W. S. Jevons, 1835–82

  • R. D. Collison Black


It is arguable that William Stanley Jevons has a better claim to the title ‘pioneer of modern economics’ than any of his British contemporaries. Forty-two years ago Keynes described Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy as ‘the first treatise to present in a finished form the theory of value based on subjective valuations, the marginal principle and the now familiar technique of the algebra and diagrams of the subject’.1 The Theory of Political Economy undoubtedly succeeded in doing what Jevons, equally undoubtedly, intended it to do — to mark a sharp break with all previous presentations of the principles of the subject. As a result it gained him a sharply-defined place in the history of economic thought as one of the initiators of what has come to be called the Marginal Revolution. Yet at the same time this very success has tended to overshadow the rest of Jevons’s economic writing and to some extent prevented a balanced assessment of his achievements as an economist from becoming generally known.


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  1. 1.
    J. M. Keynes, ‘William Stanley Jevons 1835–1882. A Centenary Allocution on his Life and Work as Economist and Statistician’, in Essays in Biography, repr. as vol. X of Collected Writings (London: Macmillan for the Royal Economic Society, 1972) [hereafter cited as EB] p. 131.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Journal of William Stanley Jevons, 16 January 1853, R. D. Collison Black and R. Könekamp (eds), Papers and Correspondence of William Stanley Jevons (London: Macmillan, 1972–7) [hereafter cited as P&C] vol. I, pp. 78–9.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    W. S. Jevons, Theory of Political Economy (2nd edn, 1879; repr. London: Pelican, 1970) [hereafter cited as TPF] p. 50.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Journal of W. S. Jevons, 13 September 1856. P&C, vol. I, p. 133. R. D. Collison Black, ‘Jevons, Bentham and De Morgan’, Economica, XXXIX (1972) 119–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 10.
    TPE, pp. 87–8. This particular passage first appeared in the second edition of the Theory, after Jevons had written the Principles of Science. For a fuller discussion of Jevons’s view of the relation between the method of economics and that of other sciences, see W. Mays, ‘Jevons’s Conception of Scientific Method’, Manchester School, XXX (1962) 223–50.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    P. R. Brahmananda, ‘Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy — A Centennial Appraisal’, Indian Economic Journal, XIX (1972) 128.Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    J. R. Hicks, ‘Capital Controversies: Ancient and Modern’, American Economic Review, LXIV (1974) 309.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Gavin C. Reid, ‘Jevons’s Treatment of Dimensionality in the Theory of Political Economy: An Essay in the History of Mathematical Economies’, Manchester School, XL (1972) 85–98; R. Shone, ‘On Dimensionality in Economies’, University of Stirling Discussion Paper 54 (1978).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 21.
    P. Newman, The Theory of Exchange (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965) p. 80.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    P. H. Wicksteed, ‘Jevons’s Economic Work’, Economic Journal, XV (1905) 435;Google Scholar
  11. rept. in L. Robbins (ed.), The Common Sense of Political Economy [hereafter cited as CSPE], vol. II (London: Routledge, 1933) p. 812. Recently, some commentators have sought to emphasise the differences between the thought of Jevons and Menger, rather than the similarities which Wicksteed stressed.Google Scholar
  12. On this, see H. N. Gram and V. C. Walsh, ‘Menger and Jevons in the Setting of post-von Neumann-Sraffa Economies’. Atlantic Economic Journal, VI (1978) 45–56.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    J. M. Buchanan, Cost and Choice (Chicago: Markham, 1969) p. 43.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    C. W. Noller, ‘Jevons on Cost’, Southern Economic Journal, XXXIX (1972–3) 113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 26.
    W. S. Jevons, The Principles of Science (2nd edn, London, 1877; repr. New York: Dover Press, 1958) [hereafter cited as PS] p. 12.Google Scholar
  16. 32.
    T. Tooke and W. Newmarch, A History of Prices from 1792 to the Present Time (London: Longmans, 1838–57).Google Scholar
  17. 33.
    W. S. Jevons to Herbert Jevons, 18 February 1864, H. A. Jevons (ed.), Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (London: Macmillan, 1886) p. 195.Google Scholar
  18. 38.
    H. S. Jevons, The British Coal Trade (London: Kegan Paul, 1915) pp. 722–3.Google Scholar
  19. 42.
    CQ, p. 272; Michael P. Jackson, The Price of Coal (London: Croom Helm, 1974) p. 192.Google Scholar
  20. 56.
