[Paleopsych] Phil Soc Sci: Review of Frank Knight's Selected Essays

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Review of Frank Knight's Selected Essays


[Knight was the grand-director of my dissertation, meaning that he was the 
dissertation director of my own dissertation director, James Buchanan. I 
met him only once but somehow think I was his student. He raised questions 
more than propounded answers. Not many students cared for this, but to 
those he did, he was legendary. Read his essays. They will stick, long 
after any number of Big Mac articles do.

[Sorry about the words running together, but it's easy enought to read.]

Ross B.Emmett,ed., Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight. Volume 1: What Is 
Truth in Economics? University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999. Pp. 406. 
$58.00 (cloth).

Ross B. Emmett, ed., Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight. Volume 2: 
Laissez-Faire: Pro and Con. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999. 
Pp. 459. $58.00 (cloth).

Frank Knight (1885-1972) was a very enigmatic economist. On one hand, he 
was the intellectual father of the Chicago school of economics, he was an 
early and effective expositor of the school’s most characteristic 
positions (such as a belief in the benefits of the competitive market, the 
wrongheadedness of Keynesian macroeconomics, and the explanatory power of 
rational choice theory), and he was also a revered teacher for many of the 
Nobel prize winners whose names have come to be associated with the 
Chicago tradition (including Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, and George 
Stigler). On the other hand, Knight was also a consistent critic of the 
idea that economicscouldever be a capital-S science in the image of the 
natural sciences, and the view (characteristic of Chicago) that all that 
is required for effective social policy is a good understanding of 
economic theory. If that was not enough, he continually insisted that 
competitive market economies really do have a number of endemic, and not 
easily rectified, social problems. An enigmatic economist indeed!

The editor of these two volumes, Ross Emmett, is fairly young in his 
academic career, but thus far it has been a career dedicated almost 
exclusivelyto the work of Frank Knight. He is now considered to be the 
foremost authority onthismuch-quoted, butlittleunderstood, 
Chicagoeconomist. Emmettisan excellent historian of economic thought; he 
is a dedicated and careful scholar immersed in Knight’s life, and yet he 
seems to be devoid of the hagiographic tendencies that often taint the 
research of those who dedicate so much time and effort to the work of a 
single individual. Although Emmett is primarily a historian 
ofeconomicthought, ratherthana practicingeconomist oraphilosopher of 
science, he has both an effective command of economic theory and an 
excellent eye for philosophical subtlety. Frank Knight is not Adam Smith 
or Karl Marx, not a "great" economist whose ideas (or misreadings of his 
ideas) haveshapedthe basiclandscape ofmodernlife. Andyet, Knightisstill 
with us in fundamental ways. His problems--the problems of organizing 
social life in a world where individuals hold widely divergent fundamental 
values; where market efficiency is essential to, but should not exhaust, 
meaningful human interaction; and where the scientific form of life 
dominates, but also harbors, a healthy resistance to reductionism and the 
suppression of other aspects of human existence--are not only still with 
us, they have, after the half-century or so detour proffered by 
"scientific" Marxism, returned withavengeance. Knightisthus morethanjust 
afigureinthe intellectualhistoryofthe economicsprofession. He is a social 
thinkerwhose ideas deserveto be considered, and considered in their 
original complexity. How ever well intentioned his students, their 
vitiated version of his message is conditioned by their own social and 
disciplinary context, and is thus no substitute for the original.

Although Emmett does not necessarily present Knight’s views as a 
"solution" to the social problems of then or now--in fact, faith in neatly 
packaged "solutions" was always part of the problem for Knight--he does 
garner Knightian thoughts, questions, and criticisms in a way that allows 
the reader to see both the breadth and the contemporary relevance of 
Knight’s work. This is particularly clear from the selection of papers 
contained in these two volumes. The volumes contain twenty-nine previously 
published papers-- some have also been reprinted in other collections, but 
most have not--and they cover a wide range of topics, including the 
philosophy of social science, pure economic theory, the liberal tradition 
in political philosophy, and the 
introductory essay and fourteen Knight papers published between 1924 and 
1940. Volume 2 contains fifteen papers published between 1939 and 1967. 
These volumesclearlyrepresent animportant contribution totheliterature-- 
both the literature about and by Knight, and the history and philosophy of 
social theory more generally--and the editor has done an excellent job 
preparing them for publication by the University of Chicago Press. Since a 
biography of Knight does not currentlyexist, I recommend these 
essaysasthebest extendedintroduction to hislifeandwork. Itis anexcellent 
collection--intelligently selected, well organized, and carefully 
edited--so much so that it leavesthisreviewerinthe unusualpositionof 
havingessentiallynothingcritical tosayaboutthebooks Iam reviewing (I 
evenlikethepictureof Knighton the cover).

Given this dearth of criticism, I will use the space that I would normally 
devote to such remarks to briefly discuss the aspect of Knight’s work that 
should be of most interest to readers of this journal: his philosophy of 
social science. If one defines "naturalism" in the way that most 
philosophers of social science have traditionally defined it, then Knight 
was most decidedly not a naturalist. Hedidnotbelieve intheexistenceof 
somethingthat couldbe called "the scientific method" that had proved 
itself as the proper path to knowledge aboutthenatural world, 
andthatcould, orshould, beappliedina similar way to the investigation of 
social life. In Knight’s words, "Human phenomena are not amenable to 
treatment in accordance with the strict cannons of science" (Vol. 1, p. 
23). There is in fact a "science of economics," but it ismerelythe science 
of "economizing"--the instrumental rationalityofusing the most effective 
means to achieve given ends--and it involves intentionality, mental 
states, and social forces that are not objectively "observable" in 
thewaythat naturalscience requires. Notonlyis this economic science rather 
commonsensical and quite unlike like physics, it is not all that is 
necessary to understand social life. Human life is multifaceted--it is 
about values and instrumental rationality, about who we think we should be 
as much as who we are, about play, and about luck; understanding such a 
complex phenomenon (or intelligent deliberation about policies affecting 
it) requires a variety of different approaches. Understanding and 
affecting social life is fundamentally a pluralist endeavor; or in the 
language of economics, various approaches to social science are 
complements, not substitutes (Vol. 2, p. 125).

Knight did not defend anything that might be considered a standard view 
within the philosophy of social science (in either his day or ours)--he 
was neither a behaviorist nor an interpretativist--and yet many of his 
concepts and arguments seem quite contemporary and familiar. Knight was a 
fallibilist, he recognized the social-and theory-ladenness of 
observations, he was aware of the underdetermination problem as it relates 
to the testing of scientific theories, he emphasized the social 
construction of the individual, and he rejected the strict separation of 
positive science and normative values (cognitive or ethical). Such views 
arenot uncommoninthe contemporary literature.

Whatmakes Knight so intriguing is not only that he was saying suchthingsin 
the 1930s but also that he combined such views with defense of rational 
choice economics, a firm commitment to a thoroughly liberal notion of 
freedom, and a systemic distrust of anything that smacks of collective 
agency. Frank Knight was quite an interesting character, and the papers in 
these two volumes repeatedly remind the reader of that fact: both the part 
about his being interesting and the part about his being quite a 

--D. Wade Hands
University of Puget Sound

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