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Monday, May 6, 2019


Yesterday was Marx's 201st birthday.  Not a bad run for a little Jewish boy from Trier.


Tom Hickey said...

My prediction: You ain't seen nuthin' yet.

After a long period of demonization in the West, it is finally getting respectable to cite Marx again. This trend is only going to grow, since Marx is preeminent in the field along with Smith and Keynes, from whom we will be hearing a lot more, too.

Smith is an interesting case, since he has been largely misrepresented by the neoclassicals, including "Keynesian" neoclassicals like Samuelson. The notion that Smith is in any way connected with the modern interpretation of "the invisible hand" regulating the market is nonsense. It can be traced mostly to Samuelson.

It's also time to drag out Polanyi's The Great Transformation. Polanyi sought to critique capitalism on a different basis than Marx. while not of the stature of Marx, his angle is interesting.

Karl Paul Polanyi was an Austro-Hungarian economic historian, economic anthropologist, economic sociologist, political economist, historical sociologist and social philosopher. Wikipedia

Keynes on the characteristics of a good economist:

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject at which few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. 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. No part of man's nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician. — J. M. Keynes "Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924" The Economic Journal, (Sept.,1924), 321-322

Interestingly, neither Smith, nor Marx, nor Keynes was trained as a philosopher, although those trained in philosophy will recognize kindred spirits in all three. Interestingly also, none of them was trained in economics either. Smith and Marx were trained in philosophy and Keynes in mathematics. That says something to me. In my experience reading economists, they are just so focused on economics that they miss the forest for the trees. They "think like economists," that is, narrowly, rather than like philosophers, whose province is the whole.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Marx was too trained as a philosopher. His dissertation was on Democritus.

Anonymous said...

Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was 14 and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson....

In 1751, Smith earned a professorship at Glasgow University teaching logic courses, and in 1752, he was elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, having been introduced to the society by Lord Kames. When the head of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow died the next year, Smith took over the position. He worked as an academic for the next 13 years, which he characterised as "by far the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honorable period [of his life]".

Anonymous said...

Alfred Marshall begged Keynes to become an economist, although Keynes's own inclinations drew him towards philosophy – especially the ethical system of G. E. Moore....

In May 1904, he received a first class BA in mathematics. Aside from a few months spent on holidays with family and friends, Keynes continued to involve himself with the university over the next two years. He took part in debates, further studied philosophy and attended economics lectures informally as a graduate student for one term, which constituted his only formal education in the subject.

Anonymous II said...

It wasn't unusual in the mid-18th C. for Scottish youngsters to go to university. I seem to recall Hume was 12.

It would, I think, have been unusual, not to mention anachronistic, for them to identify what they were about in the disciplinary terms we take to be so obvious. Even disciplines like English emerged rather late in the day, and, notoriously, sociology emerged even later.

Back to Smith, as I think George Davie Elder discussed in his "The Democratic Intellect," the education he would have received at Glasgow university would have been rather different even from what was available in American liberal arts colleges during the second half of the 20th C. To quote from Davie's obituary, "In this book, Davie deals with the struggle during the 19th century in Scotland to maintain a generalist form of education which is not only philosophical but also scientific, humanistic and democratic. The book has been described as "a thesis about liberal education – pursued by a micro-historical investigation of the culture and academic politics of Scotland's universities in the 19th century. More than 40 years on, the book's discussions of the restriction of academic independence by centralisation, inter-university competition for prestige, research versus teaching and even versus scholarship, notions of abandoning moral discourse for ill-examined claims regarding scientific advance, are still relevant"

Tom Hickey said...

Thanks for correcting that. Senior moment. I turn 80 in June. Otherwise I would have to say, "written before coffee"

I had pointed it out in a comment on a previous post that of "the big three" in economics, Smith and Marx were trained in philosophy and Keynes in math. To be fair though, the discipline of economics didn't come into being formally until after Smith and Marx, and it was nascent when Keynes in school.

Previous to Alfred Marshall it was called "politic economy" rather than "economics." Marshall attempted to turned political economy, a species of social and political thought, into a "science" by attempting to mathematize it. Political economy was rechristened "economics."

Marshall himself cautioned against over-mathematization.

I have not been able to lay my hands on any notes as to Mathematico-economics that would be of any use to you: and I have very indistinct memories of what I used to think on the subject. I never read mathematics now: in fact I have forgotten even how to integrate a good many things.

But I know I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules---(1) Use mathematics as a short-hand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can't succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I did often.

I believe in Newton's Principia Methods, because they carry so much of the ordinary mind with them. Mathematics used in a Fellowship thesis by a man who is not a mathematician by nature---and I have come across a good deal of that---seems to me an unmixed evil. And I think you should do all you can to prevent people from using Mathematics in cases in which the English language is as short as the Mathematical. ....

I find mathematicians almost invariably follow what I regard as Jevons' one great analytical mistake, his eulogy of the Geometric mean in general: and do not see that, according to his use, erroneous weighting may do far more mischiefwith the Geometric Mean than with the Arithmetic Mean. I always have to spend some time in convincing them of the danger.
Your emptyhandedly, Alfred Marshall

Another trouble is that mathematicians insist on assuming that, if p be the price which may vary to pr or p/r, then the two variations are prima facie to be assumed to be equally probable. Whereas, of course, if r is a considerable quantity, that is not true: Jevons has overlooked this also, I think, as a result of not thinking in English. But of course you know far more about these things than I do: and again I say I am an unprofitable Servant.

Now there is a tendency to view macroeconomics in terms of political economy in that it is regarded as much a policy science as a theoretical one. Keynes, by the way, was deeply critical of what he viewed as excessive mathematization of economics, as his disagreement with Tinbergen's econometrics goes to show. Conversely, conventional economists dismiss the General Theory as being pre-mathematical. Mathematician Michael Emmett Brady has written extensively about how most economists are mathematically naive in comparison with Keynes and miss the degree of mathematical sophistication in this work because he did not formalize it to their liking.

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howie said...

It was Freud's birthday, yesterday, I think

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My God, you are right. How on earth did I get that wrong? I plead my great age. Or is there a deeper reason? hmmm?

Danny said...

A bad run, sure, but not for a little nvm

Danny said...

Strictly speaking, of course, Marx was not a Jew.

Danny said...

Indeed, Marx’s letters are strewn with derogatory references to Jews -- a series of slurs that today would certainly be called anti-Semitic..

s. wallerstein said...

Why isn't Marx Jewish?

His mother was Jewish and according to Jewish law (as far as I know), if your mother is Jewish, you are too.

It's obvious he is an atheist, as I am, yet I am Jewish. I haven't set foot in a synagogue in over 55 years, since the last time my parents obliged me to attend one.

I'd say that given Marx's comments on Jews, he'd be called a "self-hating Jew" today, not an anti-Semite.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

S. Wallerstein, Marx came from a long line of rabbis, but his father converted pro forma in order to be able to practice law, and Karl was not raised as a Jew.

s. wallerstein said...

He's still a Jew according to Jewish law, at least according to Orthodox Jewish Law.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, I was never bar mitzvah'ed, so what do I know.

s. wallerstein said...

Me neither.

s. wallerstein said...

Professor Wolff,

I just started to read this article on philosophical autobiographies and I see that yours is mentioned.!