Roscher, Wilhelm

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Roscher, Wilhelm



Wilhelm Georg Friedrich Roscher (1817–1894), German economist, was a descendant of an old Hanoverian family of officials and judges. He studied history and political science at Göttingen and Berlin. In 1840 he became a lecturer in both these subjects at the University of Göttingen, where in 1843 he rose to the rank of professor-extraordinary (comparable to associate professor), and the following year to full professor. In 1848 he was called to the University of Leipzig, where he remained until his death.

Roscher is commonly considered, with Karl Knies and Bruno Hildebrand, to be one of the founders of the “older historical school” of German economics. In his small book Grundriss zu Vorles-ungen tiber die Staatsurithschaft nach geschicht-licher Methode (1843) he based the study of political economy on the principles of historical investigation. He was one of the first economists other than Friedrich List to have done so; although in France Auguste Comte had argued in his Cours de philosophie positive, 1830–1842, that the historical method should be applied to all the social sciences, he had himself concentrated on sociology.

The Grundriss was the basis for Roscher’s widely read System der Volkswirtschaft, a work of five volumes published between 1854 and 1894 and described in its subtitle as a handbook and reader for businessmen and students. It became the most influential textbook of political economy in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. Roscher also wrote some purely historical and philosophical books and articles in his early years, some political treatises, and many studies in the history of economic literature. His only work of lasting significance, however, is his Geschichte der National-oekonomik in Deutschland (1874).

Roscher called his method “historical” or “historico-physiological,” in contrast to the “philosophical” or “idealistic” method. He contended that the object of political economy is not to establish the best possible state of things, but to describe the actual state at which the economy has arrived through continual development. Of the two crucial questions, “What is?” (positive economics) and “What ought to be?” (normative economics), Roscher wanted to answer only the former; the latter question, in his view, could not be studied scientifically because it depends on constantly changing opinions and individual choices. While a science could never be based on the German idealistic philosophy, the study of what actually occurred could provide a “firm island of scientific truth which may be accepted in the same manner as the adherents of different systems of medicine all admit the teaching of mathematical physics.” ([1854–1894] 1901–1922, vol. 1, p. 80).

Compared to the “younger historical school,” led by Gustav Schmoller, Roscher was much closer to the classical theory of economics. In contrast to List, whose focus was on the productive forces of every nation and who was therefore interested only in the dynamics of development, Roscher accepted the value theory of the classical school for the analysis of any given stage of the economy and conceived of a process of organic development taking place between statically conceived stages. He thought that the life of nations, like the vegetable and animal world, has four such stages of development: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. Thus, development is in both an ascending and a descending direction (in contrast to List’s theory that evolution is exclusively ascending).

Roscher believed that development could best be studied by inquiring into the history of ancient nations like Greece and Rome, because that history has been terminated. Three factors of production govern the evolution of every nation: land, labor, and capital. Of these, one is always predominant in each successive stage of life. A close, and especially a statistical, knowledge of economic facts, according to the “objectivist” spirit of Leopold von Ranke, would permit, in Roscher’s view, the solution of conflicts of interest between the factors of production. Roscher was much more skilled in collecting obscure details and understanding particular events and theories than in formulating a theory of his own. Lacking any systematic theory, he was not forced to come to terms with the historical facts he collected or to recognize the futility of his search for “laws of nature” or “laws of evolution.”

Roscher could not fulfill the declared aim of his historical approach: to achieve for political economy what the historical approach of F. K. von Savigny and Karl F. Eichhorn had already achieved for the field of law and legislation. However, his Geschichte der National-oekonomik in Deutschland remains an outstanding work that must be consulted by everyone who does research in that field. Roscher was interested not only in the history of economic analysis but also in the personality of every economist and in the character of every economic work. His book is, therefore, a compendium, perhaps even an encyclopedia, of the history of German economists and of German economic and economic-political literature up to 1874.

Edgar Salin

[For the historical context of Roscher’s work, seeEconomic thought, article on thehistorical school, and the biographies ofList; Ranke; Savigny. For discussion of the subsequent development of Roscher’s ideas, see the biographies ofHildebrand; Knies; Schmoller.]


1843 Grundriss zu Vorlesungen iiber die Staatswirthschaft nach geschichtlicher Methode. Göttingen (Germany): Dietrich.

(1854–1894) 1901–1922 System der Volkswirtschaft: Ein Hand- und Lesebuch für Geschäftsmänner und Studierende. 5 vols. Stuttgart (Germany): Cotta. → Volume 1: Die Grundlagen der Nationalökonomie, 1922. Volume 2: Nationalökonomik des Ackerbaues und der verwandten Urproduktionen, 1912. Volume 3: Nationalökonomik des Handels und Gewerbfieisses, 1913–1917. Volume 4: System der Finanzwissenschaft, 1901. Volume 5: System der Armenpflege und Armenpolitik, 1906.

(1861) 1878 Ansichten der Volkswirthschaft aus dem geschichtlichen Standpunkte. Heidelberg: Winter.

(1874) 1924 Geschichte der National-oekonomik in Deutschland. 2d ed. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.

(1895) 1917 Geistliche Gedanken ernes Nationalökonomen. New ed. Dresden (Germany): Zahn & Jaensch.


Cunningham, William 1894 Why Had Roscher So Little Influence in England? American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals. 5:317–334.

Oncken, A. (1910)1963 William Roscher: 1817–1894. Volume 3, pages 323–327 in Robert H. I. Palgrave, Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley Reprints.

Schmoller, Gustav 1888 Wilhelm Roscher. Pages 147–171 in Zur Litteraturgeschichte der Staats- und Sozialwissenschaften. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

Verzeichnis von W. Roschers Schriften in der Original-sprache und in Uebersetzungen. 1894 Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, Philologische-Historische Klasse, Berichte. 46:222–226. → A comprehensive bibliography of Roscher’s writings.

Weber, Max (1922) 1951 Roschers historische Methode. Pages 3–42 in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissen-schaftslehre. 2d ed. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

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