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Торстейн Бунде Веблен
(1857-1929)
Thorstein Bunde Veblen
 
Источник: Journal of Economic Issues, Sep90, Vol. 24 Issue 3, p695, 24p
Samuels, Warren J.
THE SELF-REFERENTIABILITY OF THORSTEIN VEBLEN'S THEORY OF THE PRECONCEPTIONS OF ECONOMIC SCIENCE
Thorstein Veblen is celebrated, among other things, for his analysis of the operation, at the deepest structural levels, of certain habits of thought, systems of preconceptions, or prepossessions.[1] These habitualized and typically unrecognized and unchallenged preconceptions are derived from the practices of ordinary life, especially how people make a living, and the organizational arrangements within which people live. If institutions are defined as habits of thought, then these habits of thought manifest and are driven by deep discursive formations, in much the same sense as the later structuralism of Michel Foucault.
Veblen, as is well known, identified two systems of preconceptions, or habits of thought, the animistic or teleological, and the matter-of-fact. The animistic or teleological preconception typically tends to project a personalized conceptualization of ultimate design, reality, and purpose. It involves, as Veblen portrays it, a combination of projection and ceremonial rationalization, and serves both psychic balm and social control functions. At its least animistic, it is a taxonomic venture, but more typically it is teleological in its imputation of final causes and inevitability of results. It involves the production of "laws of the normal or the natural, according to a preconception regarding the ends to which, in the nature of things, all things tend".[2]
The matter-of-fact preconception is concerned with observable phenomena ("material facts"[3]) and material cause and effect studied in an impersonal and dispassionate way. It focuses on process rather than on predetermined outcomes,[4] narrows "the range of discretionary, teleological action to the human agent alone,"[5] is concerned with "the questions of what men do and how and why they do it,"[6] and comprehends causation "in an unbroken sequence of cumulative change."[7] This has come "to a head in modern science,"[8] indeed has made for the primacy of science,[9] and "finds its highest material expression in the technology of the machine industry."[10]
Veblen's analyses of the preconceptions of economic science and the place and evolution of science in modern civilization, for all their brilliance, power, and insight, suggest certain further questions of the utmost importance. What is a matter of preconception and what is independent of preconception? Are Veblen's ideas, especially his laudatory treatment of matter-of-factness versus animism-teleology, unequivocally dispositive of the issues his analysis addresses? What putative status are we to ascribe to his ideas as "knowledge?" Most especially, is his celebration of matter-of-factness--for that is the logic of its juxtaposition to animism-teleology--system-specific? Does it apply to a particular stage of society, or does he intend it to stand for all time? In other words, is his theory or the role of preconceptions self-consciously self-referential?
In this article I will argue, however surprising it may seem, especially after almost three-quarters of a century, that Veblen understood matter-of-factness to be a preconception system-specific to the technological circumstances under which it developed and flowered, and that therefore his analysis of preconceptions was self-referential. I will limit discussion to the essays collected in The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and remain textually close to what Veblen had to say. Because of the important and probably controversial nature of the argument to be made here, we must wherever necessary let Veblen speak for himself.
The Question of System Specificity
Let us begin with the statements Veblen made early in the essay on "The Place of Science":
The making of states and dynasties, the founding of families, the prosecution of feuds, the propagation of creeds and the creation of sects, the accumulation of fortunes, the consumption of superfluities--these have all in their time been felt to justify themselves as an end of endeavor; but in the eyes of modern civilised men all these things seem futile in comparison with the achievements of science. They dwindle in men's esteem as time passes, while the achievements of science are held higher as time passes. This is the one secure holding-ground of latter-day conviction, that "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" is indefeasibly right and good.... But whatever the common-sense of earlier generations may have held in this respect, modern common-sense holds that the scientist's answer is the only ultimately true one. In the last resort enlightened common-sense sticks by the opaque truth and refuses to go behind the returns given by the tangible facts.[11]
Here Veblen contrasts two sets of common-sense belief. The teleological system of belief was common-sensical and system-specific. But is the modern, matter-of-fact-oriented, science-producing system of belief also system-specific? Both are said to rest on common sense. Is there a meta-system by which the "tangible facts" of science are unequivocally established to be superior and independent of the modern common-sensical preconception of matter-of-factness?
Three paragraphs later Veblen discusses what he calls the "'pragmatic' school of psychologists." He says that its aphorism, that all learning is of a pragmatic character and that all knowledge is functional with regard to use, "may not contain the whole truth, perhaps, but at least it goes nearer to the heart of the epistemological problem than any earlier formulation. It may confidently be said to do so because, for one thing, its argument meets the requirements of modern science . . . with its insistence on opaque cause and effect".[12] But is not the epistemological status given to whatever meets the requirements of modern science tautological with the adoption of the requirements of modern science as the epistemological basis of judgment? Is pragmatic psychology, therefore, system-specific, with the specific system adopted being that of matter-of-fact and opaque cause and effect--or whatever passes for and is accepted as matter-of-factness and opaque cause and effect?
I come next to the often-quoted statement from the essay, "Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?":
The standpoint of the classical economists, in their higher or definitive syntheses and generalisations, may not inaptly be called the standpoint of ceremonial adequacy. The ultimate laws and principles which they formulated were laws of the normal or the natural, according to a preconception regarding the ends to which, in the nature of things, all things tend. In effect, this preconception imputes to things a tendency to work out what the instructed common sense of the time accepts as the adequate or worthy end of human effort. It is a projection of the accepted ideal of conduct. This ideal of conduct is made to serve as a canon of truth, to the extent that the investigator contents himself with an appeal to its legitimation for premises that run back of the facts with which he is immediately dealing, for the "controlling principles" that are conceived intangibly to underlie the process discussed, and for the "tendencies" that run beyond the situation as it lies before him.[13]
If the "standpoint" of the classical economists is a matter of preconception, a matter of their common sense, is not the standpoint of Veblen himself a matter of a common sense, another common sense, but a common sense all the same? Is his standpoint of common sense not susceptible to the description that it, too, projects an accepted ideal of conduct and of truth? Is the problem "which common sense is correct?" or "which is to be given privileged status?" Or "is there a human problem involving the giving of one or another common sense a privileged status against all others, at least for the time being?" If the classical economists' standpoint is system-specific, a matter of preconception, is not Veblen's?
