Sunday, April 9, 2017

John Maynard Keynes: eclectic philosopher

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) is best known for advocating government intervention to smooth economic recessions and his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. But there is also much to be said about Keynes the philosopher. Referring to Keynes, Todd Bucholz says,
No one embodied the Cambridge spirit of culture, fun, and public duty so much as Maynard Keynes. No one was more brilliant or charming. No economist in this century influenced politicians or the course of economics more. (New Ideas form Dead Economists)
Keynes is a good mix of eclectic and practical theory. This post is a collection of quotes from Keynes about the philosophy of economics.

What is a good economist?

"Good economists are scarce because the gift for using 'vigilant observation' to choose good models, although it does not require a highly specialised intellectual technique, appears to be a very rare one." (Letter to Roy Harrod, 1933)

"The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future." (Essays In Biography, 1933)

Philosophy of history

"Ideas shape the course of history." (The Peter Plan: A Proposal for Survival by Lawrence Peter, 1976)

"The great events of history are often due to secular changes in the growth of population and other fundamental economic causes, which, escaping by their gradual character the notice of contemporary observers, are attributed to the follies of statesmen or the fanaticism of atheists." (The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919)

"This 'long run' is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again." (A Tract on Monetary Reform, 1923)

Philosophy of science

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking." (New Statesman and the nation, 1933)

"I have now reached a stage in the argument where I have to choose between being too definite or being too vague. If I set forth a concrete proposal in all its particulars, I expose myself to a hundred criticisms on points not essential to the principle of the plan. If I go further in the use of figures for illustration, I am involved more and more in guess-work; and I run the risk of getting the reader bogged in details which may be inaccurate and could certainly be amended without injury to the main fabric. Yet if I restrict myself to generalities, I do not give the reader enough to bite on; and am in fact shirking the issue, since the size, the order of magnitude, of the factors involved is not an irrelevant detail." (How to Pay for the War, 1940)

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