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  • Hans Neisser:The "Guardian of Good Theory"
  • Hans-Michael Trautwein (bio)


In his obituary for Hans Philipp Neisser, Adolph Lowe called his friend and longtime colleague—first at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (1927–1931) and later at the New School for Social Research (1943–1965)—"the 'guardian of good theory,' meaning by this that his mind was a touchstone for testing the genuine gold in scientific work" (1975, 188–89). Lowe's praise aptly characterizes Neisser's sense of precision in reviewing the thoughts of others, but it is an understatement.

Neisser was not only a guardian but also a creator of good theory. Before the Nazis forced him to emigrate from Germany in 1933, he had prominently contributed to monetary theory, general equilibrium analysis, and investigations of structural change and unemployment. Neisser's displacement from the position of a professional observer and political advisor in the Weimar Republic to isolation in exile at a foreign business school, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was a dramatic change in his personal life. Yet his scientific productivity remained remarkably unimpaired. During his time at Wharton (1933–1941), Neisser pursued his original research agenda and expanded it into a more general theory of the business cycle and structural unemployment in the world economy. Later on, at the New School, he pioneered research and teaching in [End Page 929] econometrics and various fields of applied economics, while keeping a keen interest in the evolution of the theoretical core of general equilibrium theory.

Throughout his academic career, Neisser enjoyed high international recognition. John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Gottfried Haberler, Paul Samuelson, and many other leading economists referred to him approvingly. However, not long after Neisser's retirement his name sank into oblivion for several decades. Mainstream thinking had turned in other directions. While this was also true for other economists of his generation who were not so quickly forgotten, in Neisser's case personal aspects may have contributed to the fade-out. It has been reported that he was an extremely unassuming person, often absentminded, shy in conversation, and generally refrained from making personal remarks. As his assistant Murray Brown remembered, "being with Hans was an unrelieved intellectual experience, unrelieved by gossip or by exchanges of stories that so often constitutes intellectual exchanges between academics" (Brown 1977, 2). Moreover, it seems that Neisser was not particularly keen on having his photograph taken, at least not in official contexts. While the Internet holds pictures of almost all economists of some prominence in the mid-twentieth century, it is difficult to find images of him.

Yet Neisser has not been completely forgotten. Various studies of "proto-Keynesians" in pre-Hitler Germany and of the emigration of economists from Germany after Hitler's seizure of power have drawn attention to him (e.g., Garvy 1975; Hagemann 1994, 1999; Klausinger 1999; and the papers by Hagemann and Take in this issue). Other studies have provided specific assessments of Neisser's theories of money, business cycles, and unemployment (Hagemann 1990; Trautwein 2003, 2010, 2017). This paper is a modest attempt to fill some of the gaps that remain in the understanding of Neisser's personal and scientific transition from his German background to the New World. [End Page 930]


In the Weimar Republic

Hans Philipp Neisser was born on September 3, 1895, in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), which at the time of his birth was the capital of Silesia, then a province in the Kingdom of Prussia, the dominant part of the German Empire. Neisser grew up in a family of Jewish origin that had converted to Protestantism two generations before. His father was a notary and a social-democratic member of the city council.

Neisser studied law and political economy (Staatswissenschaften) at the universities of Freiburg, Munich, and Breslau. In the last year of the First World War, he did military service on the Western front in Northern France. At the age of 72, Neisser (n.d., 3) recollected that "I was told that C. Robbins lay across of me, both of us reading the first volume of the 'Kapital' [by Karl Marx], which my father...


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