Monday, July 13, 2015

McCloskey: M'Lord Keynes was a Sophist.

In her 1996 column Other Things Equal, Prof. Deirdre McCloskey describes Keynes ("Keynes Was a Sophist, and a Good Thing, Too") as a "sophist" and his work as "sophistry".

Against those for whom sophist is a "term of contempt", for McCloskey (arguably a proud sophist and rhetorician herself):
" 'Sophistry' in Plato's sense means 'mere verbal trickery,' as against Really Knowing, the sort of thing a true philosopher Knows. (…)
"The contrary view, that of the sophists themselves (…) is that we humans must get along on exchanges of words, and had better learn to use them well."
As McCloskey explained elsewhere, given that things cannot be Really Known, humans are left to argue their positions, in the most effective way, not with the aim of reaching or even approaching the Truth (which is unknowable), but to prevail in arguments, much as done in legal procedures or in debating societies: you are assigned a thesis, whether you believe in it or not, and your task is to argue it (more on this here).

Following McCloskey, that's where rhetoric and persuasion (which Keynes mastered) play a role:
"Democracies and courts of law [and economic theory and policy, apparently] depend on an art of persuasion exercised in the here and now".
McCloskey uses this "rehabilitated" meaning of sophist/sophism to distinguish Keynes and his work from lesser economists, steeped in Plato's anti-sophistic tradition:
"Right from the beginning Platonic thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and J.R. Hicks could not grasp his [i.e. Keynes'] method".
For McCloskey two main symptoms reveal Keynes' sophistry:
  1. "Keynes' lifelong commitment to adversarial and sophistic styles of engagement";
  2. "A sign of a sophist -- a sign considered by Platonic thinkers as the chief evil of sophism -- is the ability to change one's mind".
Unfortunately, McCloskey did not offer any quotation as evidence. However, regulars of this blog may find a good illustration to point (1) here.

Regarding point (2). The "Platonic" Hayek himself demonstrated exasperation with Keynes' tendency to come up with self-contradictory arguments (or Keynes' sudden changes of mind; about the apparently apocryphal quote, here):
"He was so convinced that he was cleverer than all the other people that he thought his instinct told him what ought to be done, and he would invent a theory to convince people to do it. That was really his approach." (Hayek et al, 1994)
Lord Skidelsky (whose work apparently influenced McCloskey):
"Hayek was infuriated by the rapidity with which Keynes changed his theories. This seemed to show he lacked scientific principles. Statesmanship without principle, Hayek would have said, is the slippery slope to totalitarianism." (Skidelsky, 2006, or here)

I believe McCloskey -- a Post Modern economist -- has a point about Keynes' sophistry. I, however, find it hard to share her upbeat assessment. Whether that was a good thing it's a matter of opinion.

Still, I think I can contribute to McCloskey's argument: there is another sense -- perhaps less obvious -- in which Keynes fits the sophist profile:
"[S]ophists have been many things to many people. (…)" (Duke, 2015, or here)
Again, regulars may have already stumbled on an example of that in these pages: Keynes as a conservative/centrist/leftish figurehead depending on the political orientation of his follower.

In fact, Keynes and Keynesianism can be acceptable to both PoMo and positivist Post Keynesians, provided they (like their Master) do not place too much value on coherence:
"(…) For Hegel (1995/1840) the sophists were subjectivists whose sceptical reaction to the objective dogmatism of the presocratics was synthesised in the work of Plato and Aristotle. For the utilitarian English classicist George Grote (1904), the sophists were progressive thinkers who placed in question the prevailing morality of their time. More recent work by French theorists such as Jacques Derrida (1981) and Jean Francois-Lyotard (1985) suggests affinities between the sophists and postmodernism." (Emphasis added) 
Or here and here. His lordship, after all, created a school of thought.


Duke, G. (2015). The Sophists (Ancient Greek). In: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, <>. July 2, 2015.
Hayek, F., Kresge, S., Wenar, L. and Hayek, F. (1994). Hayek on Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McCloskey, D. (1996). Keynes Was a Sophist, and a Good Thing, Too. Eastern Economic Journal, 22(2), pp. 231-234. <>
Skidelsky, R. (2006). Hayek versus Keynes: The Road to Reconciliation. In: E. Feser, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hayek, 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.<>

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