NSSR Philosophy

political links

Over the last year or so, NSSR philosophy students, graduates, and faculty have weighed in on important political issues. Since the election season is typically a time of rhetoric rather than reflection, here is a list to remind ourselves that thoughtful interventions into political discourse are possible.

Jeremy Butman: against sustainability

Eric Anthamatten: Trump has reduced speech to voice

Eduardo Mendieta: on racist institutions

Falguni Sheth: the refugee crisis requires more than empathy

David Kishik:  is philosophy an urban phenomenon?

Nancy Fraser and Andrew Arato: a dialogue on US elections and the Left


may links


“A professor of philosophy at Gordon College is suing the institution for allegedly retaliating against her for publicly disagreeing with its request for a religious exemption to a federal antidiscrimination law pertaining to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers” reports Inside Higher Ed. That professor is Lauren Barthold, a graduate of NSSR who has written on Rorty, Gadamer, and the philosophy of friendship. Barthold called Gordon College’s hiring policies discriminatory in a letter to the Salem News in 2014, and faculty dissent from the policy was reported the same year by the Boston Globe. According to the Daily Nous, the vice president of marketing at Gordon College claims that “Professor Barthold’s faculty peers voted to discipline her in a manner consistent with past precedent because her actions harmed the Gordon community and violated their trust.” A detailed timeline of the case, as well as an account of the alleged retaliation by the university against professor Barthold are available in her legal complaint, filed with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The current EU has proved repeatedly that it is not equipped to grapple with the global transformations — and tragedies — for which it also bears historical and political responsibility. This EU also lacks any political soul beyond the technocratic defense of the interests of European capitalism.” Cinzia Arruzza in Jacobin on The Refugee Crisis and European Shame.

“First one makes a decision: are my politics fundamentally practical, or are my politics fundamentally moral? Then, having decided, you make your other calculations as best you can, and you lead others in the way most suited to your personality and your skills.” Michael Weinman’s Weberian reading of the Democratic Presidential Primary.

february links

Disrupting Silences in the Philosophy Canon” NS PhD Candidate PJ Gorre reflects on teaching the canon of modern philosophy.

“All human experience involves a coordination of the voluntary and involuntary body, where the correct or appropriate relation between the voluntary and involuntary body is set in place by social rules. Torture depends on working the difference between the involuntary and the voluntary body differently. In torture, the victim is reduced to her involuntary body, while the torturer effectively takes possession of all voluntariness and agency; the torturer has the victim’s body. If in torture I can no longer call my body ‘mine’, then torture dispossesses me of my body. And it is just this that rape is about: a radical act of dispossession through violation.” J.M. Bernstein on rape, slavery, and torture.

Anwar Shaikh’s new book, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict and Crisis, comes out this month from Oxford University Press. Shaikh is Chair of NSSR Economics. The school will host an event for the book’s release on Friday, Feb 12.

Fifty-two years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inaugurated the American Race Crisis lecture series at The New School. The recording of his lecture, “The Summer of Our Discontent,” was recently digitized from open reel tapes, and can now be heard online.

january links

Everyday Revolutions“: a portrait of Ágnes Heller.

“The effect, and surely the aim, of the 9/11 Museum is to make visitors experience what it was like to be there at the time. It places them in a situation where, like the participants, they only know that something supremely awful is happening, but where they do not know why it is happening, or what is to come.” Ross Poole on 9/11 Memorials.

“Gangster-type radicalized fundamentalism demonstrates a radical phase of nihilism, perhaps more radical than ever, looming below the ‘clash of religions’.” Julia Kristeva on Radical Evil.

“For the hundreds of thousands of ordinary working-class boys and girls in England in the early 1970s, including me, Bowie incarnated something glamorous, enticing, exciting and mysterious: a world of unknown pleasures and sparkling intelligence. He offered an escape route from the suburban hellholes that we inhabited. Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story.” Simon Critchley on David Bowie.

december links

Is Heidegger’s Being and Time a “Collection of Pretentious and Vague Platitudes“?

David Kishik has a critical perspective on Walter Benjamin in Jerusalem.

The NSSR’s new “virtual bookshelf” features books and articles written by New School faculty.

Christopher Long remembers Reiner Schürmann in the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal.

The new Hannah Arendt documentary.

october links

“While serving as president of the New School, Bob Kerrey, the former United States senator, needed a residence befitting his station. The university moved him into a red brick Neo-Grec townhouse on West Fourth Street in Manhattan, which was previously owned by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The $20,000-a-month rental had many grand spaces for entertaining, including Mr. Kerrey’s favorite, a rooftop terrace. Yet, its most unexpected amenity was quite private and secretive: a safe room.”

