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Lost in translation

Reading a paper by Luigi Pasinetti (2001, p. 153)* on the evolution of Sraffa's thought. There I found this gem from Sraffa's archived (and not published yet) papers:
"It is terrific to contemplate the abysmal gulf of incomprehension that has opened itself between us and the classical economists. Only one century separates us from them: [then the following sentence, here reproduced in italics, is added as a footnote] I say a century; but even ½ a century after, in 1870, they did not understand it. And during the preceding century an obscure process of ‘disunderstanding’ had been going on. How can we imagine to understand the Greeks and the Romans? [then the following sentence, again here reproduced in italics, is added as a footnote] Or rather, the extraordinary thing is that we do understand, since we find them perfect, Roman law and Greek philosophy. The classical economists said things which were perfectly true, even according to our standards of truth: they expressed them very clearly, in terse and unambiguous language, as is proved by the fact that they perfectly understood each other. We don’t understand a word of what they said: has their language been lost? Obviously not, as the English of Adam Smith is what people talk today in this country. What has happened then?"
This is exactly why HESA students in Utah have a T-shirt that says: "I've read Adam Smith, and understood it."

* Pasinetti, L. (2001), "Continuity and Change in Sraffa’s Thought: an Archival Excursus," in T. Cozzi and R. Marchionatti (eds.), Piero Sraffa’s Political Economy: a Centenary Estimate, London: Routledge.


  1. Huh. Didn't know that you and E.K. Hunt worked in the same department.

    I'm quite eager to read Sraffa's unpublished studies on the classical economists. Does anybody know when we can expect it?

    1. Yep. Kay is retired now. We used to teach the two course Doctrines course for the PhD. He would do up to Marx, and I would take over starting with Marginalism. Not sure about publication. Kurz is now responsible.

    2. Give him my regards. I picked up his history book at Moe's in Berkeley (which, as you can imagine, frequently offers used gems from UC students and profs), by chance, and was so drawn in that within a short time I knew I had to buy it. I wish it had a larger circulation. Perhaps one day history of thought requirements will be restored in econ departments, and some profs will even opt to assign something less gossipy than Heilbroner.

    3. Will, Moe's is a great place, and was a great place to hang out when Moe was still alive. Brings back many memories!

  2. The true meaning of a word is often lost, as it comes into "common use."

    As an example let me take the word "Thank You" and obvious expression of gratitude that is commonly used. Yet what do those two words really mean? It obviously, from the sound patterns, is closely related to the German "danke schön." Yet what does that mean other than being an expression of gratitude? And of course what does this have to do with economics anyway?

    To look at the real meaning of that phrase, one has to go to its Sanskrit origins. A common expression of gratitude (now bastardized in the hindi language) is "Dhanya Ho" which has a very definite meaning - "May you be enriched." This then makes sense as an expression to use to acknowledge a favor by saying that as a result of doing the favor, the person shall be enriched in the future, as the favor is returned. An obvious acknowledgement of being in debt.

    Yet over the centuries, this meaning of the words has been lost, and even in the Hindi, the real meaning is not understood by those who utter the words.

    1. Interesting. In Portuguese thank you is obrigado, which means directly that you are obliged, that is morally bound to the person who did you the favor.

  3. Many years ago, in induction week, when I started uni we did a little exercise.

    10 students were made to leave the classroom and wait outside.

    An eleventh student was told a little story, which we could read in a handout. When the story finished, one of the students waiting outside was asked to come in, so that the eleventh student could repeat the story.

    And each successive student out of the 10 students heard a slightly different story, which they then told the next one. By the time the last had come in, there was very little of the original story.

    The intended conclusion: if you want correct information on the university deadlines and procedures, go to the official source, don't rely on second-hand accounts.

    An administrative officer in a uni thought this a good idea for students and paperwork. Big shot economic professors know better: this is not needed in economics.

