Classical Economics and Methodology

On Classical Economics

The methodological question at issues during the classical period were very similar to those that were late to agitate neoclassical and modern economists. The controversies in classical methodology included:

  1. Abstractions versus “reality
  2. Varying concepts of causation
  3. The role of mathematics
  4. The “scientific” claim of economics, and
  5. The practical relevance of classical economics

Adam Smith’s Methodology

Adam Smith’s Methodology was eclectic. The empirical, the theoretical, the institutional, the philosophical, and the dynamic were all intermingled. His definitions shifted, sometimes on the same page, and, in the course of developing his classic work, he drifted back and forth between difference conceptions of “value,” “rent,” and “real.” But, despite the numerous ambiguities in The Wealth of Nations commented on by Smith’s classical successors, as well as by the late scholars, he moved easily around the pitfalls without disaster, being sufficiently consistent during any given chain of reasoning to avoid errors in logic.

David Ricardo’s Methodology

With Ricardo economic took a major step toward abstract models, rigid an artificial definitions, syllogistic reasoning – and the direct application of the results to policy. The historical and institutional, and the empirical faded into the background, and explicit social philosophy shrank into a few passing remarks. Comparative static became the dominant – though usually implicit – approach. Ricardo declared: “I put these immediate and temporary effects quite aside, and fix my whole attention on the permanent state of things which will result from them.” Not only Ricardo, but also his disciples and popularizers, reasoned in comparative static terms – and they automatically interpreted the theories of others in comparative static terms as well.


1. Sowell, Thomas. On Classical Economics. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print. 79-80.


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