i. Introduction

Index | The General Approach |

There are at least three Thorstein Veblens: first, the seriously unserious, reverently irreverent, amoral moralist whose iconoclastic assault on the received pieties of America place him in the front ranks of social critics. Second, there is the economist whose institutional economics and meticulous anatomy of American high finance and business enterprise have earned him several generations of distinguished followers and a permanent niche among the greats of political economy. Finally, there is the sociologist to whom we owe theories of socially induced motivations, of the social determinants of knowledge, and of social change. This account will be concerned mainly with the third Veblen.

It is difficult to summarize the major aspects of Veblen's thought not only because he wrote in a complicated, illusive, and polysyllabic style, but also because he lacked a systematic exposition and deliberately attempted to pass on his highly charged value judgments as statements of fact.

In a writer like Marx it is relatively easy to distinguish analysis from prophecy, and normative from scientific judgment; not so with Veblen. Although he used to repeat to his students, "We are interested in what is, not in what ought to be," even the casual reader will soon discover that behind the scientific stance were hidden strong moral impulses. For example, it is hard to take him seriously when he insists that he uses the term "waste" in a neutral sense, and that "it is not to be taken in an odious sense, as implying an illegitimate expenditure of human products or of human life." Nor is his use of what Kenneth Burke has termed a perspective through incongruity, innocent of moral connotations, as when he compares the livery of servants with the vestments of the priest, "a body servant, constructively in attendance upon the person of the divinity whose livery he wears." When Veblen deliberately links words with respectable and dishonorable meanings such as "trained incapacity," "business sabotage," "blameless cupidity," "conscientious withholding of efficiency," "collusive sobriety" or "sagacious restriction of output," he uses these balanced opposites to pass moral judgment under the protective coloration of detached description. Veblen belonged to the company of Swift as well as to that of Marx.

These are some of the difficulties in attempting to separate the substantive content of Veblen's thought from its ethical husk. But the obstacles are not insurmountable, although, incidentally, Veblen himself would hardly have approved of the enterprise.

Coser, 1977: pp. 263-264.

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