“The rapid increase in college enrollment can be defended by intellectually respectable arguments. Even the explosion in administrative personnel is, at least in theory, defensible. On the other hand, there are no valid arguments to support the recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators, unless one considers evidence-free assertions about “the market” to be intellectually rigorous.”

“Abandoned storefronts have long been a hallmark of economic depression and high crime rates, but the West Village doesn’t have either of those. Instead, what it has are extremely high commercial rents, which cause an effect that is not dissimilar.”

“Students simply show up for class, he argued, jump through some hoops, and get their As. Professors are simply service providers and accreditors.”

Cayla Clinkenbeard (NSSR student): “Ameliorating Debt Through Student Unionization: an NYU Case Study

Michael Marder: “Dusting the Furniture of Our Minds.”

may links

Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gender” reopens the a debate concerning the connection between patriarchy and capitalism. Arruzza also recently wrote a piece on the EU border security agency Frontex: “Fortress Europe and a Mediterranean Cemetery for Migrants.”

A column in the New York Times considers the last Nazi trial. Corey Robin has a long article in the Nation on the enduring significance of Arendt’s critique of radical evil (Robin thinks it has to do with Zionism).

Chiara Bottici asks why modern western philosophy moved from mythos to logos. A resultant discussion about the connection between philosophy and fiction has sprung up at the Daily Nous.

J. M. Bernstein’s presence (through quotes) on Tumblr.



And… a cocktail inspired by Seth Benardete (?!)




frederic morton

The noted novelist and historian passed away this week at age 90. Born in 1924 in Vienna, Morton and his family fled Austria after the Anschluss, first to England, and then to New York. Morton graduated from City College in 1947 and received a master’s degree from the New School in 1949.

Much of Morton’s writing focused on exile and European history. The Rothschilds, a portrait of the prominent European baking dynasty, and A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, were National Book Award Finalists.

Obituaries have appeared in the Forward, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.


Update: The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York will present Morton’s final work, a play called “The Marquis Flight” on June 2, 2015. Here is the description from their website:

“The Marquis Flight” starts as a realistic plot “about the catastrophes of contemporary success”, as the playwright himself had described it to us. Based on the story of an Upper East Side executive’s plane trip to Paris, the lines between reality and (science)fiction gradually blur taking the audience into a surreal fantasy world.


Will Harvard follow the New School in divesting from fossil fuels? (The Harvard Crimson reports; here is an article on divestment at TNS from back in February)

Brian Leiter on Critchley’s offensively long Wikipedia page.

The Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale is facing drastic budget cuts.

On citing unpublished papers.

Lawrence Berger (NS PhD Candidate) on “Being There.”

worldly philosophy


Economic philosophy is undergoing a renaissance. Social ontology is a growing discipline, decision and game theoretic methods are being applied to traditional philosophical topics like causality and ethics, and the methodology of economics is again a respectable topic of study.[1]

But what is the connection between philosophy and economics exactly? This question lies at the heart of Robert Heilbroner’s text The Worldly Philosophers (WP). Part introduction to political economics, part gossipy history, and part philosophical reflection on the relation of capitalism to social thought, there is no book quite like it. Heilbroner’s thesis, which he supports rationally with arguments and rhetorically by retelling the most memorable (and often silly) episodes in the lives of the great economists, is that economic thought is the systematic reflection on the mechanism and structure of capitalism.

The book begins with the question of why the great philosophers before Adam Smith never gave an account “worldly” things. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas all formulated complex political and ethical theories. Why then did none of them come up with systematic theory of production, labor, or trade? Heilbroner argues that it simply could not have occurred to them to do so before the economic revolution. The first chapter describes this great transformation in detail, explaining how land, labor, and capital progressed from being treated as natural objects to being bought and sold on a market as factors of production.

On Heilbroner’s account, this advent of capitalism demanded a new philosophy that could answer novel and suddenly pressing questions. Perhaps the most influential and basic of these was Adam Smith’s question: why are some nations rich and others poor? But as capitalism developed, still further questions needed to be addressed. Who does the system benefit and who does it harm? Are booms and busts inherent instabilities in the market system, and if so, how might they be remedied? Where did the capitalism come from, and where is it going?

Heilbroner’s treatment is neither a technical introduction to economics nor a history of the academic discipline. One finds no modern macro models and none of the logical minutiae of micro. Historiographically unsophisticated, the book might be criticized for presenting a great man history centered on such figures as Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill, Marx, Veblen, Keynes, and Schumpeter. Nor would everyone agree with the selection of figures. Heilbroner gives many pages to utopian socialists like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier but hardly mentions heterodox schools like Austrian economics.  The book was written in 1953 so the fact that game theory and behavioral economics are ignored is unsurprising; but even the marginal revolution appears marginal.

