Thorstein Veblen and Western Thought Fin De Siecle: A Recent Interpretation

By Tilman, Rick | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Thorstein Veblen and Western Thought Fin De Siecle: A Recent Interpretation


Tilman, Rick, Journal of Economic Issues


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.

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