Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Remembering Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001)

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Remembering Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001)

Article excerpt

Herbert A. Simon died on February 9, 2001, at the age of 84. At the time of his death, he was the Richard King Mellon University Professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, an institution that he had graced for 52 years. During his long career, he produced scholarly publications at an annual rate that was substantially greater than the lifetime rate of the vast majority of his colleagues. Simon's first published article appeared in 1937. His official vita lists more than 900 publications in the ensuing 64 years, excluding many reprintings and translations. It is an extraordinary record, and simply recounting the numbers significantly underestimates Simon's influence.

In a narrow sense, only a very small fraction of Simon's productivity could be described as stemming from research in public administration. But in a broader sense, many of the ideas and visions that stayed with him throughout his career were first formulated within the framework of public administration. Simon's link to public administration is threefold: First, he started there. His early academic appointments and most of his early research were in public administration. He coauthored a textbook in public administration. Second, his impact on the field was exceptional. Almost from the beginning, he was an intellectual force. Third, he never left the field conceptually. Throughout his career, he maintained a focus on a central concern of public administration--how do limited (but reasoned) human beings, individually and in social organizations, solve problems, and how might they do so more effectively?

Simon influenced many disciplines, but he was, first of all, a political scientist and a student of public administration. His writings persistently reflect a perspective drawn from his early interest in administrative decision making and public administration. This history is often overlooked, but it is obvious to anyone who reviews the entire Simon oeuvre. For example, the concept of bounded rationality, which became a vital platform for much of his subsequent work in artificial intelligence (Newell 1989), emerged within the context of early work in public administration, organization theory, and economics (Simon 1989). More generally, though Simon's interest in human problem solving led to pioneering work in disciplines that are seemingly far removed from public administration, he retained a perspective familiar to that field--a commitment not only to understanding human behavior, but also to reforming human practices and institutions. He was a proper missionary.

The Beginning: Young Jesus in the Temple

Herbert Simon was born in 1916 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and educated in political science at the University of Chicago. According to his autobiography, he chose to go to Chicago because it had an intense and strong intellectual atmosphere that suited him well. Unlike some other universities, Chicago had abandoned its heavy investment in intercollegiate athletics--a change that also suited Simon well. According to Simon, he had intended to major in economics until he learned that in order to do so, he would have to take a course in accounting. He switched to a major in political science (Simon 1991, 39) and gravitated toward research in public administration.

Simon attended the University of Chicago during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a time of political and economic unrest, and he saw himself, as well as other students at the university, as "intensely political animals" (1991, 119). In Simon's case, however, these political instincts were directed less into an enthusiasm for mass popular movements than into an administrative/organizational/ planning conception of the requirements of democracy. The political science department at Chicago in the 1930s included Charles Merriam, Harold Lasswell, and Quincy Wright. That "Chicago School" was united by a general belief that rational coordination (by large organizations, public and private) is necessary for an effective democracy, and it is possible to apply methods of rational planning to the allocation of public resources. …

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