The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The five texts

Economics has, during its entire history, from the mid-18th century until today, been dominated by only five textbooks. David Warsh lists them and explains:

[F]or the entire history of modern economics, all 250 years of it, from its beginnings during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to the present day, the discipline has been dominated by five canonical textbooks — and only five (though, of course, each had many imitators). Those who found compelling the authority of these texts became economists. Those who didn’t became something else — sociologists, political theorists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, lawyers, reformers, businessmen, religious leaders.

Isn’t that an interesting way of framing it? “Those who found compelling the authority of these texts became economists.” Wonderful phrasing; neat idea, too. The five texts were written by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall… and Paul Samuelson, who died recently, and who is the subject of Warsh’s piece.

The piece also includes this fun anecdote, new to me. Samuelson’s epochal text opens with an epigram from Willard Gibbs, a scientist and mathematician: “Mathematics is a language.” The story behind those words, from Muriel Rukeyser:

[Gibbs] would come to meetings — these faculty gatherings so full of campus politics, scarcely veiled maneuvers, and academic obstacle races — and leave without a word, staying politely enough, but never speaking. Just this once he spoke. It was during a long and tiring debate on elective courses, on whether there should be more or less English, more or less classics, more or less mathematics. And suddenly everything he had been doing stood up — and the past behind him, his [philologist] father’s life, and behind that, the long effort and voyage that had been made in many lifetimes — and he stood up, looking down on the upturned faces, astonished to see the silent man talk at last, and he said, with emphasis, once and for all: “Mathematics is a language.”

“And suddenly everything he had been doing stood up.” Jeez. More wonderful language. What an image. “Everything he had been doing stood up.”

One comment

Tim Carmody says…

In “What Is An Author?” Michel Foucault writes that some authors’ names go way beyond unifying and identifying the texts they wrote, and actually found a whole discipline. His examples were Freud and Marx — particularly noteworthy because you could be a Marxist writing a book about Marx and offer an interpretation that was completely the opposite of what Marx said and believed, and that answer would still be within the horizon of Marxism. These author’s names contained multitudes.

What’s noteworthy about these five guys is that their books served the same foundational function, while (with the exception of Smith) effacing their names. Calling someone a Samuelsonian economist is just redundant. Even Keynes is contested enough to make it a distinction. Samuelson is just assumed.


Muriel Rukeyser has got the goods. I remember looking at her picture in the back of an Oscar Williams poetry anthology, this twenty-year-old, elegant, modern, Jewish woman at the end of a gallery of old graybeards. She started out as a talented establishment poet, kind of like early Plath, and then got much looser and political. I’m hokey, but I’ve always liked her “Ballad of Orange and Grape.”

The snarkmatrix awaits you

Below, you can use basic HTML tags and/or Markdown syntax.