This section is from the "Economics In Two Volumes: Volume I. Economic Principles" book, by Frank A. Fetter. Also available from Amazon: Economic
§ 1. Definition of economics. § 2. Economics contrasted with the natural sciences. § 3. Science as abstraction. § 4. Science and art. § 5. Place of economics among the sciences. § 6. Subdivisions of economics. § 7. Economy in the sense of the subject studied. § 8. Economy not parsimony. § 9. Social aims of economics. § 10. Economics in a democracy. Note on Economic laws and other terms.
§ 1. Definition of economics. Economics may be defined, briefly, as the study of men earning a living; or, more fully, as the study of the material world and of the activities and mutual relations of men so far as all these are the objective conditions to the gratification and to the welfare of men. The ideas of most persons on this subject are vague, yet it would be very desirable if the student could approach this study with an exact understanding of the nature of the questions with which it deals. Until a subject has been studied, however, a definition in mere words but slightly aids in marking it off clearly in our thought. The student must first try to see the general field of facts and of human interests that economics covers.
§ 2. Economics contrasted with the natural sciences. Economics may be contrasted with the natural sciences, which deal with material things and their mutual relations. A definition that suggests clear and familiar thoughts to the student seems at first much more difficult to get in economics than in the natural sciences. These deal with concrete, material things which we are accustomed to see, handle, and measure. If a child is told that botany is a study in which he may learn about flowers, trees, and plants, the answer is fairly satisfying, for he at once thinks of many things of that kind. When, in like manner, zoology is defined as the study of animals, or geology as the study of rocks and the earth, the words call up memories of many familiar objects. Even so difficult and foreign-looking a word as ichthyology seems to be made clear by the statement that it is the name of the study in which one learns about fish. It is true that there may be some misunderstanding as to the way in which these subjects are studied, for botany is not in the main to teach how to cultivate plants in the garden, nor ichthyology how to catch fish or to propagate them in a pond. But the main purpose of these studies is easily made clear at the outset; it is to know about the natural objects themselves. It is true that as each science is pursued, and knowledge widens to take in the manifold and various forms of life, the boundaries of the special sciences become not more but less sharp and definite.
In contrast with these, economics is one of the social sciences which deal with the inner nature of men and with men's relations in society. These are less tangible facts - we are tempted to say that they are less familiar - than are the materials with which the natural sciences deal. But the truth may be that social acts and relations are more familiar to our thought than is the subject matter of the physical sciences. Every hour in the streets and stores one may witness thousands of acts, such as bargains, labor, and payments, that are the data of economic science. Their very familiarity causes us to overlook their deeper meaning.
§ 3. Science as abstraction. A science by its very nature as science is concerned primarily with abstractions rather than with concrete objects. To think scientifically is to think abstractly. Abstraction is a certain way of looking at things; it is looking at their qualities. It is more difficult to think abstractly than it is to think of concrete things. It implies an analysis, a taking-apart of things to get at their components, and a grouping of these parts into some general idea - not an easy task for most minds. Economics singles out for study those aspects of the world which have to do with man's desire for the things about him and the use that he makes of them.
Economics "as the study of the material world" also has to do with all of those things which are the subject-matter of the natural sciences; but only in a secondary way. It studies them only as they are related to man's welfare, or as they affect his valuation of things; only in so far as they are related to the central subject of economic interest, the earning of a living.
§ 4. Science and art. Like every other field of study, economics has two aspects, one of science, the other of art; the one of knowledge, the other of action; the one of principles, the other of their application. Each science seeks to study and to understand the world in some aspect, to reduce the multitude of facts to order, and to understand their relations. Thus, astronomy has succeeded in counting a large number of heavenly bodies, classifying them as stars, planets, comets, etc., has come to understand their relations in space, distances, direction, and speed of movement, etc. On this science is based such practical arts as navigation, regulation of the calendar, determination of the exact time, prediction of eclipses, etc. Thus, likewise, physics, chemistry, the various branches of biology, psychology, etc., are concerned first, and merely as science, with the truth regardless of its application. Then, however, whatever truth is discovered may be found to be capable of some uses or applications, either in the hands of the scientists themselves or in the hands of another body of men, variously named practical workers, technicians, and inventors, who develop the art side of the subject. The history of civilization abounds with evidence showing that the work of the group of scientific workers continually pursuing truth for its own sake (work little esteemed by the world in general), is indispensable for the continued progress in the practical arts. Just outside the circle of attained scientific knowledge is a fringe of possible practical applications. But unless other and still other discoveries were made, practical progress in the arts would lose its source of inspiration.
§ 5. Place of economics among the sciences. Economics seeks the reason, connection, and relations in the great multitude of acts arising out of the dependence of men on the world of things and of other men. Economics has to study men in two sets of relations, as is indicated in the definition: the relation on the one hand of man to material (non-human) things about him, and on the other hand to other men with whom he has "economic" dealings. In so far as economics is concerned with the former, the relation of man to his material environment, economics borders on some phases of each of the engineering sciences, and of the natural sciences, as geology, botany, zoology, and (in considering how these things affect man) physiology and psychology.
In so far as economics is concerned with the mutual relations of men in business, it becomes one of the group of social sciences. The word "social" comes from the Latin socius, meaning a fellow, comrade, companion, associate. The social sciences deal with men and their relations with each other. As men living together have to do with each other in a great many different ways, and enter into a great many different relations, there arise many different social problems, and the several social sciences of politics, law, ethics, and economics. Each of these attempts to study social relations in some one important aspect, that is, to view them from some one standpoint. Politics treats of the form and working of government, and is mainly concerned with the question of power or control of the individual's actions and liberty. Law treats of the rules of the sovereign state controlling the actions of men (criminal jurisprudence), and of the principles guiding the interpreting of the contracts into which men see fit to enter in their economic affairs (civil jurisprudence). Ethics treats the question of right and wrong, and the moral aspects of men's acts and relations with each other. As compared with these, economics is a much less purely social science; it has to do almost constantly with the material environment as well as with the social environment in which men live.