World­ly Philoso­pher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

Jere­my Adelman
  • Review
By – March 24, 2014

Albert O. Hirschman (19152012) was an extra­or­di­nary thinker, an econ­o­mist who strug­gled to under­stand the process of social change. Best known for his books on Latin Amer­i­can eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, his par­a­digm of loyalty/​voice/​exit’ to explain how peo­ple engage and dis­en­gage with social insti­tu­tions is used by social sci­en­tists in a vari­ety of dis­ci­plines. His insights into the role of unex­pect­ed con­se­quences’ have guid­ed pol­i­cy-mak­ers to find­ing valu­able out­comes in less-than-ide­al social pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives. In eco­nom­ics, his ear­ly empha­sis on uncer­tain­ty and the role of unin­tend­ed side-effects was ground-break­ing. What accounts for the de­velopment of such a Renais­sance-type thinker, deter­mined not only to strad­dle dis­ci­plines, but to bring them into conversation?

Adelson’s remark­able biog­ra­phy, a full exam­i­na­tion of Hirschman’s life and work, gives us some under­stand­ing of his intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney. As a young Jew­ish boy grow­ing up in Ger­many, his ear­ly edu­ca­tion was pre­carious: days after Hitler became chan­cel­lor, Hirschman became a refugee. He stud­ied in France and Eng­land, fought in the Span­ish Civ­il War, and then worked under­ground to smug­gle Jews out of Mar­seilles until he him­self had to flee. All along, and for the rest of his life, he learned more lan­guages, read and re-read the clas­sics. In Amer­i­ca, he served in the Armed Forces, mar­ried, found oth­er intel­lectuals, and made a life as a field work­er and schol­ar. This sum­ma­ry hard­ly does the man jus­tice, but Adelson’s account is both thor­ough and thought­ful, so even the gen­er­al read­er can under­stand why Hirschman stud­ied what he did, how one book begat anoth­er, and, most valu­ably, the con­tri­bu­tions of Hirschman to twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry thought. Bib­li­o­graph­ic essay, index, notes, photographs.

Relat­ed Con­tent: The Span­ish Holo­caust: Inqui­si­tion and Exter­mi­na­tion in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Spain by Paul Preston

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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