Robert L. Heilbroner - The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers

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Not your supply and demand type of textbook.

Oct 1, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Makes economics interesting.

Cons:Might need a dictionary for some of the big words.

The Bottom Line: This should be a required book for all who take economics.


For the three college semesters that I’ve suffered, labored and dedicated my life to, I have paid a good amount of money for the books each semester. First semester, freshman year was around $350. Not too bad. Second semester, freshman year? $450. Ouch. This semester I paid $300 which I consider to be amazing. But I pay good money for good books and rather than selling them back at the end of the semester, I hold on to them so that one day I can decorate the walls of my library with my college textbooks. Although these books aren’t bound in leather with their titles in gilt. Rather they are dog-eared with postits, highlighting and notes in the margins.

Why am I spouting on about this? You’re saying to yourself, when is starcrossedkat ever going to get to the point? What I’m trying to say is that despite my buying so many books, it is rare that I will find a textbook that I rather enjoy using and reading. Not only for class but for personal time as well. I mean ask yourself, could you really read your biology book for personal use? Do you like to glance over your statistic books while you take a bath? Let me venture a guess and say negative.

I took Economics last semester and the class was entitled the “Principles of Economics”. From friends’ experiences with the class, I was expecting graphs, formulas, key words in bold. Yet my professor surprised me with his instruction of the class. We learned more about the history of how Economics evolved and came to be today. One of the textbooks he used (and I’m not sure if you can even call it a textbook) is Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.

Although I only read the required reading for the class, I have since started to read this book for my own personal interest and have found it to be a very interesting book both from an economics and history standpoint.

The book I have is the seventh revision to the book, a book that took Heilbroner considerable time and effort to write and publish. I like his claim at the end of his preface: “The Worldly Philosophers will continue to open the vista of economics to readers who go on to become lobster fishermen or publishers, as well as to those braver souls who decide to become economists.”

I like this claim because Heilbroner recognizes that economics is a somewhat tedious and boring subject. It’s also a subject in which many think that they cannot understand because of its complexities. I also like the claim because it shows that Heilbroner has a sense of humor, which is evident throughout the book.

The chapters of this book are as follows:
The Economic Revolution
The Wonderful World of Adam Smith
The Gloomy Presentiments of Parson Malthus and David Ricardo
The Dreams of the Utopian Socialists
The Inexorable System of Karl Marx
The Victorian World and the Underworld of Economics
The Savage Society of Thorstein Veblen
The Heresies of John Maynard Keynes
The Contradictions of Joseph Schumpeter
The End of the Worldly Philosophy?

This book is an easy read regardless if you know anything about economics or not. I like that this is a “history” type of book. Heilbroner sets up each new situation or person with factual information beforehand so that you are not taken by surprise or that it should be assumed that you know what he’s talking about. He also goes into more depth about ideas and people. Not just your basic standard definition or bio but he includes the “between the lines” kind of information as well. The biographical knowledge of such economists helps you to understand the basis or the foundation of their ideas. Some economists grew up in poverty whereas some grew up with many connections and a higher lifestyle of living.

In no way does Heilbroner make out these economists to be great men. Despite their impact on the world today, he points out their faults, as well as their mistakes. This sense of realness is something I appreciate because in elementary school until high school you are taught certain things such as Christopher Columbus was the first to discover America. Yet college reteaches these ideas and Heilbroner does that in his book. He is truthful and honest and in no way sugarcoats the history.

Economics as my professor pointed out is the study of society and it encompasses history, philosophy, and science. I think this book does a good job of including all those ideas.

Another reason why I like this book is the fact that it questions motives and ideas and then answers them with justification and evidence as to why it explains things as so. Heilbroner also makes reference to today’s times and it’s easy to see the relationships with past events to events that happen today.

I would recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in history, economics, philosophy, English, or just anyone who’s interested in learning more about the evolution of economics. Sure you can learn about supply and demand graphs and the gross domestic product, but this book will explain how and why it all came to be.

Amazon.com has this book listed for $12.80, which is probably close to what I paid for it. If you do pick up this book, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Thanks for reading!


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