Hirschman was a great believer in doubt-he never doubted it-and he certainly doubted his own convictions

Hirschman was a great believer in doubt-he never doubted it-and he certainly doubted his own convictions

Having found my own unifying way of looking at issues as diverse as competition and the two-party system, divorce and the American character, black power and the failure of “unhappy” top officials to resign over Vietnam, I decided to let myself go a little.

He insisted that human history provides “stories, intricate and often nonrepeatable,” which “look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws

As Jeremy Adelman shows in his astonishing and moving biography, Hirschman sought, in his early twenties and long before becoming a writer, to “prove Hamlet wrong.” In Shakespeare’s account, Hamlet is immobilized and defeated by doubt. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong? Who else would publish an essay in The American Economic Review exploring the “overproduction of opinionated opinion,” questioning the value of having strong opinions, and emphasizing the importance of doubting one’s opinions and even one’s tastes? Hirschman thought that strong opinions, as such, “might be dangerous to the health of our democracy,” because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been.

In seeking to prove Hamlet wrong, Hirschman was suggesting that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal

One of his last books, published when he was about eighty, is called A Propensity to Self-Subversion. In the title essay, Hirschman celebrates skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and he captures not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.

” He was interested in “the many might-have-beens of history,” including “felicitous and surprising escapes from disaster.” One of his most important essays is called “Against Parsimony,” which argues that people sometimes choose to change their own preferences (consider, for example, efforts to quit smoking), and that some resources, such as love or public spirit, “may well increase rather than decrease through use.”

Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, “history is nothing if not farfetched.” He invented the term “possibilism,” meant to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.” In his lifetime, one of many such outcomes was the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which almost no one anticipated. Speaking of paradoxes: an economist by profession, he wasn’t great at math, and he wrote with remarkable clarity and subtlety.

Hirschman’s work is more than interesting enough to justify a book (or two, or ten), but Adelman’s achievement is to demonstrate, in novelistic detail, that he also lived an astounding life, full of narrow paths and ridiculously improbable twists and turns. Brought up in Berlin, he was raised during the better days of the Weimar Republic, when Berlin was alive with the avant-garde. Both of his parents’ families had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, and the family celebrated Christmas, not as a religious occasion but as a social one, with gifts for the children. Hirschman was baptized but declined to be confirmed: “Somehow I wasn’t impressed by the minister, and I asked my parents to stop.”

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