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Books Read in 2005 and 2006

In the original document I recorded comments on books as I read them, so that material was presented in chronological order, but I’ve re-arranged it to bring together comments on related works


Some of my reading has been directed at finding out a little more about economics and so to helping me revise that long confused chapter on politics in the philosophy notes. Economics intrigues me, partly because I'm not sure how much of it is true or whether there is an reliable way of finding out, and partly because I know so little. The following seven volumes reflect the development of what is regarded as mainstream thought over the last century and a half, as well as exploring some byways.

Jevons The Theory of Political Economy

which marked the beginning of modern Economics, and was written with exemplary clarity. It helped greatly with the Philosophy motes, as well as describing the background of later developments in Economic theory

Thomas C. Taylor The Fundamentals of Austrian Economics

A brief introduction - it is only 68 pages long. The Austrian school dates from the work of Carl Menger who, together with Jevons and Leon Walrus, was one the three economists who independently developed the subjective theory of value, based on the concept of marginal utility. Other ‘Austrians’ were Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. The Austrians shared a strong skepticism about attempts to construct mathematical models of the economy, considering it too complicated for us to make any precise predictions. The same reasoning led them to mistrust all attempts to intervene in the economy, considering that any such attempt would almost certainly have worse effects than leaving market forces to work things out.

Sir Roy Harrod The Life Of John Maynard Keynes

I bought my copy second hand for 3/6d, and therefore before we had decimal currency. It has awaited my attention ever since. At least it was easier going than Keynes writings on Economics, though as Harrod was himself a distinguished Economist it does shed some light on Economics. Harrod mentions some people I used to see pottering around Cambridge in my undergraduate days, such as Keynes nephew Maurice Hill who taught me Physics, Morgan Forster who had rooms in college on the strength of his honorary fellowship and emeritus Professor Pigou, who was often to be seen sunning himself in a deck chair in the main court of the College. Pigou almost always wore plimsolls.

I was only eight years old when Keynes died, so it is not particularly surprising that I don’t recall ever hearing about him in his lifetime, but what is odd is that I don’t recall hearing any references to him either by my parents or my schoolmasters. He was prominent in public life both nationally and internationally and pioneered a substantial change in thinking about the relations between government and the economy. How can so many people have apparently failed to notice him? Keynes seems never to have learned any science. At E ton he studied mainly Classics and Mathematics; he read Mathematics at Cambridge, and out of interest read a good deal of literature, History and Economics, but never any science. I think that may explain the unsatisfactory nature of his 'Treatise on Probability', his first book, in which he asserts that all statements assigning probabilities are logically determinate - truths of logic if true, and contradictions if false. Joan Robinson Economic Philosophy I first read this more than thirty years ago and found the re-reading useful revision. I used to see Joan Robinson around Cambridge and at meetings of the Cambridge Humanist Society, though I don’t recollect ever speaking to her. Once she passed by on here way to the tennis courts as I was sitting with friends in the Fellows’ garden, and someone said ‘that is the most immoral woman in Cambridge’ but, tantalizingly, did not enlarge on his remark. Undergraduates studying Economics were quite in awe of her. Her approach was said to be very mathematical and therefore alarming to those who were unsure of their mathematics - though quite what those students thought they were doing studying Economics I’m not sure. A friend who read History reported being sent to Robinson for help with her Economic History and crying all the way back from her first Supervision after Robinson had said ‘Audrey, your mind is a miasma of confusion’

J. Pen, Modern Economics

is another book I bought in the days of pounds, shillings and pence, so its Economics is now longer particularly modern, especially as it was written before economists encountered ’stagflation’ . However I’m interested in the history of ideas and so happy to read something out of date now and again. At last an inkling as to what the Keynesian multiplier might be and why the Keynesian reject the seductive simplicity of neo-Classical Economic theory.

In the hands of Robinson and Pen, Economics was almost a different subject from that expounded by Jevons. Jevons discussed a world in which firms decided what to produce and that price to charge for their products, and individuals decided hat to but with their money. Robinson and Pen, on the other hand, discussed global quantities, like total supply and total demand - not supply and demand of anything in particular, but the aggregates of all supply and all demand. It didn’t seem to matter what people got for their money, provided they spent it on something or other.

