574. J. M. Keynes to Harrod , 2 July 1936 [a]

46, Gordon Square, Bloomsbury #

2 July 1936

My dear Roy,

MacDougall's article duly reached me, [1] and I enclose a copy of the reply which I have sent him. [b]

I do not know whether you will agree with it or not. But at any rate I think it would do him no harm to try the effect of contracting this article. At present, apart from all other considerations, the length is really very excessive and hard for me to spare space for. I would, however, put up with this if I was convinced that all his elaborations are necessary. At present I am not convinced that this is so.

Undoubtedly it is a very able piece of work. I am not perfectly convinced that he is really an economist rather than some kind of mathematician [c] or logician. [2] I have had the same kind of doubt as I have had about a good deal of Champernowne's work. I feel increasingly that one cannot think as an economist unless one's method of thought is capable of handling material which is not completely clear-cut and which is, so to speak, symptomatic thinking, (I do not know if that quite expresses what I mean) rather than completely formal, water-tight thinking. [3] What one hopes from people like Champernowne and MacDougall is that they may learn to be mathematicians and economists simultaneously, capable of keeping in their minds at the same time formal thinking and shifting [4] uncertain material. But it is a very difficult thing to do, and they are always in danger of producing something which is jejune, and of wasting a lot of time and space on stuff which they have to discard as soon as they get down to the real topic in hand. [5] Obviously, however, MacDougall should have been given a First. [6]

How is your book getting on? [7] I look forward to seeing it.

Yours ever,

J M Keynes

R. F. Harrod Esq., Christ Church, Oxford.

  1. 1. Refers to a preliminary version of G. D. A. MacDougall, "The Definition of Prime and Supplementary Costs" (1936), pp. 443-61. The paper was sent to Keynes on Harrod's suggestion: see G. D. A. MacDougall, Don and Mandarin. Memoirs of an Economist (1987), pp. 12-13; see also note 2 to this letter.

    2. Harrod, as MacDougall's University supervisor when he was a graduate student in Oxford, expressed an opinion similar to Keynes's in a letter to MacDougall dated 6 December 1935 (the letter is no longer extant; it is cited in MacDougall, Don and Mandarin, p. 12):

    • I am a little worried about your work and not quite certain whether I am the right person to supervise you. But the latter point can be considered later.

      What I feel would be really good for you would be to take up your pen and put down on paper what you consider to be the problems set in the screed I have and what, if any, the solutions given without ever using a so-called mathematical symbol of any kind. Perhaps this is an impossible task. But I am seriously worried by your failure to express either on paper or orally what your problems are in the language of literature of even of literary logic. It may be that you will win through as a mathematical economist. But I do feel that in the present condition of economics, your weakness on the literary side may be an impediment.

    The paper as submitted to Keynes contained "hardly any mathematics" (p. 13).

    The episode is also referred to in Harrod's letter 684 to Knight of 7 July 1937: see [jump to page] .

    3. Most of Keynes's comments in his letter to MacDougall specifically regard his article. Some passages (pp. 2-3 of the TS), however, are of more general interest in this connection:

    • If the completely formal treatment could be maintained to the bitter end, then it would be well worthwhile. But in economics it is in the very nature of the case that at a fairly early stage in the argument it has to be discarded. As a rule it is impossible to pursue an economic argument to a point where it [d] is useful whilst maintaining so high a standard of formalism as you have set yourself. Thus, just when one reaches the stage where formalism might save one from mistakes it becomes necessary to throw it away. [...] I have an aversion to superfluous formalism in economics unless it is quite clear that it is required for the accurate statement of the ideas involved.

    4. This is likely a typing mistake for "sifting".

    5. Harrod eventually suggested that MacDougall followed Keynes's advice: see 575 R.

    6. MacDougall was examined by Harrod and C. R. Fay. Harrod thought that MacDougall deserved a First Class, but failed to convince Fay of this. The episode is recalled in MacDougall, Don and Mandarin (1987), pp. 11-12.

    7. Harrod, The Trade Cycle ( 1936:8 ).

    1. a. TLS with autograph corrections, two pages on two leaves, in HP II-62. Reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Scholars, King's College, Cambridge.

      b. The annexe, a CcTL, not signed nor initialled but with autograph corrections, three pages, with an additional two pages typed note, totalling five leaves, is filed in HP II/63 (the original is in MD). It is addressed to G. D. A. MacDougall, at Balliol College, Oxford, and dated 2 July 1936. On the top of the first page the copy is marked: "For the attention of R.F. Harrod" (in types).

      c. Ts: «mathematicisn».

      d. Ts: «is».

Welcome page

top of page

Return to index of this section

Go to previous page

Go to next page