Thorstein Veblen and Western thought fin de siecle: A recent interpretation.

Author:Tilman, Rick
 
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Despite the substantial body of literature interpreting the life and work of Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), until recently no study existed which situated him in the larger context of European thought at the turn of the twentieth century. (1) Importantly, however, a recent analysis of Veblen and his contemporaries by Stjepan Mestrovic (1993) places him in the realm of fin de siecle social theory and intellectual history. (2) His interpretation of Veblen's place in Western intellectual history, The Barbarian Temperament: Toward a Postmodern Critical Theory, has two interwoven themes. The first is his summation of the central ideas of certain leading fin de siecle scholars and intellectuals; the second is his interpretation of Veblen's cognitive relationship with these thinkers. In short, Veblen's ideas are related to those of Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Carl Jung, Werner Sombart, Friedrich Nietzche, Georges Sorel, and others mostly by way of showing their similarities. For the first time in one study, Veblen's ideas and creative powers are situated next to those of his leading European contemporaries, which alone makes it important to Veblen scholars.

Mestrovic focused on (1) methodological and epistemological issues in the social sciences, including those raised in the work of the founder of institutional economics, (2) the role of social engineering in Veblen's thought and his cognitive relationship with the Enlightment, (3) Veblen as a critic and utilizer of Christianity and, related to this, the question of whether "virtue" can be taught and his attitude toward this question, (4) Veblen's view of human nature as encapsulated in "homo duplex," and (5) interpretation and mystification of Veblen and his "program." It is argued that Mestrovic juxtaposed Veblen and his contemporaries by stressing the commonalities in their thought, yet he ignored their important differences. Out of these thinkers, he was intent on developing "a workable postmodern critical theory" (1993, xiv), but it is his use of Veblen in constructing this theory, not the theory itself, which is the focal point of this article. In any case, Mestrovic's efforts to "Europeanize" Veblen ulti mately failed since he misinterpreted important facets of his thought. (3) Even so, his misinterpretations are instructive to Veblen scholars as I will show.

Methodological Issues in the Social Sciences and the Critique of Positivism

In his interpretation of the commonalities of fin de siecle thinkers including Veblen, Mestrovic made an important point when he commented that

It will make a difference whether one is approaching their works as random narratives, mere fictions, or as scientific works that happen to be particularly difficult to comprehend because of their landscaping and metaphorical use of language, not to mention the grounds and referents they use for their discourse. (1993, 155)

As his study unfolds, however, it becomes evident that his own approach was not random narrative, mere fiction, or science as these are conventionally understood, although he used all three of these approaches, sparingly to be sure, in attempting to construct a new and more viable kind of critical theory. Instead, his method was that of the qualitative social scientist who eschews quantitative-statistical methods in favor of ideal types or at least constructed types, evaluative cultural commentary, intuitive insight, and comparative social theory. In short, Mestrovic is an eclectic but his eclecticism is systematic and integrative rather than of the ad hoc paste and scissors variety. That he was not able to fully resolve the problem of method does not invalidate his treatment of it; indeed, it may well be that social scientists and historians should realize that it is insoluble, that proposed solutions to it are merely part of a seamless mosaic. But Mestrovic believes that while no solutions can be regarded a s authoritative, much less definitive, some are better than others.

First and foremost, however, it was "positivism" that Mestrovic was after (although he was also highly critical of modernism and postmodernism for related reasons), and he criticized those who portray Veblen and other eminent thinkers from the same era as "positivists." (4) Mestrovic then laid out a more specific indictment of positivism in his chosen field of sociology, and what he said of it holds true of neoclassical economics (1993, 77):

We shall be following the authentic methodology laid out for sociology by its founding fathers during the previous fin de siecle, among them, Veblen, Simmel, Durkheim, and Freud. This is an interpretive, inductive methodology that regards culture as a system of signs and must be interpreted and decoded to yield insights concerning the underlying social consciousness, By contrast, the positivists and the postmodernists both collapse culture into society conceived as a system of abstract, rootless fictions. Both regard reality naively as something that speaks for itself, and both begin with deductive assumptions that are dreamed up subjectively by investigators, and then applied as fictions against a world that is assumed to be nothing but neo-Kantian appearances. (1993, 84)

