Varieties of scientific system: from veblen to the postmoderns.

Author:Neill, Robin
Position:Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen called for an "evolutionary social science." I respond, because we have yet to reconcile the factors of permanence and change in human behavior, evolutionary science, a systematic account of socioeconomic change, must still be considered an oxymoron.

The term systematic has at least three significations: (a) a particular method or practice in proceeding to some end, (b) a persistence in some practice, and (c) logical consistency in a practice. The three significations are related and can be encompassed in a single discussion, though with these significations it is logically possible to be systematic in one sense and not in another, or even systematically unsystematic. Accordingly, given the different ways in which an account of social behavior might be systematic, the nature and extent of "system" in the works of any particular social scientist or school of social scientists can best be explicated in the context of an account of the varieties of system making an appearance over the history of social science.

The Preconceptions of Veblen's Evolutionary Science

Veblen began as a student of philosophy, so perhaps it was Emmanuel Kant from whom he drew the basic elements of his ideas of science and evolution (Dorfman 1949, 436-7), but a number of ideas of science and evolution pervaded the information environment of the late nineteenth century, and Veblen was sensitive to contemporary currents of opinion. During a short stay at Johns Hopkins he came into contact with the Pragmatists John Dewey and C. S. Peirce. From the latter he learned about the evolution of the idea of science itself. (1) His doctrine of instincts, as in "the instinct of workmanship" and the "predatory instinct" owed much to another Pragmatist, William James. Whatever else, then, Veblen's debt to American Pragmatism is evident (White 1973), and having roots in American Pragmatism, he also had roots in elements of the Scottish Common Sense philosophy that contemporary proponents of that view had misunderstood (Flower and Murphey 1997, passim., and Dorfman 1934, 26-7, 46). We should understand him, then, in this context. It is his understanding, not ours, that is at stake, however, and he can speak for himself.

[Evolutionary science] is a theory of a process, of an unfolding sequence.... The modern scientist is unwilling to depart from the test of causal relation or quantitative sequence. When he asks the question, Why? He insists on an answer in terms of cause and effect. He wants to reduce his solution of all problems to terms of the conservation of energy or the persistence of quantity. This is his last recourse. And this last recourse has in our time been made available for the handling of schemes of development and theories of a comprehensive process by the notion of a cumulative causation.... [T]he evolutionist leaders [refuse] to go back of the colorless sequence of phenomena and seek higher ground for their ultimate syntheses. [They have] shown how this colorless impersonal sequence of cause and effect can be made use of for theory proper, by virtue of its cumulative character. It is in the human material that the continuity of development is to be looked for; and it is here, therefore, that the motor forces of the process of economic development must be studied if they are to be studied in action at all.... The change is always in the last resort a change in habits of thought.... In all this flux there is not a definitively adequate or absolutely worthy end of action, so far as concerns the science which sets out to formulate a theory of the process of economic life.... From what has been said, it appears that an evolutionary economics must be the theory of a process of cultural growth as determined by the economic interest, a theory of a cumulative sequence of economic institutions stated in terms of the process itself. ([1898] 1961, 58-61, 72, 75, 77) In Veblen's description of evolutionary science there is an implicit belief that there is something approximating truth and that the social scientist has sufficient access to truth to provide guidance for practical action. Veblen held that persistent observation would produce some reliable correspondence between what is in the mind of the observer and what is objective reality. He was both Kantian and Peircean in this matter (Dorfman [1934] 1961, 52). Kant began with an assertion that simple objective truth was not accessible, because the innate action of the mind shaped perception. For Kant, to say that mind corresponded to reality was tantamount to saying that in large measure it corresponded to its own creation. Peirce believed that difficulties faced in approaching a knowledge of objective reality could be overcome by persistent induction. So we have Veblen stating,

For by induction alone can we reduce things to system and connection and so bring particular things and events under definite laws of interaction land such knowledge] is the only knowledge which can serve as a guide in practical life. (Cited in Dorfman [1934] 1961, 52) Veblen did not hold the naive view that observation could produce a synthetic knowledge of objective reality, meaning an exact correspondence between the conjectures in the mind of the observer and objective reality (1884, 270-271). Still, beginning his reconstruction of Kant's Critique of Judgement by positing that sense perception ("the simple data of experience") was separate from conjecture (264-265), he came significantly closer to that view than did the Postmoderns of the mid twentieth century, who treated observed facts themselves as substantially "theory laden." Veblen asserted that there was something that could be called "science," that conjectured efficient causality could have its probable truth strengthened by repeated observation (272-273). To use the postmodern terminology, he asserted that science was a discourse substantially different from, and more truth laden for practical purposes than, the discourse of the classical economists or Karl Marx. As will be shown, the Postmoderns, on the contrary, asserted that so-called science was just a discourse like all other discourses, with no special claim to truth.

What serves for objective reality in Veblen's accounts is not depicted as being constant over time. Moved by instinct, that is, "the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance" (James 1981, 1004), human agency both makes and responds to objective social reality. Repeated instinctive response to social reality produces habits of thought and behavior--technology and institutions--and continued response to these new conditions produces new habits of thought and behavior. Given the independence of intentional human agency in both knowing and acting (a postulate that Veblen inherited from Kant (2) but also found implicit in James' notion of instinct), the environment of knowledge, that is, the mental substance of the industrial arts, institutions, and, indeed, in the mode of thinking about them changes in an indeterminate way. In short, both the object of the science evolves and the science itself, as part of an evolving information environment, evolves. Handicraft industry is followed by machine industry, and people come to fill their world with new intuitive meanings, such as "sequence of opaque cause and effect," "evolution," and "cumulative causation." In society and science change ultimately dominates permanence.

In Veblen's view, emerging patterns of thought and action were by definition inconsistent with previously formed habits of thought and action. Agents with interests vested in obsolescent institutions were in conflict with those seeing their fortunes in emerging institutions. Human action changed its institutional context even while the institutional context molded human action. The process of change acted in a world that resisted change. Further, behavior rooted in one instinct, such as that of "workmanship," was in conflict with behavior rooted in another instinct, such as that of "predation." And always the independent intention of instinctive action and reaction kept the process going. The task of the social scientist for Veblen, as it was for Peirce, was to persist in observation of this process until conjecture about the entailed efficient causes acquired sufficient probability for some "theory of cumulative growth" to be accepted.

In Veblen's science there was no hiatus between intuition and conclusions drawn from observation. By confining his attention to efficient causality, he was able, like Kant, formally, that is, by way of procedure, to place the metaphysical productions of intuition, such as Goodness, Truth, and Freedom, to one side. Analysis based on such was teleological, rooted in final causes, not on observation of efficient causes. This is not to say, however, that Veblen was not judgmental when he had come to some conclusion based on what observations he had made. In his condemnation of obsolete and dysfunctional institutions he was perhaps even more judgmental than Marx. Further, what he thought was to be observed was the effect of intuition in human action. Practical value judgment in human agency was at the core of his notion of evolution. When he labeled the natural law concept and the associationist psychology as "metaphysical" ([1900] 1961), he is to be understood to be saying that it was not scientific in two different ways: (1) The idea of natural law was simply metaphysical, teleological, and not scientific, and (2) The associationist psychology entailed an incorrect denial of the presence of intuition, that is, knowledge "without previous education," in human agency.

From these psycho-epistemic foundations Veblen built his notion of evolution and evolutionary science. His was neither idealistic Hegelian evolution nor biological Darwinian evolution, nor any other of the...

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