Keynes on Newton

This story is about an institutional economist writing about a scientist seeking laws.

Nobel-laureate Steven Weinberg in his “To Explain the World” (Harper Collins, New York, 2015) tells an interesting story about Keynes and Newton (Ch. 14). Keynes purchased some of Newton’s papers in the 1936 auction at Sotheby’s. Keynes had been the first person to see some of the manuscripts which had been kept secret until the papers were sold in 1936. Keynes is rumoured to have been fascinated by Newton’s manuscripts. Later Keynes devoted a whole lecture (Newton, the Man, 1946) to the evaluation of Newton’s theory and significance and his contribution to the evolution of modern science. It is worth quoting in length:

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”

In contrast, Steven Weinberg, a modern scientist somehow treading in Newton’s footsteps gives a different portray:

“But Newton was not a talented holdover from a magical past. Neither a magician nor an entirely modern scientist, he crossed the frontier between the natural philosophy of the past and what became modern science. Newton’s achievements, if not his outlook or personal behavior, provided the paradigm that all subsequent science has followed, as it became modern.”

Now I feel tempted to interpret this situation as Keynes had problems in realizing the importance of looking into the hidden layers of reality. Looking for something that cannot be observed directly must me magic. I know this is an oversimplification but the same problem appears to be a characteristic of the institutionalist camp among economists. While mainstream economics is directed at looking for the fundamental economic laws and, in a Weberian sense, to highlight some facets of our socio-economic reality, institutional economists prefer theories and concepts with more direct descriptive relevance. It may be the age-old fallacy. What we cannot see that cannot be in existence.


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