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Journal Articles The Tocqueville Review/La revue Tocqueville Year : 2010

Between Worlds: the Life and Work of Albert O. Hirschman


Why Hirschman? There are several plausible answers: a fascinating life that traverses the world and its conflicts; a unique mind that transcends disciplines and moments of their conception; or an exemplary humanist concerned about humanity. In what follows, we invite readers to consider the “Hirschman case” for its considerable heuristic value. Our primary objective was to provide a number of situated histories of social scientific thought. Some are explored through the institutional locations where it developed – such as the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Others emerge from the different national traditions traversed by an itinerant scholar. To provide a histoire-croisée, both transnational and ultimately transdisciplinary, as well as a sense of the dynamics whereby Hirschman’s thought was variously appropriated according to the national reception context of the United States, South America, Germany, Italy, and France, to name but a few. The idea was thus to avoid producing yet another book on Hirschman, in the wake of the many volumes dedicated to his work, often undertaken in the spirit of homage,1 his published interviews,2 and his own reasoned and “self-subversive” look at the trajectory of his life and thought.3As has often been pointed out, the notion of borders is central to Hirschman’s work, with “trespassing” a central trope in his maverick itinerary. This should not be taken as mere aesthetic posture, since in his case the term has had a strong existential density: the Nazis drove him across the German border; in 1940–1941, he, in turn, saved the lives of many men and women by crossing borders. Nor should we forget that he used the privilege of his years at the Institute to support social scientists in peril during the dictatorships in South America in the 1970s. Throughout his life, as Philip H. Lepenies rightly points out, he has explored the range of possible modalities of exit, “be it over the Pyrénées or in social science.” 4 At the same time, he has been fiercely loyal to the idea of a reasoned, reform-minded, yet humble social social science, one committed to humanity’s improvability. And when necessary, he lent his voice to this cause.Rare is the social scientist that has led an adventurous life. Most must content themselves with the thrill of their first fieldwork, and then the mild frissons of academic life, with the occasional supplemental satisfaction of contributing to a better understanding of this or that research problem. An armchair adventure, a knowledge expedition, but no risk to life and limb. The scientific conceit of the social sciences indeed requires a withdrawal from the personal, from political commitment, subjectivity, and action. Here again, Albert Hirschman set aside all the rules, often unspoken, of accepted scholarship. For these reasons, in all his exceptionality he is, in our view, exemplary.Born in Berlin in 1915 as Otto Albert Hirschmann, the son of well-educated, assimilated Jewish parents, his very name, and its subsequent changes, speaks to the continuities and discontinuities of his life, as well as some of its lurking tensions. He was named Otto after Otto von Bismark, whom his father considered a great patriot. The young “O A” (as he was known), raised on a literary diet of German poetry and coming to love classical music from a young age, never felt there was a necessary contradiction between being German and being cosmopolitan. Perhaps this reflected the peculiarity of his time: it was after all in the Weimar years – when so much “tradition” was forsaken in a spirit of public and private experimentation – that the young man grew up. The young Hirschman’s family straddled these worlds. His parents were assimilated Jews, the heirs of a Hofjuden aspiration of inclusion with secularization. The Hirschmanns practiced no faith, though there was an elaborate Christmas feast and ritual caroling each year in their villa apartment in the swanky Tiergarten neighborhood. O A was baptized. And yet, most of their friends were Jews – like them, assimilated – and the daily newspaper at home was the Vorssische Zeitung, a slightly leftish, secular daily known as “the Jewish paper.” The Hirschmanns’ aunts and uncles were buried in the Jewish cemetery...


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hal-03417678 , version 1 (05-11-2021)



Emmanuelle Loyer, Jeremy Adelman. Between Worlds: the Life and Work of Albert O. Hirschman. The Tocqueville Review/La revue Tocqueville, 2010, 31 (2), pp.9 - 18. ⟨10.1353/toc.2010.0006⟩. ⟨hal-03417678⟩


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