Mestrovic concluded that:

The previous fin de siecle thinkers relied on the notion of habit and its associated concepts (mores, customs, representations, folkways, etc.) while contemporary thinkers deal with norms and fictions. Habits reach down into an unconscious will, a historical past, an essential reality, and they imply a tension between centrifugal forces that move humanity. (1993, 84)

Veblen and his notion of "habit" and "habits of mind" reenter the scene. The inexorable role of value which is never far from Mestrovic's mind, too, is reinjected into the dialogue:

When contemporary social scientists claim they want to avoid metaphysics in favor of empiricism, they overlook the obvious point uncovered by Kant that the faculty of judgment is required to make the huge leap from raw data to concepts. Freud, Durkheim, Veblen, and many of their contemporaries definitely incorporated metaphysics into their versions of social science, and we shall be as open about this fact as they were. (1993, 93)

But it becomes evident that Mestrovic was not merely a critic of positivism in its more extreme forms such as "barefoot empiricism;" he was also critical of postmodernism for the same reason:

Most contemporary efforts to interpret a work or theorist make no claims toward finding truth or reality ... Positivists are also scornful of myths, but the truths at which they arrive are every bit as contingent and susceptible to revision as any myth. In the end, both positivists and postmodernists reduce the world to neo-Kantian, circulating fictions. By contrast, Veblen, Durkheim and Freud regarded the consistent myths, habits, and collective representations that make up Western culture as signifying something true and real about that culture. These mythical representations mean something, refer to something, and are grounded in something, even if that something can never be known with full and complete clarity. (1993, 141)

Mestrovic's consistent repudiation of "the positivistic program of deductive reasoning and hypothesis testing"(1993, 147) is coupled with his distrust of the research program of postmodernism. (5) Institutional and other heterodox economists and qualitatively inclined sociologists may share his views as to why their methodologically conventional colleagues in economics and sociology are disinterested, indeed, skeptical of the value of their work. At the same time, their own unease with the radically relativistic claims of some postmodernists is linked by Mestrovic with what he says are the related fallacies of positivism.

Positivism in its late nineteenth century form was often linked with scientism, that is, the cult of science. But Veblen commented that "there is room for much more than a vague doubt that this cult of science is not altogether a wholesome growth" because of the "material consequences that follow from a great advance in matter-of-fact knowledge." Is the mind a passive recipient of sense data as positivists once contended? No, according to Veblen it is always an active agent channeling, organizing, and selecting data from the external environment with which it continuously interacts--it is purposive in terms of its interest and attention, indeed, intelligence has a "teleological bent" (1930, 5). When Veblen argued that "the modern civilized peoples are in a peculiar degree capable of an impersonal, dispassionate insight into the material facts with which mankind has to deal," he was telling his reader what science means and that the "material facts" include both the natural and the social world (1930, 1).

Since Mestrovic does not adequately define "positivism" and since it is the definitional linchpin of his attack on it, it is important to give it a more precise meaning, both along the lines Mestrovic suggests and in terms of what it meant after about 1885, but before it became transmuted into "logical positivism" in the 1920s. It rested on four related propositions: (1) the material world, both natural and social, has an objective existence whether observers perceive it or not; (2) sense data are the only reliable source of information about events in this material world; (3) scientific theory is formed from raw data, not from theoretical preconceptions or antecedents; and (4) the social position of the scientist is irrelevant to the meaning or accuracy of their findings-what is now known as the sociology of knowledge and social epistemology can play no role in explaining or justifying scientific discovery. Of course, it maybe argued that few philosophers of science, possibly including the influential positi vist Ernst Mach (1838-1916), ever held to such rigid dogma in the period under survey. But this is only a modest...

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