In the third essay, "The Preconceptions of Economic Science," Veblen remarks of John Stuart Mill and John Elliot Cairnes that, "With a fine sense of truth they say that the notion of causal continuit, as a premise of scientific generalisation, is an essentially metaphysical postulate; and they avoided its treacherous ground by denying it, and construing causal sequence to mean a uniformity of coexistences and successions simply."[14] If the Mill-Cairnes notion of causal continuity, "as a premise of scientific generalisation, is an essentially metaphysical postulate," however, then are not all fundamental premises of scientific generalization metaphysical? Do not all forms of science have their respective metaphysical preconceptions?
Veblen's Position
Veblen's position on the questions of system-specificity and self-referentiality can be seen in the following steps. Involved are not isolated statements but themes repeated throughout much of the collection of essays.
First, Veblen questions the belief that matter-of-factness, science, and technology have intrinsic merit and are unequivocally desirable. At the very point in "The Place of Science" where he notes that "modern common-sense holds that the scientist's answer is the only ultimately true one," Veblen says:
This latterday faith in matter-of-fact knowledge may be well grounded or it may not. It has come about that men assign it this high place, perhaps idolatrously, perhaps to the detriment of the best and most intimate interests of the race. There is room for much more than a vague doubt that this cult of science is not altogether a wholesome growth--that the unmitigated quest of knowledge, of this matter-of-fact kind, makes for race [that is, species]-deterioration and discomfort on the whole, both in its immediate effects upon the spiritual life of mankind, and in the material consequences that follow from a great advance in matter-of-fact knowledge.[15]
The very fact that desirability is at issue suggests that we are dealing here with the problematic and the normative and neither the absolute nor the given, with a preconception subject to critique and not what is independently true beyond cavil. Modern common sense is relative: "this latter day faith in matter-of-fact knowledge may be well grounded or it may not," indeed that it may not be "altogether a wholesome growth." Belief that what the scientist says is true does not necessarily make it either important or true.
The theme is repeated at some length near the end of the essay:
All that has been said above has of course nothing to say as to the intrinsic merits of this quest of matter-of-fact knowledge. In point of fact, science gives its tone to modern culture. One may approve or one may deprecate the fact that this opaque, materialistic interpretation of things pervades modern thinking. That is a question of taste, about which there is no disputing. The prevalence of this matter-of-fact inquiry is a feature of modern culture, and the attitude which critics take toward this phenomenon is chiefly significant as indicating how far their own habit of mind coincides with the enlightened common-sense of civilised mankind. It shows in what degree they are abreast of the advance of culture. Those in whom the savage predilection or the barbarian tradition is stronger than their habituation to civilised life will find that this dominant factor of modern life is perverse, if not calamitous; those whose habits of thought have been fully shaped by the machine process and scientific inquiry are likely to find it good.... Seen in certain lights, tested by certain standards, it is doubtless better; by other standards, worse."[16]
People having principally one habit of thought or the other will evaluate matter-of-factness differently. But such has "nothing to say as to the intrinsic merits of this quest of matter-of-fact knowledge.... Seen in certain lights, tested by certain standards, it is doubtless better; by other standards, worse." But Veblen does not say that modernity is to be accepted as conclusive on its own ground. It may be criticized as unwholesome, or it can be defended as wholesome. It is a matter of "the attitude which critics take."
In Veblen's second essay, "On the Nature of Capital," this first fundamental point is stated quite baldly with regard to technology: "technological proficiency is not of itself and intrinsically serviceable or disserviceable to mankind--it is only a means of efficiency for good or ill."[17]
Second, Veblen insists that our "higher generalizations," our preconceptions, are a function of the current scheme of life:
The higher generalisations take their color from the broader features of the current scheme of life. The habits of thought that rule in the working-out of a system of knowledge are such as are fostered by the more impressive affairs of life, by the institutional structure under which the community lives. p. 10.[18]
Modern matter-of-factness is an emanation from modern life, such that "Science is not at home among [the] leavings of barbarism."[19]
With the advent of modern times a change comes over the nature of the inquiries and formulations worked out under the guidance of the idle curiosity--which from this epoch is often spoken of as the scientific spirit. The change in question is closely correlated with an analogous change in institutions and habits of life, particularly with the changes which the modern era brings in industry and in the economic organisation of society.... The changes in the cultural situation which seem to have had the most serious consequences for the methods and animus of scientific inquiry are those changes that took place in the field of industry.[20]
The basic model seems to be complex, essentially a matter of cumulative causation: industry is a function of science, science is a function of industry, matter-of-factness is both cause and consequence. The "distinction between cause and effect need scarcely be observed in an itemized and specific way, but in which the run of causation unfolds itself in an unbroken sequence of cumulative change.... Science and technology play into one another's hands."[21] Matter-of-factness is situation-dependent, system-specific:
In the modern culture, industry, industrial processes, and industrial products. . . have become the chief force in shaping men's daily life, and therefore the chief factor in shaping men's habits of thought. Hence men have learned to think in the terms in which the technological processes act. This is particularly true of those men who by virtue of a peculiarly strong susceptibility in this direction become addicted to that habit of matter-of-fact inquiry that constitutes scientific research.[22]
The matter-of-fact preconception is just that, a preconception, and it derives from the process of industrialization, a process it helps to reinforce in a manner of cumulative causation.
At one point Veblen presents this argument in a manner that reinforces the first argument stated above: What distinguishes the present in these premises is (1) that the primacy in the cultural scheme has passed from pragmatism to a disinterested inquiry whose motive is idle curiosity, and (2) that in the domain of the latter the making of myths and legends in terms of imputed personality, as well as the construction of dialectical systems in terms of differential reality, has yielded the first place to the making of theories in terms of matter-of-fact sequence.
