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Keynes: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) [Paperback]

Robert Skidelsky
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Book Description

7 Oct 2010 Very Short Introductions
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) is a central thinker of the twentieth century, not just an economic theorist and statesman, but also in economics, philosophy, politics, and culture. In this Very Short Introduction Lord Skidelsky, a renowned biographer of Keynes, explores his ethical and practical philosophy, his monetary thought, and provides an insight into his life and works. In the recent financial crisis Keynes's theories have become more timely than ever, and remain at the centre of political and economic discussion. With a look at his major works and his contribution to twentieth-century economic thought, Skidelsky considers Keynes's legacy on today's society. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; Reprint edition (7 Oct 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199591644
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199591640
  • Product Dimensions: 17.3 x 11.5 x 1.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 164,666 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


A helpful potted guide to the life of master economist John Maynard Keynes Sunday Herald

About the Author

Lord Robert Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. He biggest work is a three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes; Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920, (1983), The Economist as Saviour, 1920-1937, (1992), and Fighting for Britain, 1937-1946, (2000). His new book about the current economic crisis, Keynes: the Return of the Master, published in September 2009.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Keynes is one of those elusively subtle and charismatic historical figures whose writings, actions and reported utterances have been in the past (and may well be in the future) be invoked as a justification of particular macro-economic policies or approaches to economic analysis as conceived by academics or policy makers. Keynes is without doubt one of the towering figures of 20th Century thinking about the how's and whys of management of the national and international economy. It is to the great credit of Robert Skidelsky that he manages to give the reader such a balanced account of the great man's life, output and influence.

In all of Keynes work there is the feeling that he was `bigger' then economics. His interests ranged from mathematics to philosophy and the arts as well as advising governments of the day on the very pressing issues that faced them after the end of the First World War. His thinking centered on improving society for people: severe economic depression, the effects of currency fluctuation, war reparation and much else where all fit subjects for his consideration. His main works were conceived at a time of massive social upheaval, world-wide growing unemployment and a growing feeling that governments did not have sufficient tools or openness of thinking to confront the problems of the post 1918 economic landscape. From the very first He identified a number of issues that have had a startling impact on the way we now think that economies work.

Firstly, that the old `classical' idea that markets will always `clear'. So that if for instance interest rates fall, investment and consumption must rise. Likewise if demand for wages falls, then by necessity wages must fall.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No way an introduction! 28 April 2012
By P
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book because Robert Skidelsky is a per-eminent Keynes scholar but I fear there has been an inability on his part to see the wood for the trees.

The early chapters on Keynes' life were quite interesting but the later chapters on his work - and what I bought the book for - are absolutely unintelligible to anybody who is not an economist. They are far too technical. To quote Bojan Tunguz's review of this book above, "I don't feel that anyone who has not at least minored in economics in college would be able to follow all the intricacies of economic arguments and counterarguments." I endorse this 100%. I abandoned reading this book - it will go to Oxfam.

The "Very Short Introductions" series is an excellent concept and I have enjoyed a couple of other books in the series. But this one is a turkey. It is not by any stretch of the imagination an "introduction". So I am hugely disappointed. I think the series editor at OUP needs to get a grip.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative but not overly accessible 1 Dec 2010
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
John Maynard Keynes is one of the most famous economic thinkers of all time. His macroeconomic theories have had a significant impact on the economic practice throughout the World during the middle decades of the twentieth century, so much so that for the longest time they were practically unchallenged by politicians from any side of the ideological spectrum. Starting in the late 1970s Keynesianism had almost completely fallen out of favor, but in recent years it has enjoyed somewhat of resurgence. Accordingly, the interest in Keynes and his ideas has seen a commensurate increase as well, and this very short introduction aims to introduce the reader exactly to those topics.

