Soros takes particular pleasure in spotting his own mistakes. "In 1997, I thought that global capitalism was unsustainable," he reminded me. "And yet it lasted another 11 years!"
Soros traces his own acceptance of volatility to his teenage experience of a world transformed: the Nazi invasion of Hungary when he was the 13-year-old younger son of a comfortable Budapest household. The Soros family survived, and George learned the necessity of responding to revolutionary change. "I had the guidance of a father who had a similar experience as a prisoner of war in Russia in World War I," he said. "I had a family history of turbulent times. And that gave me a personal advantage in managing these far-from-equilibrium situations."
Soros has been arguing for his ideas in the public arena for decades. But, he told me, "my ideas were dismissed as the indulgence of a successful speculator." With the onset of the financial crisis -- a textbook example of the impact of imperfect knowledge -- Soros has been getting more respect as a thinker. "Since the crisis, there is more recognition in the value of recognizing the role of imperfect knowledge," he said.
Of course, Soros doesn't restrict himself to the abstract realm of philosophy. He's perhaps best known for his unabashedly liberal political views, and he loves nothing more than weighing in on public-policy debates around the world, particularly when he thinks his concept of imperfect knowledge can be applied or when the values of open society are at stake.
His most recent preoccupation has been the European Union, where this year he memorably championed the iconoclastic idea that Germany must "lead or leave." That is Soros's shorthand for the notion that Germany should either shoulder the true burdens of EU leadership, providing financial support to weaker states and permitting the inflation their economies need, or exit the eurozone and allow them to create those conditions for themselves. So far, Germany hasn't taken either course, but Soros's idea captured the attention of both European elites and the European public, significantly shaping the debate.
Soon, Soros may find himself making headlines about China. Among both China hands and the global investing class, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the country's paramount economic and political challenge is shifting from an export-led economy to one that is also driven by internal consumption. But Soros thinks that this shift is proving harder than expected.
"China has been the tremendous beneficiary of globalization and now is at the end of the road as far as the growth model they have employed, which is based on exports and investment," he said in our interview, in comments that are more bearish about the world's second-largest economy than Wall Street conventional wisdom.