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Alfred Marshall

Life and Writings

Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) did not figure among the protagonists of the 1871-74 marginalist revolution: his main contribution (Principles of Economics, 1890) was published nearly two decades after the works of Jevons, Menger and Walras. Marshall himself was averse to considering the new road taken by economic analysis a revolution, a clear-cut break with the past: his personal contribution, in his own opinion, consisted in a synthesis between the great tradition inherited from the past and the new yeast of the subjective approach. Indeed, Marshall contributed more than anyone else to redirecting economic science towards the approach that came to be called neoclassical, rather than marginalist or subjectivist, so as to stress the element of continuity with the past.

Marshall was born in London in 1842 to a modest family of the small- clerk bourgeoisie. Alfred studied at a school in the outskirts of London and then went on with mathematics at Cambridge, with brilliant results. Possibly as a consequence of a journey to America (1875), his interests shifted towards political economy. Participating in a scheme to promote the admission of women to university, he taught political economy to Newnham Hall’s female students. There he met Mary Paley, whom he married in 1877.

Marshall’s first important contribution was a volume of two essays on The Pure Theory of Foreign Trade and The Pure Theory of Domestic Values (1879b). In the same year he published, together with his wife, a didactic text offering an evolutionary view of the economy, The Economics of Industry (Marshall 1879a), which had good sales.

Following his marriage, Marshall was compelled to move out of Cambridge, returning there only when elected professor of political economy in 1884. In the meantime the Marshalls spent some difficult years in Bristol, and then - after a year’s leave with a long stay in Palermo where the writing of the Principles might have begun - they moved to Oxford. The Cambridge appointment, which came unexpectedly, marked

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a turning point in his life. Marshall held the political economy chair up to retirement in 1908 but remained in Cambridge up to his death in 1924 and retained a strong interest in the vicissitudes of the economics curriculum created on his initiative in 1903.

From Cambridge, Marshall exercised significant influence over the teaching of economics in the rest of England. In 1890, with his active intervention, the British Economic Association was founded and the Economic Journal was launched. His Principles of Economics (eight editions, from 1890 to 1920) soon became the reference text for generations of economists. Among the students, the small guide he published in 1892, Elements of the Economics of Industry, was widely studied. His influence was exerted through his pupils, selected as presidents of the British Economic Association, as editors of the Economic Journal or as economics professors in the major English universities; in Cambridge he had Arthur Cecil Pigou appointed as his successor.

Side by side with the oral tradition of his lectures and the vast correspondence with interlocutors worldwide (Marshall 1996a), his Official Papers are also important, mostly testimonials to parliamentary commissions (Marshall 1926, 1996b), and a group of articles collected by Pigou after his death (Marshall 1925). Of less importance are the two volumes he published in the final years of his life: Industry and Trade (1919), and Money, Credit and Commerce (1923). Marshall died at eighty-two in 1924.

 
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