William Stanley Jevons

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William Stanley Jevons
Picture of jevons.jpg
Born (1835-09-01)1 September 1835
Liverpool, Lancashire, England
Died 13 August 1882(1882-08-13) (aged 46)
Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, England
Nationality British
Fields Economics
Institutions University College London 1876–80
Owens College (now University of Manchester) 1863–1875
Alma mater University College London
Academic advisors Augustus De Morgan
Known for Marginal utility theory
Influences Jeremy Bentham
Influenced Frank Fetter
Irving Fisher
Henry Hazlitt
Alfred Marshall
Karl Popper
Lionel Robbins
Philip Wicksteed
While not a formal advisor (Jevons never acquired a PhD), De Morgan was his most influential professor.[1]

William Stanley Jevons FRS (/ˈɛvənz/;[2] 1 September 1835 – 13 August 1882) was an English economist and logician.

Irving Fisher described Jevons' book A General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy (1862) as the start of the mathematical method in economics.[3] It made the case that economics as a science concerned with quantities is necessarily mathematical.[4] In so doing, it expounded upon the "final" (marginal) utility theory of value. Jevons' work, along with similar discoveries made by Carl Menger in Vienna (1871) and by Léon Walras in Switzerland (1874), marked the opening of a new period in the history of economic thought. Jevons' contribution to the marginal revolution in economics in the late 19th century established his reputation as a leading political economist and logician of the time.

Jevons broke off his studies of the natural sciences in London in 1854 to work as an assayer in Sydney, where he acquired an interest in political economy. Returning to the UK in 1859, he published General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy in 1862, outlining the marginal utility theory of value, and A Serious Fall in the Value of Gold in 1863. For Jevons, the utility or value to a consumer of an additional unit of a product is inversely related to the number of units of that product he already owns, at least beyond some critical quantity.

It was for The Coal Question (1865), in which he called attention to the gradual exhaustion of the UK's coal supplies, that he received public recognition, in which he put forth what is now known as the Jevons paradox, i.e. that increases in energy production efficiency leads to more not less consumption. The most important of his works on logic and scientific methods is his Principles of Science (1874),[5] as well as The Theory of Political Economy (1871) and The State in Relation to Labour (1882). Among his inventions was the logic piano, a mechanical computer.


Jevons was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England. His father, Thomas Jevons, a man of strong scientific tastes and a writer on legal and economic subjects, was an iron merchant. His mother Mary Anne Jevons was the daughter of William Roscoe. At the age of fifteen he was sent to London to attend the University College School. He appears at this time to have already formed the belief that important achievements as a thinker were possible to him, and at more than one critical period in his career this belief was the decisive factor in determining his conduct. Towards the end of 1853, after having spent two years at University College, where his favourite subjects were chemistry and botany, he unexpectedly received the offer of the assayership to the new mint in Australia. The idea of leaving the UK was distasteful, but pecuniary considerations had, in consequence of the failure of his father's firm in 1847, become of vital importance, and he accepted the post.

Jevons left the UK for Sydney in June 1854 to take up a role as an Assayer at the Mint. Jevons lived with his colleague and his wife first at Church Hill, then in Annangrove at Petersham and at Double Bay before returning to England. In letters to his family he described his life, took photographs and produced a social map of Sydney. Jevons returned to England via America five years later.[6]

At the end of that period he resigned his appointment, and in the autumn of 1859 entered again as a student at the University College London, proceeding in due course to the B.A. and M.A. degrees of the University of London. He now gave his principal attention to the moral sciences, but his interest in natural science was by no means exhausted: throughout his life he continued to write occasional papers on scientific subjects, and his intimate knowledge of the physical sciences greatly contributed to the success of his chief logical work, The Principles of Science. Not long after taking his M.A. degree Jevons obtained a post as tutor at Owens College, Manchester.

