Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Allan Bloom on Frank Knight

"I mentioned the University of Chicago professor Frank Knight earlier.  I knew him fairly well -- he obviously was not my teacher; I would know a lot more if he had been.  But I saw him a great deal -- I remember his coming to my doctoral exam.  He was somewhat different from most economists.  In the first place he was always a professor of philosophy and economics.  Philosophy came first, I think, for Frank Knight.  Even if it did not, one thing is certain: he was God-obsessed.  He spent his life thinking about God.  As he got older it became ever more apparent -- he would be seen at every session or lecture that might deal with that question.   My understanding of this is as follows: He was an old Voltairean and somehow he knew that this was the crucial issue.  He was an atheist very explicitly, but he was an atheist who was not sure.  That is not the same thing as an agnostic.  He knew he had placed his chips, but he did not know where the wheel was going to stop.  In a way his economics depended upon God not existing; if God did exist, there was something outside, and this meant conduct could be shameful and sinful.  And he knew this wasn't so clear.

I remember the first time I saw him.  Arnold Toynbee (who was a kind of pious fraud, he was so famous) was visiting, and everyone was sitting there, so thrilled to see the great man.  Frank Knight came stalking in late and sat down noisily.  Toynbee was saying, "Now, we men are all brothers and that's because there is the fatherhood of God."  Finally, Knight said -- just loudly enough for everybody to hear -- "Where do you get that shit?"  He really cared about the issue, whereas Milton Friedman is indifferent to it.  To Friedman, whether to believe in God or not to believe in God is a preference.  For Frank Knight it clearly was the question.  Somehow I feel a little of Frank Knight in Professor [James] Buchanan."

(p198, in "From Political Economy to Economics -- And Back?", 1990)

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