William Stanley Jevons

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I protest against deference to any man, whether John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith, or Aristotle, being allowed to check inquiry. Our science has become far too much a stagnant one, in which opinions rather than experience and reason are appealed to.

William Stanley Jevons (1 September 183513 August 1882) was an English economist and logician.

Quotes[edit]

You will perceive that economy, scientifically speaking, is a very contracted science; it is in fact a sort of vague mathematics which calculates the causes and effects of man's industry, and shows how it may be best applied.
  • You will perceive that economy, scientifically speaking, is a very contracted science; it is in fact a sort of vague mathematics which calculates the causes and effects of man's industry, and shows how it may be best applied. There are a multitude of allied branches of knowledge connected with mans condition; the relation of these to political economy is analogous to the connexion of mechanics, astronomy, optics, sound, heat, and every other branch more or less of physical science, with pure mathematics.
    • Letter to Henrietta Jevons (28 February 1858), published in Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (1886), edited by Harriet A. Jevons, his wife, p. 101
  • One of the most important axioms is, that as the quantity of any commodity, for instance, plain food, which a man has to consume, increases, so the utility or benefit derived from the last portion used decreases in degree. The decrease in enjoyment between the beginning and the end of a meal may be taken as an example.
    • William Stanley Jevons Letter to his brother (1 June 1860), published in Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (1886), edited by Harriet A. Jevons, his wife, p. 151 - 152
  • When quite young I can remember I had no thought or wish of surpassing others. I was rather taken with a liking of little arts and bits of learning. My mother carefully fostered a liking for botany, giving me a small microscope and many books, which I yet have. Strange as it may seem, I now believe that botany and the natural system, by exercising discrimination of kinds, is the best of logical exercises. What I may do in logic is perhaps derived from that early attention to botany.
    • Reflections on his earlier life, written when he was 27 (December 1862), published in Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (1886), edited by Harriet A. Jevons, his wife, p. 11
  • I used to think I should like to be a bookbinder or bookseller it seemed to me a most delightful trade and I wished or thought of nothing better. More lately I thought I should be a minister, it seemed so serious and useful a profession, and I entered but little into the merits of religion and the duties of a minister. Every one dissuaded me from the notion, and before I arrived at any age to require a real decision, science had claimed me.
    • Reflections on his earlier life, written when he was 27 (December 1862), published in Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (1886), edited by Harriet A. Jevons, his wife, p. 12
  • It was during the year 1851, while living almost unhappily among thoughtless, if not bad companions, in Gower Street a gloomy house on which I now look with dread it was then, and when I had got a quiet hour in my small bedroom at the top of the house, that I began to think that I could and ought to do more than others. A vague desire and determination grew upon me. I was then in the habit of saying my prayers like any good church person, and it was when so engaged that I thought most eagerly of the future, and hoped for the unknown. My reserve was so perfect that I suppose no one had the slightest comprehension of my motives or ends. My father probably knew me but little. I never had any confidential conversation with him. At school and college the success in the classes was the only indication of my powers. All else that I intended or did was within or carefully hidden. The reserved character, as I have often thought, is not pleasant nor lovely. But is it not necessary to one such as I? Would it have been sensible or even possible for a boy of fifteen or sixteen to say what he was going to do before he was fifty? For my own part I felt it to be almost presumptuous to pronounce to myself the hopes I held and the schemes I formed. Time alone could reveal whether they were empty or real ; only when proved real could they be known to others.
    • Reflections on his earlier life, written when he was 27 (December 1862), published in Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (1886), edited by Harriet A. Jevons, his wife, p. 13
  • A little experience is worth much argument; a few facts are better than any theory.
  • Nature is to us like an infinite ballot-box, the contents of which are being continually drawn, ball after ball, and exhibited to us. Science is but the careful observation of the succession in which balls of various character present themselves...
    • Jevons [1874) The Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method, Volumes 1-2, p. 169

Elementary Lessons on Logic (1870)[edit]

  • Logic is not only an exact science, but is the most simple and elementary of all sciences; it ought therefore undoubtedly to find some place in every course of education.
    • Preface
  • Logic should no longer be considered an elegant and learned accomplishment; it should take its place as an indispensable study for every well-informed person.
    • Preface
  • The laws of thought are natural laws with which we have no power to interfere, and which are of course not to be in any way confused with the artificial laws of a country, which are invented by men and can be altered by them. Every science is occupied in detecting and describing the natural laws which are inflexibly observed by the objects treated in the Science.
    • Introduction, Lesson I: Definition and Sphere of the Science

