David Warsh: Heilbroner's worldly philosophers


The intellectual historian Frank Manuel introduced the term “philosophical history” to his readers in 1965 – at the height of the Cold War (but before the revolution in gender equality). He wrote, “The urge to place himself in a total time sequence – the real impetus to philosophical history – seems to have possessed Western man for more than two thousand years; and it is probably stronger in our culture than in others we know.” Philosophical histories come in two basic shapes, Manuel explained: they are either cyclical or progressive.

I thought of Manuel in connection with the rapidly-approaching centenary of Robert L. Heilbroner (1919-2005), author of The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. Can there ever again be as wildly popular a history of economic thought as that modern classic? The answer is, No, there cannot.

The first edition appeared in 1953, with its table of contents brilliantly spilled across the cover of its dust jacket. In notebook-fashion script, complete with little pen portraits, it read: “The wonderful world of Adam Smith. The gloomy world of Parson Malthus and David Ricardo. The beautiful world of the Utopian Socialists: John Stuart Mill, Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon, Robert Owen. The inexorable world of Karl Marx. The Victorian world and the underworld of economics: Henry George. The savage world of Thorstein Veblen. The sick world of John Maynard Keynes. The modern world: Joseph Schumpeter.”

In each case. Heilbroner was attentive to the “philosophical history” envisaged and propounded by his authors, but never overbearing about it. Those lives, times, and ideas about the future are set out in prose sonorous and lyrical by turns, with a Dickensian flair for characterization throughout. Heilbroner’s account remains nearly as fresh as on the day it first appeared.

Yet for many the exhilaration of reading the book is followed by disappointment of one sort or another. As Robert Solow wrote, in “Even a Worldly Philosopher Needs a Good Mechanic’’:

“Anyone who teaches owes a debt to The Worldly Philosophers for having attracted so many bright and interested students to economics…. Those same teachers are also aware that some of the same students felt let down by the texture of the discipline when they begin to study it. Instead of debating big ideas about the nature of society, they found themselves drawing demand and supply curves and learning to set marginal this equal to marginal that.

On the other hand, some of the students who took to economic analysis felt frustrated that Heilbroner failed to tell the story of their great adventure.

The Worldly Philosophers is, of course, also a philosophical history. Heilbroner earned a doctorate at The New School for Social Research and became a professor there. A second book, The Making of Economic Society (1963), served as his dissertation. He became a prolific essayist and author. Though The Worldly Philosophers went through seven editions, nothing much happened in it structurally after 1953.

“The sick world of John Maynard Keynes,” with its “chronic depressive tendencies,” gave way to the milder “The Heresies of John Maynard Keynes.” “The modern world” in later editions became “The Contradictions of Joseph Schumpeter.”

While the Schumpeter chapter begins with an account of Keynes’s” famous essay from 1928, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which raised the possibility that the fundamental problem, “Not Enough to Go Around,” would be solved within decades, Heilbroner never disavowed the pessimism of the first edition:

[“:W]hereas a century ago one might have guessed that the pre-capitalist world would develop into capitalism, today, for seven hundred and fifty million people, at least, that is a vanished hope. Perhaps four persons out of ten live under regimes which have turned their backs on capitalism, and even if those regimes fail and fall, it is doubtful in the extreme whether their subjects will turn to a system which they have been taught to believe is harsh, cruel, and wicked.’’

On the other hand, having pinned the concluding chapter of his first edition to Schumpeter’s sense, expressed in 1944 (he died in 1950), that “capitalism would become old fashioned,” and that managers and planners would replace entrepreneurs, Heilbroner looked back in 1997:

If we were writing in the late 1960s, [Schumpeter’s] prognosis would indeed seem farsighted, for Western capitalism then seemed clearly moving toward a kind of planned economy. Thirty-odd years later, that prognosis is less convincing. Not just in the United States but throughout Europe we have witnessed a revival of belief in capitalism, as the movement toward a more planned system produced first growth, then inflation, finally a loss of faith in the planning process itself, to which the collapse of the Soviet Union provided the coup de grace.

So what was the shape of Heilbroner’s philosophical history? Progressive certainly, though perhaps more dialectical than linear. A new chapter title, “The end of the Worldly Philosophy?” replaced “Beyond the Economic Revolution” in the last edition. The author had himself become more than a little disappointed with what had become of economics. Not the measurement of the economy, he wrote you needed that; nor models and other formal methods. “There is no alternative to using mathematics in its various forms to elucidate many of the analytical purposes for which economic exists.”

Instead, it was economics’s aspirations to Science (which he capitalizes) that bothered him. A new vision was replacing the discipline’s traditional commitment to the study of capitalism and it left him cold, along with economists’ oft-proclaimed commitment to “objectivity.” Social studies were different from natural sciences, he wrote; human behavior cannot be understood without the concept of volition.

Tastes change, he noted; so do values, norms, and rules. “If economics were in fact a science, we humans would be mere robots, no more capable of choosing what was to be our response to a price rise than is a particle of iron to the presence of a magnet.” And as for objectivity, he wrote, “the social life of humankind is by its very nature political.” What does it mean to be objective about inherited wealth or abject poverty?

Whatever else, then, Heilbroner’s philosophical history was unabashedly political. To this much, I think, almost all economists would subscribe. I can’t help but think he could have used one more worldly philosopher. The one who comes to mind in this connection is Helibroner’s close contemporary Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), a writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University.

Asimov is said to have written or edited 500 books. The best-known among them are science fiction. The ones that had the greatest influence on some young economists have been collected as the Foundation trilogy, an ingenious space opera on whose large canvas George Lucas’s Star Wars films are partly based. Asimov’s novels turn on applications of psychohistory, a rigorous social science that has emerged in the distant future, to reverse an impending slow descent into barbarism of an immense galactic empire.

Hal Varian. Google’s chief economists, relates the effect of Asimov’s vision of philosophical history on him, at 14. “It was about a future where social science had become an exact science, and you could mathematically model human behavior. When I got to MIT, I realized that mathematically modeling human behavior was called economics. It shaped my whole life.”

Or see Paul Krugman’s 2012 essay in The Guardian: “There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy’s life. For some, it’s Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; for others it’s Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings…. But for me, of course, it was neither. My book – the one that has stayed with me for four-and-a-half decades – is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.”

A great deal has happened in economics since 1953. For accounts of that, you have to look elsewhere. But for a romantic rendering of what went on in the first two hundred and fifty years of the social science, you still can’t do better than The Worldly Philosophers.

David Warsh, a Somerville-based veteran columnist and an economic historian, is proprietor of economic principals.com, where this column first appeared.