The best parts of this book deal with Keynes's life. We get an idea of what kind of person he was, where did he come from, and what were his ideals and aspirations. Keynes was extremely smart and very industrious and ambitious from the earliest years of his life. He attended the best English educational institutions, and excelled at almost anything that he touched. He was also very much the man of his time: overconfident in the progress of civilization and extremely dismissive of traditions and "antiquated" ways of thinking. Maybe we can even glean a dismissal of classical economic theory that stems from his overall worldview. I only wish that this part of the book contained some images, as those would have helped to get a better sense of who Keynes really was as a person.

Most of the book deals with Keynes's economic work and theories. Considering how important these were for the course of twentieth century economic though anything less than very comprehensive account would not have done the full justice to these topics. Nonetheless, economic matters are dealt with undue scrupulosity, well beyond an introductory level book. I don't feel that anyone who has not at least minored in economics in college would be able to follow all the intricacies of economic arguments and counterarguments. It also doesn't help that this is one of the longest books in the "very short introductions" series. This could have been a much more accessible book if some major editing for length and content had been done. As it is, this book is very informative but not exactly suited for a general readership.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise and powerfully written 23 Jun 2013
By paul - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Reading this short introduction of Keynes resulted in three outcomes: 1) I felt as though I came away with a better understanding of Keynes work. 2) I have a strong desire to read more by and about Keynes. And lastly, 3) I have become a huge fan of Skidesky.
12 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent .However,the discussions involving Keynes,probability,uncertainty and Ramsey are incorrect 22 Nov 2010
By Michael Emmett Brady - Published on
Skidelsky does a fine job in this book as long as he is not dealing with Keynes's approach to probability as presented by Keynes in Dec.,1908 in his second fellowship dissertation at Cambridge or in his A Treatise on Probability (1921;TP).Skidelsky is a historian.He does not have the training in mathematics,statistics,probability,logic and philosophy needed to assess Keynes's TP.In fact, to correctly assess Keynes's TP requires the reader of the TP to have, first of all, mastered George Boole's contributions to probability and logic.NO economist,logician,philospher, statistician,mathematician,psychologist or decision theorist in the 20th century was able to do so.Only F Y Edgeworth's 1922 book review in Mind was on the right track.

Skidelsky relies primarily on two very poor book reviews ,written by Frank Ramsey in 1922 and 1926,respectively,on the TP plus Keynes's 4 page eulogy published in the New Statesman and Nation in October ,1931,in his analysis of Keynes's approach.Keynes showed in the TP that Ramsey's theory is a very special case of Keynes's general theories of probability and decision making that occurs if all probabilities are linear and additive.Keynes's logical theory of probability is an extension of Boole's 1854 The Laws of Thought .It established that the general case is one of non linearity and non additivity.I add Keynes's mathematical proof for the interested reader at the end of this review.

The following pages in this book are incorrect-(a)p.20,(b)pp.38-47,especially p.44,and (c)pp.149-152.

In (a) ,Skidelsky claims that Keynes rejected the frequency interpretation,also called limiting frequency or relative frequency, of probability.In fact,Keynes rejected Venn's frequency theory.Keynes accepted that a logically based frequency theory,as presented by Keynes himself in the TP in chapter 8 of the TP,was a special theory that was sound and valid ,but of limited applicability.

In (b), Skidelsky claims that Keynes accepted Ramsey's criticisms and modified his approach to probability.Of course, Keynes did NO SUCH THING.What Keynes stated was that he " yielded " to Ramsey in the case where the calculus of probabilities applied.The calculus of probabilities applies only in the special case where the probabilities are linear and additive.NOWHERE IN THE 30 VOLUMES OF THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES did Keynes ever state that he rejected the calculus of probabilities.

In(c),Skidelsky claims that uncertainty exists when probabilities can't be known or measured.Skidelsky's error here is to confuse the case of ignorance,or complete and total uncertainty,with uncertainty ,which is a range .Ignorance
exists if Keynes's weight of the evidence index,w,where w is defined on the unit interval [0,1],has a value of 0.Uncertainty exists if w < 1.The probabilities will become intervals that
are nonlinear and nonadditive.

The reader is advised to buy the
book if he has not already purchased
one of Skidelsky's
other books on Keynes.

