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Heilbroner, Robert

Heilbroner, Robert 1919-2005

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Robert Louis Heilbroner was an economist and public intellectual best known for his popular book The Worldly Philosophers (1953). In what became one of the best-selling books in the discipline, Heilbroner outlined the dramatic scenarios of the classical political economists, especially the work of Adam Smith (17231790), David Ricardo (17721823), Thomas Robert Malthus (17661834), Karl Marx (18181883), and John Stuart Mill (18061873), as well as Joseph Schumpeter (18831950), Thorstein Veblen (18571929), and John Maynard Keynes (18831946), whom he regarded as continuing the classical tradition of viewing the economy as historically and institutionally situated. The classical scenarios depict the almost inexorable movement of the capitalist economic system, with its laws of motion, its systematic tendencies leading to some future immanent in the present (1992, p. 381). Underlying the systems movements were a variety of factors, both economic and noneconomic. In other words, the trajectory of the system is inseparable from both the wider sociopolitical context within which the economy is situated and the subjective drives and behavioral tendencies of historical agents, which both shape and are shaped by changing socioeconomic and political structures.

Heilbroners initial fascination with the worldly philosophers prognoses led to his own analyses of the economic, political, cultural, and sociopsychological drives, motivations, and propensities underlying production, distribution, and exchange. In these investigations, Heilbroner adopted his own versions of Schumpeters (1954) notions of vision and analysis. Whereas for Schumpeter, analysis had a kind of cleansing effect, which prevented the necessarily ideological nature of the pre-analytical cognitive act from tainting the scientific endeavor, for Heilbroner, economic theory is inescapably value-laden. Biases are always present, at times lurking just beneath the surface, but often emerging in the form of assumptions that determine the content of analytical categories and the direction of prognostications.

Although Heilbroners explicit self-identification with a hermeneutic approach came relatively late, he had always emphasized that inquiry necessarily has an interpretive dimension. For Heilbroner, this meant that the very object of inquiry cannot be presumed self-evident. The economy is an abstraction from the social totality, and thus the defining of the subject matter of economics is a task that influences the nature and direction of analysis. Heilbroner long advocated material provisioningthe harnessing of societys material resources to provide for the needs and wants of its membersas the central problematic of the political economist. He thus argued against any notion of universal economic laws, emphasizing the historical specificity of capitalism in human history. Heilbroners historical approach, rejection of universal laws, and refusal to read markets back into precapitalist societies provide a welcome respite from the economics imperialism of modern neoclassical economics.

In later years, Heilbroner questioned whether, under present contemporary circumstances, worldly philosophy is still possible. He believed that scenarios and visions do not lend themselves to formal analytical procedures. More importantly, he held the position that the economic behaviors that set the system on its path have become less dependable, while political intervention has become more strategic. An instrumental approach, in his mentor Adolph Lowes ([1965] 1977) sense, thus becomes more appropriate, with blueprints depicting possible routes from present realities to desired destinations replacing scenarios depicting a future immanent in the present (Heilbroner 1992, p. 381; Heilbroner and Milberg 1995, pp. 118ff; Forstater 1999).

Despite such skepticism, Heilbroner expressed the hope that the irrelevant scholasticism of contemporary neoclassical economics might be replaced with a reinvigorated political economy. Political economy may perhaps [be] resurrected by a corps of dissenting economists, employing a framework that: take[s] full cognizance of the sociopolitical realities of our time, whatever the difficulties they may pose for the construction of elegant models. [A] rekindling of the tradition of political economy is within the realm of possibility. That would indeed be a happy ending to the teachings of the worldly philosophy. (Heilbroner 1996, p. 336).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Forstater, Mathew. 1999. Working Backwards: Instrumental Analysis as a Policy Discovery Procedure. Review of Political Economy 11 (1): 518.

Heilbroner, Robert. 1953. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. New York:Simon & Schuster.

Heilbroner, Robert. 1992. Is Worldly Philosophy Still Possible? Review of Social Economy 50: 374382.

Heilbroner, Robert. 1996. Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy. New York: Norton.

Heilbroner, Robert, and William Milberg. 1995. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lowe, Adolph. [1965] 1977. On Economic Knowledge: Toward a Science of Political Economics. Enl. ed. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1954. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mathew Forstater

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Heilbroner, Robert Louis

Robert Louis Heilbroner (hīl´brō´nər), 1919–2005, American economist, b. New York City, grad. Harvard, 1940, Ph.D., New School for Social Research, 1963. A prolific writer, his book The Worldly Philosophers (1953, rev. 7th ed. 1999) is a renowned study of the evolution of economic thought. In his studies, Heilbroner sought to simplify economic theory by stripping it of technical jargon; he criticized late-20th-century economists for not being sufficiently concerned with the social, political, and individual impact of their work. Heilbroner generally believed that government involvement in the economy should be minimized, but also supported government intervention to deal with capitalism's shortcomings and crises. He was long associated with the New School for Social Research (later New School Univ.), where he taught from the early 1960s into late 1990s.

See studies by L. J. Okroi (1988) and M. C. Carroll (1998).

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