In Memoriam GLS Shackle FBA 1903 to 1992

Address Given at the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of G.L.S. Shackle at the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on Wednesday, 16 September 19921

Stephen F. Frowen

George Shackle, whose life and work we celebrate today, is one of the select few who have achieved greatness in economic theory and the history of economic thought in the twentieth century. Yet, despite his outstanding and manifold achievements as a scholar, covering economics, philosophy and mathematics, and as a writer of considerable distinction, he was a man of genuine modesty and extraordinary and beautiful gentleness. The warmth and love he extended to those he felt close to, and to those who shared his high scholarship, will be with us for the rest of our lives and beyond. It has created an eternal bond between George and us, and, through George, between us.

I shall never forget my first encounter with George ... in 1950 when we both had just arrived at Leeds University - George as Reader in Economics straight from the Economic Section of the UK Cabinet Secretariat, and I as a postgraduate student from defeated Germany. His kindness to students, whom he treated with the utmost courtesy, the time he devoted to us, and the incredible care with which he prepared each of his lectures were experiences none of us will ever forget. I was always aware of the presence of his caring and guiding hand, and I strongly feel that it is still with me today.

When preparing this Address I reread some of the precious letters I was privileged to receive from George, all written in his clear and beautiful handwriting. The most moving one, dated 19 January 1979, was written nine months after the death of his first wife, Susan. In this letter he writes:

The past twelve months have been an exhausting, sad and baffling time for me. Susan died on 10 April after a fortnight which caused me heart-breaking grief. Saturday, 8 April was a day of dreadful sadness, her last conscious day . All this turmoil has left me rather drained of strength for the ordinary obligations of life.2

But in the same letter I discovered a ray of hope, because George continues:

In recent months, I have found a source of serenity and hope which has again given my life some sense of purpose.

The exact nature of the 'source and hope' I learned from a letter five months later (19 June, 1979). It reads:

Last August, I began going once or twice a week to read aloud to a lady who, despite an abounding vitality, does not see quite well enough to find reading a pleasure. She used to give me supper, my visits were soon daily, and I found in her companionship a deep solace. At the end of January we were married.

He then adds:

During my lonely time last summer, I tried to work, but found it fruitless. I am now very well cared for and have made what I hope will be a fresh start at some writing.

How grateful we in the profession should be to this lady, our beloved Catherine! Thanks to her care, George returned to a creative life and was able to write again. Thus in late life he produced some of his most outstanding essays. These were published in 1988 as a collection, Business, Time and Thought: it was dedicated, of course, to Catherine.3

Originality is a rare gift and there is no doubt that George's outstanding feature as a scholar is the originality of his mind. Hugh Townshend, reviewing George's first book, Expectations, Investment, and Income (1938, second edition 1968) in The Economic Journal, judges 'that its most original parts are also the best parts'.4

Many years later H.D. Dickinson, reviewing A Scheme of Economic Theory (1965), refers to George as being among 'some of the boldest and most original minds active to-day in economic thought'.5 Sir Roy Harrod refers to George's further work, The Years of High Theory: Invention and Tradition in Economic Thought, 1926-1939 (1967), as a 'book ... of great originality' and as a 'path-breaking work on the theory of uncertainty', while stressing his gift to 'probe deeply into the essential nature of an economic theory and its relation to the facts of life'.6

The concept of 'uncertainty' is of course closely linked with George's name and work. In later years, however, he preferred the word 'unknowledge'. In a letter dated 10 November 1982, he set out for me the ideas he would specially like critics to regard as the essence of his scheme of economic theory and stated:

The right word is not uncertainty but unknowledge. We know a little about the texture of the material, but nothing about how history will cut the garment.7

How does anyone act in the face of such unknowledge, knowing only that his own actions are crucial decisions, uncaused causes, which themselves will help to shape the future? George's answer was that choice involved imagining a range of sequels and ranking them by their capacity to surprise. Perfect (subjective) possibility is then expressed as zero disbelief. Then the decision-maker concentrates his attention, amongst the outcomes he deems possible, on the best and worst outcomes.