In 1866 he was elected professor of logic and mental and moral philosophy and Cobden professor of political economy in Owens College. Next year he married Harriet Ann Taylor, whose father, John Edward Taylor, had been the founder and proprietor of the Manchester Guardian. Jevons suffered a good deal from ill health and sleeplessness, and found the delivery of lectures covering so wide a range of subjects very burdensome. In 1876 he was glad to exchange the Owens professorship for the professorship of political economy in University College, London. Travelling and music were the principal recreations of his life; but his health continued to be bad, and he suffered from depression. He found his professorial duties increasingly irksome, and feeling that the pressure of literary work left him no spare energy, he decided in 1880 to resign the post. On 13 August 1882 he drowned whilst bathing near Hastings.

Jevons was a prolific writer, and at the time of his death was a leader in the UK both as a logician and as an economist. Alfred Marshall said of his work in economics that it "will probably be found to have more constructive force than any, save that of Ricardo, that has been done during the last hundred years."

Stanley Jevons was brought up a Christian Unitarian,[7] and excerpts from his journals indicate he remained committed to his Christian beliefs until death. He is buried in the Hampstead Cemetery.[8]

Theory of utility[edit]

Portrait of W. Stanley Jevons at 42, by G. F. Stodart

Jevons arrived quite early in his career at the doctrines that constituted his most characteristic and original contributions to economics and logic. The theory of utility, which became the keynote of his general theory of political economy, was practically formulated in a letter written in 1860; and the germ of his logical principles of the substitution of similars may be found in the view which he propounded in another letter written in 1861, that "philosophy would be found to consist solely in pointing out the likeness of things." The theory of utility above referred to, namely, that the degree of utility of a commodity is some continuous mathematical function of the quantity of the commodity available, together with the implied doctrine that economics is essentially a mathematical science, took more definite form in a paper on "A General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy", written for the British Association in 1862. This paper does not appear to have attracted much attention either in 1862 or on its publication four years later in the Journal of the Statistical Society; and it was not till 1871, when the Theory of Political Economy appeared, that Jevons set forth his doctrines in a fully developed form.

It was not until after the publication of this work that Jevons became acquainted with the applications of mathematics to political economy made by earlier writers, notably Antoine Augustin Cournot and H.H. Gossen. The theory of utility was at about 1870 being independently developed on somewhat similar lines by Carl Menger in Austria and Léon Walras in Switzerland. As regards the discovery of the connection between value in exchange and final (or marginal) utility, the priority belongs to Gossen, but this in no way detracts from the great importance of the service which Jevons rendered to British economics by his fresh discovery of the principle, and by the way in which he ultimately forced it into notice. In his reaction from the prevailing view he sometimes expressed himself without due qualification: the declaration, for instance, made at the commencement of the Theory of Political Economy, that value depends entirely upon utility, lent itself to misinterpretation. But a certain exaggeration of emphasis may be pardoned in a writer seeking to attract the attention of an indifferent public. The Neoclassical Revolution, which would reshape economics, had been started.

Jevons did not explicitly distinguish between the concepts of ordinal and cardinal utility. Cardinal utility allows the relative magnitude of utilities to be discussed, while ordinal utility only implies that goods can be compared and ranked according to which good provided the most utility. Although Jevons predated the debate about ordinality or cardinality of utility, his mathematics required the use of cardinal utility functions. For example, in "The Theory of Political Economy", Chapter II, the subsection on "Theory of Dimensions of Economic Quantities", Jevons makes the statement that "In the first place, pleasure and pain must be regarded as measured upon the same scale, and as having, therefore, the same dimensions, being quantities of the same kind, which can be added and subtracted...." Speaking of measurement, addition and subtraction requires cardinality, as does Jevons' heavy use of integral calculus. Note that cardinality does not imply direct measurability, in which Jevons did not believe.

