Jevons’s Early Life and Education
William Stanley Jevons (1835–1882) was born in Liverpool in the United Kingdom, into an upper middle-class family. His father was an iron merchant, while his mother was the daughter of well-known father, who was a banker, a lawyer, and a Member of Parliament (albeit briefly).
At the age of 15, Jevons was sent to London to attend University College School, which had been recently founded (in 1830) as a private, preparatory school for University College London.
Even as a pre-teenager, Jevons was already intellectually ambitious. However, due to the failure of his father’s business a few years earlier, he had to leave school.
As a result, some years later when the opportunity presented itself for him to be awarded a newly created position as Assayer of the Mint in Australia, he had no choice but to accept the offer. In 1854, at the age of 19, Jevons set sail all by himself for far-off Sydney.
While in Australia, Jevons developed a considerable interest and expertise in natural history, demographics, photography, and other scientific subjects. After five years, he resigned his position at the Mint of Australia and returned to the UK via North America.
In 1859, Jevons entered University College London, where he was permitted to work towards an undergraduate degree from University College’s sister school, the University of London.
Although Jevons focused on the “moral sciences” (humanities) at university, he remained interested in the natural sciences for the rest of his life.
Jevons received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of London.
Shortly after obtaining his master’s degree in 1863, Jevons’s first academic job was as a tutor with Owens College, Manchester (forerunner of the University of Manchester).
Three years later, in 1866, Jevons was appointed the Cobden Professor of Political Economy at Owens College, with a joint appointment as professor of logic and mental and moral philosophy.
Jevons taught at Owens College until 1875, when he returned to University College London, where he remained until resigning his position in 1880 due to persistent ill health, including depression.
Jevons died while swimming in the sea off Hastings in 1882, a couple of weeks shy of his 47th birthday.
At the time of his premature death, Jevons enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading logicians and economists in the UK.
Jevons’s chief successor in British economics, Alfred Marshall, predicted that his work
. . . will probably be found to have more constructive force than any, save that of Ricardo, that has been done during the last hundred years.
More specifically, the American economist Irving Fisher once called Jevons’s A General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy, published in 1862, the first book to import the mathematical method of the natural sciences into economics (see “Jevons’s Principal Works,” below).
In terms of Jevons’s theoretical innovations, first and foremost we must mention his contribution to the subjective theory of value, which he arrived at independently from Carl Menger and Léon Walras. It was introduced by Jevons in his first book, in 1862, under the label of “utility.”
Second, Jevons developed considerably the idea of marginal utility, a crucial idea that had already been adumbrate by others. Thus, Jevons may be seen as providing the capstone of the “marginalist revolution,” which formed the basis of so-called “neo-Classicism” in economics.
Jevons had very broad intellectual interests and wrote on a wide variety of subjects. With respect to economics, another contribution for which he is well known is the “Jevons paradox.”
The Jevons paradox is a situation—which is relevant to contemporary environmental economics—which occurs when a gain in efficiency in the use of a given resource (due to technological innovation or other reasons) is nevertheless associated with an increase in that resource’s rate of consumption (due to increasing demand).
Jevons devoted much of his time to logic. His use of probability theory in economics and his philosophical theory of induction are among his most-important achievements in this field.
In the early 1970s, Jevons entered into a correspondence with the great German physiologist and philosopher, Hermann von Helmholtz, regarding the epistemological foundations and ontological implications of the new non-Euclidean geometry.
Jevons’s Principal Works
The Coal Question (1865).
The Theory of Political Economy (1871).
A Primer on Political Economy (1878).
The State in Relation to Labour (1882).
Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons, edited by Harriet A. Jevons (1886).
Papers and Correspondence of William Stanley Jevons, edited by R.D. Collison Black (seven volumes) (1872–1881).
Selected Books about Jevons
Klitgaard, Kent, Jevons’ Paradoxes: William Stanley Jevons and the Roots of Biophysical and Neoclassical Economics (2022).
Maas, Harro, William Stanley Jevons and the Making of Modern Economics (2005).
Mosselmans, Bert, William Stanley Jevons and the Cutting Edge of Economics (2007).
Peart, Sandra, The Economics of W.S. Jevons (1996).
Polimeni, John M., Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampietro, and Blake Alcott, The Jevons Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements(2007).
Schabas, Margaret, A World Ruled by Number: William Stanley Jevons and the Rise of Mathematical Economics (1990).
Theocharis, Reghinos D., The Development of Mathematical Economics: The Years of Transition: from Cournot to Jevons (1992).
Wood, John Cunningham, ed., William Stanley Jevons: Critical Assessments (three volumes) (out of print) (1988).