Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

On the Origins of the Homo Œconomicus

Desmarais-Tremblay Maxime, Goldsmiths, University of London
Bee Michele, University of Lausanne

References to the homo œconomicus are ubiquitous in economics, and yet no comprehensive genealogy of the concept has been constructed so far. This paper contributes to filling this gap. We argue that the expression, together with that of “Economic Man”, were not coined by John Stuart Mill or any of his direct followers, as often stated, but by critics of the narrowness of the British classical political economy. This debate included at least French, German, American, Italian, Irish and English contributions, who use these expressions to reject Mill’s methodological project set forward in his essay On the Definition of Political Economy (1936). It took several decades for the methodological prescriptions of Mill to be followed in a systematic fashion. Only at the end of the century did Maffeo Pantaleoni and above all Vilfredo Pareto put an end to the debate by “purifying” the concept of homo œconomicus. Neoclassical economists provided new foundations for economics by embracing this concept, which was crystallised by Lionel Robbins in the formal definition of economics as the study of means-end actions.


Keywords: homo œconomicus, economic man, J.S. Mill, M. Pantaleoni, V. Pareto