Cordes on Veblen's "instinct of workmanship".

Author:Ranson, Baldwin
Position:Notes and Communications

I am both amazed and pleased that young scholars throughout the world continue to try to make sense of, and to find provocative ideas in, Thorstein Veblen's century-old writings in convoluted English. I am neither amazed nor pleased that they are no more successful than American scholars have been in turning those writings into user-friendly, productive tools for social analysis. Christian Cordes' effort in the March 2005 issue of JEI is a good example of this lack of success.

The first seven pages of Cordes' essay describe with care and accuracy-and apparent approval-the central content of Veblen's instinct of workmanship. Veblen defined instincts not as determinate behavior patterns-which he called tropisms although most modern writers call them instincts-but as innate human approval of the determinate purpose of species survival. Instincts condition prescribed patterns of correlated behavior, including technological patterns.

But Cordes followed this description with what I think was a wrong turn. He appeared to employ what one of his sources called the "integrated causal model" and to reject the "standard social science model" that I employ (Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby 1992). Rather than debate the merits of these competing models in this comment, I shall compare Cordes' and my positions on three positions of Veblen's so that readers can judge their relative merits.

Instinct of Workmanship

Veblen asserted that every human has the desire to practice workmanship-to pursue species continuity efficiently, functionally, instrumentally. Cordes and I agree that this is a species-specific disposition.

Cognitive versus Social Foundations of Workmanship

Veblen asserted that every human's desire to behave efficiently is genetically determined-it is inherited. Cordes agreed with Veblen and sought to establish the "cognitive foundations of the 'Instinct of Workmanship'" (8). I disagree with Veblen and Cordes and seek to establish the social foundations of this "instinct."

Cordes' cognitive foundations are "a set of cognitive devices that participate in generating human behavior" (8). They are "specialized cognitive capacities in the realm of object use and manipulation that enable human beings to, for example, evaluate the suitability of an object to serve as a tool. As a matter of fact, in the course of human brain development cortical differentiation created distinct, relatively modularized capacities for more complex manipulations of objects...

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