The value of the book is not in its comprehensiveness or even in its even-handedness. Rather it is important because it makes a sustained argument that economics at its core is a form of human inquiry that directly confronts and tries to explain the phenomenon of capitalism. In the Introduction, Heilbroner writes that great economists were worldly philosophers because “they sought to embrace in a scheme of philosophy the most worldly of all man’s activities- his drive for wealth.” Heilbroner adds “It is not perhaps the most elegant kind of philosophy, but there is no more intriguing or important one.” (WP p.16)

The rest of the book is devoted to substantiating this claim through an examination of the works of the great economists. The forward march of the book, which shows that at each stage of capitalist development a new set of questions was necessitated, results in the view that real economic inquiry – worldly philosophy – is a reflection on the conditions and effects of such developments. Thus economics is a kind of philosophy, namely the philosophy of capitalism.

But if it is difficult to disagree with Heilbroner’s treatment of political economy, his account faces a major challenge. For since the middle of the twentieth century, economics has increasingly distanced itself from ‘big picture’ philosophical questions concerning long run claims about wealth and poverty, and the future of the world economy. The questions under consideration have become increasingly specialized and technical, and many economists avoid talking about capitalism directly. How then can the central conceit of The Worldly Philosophers be true? How can economics be the philosophy of capitalism?



Published 20 years after The Worldly Philosophers, Heilbroner’s essay “Economics as a ‘Value-free’ Science” (EVFS) argues that contemporary economics rests on a fundamental confusion concerning the relation between values and objectivity. Because many economists wrongly take their own inquiry to be neutral or “value-free,” modern economics fails to distinguish clearly between its normative and positive judgments. Repudiating any evaluative stance, economics clothes normative judgments in positive garb, claiming a false objectivity and thus losing its actual scientific status. Even worse, this movement forgets the original purpose of economics as a moral science, reducing the explanation of capitalism to a set of abstract exercises.

In arguing that economic judgment is never neutral, Heilbroner notes that even an economist’s choice of research question and data to answer that question is value-laden in the minimal sense that it requires some norm to separate what is of interest from what is not of interest, of what counts as a worthy topic of research. But even if judgments of value on this level are ignored, Heilbroner claims, there is another way in which values enter directly into economic research.

Suppose that the collection of data about economic facts and the statistical analysis of that data are just as neutral as the analogous collection and testing of data in physics. Heilbroner asserts that economic analysis nevertheless requires a further step beyond economic statistics, namely that of the economist “ascribing meaning to the data and the relationships he has so painstakingly acquired” (EVFS, p.28). This hermeneutic activity is the “vital element” of economic analysis.

To show how this hermeneutic step differs from analysis in natural science, Heilbroner uses an appropriately New York-oriented example. Suppose a rent ceiling is imposed on apartments, below the equilibrium price. More renters enter the market and there is an increase in demand for housing at below-market prices that results in a shortage in housing. Heilbroner asks,

Has not the unduly depressed price of the commodity “attracted” buyers… in the same way that the force field of the magnet has “attracted” the needle to the second? The question brings us to the critical parting of ways between the value-free natural science and the value-laden social science. (EVFS, p.29)

On the one hand, this kind of analysis lends itself to prescriptions the like of which are not available to the physicist: the economist may recommend the construction of more housing, and such judgments of value often depend on latent values (such as an implicit preference for the market as way of making long-run allocations). But more fundamentally, the kind of “behavior” of physical particles differs from that of economic actors in that only the latter have cognition and volition. As Heilbroner puts it, “one of the decisive attributes that distinguishes the social world from the physical is that social events are not merely interactions of forces, but contests of wills” (EVFS,p.30)

In other words, Heilbroner holds that social ontology is distinct from the ontology of natural science. The full reasoning behind this conviction is too detailed and complex to describe here. The upshot, however, is a shift in focus onto the relationship between the economist and the social structure she is investigating, of which she is simultaneously a part. The social scientist’s place in the social order does not prevent her inquiry from attaining scientific status, but it does mean that economics at base a moral activity, i.e. an activity of making claims not just about facts but also about values. Hence,

…the process of social investigation inescapably embroils the investigator in his subject in a way that is different from that of the natural scientist. For the latter, the discovery of an anomaly may constitute a blow to his intellectual “security,” perhaps even to his psychological “integrity.” But it does not threaten his moral position as a member of a social order. (EVFS, p.34)

Economics can thus be both value-laden and objective: by admitting her values, the social scientist opens to rational debate not only the methodological assumptions of her study but also the “indispensable…value grounds” from which she begins her inquiry (EVFS, pp.36-37). Far from making economics less scientific, admitting its moral status gives economic analysis the kind of transparency and possibility of gradual self-correction that is the hallmark of the scientific enterprise.

