- Hardcover: 760 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press; 4th Printing edition (April 7, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691155674
- ISBN-13: 978-0691155678
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 44 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #363,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman Hardcover – April 7, 2013
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*Starred Review* Economics, philosophy, and more than 700 pages—oh my! That’s one way to view Adelman’s brilliant biography of economist-philosopher Albert O. Hirschman. But like Hirschman himself, who took a skewed and often inventive look at nearly everything, there are many ways to describe and delight in this book. It is at once an adventure, as the young Hirschman leaves his homeland, Germany, in 1933, at 17, determined to find a place for himself in the world. And what a world he moves through—Marxists, Nazis, wars and revolutions, and many emigrations and émigrés (Hirschman, taking on false identities, helped such luminaries as Max Ernst and Hannah Arendt escape a devouring Europe). Later, Hirschman, at times shunned for his economic ideas as well as how he presented them—often sans mathematical formulas—traveled throughout the world, living in many countries, observing, and writing about his observations. Adelman sensitively draws out this enlightening and heartening life, sketching in, along the way, the characters surrounding Hirschman. His wife, Sarah, was part of Hirschman’s odyssey, and Adelman portrays her as not only capable but a smart, brave, discerning, and interesting person. Hirschman’s primary field was economics, but he eschewed formulaic solutions to human problems, choosing instead aphoristic thinking and petites idées, as “small things could provide big insights” (and throughout, wordsmith Adelman perceptively and astutely serves wordsmith Hirschman). Nearly every page of this book inspires thought or admiration or fear for the outcome or exultation at the revelations. Hirschman’s ideas hew to the individual; for instance, because expected outcomes are not achieved, does this make the endeavor a failure, or can one seek instead the surprising good that came from it? A bright world of thought and viable enterprise opens before readers—including, perhaps especially, noneconomists—and it should not be missed. --Eloise Kinney
Winner of the 2014 Joseph J. Spengler Best Book Prize, History of Economics Society
One of Bloomberg/Businessweek Best Books of 2013, selected by Ollie Rehn
One of Financial Times (Alphachat)'s Econ Books of the Year for 2013
One of The Guardian Best Books of 2013, chosen by Malcolm Gladwell
Honorable Mention for the 2013 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers
[A] biography worthy of the man. Adelman brilliantly and beautifully brings Hirschman to life, giving us an unforgettable portrait of one of the twentieth century's most extraordinary intellectuals. . . . [M]agnificent.---Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker
[A] hugely engaging . . . epic.---Justin Fox, New York Times Book Review
[An] astonishing and moving biography. . . . Hirschman's work is more than interesting enough to justify a book (or two, or ten), but Adelman's achievement is to demonstrate, in novelistic detail, that he also lived an astounding life, full of narrow paths and ridiculously improbable twists and turns.---Cass Sunstein, New York Review of Books
[A] massive, erudite biography.---Roger Lowenstein, Wall Street Journal
[T]he winner [Enlightened Economist prize this year] is Jeremy Adelman's The Worldly Philosopher, a biography of Albert Hirschman. Hirschman's life story is extraordinary, and his early years make for a gripping tale. What I particularly enjoyed, though, was the portrait of an economist whose economics had a context in the realities of the countries Hirschman studied, their history and politics and culture, and in his wide reading in philosophy and other subjects. . . . A worthy winner--congratulations to Professor Adelman!---Diane Coyle, Enlightened Economist
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The book itself is long (650 pages of text, plus almost fifty in notes) and quite readable. Since the discussion shifts back from the personal to the technical, it remains engaging. I found the discussion of social science ideas quite accessible and not overwhelmed by jargon, perhaps an homage to Hirschman himself who wrote more in words than in numbers and formulae. On the other hand, the book is not treaties of Hirschman's development thinking or a review of the development of economic thought. It is a biography of an important and interesting man and the reader should be prepared from some challenging reading. I personally found the stories about Hirschman in France during the German invasion and occupation as well as his adventures in Colombia (1950s) to be quite compelling and "page turning." The notes and the index are comprehensive and provide a good reference to Hirschman's life. I have never met Hirschman but now I which of my friends and colleagues have (at least two bosses, it turns out). The biography mixes discussion about Hirschman family and personal life with the evolution of his thinking.
