Maynard Keynes on How to Be a Good Economist

From Facebook, April 11, 2011

Since the name of Keynes is back to being used somewhat in vain around the world, it may be appropriate to recall Maynard Keynes’s description of his own role-model as an economist, his master Alfred Marshall.

“The study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order.  Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science?  Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds.  An easy subject , at which very few excel!  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 and 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 the earth as a politician.”

JM Keynes “Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924” in Memorials of Alfred Marshal, edited by AC Pigou, 1925, p. 12.

Keynes himself was trained as and always thought like a mathematician, though he invariably spoke in words about practical realities. Marshall was his master, and so too, to a lesser extent, was his father, Neville Keynes.

I came to quote Keynes’s statement in Chapter 9 “Mathematical Economics and Reality” of my 1989 book *Philosophy of Economics*...

 

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