Albert O. Hirschman

July 6, 2016

Tags: Albert O. Hirschman

One day a month or two ago a box arrived, containing an 800-page biography of Albert O. Hirschman (1915–2012), someone I'd never heard of. My friend Bessie in Idaho had sent it. I read whatever she tells me to, so I plunged in. She is psychic—she always hits on exactly the book I need to be reading, exactly the mind I need to meet.

An economist & social scientist, Hirschman's most famous book is Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), about how people decide whether to go, protest, or stay—with a store, from a country. He believed that failure helps us find creative ways around roadblocks; that pragmatism is better than purity or ideological certainty; that caution, reformist civility, and complexity are more important than revolution. "Hope as a principle of action," he insisted. Doubt is creative because it allows for alternative ways to see the world and can lead to action rather than paralysis.

He was a secular Jew from Berlin, only a few years younger than my father, so I also found insights into my dad's early life by learning about Hirschman. Unlike my dad, he fought in the Spanish civil war and in the French & U.S. armies. He worked closely with Varian Fry helping artists and intellectuals escape from Europe. He was a translator for the first Nazi war criminal trial.

"Nothing is easier than to pursue a goal if that goal is clearly and convincingly visible. The most difficult thing is to continue to believe that the goal is possible if it has already slipped through our fingers several times or turned out to be brittle and rotten. The willingness to recognize a new goal (or rebuild an old one), to continue waiting for the moment where it suddenly might reveal itself—that is the task, together with the willingness to give it up, if necessary, to 'betray' it."

The book (Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman understandably loses steam once his life settles into academia, & the many typos. misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and awkward bits of writing are distracting. Still, in this age when "the worst are full of passionate intensity" it's worthwhile to meet someone who stakes a strong stance in the middle.