These ideas were central to George's work, yet his great love for learning and his concern to pass his enthusiasm on to others went further as is revealed in

Mathematics at the Fireside, which was originally written for his children and subsequently published by Cambridge University Press (1952; French edition 1967), and in Economics for Pleasure (1959). What a pity that out of the latter's seven foreign language translations, only the one in Czech actually uses the carefully chosen word 'pleasure' in its title!

George's unique gift for words and expression has been aptly described by Sir Charles Carter in his review of George's book Uncertainty in Economics and other Reflections (1955) when stating that, '... in expounding his own ideas, he [G.L.S. Shackle] has the invaluable service of a command of the English language such as few economists since Marshall have possessed.'8

George was never in the mainstream of economic thinking and never regarded himself as such. He wholeheartedly approved of his inclusion in A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists.9 In fact, in the final paragraph of his delightful autobiographical essay 'A Student's Pilgrimage' he points to two kinds of economics, one aiming at precision, rigour, tidiness and the formulation of principles which will be permanently valid: an economic science. The other he described as rhetorical, employing reason and appealing to logic. George describes the rhetorician and, eloquently, himself as a user of language at its full compass, where words are fingers touching the keyboard of a hearer's mind'.10

Writing was George's life. Just three months before his death, I received a letter from him dated 3 December, 1991, in which he says:

I hope to go on working at our subject from some time yet although I am 88 years old. One must of course beware of merely repeating oneself but if I fall into this trap you and others will make me aware of it.

These words are ample proof of the long, rich and blessed life we are here to give thanks for - a life from which we have all benefited and will continue to benefit so much. George is not gone. In spirit he is, I am sure, with us today, giving us strength to go on following our own chosen path. This is a thought perhaps best described by Rainer Maria Rilke who as a poet achieved the greatness George achieved in economics:

When something is taken from us that was deeply and wonderfully ours, to much of our own selves we bid farewell. Yet God wills we should find ourselves again, enriched by all that was lost, enhanced by each infinite pain.11


1 This Address was first published in the G.L.S. Shackle Memorial Issue, Review of Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 2, 1993, pp. 263-66. Permission to reprint the Address is gratefully acknowledged. The same issue contains further tributes by The Rev. Dick Hare, Brinley Thomas, Mark Perlman and G.C. Harcourt.

2 The correspondence of G.L.S. Shackle, including his letters to Stephen Frowen quoted from in this Address, can be found in the Manuscript Department of Cambridge University Library.

3 See S.F. Frowen (ed.), Business, Time and Thought - Selected Papers of G.L.S. Shackle (London: Macmillan; New York: New York University Press, 1988).

4 See Hugh Townshend, The Economic Journal, vol. 48, 1938, p. 521.

5 See H.D. Dickinson, The Economic Journal, vol. 77, 1967, p. 107.

6 See R.F. Harrod, The Economic Journal, vol. 78, 1968, pp. 660-6.

7 The remaining paragraphs outlining the essence of G.L.S. Shackle's scheme of economic theory can be found in letter no. 227, dated 10 November 1982, on pages 209-10 of this volume.

8 See C.F. Carter, The Economic Journal, vol. 66, 1956, p. 701.

9 See P. Arestis and M. Sawyer (eds.), A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1992), pp. 505-10.

10 See G.L.S. Shackle, 'A Student's Pilgrimage', Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, vol. 145, 1983, page 116. reprinted in S.F. Frowen (ed.), Business, Time and Thought. Selected Papers of G.L.S. Shackle (London: Macmillan; New York: New York University Press, 1988, page 239.

11 See Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter to Princess Cathia von Schonaich-Carolath, Paris, 17 Rue Campagne-Premiere, 7 May 1908, in Rainer Maria Rilke, Gesammelte Briefe in 6 Bänden (Collected Letters in 6 Volumes), vol. 3 (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1939). The original German text, the source of which has been kindly provided by Hella Sieber-Rilke (Rilke-Archiv, Gernsbach, Germany), reads as follows:

...: denn wenn etwas uns fortgenommen wird, womit wir tief und wunderbar zusammenhängen, so ist viel von uns selber mit fortgenommen. Gott aber will, dass wir uns wiederfinden, reicher um alles Verlorene und vermehrt um jeden unendlichen Schmerz. (English translation by John Harrison).

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