My evening with Joan Robinson and the Tractatus
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was the first book I ever read with pleasure. I was 22.
From age five to sixteen the school system had me classified as borderline mentally retarded. My luck changed in my penultimate year of high school when a non-conformist English teacher gave me the chance to pretend I was not mentally deficient. She also taught me how to write a sentence, after which, inflated with fantasises of normality, I taught myself how to read textbooks and take exams, and soon became academically proficient and for a long time thereafter very neurotic.
As an undergraduate I cut classes as often as I attended them and waited till the night before an exam to open the textbook. Sometimes I only managed a C but in economics it was always an A and that was the only reason I had for becoming an economics graduate student.
Till then mine had been an all-American, all-textbook education. The textbook genre requires its authors to pretend to know it all and talk down to their readers. Reading The General Theory, I encountered for the first time an author who was openly struggling to understand what he was writing about. I too was struggling and so I – and what could have been more preposterous – immediately identified on an existential level with John Maynard Keynes. It meant that for the first time ever while reading a book my resentments and fears from my educational past receded to the background. And when they did the most astonishing thing happened. My brain started giving me an intensity of pleasure that, except for sex, I hadn’t thought possible. So it was that an intellectual was born.
I had read the whole of The General Theory before I opened Alvin Hansen’s A Guide to Keynes, the book we had been assigned to help us understand the original work. Reading it was a shock. Either Hansen was in some way corrupt or when it came to economics one of us was rather more intelligent than the other. Given my history, the second possibility was extremely worrying. But my emerging new self was saved when a fellow grad student loaned me a copy of Joan Robinson’s Introduction to the Theory of Employment. It both confirmed my reading of Keynes and offered me one that was much deeper. Because of that and because Robinson’s brilliance made serious inroads against my inherited sexist bigotry, she along with Keynes became one of my first two intellectual heroes.
Not long after my intellectual birth a conversational experience and its aftermath turned me off economics – and I thought forever. Having from five onwards been marginalized at school, I had compensated by outside of school organizing my peers in games, fort-building, expeditions, clubs, teams, a league, hell-raising and minor pranks. These organizing inclinations continued into my twenties, and as a graduate student I gathered some of my new peers into a discussion group. Once a month we would meet with a case of beer and a guest professor in one of our basement apartments. One month our guest was a young professor whom I liked and who was soon to make millions off his textbook. Halfway through our case of beer someone asked him, “What do you do if after you’ve been working on your dissertation for a year or longer you discover that the data you’ve collected doesn’t support your hypothesis?” You reselect the data was his answer. “How do you do that?” The professor volunteered to hold a short series of seminars to show us how. When the time came for the first one, I couldn’t make myself go. My peers came away from it enthused. Likewise for the second and third. I decided economics was not for me.
With a backpack half-full of books – I was reading widely and seriously now – I set off to see the world. Sixteen years and many adventures and misadventures later, I found myself living in Cambridge UK. One day walking on a back street near the centre, a shop window caught my eye. It was a photographer’s shop belonging to the widow of Frank Ramsey, the philosopher, mathematician and economist who back in the 20s died at the age of 26. The shop window was full of old black-and-white photos, and soon I was recognizing faces from the Bloomsbury Group: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Keynes and others. One photograph was larger than all the others and the longer I stood there, although I didn’t recognize the subject, the more I found myself looking at it: a woman in her early to mid-twenties in an oddly patterned dress sitting on a sofa with her legs folded under her. It wasn’t that she was particularly good-looking but rather that there was more character in her face than you would expect in someone her age. Eventually I leaned down to read the small print on the bottom of the frame: “Joan Robinson”.
A few nights later I was at a chamber music concert. It had yet to begin and I was watching people taking their seats. An elderly couple, entering arm-in-arm, caught my eye. The woman sitting next to me appeared to recognize them, so I asked her who they were. “They’re famous economists: Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson.”
A month later I was at a dinner party. Sitting opposite me was an Indian woman who was a Cambridge English don. We mostly talked literature until we got to the cheese course when she asked what I “read” in university. “Oh”, she replied, “I too did a degree in economics. After my undergraduate degree in English I decided to get one in economics before going on for my doctorate in English.” She said she still kept up her economics contacts and occasionally had “econ evenings” and would invite me to the next one.
I had zero interest in economics, but when a few weeks later I received the promised invitation I thought it might be interesting as a social occasion. So, more than a little nervous, I went along.
I was the last to arrive. Entering a large sitting room, there in an armchair directly in front of me was Joan Robinson. The gathering had been forewarned that an odd American was coming, and I had barely crossed the threshold when the great woman, with the whole room listening, asked me a question about the current state of the American economy. She did so with the kindest possible face, but I had not read anything about any economy for over a decade, and I froze. Thankfully, Sita, the hostess, covered for me and dinner was served.
After dinner – by now I had had a couple of glasses – I decided I had to make something of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage with one of my heroes. Joan – there was absolutely no edge to the woman so it already seemed natural to think of her as Joan – was in the armchair again, and I sat down on the floor facing her at her feet. I began by asking her what it was like being a student at Cambridge back in the Twenties. After recalling the lectures of the literary critic I. A. Richards, she moved on to Wittgenstein and Sraffa and their weekly one-on-one discussions over tea. It was one of those discussions – and in her raspy voice she repeated Sraffa’s account of it – that led to Wittgenstein’s famous turn from belief in a world comprised of atomistic sets of propositional facts to one where meaning depends on the anthropological setting in which propositions are conveyed. At this point Sita, who was now sitting on the floor beside me, sought to bring the whole room into the conversation by making a broad and potentially contentious statement about the meaning of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. I still had not read the book, but had read one or more books about it, and suspecting it was likewise with Sita, I decided as a way of becoming friends with her to argue against her. It was immediately obvious that she liked my challenge and soon the whole room of economists was debating the meaning of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. And, bizarrely, something was about to happen that would change the course of my life.
As the debate continued it occurred to me that perhaps no one in the room had really read the Tractatus. Joan Robinson stayed out of the debate and, although I was still sitting at her feet, I now had my back to her. Then suddenly from behind me her loud raspy voice broke into the conversation. Here are her exact words.
The world is all that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things. The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts. For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case. Those are the first four propositions of the Tractatus. I’ve never been able to understand them.
With her eyes turned away from us and into her thoughts, she tried to explain what she couldn’t understand. She was not arguing; she was making a confession. Except for maybe herself, the singularity of her behaviour was lost on no one in the room. It was a magic moment for me – the relaxed integrity of her intellect was so plain to see. And such a contrast to the outcome of my conversation sixteen years before. I wasn’t yet in a position where I could change my life’s course, but in time I was, and if it hadn’t been for that evening with Joan Robinson and the Tractatus I would never have become an economist.
Excerpt from, What is Heterodox Economics: Conversations with Leading Economists, Sebastian Berger, Andrew Mearman and Danielle Guizzo, (eds), Routledge, forthcoming.
From: pp.8-9 of WEA Commentaries 7(5), October 2017