In a thoughtful tribute to Heilbroner in Economic Issues, Matthew Forstater, himself a former student New School, argues that for Heilbroner, value-judgments are an important part of an economist’s vision. When they are made explicit, judgments of value are not opposed to science. On the contrary it is when they remain merely implicit in economic analysis that they are truly ideological. Worldly philosophy achieves the status of a science precisely when it submits its arguments to public scrutiny.



Academic economics has been widely criticized over the last several years for failing to have predicted the US financial crisis.[2] An even more damning criticism has been that professional economists contributed to the crisis. Perhaps most publicly, the film Inside Job suggested to the public that some professional economists benefited from writing reports touting the stability of financial institutions that were in fact on the brink of collapse. But even if such informal charges of academic dishonesty are unfounded, recent history has made professional economics look quite disconnected from reality.

Yet this very discomfort with the state of the discipline has spurred some important economists to turn towards Heilbroner’s ideal the worldly philosophy. R.J. Schiller and V.M Schiller’s Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper entitled “Economists as Worldly Philosophers” (PDF) concludes that economic inquiry should be driven by “the broad moral purpose of improving human welfare.” At the New School, the newish Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies is predicated on the idea that in the wake of the last financial crisis, social science must return to its task of analyzing capitalism. This is likewise driven by a judgment of value: “A more generous, egalitarian, patient, deliberate, and accountable economic system must begin with incisive and interdisciplinary social inquirywithout which policy change cannot be successful.”[3] Worldly philosophy for these writers is the remedy for the overspecialization and irrelevance of contemporary social science.

Remarkably the concept of worldly philosophy arose in an altogether different context. Working as a freelance writer while still a graduate student at the New School, Heilbroner managed to arrange a lunch meeting with a senior editor at Simon & Schuster to discuss a possible book deal. The meeting started badly: the editor dismissed each of the young writer’s pitches. With little else to talk about, they began to discuss a seminar Heilbroner was taking at the New School on the work of Adam Smith with Adolph Lowe. After some discussion, the writer and editor decided that the book project would be a history of economic thought.

But when Heilbroner brought up the idea to his teacher, the reception was different. Nearly fifty years later, Heilbroner described the situation thus:

The very exemplar of German scholarship at its formidable best, Lowe was aghast. “That you cannot do!” He declared with magisterial finality. But I had the strong conviction that I could do it – born, as I have written elsewhere, of the necessary combination of confidence and ignorance that only a graduate student could have possessed. Between free-lance assignments and further studies, I produced the first three chapters and with some trepidation presented them to Professor Lowe. It is a measure of that remarkable man (who remained, until his death at 102, my warmest and severest critic) that after he read the pages he said, “That you must do!” With his help, that is what I did. (WP Preface, pp.7-8)

What made Lowe change his rejection of the hubristic and naïve project to the statement that it must be done? Why should his prohibition turn into an imperative? Surely it cannot have been the mere appreciation of Heilbroner’s enjoyable style. Rather, it came from the realization that Heilbroner’s philosophical reconstruction of economics displays a certain vision of the history and prospects of social science. These prospects at base involve the recognition of social inquiry as a form of moral philosophy.

If this vision is correct, it follows not only that the social sciences have a moral purpose, but also suggests that legitimate moral philosophy requires engagement with society. Just as real economic inquiry cannot arise in a vacuum in which there are no judgments of value, values themselves are in part formed by the social structure. Thus consideration of values apart from the social milieu in which they arise is just as empty as supposedly “value-free” economic ideas. The unity of moral philosophy and social inquiry entails that capitalism, with all its destructive and creative force, be taken as the fundamental datum informing both social and moral theory.




Heilbroner, R.L. The Worldly Philosophers. (Revised Seventh Edition) New York: Simon and Schuster 1999.

Heilbroner, R.L. “Economics as a ‘Value-free’ Science” reprinted in Marr, W.L. and Baldev, R. (Eds.) How Economists Explain. University Press of America, 1983, pp.27-38.



[1] In Social Ontology, John Searle and Tony Lawson should be mentioned. In discussions of causality, Judea Pearl and Nancy Cartwright come up and game theory in ethics is a subject unto itself. In the methodology of econ, Dan Hausman‘s work is influential as is Deirdre McCloskey’s “rhetorical criticism.”
[2] These criticisms have of course been controversial. Krugman argues that economics’ failure to predict the crisis was due to economists’ faith that the financial insturments. Another interesting treatment is available here.
[3] The statement (italicized in the original), is from the HCCS webpage. The mission statement derives directly from Heilbroner’s late thought. For in an additional chapter added to the Revised Seventh Edition of the Worldly Philosophers, he writes that the purpose of economics is “to help us better understand the capitalist setting in which we will most likely have to shape our collective destiny for the foreseeable future.” (p.319)