Practical economics[edit]

Principles of economics, 1905
Portrait of Jevons published in the Popular Science Monthly in 1877

It was not, however, as a theorist dealing with the fundamental data of economic science, but as a brilliant writer on practical economic questions, that Jevons first received general recognition. A Serious Fall in the Value of Gold (1863) and The Coal Question (1865) placed him in the front rank as a writer on applied economics and statistics; and he would be remembered as one of the leading economists of the 19th century even had his Theory of Political Economy never been written. Amongst his economic works may be mentioned Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875), written in a popular style, and descriptive rather than theoretical, but wonderfully fresh and original in treatment and full of suggestiveness, a Primer on Political Economy (1878), The State in Relation to Labour (1882), and two works published after his death, namely, Methods of Social Reform and Investigations in Currency and Finance, containing papers that had appeared separately during his lifetime. The last-named volume contains Jevons' speculations on the connection between commercial crises and sunspots. He was engaged at the time of his death upon the preparation of a large treatise on economics and had drawn up a table of contents and completed some chapters and parts of chapters. This fragment was published in 1905 under the title of The Principles of Economics: a fragment of a treatise on the industrial mechanism of society, and other papers.

In The Coal Question, Jevons covered a breadth of concepts on energy depletion that have recently been revisited by writers covering the subject of peak oil. For example, Jevons explained that improving energy efficiency typically reduced energy costs and thereby increased rather than decreased energy use, an effect now known as the Jevons paradox. The Coal Question remains a paradigmatic study of resource depletion theory. Jevons's son, H. Stanley Jevons, published an 800-page follow-up study in 1915 in which the difficulties of estimating recoverable reserves of a theoretically finite resource are discussed in detail.[9]

In a relatively minor work, "Commercial Crises and Sun-Spots",[10] Jevons analyzed business cycles, proposing that crises in the economy might not be random events, but might be based on discernible prior causes. To clarify the concept, he presented a statistical study relating business cycles with sunspots. His reasoning was that sunspots affected the weather, which, in turn, affected crops. Crop changes could then be expected to cause economic changes. Subsequent studies have found that sunny weather has a small but significant positive impact on stock returns, probably due to its impact on traders' moods.[11]


The Logic Piano

In 1864 Jevons published a Pure Logic; or, the Logic of Quality apart from Quantity, which was based on Boole's system of logic, but freed from what he considered the false mathematical dress of that system. In the years immediately following he devoted considerable attention to the construction of a logical machine, exhibited before the Royal Society in 1870, by means of which the conclusion derivable from any given set of premises[clarification needed] could be mechanically obtained. In 1866 what he regarded as the great and universal principle of all reasoning dawned upon him; and in 1869 he published a sketch of this fundamental doctrine under the title of The Substitution of Similars. He expressed the principle in its simplest form as follows: "Whatever is true of a thing is true of its like", and he worked out in detail its various applications including the "Logic Piano", a mechanical computer he designed and had built in 1869.[12]

The Logic Piano keyboard

In the following year appeared the Elementary Lessons on Logic, which soon became the most widely read elementary textbook on logic in the English language. In the meantime he was engaged upon a much more important logical treatise, which appeared in 1874 under the title of The Principles of Science. In this work Jevons embodied the substance of his earlier works on pure logic and the substitution of similars; he also enunciated and developed the view that induction is simply an inverse employment of deduction; he treated in a luminous manner the general theory of probability, and the relation between probability and induction; and his knowledge of the various natural sciences enabled him throughout to relieve the abstract character of logical doctrine by concrete scientific illustrations, often worked out in great detail. An example is his discussion of the use of one-way functions in cryptography, including remarks on the integer factorization problem that foreshadowed its use in public key cryptography. Jevons' general theory of induction was a revival of the theory laid down by Whewell and criticised by John Stuart Mill; but it was put in a new form, and was free from some of the non-essential adjuncts which rendered Whewell's exposition open to attack. The work as a whole was one of the most notable contributions to logical doctrine that appeared in the UK in the 19th century. "Though less attractively written than Mill's System of Logic, Principles of Science is a book that keeps much closer to the facts of scientific practice."[13] His Studies in Deductive Logic, consisting mainly of exercises and problems for the use of students, was published in 1880. In 1877 and the following years Jevons contributed to the Contemporary Review some articles on Mill, which he had intended to supplement by further articles, and eventually publish in a volume as a criticism of Mill's philosophy. These articles and one other were republished after Jevons' death, together with his earlier logical treatises, in a volume, entitled Pure Logic, and other Minor Works.[14] The criticisms on Mill contain much that is ingenious and much that is forcible, but on the whole they cannot be regarded as taking rank with Jevons's other work. His strength lay in his power as an original thinker rather than as a critic; and he will be remembered by his constructive work as logician, economist and statistician.

