Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros12-1Revue des livresComptes rendusMichele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirs...

Revue des livres
Comptes rendus

Michele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography

Philipp Lepenies
p. 151-157
Référence(s) :

Michele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirschman. An Intellectual Biography, New York: Columbia University Press, 2021, XVI+332 pages, 978-023119982-7

Texte intégral

Afficher l’image
Crédits : Columbia University Press

1Shortly after Albert O. Hirschman’s death in 2012, the Princeton-based scholar Jeremy Adelman published a monumental biography of one of the most original social scientists of the second half of the 20th century. With its almost 800 pages and its exhaustiveness of detail, Adelman’s book easily falls into the category of “biographies to end all biographies.” What on Earth then, one might think, can still be written on Albert O. Hirschman (born 1915)? Especially after all the attention the Adelman book received? The Italian Economic Historian Michele Alacevich would answer: quite a lot.

2Alacevich claims that his book is not to be seen as a contrast to Adelman’s biography, but as a complement to it. Whereas Adelman highlighted the private life of Hirschman and focused less on the academic works themselves, Alacevich’s take is to provide a more thorough explanation of the scholarly output by Hirschman and to describe the personal circumstances that motivated Hirschman to write what he wrote and how he did it and to focus on what sort of response or debate his thoughts sparked. This is what Alacevich means by his “intellectual biography” (xii).

3Whereas social scientists are usually introduced to Hirschman’s academic writings first, it is after learning who the person Albert Hirschman was that his books and ideas become even more impressive. In most cases, scholarship is dull and the scholars themselves lead relatively dull lives. Then there is original scholarship that is nevertheless paired with an eventless personal life of the academic in question. Seldom we have the case in which both life and works are extraordinary. It is actually rather surprising that there are not many more books on Hirschman out there.

4A book review is not the place where the details of Hirschman’s life and work have to be summed up. I leave it to the reader to embark on the fascinating journey to learn more about Hirschmana trip well worth taking.

5The scholarly work of Hirschman itself is at first sight extremely diverse and it is quite difficult to “nail him down” to one idea, to one theory or to one specific school of thought. It is often remarked that the main characteristic of Hirschman’s œuvre is exactly the lack of consistency in this respect, the inexistence of a “red thread”. Entering his professional life as an expert on European trade and monetary policy and on the political power relations resulting from international commerce in the 1940s, Hirschman rose to fame in the late 1950s as one of the pioneers of economic development with his ideas on “linkages” and “unbalanced growth”. Later, his “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” (1970)—a more general study on the “responses to decline” in firms, organizations and statesbroadened his area of scholarship to wider questions of social, political and economic interactions and dynamics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hirschman’s writings included studies in the history of ideas (“Passions and the Interests” or “Shifting Involvements”) or on the “Rhetoric of Reaction.”

6His self-proclaimed “trespassing”, i.e. using insights and ideas from all possible (not only social) science, was a main characterizing feature throughout his scholarly production. Yet, Hirschman applied “trespassing” exactly during a time in which (especially after the 1980s) global academia did everything to cement the artificial “originality” and methodological “uniqueness” of each and every discipline—which basically resulted in frantic compartmentalization and monodisciplinary specialization—the complete opposite of “trespassing”. If today Hirschman is rarely found on college curricula—it is exactly because his scholarly approach is completely at odds with the still reigning monodisciplinary myopia. Alas, it is the deliberate “non-trespassing” that seems to be the only pathway to high-ranking journal publications, third-party funding and often enough: to tenure. If you want to become an academic, perversely—you shouldn’t be like Hirschman. The tendency to view Hirschman as a “maverick” as someone original but that nevertheless does not belong to the “gang” is often voiced with mainstream social scientists—most often, however, with economists.

7Hirschman always and proudly referred to himself as being an economist—but one that knew that to be a good economist it was worthwhile to look for help in sociology, political science, history, anthropology and other places. Throughout his life he was interested in understanding the process of social change—how, why and under what circumstances people got their act together to solve problems, to improve their situation. At the same time, such a focus of his analysis also allowed to pinpoint and understand the reasons why certain endeavors did not work and resulted in failure. It is this curiosity for the workings of social change that is the actual leitmotiv of Hirschman’s work. His work focused on the intricacies but also the possibilities of social progress in development, in project management, in community grassroots organizations, in firms, but also in democracy in general.

8What sets Hirschman apart from other social scientists next to his multidisciplinary approach is his method of “possibilism”, as he calls it—a contextual analysis that highlights the “possible” over the “probable.” In contrast to all-encompassing theories that suggest universally valid explanations (and also suggest universally valid remedies), his analysis highlighted the unexpected, the “blessings in disguise”, the “built-in modifiers or remedies”, the “inverted sequences” and the “unintended consequences” of a specific situation These features, however, could only be found in reality once one let got of the “straightjacket constructs” of theory—be it neo-classical economics, Keynesian, Marxian or other. Hirschman was always disdainful of those who over-optimistically believed to understand the world and who had no doubts that they knew exactly what to do: be they academics, politicians, consultants or development experts. And he was disdainful of exactly those theories that claimed to explain life, the universe and everything. Clearly, young Albert Hirschman’s long and active international fight against fascism—often enough under deadly peril, had taught him the valuable lesson that sticking to ideology and theory is not an efficient way to solve problems, let alone to understand the absurdities and complexities of the reality surrounding oneself. Only the thorough analysis of what was possible in the concrete setting was a way to go. Hirschman was deeply influenced by his brother-in-law, the Italian philosopher and member of the Italian resistance Eugenio Colorni, as well as by Albert Camus whom he admired. His practical experience with European Reconstruction as well as with development aid and development projects in the early 1950s only reinforced his hands-on attitude that was based on the study of specific context, not on the mere application of specific existing and dominant theories.