Pragmatism creates nothing but maxims of expedient conduct. Science creates nothing but theories. It knows nothing of policy or utility, of better or worse.[23]
The argument, clearly stated in terms indicative of system-specificity and therefore problematicity, is repeated at the end of the essay on "The Place of Science":
In point of fact, the sober common-sense of civilised mankind accepts no other end of endeavor as self-sufficient and ultimate. That such is the case seems to be due chiefly to the ubiquitous presence of the machine technology and its creations in the life of modern communities. And so long as the machine process continues to hold its dominant place as a disciplinary factor in modern culture, so long must the spiritual and intellectual life of this cultural era maintain the character which the machine process gives it.[24]
And again in the essay on "The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View:"
Rightly seen from this ultra-modern point of view, this modern science and this point of view which it affects are, of course, a feature of the current cultural situation-of the process of life as it runs along under our own eyes.... [It] will bring under inquiry such questions of knowledge as lie within its peculiar range of interest, and will seek answers to these questions only in terms that are consonant with the habits of thought current at the time.[25] That is to say, science and the scientific point of view will vary characteristically in response to those variations in the prevalent habits of thought which constitute the sequence of cultural development; the current science and the current scientific point of view, the knowledge sought and the manner of seeking it, are a product of the cultural growth. Perhaps it would all be better characterised as a by-product of the cultured growth.[26]
Not surprisingly, then, a few pages later Veblen speaks of forming and maintaining "habits of thought which shall be consistent with themselves and with the habits of mind and run of tradition prevalent in the community at the time."[27] The argument is repeated, for example, in the essay on why economics is not an evolutionary science, in reference to the "vital interest" the classical economists have for the "laymen of the time. because it formulated the common sense metaphysics of the time in its application to a department of human life."[28] Preconceptions and associated habits of thought, including matter-of-factness, then, are system-specific.
Third, corollary to the second and akin to the later linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, is the view that "activity is, of course, not a fact of observation, but is imputed to the phenomena by the observer."[29] Matter-of-factness is not a matter of pure and independent fact but of human attribution. This is, it turns out, the basis of that criticism of the sophisticated falsification of Karl Popper that maintains it is impossible for a theory to be falsified by the facts, because facts themselves are always tied to a theoretical discourse. Hypotheses are thus ultimately tested by evidence that consists of another theory(ies).[30] And these modes of discourse, and the facts that arise and are perceived under their aegis, are derived from experience-experience within the extant cultural situation as that experience is mediated through habits of thought. Once again, situation-or system-specificity is readily apparent.[31]
Fourth, Veblen insists that his approach neither postulates nor concludes that there is a definitive outcome, such as would render a particular preconception, et cetera, a privileged position. He states this with particular reference to Darwinian evolution and cumulative causation:
The characteristic feature by which post-Darwinian science is contrasted with what went before is a new distribution of emphasis, whereby the process of causation, the interval of instability and transition between initial cause and definitive effect, has come to take first place in the inquiry: instead of that consummation in which causal effect was once presumed to come to rest.... modern science is becoming substantially a theory of the process of consecutive change, which is taken as a sequence of cumulative change, realized to be self-continuing or self-propagating and to have no final term. Questions of a primordial beginning and a definitive outcome have fallen into abeyance within the modern sciences.[32]
So that when Veblen, in his essay, "The Limitations of Marginal Utility," writes that
There is, therefore, no call to impugn these premises of the marginal-utility economics within their field. They commend themselves to all serious and uncritical persons at the first glance. They are principles of action which underlie the current, business-like scheme of economic life, and as such, as practical grounds of conduct, they are not to be called in question without questioning the existing law and order. As a matter of course, men order their lives by these principles and, practically, entertain no question of their stability and finality. That is what is meant by calling them institutions; they are settled habits of thought common to the generality of men.[33]
his point is that;
The acceptance by the economists of these or other institutional elements as given and immutable limits their inquiry in a particular and decisive way. It shuts off the inquiry at the point where the modern scientific interest sets in. The institutions in question are no doubt good for their purpose as institutions, but they are not good as premises for a scientific inquiry into the nature, origin, growth, and effects of these institutions and of the mutations which they undergo and which they bring to pass in the community's scheme of life.[34] Which is to say that no approach, not even his, should be taken as definitive and immutable. The point is that "The evolutionary point of view, therefore, leaves no place for a formulation of natural laws in terms of definitive normality, whether in economics or in any other branch of inquiry"[35]--including his own argument. If "an evolutionary economics must be a theory of a process of cultural growth as determined by the economic interest, a theory of a cumulative sequence of economic institutions states in terms of the process itself,"[36] the preconceptions to which that evolutionary economics itself gives effect likely will themselves change. Veblen rejects all efforts in which "the work of tracing the developmental sequence tapers off into advice and admonition proceeding on the assumption that the stage now reached is, or at least should be, final.[37]
Fifth, Veblen insists that the principle of cumulative causation itself is a preconception:
The prime postulate of evolutionary science, the preconception constantly underlying the inquiry, is the notion of a cumulative causal sequence;[38]
[Just as] "the notion of causal continuity, as a premise of scientific generalisation, is an essentially metaphysical postulate,"[39] [the postulate of consecutive, cumulative change] is an unproven and unprovable postulate-that is to say, it is a metaphysical preconception.[40]
Finally, Veblen adopts what has come to be called the position of affirming the hermeneutic circle: that interpretation is interpretation-system specific, that there are no meta-criteria on which to choose between alternative preconceptions, et cetera, with any serious degree of conclusivity, except by selecting the premise on which rests the preconception thereby chosen, that there is no independent interpretive or evaluative standpoint, that critique is always a matter of infinite regress with regard to the basis of critique. Moreover, he does so in such a way as to affirm the self-referential nature of his argument, that is, that his argument about the problematic foundations of a preconception or preconceptual system applies to his own affirmation of matter-offactness, with its derivatives, science and technology. He does so explicitly and in a manner leaving, it appears, no doubt as to where he stands. In taking this position Veblen is clearly giving effect to his conviction that convictions, which themselves give effect to preconceptual habits of thought, should be treated as problematic. Veblen, it would therefore seem, had a high tolerance for indeterminacy and ambiguity.