    J. M. Keynes, EB, p. 120. A recent commentator, Professor S. M. Stigler, has perhaps given a better balanced summary view of Jevons’s contribution to statistics: Jevons was also a great statistician, in the sense the term was used in the 1860s. While he was not the originator of index numbers and graphical displays, at least Jevons realized their potential and pursued them with a perspicacity far beyond his predecessors’, and he displayed such keen good sense in the analysis of large quantities of data that we can still today describe him as a statistician without apology or serious qualification. If there was any nineteenth-century empirical social scientist who could have been expected to develop the techniques of the theory of errors into tools for the quantification of uncertainty in social sciences it was W. Stanley Jevons. But he did not. Stephen M. Stigler, ‘Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, Statistician’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society [hereafter cited as JRSS], series A, CXLI (1978) 287–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 60.
    TPE, p. 200. For comment on the relation between Jevons’s approach to the theory of value and the theory of money, see W. E. Mason, Clarification of the Monetary Standard (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1963) pp. 58–62. In attempting to explain what he calls ‘the Jevonsonian Paradox’, Professor Mason has, to my mind, been led to under-rate substantially the originality of Jevons’s contributions to the theory of value.Google Scholar
  22. 67.
    J. E. Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, vols I and II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1866).Google Scholar
  23. 71.
    J. A. Broun, ‘On the Decennial Period in the Range and Disturbance of the Decennial Oscillations of the Magnetic Needle and in the Sunspot Area’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, XXVII (1876) 563;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. W. W. Hunter and N. Lockyer, ‘Sunspots and Famines’, Nineteenth Century, II (1877) 583–602. Although Jevons first presented this version of his sunspot theory fully in the paper entitled ‘The Periodicity of Commercial Crises and its Physical Explanation’ read to the British Association in August 1878, he had earlier given an indication of it in the chapter on ‘Credit Cycles’ in his Primer of Political Economy, see esp. p. 120.Google Scholar
  25. 75.
    J. A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (London: Allen & Unwin, 1955) p. 1124. The considerable influence which Jevons’s theory had on later contributors to trade cycle analysis deserves to be remembered. D. H. Robertson ranked it with the work of Aftalion as ‘the most suggestive contribution ever made to a constructive theory of fluctuations’ — Economic Journal, XXIV (1914) p. 88 — while Keynes in the General Theory, described it as ‘an extremely plausible approach to the problem’. Keynes did not concern himself with the validity or otherwise of the sunspot hypothesis but pointed out that ‘even today fluctuation in the stocks of agricultural products as between one year and another is one of the largest individual items amongst the causes of changes in the rate of current investment: whilst at the time when Jevons wrote — and more particularly over the period to which most of his statistics applied — this factor must have far outweighed all others’ (General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: Collected Works, vol. VII, p. 329). I am indebted to Dr J. R. Presley for drawing my attention to Robertson’s comment.Google Scholar
  26. 80.
    J. M. Robson, The Improvement of Mankind, the Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1968) p. 118.Google Scholar
  27. 81.
    P. H. Wicksteed, ‘Jevons, William Stanley’ in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy, vol. II (London: Macmillan, 1910) pp. 474–8; repr. in CSPE, vol. II, p. 806.Google Scholar
  28. 82.
    W. S. Jevons, The State in Relation to Labour (London: Macmillan, 1882) [hereafter cited as SRL] pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  29. 83.
    T. W. Hutchison, A Review of Economic Doctrines 1870–1929 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953) p. 47.Google Scholar
  30. 86.
    W. S. Jevons, ‘Trade Societies: Their Objects and Policy’ (1868) in Methods of Social Reform (London: Macmillan, 1883) [hereafter cited as MSR] p. 107.Google Scholar
  31. 97.
    G. Routh, The Origin of Economie Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1975) pp. 203–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 103.
    For a fuller development of this point see R. D. Collison Black, ‘W. S. Jevons and the Foundation of Modern Economies’, in Black, Coats and Goodwin (eds), The Marginal Revolution in Economics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1973) esp. pp. 105–12.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1981

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  • R. D. Collison Black

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