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.”