On Jevons as logician, see Grattan-Guinness (2000).

Jevons' number[edit]

Jevons wrote in his Principles of Science: "Can the reader say what two numbers multiplied together will produce the number 8616460799 ? I think it unlikely that anyone but myself will ever know."[15] This became known as Jevons' number and was factored by Derrick Norman Lehmer in 1903[16] and later on a pocket calculator by Solomon W. Golomb.[17][18]


One of Jevons' contemporaries, Hermann von Helmholtz, who was interested in non-Euclidean geometry,[19] discussed two groups of two-dimensional creatures with one group living in the plane while the other living in the surface of a sphere. He asserted that since these creatures were embedded in two dimensions, they would develop a planar version of Euclidean geometry, but that since the nature of these surfaces were different, they would arrive at very different versions of this geometry. He then extended this argument into three dimensions, noting that this raises fundamental questions of the relationship of spatial perception to mathematical truth.[20][21][22]

Jevons made an almost immediate response to this article. While Helmholtz focused on how humans perceived space, Jevons focused on the question of truth in geometry. Jevons agreed that while Helmholtz's argument was compelling in constructing a situation where the Euclidean axioms of geometry would not apply, he believed that they had no effect on the truth of these axioms. Jevons hence makes the distinction between truth and applicability or perception, suggesting that these concepts were independent in the domain of geometry.

Jevons did not claim that geometry was developed without any consideration for spatial reality. Instead, he suggested that his geometric systems were representations of reality but in a more fundamental way that transcends what one can perceive about reality.[23] Jevons claimed that there was a flaw in Helmholtz's argument relating to the concept of infinitesimally small. This concept involves how these creatures reason about geometry and space at a very small scale, which is not necessarily the same as the reasoning that Helmholtz assumed on a more global scale. Jevons claimed that the Euclidean relations could be reduced locally in the different scenarios that Helmholtz created and hence the creatures should have been able to experience the Euclidean properties, just in a different representation. For example, Jevons claimed that the two-dimensional creatures living on the surface of a sphere should be able to construct the plane and even construct systems of higher dimensions and that although they may not be able to perceive such situations in reality, it would reveal fundamental mathematical truths in their theoretical existence.[24]

In 1872, Helmholtz gave a response to Jevons, who claimed that Helmholtz failed to show why geometric truth should be separate from the reality of spatial perception. Helmholtz criticized Jevons' definition of truth and in particular, experiential truth. Helmholtz asserts that there should be a difference between experiential truth and mathematical truth and that these versions of truth are not necessarily consistent. This conversation between Helmholtz and Jevons was a microcosm of an ongoing debate between truth and perception in the wake of the introduction of non-Euclidean geometry in the late 19th century.[25]


Jevons' theory of induction has continued to be influential: "Jevons' general view of induction has received a powerful and original formulation in the work of a present-day philosopher, Professor K. R. Popper."[26]




See also[edit]