  4. True I think that there is an element of that in the case of Political Economy. But ultimately I also think that ideology and the social consequences of the Classical economists views were unacceptable once the bourgeoisie was in power and a Socialist movement in the streets. At any rate Sraffa clearly thought Marginalism was mumbo jumbo and should be simply discarded.

    1. I am pretty sure ideology is the ultimate mechanism; but as a proximate mechanism, in my opinion, we need to find something more concrete.

      Have a look at this essay ("Lord Keynes and Say's Law") by Ludwig von Mises, published in "The Freeman" in 1950. [*]

      That publication is represented as a quasi-academic journal, publishing **educative** material by authors respected in libertarian circles, like Mises himself (or Friedman and Stigler, who were also among its published authors), so its intended readership are libertarian intellectuals in the making.

      Imagine you are one of them. After reading this second-hand account of Keynes will you be willing to spend hours, let alone weeks, reading anything written by Keynes? For you, that would be it for Keynes' original story. Case closed.

      (Note that I am leaving entirely out of the picture any consideration about the quality of the essay, which many "intellectuals in the making" are unable to judge).

      The difference with my little induction week experience is that here the story’s metamorphosis happens in one deliberate step, by design, while in the induction week it occurs gradually and unintentionally, over several steps.


      Change now the names: the author now is no longer Mises, but any other holy cow of modern economics. Pick anyone you like: centre, right, left.

      The target of the "debunking" is no longer Keynes, but a classical political economist (pick one at random, too, or better still, pick the usual suspect).

      I leave you to conclude what you may from that scenario. My guess is that nobody would really want to read that "fool".


    2. As a matter of history, one of the things that I learned from E.K. Hunt's overview of the history of economic thought, was that the marginalist arguments of 1870 were as stale as all get-out. The only addition they make to the presentations of Say, Malthus, Bailey, Senor, and all the other "vulgar economists" was the precision of their mathematics. (Another study, the author of which I don't recall, states that in fact, vulgar economists were always more numerous than classicals -- but the force of the logic of Petty, Smith, Ricardo, et al, was overwhelming that non-ideologues recognized its superiority). Since the precise mathematics measures fictional quantities of subjective utility and disutility, rather than anything objective, it is not a useful or "true" innovation.

    3. Jevons himself, in a later edition of "The Theory of Political Economy" (1871), acknowledged that Hermann H. Gossen (an obscure German government employee who had published an equally obscure book in the late 1850s, early 1860s, I am not sure) had anticipated most of the content of his own book.

      Summarizing Jevons acknowledgement (I am writing this from memory, you'll understand, so take everything with a grain of salt), Gossen's book was utterly ignored in his day, in Germany, because it was entirely mathematical (as Jevons') and, therefore, incomprehensible to his readers; unlike Jevons' book, I suppose, whose British readers, being British, were much more enlightened.

      Deutsch Menschen sind sehr Ignoranten.

    4. My German is weak. I'll note to be pedantic that Jevons's work was also anticipated by the French scholars Cournot and Dupuit in the 1840s -- I think that Jevons knew of them and acknowledged their precedence, too.

      Alors, ce qui est sur, c'est que M. Jevons a deteste' l'anglais Ricardo bien plus qu'il n'a deteste' ces deux francais-la; en plus, ni a-t-il deteste' M. Cantillon, un sale irlandais (!).

    5. It appears, then, that M. Jevons could be very open-minded, embracing even foreigners, provided they shared his views.

  5. Economics is theology. Literally. That's all there is to it.

    1. Well organized religion is all about "an obscure process of ‘disunderstanding’," after all.

  6. @Matías,

    On a different subject, suggested by your article.

    University students in other places sometimes have their own journals, publishing their own papers. Does HESA have a repository or something for your students' papers on HET?

    1. Not really. Some have been published as Working Papers like
      One is published now here

  7. It appears you blocked the comments on your blog in all subsequent posts?

    1. I made a mistake when deleting a comment of mine. I pressed something that cut all comments. I think I fixed it. Sorry about it.


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