Joseph Schumpeter’s first major work, Das Wesen und der Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie (1908), has finally appeared in an English edition, translated as The Nature and Essence of Economic Theory. I use the word “English” lightly: this translation is surely one of the worst in economics. The language is consistently garbled, and is often completely incoherent.
Take, for instance, the following passage, where Schumpeter is discussing the worth of economic science:
“The reader might want to judge that for himself but we want to mention in advance that we will accomplish want we wanted, in a quite surprising fashion: A whole bunch of controversies simply disappear. If one does not deal with them with general arguments but really analyzes what they really are about, one finds out that there really are no roadblocks but one can easily avoid them. All others—and I really think all of them— can be rewritten in such a way that the sticky points do not have be touched upon at all and can therefore be neutralized. All objections that I know of can be taken into consideration and anybody who appreciates the meaning of the exact discipline of human actions will be ready for a sacrifice that is necessary in every cleansing process.” (p. 18)
Every page contains sentences which must be read and reread, and random quotation almost certainly reveals some typo or grammatical error. Throughout, the translator’s sentence structure is unfathomable, his word choice impenetrable, his use of the comma, abysmal.
This would have been especially offensive for Schumpeter, who was one of great stylists in the history of economic writing (if not the greatest). Not surprisingly, no translator is named in the book, only an editor.
All that aside however, this book is important, representing as it does the first formulation of Schumpeter’s economic theory. Schumpeter’s peculiar views on methodology, for example, comprise the early sections of the book. It is revealing that even at this early stage Schumpeter calls for methodological tolerance. This is not surprising, considering his battle cry, “to understand all is to forgive all.” (Perhaps he would have abandoned his credo after reading this translation). Nevertheless, it is interesting to read his views on such subjects as “methodological individualism,” a phrase he coined.
This work also greatly clarifies Schumpeter’s position in the history of economic thought. This is not an “Austrian” book except by the loosest definitions, but is rather an attempt at synthesizing what Schumpeter considered the worthwhile elements from several traditions in economics. It is in this volume Schumpeter presents his model of the static economy, upon which the “dynamic” model of The Theory of Economic Development (1911) is based. Essentially all of Schumpeter’s later ideas are either worked out or implied in these first two books. Careful reading is warranted for those with stomach for it.