9In his book, Alacevich gives a chronological summary of the works written by Hirschman. He not only introduces the reader to the main books, essays, ideas and thoughts, but also combines them with useful und often necessary biographical information. Above all, he tries to explain and bring to life the intellectual atmosphere and debates of the time in question that influenced Hirschman or that were, in turn, influenced by him. So Alacevich’s “intellectual biography” is in fact a general introduction to Hirschman. Actually, it is more than an introduction. It is a book that almost fully acquaints the reader with all of Hirschman’s writings, explains them and shows how Hirschman’s own personal experience has fed into them.

10In this, Alacevich’s book succeeds brilliantly. The book is written in a very accessible style and complex debates long gone by are succinctly summarized and understandable for a non-technical readership. The length of the book, with the main text (excluding notes and biography) being a mere 250 pages, is manageable—especially in contrast to the Adelman biography that often contains simply too much information. After reading this book, you know your Hirschman.

11Yet, some issues have to be raised.

12Alacevich gets Hirschman’s works themselves and their contexts right. Yet, the last chapter on the legacy of Hirschman, as well as everything Alacevich has to say (or better, doesn’t say) on Hirschman’s method, somewhat is a disappointment. It is disappointing because he fails to recognize the unifying approach that underlies Hirschman’s work. Too readily is Alacevich content with highlighting the elusive idea of possibilism, the non-theoretical approach of Hirschman and the fact that Hirschman often contradicted his own findings over the course of time (what Hirschman ironically called his penchant for “self-subversion”). As if all this sufficed to emphasize that Hirschman enjoyed being a multidisciplinary anti-theory killjoy and that this in turn explains the fact that there does not seem to be any legacy. However, this description is not enough if your aim is to provide an “intellectual biography”. Alacevich also omits the role that the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz played in Hirschman’s reflections on the role, method and approach of Social Science. Geertz is mentioned only twice in the whole book.

13In 1977, Hirschman and Geertz, close friends and both heading the newly established School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, wrote a piece entitled “Our View of Social Science” that was actually to serve as a funding proposal. The paper codified and justified just how Hirschman (and Geertz for that matter) worked and serves as key self-explanation to his (or better, their) work. They wrote:

The main focus of our attention is … interpretative: we are concerned … with investigating the meaning of social behavior and the determinants of social change and … [are] resolutely multi-disciplinary, comparative and international in our approach. (7)

14Current practice and methods in the social sciences had, they go on,

resulted in over-specialization, present-mindedness and unwarranted scientism without much compensating capacity to provide satisfactory solutions to the pressing social and economic problems of the day. The range of techniques it characteristically employs have prevented a number of questions about the social world from even being asked … We feel that there has been a tendency to focus exclusively on questions of social causation at the expense of studying social meanings. (7)

15It was thus “the study of the significance that social action possesses for those who engage in it” that should be at the heart of any social analysis.

16In his attempt to understand social change, Hirschman was thus in search of meaning—not causal inference. He wanted to find a clue to why people did what they did—and how things changed through social interaction. His search for meaning, however, entailed being conscious of the limits of social science. Social science, was able to give interpretations of complex social phenomena. But these were interpretations, not truths. The tendency of the social sciences to claim to be able to unearth “reality” and to make claims regarding causation—best yet, by making use of large-N quantitative analysis—was something Hirschman viewed highly critical. Instead, his ideas on possibilism, many of his own analyses—often single or small-N are case studies—were built on interpretative and most often qualitative approaches.

17Obviously, the clue to interpretation and meaning can only be found through a thorough investigation of context. This is why history and a knowledge of foreign languages and cultures came in handy. So did, and this is a major point in Hirschman’s work, literature. Interpreting meaning entails coming to grips with human psychology, with the working of the human mind and the reason for human action. That literature abounds with examples of explaining why people do what they do was something Hirschman was keenly aware of. Not only does Hirschman quote novelists, poets, and philosophers alike throughout his life. He uses their ideas and thoughts as a means to accentuate and support his own thoughts. There is no doubt that coming to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton allowed Hirschman, through the intensive contact to scholars from all kinds of different walks of scientific life, to satisfy his curiosity for how others interpreted and explained the human actions he himself was so interested in understanding.

18Clifford Geertz’s idea of interpreting meaning by “thick description”—i.e. by an attempt to understand the reasons and motivations behind behavior by digging as deeply as possible into specific contextual details is not only similar to how Hirschman worked. In many instances, it is identical. One of the most famous essays by Geertz, an interpretation of the Balinese cock-fight, is prototypically Hirschmanian—or is Hirschman’s work prototypically Geertzian?

