July 2018 newsletter - Peter Diderik Groenewegen

01 Jul 2018

In his chosen primary field, the history of economics, Peter Groenewegen was one of the finest scholars of his generation. This judgement goes to the depth, the range, and the precision of his historical research — richly informed also by a larger learnedness that grasped the wider context of texts.

Groenewegen, who died in Sydney on 4 May 2018, was born on 13 February 1939 in Kerkrade, The Netherlands, his family migrating to Australia in 1952. He graduated from the University of Sydney, Bachelor of Economics (1st Class Hons) in 1961 and Master of Economics by research in 1963. He then undertook a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science, awarded 1965.

Peter gained much institutional acknowledgement for his achievements: Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney from 1981 (the university of which he was continuously a member, in one form or another, from the late 1950s to his death, save for his doctoral sojourn at the London School of Economics in the 1960s); elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 1983; Australian Research Council Senior Research Fellow, 1991-95; Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economics Society in 2005; made Honorary Member of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought the same year; Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Society of Australia, 2010; and inaugural Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia the same year. Groenewegen retired from fulltime academic employment in 2002, but remained an Honorary Associate of his faculty, and Emeritus Professor, until his death.

Peter’s early work in the history of economics, growing out of his Master’s and PhD theses, concerned the formation of classical economics to 1776, with particular emphasis on the role and thought of the eighteenth-century French contributors, notably, A R J Turgot. This research greatly contributed to a welcome correcting of the mid-twentieth-century Anglocentric provincialism of the discipline's self-understanding of its history and origins, including also attention to Italian contributions — notably, Pietro Verri and Cesare Bonsana (Marchesi di Beccaria). It was an important element of a wider scholarly effort to rescue classical political economy from a ‘Whig history’ of economics, wherein classical economics came to be perceived as a mere collection of primitive anticipations of the latter-day marginalist theoretical framework.

Then, a series of articles dealing with aspects of the life and thought of Alfred Marshall begins to appear from 1988, preparatory to the massive, meticulous and deeply thoughtful Marshall biography of 1995, as well as many publications on Marshall after that. But while the work on the formation of classical economics and on Marshall are the two most salient features of Groenewegen’s long devotion to the history of economics, there are also very extensive contributions involving other aspects of the history of the science, for example: on the origins of the ‘supply and demand’ terminology; the concept of division of labour; Piero Sraffa in relation to Marx; Marx’s conception of classical political economy; Robert Malthus; the formation of marginalism; one of Peter’s intellectual heroes, Jacob Viner; the internationalization of economics after 1945; and James Steuart’s indebtedness to Richard Cantillon.

Hence, while eighteenth-century French political economy and Marshall are the two major subjects of Groenewegen's historical scholarship, it is testament to both the scale and range of his research that if, by way of a thought experiment, one were to remove the two sets of associated publications from his curriculum vitae, there would still remain a very substantial academic life. Peter's research lifework as a whole resulted in a vast collection of publications: most particularly, when I last counted in 2011, over 60 journal articles; more than 70 chapters in books; 6 authored books (two of them co-authored), 11 edited books (of which, three co-edited), a substantial body of translations, and a very large number of contributions to scholarly reference works — with some further published contributions added in the years since then.

If one knew nothing else of Peter but this, one could contemplate the magnitude and diversity of the research achievement and conjecture that he was one of those self-centred academics who pursues his own research without much contributing to the academic communities of which he was a member. In fact, this inference would be entirely wrong. Groenewegen made very considerable contributions of service to the global community of historians of economics and to the economics profession more widely. (The specifics of all this, as a well as a more detailed account of his research history, is provided in Tony Aspromourgos (2011) ‘Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Society of Australia, 2010: Peter Groenewegen’, Economic Record, vol. 87 (June).)

But there is more, as well, to a scholarly life than just these tangible contents of a curriculum vitae. The extensive formal service contributions Peter Groenewegen made to academic communities are only the most visible expression of a larger set of roles he fulfilled as colleague, advisor and mentor to very many scholars and academics around the world. This also is to be honoured, even if, or perhaps particularly because, it is under-recognized, in the too narrow and mechanical ‘metrics’ by which academics are now commonly judged.

Tony Aspromourgos
University of Sydney

Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of an obituary that will be forthcoming in the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought