Samuelson's exposition is consistently mathematical, and presupposes a knowledge of advanced calculus, higher algebra, and differential equations...I consider this failure to provide translations for the "literary" economist a serious shortcoming of his work. He dismisses translations into words as "mental gymnastics of a peculiarly depraved type." I disagree. There is no depravity, nor is there virtue, in telling other competent economists things in a language they all can understand-there is simply responsibility to the canons of scholarship.--G.J. Stigler (1948) reviewing Samuelson. [HT David M. Levy]
Even extremely well informed readers do not always recognize the significance of the books they review; or if they do, they may wish to suppress it in the hope to prevent a certain outcome. George J. Stigler, one of the leading Chicago-Economists of the 20th century (Nobel 1982), insists at the start of his 1948 review of Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis that "much of [the] subject matter is currently of much diminished interest." Samuelson's (1947) Foundations is the book that (together with Samuelson's textbooks that followed) brought together the formal languages and techniques that created the mathematical 'revolution'* and its accompanying technocratic ideal which has been its self-image of economics since. (This is not to deny later contributions by Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie, etc.) After Samuelson (Nobel 1970) -- by his own lights "the last 'generalist' in economics," -- economics became an esoteric field for specialists and specializations.
Stigler's review was not very influentual (most citations to it are by recent scholars) and is less known than, say, Boulding's [see this essay by Khan]. Even so, Stigler review is instructive because it articulates a number of themes that become distinctive of 'Chicago' (and, thus, a crucial feature of the intellectual edifice what is often known as 'neo-Liberalism.') Before I elaborate on that, Stigler's review is at its best when it explains Samuelson's methodological strategy. One often hears that mathematical economics is not empirical (as well as not realistic). But as Stigler notes (correctly), "The leitmotiv of Samuelson's treatise is the search for meaningful theorems, that is, theorems which are in principle capable of empirical contradiction" (either introspectively** or by way of social scientific data). In the context of commenting on Samuelson's empirical methodology, Stigler asks,
what if the theorem is contradicted by observation? Samuelson says it would not matter much in the case of utility theory (p. 117); I would say that it would not make the slightest difference. For there is a free variable in his system: the tastes of consumers. These tastes are not observationally (or operationally) defined, so any contradiction of a theorem derived from utility theory can always be attributed to a change of tastes, rather than to an error in the postulates or logic of the theory.