A Worldly Philosopher (or Two) at 100

From Economic Principals:

Economics Principals notes “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.”

Continue reading here.

Posted by at 3:34 PM

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