Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, and the problem of social rationality in Thorstein Veblen.

Author:Tilman, Rick

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), Max Weber (1864-1920), and Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) all considered the role of social rationality in human affairs. Yet Veblen's version of social rationality has never been adequately examined using the conceptual and taxonomic apparatus of contemporary European theory, although he dealt with it not only in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) but in more detail in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). (1) However, Veblen did not actually use the term social rationality, and he never wrote a formal treatise as such on either sociology or economics. (2) For that reason, Weber and Mannheim, who did both, are used to interpret and deepen understanding of Veblen. (3)

All three focus on the genesis and development of social rationality and the kinds of rationality engendered or suppressed by different social forms and the cultures within which these forms are embedded. Veblen and Weber, to be sure, wrote on the role of rationality in primitive societies and ancient dynastic empires. Our focus, however, is on social rationality as it has evolved in the past and might evolve in the future in industrial societies within economies that have passed beyond the stage of primitive accumulation-in short, social orders that have at least the rudiments of modern transport, communication and exchange, and the corresponding scientific and technological base of an industrial economy.

What does "social rationality" mean in a more generic sense in the social sciences, especially in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries when Veblen and Weber were at the peak of their intellectual prowess and Mannheim was undergoing the indoctrination and training that were to render him one of the most powerful thinkers of the interwar period? Obviously, rational procedures emanate from rational psychological processes. If society embraces rational techniques and the findings resulting from rational processes of inquiry, knowledge, and control produce consequences that are more predictable than otherwise, overall "social rationality" may be said to have increased. Both individuals and social aggregates display it when systematic, explicit reasoning occurs, for example, as when rationality is linked with symbolic transformation. The logical structure of the mind, as a functional entity, is thus organizable into a coherent system in which (1) beliefs or sets of beliefs are logical or consistent because they rely on valid inferences, that is, they are based on sufficient evidence meaning relevant considerations which in principle are falsifiable, (2) goal-directed action exists in which an action is said to be maximally rational if what is in fact the adaptation of the most efficient means is used to achieve a given end, and (3) the agents' ends are the ends they ought to have in the sense that each individual seeks what is in his or her interest according to some specified set of values. "Rationality" thus means believing what is empirically or demonstrably true, means-ends congruency and understanding one's own best interests given certain value premises. Given these definitions of rationality, "irrationality" would signify the flip side of the coin, that is, (1) beliefs that do not rest on valid inferences or sufficient evidence, (2) action which is not maximally rational because the means relied on are not congruent with the ends sought, and (3) the ends the agent seeks not in his or her own best interest as defined by particular normative assumptions. The fact that Mannheim, and especially Weber, have a more complex and elusive paradigm for rationality does not preclude using a simpler and less opaque taxonomy for explicating the meaning of social rationality in Veblen. In any case, probably any typology of rationality useful in social science inquiry would have to encapsulate at least these three usages of "rationality" and "irrationality." (4)

European critics, the Frankfurt School in particular, attack Veblen's claims regarding machine-induced rationality in industrial society. (5) Their attacks stem in part from the fact that Veblen did not use the concepts or jargon familiar to the leading Continental thinkers. This article thus attempts to (a) demonstrate through textual exegesis the meaning of social rationality in the corpus of Veblen's writing, (b) show how European sociology can be used to illuminate and critique Veblen's theory; parts of the taxonomy of rationality employed by Mannheim and Weber, respectively, are used to explicate its meaning and significance, and (c) utilize the insights of the two Europeans, as well as Veblen's own thought, to clarify the meaning of the progress or decline of social rationality in his Darwinian view of the future.

One caveat at the outset: This article is not about either Mannheim or Weber except insofar as some of their ideas about rationality are helpful in explicating, clarifying, and critiquing Veblen's on the same subject. It is the problem of social rationality in Veblen that is its focus and the two Europeans are used only when their ideas are germane to a better understanding of him. Clearly, Weber in particular had a more elaborate and complex conceptualization of rationality than can be used effectively here. To illustrate, the author focuses on two types of rational social action in Weber's work but will use only sparingly his broader typology of rationality. The same will be the case with Mannheim, whose ideas about rationality changed over time as in Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1940), where he used concepts other than functional and substantial rationality such as "self-rationalization" and "self-observation." In short, only concepts developed by Weber and Mannheim which are of direct and immediate use in understanding and criticizing Veblen's machine- and science-induced rationality are systematically used here. But it is essential to understand what he argued was occurring and how he qualified his argument before considering the European analysis of his claims about the relationship between the machine process and social rationality.

Veblen on Social Rationality as Induced by the Machine Process

The most explicit source of Veblen's analysis of rationality is chapter 9, "The Cultural Incidence ofthe Machine Process," in The Theory of Business Enterprise. Textual exegesis of it shows illuminating points of comparison with regard to European sociology. Without specifically mentioning them as such, Veblen conflated, discarded, and added substantive meaning and value to the ideas of rationality held by European sociologists. First is Veblen's view of the impact of the "machine process" on the worker's psyche:

Mechanically speaking, the machine is not his to do with as his fancy may suggest. His place is to take thought of the machine and its work in terms given him by the process that is going forward. His thinking in the premises is reduced to standard units of gauge and grade. If he fails of the precise measure, by more or less, the exigencies of the process check the aberration and drive home the absolute need of conformity.... The machine process is a severe and insistent disciplinarian in point of intelligence. It requires close and unremitting thought, but it is thought which runs in standard terms of quantitative precision. (6) Veblen, then, carefully qualified his thesis in these terms:

Of course, in no case and with no class does the discipline of the machine process mould the habits of life and of thought fully in its own image. There is present in the human nature of all classes too large a residue of the propensities and aptitudes carried over from the past and working to a different result. The machine's regime has been of too short duration, strict as its discipline may be, and the body of inherited traits and traditions is too comprehensive and consistent to adroit of anything more than a remote approach to such a consummation. (7) It is important to keep these qualifications in mind because Veblen's critics often overlooked his focus on cultural and institutional impediments to machine-induced rationality and mistakenly portrayed him as a technological reductionist whose work had a monocausal thrust. (8)

Veblen also advanced another important and influential thesis on the effects of the machine process on the human psyche--especially that of the industrial worker. He argued that the machine process provides no illumination into issues of morality, law, or politics except in terms of material causation. Machine technology is best understood in terms of pressure, temperature, velocity, and tensile strength; therefore metaphysics, manners, breeding, and ancient custom are irrelevant to a grasp of its functioning. (9)

The impact of machine technology produces a worker whose psychology is iconoclastic in attitudinal response toward property, hierarchy, authority, religious belief, and conventional morality. (10) The changes in values and attitude induced by the machine process among industrial workers foster a new kind of critical intelligence (social rationality) among them. In fact, Veblen argued that the labor force is becoming increasingly skeptical regarding the rights of large property owners as to power and ownership; indeed, the more radical elements among the wage earners questioned whether corporate property rights should be honored at all. (11) Yet Veblen again carefully qualified his argument and cautioned that

[i]n the light of this consideration, then, it is to be noted: (1) that the dominance of the machine process in modern industry is not so potent a factor for the inculcation of socialistic notions--it does not so irresistibly shape men's habit of mind in the socialistic sense--as the first survey of the facts would suggest; and (2) that the differentiation of occupations involved in modern industrial methods selectively bunches the socialistic elements together, and so heightens...

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