  1. ^ R. D. Collison Black (1972). "Jevons, Bentham and De Morgan", Economica, New Series, Vol. 39, No. 154, pp. 119–134
  2. ^ Daniel Jones, Everyman's English Pronouncing Dictionary (Dent, Dutton: 13th ed., 1967), p. 266.
  3. ^ Irving Fisher, 1892. Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Value and Prices, Appendix III, "The Utility and History of Mathematical Method in Economics", p. 109.
  4. ^ W. Stanley Jevons, 1871.The Principles of Political Economy, p. 4.
  5. ^ Jevons, William Stanley, The Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method, Macmillan & Co., London, 1874, 2nd ed. 1877, 3rd ed. 1879. Reprinted with a foreword by Ernst Nagel, Dover Publications, New York, 1958.
  6. ^ LETTERS AND JOURNAL OF W. STANLEY JEVONS. - William Stanley Jevons, Letters and Journal [1886] (viewed 3 Sep 2016), http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2079#lf1357_head_007;Scan Journal, http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=62; WM Jevons Album, Rylands Collection, University of Manchester, http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk:8180/luna/servlet/s/2mh2g8
  7. ^ Mosselmans, Bert, "William Stanley Jevons", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  8. ^ UVic.ca - University of Victoria
  9. ^ Jevons, H. Stanley Jevons, (1915) The British Coal Trade. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner; (complete text available at Google Books) see especially pp. 718 ff.
  10. ^ Jevons, William Stanley (14 November 1878). "Commercial crises and sun-spots", Nature xix, pp. 33–37.
  11. ^ Hirshleifer, David and Tyler Shumway (2003). "Good day sunshine: stock returns and the weather", Journal of Finance 58 (3), pp. 1009–1032.
  12. ^ In The substitution of similars, he gives a description of his "logical abacus" on p.55f.
  13. ^ "Jevons, William Stanley", in The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (1960), New York: Hawthorn.
  14. ^ William Stanley Jevons (1890). Robert Adamson; Harriet A. Jevons, eds. Pure logic and other minor works. London: MacMillan. 
  15. ^ Principles of Science, Macmillan & Co., 1874, p. 141.
  16. ^ Lehmer, D.N., "A Theorem in the Theory of Numbers", read before the San Francisco Section of the American Mathematical Society, 19 December 1903.
  17. ^ Golomb, Solomon. "On Factoring Jevons' Number", Cryptologia, vol. XX, no. 3, July, 1996, PP. 243–244.
  18. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Jevons' Number". MathWorld. 
  19. ^ Richards, Joan. Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England. Academic Press. p. 77. 
  20. ^ Helmholtz Axioms of Geometry
  21. ^ Richards, Joan. Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England. Academic Press. p. 78. 
  22. ^ Richards, Joan. Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England. Academic Press. p. 84. 
  23. ^ Richards, Joan. Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England. Academic Press. pp. 86–87. 
  24. ^ Richards, Joan. Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England. Academic Press. pp. 87–88. 
  25. ^ Richards, Joan. Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England. Academic Press. pp. 88–89. 
  26. ^ "Jevons, William Stanley", in The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (1960), New York: Hawthorn.
  27. ^ Missemer, Antoine. "William Stanley Jevons' The Coal Question (1865), Beyond the Rebound Effect," Ecological Economics, Volume 82, October 2012.
  28. ^ "J. S. Mill's Philosophy Tested by Prof. Jevons," Mind, Vol. 3, No. 10, Apr., 1878.
  29. ^ Jackson, Reginald. "Mill's Treatment of Geometry: A Reply to Jevons," Mind, New Series, Vol. 50, No. 197, Jan., 1941.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bam, Vincent, et al. "Hypothetical Fallibilism in Peirce and Jevons," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1979.
  • Barrett, Lindsay and Connell, Matthew. "Jevons and the Logic ‘Piano’," The Rutherford Journal, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2006.
  • Collison Black, R. D. "Jevons and Cairnes," Economica, New Series, Vol. 27, No. 107, Aug., 1960.
