In Praise of Epistemological Skepticism: On Alfred Hirschman (plus obligatory thoughts on the failure of Chinese liberalism)

To say that Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman changed my life is not an exaggeration: after lugging the enormous 740-page hardcover book back and forth to Asia, I finally convinced myself that it was time to buy a Kindle. In 21st century America, this is a major life step.

Given that I did not produce an “annual list of unsolicited book reviews for the best books I read this year” in 2018 (a sincere apology to all zero of my readers), and that it is already halfway through 2019, I will replace a list of unsolicited book reviews for one unsolicited book review. I read plenty of books in 2018—I’m a graduate student, after all—but Adelman’s biography of Hirschman stands out. Adelman’s book is a chronicle of both an extraordinary life and of a powerful, action-oriented liberal worldview that allowed Hirschman to see through the facades of conventional wisdom while remaining both humble and sane.

Hirschman is a clear contender for the title of “Most Interesting Man in the World” (see also: Simon Leys). Born into a secular Jewish family in Germany in 1915, Hirschman was active in the youth socialist movement and opposed fascism with such visceral force that he opted to join a regiment of non-Spaniards fighting against Franco in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. (Adelman’s retelling of Hirschman’s experiences fighting for the socialist POUM in Spain mirror those of George Orwell, who detailed the internecine battles between socialists and communists on the anti-Franco left in Homage to Catalonia. Hirschman, like Orwell, survived the war, but not unscathed: both came away with injuries and a deep distrust of Communist dogma. “It was no surprise that the Nazis were awful,” he noted, “But to see people whom one expected to contribute to one’s own struggle turn into the opposite was in some sense worse” 138). Hirschman then wrote a dissertation on international finance while casually helping smuggle 2,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals out of Europe. Hirschman is an atypical economist for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious of which is that he is simply not boring. (No offense, economists. Ok, a little.)

When Hirschman finally made it out of Europe, he launched a career as an economist in the United States—only to be stymied by Cold War fears, which, in opposing anything possibly communist, could not differentiate between communism and Hirschman’s anti-communism. (As the story goes…) Hirschman’s efforts to save European Jews doubles as an excoriation of mid-century America: not only did U.S. policy make it impossible to find safety across the ocean without incredible acts of subterfuge, once they arrived in the U.S., no good deed would go unpunished. Hirschman volunteered to fight for the U.S. army once again in an effort to defeat the scourge of European fascism, but, he was shunted away from the main action; then, upon returning to the U.S., unsubstantiated suspicions of communism prevented him from moving up the ranks as an economic adviser within the U.S. public sector. Needing a job, he wound up moving his wife and two small children to Bogota, Colombia, to do research. He would spend his entire life globetrotting, mixing work, leisure, and a keen sense of observation wherever he went. Where Simon Leys found a home on the high seas, Albert Hirschman found one anywhere on land, wherever there were projects to observe and people to learn from.

Hirschman knew from experience (and from a healthy dose of Michel de Montaigne) that we should be skeptical of what we think we know about the world. No one individual could be certain that they had all the answers, or that the answers they thought they had were even correct; and no single theory of the world could explain everything. Alongside this epistemological skepticism, however, Hirschman was faced with the fierce urgency of now, of a political present in which to not act seemed morally indefensible.

Balancing these claims formed the backbone of Hirschman’s worldview. Hirschman’s intellectual lodestar, Adelman explains, was his friend and eventual brother-in-law Eugenio Corloni, an Italian intellectual active in the anti-fascist resistance. From Colorni, Hirschman arrived at a theory of mixing skepticism with action: Colorni offered

a sense that certitude need not be a precondition for constructive action or purposeful thinking. Eugenio, six years older than [Albert], had an intellectual style that took nothing for granted—with only one exception, his doubts. It was ‘the only sure thing.’ (116)

Doubt is an inevitable feature of humanity, but, Colorni argued, it need not be an impediment to progress. He contrasted doubt with uncertainty to emphasize how doubt could not only not impede action and progress, but rather be a constructive force for moving forward.

Doubt is not the same thing as uncertainty, though it sometimes passes for it. Uncertainty means that you think you may be wrong; doubt means you are not sure you know. The first makes you less confident; the latter does not. (116)

This theory of action contrasts with two extremes of modern political thought, both of which have proved immensely influential in global politics. Hirschman was obviously targeting the “modernization” theory that suffused the entirety of mid-century Western academia, in which economic development followed a series of predetermined stages leading toward liberal capitalist democracy. Hirschman bristled at the idea of experts sitting in the comfort of their American homes believing that they had uncovered a universal law of economic development, and he rejected the notion that they had the ability to plan economic development anywhere in the world. The belief that so-called experts could rationally plan the world from afar was as arrogant as it was wrong. “The claim to knowledge dressed up in grand theories about the world could, as Hirschman would later write, prove a hindrance to understanding it.” (339)

Hirschman’s affinity for socialism placed him on the Left of the political spectrum, but his aversion to grand theories, however, put him on sympathetic terms with conservative figures like Edmund Burke, who believed that active attempts at human progress were futile because humans could not know whether their actions would be positive or negative. Hirschman, however, rejected this conclusion. To him, skepticism was not only compatible with purposeful action, but that it was actually necessary and beneficial to propelling human progress.

The benefit of doubt arises when individuals reject the premise that knowing everything is either an obtainable or worthwhile goal. Colorni felt that perpetual doubt could be a fount of creativity: freeing oneself from the shackling idea that “conviction was a precondition for action” was ultimately liberating (117). Adelman paraphrases the Italian thinker Carlo Rosselli’s philosophy:

Renounce the quest for certainty, abandon astrological searches for the inevitable laws of History, and get past the sterile abstracts of past debates. This was all inscribed in a fundamental skepticism about historical laws, and the need to admit that one can act, learn by acting, reevaluate, correct one’s opinions, act once more—in the service of liberty and justice for their own sake (118).

