An original thinker of our time

Two pieces I’ve been meaning to share are these two on the economist, Albert Hirschman. The first is by Malcolm Gladwell, “The Gift of Doubt: Albert O. Hirschman and the power of failure.”

Hirschman liked to say that he had “a propensity to self-subversion.” He even gave one of his books that title. He qualified and questioned and hedged as a matter of habit. He never trusted himself enough to indulge in grand theorizing. He pursued the “petite idée,” the attempt, as he said, “to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.”

I hadn’t heard of Hirschman before–that bad grade in that one macroeconomics class perhaps scarred me–but after reading that piece, I looked him up and found the other piece by his biographer, Jeremy Adelman in the New York Review of Books.

Hirschman, born in 1915 in Berlin, was an economist by training, and he spent a lot of time reading Adam Smith, but his great intellectual loves were Montaigne (with his advice to “observe, observe perpetually”) and Machiavelli. … Part of what made Hirschman distinctive, even unique, was his ability to develop large themes from sharp observations of particular practices, and thus to connect apparently unrelated social phenomena. … Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation.

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