The Involuntary Economist: How Thorstein Veblen Made the Transition from Philosophy to Economics

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In an excerpt from his book Veblen: The fabrication of an economist who defeated the economy, Charles Camic explores the connection between Thorstein Veblen’s economic ideas and the way he was born and raised intellectually.


Editor’s Note: The current debate in economics seems to lack historical perspective. To try to fill this gap, we decided to launch a Sunday column on ProMarket on the historical dimension of economic ideas. You can read all the pieces in the series here.

Economic news and information is a part of everyday life in the United States and around the world today. Smartphones ping the latest unemployment and housing figures seconds after they are released monthly by government agencies; the US Federal Reserve’s trade deals, executive compensation programs and interest rate policies grab the news media; editorial writers describe data and statistical techniques from economists at Harvard and the Paris School of Economics; and we are all engulfed by the steady influx of information on oil prices, Nasdaq and Nikkei stock index averages, consumer confidence levels and the pricing of government programs. To imagine our atmosphere purified of these elements is to deform into another galaxy.

Our ancestors, going back a century and a half, would easily recognize our situation, not in its smallest details of course, but certainly in its broad outlines. As the United States and Western European countries industrialized in the second half of the 19th century, their elites and citizens were on the alert – albeit with less quantitative follow-up measures than we currently have. – closely linked to tariff regulations, the monetary standard, rail tariffs and surcharges, court decisions on the structure of companies, the prices of summer and winter wheat and the distribution of shares of the country’s wealth . On these issues, which filled national newspapers, urban immigrant newspapers and local city newspapers, depended the results of high-stakes electoral competitions.

Yet, just as today, “raw” economic data does not speak for itself. Almost without exception, the raw facts arrived in front of the public prepackaged, accompanied by an intellectual guide as to their meaning – with an interpretation that served to convert deaf information about the economy into economic knowledge. And, as one would expect, these interpretations varied widely in their content, some deeply tinted by the agendas of strongly divided political and social groups, others wanting to maintain more distance from the intergroup conflicts of the time. Regardless, whether they preferred a hands-on or independent style of intervention in the public arena, most economic writers, including most occupants of the newly created post of academic economist, had more problems. near their home to be processed at the same time. It was about their recurring struggles with each other over the proper way to interpret the hard facts of economic life in order to produce the right kind of economic knowledge.

A mild-mannered lion in these struggles for economic knowledge was Thorstein Veblen. Preeminent British economist (and near Nobel Prize winner) Joan Robinson once ranked Veblen as “the most original economist born and raised in the United States”; and his tribute – one of many similar tributes to Veblen over the past 125 years – invites a fundamental question about the relationship between new forms of economic knowledge and the life of the intellectual innovator. My book Veblen: The fabrication of an economist who defeated the economy pursues this question through a historical study of the connection between Thorstein Veblen’s economic ideas – the distinct type of economic knowledge he created – and how he was born and raised intellectually.

The process of Veblen’s advent as an economist was a protracted process, which lasted from the pre-Civil War period until the last decade of the 19th century. Described by historians today as the era of “making modern America,” those years were marked by massive immigration of northern Europeans, the colonization of the prairies of the Midwest, and the mechanization of the agriculture, explosive urbanization and industrialization, and the metamorphosis of the country’s institutional infrastructure. Veblen was very aware of all of these changes. Not yet the abstractions of historical monographs, they upset the places where he lived, as he forged his way – by the unbridled invention of the time, the railroad – of a community of Norwegian immigrants in rural Minnesota to long-standing areas of the east coast. , then to Chicago, which (with a population of over 1.5 million people) was already the country’s second largest city, as well as the headquarters of its meat, grain and timber processing industries, its emerging form of capitalist enterprise, and its devices for stimulating mass consumption.

Each of these great historical developments has passed through Veblen’s life experiences, and all feature in his end of century written. Even so, everyday experiences are layered and concatenated, and for much of the time, from his childhood until the late 19th century, Veblen watched the panorama of his time through the windows of classrooms, in a succession of schools where he was a star pupil. . Initially, these schools were local, but with a twist; luckily, the newly founded, but already well-equipped academically-equipped Carleton College was only a few miles from the family farm. Carleton was therefore the place his parents sent him when he finished common school.

