The surprising Weberian roots to Milton Friedman's methodology

The main point of this paper is to contribute to understanding Milton Friedman’s (1953) “The Methodology of Positive Economics” (hereafter F1953), one of the most influential statements of economic methodology of the twentieth century, and, in doing so, help discern the non trivial but complex role of philosophic ideas in the shaping of economic theorizing and economists’ self-conception. It also aims to contribute to a better understanding of the theoretical origins of the so-called ‘Chicago’ school of economics. In this paper, I first present detailed textual evidence of the familiarity of George Stigler with the early work of Talcott Parsons, the most important American translator and disseminator of Max Weber’s ideas, who also helped create sociology as a distinct discipline in the United States. The Chicago-Parsons link is no surprise because historians have known that Frank Knight and Parsons corresponded, first about translating Weber and then about matters of mutual interest. Knight, who was a doctoral advisor to Stigler and teacher of Milton Friedman, was not merely the first American translator of Weber, but remained keenly and, perhaps, increasingly interested in Weber throughout his life. I am unfamiliar with any investigation of the Weberian influence on Knight’s students. I show that Stigler praises Parsons’ treatment of Alfred Marshall, who plays an outsized role in Friedman’s self-conception of economics and economic theory. I also show that Stigler calls attention to the methodological similarity between Friedman and Parsons. Finally, I turn to F1953, and I show, first, that some of its most distinctive and philosophically interesting claims echo Parsons’ treatment of methodological matters; second that once alerted one can note Weberian terminology in F1953.
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