Working Paper 1/2016

Some notes on Gossen’s ‘submerged and forgotten’ approach to consumption and time

Sergio Nisticò

January, 2016

Abstract: Hermann Heinrich Gossen (1810-1858) — a civil servant who, in 1854, published at his expense the book Entwickelung der Gesetze des menschlichen Verkehrs und der daraus fließenden Regeln für menschliches Handeln — has traditionally been considered a forerunner of the neoclassical theory of consumption based on the law of diminishing marginal utility.
It is only with the long-awaited publication, in 1983, of the English translation of Gossen’s book, that his editor, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, started to see in The Laws of Human Relations and the Rules of Human Action Derived Therefrom the roots of a wholly different theory of consumption in which the flow of calendar time plays a crucial and non-trivial role.
By going through the works of Jevons, Menger and Walras, the paper argues that the logical and theoretical connection between Gossen’s approach to consumption choices and the marginalist school is unwarranted. Theoretical connections, if any, can be found between Gossen and the classical economists on the one hand and the English ‘liberal’ tradition of John Stuart Mill and J.M. Keynes on the other.

JEL codes: B13; D01

Keywords: Gossen, Marginalist consumption Theory; Time.

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