52 pages 1 hour read

Robert Heilbroner

The Worldly Philosophers

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide


The Worldly Philosophers, first published in 1953, is a nonfiction work on the history of economics, written by American economist and historian Robert L. Heilbroner, the Norman Thomas Professor of Economics, Emeritus at the New School for Social Research, New York. Currently in its seventh edition, published in an updated and revised form in 1999, the book is regularly assigned to economics undergraduates, providing them with an overview of western economic thought.

The Worldly Philosophers unites such diverse economic thinkers as Adam Smith and Karl Marx by arguing that they shared a common quest: the search to understand how capitalist society works. Heilbroner covers eight major economists and groups of thinkers: Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Parson Malthus, the Utopian Socialists, Karl Marx, the Victorian underworld, Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter. He explores their personal histories, the times in which they lived, and their most important contributions to the field of economics.

Despite differing personal histories and political environments, these great economists attempted to understand how society meets its needs. They clarified, illuminated, and interpreted the seemingly confusing economic world, not only for their contemporaries but also to the modern reader. They also grappled with the future fate of the market system, and whether or not capitalism could be reformed or saved from itself. Unlike the tradition and command systems, which it replaced, the market system has allowed human society to accomplish the tasks necessary for survival while providing individuals with freedom to do as they will. How the market system works, and whether it can survive long term, is what the worldly philosophers sought to understand.

Heilbroner ends by criticizing the current state of economics. He argues that boiling economics down to a social science, which tries to predict human and market behavior through mathematical models devoid of sociopolitical context, is futile and self-defeating, and robs the field of its true potential. Modern economists need to return to the examples set by the worldly philosophers, who never shirked from asking big, complicated questions about human society.