Keynes, John Neville

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Keynes, John Neville



John Neville Keynes (1852–1949), English logician, economist, and university administrator, was a leading contributor to the methodology of economics. In The Scope and Method of Political Economy (1891) Keynes combined a mastery of formal logic with erudition in economics to produce perhaps the best statement of the logical character of classical economics ever made. Although tolerant of other points of view and other approaches, he championed the traditional British abstract, positive, and primarily deductive approach that characterized classical and neoclassical economics. Keynes was sympathetic to the use of mathematics and statistics in economics, but he did not foresee the usefulness of econometric methods. He afforded an important place to economic history, but not as an integral part of the science of political economy. His work has significance for the social sciences generally, but he rejected Comte’s view of political economy as a branch of sociology, the master social science.

Keynes was born in Salisbury and graduated from University College, London. He entered Pem-broke College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics for a year before concentrating in moral sciences. He received the B.S. degree in moral sciences in 1876 and in the same year became a fellow of Pembroke College, as well as an honorary fellow of University College, London. Political economy was still part of the moral sciences tripos when Keynes was a student at Cambridge, and when he lectured in political economy and in logic it was as a member of the moral sciences faculty. Keynes was sufficiently well regarded as an economist for his name to have been advanced for the chair in political economy at Oxford and for Alfred Marshall to have urged his appointment in 1890 as first editor of the Economic Journal (both appointments eventually went to F. Y. Edgeworth). Keynes took an M.A. degree and subsequently received an SC.D. degree from Cambridge University in 1891.

In addition to his scholarly career as teacher and author, Keynes became the leading administrator of Cambridge University. He was elected to the powerful council of the University Senate in 1892 and became its secretary the following year. In 1910 he was appointed registrary of the university and held this position until his retirement in 1925.

Keynes’s Studies and Exercises in Formal Logic (1884) is a general treatise widely used as a text-book for several decades. He viewed logic as a normative science, similar in this respect to ethics and aesthetics, concerned with the general principles of valid thought—that is, with how we ought to think and only indirectly with how we actually think. He presented some of the most complicated problems of formal logic without resort to technical mathematical symbolism at a time when symbolic logic was coming to the forefront. Keynes’s Formal Logic was not an important original contribution to knowledge, but its influence was considerable because the author’s masterful exposition brought a difficult subject within the reach of many who were technically not equipped to wrestle with mathematical and symbolic logic.

In The Scope and Method of Political Economy Keynes defined political economy as a positive science concerned with the production, distribution, and accumulation of wealth, or alternatively, as “the science which treats of the phenomena arising out of the economic activities of mankind in society” (1891, p. 101). He wrote at the time of the well-known controversy over method (Methodenstreit), in which Carl Menger and Gustav Schmoller were the principal protagonists. Like most British economists, Keynes felt the Methodenstreit exaggerated the mutual exclusiveness of the historical-descriptive and the theoretical-analytical approaches. He saw the need to combine induction and deduction, analysis and synthesis, a posteriori and a priori reasoning.

In the logical method of political economy Keynes distinguished three stages. (1) Initially the economist observes the facts of the actual world, to gain insight into economic relations. (2) From clearly stated premises drawn from prior observation, he then formulates by deductive inference the general laws of political economy. (3) These laws in turn are tested by inductive verification. Only the second stage is strictly deductive, and it is meaningful only in relation to the antecedent and subsequent, primarily inductive, stages. Consequently, economics is both deductive and inductive in method.

As compared with his British predecessors, Nassau Senior and John Elliott Cairnes, Keynes appears to have compromised with the historical school [see the biographies ofCairnesandSenior]. It is well to note, however, that the compromise is more apparent than real, more a matter of toleration than of acceptance of a broader scope for economics. Since economic theory is concerned with general laws, and since only deduction can yield general laws, the second stage is for Keynes the most significant one. Keynes’s scope and method lent itself readily to Marshall’s equilibrium theory of normal conditions, but not, for example, to Veblen’s concept that the central task of economic science is to explain cumulative economic change. In emphasis, Keynes adhered to the deductive phase as the focus of pure theory.

Keynes neglected the important question of how economists choose the “relevant” observations upon which the “general” laws are based. His system contains nothing resembling what Joseph Schumpeter called “vision,” which is related to ideology and which lies behind significant innovations in economic theory. Keynes denied that an important connection exists between laissez-faire and classical economics and thus missed the point that it was precisely their value-laden premises that enabled Adam Smith and David Ricardo, for example, to formulate powerful theoretical arguments for laissez-faire and free trade and to be justly ac-claimed as great innovators in classical economics. Keynes’s third stage, the appeal to fact for testing the deduced general laws, is also more complicated than he supposed if one considers the selective and pragmatic nature of the premises upon which the general laws rest.

Keynes wrote as a logician about the scope and method of economics, about how economists ought to think and not how they actually do think, and his work has the merits and shortcomings of that approach. Ironically, his methodological tenets must have been more handicap than asset to his son, John Maynard Keynes, whose polemical orientation against laissez-faire led him to formulate a new system of political economy.

Dudley Dillard

[For the historical context of J. N. Keynes’s work, see the biographies ofMengerandSchmoller.]


(1884) 1906 Studies and Exercises in Formal Logic, Including a Generalisation of Logical Processes in Their Application of Complex Inferences. 4th ed. London: Macmillan.

(1891) 1955 The Scope and Method of Political Economy. 4th ed. New York: Kelley.

(1894a) 1963 Analytical Method. Volume 1, page 38 in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley.

(1894b) 1963 A Posteriori Reasoning. Volume 1, page 43 in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley.

(1894c) 1963 Applied Economics. Volume 1, page 44 in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley.

(1894d) 1963 A Priori Reasoning. Volume 1, pages 47–48 inPalgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley.

(1894e) 1963 Deductive Method. Volume 1, pages 523–526 in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley.


Broad, C. D.; and Pigou, A. C. 1950 John Neville Keynes. Economic Journal 60:403–408.

Keynes, Florence A. 1950 Gathering Up the Threads: A Study in Family Biography. Cambridge: Heffer.