Oliver Smedley: Land Privately Appropriated Public Property

Oliver Smedley used to be well know as one of the backers of the pirate radio station Radio Caroline, who once shot dead one of the sponsors of a rival station. He was for some time a vice president of the Liberal Party, from which he reigned in opposition to that party’s support for membership of the European common Market. This book was written to defend the traditional Liberal policy of Land Value Taxation. Liberal Party conferences were at one time enlivened by the singing of The Land Song, that proclaims the virtues of that tax. I think it could fairly be described as one of the interesting byways of economic thought. I once met Oliver Smedley at a conference in Manchester, when he sold me a copy of this pamphlet, signing it for me. That was in 1987 when he was in his mid 70‘s, by which time his shooting days were in the distant past.

He was extremely entertaining company. He believed that one should eat the same food every day to save the effort of choosing the menu. I’ve forgotten much of what he told me, but remember that he had a large mug of Bovril for elevenses, and always had smoked salmon for lunch, on the grounds that fish is very good for the brain.

Richard G. Lipsey Positive Economics

Is an introductory text book that seems to be intended for students beginning the subject at first year undergraduate level. So far I’ve found it quite easy going. I bought the seventh (1989) edition second hand, so it is a little out of date, but I hope it will still give me a better idea of what economists do than the odd assortment of material I‘ve read before The term ‘Positive’ seems to be used in a similar sense to that adopted by the Positivists of old, to indicate an attempt to base the subject on evidence instead of just speculation and deduction from supposedly self evident principles. I think I now have a fair idea of what economists think, or at least what they thought in 1990. The wilder excesses of Keynes, that saving is a bad thing, interest rates have no effect, and the government can just spend whatever it likes without bothering where the money come from, seem now to be generally discredited. Of course Keynes didn't quite say any of those things, but his rhetoric pointed many dim and suggestible folk in that direction. I even have a rough idea why they consider the money supply important, even though they have no completely satisfactory definition of it. The micro-economic questions that the earlier Keynesians ignored seem now to have been rehabilitated.

Caroline Moorehead Bertrand Russell

confirms my fears that one of the heroes of my youth had feet of clay. Russell was extremely unkind to his lady friends, of whom he sometimes had two or three at the same time, allowing each to believe that she was the special one, and the others were merely experiments or diversions. When he was seventeen, Russell, as the only male in his grandmother’s household, once had to entertain Mr. Gladstone to post prandial port; yet he was still going strong when I was a young man. What we sometimes think of as the remote past, is not really as remote as it seems Reading this quite soon after finishing Harrod’s life of Keynes, and noticing how many of the same people were mentioned I thought it was remarkable how many well known people knew each other quite well. Then I realized that it was really that the tentacles of the Bloomsbury group spread wider than I’d previously realized. Russell, T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley were only peripheral to the group, but did both visit Lady Ottoline and Sir Philip Morrell where they met each other as well as the Bloomsbury stalwarts. Russell even had an affair with Lady Ottoline. For a while he shared a house with T. S. Elliott and his wife and there are even unsubstantiated rumours that Russell had a brief affair with Mrs. Eliot.

A Biography of Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd.

I think I must have bought it over thirty years ago, and was put off reading it by its length - 1144 pages is quite a lot when one is working full time, but is more manageable in retirement though it was still quite a challenge It contain a rich collection of fascinating anecdotes, from an amazing practical joke played on the Royal Navy, to the communal earth closets of Abbotsholme school. There was some overlap with the biographies of Bertrand Russell, and especially of Keynes, and also a mention of Norman Douglas, whom Strachey met a few times. The latter part of the book explored the remarkable relationship between Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Ralph Partridge. Carrington loved Strachey, Strachey loved Partridge and Partridge loved Carrington, so Carrington married Partridge and they all three lived together, each having more or less transient affairs with various other people. Shortly after Strachey’s death from undiagnosed stomach cancer, Carrington shot herself Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, Pinker shows how genetics and molecular biology have fatally undermined Locke’s theory of the blank slate, or tabula rasa to use Locke’s words. Locke held that the mind of a new born child is like a blank slate, empty until experience writes upon it everything it eventually comes to contain. Although quite implausible, because a completely empty mind would have no capacity to learn, Locke’s doctrine has been very influential, leading to an overemphasis on the role of the environment in human development, an overemphasis that is, or course, congenial to those who enjoy exercising power by trying to control our environment. Pinker goes on to debunk the myth of the noble savage, innocent and peaceful. Savages are actually...savage.