To demonstrate this self-referentiality in the context of the hermeneutic circle is the ultimate substantive objective of this article and requires that we pay close attention to Veblen's exposition of this position.
Let us begin with the sentence with which Veblen commences his essay, "The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View:"
A discussion of the scientific point of view which avowedly proceeds from this point of view itself has necessarily the appearance of an argument in a circle: and such in great part is the character of what here follows. It is in large part an attempt to explain the scientific point of view in terms of itself: but not altogether.[41]
No clearer, more forthright statement of the position of the hermeneutic circle, with the evident implication that the problematicity of preconceptions applies to his own analysis, that is, is self-referential, could be expected. Since he adopts the scientific point of view, we would expect that he would apply to himself the dictum that "This question of a scientific point of view, of a particular attitude and animus in matters of knowledge, is a question of the formation of habits of thought; and habits of thought are an outcome of habits of life."[42] Veblen would be the last to deny that he was a creature of habits of thought-however much he was prepared to dismiss and even ridicule the habits of thought of others. Veblen's were habits of thought that were, in his view, increasingly becoming "consistent with themselves and with the habit of mind and run of tradition prevalent in the community at the time,"[43] as matter-of-factness and scientific empiricism came increasingly to replace teleology in most if not all its forms. It seems that Veblen would apply to his own ideas the proposition that the "evolutionary point of view . . . Ieaves no place for a formulation of natural laws in terms of definitive normality, whether in economics or in any other branch of inquiry."[44] He would not have rejected the application to his own work of the proposition that
the point of view of economists has always been in large part the point of view of the enlightened common sense of their time. The spiritual attitude of a given generation of economists is therefore in good part a special outgrowth of the ideals and preconceptions current in the world about them.[45]
Veblen was clearly the child and representative of modern post-Enlightenment, rationalist civilization. He did not claim for his ideas the "authentic norm of absolute truth-a . . . seeking of a final term outside and beyond the range of knowledge."[46]
Veblen was prepared to recognize that there is a certain vogue to preconceptions, that a new body of preconceptions can come to be substituted for the old, "or a new adaptation of the old ground of finality, rather than an elimination of all metaphysical or animistic norms of valuation."[47] Veblen was ready and willing to attribute the Physiocrats' "preconception of the productiveness of nature to the habits of thought of a community in whose economic life the dominant phenomenon was the owner of agricultural land," and Smith's "preconception in favor of labor to a community in which the obtrusive economic feature of the immediate past was handicraft and agriculture, with commerce as a scarcely secondary phenomenon."[48] Veblen may or may not have been correct in doing so, but we have seen above that he was equally willing to attribute his own preconceptions to a community in which the dominant phenomenon was (capitalistic) industry. This was the "situation which shaped the common-sense apprehension of economic facts at the time,"[49] to whose influence he was not fully immune, however much he might be more independent an interpreter than others. His own system of analysis, no less than that of mainstream political economy, "having once been accepted and assimilated as real, though perhaps not as actual, it becomes an effective constituent in the inquirer's habits of thought, and goes to shape his knowledge of facts."[50] Whereas for the classical economists the "animistic preconception was not lost, but it lost tone; . . . visible chiefly in the unavowed readiness of the classical writers to accept as imminent and definitive any possible outcome which the writer's habit or temperament inclined him to accept as right and good,"[51] for Veblen himself, acceptance of matter-of-factness, science, and technology left him in the same position-with the important caveat that Veblen, unlike perhaps most of the classicists (I would exclude at least Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Mill, but that is another story), or the epigones among them, was aware of the system-specific and self-referential nature of his own work. When Veblen generalizes the scientific point of view on its own terms he is engaging in his own version of what he so pointedly attributes to others:
The generalisation of observed facts becomes a normalization of them, a statement of the phenomena in terms of their coincidence with, or divergence from, that normal tendency that makes for the actualisation of the absolute economic reality. This absolute or definitive ground of economic legitimacy...[52]
Once again, though, he did not treat it as absolute or definitive, only system-specific, problematic, and self-referential.
Veblen's general position is reiterated in the case of what he calls modern physical sciences:
It had come to be a commonplace of the physical sciences that "natural laws" are of the nature of empirical generalisations simply, or even of the nature of arithmetical averages. Even the underlying preconception of the modern physical sciences-the law of the conservation of energy, or persistence of quantity-was claimed to be an empirical generalisation, arrived at inductively and verified by experiment. It is true the alleged proof of the law took the whole conclusion for granted at the start, and used it constantly as a tacit axiom at every step in the argument which was to establish its truth; but that fact serves rather to emphasize than to call in question the abiding faith which these empiricists had in the sole efficacy of empirical generalisation.[53]
Once again, it is difficult to contemplate a statement more clearly expressive of the hermeneutic circle and of the problematicity of the premise on which a theory rests and thus of the circularity of the theory and its premise. Of the inexorable necessity somehow to choose one's standpoint, that is, one's preconception, on which rests one's analysis, with the implications he happily draws for others and equally readily (but perhaps not so equally happily?) for himself, Veblen is equally clear:
Before anything can be said as to the orderliness of the sequence, a point of view must be chosen by the speculator [that is, the speculative thinker] with respect to which the sequence in question does or does not fulfill this condition of orderliness; that is to say, with respect to which it is a sequence. The endeavor to avoid all metaphysical premises fails here as everywhere.... The generalisations which make up such a system of knowledge are, in this way, stated in terms of the system itself.[54]
One example of Veblen's position pertains to his discussion of Gustav Schmoller's treatment of the household. Schmoller, says Veblen, has a bias in favor of the recent as against the earlier form of the household. The author is no longer content to show the exigencies which set the earlier patriarchal household aside in favor of the modified patriarchal household of more recent times. He also offers reasons why the later, modified form is intrinsically the more desirable; reasons, it should perhaps be said, which may be well taken, but which are beside the point so far as regards a scientific explanation of the changes under discussion.[55]
Veblen similarly regards Schmoller's treatment of the "woman question" as "an off-hand reference of the ground of sentiment on which it rests to a recrudescence of the eighteenth-century spirit of egalite . . . as if the matter of superiority or inferiority between the sexes could conceivably be anything more than a conventional outcome of the habits of life imposed upon the community by the circumstances under which they live."[56]
Conclusion
The conclusion seems inescapable that Veblen, so far from accepting matter-of-factness as epistemologically categorical and absolute, treated it as derivative, situation- or system-specific, and problematic, and that he applied his own theory of preconceptions to his own preconceptions, that is, his analysis was self-consciously self-referential.