19As an economist, Hirschman’s work was often that of an anthropologist, fieldwork included. It is a severe omission that Alacevich does not go into detail. Yet Hirschman’s analysis is a master example of the interpretative method and of qualitative single- and small case studies—which by definition require a thorough and multi-dimensional context analysis. Unfortunately, interpretative methods are usually not taught in economics classes (let alone recognized as “scientific”), and even in political science textbooks on methodology they rarely appear as more that an additional an exotic detail in an otherwise hard science in search of causation. The type of academic work that Geertz and Hirschman criticized more than 45 years ago is still hailed as the non plus ultra in scholarship. Yet, it is obvious for anyone reading Hirschman (or Geertz for that matter), that the search for meaning and the in-depth contextual analysis is much more enjoyable and much more insightful to read. If Hirschman’s books can still be read with enormous benefit, it is because even 10 years after his passing and even if some of the books are more than 50 old, you can still learn a lot about how social behavior can be interpreted. You learn about method, but above all, you learn about the human condition. This, among many other things, is what makes Hirschman timeless. For scholars but also for students and hopefully, future academics.

20Alacevich understands and mentions that Hirschman’s work is interpretative. He knows of course, that Hirschman’s approach is one of multi-disciplinarity. But Alacevich could have made considerably more effort in describing and analyzing Hirschman’s method and its own context.

21But there is a more general problem with books like the one under review. Asked about a project on writing a book on Hirschman around the turn of the Millennium, Sarah Hirschman, Albert Hirschman’s wife and long-time collaborator once said: “People should not read books on Albert. People should read Albert’s books.”

22Her point was twofold. First, Hirschman’s books rarely have more than 200 pages, some of his classical writings barely more than 100. Second, his style, wit and form of argument make reading Hirschman an immense joy. So why not stick to the original?

23In relation to this, I would like to highlight two more points. One is that Hirschman himself explains to his readers the controversies, discourses, orthodoxies to which he reacts in his texts. As a reader of one of his books or papers, you fully come to understand the mindset of the time in question—simply because Hirschman so masterly explains it.

24This goes hand in hand with another point: Hirschman’s books are not difficult to understand. Hirschman does not write in a way that requires interpretation, re-reading or exegesis—as many other classics do. And this might actually explain why while there are several books on Hirschman on offer, their number bears no comparison to the myriad of books written on other social scientist thinkers who in contrast to Hirschman, remain enigmas and whose works cannot really be easily understood without tons of extra information. So, while Alacevich (and others) provide condensed summaries of Hirschman’s writings, they cannot provide new or original interpretations of what it is that Hirschman wanted to say, because Hirschman simply says it all by himself.

25Moreover, in the 1990s, a fairly long and detailed interview with Hirschman was published that quite comprehensively touched upon the interdependence of his personal experience and his academic work. Alacevich refers to the interview in his book. Unfortunately for anybody trying to work on Hirschman, there is actually very few information that cannot be found in or taken from this interview—regarding Hirschman’s life or his œuvre. So, what then, can the net value added of the efforts made by Adelman and Alacevich alike be? Do they have anything really new to offer to those who have read Hirschman? Do we really learn something from them that we could not learn or understand by reading Hirschman’s books alone? I still do not have a final answer to these questions.

26As a professor, I have tried to introduce my students to Hirschman for the past 20 years. From the perspective of a teacher, I would not want my students to get hold of a copy of Alacevich. I would want them to read Hirschman—instead of making things easier for them by reading the doubtless superb explanations in Alacevich’s book. I say this with irony. I really admire Alacevich’s work. And I like this book. But there is a severe risk that books like this one actually keep potential new Hirschman adepts from reading the master himself. Or that the joy of reading the original for the first time is a bit reduced, even spoiled. Here, another recent publication on Hirschman, the French Introduction à Albert O. Hirschman by Cyrille Ferraton and Ludovic Frobert from 2017 serves as a great alternative example of how information on Hirschman can be given (on only 100 pages) without revealing too much and thus instilling in the reader an eagerness to get to know the original.

27Yet, apart from the lack of focus on method of Hirschman’s scholarly work, Alacevich’s book is overall to be lauded and greeted. Any publication that makes clear that Albert O. Hirschman is worth remembering is useful. And, needless to say, extremely necessary.

Haut de page


Adelman, Jeremy. 2013. The Worldy Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Ferraton, Cyrille, and Ludovic Frobert. 2017. Introduction à Albert O. Hirschman. Paris: La Découverte.

Geertz, Clifford, and Albert O. Hirschman. 1977. Our View of Social Science. Mimeo. Seely G. Mudd Library, Princeton NJ, MC 160, Box 4, Folder 12. Page 7.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Philipp Lepenies, « Michele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography »Œconomia, 12-1 | 2022, 151-157.

Référence électronique

Philipp Lepenies, « Michele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography »Œconomia [En ligne], 12-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo Association Œconomia
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Revue soutenue par l’Institut des sciences humaines et sociales du CNRS
    CNRS - Institut national des sciences humaines et sociales
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search