Edgeworth’s Early Life and Education
Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (1845–1926) was born in Edgeworthstown, in County Longford, Ireland, into the so-called “Anglo-Irish” (i.e., Protestant English) landed aristocracy, which ruled Ireland at the time.
Edgeworth’s father’s family was of French Huguenot extraction, while his mother was born in Spain. She was living in England as a war refugee, when she met his father on the steps of the British Museum.
The future economist’s aunt was the celebrated novelist and pioneering children’s author, Maria Edgeworth.
As the name of his birthplace implies, Edgeworth’s family owned the region surrounding the ancestral manor where he was born and raised. He was educated at home by private tutors until he was of college age.
Edgeworth initially attended Trinity College Dublin, which was then an Anglican institution. (Although Catholics had been allowed admission since 1793, their numbers remained small until after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.)
In 1865, Edgeworth took his bachelor’s degree in classics from Trinity. He then studied classics and modern languages at Oxford University’s Balliol College, but never took a higher degree.
Edgeworth qualified as a barrister (a lawyer who argues cases in court) in London in 1877, but never practiced his profession.
Edgeworth was an autodidact in mathematics and economics, but though he studied these subjects on his own after leaving college, he was so successful that he began publishing papers on economics in professional journals beginning in the early 1880s.
On the strength of his publications, Edgeworth was appointed a professor in economics at King’s College London in 1888.
In 1891, Edgeworth moved to Oxford University, where he held the title of Drummond Professor in Political Economy. He was also elected a Fellow of All Souls College, where he remained until retiring with emeritus status in 1922.
A lifelong bachelor, Edgeworth lived throughout his life mostly in his rooms at Oxford, though for many years he also maintained a second residence in London.
In 1911, Edgeworth inherited the family estate in Ireland.
Edgeworth made seminal contributions to both mathematics—especially, statistics and probability—and political economy—especially, equilibrium theory.
Edgeworth was influential (along with his friend, William Stanley Jevons, and Alfred Marshall) in the transition from classical to neo-classical economics. Building upon work by Léon Walras, Vilfredo Pareto, and others, he developed modern formal analytical techniques in order to model individual decision-making in an economic context.
Edgeworth also applied his work in statistics and probability theory to the foundations of utility theory, within the context of utilitarianism—which he believed formed the basis for all human action, and so in the economic sphere, as well. In so doing, he e Hintroduced the concepts of the indifference curve and the “Edgeworth box,” which are still widely taught in modern microeconomics classes.
Edgeworth’s principal ideas were advanced in a relatively small number of essays published during the 1880s (see “Selected Works by Edgeworth” below), which were collected into a three-volume set entitled Papers Relating to Political Economy, which were published in 1925, the year before his death.
Otherwise, Edgeworth’s reputation as an economist largely rests on his monograph, Mathematical Psychics, published in 1881. In this work, he introduced a type of indifference curve known as a “contract curve.” This idea formed the basis for work by the Nobel laureate Gérard Debreu (with Herbert Scarf) in 1963 (see “Selected Works About Edgeworth” below).
Perhaps the most-influential concept Edgeworth advanced in Mathematical Psychics was the idea that general equilibrium may be characterized as an optimal set of feasible exchanges which cannot be improved upon by any subset of agents. These became known as the economic “core,” or as “Edgeworth allocations.”
Edgeworth then posited the conjecture that increasing the number of economic agents to infinity will cause the economic core to shrink to the set of Walrasian equilibrium states.
Separately, Edgeworth’s theory of barter provided a basis for later research on dynamic adjustments to the economy, as discussed by Hirofumi Uzawa in his 1962 paper cited below.
In later work, Edgeworth also wrote on monetary theory.
Selected Works by Edgeworth
“The Law of Error,” Philosophical Magazine, 16: 300–309 (1883).
“On the Method of Ascertaining a Change in the Value of Gold,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 46: 714–718 (1883).
“The Rationale of Exchange,” Journal of Royal Statistical Society, 47: 165–166 (1884).
“The Philosophy of Chance,” Mind, 9: 223–235 (1884).
“On the Reduction of Observations,” Philosophical Magazine, 17: 135–141 (1884).
Chance and Law,” Hermathena, 5: 154–163 (1884).
“Methods of Statistics,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 49: 181–217 (1885).
Metretike: Or the Method of Measuring Probability and Utility (out of print) (1887).
“The Mathematical Theory of Political Economy: Review of Léon Walras, Éléments d’économie politique pure,” Nature, 40: 434–436 (1889).
“Appreciation of Gold,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 3: 153–169 (1889).
“The Theory of Distribution,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 18: 159–219 (1904).
A Levy on Capital for the Discharge of Debt (pamphlet) (1919).
Papers Relating to Political Economy (three volumes) (1925).
F.Y. Edgeworth: Writings in Probability, Statistics and Economics, edited by Charles R. McCann, Jr. (three volumes) (1966).
F.Y. Edgeworth’s Mathematical Psychics and Further Papers on Political Economy, edited by Peter Newman (2003).
Selected Works About Edgeworth
Ansa Eceiza, Miren Maite and Francisco Gómez García, “William Stanley Jevons and Francis Ysidro Edgeworth: Two Pioneers of Happiness Economics,” Iberian Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 6: 175–187 (2015).
Baccini, Alberto, “F.Y. Edgeworth’s Treatise on Probabilities,” History of Political Economy, 41: 143–162 (2009).
Barbé, Lluís, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth: A Portrait with Family and Friends (2010).
Blaug, Mark, Alfred Marshall (1842–1924) and Francis Edgeworth (1845–1926) (1992).
Bowley, A.L., F.Y. Edgeworth’s Contributions to Mathematical Statistics(1928).
Creedy, John, “Edgeworth’s Contribution to the Theory of Exchange,” Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 26: 163–181 (1979).
Creedy, John, Edgeworth and the Development of Neoclassical Economics (1986).
Debreu, Gérard and Herbert Scarf, “A Limit Theorem on the Core of an Economy,” International Economic Review, 4: 235–246 (1963).
Gilles, Robert P., Economic Exchange and Social Organization: The Edgeworthian Foundations of General Equilibrium Theory (1996).
Hildenbrand, W. and A.P. Kirman, Equilibrium Analysis: Variations on Themes by Edgeworth and Walras (1988).
Jevons, William Stanley, “Review of Edgeworth’s Mathematical Psychics (1881),” Mind, 6: 581–583 (1881).
Mirowski, Philip J., Edgeworth on Chance, Economic Hazard, and Statistics (1994).
Stigler, Stephen M., “Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, Statistician,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, 141: 287–322 (1978).
Uzawa, Hirofumi, “On the Stability of Edgeworth’s Barter Process,” International Economic Review, 3: 218–232 (1962).