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2.13 The ‘New’ Keynes Scholarship

During the 1980s there was a growth of interest in the early Keynes in order to

better understand the later Keynes of the General Theory. There is an increasing

recognition and acceptance that Keynes’s philosophical and methodological

framework had a significant influence upon his economic analysis as well as

his politics. Whilst much has been written about the alleged content of Keynes’s

economics, very little has dealt with Keynes’s method and philosophy. Littleboy

and Mehta (1983) argue that ‘The great stimulus to macroeconomic theory

provided by Keynes is well recognised but much less is said about his views on

scientific methodology’, and Lawson and Pesaran (1985, p. 1) concede that

‘Keynes’s methodological contribution has been neglected generally’. The only

major exception to the charge, until the contributions of, for example, Carabelli

(1988), Fitzgibbons (1988) and O’Donnell (1989), was the latter’s earlier study,

(O’Donnell, 1982) which endeavoured to provide a serious extended analysis

of the connection between Keynes’s philosophy and his economics. The more

recent attempts to explore the methodological and philosophical foundations of

Keynes’s political economy have been termed ‘the new Keynes scholarship’ by

Skidelsky (1992, pp. 82–9).

The main aim of the new scholarship is to highlight the need to recognize

that Keynes’s economics has a strong philosophical base and to provide a

detailed examination of Keynes’s rich and elaborate treatment of uncertainty,

knowledge, ignorance and probability. The new scholarship also gives prime

importance to Keynes’s lifelong fascination with the problem of decision

making under conditions of uncertainty. Carabelli (1988) has argued that the

general epistemological premises of Keynes’s method have been generally

overlooked, even though they were systematically presented, albeit in a very

refined state, in his A Treatise on Probability (1921). Fitzgibbons (1988)

maintains that economists have been guilty of suppressing Keynes’s philosophy

because of its lack of systematization and anti-modernist stance. For

Fitzgibbons, Keynes provided a radical alternative to long-run thinking firmly

based on the temporary nature of the short run. It is argued that the General

Theory is centred upon a radical economics of uncertainty organized around

‘animal spirits’ and creative impulses, alongside the constant threat of economic

breakdown: within such a world, money has a rationale and impact on

the real side of the economy. Keynes is seen to be concerned with the

problems of economic indeterminacy and the abandonment of equilibrium.

Likewise Carabelli has placed stress on Keynes’s focus on the close relation

between time and change and the need to analyse and attend to the problems

of the short period. O’Donnell (1982, pp. 222–9) attempted to reconcile the

long-period and short-period interpretations of Keynes by acknowledging

Keynes’s interest in both periods, but with greater emphasis being placed on

the latter. In O’Donnell’s interpretation of Keynes, a universal role for uncertainty

and expectations regardless of the period dimension has to be granted.

Although the new scholarship has increased awareness of the linkages between

Keynes’s philosophy and his economics, it can be argued that, in locating

the core of Keynes’s method in A Treatise on Probability, a work which largely

pre-dates much of his serious and scholarly economic writing, authors such as

Carabelli fail to consider adequately the reciprocal influence of the economic

upon the philosophical and their interaction and continued development. Nevertheless

the new scholarship does add weight to the ‘fundamentalist’ Keynesian

position that Keynes’s ideas on uncertainty were central to his vision (see

Shackle, 1974; Davidson, 1978, 1994; and Chapter 8).

However, throughout this book we take the view that, more than anything

else, it was the experience of the Great Depression that drove Keynes to write

his most important book on economic theory, The General Theory of Employment,

Interest and Money. Within that book Keynes placed a great deal of

emphasis on the role of expectations and uncertainty in his explanation of

aggregate instability (see section 2.8 above).