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4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars

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on 17 January 2017
There was Smith, there was Ricardo, there was Malthus, there was Marx, there was Keynes, there was Schumpeter. Some of them were students of others. Others were born around the same time.

Well punctuated: yes. A daunting subject (the history of economic thought): most definitely. But did I learn anything much from it: alas No. Truth be told I didn't really even understand the conclusion.

It could just be me, of course. Many worthy people seems to rate this book very highly, and they probably all know the subject matter far better than I do. And two million people bought it........somehow. On the other hand, I can attest that I have actually read it.

It's ok. But my search for a really good book about the history of economics goes on.
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on 8 June 2017
Excellent introduction to economic thinking and without any need to resort to econometrics
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on 9 August 1999
I approached this book with the thought that "Ok, ok, I know I've got to get around to reading more about these guys sooner or later" attitude. What a fortunate find, and great way to begin!
The author takes a subject (economics) that is often beyond dry and makes it both entertaining and educational, with lots of surprises thrown in. Every time I thought I had caught the author in a mistake or an oversight (Ah ha! Now I've got you!) he'd cover my questions or thoughts within the next couple of pages or so. The author earned my confidence again and again. I found him to be a reliable guide through treacherous waters.
There's a lot of good history in this book. He tackles each major economic philosopher (and others), makes the man come alive in the context of his times, and relates his thinking to our own time by putting their ideas to the test of subsequent history. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Smith and Keynes.
The author, like any good educator, doesn't give you everything. He gives you lots of food for thought. I also found the author to be thoughtful and unpretentious. I plan to read more books by him.
My copy also contained a very nice description of suggested readings.
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on 21 September 2001
This is an excellent survey of the mechanistic ideas of ecomonic development presented by theoreticians since the mid eigtheenth century.
The book begins cleverly with a chapter looking at why there were a lack of conspicuous economic theorists prior to Adam Smith and then goes on to expound their thoughts and theories with a simplified insight into the key conceptual leaps made by each figure as well as a cutting commentary on where the insight founders.
I say a simplified insight, and by this I mean a concise commentary which does not require any prior knowledge of economics or mathematics for that matter because the script is almost completely qualitative than quanitative and therefore contains virtually no formulae.
On the other hand it might be a good idea to have a comprehensive dictionary to hand because a fair sprinkling of either archaic or little used phraseology is employed throughout the text.
The final chapter entitled 'The end of Worldly Philosophy'is somewhat a surprise package and seems to be a little disjointed from the rest of the book, however it gives an interesting insight to where the current plane of economic philosophy lies.
If you buy the book you will learn much about how the World of money and economics really works, and its condensed form combined with strong guiding editorial comment makes it a worthwhile read.
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on 1 January 2010
What new can be said about The Worldly Philosophers? The book is a marvel of easy-to-access history of economic though, charting the path from before Adam Smith, through Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, Veblen, Keynes and Schumpeter and ending with a discussion of the ends of the worldly philosophy - both its intentions and its extinction. Going in, I already knew a substantial amount about those whom Heilbroner wrote about, but I had not had their stories told to me with such panache and verve. Having previously read various short biographies of Marx, for example Paul Johnson's acerbic short biography in Intellectuals, it was refreshing to see a more forgiving and holistic view of Marx, especially from an author who has written so much using and contributing to marxist theory. The Worldly Philosophers makes a fantastic introduction to the history of economic thought - simply to provide a more expansive understanding of the intentions of economics and why so many have found its study to be such a stimulating and motivating force in their livings. I want to buy copies for my parents, and my wife will read it soon. What made it all the more pleasurable, is that, unlike many more technical books on economics, it was an easy 'read before bed' book because you could capture the narrative and sink back into it with ease, and emerge from it without feeling anxious about statistics and abstruser musings. I recommend this book strongly to any student of economics and anyone related to that student, you'll understand them better, I promise (it should be compulsory reading for any parent who wants their child to study economics).