This does not negate Veblen's affection for and endorsement of matter-of-factness, evolutionary science, and technology as an imperative force. But it does enable us to perceive and to understand the tension within Veblen's work between doing his own work as an objective, evolutionary economic scientist, and recognizing the subjective and normative limits of that work, that is, its self-referentiable quality. As I wrote at one point above, Veblen was comfortable with the indeterminate and the ambiguous. Indeed, he was a true (may I say it that way?) evolutionary economist: He applied his evolutionary thinking to his own thinking, even to evolutionary thinking itself.
But is that conclusion completely unequivocal? There are several considerations that need to be discussed.
First, there is the question of whether Veblen was truly serious about the quoted passages, whether in fact they were a literary stratagem. In one view, they are to be taken "to be tongue in cheek, mischievous to baffle and infuriate his followers, mock seriousness . . ., playing games to dislodge the preconceptions of readers, anticipating objections hence defusing them, a defensive possibly paranoid smokescreen."[57] The same phraseology is used by Marc Tool, who queries, "Is it not fairly typical for Veblen to write a concluding paragraph disavowing any judgmental interest after he has just spent a chapter or more employing the `Veblenian dichotomy' as a criterion of assessment? Were these disclaimers `genuine' or `tongue in cheek'?"[58]
The answer, of course, is that we shall never know with complete certainty. Veblen may well have been practicing the stratagems so nicely summarized by Strassmann. Yet there are some considerations that support the conclusion advanced here. First, Veblen was not one to shrink from confrontation. It is difficult to believe that he went very much out of his way to defuse criticism. Second, the passages quoted above, and the discussions into which they enter, were typically very much a part of his argument, not conspicuous asides that can be easily disregarded. Third, Veblen was, needless to say, a deep thinker, and it seems evident that he deeply appreciated the problem of the hermeneutic circle and its implications for comprehending economics, including his own economics, as a system of belief. Learning this may have been something of a shock to him, but he seems to have accepted it without evident qualification. Fourth, Veblen's later work was not epistemological but often constituted essays in persuasion (to use John Maynard Keynes's felicitous phrase), and what he was trying to establish was not the ontologically absolute truth of his approach but that it was a more meaningful and more useful story than the conventional one.
It is neither impossible nor suprising, to this writer at least, that Veblen held two views simultaneously: first, that his analysis was objectively accurate, whatever its preconceptions, and second, that no analysis was completely objective in the sense of being independent of preconceptions.[59] If this was the case, it would parallel the modern tension between the desire for or belief in a value-ideology-paradigm-free economics and the sense or recognition that economics is inevitably characterized, indeed, channelled, if not driven, by valuational, ideological, and paradigmatic systems,[60] a view reinforced by Foucaultian structuralism and by hermeneutics and deconstructionism, among other forms of contemporary literary criticism and linguistic theory.
So I offer the conclusion given above with considerable confidence but with both some diffidence, not unequivocally, and a deep sense that any treatment of the self-referential nature of Veblen's argument must itself be offered with a sense, if not qualification, of self-referentiality.
Second, there is the question, assuming that Veblen seriously intended to affirm the self-referential nature of his argument about preconceptions, whether he was consistent in this. Malcolm Rutherford queries:
(i) is it not doubtful that Veblen consistently maintains this position in his major works?; and (ii) is there not another ultimate ground in Veblen's work--an ultimate ground that is not epistemological or methodological but biological--a matter of consistency with the basic instinctive endowment of mankind, and thus with the continued life process of mankind (race survival)? Put these two points together and what one tends to find in Veblen is the (often implicit) argument that workmanship and matter-of-factness do have a special significance for race survival, particularly in overcoming the pernicious influence of "imbecile institutions," and ensuring community serviceability. Certainly, the only institutional systems Veblen ever seems to approve of are those with a heavy element of matter-of-factness and workmanship present. This is perhaps most obvious in The Instinct of Workmanship. But can also be seen in Business Enterprise and The Engineers and the Price System.[61]
Let me say the following about these considerations.
o In my interpretation of Veblen, one finds three relevant things: first the biological or genetic or instinctual endowment of mankind, which is a constraint on the operation of social natural selection; second, the processes of socialization, in which each individual is inculcated (acculturated, socialized) into the ways of the society into which he or she has been born, central to which (but not exhaustive) in the modern world are technology and the process of industrialization; and third, the processes of individuation by which each person is differentiated, within the range permitted by socialization, from others and by which the individual acts qua individual. Although Veblen can sometimes be read as doing so, in fact, he raises no one to the level of an absolute; typically what he says is a matter of emphasizing that which he is isolating for the purpose of discussion, perhaps because the conventional wisdom so seriously neglects it (that is, a conditionistic rather than a deterministic interpretation), perhaps because that is the one on which he is presently concentrating.
One can refer, for example, to Veblen's holism. Allan Gruchy, in his early magisterial treatment of Veblen, notes that Veblen absorbed the "cultural approach to the interpretation of the behavior of the individual" and "became extremely impatient with the strongly individualistic psychology that was widely accepted by the late nineteenth-century academic economists." In Gruchy's view, Veblen "learned to uncover the meaning of isolated data by referring them to the larger cultural whole of which they were but minor parts. "[62] But methodological collectivism was to Veblen no absolutist explanation, and certainly it neither posited nor encompassed culture and socialization as either ultimate ground or final cause.