  • Collison Black, R. D. "Jevons, Bentham and De Morgan," Economica, New Series, Vol. 39, No. 154, May, 1972.
  • De Marchi, N. B. "The Noxious Influence of Authority: A Correction of Jevons' Charge," Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 16, No. 1, Apr., 1973.
  • Grattan-Guinness, I. "'In Some Parts Rather Rough': A Recently Discovered Manuscript Version of William Stanley Jevons's 'General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy' (1862)," History of Political Economy, Vol. 34, Number 4, Winter 2002.
  • Jevons, H. Winefrid. "William Stanley Jevons: His Life," Econometrica, Vol. 2, No. 3, Jul., 1934.
  • Keynes, J. M. "William Stanley Jevons 1835–1882: A Centenary Allocation on his Life and Work as Economist and Statistician," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 99, No. 3, 1936.
  • Könekamp, Rosamund. "William Stanley Jevons (1835–1882). Some Biographical Notes," Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, Sept. 1962.
  • Konvitz, Milton R. "An Empirical Theory of the Labor Movement: W. Stanley Jevons," The Philosophical Review, Vol. 57, No. 1, Jan., 1948.
  • La Nauze, J. A. "The Conception of Jevon's Utility Theory," Economica, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 80, Nov., 1953.
  • Maas, Harro. William Stanley Jevons and the Making of Modern Economics, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Madureira, Nuno Luis. "The Anxiety of Abundance: William Stanley Jevons and Coal Scarcity in the Nineteenth Century," Environment and History, Volume 18, Number 3, August 2012.
  • Mays, W. and Henry, D. P. "Jevons and Logic," Mind, New Series, Vol. 62, No. 248, Oct., 1953.
  • Mosselmans, Bert. "William Stanley Jevons and the Extent of Meaning in Logic and Economics," History and Philosophy of Logic, Volume 19, Issue 2, 1998.
  • Mosselmans, Bert. William Stanley Jevons and the Cutting Edge of Economics, Routledge, 2007.
  • Noller, Carl W. "Jevons on Cost," Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 39, No. 1, Jul., 1972.
  • Paul, Ellen Frankel. "W. Stanley Jevons: Economic Revolutionary, Political Utilitarian," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 2, Apr./Jun., 1979.
  • Peart, Sandra. "'Disturbing Causes,' 'Noxious Errors,' and the Theory-Practice Distinction in the Economics of J.S. Mill and W.S. Jevons," The Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 28, No. 4b, Nov., 1995.
  • Peart, Sandra. The Economics of W. S. Jevons, Routledge, 1996.
  • Peart, Sandra. "Jevons and Menger Re-Homogenized?: Jaffé after 20 Years," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 57, No. 3, Jul., 1998.
  • Peart, Sandra. "Facts Carefully Marshalled' in the Empirical Studies of William Stanley Jevons," History of Political Economy, Vol. 33, Annual Supplement, 2001.
  • Robertson, Ross M. "Jevons and His Precursors," Econometrica, Vol. 19, No. 3, Jul., 1951.
  • Schabas, Margaret. "The 'Worldly Philosophy' of William Stanley Jevons," Victorian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, Autumn, 1984.
  • Schabas, Margaret. "Alfred Marshall, W. Stanley Jevons, and the Mathematization of Economics," Isis, Vol. 80, No. 1, Mar., 1989.
  • Schabas, Margaret. A World Ruled by Number: William Stanley Jevons and the Rise of Mathematical Economics, Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Strong, John V. "The Infinite Ballot Box of Nature: De Morgan, Boole, and Jevons on Probability and the Logic of Induction," PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1976, Volume One: Contributed Papers, 1976.
  • Wood, John C. William Stanley Jevons: Critical Assessments, 2 vol., Routledge, 1988.
  • York, Richard. "Ecological Paradoxes: William Stanley Jevons and the Paperless Office," Human Ecology Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2006.
  • Young, Allyn A. "Jevons' 'Theory of Political Economy'," The American Economic Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, Sep., 1912.
  • Shepherdson, John C. "W. S. Jevons: his Logical Machine and Work Induction and Boolean Algebra" Machine Intelligence 15. eds. K. Furukawa; D. Michie; S. Muggleton. OUP, 1998. p. 489 - 505.

External links[edit]

Works available online