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3 FIGURES OF ECONOMIC SPEECH Even a Mathematical Economist Uses, and Must Use, Literary Devices: The Case of Paul Samuelson Obscured by the official rhetoric, the workaday rhetoric of economics has not received the attention it deserves. Knowledge of it is therefore hidden in seminar traditions, advice to assistant professors , referee reports, and jokes. Economists can do better if they will look at their arguments. Look at two pages (pp. 122-23), chosen at random from the beginning of modern economics, Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis . Published in 1947, it was a local maximum in economic scholarship. It reduced economics to the mathematics of nineteenth-century physics, and is brillant reading even now. And it laid down an official rhetoric. On the page preceding the selection, for example, Samuelson boasts that such and such "is a meaningful, refutable hypothesis which is capable of being tested under ideal observational conditions" (p. 121; d. pp. 3-5, 84, 172, 221, 257). But Samuelson does not persuade by testing, neither here nor anywhere in his writings. 1. To begin with, he gives a general mathematical form from which the results in comparative statistics can be obtained by reading across a row. The implication of the lack of elaboration is that the mathematical details are trivially easy (leading you to wonder why they are mentioned at all). An "interesting" special case is left "as an exercise to the interested reader," drawing on the rhetorical traditions of applied mathematics to direct the mind in the right direction . The mathematics is presented in an offhand way, implying that we can all read partitioned matrices at a glance (and fitting awkwardly with the level of mathematics in other passages). 35 36 Figures of Economic Speech When speaking of mathematics Samuelson is "we," but when speaking of economics, "I." Mathematical results are to be laid out for inspection. They are impersonal. Their truth is apparent to "us," if we are not dunces. Economics, by contrast, is viewed as personal and arguable. (Samuelson is unusual among economists in the boldness with which he introduces "I"; most economists use in this case the passive voice.) Here as elsewhere in the book Samuelson's persona alternates between the cool stater of mathematical truth and the excited propounder of economic argument. The air of easy mathematical mastery was important for the influence of the book, by contrast with the embarrassed modesty with which British writers at the time 0. R. Hicks most notably) pushed mathematics off into appendices. Samuelson's skill at mathematics in the eyes of his readers, an impression nurtured at every turn, is itself an important and persuasive argument. He presents himself as an authority, on good grounds. That the mathematics is sometimes pointless, as here, is beside the point. Being able to do such a difficult thing (so it would have seemed to the typical economist-reader in 1947) is warrant of expertise. The argument is similar in force to that of a classical education conspicuously displayed. To read Latin like one's mother tongue and Greek like one's aunt's tongue is difficult, requiring application well beyond the ordinary. Therefore-or so it seemed to Englishmen in the 1890s-men who had acquired such a skill should have charge of a great empire. Likewise-or so it seems to economists in the 1990s-those who have acquired skill at partitioned matrices and eigenvalues should have charge of a great economy. The argument is not absurd or a "fallacy" or "mere rhetoric." Virtuosity is some evidence of virtue. 2. There are six appeals to authority-to C. E. V. Leser, Keynes, Hicks, Aristotle, Knight, and P. A. Samuelson (appeal to authority is a Samuelsonian specialty). It is often reckoned as the worst kind of "mere" rhetoric. Yet it is a common and often legitimate argument, as here. No science would advance without it, because no scientist can redo every previous argument. We stand on the shoulders of giants (or at least a big pyramid of midgets), and it is a legitimate and persuasive argument to point it out from time to time. In 1888 Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, an authority on economics, philosophy , and statistics worth paying attention to, justified appeal to authority on statistical grounds: "The Doctrine of [Offsetting] Errors supplies the rationale of the common-sense practice of defer- 37 Figures of Economic Speech ring to authority. All that authority can do is-what, according to Horace, all that philosophy can do-to get...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780299158132
Related ISBN
9780299158149
MARC Record
OCLC
608692467
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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