Finally, it should be given a strong recommendation because of the final chapter, in which Heilbroner discusses the 'end' of Worldly Philosophy. In it, Heilbroner launches an attack on mainstream, largely mathematical, neoclassical economics, arguing for a more inclusive, historically located economics that allows people to consider simultaneously the small, niche questions that they do, in addition to the 'big-think' that made so many of the worldly philosophers great. Paul Samuelson, who recently passed away, gave similar advice in a recent interview, saying that, in hindsight, non-technical economic history and history of economic thought had greater relevance than he would have originally thought, giving particular weight to understanding the structures and evolution of the institutions that make so much of modern society, modern capitalism possible and, current events notwithstanding, to make them flourish. What a marvellous book.

As an aside, two additional books bear recommending. First, Duncan Foley's Adam's Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology, though not as well written as The Worldly Philosophers, makes a good companion text to Heilbroner's because Foley goes into slightly more technical detail about, and gives deeper criticisms of, many of the worldly philosophers' theories. Second, Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect makes a distinct point of commenting on and criticising theories, and not going into much biographical detail. Together, the three provide a decently rounded overview.
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on 4 March 2005
As anyone who has ever endeavored to study the main economic texts of history will attest, economic reading can be a veritable desert of dusty prose. This book however manages to articulate the main concepts of a somewhat arcane field with clarity and breadth.
Personally I am rather deterred by formulae and graphs and fortunately this book is afflicted by neither. Heilbroner covers every stage of our economic history and development with an accessible style that conveys the main concepts of what can be rather complex economic theories with relevant anecdotes on the economists who penned them and their sometimes eccentric personalities (As with Thorstein Veblen, a strange intellectual giant who spoke 25 languages and was quoted as being 'the last man who knew everything', was largely ostracized by his peers for his radical views on the leisure class and who was adamant that upon his death no monuments, paintings or memorials of any kind be left in his memory).
This book is perfect for anyone interested in understanding how economics interacts with politics, morality and society and how the ideas of the great economic thinkers influenced our historical development right upto the present day.
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on 30 June 2009
Heilbroner's "The Worldly Philosophers" well deserves its classic status and is now published by Penguin in its seventh and final edition. What strikes one throughout the book is the elegance of Heilbroner's writing, which alone supports its on-the-whole justified reputation as the best short introduction to the history of economics in print. That said, however, other writers have been catching up and it is no longer nit-picking to point out some of the things that Heilbroner omitted.

He begins with Adam Smith but the discipline of economics did not *start* with Smith. Pressman's "Fifty Major Economists" for example goes back to Thomas Mun in the 16th century, while in "The Penguin History of Economics" Backhouse starts in Ancient Greece. By today's standards, therefore, Heilbroner is not without flaws.

Then again one should remember the subtitle, "The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers" and note that Heilbroner leans more towards speaking of economists themselves than towards describing the development and application of economic concepts (for which again IMO Backhouse is better).

These reservations aside, this book holds a special regard among the many who have read it. My overall verdict: There is no finer introductory book in this field but serious students should be aware of its limitations. If you want to get your teeth into this subject, read Heilbroner, Pressman and Backhouse in that order. Then you will be much better equipped for deeper study.
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on 3 January 2017
This is one of the most significant books you will ever read on the subject of economics. As you read it you won’t be embarking on a lecture tour of economic principles but on a journey through history shaping ideas from economists like Adam Smith, Parson Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx , Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes , & Joseph Schumpeter. I recommend this book to anybody who is curious about or is a student of economics.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 August 2010
Heilbroner has created a masterpiece with his 'Worldly philosophers' - a fantastic introduction to the main economic thinkers, their ideas and the times and circumstances that shaped them. It is a rare book in economics that brings little prejudice to evaluating the theories - it favours none of the thinkers described.

The book starts with an evaluation why economic thought was less than essential until the start of industrialisation and capitalism, and then goes on to evaluate Adam Smith, Parson Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter. In between these there is additional description of various other thinkers and important personalities (social utopians, Mill, Marshall, etc.).

Each of the thinkers is introduced into his environment, their theories are described in terms of how they arose, what the main thrusts of them were, how they fit into the environment and what was novel about them at the time - what the contribution was to the body of economic knowledge / literature.

Viewed in this way, it is easy to understand the importance and contribution of all of them, even if several of their theories have since been discredited. This however is as much as a result of the world changing unrecognisably from the the one they lived in as well as in response to their thinking (whether acceptance or rejection). It also shows the futility of analysing the theories of these authors without the additional historical and social / environmental components being taken into account.