Norman Douglas, South Wind

one of the many novels I inherited from Father. I’m working through them gradually reading those that arouse my interest and donating the rest to the charity shop that supports the local hospice. First published in 1917 South Wind describes the expatriate community of an Island in the Eastern Mediterranean where the prevailing wind blows from the South, off the coast of Africa. I quite enjoyed reading it slowly; it wasn’t compulsive reading but was intriguing in a strange way. I won’t say more in case I spoil it for people who decide to read it.

G. R. Elton: Reformation Europe

went some way to filling a significant gap in my historical knowledge; I knew a little about the reformation in England, but hardly anything about it’s origins in Germany. I thought Elton wrote well, and for me the highlight was the story of marital affairs of Philip of Hesse.

Isak Dinesen Anecdotes of Destin

is one of the books I inherited from father. It took me thirteen years to get round to Dinesen, but when I did I was quite intrigued. Anecdotes of Destiny consists of four short stories set in nineteenth century Scandinavia. So far as there is a common theme, it is that things are often not what they seem to be. Each story takes what at first appears to be a quite straightforward situation, hints at a cosy ‘all lived happily ever after’ ending, and then develops it into something quite different. See this website devoted to her.

Iris Murdoch’s Something Special

 is a short story I came across while browsing through the fiction section in the local Library, a place which I rarely use these days, as I rarely find anything there that I want to read. Something Special was originally published in the 1950’s in an anthology of short stories by various authors, then forgotten until a copy turned up among her possessions after he death. Set in Kingstown and Dublin, it describes a young lady’s date with a young man whose offers of marriage she’d been refusing. The date was an almost unmitigated disaster, so she decided to marry him after all.

Sean Gabb, The Column of Phocas

A thriller set in the early seventh century this was published and distributed by the author and advertised though the Internet. Phocas was Byzantine Emperor from 602 to 610 AD, and most of the action takes place in and near Rome shortly before he was deposed.

Sean Gabb is an academic and one of the organizers of the Libertarian Alliance. It was through the LA email list that I learned of the novel. It proved to be very entertaining reading. Sean published it himself, but since its appearance a commercial publisher has offered him a contract for that novel, and for two more.

Mary Gentle: Ilario

an altered reality novel set in the same not quite medieval Europe as Ash and about fifty years earlier. Like all Mary's stories it is very exciting with numerous puzzles and surprises, and like most of them it is very long - though at 663 pages by no means her longest. I thought there was a slight softening of touch this time.. Transgressors were more often forgiven and foes reconciled than is usual in her earlier works.

Basil Willey The Eighteenth Century Background

This is another of the books I inherited from Father.

Willey describes the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century by examining the way various writers used the slippery concept of nature, concluding by considering the change in Wordsworth’s attitude to nature as his youthful admiration of Rousseau and the French revolutionaries developed into the conservativism of his later years.

Donald Michie (editor) Machine Intelligence

Although it was published in 1986, and some of the essays in it were written a decade or more earlier than that it is not as out of date as I’d feared, and is eminently readable. I wonder why I didn’t get round to reading it earlier ? It hasn’t dated as much as I feared it might have done; the general points made seem as pertinent now as when they were written, although some of the predictions made it in now seem wildly over-optimistic. A poll of computer experts, conducted in 1973 showed that half thought that a robot chauffeur and a computerized psychiatrist would both be in industrial production by the year 2000, and a robotic domestic servant would be on sale by 2010.

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