Heilbroner, Robert

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Heilbroner, Robert 1919-2005


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).


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

Heilbroner, Robert Louis

views updated May 23 2018

Heilbroner, Robert Louis

(b. 24 March 1919 in New York City; d. 4 January 2005 New York City), writer, scholar, and modern-day “worldly philosopher” and social theorist whose many books made the science of economics understandable to laypeople and students alike through his multidisciplinary view that considered social, political, and other influences on the economy.

Heilbroner was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was the third child and only son of Louis and Helen (Weiller) Heilbroner. His father was the cofounder of a chain of men’s clothing stores, Weber & Heilbroner. The family’s wealth allowed Heilbroner and his sisters to attend private schools. When Heilbroner was five, his father died, and the young boy developed a closeness with the family’s chauffeur, an experience that shaped the egalitarian vision that permeated all of Heilbroner’s later work.

Heilbroner entered Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1936, intending to pursue a degree in English. He switched to economics because of his inherent curiosity about the social causes of the Great Depression. Although the Depression did not greatly influence his family’s economic status, Heilbroner found this period “oppressive and incomprehensible” and wanted to understand the social phenomenon it represented. Heilbroner entered his economics study the same year that John Maynard Keynes released The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), when economics as a discipline was struggling to find its identity within this radical new paradigm. At Harvard, the creative energies of professors like Alvin Hansen, a leading proponent of Keynesian thought; Paul Sweezy; Wassily Leontief; and Edward Mason were coupled with students such as Heilbroner, Paul Samuelson, and James Tobin to help define a new understanding of economics.

Heilbroner graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in 1940 with a BA in history, government, and economics. During World War II he served with the U.S. Army as an interpreter in the Pacific, earning a Bronze Star. He was discharged at the rank of first lieutenant and returned to New York City to work as an economist for an international trading company. Heilbroner’s passion for writing and his interest in large-scale economic inquiry quickly found him devoting more time to writing than trading commodities. He left the private sector when he realized he was taking more of his writing to the office than his work home. One of these early articles, “Who Are the American Poor?,” made the cover of Harper’s magazine in 1950.

Heilbroner began his graduate studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1946 and immediately came under the influence of Adolph Lowe, who became both his most ardent critic and staunchest supporter. Lowe stressed the historical perspective of economics and believed that economic activity through time was an order-bestowing process, in that the institutionalized relationships of economic transactions created social order. Heilbroner would later expand this theory with his nature and logic of capitalism. Lowe successively played the role of mentor, critic, colleague, and confidant to Heilbroner; for nearly half a century Lowe’s thoughts influenced all of Heilbroner’s writings. Their deep friendship lasted until Lowe’s death in the summer of 1995 at the age of 102.

Heilbroner’s early graduate experience at the New School yielded a number of successful books but not a PhD. Originally, he had not wanted to disrupt the conversational tone of his book The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1953) with the necessary documentation to qualify for a dissertation. His other writings of the period were again geared for publication and not exclusively for his academic degree. Heilbroner was eventually granted a PhD in 1963 for his book The Making of Economic Society (1962) and subsequently joined the New School’s graduate faculty. He became the chair of the economics department in 1968 and the Norman Thomas Professor of Economics in 1972.

Most of Heilbroner’s early work focused on the American hegemony in economic development and the distinction between capitalist and socialist systems. In books like the Great Ascent (1963) and Between Capitalism and Socialism (1970), Heilbroner examined economic provisioning (how a society provides for its material needs) on a grand scale. In An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1974), he openly questioned humankind’s ability to respond to ecological problems such as global warming. Most of his thinking up to this point could be described as liberal. It was not until 1980, with the book Marxism: For and Against, that his work began to take on more of a radical perspective. In the late 1980s and 1990s Heilbroner’s work started to include more of a futurist tone. His Twenty-first Century Capitalism (1993) and Visions of the Future (1996) examined the trajectory of the current economic system.

Heilbroner’s economics were built on a solid core of evolutionary dynamics, social psychology, and acute sensitivity of human history. For Heilbroner, capitalism was best viewed as a regime. The term “regime” emphasizes the impelling force behind business activity that is typically overlooked by traditional economists. The drive to accumulate and the respective supporting institutions give the system its motion and order. Heilbroner was a vocal critic of traditional economic theory, believing that economists had become enamored of technical model building. In a 1972 Business Week interview, Heilbroner stated, “If all economic theory disappeared, the acuity of economic policy would not be affected one iota.” Heilbroner’s work was often criticized as lacking scientific rigor. His holistic vision was not well received by mainstream economists, who were more interested in reductionist equations than in understanding the economic process.

Heilbroner married Joan Knapp in 1952. They had two sons before divorcing in 1975. That same year he married Shirley E. T. Davis. For the last three years of his life, Heilbroner suffered from Lewy body dementia, a brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s. He died at age eighty-five in New York Presbyterian Hospital from a brain-stem stroke.

Heilbroner’s work had a profound impact on the field of economics. In more than twenty books and numerous essays and articles, he demystified economics using elegant, precise prose that was free of jargon. The Worldly Philosophers remained a staple text in introductory economics courses more than fifty years after its first publication. When questioned about the book’s success, Heilbroner said that it had become less of a book and more of an annuity. His economic inquiries were conducted on a grand scale and helped make sense of the systemic forces that shape our economic world.

For further details on Heilbroner’s life and work, see Michael C. Carroll, A Future of Capitalism: The Economic Vision of Robert Heilbroner (1998). His work is also discussed in Loren J. Okroi, Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent in an Age of Optimism (1988). Obituaries are in the New York Times (12 Jan. 2005) and Washington Post (13 Jan. 2005).

Michael C. Carroll

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