Keynes's 1921 A Treatise on Probability(TP) analysis of decision making can be found in sections 6-8 of chapter 26 and chapters 15,17,20 and 22.We will concentrate on the conventional coefficient of risk and weight in chapter 26,as opposed to the interval estimate approach of the other chapters,because of the greater explanatory power exhibited by the conventional coefficient.The technical details can be found on p.315 and in footnote 2 on p.315 .Keynes presented a very precise analysis demonstrating that an analysis of uncertainty introduced non additivity and non linearity into the formal representation of decision making. The subjectivist, Bayesian approach regards decision making as another name for the application of the purely mathematical laws of the probability calculus that require additivity and linearity. The Subjectivist approach makes the crucial error of conflating probability theory with decision theory.Keynes realized that ,due to the impact of the weight of the evidence (confidence)on decision makers ,as well as the optimism-pessimism of the decision maker,decision theory would have to be able to take into account the importance of non linearity and non additivity. The concept of expected value or expected utility is crucial to the Ramsey-De Finetti-Savage-Friedman approach.Keynes demonstrated that expected value or expected utility can ,at best, only be a special case of a much more general theory .

The Ramsey-De Finetti-Savage-Friedman approach is the mathematical translation of Jeremy Bentham's Benthamite Utilitarian approach.

Bentham's approach was that the whole can never be anything more than the sum of the individual ,atomic parts. However, this requires the assumptions of additivity and linearity.Bentham assumed also that all decision makers can calculate the odds all the time.Keynes showed that this was not the case because this requires a w=1. Keynes's demonstration ,taken from chapter 26 of his A Treatise on Probability(1921;TP),of the special case nature of any expected value(utility) approach ,based on the purely mathematical laws of the probability calculus,shows this to be a very special case that rarely,if ever,occurs in the real world.This is why public policy based on utilitarianism fails . Bentham claimed that all individuals have the capability to calculate the odds and outcomes and act on the expected utility (the probability times the utility of the outcome) in a rational(optimizing) way.This is where the rationality postulate comes from.

This can be expressed by the following maximization problem ,where p is the probability of success,q is the probability of failure, and A is the outcome:

Maximize pA.

The modern version of this is to Maximize pU(A),where p is a subjective probability that is additive,linear,precise,and exact and U(A) is a Von Neumann-Morgenstern Utility function. The goal is to

Maximize pU(A).

The modern name for Benthamite Utilitarianism in neoclassical economics is SEU theory(Subjective Expected Utility). Therefore,a microeconomic foundation based on Utility Maximization is just Benthamite Utilitarianism updated with modern mathematical probability techniques.Modern macroeconomics is all disguised SEU theory.

Keynes rejected Benthamite Utilitarianism as a very special case that would only hold under the special assumptions of the subjectivist, Bayesian model-that all probabilities were additive,linear,precise,single number answers that obeyed the purely mathematical laws of the probability calculus.

Keynes specifies his conventional coefficient of risk and weight,c, model in chapter 26 of the TP on p.314 and footnote 2 on p.314,as a counter weight to the Benthamite Utilitarian approach of Ramsey.

Essentially, Keynes's generalized model is given by


where w is Keynes's weight of the evidence variable that measures the completeness of the relevant, available evidence upon which the probabilities p and q are calculated.(Benthamite Utilitarians always assume that the value of w is always 1.)w is an index defined on the unit interval between 0 and 1,p is the probability of success,and q is the probability of failure.p+q sum to 1 if they are additive.This requires that w=1.Keynes's c coefficient can be rewritten as

c=p [1/(1+q)][2w/(1+w)].

Now multiply the above by A or U(A).One obtains

cA =p[1/(1+q) ][2w/(1+w)] A or

cU(A)= p[1/(1+q)][2w/(1+w)]U(A).

The goal is to Maximize cU(A) as opposed to the special Ramsey-Savage case of Maximize pU(A).
If w = 1 and all probability preferences are linear,then one obtains Ramsey's special result ,which was

Max pU(A).
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