o Veblen's emphasis is on process, on how mankind must and does work out its problems. There is no absolute at work here, except the fact of the process itself, if one may put it that way. Two further points: The Veblenian dichotomy between the institutional or ceremonial and the technological, in my view, involves the process by which human arrangements are judged to be ceremonial or technological; and Veblen is essentially relativist and open-ended, a matter I consider below.[63] Technology and the process of industrialization were important to Veblen, but he was neither a technological, a biological, nor a cultural determinist.[64] What Mitchell called "the fundamental interests of mankind"[65] had to be worked out. The life process was not given to man but had to be worked out. Veblen certainly identified himself with his approach, with his own preconceptions, but it is not clear that he would have substituted his own approach for, or given his own approach, a privileged status in, the life process. The crux for Veblen was evolutionary process. As Paul Dale Bush has recently written, "The evolutionary point of view embraced by American institutionalism has always contained the reflexive notion that the philosophical foundations upon which its methodology rests are themselves part of an evolving fund of knowledge.[66]
o Veblen may have been no more consistent in pursuing his evolutionary holism and other ideas than anyone else pursuing their own interpretations or theories. And he certainly did stress life process, matter-of-factness, and workmanship, as well as such other factors and forces as status emulation. But it is not clear that he intended to erect with them an absolutist system immune from preconceptions. Veblen was able to distinguish between the analysis that rendered his own ideas relativist and those deeply felt ideas themselves.
o Last, there is the question of Veblen's cultural and ethical relativism. As Tool queries, does the foregoing interpretation "intend to imply, in characterizing Veblen's position as `situation-dependent, system-specific,' that he perceives only a `situational ethic' and that there really are no continuing normative facets in the cultural process?" Tool says that he sees Veblen's "constructive and destructive instinctual proclivities as an effort to get beyond the cultural determinism of habits of mind and habits of behavior. I have trouble," Tool writes, "accepting the interpretation that Veblen was a cultural or ethical relativist, as your above-quoted coinages might suggest." Tool also queries whether I intend to affirm "that Veblen had no independent `interpretive or evaluative standpoint', or that there can be no such normative construct because we necessarily are products of a particular time, place and culture." Tool goes on to suggest that "What may well be missing from Veblen, in spite of his post-Darwinian, evolutionary posture, is a sufficient recognition of the processual nature of all inquiry, which, of course, was one of the major insights of John Dewey. What evaluative notion underlies Veblen's reference to `imbecile institutions'? Does it not have to be a criterion which itself is not comprised of institutional forms or content?"[67]
Let me say the following:
o It may well be that Veblen was not a complete or a fully consistent Veblenian, by which I mean a Darwinian evolutionist, or that he could have absorbed more from Dewey. But notice that we have here an instance of the hermeneutic circle: If we assume that Veblen was self-referential, then he arguably was a complete and consistent Darwinian evolutionist. If he was not such an evolutionist, then he was not self-referential. We have no conclusive answer or basis for a conclusive answer; this indeed is the problem--though I offer the main body of this article as evidence of the self-conscious self-referentiality of Veblen's understanding.
o I am not convinced that Veblen either sought to or did in fact go beyond cultural determinism of habits of mind and habits of behavior (which, as above, for him must be conjoined with the biological-genetic and the individuation elements) to identify "continuing normative facets in the cultural process," that is, absolute transcendental norms. At the very least, I find that his work is consistent with a cultural or ethical relativism, whether or not one is comfortable with it. Moreover, it is typically, perhaps always, the case that efforts to state absolute norms subsequently give rise to problems derived from having to make further distinctions.
o The question of whether Veblen sought or found an independent interpretive or evaluative standpoint, or whether there can be such a normative construct, is subject to the same hermeneutic-circle predicament stressed above.
o I do not find missing from Veblen a "sufficient recognition of the processual nature of all inquiry." (This, too, is subject to the hermeneutic-circle predicament.) Specifically, apropos of"imbicile institutions," I interpret Veblen as saying four things: first, that there are institutions he considers imbecile; second, that there are institutions that are more or less readily imbecile from the modern point of view; third, that mankind must work out which institutions are and are not imbecile; and fourth, that these judgments are in fact judgments and do not rest on "a criterion which itself is not comprised of institutional forms or content," that is, that mankind makes these judgments qua judgments without actually having absolute grounds for them, though that is not to say that mankind neither believes nor pretends to have absolute grounds for them. Veblen's forte is precisely to puncture the balloons of such belief and pretense.
o Let us recognize the point at issue: As expressed by Gruchy, "Veblen substituted a new preconception for Marshall's outmoded one.... The preconception that he substitutes for Marshall's idea of normality is described by Veblen as the `preconception of process."[68] If anything is an absolute for Veblen it is the real world of process, the valuational process that is society in all its facets of operation, but even that, it is argued here and as Gruchy also affirms, he treated as a preconception. To argue with that is again, admittedly, to engage in a debate ultimately subject to the hermeneutic circle. The position here is that Veblen, for all his dramatic emphases, had a high tolerance for openness and ambiguity. If one takes Veblen's self-referentiality arguments seriously-- and there is of course no doubt that he wrote the passages that present them--one is led away from absolutism to infinite regress and to the processual nature of inquiry itself. Not everyone is happy with such a predicament; many people prefer and seek closure and psychic balm; but the question relevant here is what did Veblen believe, and my answer is offered as an answer to that question.
o Finally, perspective is required: The anti-relativist position is often used as part of the defense of existing institutions (power structure). But it was Veblen, after all, who was so often critical of received institutions. The key is process, the evolution of institutional arrangements, in part through their critique and comparative evaluation, not their treatment as sacrosanct and absolute.
Let me return to the matter of infinite regress. Rick Tilman notes that I state that "critique is always a matter of infinite regress with regard to the basis of critique," and suggests that "I believe what you mean is `regress', not `infinite regress', since the latter would retreat endlessly beyond the self-referential itself."[69] I disagree. As Bush has written, "The evolutionary point of view embraced by American institutionalism has always contained the reflexive notion that the philosophical foundations upon which its methodology rests are themselves part of an evolving fund of knowledge."[70] Two points must be made. First, even absent changed knowledge, every interpretive or evaluative judgment requires a base, and the identification of each base requires a base, ad infinitum. Second, the content of discussion is itself reformulated through the evolution of knowledge, so that which is self referential itself evolves.
