A Note on the Intellectual Connection between Albert Einstein and Thorstein Veblen

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At the 1995 annual AFEE meetings in Washington, I presented a paper on the role of physics in early twentieth century institutional and neoclassical economics [Ganley 1995]. A secondary point of the paper was the suggestion that Albert Einstein and Thorstein Veblen shared similar views on the philosophy of science. This suggestion drew more comments than anything else in the paper. Many of the comments included the notion that Einstein had written about Veblen in a very favorable manner. Among the suggestions were the following:

1. Veblen was the only economist who made sense to Albert Einstein.

2. Veblen's economic analysis influenced Einstein's perspective on economic events.

3. Einstein considered Veblen to be the most important economic theorist of the era.

This note is to follow up on these ideas and describe what Einstein actually wrote about Veblen. It was not as an economist that Einstein wrote of Veblen, but as a philosopher of science.

Einstein on Veblen

In the early 1940s, Einstein was asked to write a commentary on Bertrand Russell's theory of knowledge, and he agreed to do so. He knew Russell's work very well and thought highly of him as a philosopher of science. It was in the first few sentences of that essay that Einstein acknowledged his appreciation of Veblen's approach to scientific methodology:

When the editor asked me to write something about Bertrand Russell, my admiration and respect for that author at once induced me to say yes. I owe innumerable happy hours to the reading of Russell's works, something which I cannot say of any other contemporary scientific writer, with the exception of Thorstein Veblen [Einstein 1944, 279; emphasis added].

Oswald Veblen and Einstein

Thorstein Veblen's nephew, Oswald Veblen, was a mathematician of some considerable professional recognition. Princeton University conferred an honorary degree on Einstein in 1921, and Oswald Veblen, a member of Princeton's mathematics faculty, met Einstein at a post-ceremony reception. In 1927, Oswald Veblen offered Einstein a research professorship at Princeton University, which Einstein declined [Hoffman 1972, 163]. In 1930, Oswald asked Einstein's permission to use a quote from Einstein's 1921 address at a reception in his honor as an inscription over the fireplace in the faculty lounge in the newly built mathematics building at Princeton. Einstein consented to the inscription of the phrase: "God is subtle, but he is not malicious," even though he wrote to Veblen that he had meant to say "Nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur not by her cunning" [Clark 1971, 422]. This distant, somewhat detached relationship changed in 1933 when Einstein and Oswald Veblen became two of the first four faculty members of the Institute for Advanced Study, located in Princeton, New Jersey.

Whether or not Einstein had read the writings of Thorstein Veblen prior to activities at the Institute for Advanced Study is not clear from any of the biographical material on his life. It is possible that his own pacificism may have attracted him to Veblen's writings on peace and war, or Einstein may have been interested in Veblen's writings on Germany. However, it is likely that Oswald Veblen introduced Einstein to the works of his uncle. Their relationship was familiar enough for Einstein to have squeezed in a visit with Oswald during a one-day house-hunting trip to Princeton in spring 1933. On the other hand, their relationship did not always run smoothly at the Institute. One history of the early days at the Institute noted that funding for Einstein's research assistants was blocked in 1937 by Oswald Veblen, who controlled funds for the mathematics section of the Institute. The conclusion I draw from all of this is that there is a high probability that Oswald Veblen played a role in introducing Einstein to Thorstein Veblen's writings, particularly on science.

Einstein's Philosophy of Science

Einstein felt compelled on numerous occasions to make explicit his epistemological viewpoint as it evolved in his later years:

I see on the one side the totality of sense experience, and on the other, the totality of the concepts and propositions that are laid down in books. …