Then, after graduating from college, Veblen entered graduate school, studying at four of the leading American universities of the time, one, Yale University, ancient but undergoing major intellectual renovation, the three others – Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University and the University. of Chicago, epicenters of the transformation of higher education that had just begun in the United States. Not only that, but it was for the express purpose of advancing his education that Veblen left the farm and moved several times thereafter; the powerful attraction of the university and the attraction of private professors caused all the great geographical displacements that he made (with the exception of a time out at home due to illness). Over the course of all these steps, Veblen gradually became a very original economist.

“Among the social scientists of Veblen’s generation, no other figure has had so many years as a student and apprentice in American institutions of higher education.”

The economy was not its intended destination; At first, Veblen aspired to a career as a philosopher, but this plan turned out to be temporary, and soon he reconsidered his options. One of the aims of my book, therefore, is to follow his intellectual journey step by step, examining Veblen’s pivot in economics and his transformation into an innovative economic thinker as he proceeded – amid economic and social changes. whirlwinds of its time – from the local school. at Carleton College, Johns Hopkins, Yale, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. Measured in units of time, this trip was a long one. Among social scientists of Veblen’s generation, no other figure has had so many years as a student and apprentice in American higher education institutions.

In Veblen’s case, moreover, this long period of time was heavily saturated with intellectual repetition – in particular, with the form of repetition that I will call “repetition-with-variation” (a notion I borrow from philosophers). Europeans and American sociologist Robert Merton). Considered only in terms of formal lessons, the schools attended by Veblen varied considerably from one another. To each, he studied different academic subjects with different teachers, whose teachings differed significantly. Despite these variations, however, these institutions all had a strong family resemblance; in one school after another, the teachers at Veblen, almost all German-trained, did their work using intellectual practices analogous to each other. In this way, they have endowed Veblen with equivalent skills, resources, and other intellectual tools – or, in other words, a similar repertoire of concepts, critical and constructive arguments, and formulation techniques. arguments. This repertoire overlapped, moreover, with experiences Veblen had had beyond the walls of the academy; its formal and informal education have been strengthened for many years.

A talented student that he was, Veblen learned the intellectual repertoire he was taught, mastering this repertoire so well that he was subsequently able to broaden and refine it in order to tackle issues different from those which concerned his teachers. Sociologists and non-sociological readers alike will likely find a decades-long study of the life of a 19th century economist a strange project for a sociologist, and perhaps it is. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the African adage that “it takes a village to raise a child”, my aim is to show that this clever sociological principle also applies to producers of knowledge, even to a specialist in creative knowledge. like Thorstein Veblen.

The development of an intellectual innovator, just as much as the education of a child, involves social processes that connect the elders of a village with the young of the next generation. Admittedly, this analogy does not go far, because the “village” inhabited by young intellectuals generally exceeds the physical limits of a particular geographical place to encompass several places, as happened in the case of Veblen. But this widening of intellectual space that has been going on for a century and a half has not diminished the role of tribal sages in academia. In recent times, the number of such alumni has actually increased, and more often than not, their impact on new university entrants has increased.

This intergenerational dynamic works differently depending on the case, of course. Repetition with variation is only one element in the story of intellectual growth and creativity. As far as I know, however, this is something that sociologists and other social scientists have almost overlooked. More importantly, it is an element that one would not expect to play a positive role in the development of thinkers who become innovators. After all, the repetition by the village elders of their ideas is the antithesis of new knowledge, isn’t it? In any case, this is what previous authors on Veblen’s work have assumed. But the historical evidence presented in my book shows that repetition with variation can have the opposite effect: the effect of stimulating and facilitating intellectual innovation. And while this statement applies to the extreme case of Thorstein Veblen, it probably holds true in other cases as well.

Extract of Veblen: The fabrication of an economist who defeated the economy by Charles Camic, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used with permission. All rights reserved

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