684. Harrod to F. H. Knight , 7 July 1937 [a]

[Replies to 658 ]

Christ Church, Oxford.

7 July 1937

Dear Professor Knight,

Your letter came to me during the rush of work last term, and I set it on one side to await the chance of giving it greater thought than was possible in those circumstances. First may I say that I hope, if you have the opportunity, you will do me the honour of calling upon me on your visit to England next year and allowing me to give you dinner in Hall here. And if you are minded to tarry awhile in Oxford, I should be very pleased to offer you accommodation [b] in college if you felt you could endure the rigours of a room in college. I will say that those rigours, bad as they are, are not much worse than the rigours of an English provincial hotel.

I entirely agree with much that you say with regard to the progress of economic theory and the literature thereof. [1] In the natural sciences divergent views are fairly quickly brought to the test of fact; economics with its "schools" is still in the phase of quasi-scholastic, in which rivals can persist in their rivalry and mutual invective. The facts are so much more difficult to muster for the crucial experiment. This being so, I agree, that it is much more important that immature work should be discouraged and writers restrained until they are mature masters of existing doctrine, in order that they make not confusion worse confounded. The influence of Marshall, while it was predominant here was, I think, in this direction. 1 He imposed the view that he had done all that could be done in fundamental theory, outside a limited number of vexed and, as he would have it, not central theoretical dilemmas. His pupils tended to confine their attention to applied problems of limited scope. But the trouble 2 was that empirical enquiry was not rich enough in results, to satisfy the intellectual zeal of economists. Human nature will out. And so we have had all too hasty attempts at fundamental reconstruction. Perhaps I must blame myself for following the new fashion to some extent.

With regard to Keynes! [2] --I forget if I told you in my last letter that I did my best to discourage him from his method of letting fly at established doctrine. [3] It seemed to me that he could build his own superstructure on the foundations that were there already and that many of his onslaughts were hasty and foolish. So in one respect I share your regret.

None the less I am on the whole his champion. If he has really said something of importance, his manners, you will agree, are of secondary account. 3 Now, while it is possible that many or all of his points taken in isolation are not novel, I feel that his construction regarded as a unity is a remarkable [c] intellectual achievement and likely 4 to serve as a useful tool of thought. The general outline of that construction I tried to set out in the Econometrica article [4] which I sent you.

Such a theoretic framework must clearly be judged by its results. Will it help others to think more effectively about economic problems? Judging by recent writings, I should say that it was already bearing fruit. But I am willing to await the verdict of experience and to admit the possibility of my being wrong.

No doubt there is much in the purely personal question. I start strongly prejudiced in his favour and predisposed to seek for the best that can be found in his work. I am prejudiced in his favour partly because he is such a delightful man! partly because he is such a remarkable intellectual stimulus. Students who have contact with him are galvanized into life and acquire an enthusiasm for their subject on an altogether more intense <plane> 5 . I feel that there must be good in such a potent source of inspiration. He has the divine enthusiasm himself and is capable of selfless devotion. Only the other day a young lecturer sent in a paper to the Economic Journal; he showed it to me beforehand; it contained some abstruse theorizing (on lines not directly related to Keynes' work) and I had to rack my brains for many days before I could comprehend what he was driving at. I dont know how long it took Keynes, but anyhow the man received back, tho' he did not know Keynes, 10 pages of typescript comment which enabled him to improve his article for final publication. And Keynes, we know, is not without other pressing duties. [5]

Personal contact also has given me an immense respect for his intellectual stature. One must in the end, I suppose, rely on one's own judgement. If there is anything in that judgement, Keynes is one of the two or three ablest men I have ever met and certainly far and away the ablest economist. I have known him for a number of years and had many contacts. But I am Oxford man, I did not meet him until after my four years here, and my opinion cannot be put down to adolescent enthusiasm. The impression I have outlined has been borne in upon me. Well, there it is; I must testify, utter my sincere view and leave it at that!

Fascism! [6] You may be right. But I still have hopes. I am by no means a pragmatist in general, but in this sphere, in prediction about matters about which we have no scientific means of arriving even at probability, I feel that the truth may be made by what we say, anyhow by what people like yourself say. If you with your influence take a pessimistic view about the prospects of self-government, that itself has an effect of material importance in causing that institution to wither and decay. Our faith must not be undermined! I am glad I was wrong in suspecting a sub-conscious fascination.

You speak of the decay of the aristocratic tradition. [7] That is no doubt due to the low birth-rate of the aristocrats. I suppose the face of Oxford has been transformed since the last century. The majority of undergraduates are of an entirely different class. This is not, I believe, because the old class are not sending their sons, but because they have not the sons to send. 6 The vacant places are filled by others. I feel that what I see going on before me is immensely encouraging, that what is valuable in our tradition is being preserved, albeit in a sense completely transmuted. 7 The manners and feelings of the men are in a way quite different. But the tradition of leadership is preserved and indeed transfused with a new vitality. The effect of this on the government of the country has not yet appeared. I have confidence that when the new generation does work through, it will preserve a liberal faith and a power of leadership and also a power of adaptation to new circumstances which will come to it naturally because it is itself of a different social origin. 8 Well I must not bore you with further scribble.

Yours sincerely

Roy Harrod

  1. 1. Letter 658 , [jump to page] .

    2. Letter 658 , [jump to page] .

    3. For Harrod's attempts to dissuade Keynes from his line of attack to traditional doctrine see letters 459 ( [jump to page] ), 460 , 461 ( [jump to page] ), 462 , 464 ( [jump to page] ), 468 ( [jump to page] ), 469 ( [jump to page] ), 471 ( [jump to page] and [jump to page] ), 473 ( [jump to page] ) and 475 ( [jump to page] ).

    4. Harrod, "Mr. Keynes and Traditional Theory" ( 1937:4 ).

    5. Probably refers to G. D. A. MacDougall, "The Definition of Prime and Supplementary Costs" (1936). A preliminary version of the article was discussed with Harrod: see Keynes's letter 574 to Harrod of 2 July 1936, and in particular notes 1 and 2 for context.

    6. Letter 658 , [jump to page] .

    7. Letter 658 , [jump to page] .

    8. "Inf" could abbreviate "inferiority"--with reference to the word "sons" circled by Knight: see footnote i to [jump to page] --or "infertility". The reference to Boulding remains baffling.

    1. a. ALS, three leaves three pages, in FHK B60 F7, 106.

      b. Ms: «accomodation».

      c. Ms: «... as a unity is, that that construction is a remarkable ...».


1. This sentence is marked by a vertical line in the margin.

2. Knight circled the words "the" and "trouble", and commented in the margin: "probs not empirical must be thot out".

3. if not done worse damage [Knight's comment in the margin].

4. The word is circled by Knight.

5. This sentence is marked in the margin with a vertical line; Knight commented: "Romantic destructiveness & recreativeness".

6. The word "sons" was circled by Knight.

7. Inf of women? cf. Boulding [8] [Knight's comment in the margin].

8. may be all to the good [Knight's comment in the margin].


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