Monday, March 5, 2012

Keynes had No Formal Economics Degree - Is There a Lesson Here?

John Maynard Keynes was educated at King’s College, Cambridge from 1902–1906. In June 1905, he underwent the Tripos examinations, and was ranked in twelfth place. Keynes then spent another year at Cambridge through a King’s scholarship (Moggridge 1992: 82).

By this time, Keynes’s interests turned to economics. He started to read economics in June 1905, with Alfred Marshall’s Principles as a textbook, though Keynes was soon reading Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy. He also began to spend time with the Marshallian economist Arthur C. Pigou, who was now a lecturer (Moggridge 1992: 82). By 12 October 1905, Keynes applied to attend Marshall’s lectures (Moggridge 1992: 95). By November 1905, Keynes had decided he was good at economics, and Marshall was even asking him to become a professional economist (Moggridge 1992: 96). By December 1905, however, Keynes decided to concentrate on preparations for the Civil Service Examination, and abandon the Economics Tripos (Skidelsky 1983: 166).

Robert Skidelsky (1983: 166) actually points out a very interesting fact:
“[sc. Keynes] … never did take an economics degree. In fact, his total professional training came to little more than eight weeks. All the rest was learnt on the job.”
The greatest economist of the 20th century (at least in my opinion) had no formal economics degree. Are there lessons from this?

Probably that truly great minds do not need formal university degrees to make contributions to the social or natural sciences.

Of course, Keynes also had (1) a great deal of contact with the greatest British economists of his day, (2) much practical experience of government, having worked at the British India Office and Treasury, and (3) a great deal of time to read and reflect on issues that interested him, both as a fellow of King’s College and from 1909 a lecturer in economics (funded by no less than Alfred Marshall, who had a high opinion of Keynes).

I would have liked to say that Keynes’s lack of a formal university degree in economics left his mind open to new ways of economic thinking, but, in the end, I am not really sure this is true. Keynes was imbued with the standard neoclassical theory of his day, mainly from Alfred Marshall. The story of his contribution to economic theory is the gradual emancipation of his mind from neoclassical thinking, which continued to the end of his life, and perhaps was never really complete.

But that does not subtract from the importance of that achievement (for a excellent summary of his work, see Davidson 2009).


Davidson, Paul. 2009. John Maynard Keynes (rev. edn.), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Moggridge, D. E. 1992. Maynard Keynes: An Economist’s Biography, Routledge, London.

Skidelsky, R. J. A. 1983. John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883–1920 (vol. 1), Macmillan, London.


  1. Yep - this is why it was "Mr. Keynes and the Classics" and not "Dr. Keynes and the Classics".

  2. Lord Keynes: Well, the fact that Keynes was trained as a mathematician and succssfully solved George Boole's Last Challenge Problem IS probably linked to his success as an economist. Dr. Michael Emmett Brady's been making the case for Keynes's mathematical prowess in this working paper below.

    Also, Lord Keynes, do you remember Dr. Brady's review of Skidelsky's "Hopes Betrayed" on You've covered it before, and could have cited it in this instance.

  3. Alan turing didn't have a degree in computer science, nor did Knuth. Many contributions in that field came from people who did not have a degree in CS. There are other examples. I read a lot about Noam Chomsky and he gave a few lectures to engineers. Engineers voluntarily showed up to hear what he had to say about engineering. I'm not somebody who is obsessed with Keynes or anything but I can see how he might have made fundamental contributions without being an economist.

    And for that matter what did Mises/Hayek/Hoppe etc. have their degrees in?


  4. Doesn't it basically reflect that economics was not an exclusive and specialized area, but a general area open to all who cared to inquire?

  5. Friedman is at most a partial exception. Hayek, in particular, is still looked at askance even by very right-wing "proper" economists, although they realise that they have to be careful to whom they say these things. It is very much like the attitude of even very conservative "proper" theologians when it comes to C S Lewis or G K Chesterton: they are perhaps vaguely glad that anyone has been pointed in the right direction by having been converted to the former's Mere Christianity or to the latter's Orthodoxy, and they might even have been such people when they were very young indeed, but that is strictly as far as it goes. I am not necessarily endorsing such a view, only pointing out that it is there. And that is also the attitude to Hayek even among those who might be regarded as on the same side as he was.

    Hayek was a political philosopher. One of his doctorates was in political science. The other one was not in economics. Economists are not necessarily being complimentary when they call someone a political philosopher, any more than vice versa. And even as one of those, if Reagan and Thatcher really did believe themselves to have been influenced by Hayek, then, as Enoch Powell said of his own alleged influence over Thatcher, they cannot have understood any of it. Powell is another example of this post's main point, since his only academic background was in Classics generally and Ancient Greek specifically.

    But he had overriding and undergirding social, cultural and political reasons why he wanted the economy to be organised in a certain way. He did not see economics as a positive science. That was why he was influential. And that was why he would never have passed muster as a "proper" economist. Nor would Keynes. Nor would Hayek. Nor, really, would Friedman. Nor, even, would Adam Smith. The only figure of any importance to have held that politics ought to be defined in terms of economics, rather than they other way round, was Marx, so that thus to define is precisely to be a Marxist. But Marx, a lover of philosophy and literature whose father had forced him to do law at university but who was never very good at it, had no academic background in economics, either.

    There was no Keynesian closed shop among economists in the 1970s, but those who screamed themselves to prominence on the claim that there was have now created a neoliberal closed shop with the catastrophic consequences that we now experience, and which we shall continue to experience while almost the only economics taught to undergraduates or published in peer-reviewed journals seriously maintains that the way out of recession is the State's contrivance of even more unemployment and of even less spending power. As we nurse our wounds, we shall remember those who pulled the triggers. But we must not forget those who loaded the guns, or those who manufactured the bullets. Nor will we.

  6. Alan Turing didn't have a degree in computer science, nor did Knuth. Many contributions in that field came from people who did not have a degree in CS.

    Well, there was good reason for that, that such degrees did not and could not exist. People who found disciplines cannot have degrees in them. The guy who invented the wheel didn't have a degree in rotational motion devices either.