Heilbroner also does a good job of demonstrating how the thinking of these 'worldly philosophers' shaped the mental models we have in interpreting and reacting to our economic environment. That's why he partially questions the development towards mathematical economics - not that he thinks the development is not important or inevitable, only that it is not sufficient, in case it does not answer political as well as social issues as well.

I was advised to read this book at the start of university (first year economics course) and id not follow the advice for nearly 15 years. This is unfortunate as it would have made the early study of economics definitely easier - Heilbroner makes the economists really come to life and there is many a funny anecdote included in the book to make them more lifelike than some of their work. And while I have had an extensive economic education before reading the book, I am certain it will not present any problems for a reader, who is not at all familiar with the subject. Having read the originals of most of the economists described in this book, I can also say that reading Heilbroner even after knowing the work and criticisms of it of all the economists described, Heilbroner's work is still exquisite - familiarity does not at all decrease its enjoyment.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 May 2013
Heilbroner wrote this classic in 1953, but reading it in 2013 you cannot help thinking how relevant it is to today's world economy. A few random examples:

He kicks off by explaining why Economics did not exist before the eighteenth century. In a traditional economy, where everybody does his father's job as best he can, there's simply nothing to study. And you open the newspaper today and read about the 28 "closed professions" that dominate modern Italy's services sector and you realise "oh, wow, this is a traditional economy." No wonder it can't be helped by the tools of fiscal and monetary policy. It predates Adam Smith, the invisible hand, perfect competition, supply, demand and all that jazz. Simple as that!

Halfway through the book he discusses the work of Hobson, a man who observed that capitalism leads to income inequality because some people are more able than others. No big deal, except over time this leads to underconsumption. The poor can't consume because their incomes are too small, and the rich because their incomes are too large! Now, where have I heard that before? Turns out it's a problem as old as the hills. Well, not quite. It's as old as our system. Hobson goes on to say this was the cornerstone of Imperialism, and I am not in a position to agree or disagree. I sure don't think it applies to today's world, but that's beside the point; I got so excited to read about it. It's just one of the things about our system that's here to stay.

The treatment of Keynes' ideas (if not the idealised tour of his private life) is the very best bit of the book, though. Two big ideas, basically. First the idea that you don't get recessions in traditional economies or under the Pharaoh or Stalin. You get them in economies with a business sector only. What we earn we mainly spend. What we don't spend we save. Business takes our savings (be it the money in our bank account or what we paid to buy the stock of a company) and invests it. But every once in a while, fearing we won't spend enough, businesses sit on our savings and don't build that new plant / don't develop that new pill / don't write as many new computer games and the economy stalls as the consumers earn less from their work. This, however, drives down the price of money. The bank won't pay us as much on our deposits if business won't ask for a loan. Rates come down, more projects make sense for business and they invest again, they hire again, they pay again and we start all over. This drives up the price of money just as investments are being made that might have been marginal even at the old price of money and the set-up is in place to go down the elevator again. But the key insight is that the cycle is a business cycle. You don't get it outside of a capitalist setting.

The second idea is very relevant to today and it's that the elevator can get stuck on the ground floor. Suppose the most recently fashionable type of investment bombs and there is no ready substitute for it. Then, until business can come up with its next big investment opportunity, the economy can get stuck in a rut where people keep losing jobs and a spiral of contraction emerges. Under those circumstances, Keynes sees a potential role for government to bridge the gap between now and when the next use arises for the savers' cash. Not only that, but in doing so the government can protect the value of their previous investments, as business is not forced to retreat.

I'm probably making a hash of explaining it all, I probably ought to copy/paste Heilbroner's concise and elegant prose. My main point is that many of the big questions have been posed in the past, many of the answers have been posited and if you are thinking about the present without having looked at the past you're giving yourself unnecessary work. This is as good a guide to the history of capitalism as you will ever read. Heilbroner takes you through the thoughts of the people who first described it, like Smith and Ricardo, those who incorrectly prophesised its demise, like Malthus, Marx and Veblen and those who best understood it, like Keynes and Schumpeter.

I'm not sure I've ever read a better book.
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