Returning to the main question, Mirowski has written that "Perhaps Veblen believed he could break out of the 'logical circle' . . . by resorting to . . . [a] lofty and other-worldly conception of science, and then using it to claim he himself was merely applying the 'matter-of-fact' attitudes to the economic sphere" and that "Veblen's neglect of the hermeneutical aspects of science prevented him from understanding how deeply rooted natural law explanations are in the Western cultural matrix, and how significant they were in the nineteenth-century science he admired: in mechanics, in chemistry, and in energetics."[71] Mirowski is possibly, if not probably, correct in the latter claim about naturalism, but, for all of the strength with which Veblen advanced the matter-offact approach and for all of his reliance upon the honorific status of "science" for his own rhetorical purposes, Veblen, it seems in the material presented in the body of this article, was hermeneutical and did not believe that he could escape the hermeneutic circle.
The view that Veblen was not self-referential was rejected by Mitchell, who recognized that "Veblen's general method of work is closely akin to that of the classical economists in the sense that he reasons things out on the basis of his own suppositions and his own general knowledge of the world."[72] Mitchell's notes indicate that he thought Veblen's contribution was to emphasize the role of the "axiomatic assumptions" residing within the "preconceptions of the writers,"-- preconceptions formed "by disciplinary influence of prevalent habits of life." The "constructive results that follow from Veblen's discussion of preconceptions" includes, according to Mitchell, that "We have no means of deciding the ultimate test of truth in economics; e.g., prevalent `scientific' point of view relies on preconception of impersonal causal sequence. But we cannot prove validity of this assumption. According to the assumption itself, its basis lies in the fact that our minds have been drilled by discipline of modern life into looking at things in this way."[73] Mitchell leaves little doubt as to how Veblen, in his view, left the latter:
In short--we should not be the dupes of our preconceptions. We have them. whether we like it or not. Best to work them as explicitly as we can. Must make sure that details are logically consistent with them. But it is naive to fancy that what is common sense to us will appeal as common sense to later generations. This is the most dazzlingly disconcerting of Veblen's insights--the hardest to live with, but also the most enlightening.[74]
It also is worth noting that Ken Dennis questions both the exhaustiveness of Veblen's basic distinction between animism or teleology and matter-of-fact and the coherence of the equation of the animistic and teleological. Dennis writes, "I realize that in the earlier stages of science (or earlier still in `pre-science' if we can accept some such demarcation), animistic and teleological motifs were closely intertwined, but to me animism and teleology are not quite the same thing, and Veblen is perhaps a little vague on the meaning of `matter-of-fact' (materialistic, empirical, causal, etc.--sort of a mixed bag here), though I sense that one of the basic distinctions he had in mind was between (i) intuitive inquiry (stressing reasoned analogy) versus (ii) reliance upon the senses ('checking it out')."[75] On the same point, Tilman writes that he believes "Veblen leaves himself open for criticism by using the terms `animism' and 'teleological' interchangeably,"
whereas in fact . . . in common usage as well as in scholarly discourse they do not have the same meaning. "Animism" is the idea that natural objects have souls or that inanimate objects are inhabited or infested with spirits while "teleological" signifies evidence of design or purpose in nature and is a doctrine of final causes or purpose. It is at least worth a footnote to explain why the two are not the same. I suspect that Veblen knew the difference between the two but for reasons of his own assigned them the same general meaning hoping to convince his readers that there is no real difference between the superstitutions of primitives who practice animism, Catholics who believe in natural law with its teleological underpinnings and neoclassicals with their focus on equilibria as a norm."[76]
Dennis and Tilman raise an important point with which I substantially agree. The present argument is independent of that point.
Also noteworthy is a matter raised by Marc Tool paralleling the present discussion: When Veblen says that there is no disputing about taste, "is he not contradicting his de facto assessments of `taste' in The Leisure Class? Dewey said that `taste is one thing worth disputing about.' Perhaps Veblen should have read Dewey more."[77] The point is pretty much the same: one can read The Leisure Class as a satire of the practices of conspicuous consumption and status emulation by the socio-economic elite, as Veblen's denigration of those practices, or as his identification of these practices for what they are, namely, situation dependent practices having no independent existence or value, despite how much they mean to certain practitioners. And, of course, Tool is correct in his emphasis that taste is properly a matter of dispute--which is to say that taste is neither a technological nor a cultural given.
Tool also raises a fundamental interpretative point regarding the status of preconceptions. He writes:
When you say that preconceptions have become, with Veblen, "problematic" do you mean that they remain on the inquiry agenda as actual or potential objects of analysis and potential revision? Or do you intend to imply that since preconceptions are evidently necessary in all approaches to inquiry, they are, with regard to their character, equally suspect of being metaphysical?[78]
It is difficult if not impossible to establish what Veblen's answer would be but so far as I can see it would be along these lines: Preconceptions are largely noncognitive, a matter of the socialization of the individual. Inasmuch as preconceptions change in a nondeliberative manner, the socialization of the individual changes. Insofar as preconceptions are cognitive, or deliberative, they are potential if not actual objects of analysis and subject to potential revision. But preconceptions are, in fact, found in, are indeed necessary to, all inquiry, and should be recognized and identified as such. The point is not that preconceptions are suspect (though one may suspect the motives and practices of people who would obfuscate them and render them immune from critique), but that they are in fact both inexorable and metaphysical. The implication of all this for future inquiry is that to the greatest extent possible preconceptions should be made explicit. What is taken to be matter-of-fact is no less theory- and preconception-laden than the teleological.
In conclusion, let me reaffirm the argument that Veblen's theory of preconceptions was self-consciously self-referential. The theory did not have to be self-referential, but it was. Its self-referential status also did not prevent him from having his own views, often deeply held, on matters that his theory of preconceptions renders subject to preconceptions. Moreover, Veblen's analysis of preconceptions implies that whatever "reality" exists in the socioeconomic sphere, is subject to different stories, each based on and giving effect to various preconceptions; that both preconceptions and stories are of the nature of tools and that definitions of reality (encompassing preconceptions and stories) govern policy, which in turn constitutes the social (re)construction of socioeconomic reality. Preconceptions are important not because of the reality they may obscure but because of the reality to whose institutionalization they are instrumental. Veblen lives--and the self referential quality of his theory of preconceptions strengthens, not weakens, the power of his overall analysis.
