties.

Method and ideas

Roschler's method of approaching economics was radically new in an atmosphere accustomed to the 'idealist' approach of the classical economists - don't forget that at this time, quantitative measurement of economic phenomena still didn't exist (and he actually one of the the first advocates of using statistics as a tool of addressing economic problems). He used the already established framework of historical research - including historic evolution (later mimicked and criticised by Marx)  and statistics - economics could develop a “firm island of scientific truth which may be accepted in the same manner as the adherents of different systems of medicine all admit the teaching of mathematical physics.”
Roschler was a pioneer of technical terms as well - not only was he the first to use the term 'enlightened absolutism' to describe the role of 18th century Central European monarchs, but he was one of the first separators of positive economics and normative economics. (Or 'What is', and 'What ought to be?' respectively).
Roscher's thoughts became dominant at German Economics faculties, and subsequently spread throughout the continent - and through later, American economists of German/Austrian descent such as Joseph Schumpeter, in the United States of America as well. Today, he is considered as the founder of the German historical school of economics (or more precisely, it's older branch; the younger branch distanced itself even more from classical economics)

Later life and death

Roschler married before 1845, and had at least one children, a son who became a successful philologist - but despite his academic achievements and renown, Roscher lead a simple life. After receiving an offer from the University of Leipzig in 1848, he switched universities and remained there to teach literally until his death - he stopped teaching in the spring of 1894, and he died in June. 

"Roscher, Wilhelm." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2012 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>. 

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