Heilbroner & Capitalism

“Robert Heilbroner and the Worldly Philosophy of Capitalism”

William Milberg

Robert Heilbroner (1919-2005) published over twenty books and countless articles over his fifty-year career—spent entirely at the New School for Social Research in New York—but he was best known for his first book, The Worldly Philosophers, which took-up a rather esoteric subject, the history of economic thought. Heilbroner breathed life into economics for millions of readers and students by illuminating the connection between everyday experience and the grand economic structures that evolve and shape history. The Worldly Philosophers opened the eyes of the public to the deep ideas about economic change as they developed since the 18th century in the works of Smith, Marx, Keynes, Schumpeter and others. Heilbroner’s profound sociological and psychological understanding of economic life set the tone for the interdisciplinary study of economics that is the cornerstone of the work of the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School for Social Research in 2013.

“Capitalism’s uniqueness in history,” Heilbroner wrote, “lies in its continuously self-generated change, but it is this very dynamism that is the system’s chief enemy.” It is in appreciation of what Heilbroner identified as “the deep human need to be situated with respect to the future” that we have named the Center of Capitalism Studies after Heilbroner.

Heilbroner showed that the study of capitalism requires more than interdisciplinarity. He argued that the traditional teaching of economics infuses a particular ideology into the way even educated societies think about economics, economic change and economic justice. Students of traditional economics programs have been known to view society and to behave more as self-interested individuals, less willing to think more broadly about social progress. In Behind the Veil of Economics (1989), Heilbroner explained how economic thought could veil our understanding of society by blinding us to deeper cultural, social, and psychological aspects of domination and freedom:

What lies behind the veil of economics? Vision and ideology. What does the complicated subject matter of economic analysis conceal from view? Our deep-lying, perhaps unanalyzable notions concerning human nature, history, and the like; and the various disguises by which we come to terms, especially in capitalist society, with the primary but hidden sources of social orchestration—domination and acquiescence on the one hand, affect and sociality on the other…Ideology is part of economics – not the whole, but a constitutive part

Capitalism Studies thus reaches for a more ambitious goal than simply the application of interdisciplinarity to our training in economics. It also is an approach that pulls away the “veil” that Heilbroner identifies, and examines directly the ideological and historical dimensions of our theoretical conceptions.

At the same time as he was exploring the nature of the Smithian, Marxian and Schumpeterian contributions to economic thought, Heilbroner was also making a name for himself as one of the most respected commentators on contemporary economic problemsespecially on the prospects for social betterment in the late twentieth century. Heilbroner’s writings on the future of capitalism constitute a unique genre. Books such as The Future as History (1961), An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1980), Twenty-First Century Capitalism (1993) and Visions of the Future (1995) and articles in Social Research, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books placed him at the forefront of public intellectual life

How are we to reconcile Heilbroner the intellectual historian with Heilbroner the contemporary critic? These two strands of Heilbroners writings are closely connected. The worldly philosophers’ insistence on endogenous system dynamics, their focus on social determinants of individual psychology and behaviour and the rich interplay of morality and efficiency all help set the tone of Heilbroners voice as prognosticator. At the same time, Heilbroner’s deep concern with the prospects for late twentieth century capitalist societies provided the lens through which he interpreted the history of economic thought. The dual Heilbronerian ‘voices’ were not just compatible: the historical, ethical and social grounding of the classical vision are what gave meaning to Heilbroner’s imagination of the prospects for capitalism in the future.

Heilbroner’s embrace of the classicals and rejection of the modern-day neoclassicals hinges on the Schumpeterian distinction between ‘analysis’ and ‘vision’. Schumpeter (1954: 42) defines vision as the preanalytic cognitive act’ that enters on the very ground floor.’ It is ideological almost by definition. Heilbroner rejected Schumpeter’s belief that analysis and vision could be separated, arguing instead that it was precisely the interplay between the two that gave economics its creative strength, that is, its ‘worldly’ dimension.

Heilbroner had limited patience for the esoterica that filled many journals in the history of economics. The history of economic ideas was of more than academic interest: it provided the visionary underpinnings for thinking about the future. The specific predictions of the worldly philosophers were often wrong (Heilbroner particularly enjoyed sparring with Marx and Schumpeter in this regard). But this was much less important than the fact that these thinkers were deeply engaged with problems of capitalism in their day. They generalized only from that perspective, in which politics and morality were intertwined with economics in a way that meant these non-economic considerations could not be ignored. For all its lightness of style, the goal of The Worldly Philosophers is an ambitious one: to unveil the grand role for economic thought in social progress. [A] worldly philosophy, Heilbroner wrote, ‘has a unique potential to provide the visionary guidance that will help at least some capitalisms make their way as safely as possible through the coming decades... (Heilbroner 1999: 320-1).

In the seventh, and most recent, edition of The Worldly Philosophers (1989), Heilbroner added a new, final chapter with the ambiguous title The End of the Worldly Philosophy? Heilbroner clearly intended a play on the dual meaning of the word end: purpose and termination. He lamented that the grand purpose of economics, as exemplified by the

worldly philosophers, had been lost with the modern embrace of science and its presumption of value-neutrality. Linking the two meanings of the term end’, Heilbroner warned that the narrow, pseudoscientific focus of contemporary thought was leading economics to its demise because of its failure to engage in the most pressing social social questions of the day as the ideas of Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, Mill, Keynes and Schumpeter had done. Heilbroner laments: The new vision is Science, the disappearing one Capitalism (Heilbroner 1999: 314).



Heilbroner, R. (1961). The Future as History. New York: Grove Press.
Heilbroner, R. (1980). An Inquiry into the Human Prospect. New York: W.W. Norton.
Heilbroner, R. (1980). Behind the Veil of Economics: Essays in the Worldly Philosophy. New York: W.W. Norton.
Heilbroner, R. (1993). Twenty-first Century Capitalism. New York: W.W. Norton.
Heilbroner, R. (1995). Visions of the Future. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heilbroner, R. (1999). The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 7th edition. New York: Simon and Schuster (first edition 1953).
Milberg, W. (2005). “In Memorium: Robert Heilbroner, 1919-2005,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Vol. 12, No. 2, June.
Schumpeter, J. (1954). History of Economics Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.