Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Committee on Social Thought versus the Department of Economics in Chicago


The paper is based mainly on John Nef’s papers and letters from the Archive of the University of Chicago and papers from the Department of Economics. John U. Nef was a prominent economist and historian, highly regarded in economic circles at Chicago University. The Committee on Social Thought (CST) was founded in 1941 at the University of Chicago, under the guidance of Nef and Frank Knight and with the support of the University President Robert Maynard. In 1946 when Jacob Viner moved to Princeton both Knight and Nef were convinced that studies of economics at the university were declining and becoming too specialized. They decided to expand and improve the activity of the CTS. During these years they expressed in several letters, some of them are here reproduced, the view that the level of studies reached by the Department of Economics was unsatisfactory, and that the new generation of scholars was not adequate for the Chicago tradition. In addition and to confirm this situation in 1950 took place the case of Hayek’s appointment.

Hayek’s membership was refused by the Department – despite a grant which would have covered all expenses – and the Austrian economist joined the CST. This fact marked and started a sparkling period for the CST, when prominent intellectuals from all over the world joined the Committeee, including, among others, T.S. Eliot, Mircea Eliade, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Saul Bellow, Robert Fogel etc.

The main idea and the most important issue, developed by the paper is that the extraordinary flourishing of the CST was mostly due to a stir within the Department of Economics, between the old wing (Knight, Viner, Nef) and the younger fellows. In this way the CST is to be considered much more connected with the heritage of the Economic tradition, than, as argued earlier, as an output of sociological studies in Chicago.

Noto, Sergio, The Committee on Social Thought versus the Department of Economics in Chicago - A Short Story between Education and Researching Economics in the 50s (February 15, 2010). Available at SSRN:

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