David R. Henderson  

Frank Knight on John B. Watson

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I dug out of my library a famous unpublished (until 1991) 1932 mimeograph (those under age 45 should look up that term) article by Frank H. Knight. The article is titled "The Case for Communism: From the Standpoint of an Ex-Liberal." It's for a blog post I'm thinking of writing. A friend gave me my copy in about 1970. It's a speech he gave to the University of Chicago's Communist Club and National Student League.

Here's a fun passage:

The dictatorship of the [Communist] Party once established, and given a monopoly of propaganda, the problem of controlling the proliferation of romantic myths, of unifying and stabilizing and concentrating on one system at a time should be simple in the extreme. One of the greatest of modern scientific developments is waiting to serve the regime in this regard and save the world from turmoil. I refer, of course, to psychology in its applied aspect. In this connection we may thrill with patriotism as well as hope. No other country has approached our own in the succession of peerless psychologists we have given to the world. To name but a few: P.T. Barnum; Jay Gould; Mrs. Mary B.G. Eddy; Mrs. Aimee S. McPherson (notice the due representation of both sexes); Billy Sunday; Goat-gland Doc Brinkley; and coming to our own home town, our own dear Big Bill Thompson, Balaban, and Katz, and WGN. As a climax to this glorious series I would name Dr. John B. Watson. It is not necessary to prove that he is the world's greatest psychologist; he admits it. And besides, doesn't he draw $40,000 a year [DRH note: this is over $700,000 in 2017 dollars] for his psychologizing? Speaking for myself, I must express chagrin that it is so little. A man who can stand before the cream of the intelligentsia and exhort them to believe that they do not believe, but only react, to think that there is no such thing as thinking, but only muscle-twitching, that the whole idea of struggle and error is an error against which we must struggle until we see that seeing is an illusion, and illusion likewise an illusion--in short, one who repeats that "I am not saying anything, and you are not hearing anything, the gears are in mesh, nothing more," and makes them like it and pay to hear it--I say such a man should be worth at least $1,000,000 in any properly ordered civilization. One of the first acts of justice of the Communist dictatorship will undoubtedly be to give such a man a task which is not an insult to his powers. . . .


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

Knight is an interesting fellow. I wouldn't have pegged him to be someone to speak at a Communist gathering.

David Gordon writes:

The reason for Watson's high salary was that he was the vice-president of an advertising agency.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jon Murphy,
Knight is an interesting fellow. I wouldn't have pegged him to be someone to speak at a Communist gathering.
There are various hypotheses about his motivation. I think he was in a deep funk. From context, I think it’s clear that he wasn’t advocating Communism. I think he was just expressing his hopelessness.
The reason for Watson's high salary was that he was the vice-president of an advertising agency.
I didn’t know that. Thanks.

Thaomas writes:

Clearly written before the strategic alliance of the plutocratic right with the Christianist right and the nationalistic right.

Jon Murphy writes:

@David Henderson

There are various hypotheses about his motivation. I think he was in a deep funk. From context, I think it’s clear that he wasn’t advocating Communism. I think he was just expressing his hopelessness.

Could very well be. People change. There was a time in my life I'd have been a Bernie Bro

Adam writes:
David Seltzer writes:

I read Knight at Chicago per Yale Brozen's advice. His distinction between risk and uncertainty changed my perspective on risk management and pricing insurance.

Jason Sorens writes:

Knight was going through an extremely cynical period at the time. Read this from 1932 for example: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/254367

" Since I have set out to state my personal attitude, where an explicit statement offers any hope of keeping that separate from the real issues, I should begin by confessing a prejudice. It is the "wish" that somewhere in the program of university education in economics there might be an emphasis on the first type of end listed, i.e., on fact, truth, and understanding. This is a sentiment merely; in conviction I have grave doubts. "

" The point is that the "principles" by which a society or a group lives in tolerable harmony are essentially religious. The essential nature of a religious principle is that not merely is it immoral to oppose it, but to ask what it is, is morally identical with denial and attack. Hence "objectivity" regarding the real premises of any argument about social principles is forever barred; the only way to know anything about a religious ultimate would be to embrace it in a way which precludes any such irreverent thought as that it might be possible or desirable to know anything about it. In the Newer Economics, "the control of economic activity" is such an ultimate. To ask any of the questions we have suggested regarding it, about the subject, agent, object, end, means, process, etc., is merely to show one's self an enemy of control, which is to say a traitor to the cause of alleviating human misery. And education in economics is the process of enlistment under the banner of "control." "

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