This article explores the history of commercial epistemology during the first half of the eighteenth century in Britain. During that period, questions about the character of commerce as a field of knowledge—whether it was a simple or complex, how it related to commercial “interest,” and especially who possessed it—lay at the heart of political-economic debate. This article looks specifically at one set of attitudes about commercial epistemology, what I call mercantile epistemology, which came to dominate economic thinking from 1714 to roughly 1750. Mercantile epistemology was based on two pillars. The first was that commerce was a straight-forward, “common sense” field of knowledge; the second was that, though commerce was not an abstruse field, it was businesspeople who understood it best. At the heart of this mercantile epistemology was the sense that the nation had one coherent business community who shared common goals and agreed upon a set of commercial “maxims.” This mercantile epistemology first attained its position of authority in British economic thinking following the heated debate over the Anglo-French Commerce Treaty in 1713–14. This mercantile epistemology maintained a strong hold on British economic thinking until roughly 1750, when its keys pillars began to be challenged from various directions. Focusing on epistemology offers a powerful way to rethink the history of what Adam Smith dubbed the “Mercantile System.”
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Research Article| June 01 2017
“It Was Their Business to Know”: British Merchants and Mercantile Epistemology in the Eighteenth Century
History of Political Economy (2017) 49 (2): 177–206.
William Deringer; “It Was Their Business to Know”: British Merchants and Mercantile Epistemology in the Eighteenth Century. History of Political Economy 1 June 2017; 49 (2): 177–206. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-3876445
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