The Theory of Political Economy (1871)[edit]

Quotations from the 2nd edition (1879)
In matters of philosophy and science authority has ever been the great opponent of truth. A despotic calm is usually the triumph of error. In the republic of the sciences sedition and even anarchy are beneficial in the long run to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
  • There are many portions of economical doctrine which appear to me as scientific in form as they are consonant with facts.
    • Preface To The First Edition, p. 3
  • In this work I have attempted to treat economy as a calculus of pleasure and pain, and have sketched out,almost irrespective of previous opinions, the form which the science,as it seems to me, must ultimately take.
    • Preface To The First Edition, p. 4
  • A correspondent, Captain Charles Christie R.E., to whom I have shown these sections after they were printed, objects reasonably enough that commodity should not have been represented by M, or Mass, but by some symbol, for instance Q, which would include quantity of space or time or force, in fact almost any kind of quantity.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p. 6
  • In short, I do not write for mathematicians, nor as a mathematician, but as an economist wishing to convince other economists that their science can only be satisfactorily treated on an explicitly mathematical basis.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p. 7
  • Among minor alterations, I may mention the substitution for the name political economy of the single convenient term economics. I cannot help thinking that it would be well to discard, as quickly as possible, the old troublesome double-worded name of our science.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p. 8
  • In any case I hold that there must arise a science of the development of economic forms and relations.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p.9
  • As there are so many who talk prose without knowing it, or, again, who syllogize without having the least idea what a syllogism is, so economists have long been mathematicians without being aware of the fact.
    • William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy (1871). Preface To The Second Edition, p. 14
  • The conclusion to which I am ever more clearly coming is that the only hope of attaining a true system of economics is to fling aside,once and forever, the mazy and preposterous assumptions of the Ricardian school. Our English economists have been living in a fool's paradise. The truth is with the French school, and the sooner we recognize the fact, the better it will be for all the world, except perhaps the few writers who are far too committed to the old erroneous doctrines to allow for renunciation.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p. 27-28
  • Property is only another name for monopoly.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p. 29
  • Thus monopoly is limited by competition, and no owner, whether of labour, land or capital, can, theoretically speaking,obtain a larger share of produce for it than what other owners of exactly the same kind of property are willing to accept.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p. 29
  • There is no such thing as absolute cost of labour; it is all a matter of comparison. Every one gets the most which he can for his exertions; some can get little or nothing, because they have not sufficient strength, knowledge or ingenuity; others get much, because they have, comparatively speaking, a monopoly of certain powers.
    • Preface To The Second Edition, p.31
  • Repeated reflection and inquiry have led me to the somewhat novel opinion, that value depends entirely upon utility.
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p. 37
  • It is clear that economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p. 38
  • but, in reality, there is no such thing as an exact science.
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p. 40
  • Previous to the time of Pascal, who would have thought of measuring doubt and belief? Who could have conceived that the investigation of petty games of chance would have led to the most sublime branch of mathematical science - the theory of probabilities?
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p.41
  • A correct theory is the first step towards improvement, by showing what we need and what we might accomplish.
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p. 44
  • The theory which follows is entirely based on a calculus of pleasure and pain; and the object of economics is to maximize happiness by purchasing pleasure, as it were, at the lowest cost of pain.
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p. 51
  • The calculus of utility aims at supplying the ordinary wants of man at the least cost of labour.
    • Chapter I, Introduction, p. 53
  • PLEASURE and pain are undoubtedly the ultimate objects of the calculus of economics. To satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort - to procure the greatest amount of what is desirable at the expense of the least that is undesirable - in other words, to maximize pleasure, is the problem of economics.
    • Chapter III, Theory of Utility, p. 61
  • By a commodity we shall understand any object, substance, action or service, which can afford pleasure or ward off pain.
    • Chapter III, Theory of Utility, p. 61
  • My principal work now lies in tracing out the exact nature and conditions of utility. It seems strange indeed that economists have not bestowed more minute attention on a subject which doubtless furnishes the true key to the problems of economics.
    • Chapter III, Theory of Utility, p. 65
