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This essay shows how Adam Smith addressed concerns about economic decline not only by proposing quantifiable categories through which relative decline could be measured, but also by characterizing the century as the proper timescale in which such quantities could be observed. What sometimes appears up close to be a process of decline and fall, Smith suggested, could, with a shift to a more distant long view, be explained instead as part of a normal business cycle. William Playfair then used Smith's emphasis on quantification to develop elaborate graphic techniques—what we now call the time-series line graph and the pie chart—to visualize more easily the patterns Smith sought to identify. Collectively, the reordering of temporal scale by Smith and Playfair helps us to rethink not only discourses of decline, but also our understanding of the temporalities of political economy as a problem of historical distance that needs to be thought about beyond temporal terms.

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Bernard Bailyn , “1776 a Year of Challenge: A World Transformed,” Journal of Law and Economics, 19/3 (Oct. 1976), 437–66

John Brewer , “Microhistories and the Histories of Everyday Life,” Cultural and Social History, 7/1 (2010), 87110)

Maureen McLane and Laura Slatkin , “British Romantic Homer: Oral Tradition, ‘Primitive Poetry’ and the Emergence of Comparative Poetics in Britain, 1760–1830,” ELH, 78 (2011), 687714, 703

E. P. Thompson , “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present, 38/1 (1967), 5697

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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