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The Joan Robinson Legacy.

This volume starts with a lovely portrait (the frontispage) of Joan Robinson (circa 1970, I should guess) that perfectly captures her warmth, thoughtfulness, intelligence and beauty during the latter part of the period when I met her most frequently and knew her best. Ms. Rima has here assembled a mixed collection of essays (mostly by persons who would style themselves "Post Keynesian") on various aspects of Joan Robinson's many contributions to economic doctrine and method, Joan's own writing was so limpid that mere commentators, whatever their literary and intellectual talents, have an impossible act to follow. Joan Robinson may not always have been everyones' cup of tea, but at one time or another she was every reader's glass of champagne.

Like many Cambridge students in the 1920s, and like Alfred Marshall (cf. Keynes, Essays in Biography, Collected Work Vol. X, p. 146), Joan Robinson ". . . belonged to the tribe of sages and pastors |and so~ was endowed with a double nature. . . ." But--again like Marshall--"As a preacher and pastor . . . |she~ was not particularly superior to other similar natures." And while one could not be in Joan's presence for more than a few minutes without recognizing her incredible keenness of intellect and quick logic, neither can one read her books and collected works and imagine that anyone of Keynes's stature would say of her, as Keynes did say of Marshall, ". . . as a scientist |she~ was, within |her~ own field, the greatest in the world for a hundred years." Despite her sharp intelligence, Joan had no discernable feel for what Polya calls "shaded inference"--the essential quality of mind that separates the great empirical scientist from the great logician or mathematician. Though Joan often spoke and wrote sensibly about scientific methodology (one of the more notable instances being her remark that "in a subject where there is no agreed procedure for knocking out error, doctrine has long life.") she seemed to view economic theories either as nearly white--so Marx and Keynes were seen not as wrong but merely sometimes confused or misguided--or (especially anything she associated with Walras or classical theory) as perfectly black. Her collected works may entertain future historians of economic science, but they will not add much to what future generations will regard as "accumulated economic knowledge."

With few exceptions, the essays in this volume are "in the spirit" if not in the literary style of Joan Robinson: long on preaching, assertion, and exhortation, short on content. But the exceptions merit mention. The introductory essay by Ingrid Rima is clear, thoughtful, well crafted, and provides an excellent overview of the bulk of the remaining essays; it is well worth reading. Then there is the brilliant essay |Chap. 5~ by Meyer Burstein on "History versus Equilibrium" which seems to me good enough to compensate any reader for the entire price of the book. Burstein somehow manages to punch through the mindless rhetoric that surrounds most nonconventinal discussions of "historical time" and at the same time gives Joan ample credit for consistently stressing (if not always with complete lucidity) the strictly virtual character of all so-called Walrasian models (I say "so-called" because Joan never seemed to recognize that contemporary general equilibrium theory owes virtually nothing to Leon Walras and owes everything to J. R. Hicks's bowdlerized version of Walras's Elements as set forth in Value and Capital.

Phyllis Deane's "Biographical Memoir" |Chap. 2~ also merits special mention for its clarity and its scholarly focus, though I do not share Deane's assessment of Joan's scientific accomplishments. I heartily agree, however, with Deane's observation that ". . . few of the many young professionals who had come to sit at |Joan's~ feet . . . failed to respond to a mind that refused to be confined by conventional techniques of economic analysis." Still I cannot help reflecting that those who "refuse to be confined" might first make a serious effort to learn enough about conventional analysis to make informed judgments about what deserves to be ignored and what deserves to be kept.

Before concluding, I must draw attention to the superb twenty-five page bibliography of the writings of Joan Robinson by Maria Marcuzzo of Universita degli Studi di Modena, Italy; it is a labor of dedicated scholarship that will be much appreciated by those who seek inspiration or enlightenment from Joan's extensive contributions to the economic literature of this century. As for the fourteen or so other essays that I have not so far mentioned, to discuss them further might give me a certain personal satisfaction but would otherwise serve no useful purpose. Suffice it to say that all of them are longer on piety towards Joan than on material that would interest other economists, and that most of them are blessedly free of invective about "bastard" Keynesianism (Joan's favorite epithet for the "illegitimate" brand of Keynesian economics that she associated (rightly or wrongly) with the post-1936 and pre-1960 writings of Hansen, Hicks, Klein, Samuelson, and other (probably most) American "Keynesians."

Finally, I must mention the penultimate essay in the volume |Chap. 18~ entitled "Why Not a Nobel Laureate?" by Marjorie Turner, whose 1989 book on Joan Robinson and The Americans has been receiving deserved praise from reviewers. Even if one believed that recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics had an honor conferred on them rather than the other way around (conferring honor on a committee that would otherwise have hardly any credibility), to write about the nonaward of the prize to any particular person strikes me as puerile. For reasons alluded to earlier, Joan probably stood a better chance for the prize in Literature or Peace than in Economics, but despite that and despite the generally disappointing quality of the essays in this volume, surely we must all be thankful that such a great lady as Joan Robinson graced our profession through the middle half of the Twentieth Century. The Joan Robinson Legacy may be hard to describe and surely is not reflected in this book, but who can doubt that such a legacy exists?
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Author:Clower, Robert W.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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