Saturday, April 2, 2011

Economists as Worldly Philosophers

By Robert J. Shiller and Virginia M. Shiller

In his influential 1953 book The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers, Robert Heilbroner gave an inspirational account of what economists do, an account that was assigned as supplemental reading to countless beginning economics students over decades. Heilbroner wrote that he chose the term “worldly philosophers” because of the breadth and moral depth of economists’ inquiry. The appellation stuck, and for many years it was common to refer to economists as worldly philosophers. The inspiration of that book has contributed to the desire for many to go on to become economists, and to productive lives as researchers.

But, while the volume of research turned out by economists is most impressive, there are questions whether “worldly” and “philosophical” are represented as much as they should be in economic research. Has economics as a profession substantially lost sight of the idealism that existed in earlier decades? Has the strong impulse to pursue narrow specialization in order to propel research to the frontier led to some loss of moral perspective?

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