PPEL at Arizona

The aims of the Arizona PPEL major

The PPEL major aims to promote sustained philosophical reflection on the interrelations of political, legal, and economic activities and institutions. Although students learn the basic tools of economic analysis, the major is also grounded on the humanistic tradition, encouraging analytical and critical reflection on the fundamental values that shape, or should shape, the economic, political, and legal domains.

The PPEL major encourages deep understanding of the moral and historical foundations of economic institutions and political-legal structures. Graduates excel in logical thinking and complex conceptual analysis, skills that are increasingly important in public policy and business.

Within a large public state university, PPEL offers motivated students the opportunity to study with distinguished faculty in small classes. Because each year's class proceeds through the program together, as a group, PPEL students get to know each other and have sustained interaction with their cohorts. The July 23, 2015 New York Times reports that one of the few important differences in student learning among American universities is that "Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers...." That is what the PPEL major provides to University of Arizona students.


The study of philosophy, politics, and economics as a combined discipline originated at Oxford University in the first part of the twentieth century, although at Oxford it represented not so much an integration of the three fields as a curriculum that drew on all three. In recent years the number of undergraduate PPE degree programs has increased, and a journal is now devoted to the field.

From one view, we are witnessing the rise of a new discipline or perhaps the resurrection of the nineteenth century discipline of political economy. In 1821 James Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and Robert Torrens founded the London Political Economy Club. In 1825 the Drummand Chair of Political Economy was founded at Oxford, which required occupants, such as Nassau Senior, to give a series of lectures. The first economics department in Britain was funded at University College London; John Ramsey McCulloch occupied its first chair of political economy. In 1830 Jean-Baptiste Say occupied the first political economy professorship in France. (Thomas Jefferson wanted to offer Say the chair of political economy at the University of Virginia.) The high point of the discipline of political economy was from this period until the 1870s. The greatest economics text of the nineteenth century, written by John Stuart Mill, was entitled Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (first edition 1848, last edition 1871).

PPE as political economy was then a well-defined field, with professional organizations, academic chairs, and textbooks. However, after the "marginalist revolution" led by Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Leon Walras, economics developed highly formalized, mathematical models of economic life. Jevons, and especially Walras, immediately saw how the idea of diminishing marginal utility allowed for the calculus to be applied to economics. After this, political science and economics (and social philosophy) went their separate ways, developing different professional organizations but, more important, different methods and tools. Some scholars believe we are currently witnessing a reintegration of these disciplines. From this first view, the study of economics and politics and, as Mill would say, their applications to social philosophy, cannot, in the end, be divorced.

At the University of Arizona, PPEL is part of an ongoing world-wide project of reintergrating these three key disciplines, with special attention to the relevance to law.