“Sidney Alexander & I are really the only ones who showed the basic logical contradictions caused by positivism having penetrated economics in the middle of the 20th Century”

from Is “Cambridge Philosophy” dead, in Cambridge? Can it be resurrected, there? Case Study: Renford Bambrough (& Subroto Roy) preceded by decades Cheryl Misak’s thesis on Wittgenstein being linked with Peirce via Ramsey… 

“3.  Now before its publication my book manuscript had been mostly under contract with University of Chicago Press, not Routledge.  About 1984 one of Chicago’s half a dozen reviewers hit me with a large surprise: my argument had been anticipated decades earlier in America by MIT’s Sidney Stuart Alexander!   I had no idea of this though I knew Alexander’s publications on other subjects the balance of payments.

Alexander, who was Paul Samuelson’s contemporary and Robert Solow’s teacher, was extremely gracious, read my manuscript and immediately declared with great generosity it was clear to him my arguments had been developed independently of his own.  Alexander had come at the problem from an American tradition of John Dewey, Peirce’s pupil, I had done so from Wittgenstein through John Wisdom and Renford Bambrough.  Alexander and I had arrived at similar conclusions but had done so completely independently!

Before we had met, Alexander wrote in support of my work:

“(This) is a very ambitious work directed at the foundations of normative judgments in economics. The author arrives at some conclusions very closely matching those I arrived at some years ago. It is clear, however, that Dr. Roy arrived at his conclusions completely independently. That is all the more piquant to me in that the philosophical underpinning of his work is the development of philosophy in England  from the later Wittgenstein, while mine derives principally from earlier work in the United States by the pragmatists and those who may loosely be called neo-pragmatists. A prominent Cambridge ethical philosopher of the early thirties referred to the United States as the place where moribund English philosophies were to be hailed as the latest thing. Now the most characteristically American philosophy seems to have arrived first by a wide margin at a position gaining wider acceptance in England as well as America.

Dr. Roy reveals a clear understanding of the methodological positivism that invaded economic policy analysis in the thirties and still dominates the literature of economics…. Following Renford Bambrough (Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge) he arrives at a position equivalent to that of the American pragmatists, especially Dewey, who insist that the problematic situation provides the starting point for the analysis of a problem even though there are no ultimate starting points. The methodological implication is the support of inquiry as fundamental, avoiding both scepticism and dogmatism. Roy develops his position with a great deal of attention to the ramifications of the problem both in philosophy and in economics….”

When we did meet, as he drove me around MIT in his car, Alexander joked how it used to be bad form in his time to make comparisons about a trio of pairs: Cambridge vs Cambridge, baseball vs cricket, and “American English” vs (what is now called) “British English”!

I asked whom he had referred to as the “prominent Cambridge ethical philosopher”, he said C D Broad and decades later I found Broad’s condescending passage

“… all good fallacies go to America when they die, and rise again as the latest discoveries of the local professors…” Five Types of Ethical Theory 1930, p. 55.

No wonder Alexander found “piquant” that I had reached via Wittgenstein and Bambrough an equivalent position to his own decades earlier via American pragmatism. [Besides by Alexander, a most perspicacious review of my book is by Karl Georg Zinn.]  

Within economics, Alexander and I were pirate ships blowing holes and permanently sinking the positivist Armada of “social choice theory” etc.  Amartya Sen arrived at Cambridge in 1953, the year Philosophical Investigations was published, two years after Wittgenstein’s death the year after Wittgenstein died. Professor Sen told me, in 2006, John Wisdom and C D Broad both knew him at the time, all at Trinity College; if anyone, Amartya Sen should have conveyed to Kenneth Arrow in America in the 1960s and 1970s the implications for economic theory of Wittgenstein’s later work. Instead I had to do so in 1989, Arrow graciously admitting when he read my book:

“I shall have to ponder your rejection of the Humean position which has, I suppose, been central in not only my thought but that of most economists. Candidly, I have never understood what late Wittgenstein was saying, but I have not worked very hard at his work, and perhaps your book will give guidance.””

Originally from 2011:

I heard from Mr Scott Peterson of Oregon,

“Dear Professor Roy, I have been reading your book *Philosophy of Economics* and happened to stumble on the following paper:’Public Finance Texts Cannot Justify Government Taxation’ Walter E. Block (Loyola University New Orleans, Joseph A. Butt, S.J. College of Business) has posted Public Finance Texts Cannot Justify Government Taxation: A Critique on SSRN. Here is the abstract: ‘In virtually all economic sub-disciplines, practitioners of the dismal science are exceedingly desirous of avoiding normative concerns, at least in principle. These are seen, and rightly so, as extremely treacherous. Being only human, they do sometimes stray off the path of positive analysis; but when they fall off the wagon in this manner, if at all, it is done relatively cautiously, and infrequently. There is one blatant exception to this general rule, however, and that is the field of public finance. Here, in sharp contrast to the usual practice, not only is normative economics embraced, it is done so with alacrity, and without apology. That is, most textbooks on the subject start off with one or several chapters which attempt to justify taxation on moral, efficiency, and other grounds. This occurs in no other field.’

When I read this I immediately thought of your discussion of the normative vs positive approaches in economics. Perhaps the exception economists make regarding public finance is that most economists’ paychecks come from the public sector.


Scott Peterson

Dear Mr Peterson, Yes indeed. Thanks for the observation. Sidney Alexander and I are really the only ones who showed the basic logical contradictions caused by positivism having penetrated economics in the middle of the 20th Century. Are you at Facebook? Feel free to join me. Cordial regards, Suby Roy

“….Meanwhile, my main work within economic theory, the “Principia Economica” manuscript, was being read by the University of Chicago Press’s five or six anonymous referees. One of them pointed out my argument had been anticipated years earlier in the work of MIT’s Sidney Stuart Alexander. I had no idea of this and was surprised; of course I knew Professor Alexander’s work in balance of payments theory but not in this field. I went to visit Professor Alexander in Boston…. Professor Alexander was extremely gracious, and immediately declared with great generosity that it was clear to him my arguments in “Principia Economica” had been developed entirely independently of his work. He had come at the problem from an American philosophical tradition of Dewey, I had done so from a British tradition of Wittgenstein. (CS Peirce was probably the bridge between the two.) He and I had arrived at some similar conclusions but we had done so completely independently.”

Professor Alexander, contemporary of PA Samuelson, tutor of RM Solow and many others, deserves far greater attention, and I will do what I can towards that.  He introduced me briefly to his MIT colleague Lester Thurow and I sent an email some time ago to Professor Thurow suggesting MIT should try to remember him better.

Furthermore…. (12 August 2013)… as Karl Georg Zinn observed in his perspicacious review:

“Either all of positive economics is attacked with just as much scepticism as anything in normative economics, or we accept one and reject the other when instead there are reasons to think they share the same ultimate grounds and must be accepted or rejected together”(p.47).

Alfred Marshall (1842-1924)

Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), founder of modern economics, master of Maynard Keynes, concluding his 1885 Inaugural Lecture: “It will be my most cherished ambition, my highest endeavour, to do what with my poor ability and my limited strength I may, to increase the numbers of those, whom Cambridge, the great mother of strong men, sends out into the world with cool heads but warm hearts, willing to give some at least of their best powers to grappling with the social suffering around them; resolved not to rest content till they have done what in them lies to discover how far it is possible to open up to all the material means of a refined and noble life”.