Hirschman did not need to have a comprehensive and irrefutable worldview to believe that fascism was dangerous and needed to be stopped; his leap into action meant joining the armed resistance to defeat it, putting his life on the line despite knowing that he could never be free from doubts about the exact right thing to do. His experience in Spain showed him, like Orwell, that perfection was illusory, and it was still necessary to act against the fascist menace even if the opposition was hardly a model of perfect morality. He did not entirely know what he was getting himself into, as he said, but he “felt compelled” anyway. For someone like me, who frequently succumbs to the paralysis of epistemological doubt, Hirschman’s ideas are refreshing: they offer a path to sharing imperfect ideas in the public realm and taking conscious but bold action without deigning to the pervasive influence of self-righteous and under-informed bloviating that dominates the American political scene. Doubt cannot paralyze; only uncertainty can.

Hirschman’s ideas about economic development, too, were built on the importance of doubt. The success of a development project rested not on whether it met the original project goals—what monitoring and evaluation teams set out to determine—but rather how these original projects created new opportunities and development paths. It was precisely the conflicts these projects encountered that created room for new development creativity, and ultimately progress. Progress is a convoluted process, full of doubt and tension and conflict, but is ultimately driven forward by the people on the ground pushing toward their individual (and often unexpected) goals.

Hirschman’s ideas remind me of the 1919 essay by Chinese intellectual Hu Shi (胡适), “More Study of Problems, Less Talk about ‘-Isms’” (多学些问题,少谈些主义). Having submerged my brain in a vat of early 20th century Chinese history over the last few months, this connection is probably to be expected. Hu, a student of the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, shared with Hirschman a distaste for the dogmatic nature of communism. Hu takes aim at the rising popularity of Marxist theorizing in China, suggesting that China should be concerned not with cheap talk of nebulous concepts (all ending in ‘-ism’), but rather the specific, visceral problems of everday livelihood. He criticizes the current discourse, in which

we don’t research the livelihood of rickshaw drivers, but rather pontificate about socialism; we don’t research women’s liberation, or how to rectify the family system, but we do engage in empty talk about wife sharing and free love; we don’t research how to disband the Anfu club (a powerful military faction) or solve the problems between North and South China, but rather talk abstractly about anarchy.

In the pragmatist (or experimentalist) tradition, empiricism is paramount—a position that echoes Hirschman, who grounded his work in the concrete realities of life on the ground. The opposition to abstract universal laws also meant that both Hu Shi and Hirschman rejected deterministic thinking and the idea that development had a discernible telos. Hirschman emphasized the constant churning of societies toward progress, without a predetermined end; Hu, too, argued that growth itself is the only end, and that societies would always be improving and changing over time. Their worldviews even shared a name: the aforementioned views of Carlo Rosselli, which inspired Eugenio Colorni and then Hirschman, were collectively termed “Liberal Socialism,” while Hu, trying to push back on the idea that liberalism was uniquely compatible with capitalism, also gave his worldview the moniker “Liberal Socialism” (自由体社会主义).

Hu and Hirschman, too, shared an unrepentant optimism amid an onslaught of pessimistic thinking about the horrors of the 20th century. In 1934, amidst China’s violent upheaval, Hu even penned an essay entitled “Optimism in the Midst of Pessimism” (悲观声浪里的乐观); Hirschman, widely remembered for his perpetual belief in progress, titled his collective essays, “A Bias for Hope.”

The two thinkers, however, differ in one key respect: the importance of political action. While both believed that social concern was a fundamental driver of intellectual activity, and that this social concern was based in empirical claims rooted in fundamental skepticism, they differed in what form this social concern should take in their personal lives as intellectuals. Hu tried to avoid politics when possible; as Jerome Grieder recounts in Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance, Hu recoiled in horror when he saw academics on the front lines of student protests; their job was to teach and learn, not to be involved in actual political battles. Grieder writes of Hu:

His public role was always that of an observer, a political critic. In an era when revolutionary agitation engulfed the streets of China’s cities and filtered even into the narrow alleys of hinterland villages, Hu clung stubbornly to his belief that such political activity was for an intellectual, wasteful of energies that might better be devoted to more constructive causes. (175-6)

For Hu, empiricism required only that intellectuals pay attention to problems on the ground, but not get caught up in them. Doubt for Hu meant skepticism and rejection of dogma, and doubt did not preclude an intellectual drive for reform, but intellectuals themselves had no role in pushing for this change with their fists or their lives. Hirschman could hardly be more different: the twice-enlisted soldier felt he must act, for anything else would be succumbing to the paralysis of doubt and a rejection of the broad sweep of progress.

Historians often attribute the failure of Chinese liberalism in the 20th century to liberals’ undervaluation of political action. Grieder concurs: “Liberalism failed in China, in short, because Chinese life was steeped in violence and revolution, and liberalism offers no answers to the great problems of violence and revolution” (345). Perhaps Hirschman’s action-oriented liberalism offers a different path to a more habitable world than Hu’s: Hirschman’s reformist, empirical, individual-oriented worldview was unabashedly liberal in the same way as Hu’s, yet he did not shy away from political action. Rather, he embraced it—and saw it as the core from which the rest of his worldview emerged. In contrast to Hu’s elitist stance, Hirschman’s constructive actions and willingness to engage directly on the physical front lines of ideological battles are even more remarkable.