I first encountered Hirschman when I was an undergraduate student starting the development economics series, through the book Pioneers in Development. Hirschman was immediately my favorite pioneer, both due to his Colombian connections and his approach as a "rebel" (as he put it in his autobiography). After reading Adelman's book, I would say that Hirschman could be better described as a "optimistic doubter" than as a rebel. His doubting messages are often uncomfortable to authority despite his underlying optimism.
Hirschman was born in Berlin to an "assimilated," well-to-do Jewish family. After the Nazis took power in 1933, Hirschman moved to France, Italy, England, Spain, and the United States. He also managed to serve in the Spanish Republican Army, the French Army (during the German invasion), and the American Army. He also played a major role in the Varian Fry's group that smuggled many leading intellectuals to the United States as well as serving as the the translator for the first war crimes trial after World War Two. Not bad for a thirty year old.
As an economist, Hirschman was forced by circumstance to go to Colombia as a high level economic advisor, where he lived from 1952 to 1956. This was a life-changing experience that sparked a life-long interest in Latin America and development economics as well as thrusting him in the academic and policy limelight. From there, he moved among the Ivy League Universities (he variously associated with Yale, Columbia and Harvard), before ending up in Princeton.
One theme running through the book is how early Hirschman starting thinking about big themes with his "little ideas" (as he called them). While he was definitely a believer in big development projects (and consequently, foreign aid), he was always expecting the unexpected. This, he argued, was at the center of the development process. While today it is common to consider (at least after the a fact!) "unexpected benefits" or "externalities" in development, at the time this was a novel and even revolutionary approach. Development was largely focused on strategies to accumulate capital, overcome constraints, and fill gaps. He also played an important role in encouraging the evaluation of the World Bank and its projects as way to learn from what has worked and what has not worked.
If you are primarily interested is his thinking on development, try the chapter in the Pioneers in Development. The New Yorker (June 2013) and the New York Review of Book (May 2013) have detailed reviews of the book that are worth looking at and the New York Times (Dec. 2012) and American Interest (Jan. 2013 by Francis Fukuyama) provide detailed obituaries.
Finally, as Alderman concludes his book, I would like to say "Thank you, Albert."
All this is well described and discussed in this biography, which presents evolving outstanding achievements as well as serious failures. Thus, Hirschman was often too optimistic, taken by surprise by the emergence of authoritarian regimes in Latin America (e.g. p. 502).
Two features of Hirschman's approach are of special interest. The first is his extensive field work, with special attention to unanticipated positive results on the local level of development projects, such as "empowerment," even when failing to achieve their declared objectives. The second is integrating theory building with close personal involvement in policy making and implementation. This combination enabled Hirschman to recognize the futility of purely economic approaches and "comprehensive planning" in development and propose instead more selective and concrete approaches. He proposed "possibilism" constantly seeking opportunities, also produced by adverse conditions and partial failures (pp. 450 ff.). And he criticized "the claims of knowledge dressed up in grand theories about the world ...[which] provide a hindrance to understanding it." (p. 339).
There is much to learn from his experiences and conclusions, for instance on the futility of "rational choice" theories and the very limited relevance of much of experimental decision psychology, which are quite irrelevant to most of actual high-level choice processes.
Hirschman's life was in all respects as "great voyage of discovery," exciting and productive in all respects, despite quite some tragedies and failures. Reading of this book is also a "voyage of discovery" of a fascinating person and of impressive professional and scientific ideas. It is strongly recommended.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hirschman's life can truly be described as an odyssey, as the title indicates. What I get out of it is his way of labeling things that are familiar in a new way that helps me get a handle on them. For instance, say I'm unhappy in my job and feel the corporation I work for is not a good one. He offers me Exit, Voice, Loyalty. I can leave; I can oppose my situation and protest it; or I can accommodate myself to the situation. By giving me new labels, he gives me new attitudes; with the right attitude, I always feel I can make the right moves.
Why is this man not famous? Why didn't he get a Nobel Prize?