Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, and the Problem of Social Rationality in Thorstein Veblen

By Tilman, Rick | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2004 | Go to article overview
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Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, and the Problem of Social Rationality in Thorstein Veblen


Tilman, Rick, Journal of Economic Issues


Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), Max Weber (1864-1920), and Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) all considered the role of social rationality in human affairs. Yet Veblen's version of social rationality has never been adequately examined using the conceptual and taxonomic apparatus of contemporary European theory, although he dealt with it not only in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) but in more detail in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). (1) However, Veblen did not actually use the term social rationality, and he never wrote a formal treatise as such on either sociology or economics. (2) For that reason, Weber and Mannheim, who did both, are used to interpret and deepen understanding of Veblen. (3)

All three focus on the genesis and development of social rationality and the kinds of rationality engendered or suppressed by different social forms and the cultures within which these forms are embedded. Veblen and Weber, to be sure, wrote on the role of rationality in primitive societies and ancient dynastic empires. Our focus, however, is on social rationality as it has evolved in the past and might evolve in the future in industrial societies within economies that have passed beyond the stage of primitive accumulation-in short, social orders that have at least the rudiments of modern transport, communication and exchange, and the corresponding scientific and technological base of an industrial economy.

What does "social rationality" mean in a more generic sense in the social sciences, especially in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries when Veblen and Weber were at the peak of their intellectual prowess and Mannheim was undergoing the indoctrination and training that were to render him one of the most powerful thinkers of the interwar period? Obviously, rational procedures emanate from rational psychological processes. If society embraces rational techniques and the findings resulting from rational processes of inquiry, knowledge, and control produce consequences that are more predictable than otherwise, overall "social rationality" may be said to have increased. Both individuals and social aggregates display it when systematic, explicit reasoning occurs, for example, as when rationality is linked with symbolic transformation. The logical structure of the mind, as a functional entity, is thus organizable into a coherent system in which (1) beliefs or sets of beliefs are logical or consistent because they rely on valid inferences, that is, they are based on sufficient evidence meaning relevant considerations which in principle are falsifiable, (2) goal-directed action exists in which an action is said to be maximally rational if what is in fact the adaptation of the most efficient means is used to achieve a given end, and (3) the agents' ends are the ends they ought to have in the sense that each individual seeks what is in his or her interest according to some specified set of values. "Rationality" thus means believing what is empirically or demonstrably true, means-ends congruency and understanding one's own best interests given certain value premises. Given these definitions of rationality, "irrationality" would signify the flip side of the coin, that is, (1) beliefs that do not rest on valid inferences or sufficient evidence, (2) action which is not maximally rational because the means relied on are not congruent with the ends sought, and (3) the ends the agent seeks not in his or her own best interest as defined by particular normative assumptions. The fact that Mannheim, and especially Weber, have a more complex and elusive paradigm for rationality does not preclude using a simpler and less opaque taxonomy for explicating the meaning of social rationality in Veblen. In any case, probably any typology of rationality useful in social science inquiry would have to encapsulate at least these three usages of "rationality" and "irrationality." (4)

European critics, the Frankfurt School in particular, attack Veblen's claims regarding machine-induced rationality in industrial society.

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