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History of Political Economy 33.4 (2001) 857-859

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Book Review

Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight.
Volume 1: “What Is Truth” in Economics?

Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight.
Volume 2: Laissez-Faire: Pro and Con

Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight. Volume 1: “What Is Truth” in Economics? Edited by Ross B. Emmett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xxiv; 406 pp. $58.00.

Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight. Volume 2: Laissez-Faire: Pro and Con. Edited by Ross B. Emmett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. vi; 459 pp. $58.00.

These two handsome volumes of Frank Knight's essays are a welcome addition for personal and university library collections of twentieth-century social science. The twenty-nine essays reflect Knight's unique character among economists and other social scientists of his era and, indeed, of ours. Ross Emmett's introduction in volume 1 expertly places the essays in the context of Knight's opus and the intellectual milieu [End Page 857] of his time. I dare say that no one is as well qualified as Emmett to guide us through Frank Knight's enigmatic intellectual life.

The essays show Knight questioning social science, in addition to doing it. He was the ultimate provocateur. Not infrequently his questions sliced through or simply bypassed technical details of theory and practice, striking at the very foundations of social science. There is perhaps no better description of Knight than that given by Emmett in an earlier evaluation of Knight's work (1991). He referred to Knight as a therapeutic thinker, one whose inclination was to ask probing questions that pushed beyond the boundaries of a discipline's normal discourse. The questions led more often to additional questions than to answers. Contemporary economists trained to use a “toolkit” of economic and statistical theory, who go about their daily work applying these tools to economic and other social problems, will find something out of the ordinary here. But it will be good for them. Knight's therapeutic probing of the foundations of economic analysis is no less relevant for practitioners now than when he wrote the essays. Historians of economics will find in the collection a rich sample of Knight's contributions to theory and commentary.

The essays cover a large portion of Knight's career, which began with his 1916 Cornell Ph.D. thesis (published in 1921 as Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit). Selected Essays includes six entries from the 1920s; eight from the 1930s; ten from the 1940s; three from the 1950s; and two from the 1960s. Knight died in 1972. The collection offers a sample of his writings on a broad array of subjects, including the more narrowly economic such as demand theory and capital theory; broader social issues such as liberalism and socialism; and education, anthropology, history, ethics, law, and science. Frank Knight the polymath is on exhibit here. Of the two volumes in this set, the first is weighted more to the discipline of economics and the second to liberalism as a social creed. For the most part the chapters are in chronological order, giving the reader a convenient tour of Knight's intellectual life. We see him early in his career as a participant in the institutionalist debate. As was often the case with Knight, he took positions on both sides of the debate. Frank Knight was no cheerleader for any program. His golden rule was free and open discussion based on critical judgment. His own application of this rule often became no-holds-barred criticism.

I cannot resist including a few samples of Knight's commentary from the collection:

Life is not fundamentally a striving for ends, for satisfactions, but rather for bases for further striving; desire is more fundamental to conduct than is achievement, or perhaps better, the true achievement is the refinement and elevation of the plane of desire, the cultivation of taste. (“Ethics and the Economic Interpretation,” 1:43)

First, it is a great textbook of economics [Modern Economic Society, by Sumner H. Slichter], written from the standpoint of control, which is...


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