Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman Conversation – Instalment 1: An Overview and the Introduction – Mots Justes & petites idées

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 1: An Overview and the Introduction

Mots Justes & petites idées




Howard Adelman


The only critical review of Jeremy’s biography of the many that have come my way is by Robert Kuttner. I have sent it out as a separate attachment. Though Kuttner loved the book, he had four main criticisms, all having to do with the second half, the intellectual biography. The criticisms are:

1) Style – too slow going and bogged down in detail so the forest of Hirschman is sometimes lost in the details;

2) The chapter on Latin America “is one of the weaker parts of the book” because Jeremy became bogged down in the detail of Hirschman’s endless trips, and because a) his “discussion of Hirschman’s intellectual debate with other development theorists is somewhat murky” and (b) he neglected “to address how Hirschman’s views have stood the test of time;”

3) Jeremy’s emphasis on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty as a “hyphen linking an ‘early’ Hirschman concerned with economic development in Latin America to a ‘later’ Hirschman working from a broadened intellectual palette” “leaves out the formative Hirschman—the voracious student of political classics, resistance fighter, and refugee scholar who unmistakably makes a reappearance in the later philosophical works.”

4) He critiques Jeremy’s take on The Passions and the Interests – arguing that Hirschman sided with Enlightenment political philosophers who “hoped that passions, explosive and nonnegotiable, could be tamed into interests available for brokering and compromise.”


Is Kuttner correct in his critique?


I will deal with his comments on the Latin American chapter when we get to it. The same goes for The Passions and the Interests and in what sense Hirschman was an Enlightenment philosopher balancing passions and rational self-interest. The subject matter does change as a matter of course, but I did not find the style or pace did. The criticism of style is, in my mind, the critique of an intellectual journalist versus an historian who demands that evidence be put out on which to base conclusions rather than indulging in interpretations based on inadequate empirical research and the insertion of subjective beliefs in place of empirical reasoning. On the style, I think that Kuttner is just dead wrong. The book reads wonderfully. When Jeremy calls Exit, Voice, and Loyalty a “hyphen linking an ‘early’ Hirschman concerned with economic development in Latin America to a ‘later’ Hirschman working from a broadened intellectual palette,” he adopts Hirschman’s own emphasis on “linkages” rather than a large scale integration of the broad scale of the life as lived with the later intellectual development instead of the usual all-encompassing integration so characteristic of most historians.


To get a deeper understanding of that linkage, let me fall into the inevitable trap of discussing the themes of “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” for all three themes come up in the introduction. My emphasis will be on Voice but let me first deal with Exit and Loyalty.  The book is called an odyssey, but it is an odyssey made up of many exits, from one language to another, from one country to another, from one war to another, from one institution to another. The real story begins with a major exit, from Germany as the Weimar Republic is abandoned as a spate of anti-Semitic violence sweeps through Berlin as Hitler takes power, from his father as Carl Hirschmann is lowered into his grave after being stricken by a brain tumour from which surgery could not save him, and then Albert himself as a militant anti-Nazi student at the University of Berlin at the age of seventeen flees from the new wave of intolerance and persecution for the safety of Paris. 


While he leaves, he remains loyal to his overbearing all-too-bourgeois mother, but especially his sister Ursula and his younger sister, Eva. But it is loyalty without nostalgia ready for new beginnings. As Jeremy portrays Albert, he possesses the Nietzschean ability to reinvent himself and to do so by living outside any single cultural tradition or intellectual genre, not by cutting any of them off, including his own weakly rooted Jewish heritage, but to artfully combine them, though all he inherited from his Jewish past was a kinship with a certain sense of humour, a critical mindset and a predisposition for compassion.


In chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli insisted that fortune only rules one half of a man`s fate. The other half was determined by will, or what AH termed choice. Fortune was simply a challenge to figure out artful ways to wriggle out of a convoluted, contradictory or bad situation. The complement to fortune was not fate but virtus, strength of character. AH remained loyal to hope and what he called possibilism in contrast to the catastrophism depicted by Hannah Arendt in her introduction to The Human Condition. He always remained steadfastly opposed to any kind of predictivism that he saw as really having its roots in the magic of astrology and the ability to come up with a mathematical formula to predict the future. Fortune was the situation that confronted you not the determination of your fate.


The way to become master of your fate required developing your voice. That voice is developed by attending to anomalies, what I have called incongruencies. If we are simply mesmerized by the myths we are fed and the images projected on the cave wall, then we cannot free ourselves from being tied to a log and facing only one way. But if we can shift and slide and see something from different angles so that it reveals its contradictions, then we need not depend on others to free ourselves or depend on the god of Reason delivering an all encompassing revelation that can provide us with certainty.


That is why literature is so important. For good literature “summons the power of small details and anomalies to uncover something new about the whole.” Contrast this with Plato`s myth of the cave which was just a narrative way of representing the geometric formulation of his famous divided line in which reason: understanding = true opinion: false consciousness = critical thought: belief. The two parts of the divided line, each divided by the same ratio meant also that understanding was equivalent in value to true opinion of the experienced artisan except only that the former was closer to reason. Thus 4:2 = 2:1 = 6:3. Reason: understanding = true opinion: mythological opinion = Truth: Opinion, and understanding and true opinion have the same value in the degree of truth they possessed. With all his studies of statistics and correlations and innovations in understanding the influences on and relations of trade to prosperity, AH could find no way to represent thought and its creative parts through a mathematical formula, even one so simple as the mathematics of ratios.


If Plato insisted that one had to know geometry to enter through the archway into his academy, Aristotle shared a greater kinship with Hirschman with his love of equivocation and exploring the multiple and often contradictory meanings of the same term. So AH was in love with vivid metaphors, memorable images and poetic phrases. True to his subject, Jeremy pursues the anomalies, surprises and power of unintended effects as he explores the life of AH to elicit the spirit of the man and how that spirit was influence by and shaped in turn the spirit of different times. Hence, the appropriate emphasis on the mots justes and petites idées.


Let me introduce one mots justes drawn from Jewish folk culture and not the greats of European literature. The word is “yekke” and the puzzle I want to pose is why Albert Hirschman was not much more of a yekke. He was always a yekke in his sartorial attention to the well crafted suit and to his famous punctuality. Certainly he was the epitome of the best values of the yekke  –  good citizenship, reliability, meticulousness, cleanliness, orderliness, courtesy, consideration and, most of all, cultural and intellectual creativity. But Jews from other regions often use yekke in a more derogatory sense to refer to the condescension and sense of cultural superiority of German Jews, best exemplified by AH`s social climbing mother and striving for social status. Yekke in its negative sense also suggests inflexibility, a characteristic that cannot be pinned on AH.  In contrast, Micha Limor, the editor of Yakinton, the Israeli Yekke newspaper, proved that inflexibility when, after the publication of the Goldstone Report on Gaza, described Goldstone as a perfect replica of a Yekke with a clean conscience, uncompromising integrity, tenacity in dealing with bureaucracy, comprehension of reality and precision of language. Limor was not being ironic and refused to retract or amend his comments in response to all the criticism and evidence to the contrary. AH was not a Yekke like Limor.


Further, the Yekke is said to be obsessed with questions like, “Warum? Warum ist die Banane krumm? Why is the banana crooked?” Though there is a scientific answer related to its chemical constitution which makes the banana bend to catch as much of the sun as possible, the reference suggests stupid and unanswerable questions. AH was the epitome of asking sensible, answerable but often overlooked questions. AH seemed to embody the best traits of the Yekke while leaving behind the worst characteristics. Jeremy`s answer is that AH managed to hang onto the best of his German culture, weave it into the impoverished residue of his Jewish culture and then to artfully combine it with the best of Italian (Machiavelli), French (Montesquieu, Montaigne, and Foucauld), English or rather Sottish (Adam Smith) and even American pragmatic culture.

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