Notes
[1.] The locus classicus of his ideas are the essays collected in Thorstein Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and Other Essays (New York: Huebsch, 1919), especially the first six chapters. This volume has been republished by Transaction Books (New Brunswick, 1990).
[2.] Ibid., p. 65. (See also, for example, pp. 157, 188, 191, 230, and 280).
[3.] Ibid., p. 1.
[4.] Ibid., p. 158.
[5.] Ibid., p. 170.
[6.] Ibid., p. 312.
[7.] Ibid., p. 16.
[8.] Ibid., p. 2.
[9.] Tbid., p. 24.
[10.] Ibid., p. 2.
[11.] Ibid., pp. 3-4.
[12.] Ibid., p. 5.
[13.] Ibid., pp. 65-66.
[14.] Ibid., pp. 162-63.
[15.] Ibid., p. 4.
[16.] Ibid., pp. 29-30.
[17.] Ibid., p. 359.
[18.] Ibid., p. 10.
[19.] Ibid., p. 23.
[20.] Ibid., pp. 12, 13.
[21.] Ibid., pp. 16, 17.
[22.] Ibid., p. 17.
[23.] Ibid., p. 19.
[24.] Ibid., p. 30.
[25.] This statement brings to mind that of George Shackle about "the creation of a Great Theory of Grand System of Economics, in one sense complete and self-sufficient, able, on its own terms, to answer all questions which those terms allowed.... Only a few questions, that lay outside the terms on which the Great Theory allowed itself to be consulted, remained as scraps to satisfy the prowlers round the edge of the camp." G.L.S. Shackle, The Years of High Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 4-5. Shackle is discussing the forty years following 1870.
[26.] Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, p. 38.
[27.] Ibid., p. 43.
[28.] Ibid., p. 69.
[29.] Ibid., p. 15. As a note to this statement, Veblen writes: "Epistemologically speaking, activity is imputed to phenomena for the purpose of organising them into a dramatically consistent system. (p. 15, n. 10).
[30.] See, for example, Geoffrey Hodgson, Economics and Institutions: A Manifesto for a Modern Institutional Economics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), p.41 and passim.
[31.] Of course, one of Veblen's central inquiries is "the evolution of the scientific point of view" itself.
[32.] Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, p. 37.
[33.] Ibid., p. 239.
[34.] Ibid., pp. 239-40.
[35.] Ibid., p. 76.
[36.] Ibid., p. 77.
[37.] Ibid., p. 277.
[38.] Ibid., p. 176.
[39.] Ibid., p.161.
[40.] Ibid., p.33.
[41.] Ibid., p. 32, emphasis added. He explains this qualification by saying that "the point of inquiry is the changes which have taken place in the secondary postulates involved with the scientific point of view." (Ibid.)
[42.] Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, p. 38.
[43.] Ibid., p. 43.
[44.] Ibid., p. 76.
[45.] Ibid., p. 86.
[46.] Ibid., p. 109.
[47.] Ibid., p. 126.
[48.] Ibid.
[49.] Ibid., p. 141.
[50.] Ibid., p. 143.
[51.] Ibid., p. 145.
[52.] Ibid., p. 146.
[53.] Ibid., p. 160, emphasis added.
[54.] Ibid., pp. 162, 163, emphasis added.
[55.] Ibid., pp. 270-71.
[56.] Ibid., pp. 272-73.
[57.] Paul Strassmann letter to Warren Samuels, 30 March 1989.
[58.] Marc Tool, letter to Warren Samuels, 5 May 1989, p. 1. Philip Mirowski quotes the first sentence of "The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View " which reads, "A discussion of the scientific point of view which avowedly proceeds from this point of view itself has necessarily the appearance of an argument in a circle; and such in great part is the character of what here follows." Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, p.32. Mirowski referred to this as a "deadpan sentence." Philip Mirowski, "The Philosophical Bases of Institutionalist Economics," Journal of Economic Issues 21 (September 1987):1001-38, at p. 1002.
[59.] Joseph DorLman notes the process whereby "Veblen was stripped to a considerable degree of the preconceptions of his own [Norwegian] culture, although his heritage prevented him from assimilating the ideals of the dominant pecuniary culture." Joseph Dortman, The Economic Mind in American Civilization, Vol. 3 (New York: Kelley, 1969), p. 434.
[60.] See Warren J. Samuels, "Ideology in Economics," in Modern Economic Thought, ed. Sidney Weintraub (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), pp. 467-84.
[61.] Malcolm Rutherford, letter to Warren Samuels, 28 April 1989.
[62.] Ni]an G. Gruchy, Modern Economic Thought (New York: Kelly, 1967), p. 34.
[63.] See Warren Samuels, "Technology vis-a-vis Institutions in the JEI," Journal of Economic Issues 11 (December 1977): 871-95.
[64.] See the treatment of this in Hodgson, Economics and Institutions, passim.
[65.] Wesley C. Mitchell. Types of Economic Theory, ed. Joseph Dorfman, Vol. 2 (New York: Kelley, 1969), p. 420.
[66.] Paul Dale Bush, "Institutionalist Methodology and Hermeneutics: A Comment on Mirowski," paper presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Institutionalist Thought, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 28 April 1989, p. 2.
[67.] Tool, letter, 5 May 1989, pp. 1, 2.
[68.] Gruchy, Modern Economic Thought, p. 50.
[69.] Rick Tilman, letter to Warren Samuels, 15 May 1989.
[70.] Bush, "Institutional Methodology and Hermeneutics " p. 2.
[71.] Mirowski, "The Philosophical Bases of Institutionaiist Economics," pp. 1023, 1024.
[72.] Mitchell, Types of Economic Theory, p. 686.
[73.] Ibid., p. 690.
[74.] Ibid., 691.
[75.] Ken Dennis, letter to Warren Samuels, 12 June 1989.
[76.] Tilman, letter, 15 May 1989.
[77.] Tool, letter, 5 May 1989, p. 1.
[78.] Ibid.
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