Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, C. Wright Mills, and the Generic Ends of Life.

Author:Miller, Edythe
Position:Book Review

Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, C. Wright Mills, and the Generic Ends of Life, by Rick Tilman. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2004. ISBN 0742532844, $65.00. 295 pages.

Rick Tilman's book is a scholarly examination of the contribution of Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, and C. Wright Mills to the development of a heterodox American intellectual tradition. It need hardly be added that Veblen and Dewey were also among the most important figures in the development of the institutional school of economic thought. The book is a welcome addition to the intellectual history literature, although in actuality it is more precisely an addition to the Veblen literature. It is primarily an examination of Veblen's contribution; Dewey and Mills are considered mostly as they supplement and complement Veblen's thought.

Tilman's research is extensive. The works of Veblen, the economist, Dewey, the philosopher, and Mills, the sociologist, are explored using extensive archival material, including from the Veblen, Dewey, and Mills collections at Carleton College, Columbia University, Southern Illinois University, and the University of Texas at Austin. Tilman also makes broad use of primary and secondary sources. He has built a careful, interesting, and solid case.

The book is ambitious, as befits its subject matter. Tilman compares the thought of his key figures on a broad range of topics: feminism, the positive state, sports and games of chance, the business-industry distinction, aesthetics, wasteful consumption, and marginal utility economics. He also plumbs the work of other scholars on similar questions or for their reaction to the work of his central players. Tilman concludes with consideration of the social and human meaning of the goal, adopting Veblen's terminology, of "the generic ends of life, impersonally considered." Tilman feels that it is their common advocacy of this concept that most unites his three key characters. Tilman links this concept to the Veblenian proclivities for workmanship (sometimes craftsmanship), curiosity, and the parental bent (altruism), all endorsed also by Dewey and Mills, and all based in values that sustain community. He opposes these proclivities to those that are based in pecuniary, predatory, and self-seeking tendencies that work themselves out through the use of fraud, predation, and deceit and that impair community.

A host of topics is explored: the role of women in vicarious consumption, the role of...

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