  • One of the first and most difficult steps in a science is to conceive clearly the nature of the magnitudes about which we are arguing.
    • Chapter III, Theory of Utility, p. 78
  • The difficulties of economics are mainly the difficulties of conceiving clearly and fully the conditions of utility.
    • Chapter III, Theory of Utility, p. 82
  • "that in the same open market, at any one moment, there cannot be two prices for the same kind of article,"
    • Chapter IV, Theory of Exchange, p. 97
  • Economists can never be free of from difficulties unless they will distinguish between a theory and the application of a theory.
    • Chapter IV, Theory of Exchange, p. 108
  • We shall never have a science of economics unless we learn to discern the operation of law even among the most perplexing complications and apparent interruptions.
    • Chapter IV, Theory of Exchange, p. 110
  • Over-production is not possible in all branches of industry at once, but it is possible in some as compared to others.
    • Chapter V, Theory of Labour, p. 172
  • A spade may be made of any size, and if the same number of strokes be made in the hour, the requisite exertion will vary nearly as the cube of the length of the blade.
    • Chapter V, Theory of Labour, p.173
  • Ina regular and constant employment the greatest result will always be gained by such a rate as allows a workman each day,or each week at the most, to recover all fatigue and recommence with an undiminished store of energy.
    • Chapter V, Theory of Labour, p. 176
  • An isolated man like Alexander Selkirk might feel the benefit of a stock of provisions, tools and other means of facilitating industry, although cut off from traffic, with other men.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 185
  • Capital simply allows us to expend labour in advance.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 187
  • What capital I give for the spade merely replaces what the manufacturer had already invested in the expectation that the spade would be needed.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 188
  • One pound invested for five years gives the same result as five pounds invested for one year, the product being five pound years.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 190
  • The whole result of continued labour is not often consumed and enjoyed in a moment; the result generally lasts for a certain length of time. We must then conceive the capital as being progressively uninvested.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 191
  • Some of the gold possessed by the Romans is doubtless mixed with what we now possess; and some small part of it will be handed down as long as the human race exists.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 198
  • I consider that interest is determined by the increment of produce which it enables a labourer to obtain, and is altogether independent of the total return which he receives for this labour.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 206
  • I feel quite unable to adopt the opinion that the moment goods pass into the possession of the consumer they cease altogether to have the attributes of capital.
    • Chapter VII, Theory of Capital, p. 209
  • "we often observe that there is abundance of capital to be had at low rates of interest, while there are also large numbers of artisans starving for want of employment."
    • Chapter VIII, Concluding Remarks, p. 215
  • To me it is far more pleasant to agree than to differ; but it is impossible that one who has any regard for truth can long avoid protesting against doctrines which seem to him to be erroneous. There is ever a tendency of the most hurtful kind to allow opinions to crystallise into creeds. Especially does this tendency manifest itself when some eminent author, enjoying power of clear and comprehensive exposition, becomes recognised as an authority. His works may perhaps be the best which are extant upon the subject in question; they may combine more truth with less error than we can elsewhere meet. But "to err is human," and the best works should ever be open to criticism. If, instead of welcoming inquiry and criticism, the admirers of a great author accept his writings as authoritative, both in their excellences and in their defects, the most serious injury is done to truth. In matters of philosophy and science authority has ever been the great opponent of truth. A despotic calm is usually the triumph of error. In the republic of the sciences sedition and even anarchy are beneficial in the long run to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
    • Chapter VIII : Concluding Remarks, The Noxious Influence of Authority, p. 220
  • Truth indeed is sacred; but, as Pilate said, "What is truth?" Show us the undoubted infallible criterion of absolute truth, and we will hold it as a sacred inviolable thing. But in the absence of that infallible criterion, we have all an equal right to grope about in our search of it, and no body and no school nor clique must be allowed to set up a standard of orthodoxy which shall bar the freedom of scientific inquiry.
    • Chapter VIII : Concluding Remarks, The Noxious Influence of Authority, p. 220
  • I protest against deference to any man, whether John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith, or Aristotle, being allowed to check inquiry. Our science has become far too much a stagnant one, in which opinions rather than experience and reason are appealed to.
    • Chapter VIII : Concluding Remarks, The Noxious Influence of Authority, p. 221

External links[edit]

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Some of Jevons's works are available on the Library of Economics and Liberty website

A few more on the Archive for the History of Economic Thought website