Robert Heilbroner


One of the most influential members of the Graduate Faculty of the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Heilbroner was born in New York City to a wealthy German Jewish family that owned menswear stores. He studied literature, philosophy and economics at Harvard University and graduated in 1940 summa cum laude. During World War II, he was sent to the University of Michigan to learn Japanese, and served in the United States Army as an interpreter. He also worked at the Office of Price Control under John Kenneth Galbraith.

After returning from the war, Heilbroner decided to continue his economic education at the New School for Social Research in 1946, where he “had the immense good fortune to fall into the class, and under the spell, of Adolph Lowe,” a University-in-Exile economist of the German Historical School, who taught a seminar on the history of economic thought.[1] Heilbroner already worked as a freelance writer, publishing articles in magazines like Harper’s. As he recalled later, in Lowe’s course he “discovered classical political economy as an approach to economics compared with which Keynesianism appeared less revolutionary than parochial.”[2] That’s when a change in Heilbroner’s understanding of economics began. “I began to see economics as something other than the analysis of a wholly unambiguous object of investigation called ‘economic reality.’ In its place emerged the problem of identifying an ‘economy’ within the totality of perceived social relations.”[3] According to him, without knowing what it meant, he was orientated towards a hermeneutic approach–one focusing on interpretations, as opposed to the traditional positivist approach.[4] He decided to leave the world of business to become a scholar.

Heilbroner joined the New School for Social Research first as a research fellow and then a doctoral student in the early 1950s with the continuous support of Lowe. He finished his first, and best-known book, The Worldly Philosophers in 1953; an immediate success it remains the second best-selling book on economics of all time. The book enticed generations of Americans to study economics, as numerous congratulatory letters in his collection stored in the New School Archives and Special Collections demonstrate.[5]

Heilbroner briefly considered leaving academia for writing (according to his letters to Lowe, his life-long mentor and friend), but eventually earned his doctorate in Economics in 1963, and thereafter joined the Graduate Faculty. He was subsequently appointed Norman Thomas Professor of Economics in 1971. He taught courses in the history of economic thought, economic philosophy, and comparative economics.

Heilbroner was already a highly unconventional economist, or rather a “worldly philosopher,” but as a result of the climate of student radicalism of the 1960s he distanced himself from conventional economics even further, and turned to the body of Marxian work in an attempt to assess it.[6] “Economics, in my view, can only be approached as a form of systematized power and of the socialized beliefs by which that power is depicted as a natural and necessary form of social life,” he wrote.[7] While he is sometimes considered a socialist, he rather considered himself a “radical conservative,” who argued that certain aspects of human nature are at the roots of the drive for wealth accumulation, power and domination, and therefore constitute the limits to social change.[8]

Until 1964 Heilbroner was a board member of the Mannes School of Music, which at the time was not yet part of the New School. He actively participated in the planning of the new undergraduate division that became Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in the 1980s. Although a self-proclaimed “dissenting economist,” Heilbroner was nevertheless recognized by his peers as a prominent figure in economics. He was elected Vice President of the American Economic Association in 1972. He published over 20 books, and countless articles.

Heilbroner died on January 4, 2005 in New York, NY, at the age of 85.

For more in the New School Archives on Robert Heilbroner, see here.

[1] “Robert L. Heilbroner”. In A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists. Edited by Philip Arestis, Malcolm C. Sawyer. Edward Elgar Publishing. 1992, p. 241.

[2] Ibid., p. 242.

[3] Ibid., p. 242.

[4] Ibid., p. 242.

[5] Robert Heilbroner papers, NS.02.14.01, New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York.

[6] “Robert L. Heilbroner”. In A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists. Edited by Philip Arestis, Malcolm C. Sawyer. Edward Elgar Publishing. 1992, p. 243.

[7] Ibid., p. 247.

[8] Ibid., p. 245.

Author and Economist Robert Heilbroner poses for a photo in New York City on April 19, 1974. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)