Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Veblen's "Instinct of Workmanship," Its Cognitive Foundations, and Some Implications for Economic Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Veblen's "Instinct of Workmanship," Its Cognitive Foundations, and Some Implications for Economic Theory

Article excerpt

Chief among those instinctive dispositions that conduce directly to the material well-being of the race, and therefore to its biological success, is perhaps the instinctive bias here spoken of as the sense of workmanship.


In the early twentieth century, economic and social theory were enriched by a Darwin-inspired approach. A major contributor to this line of reasoning about socio-economic evolution was Thorstein Veblen (see Hodgson 2004, part III). This article will show how lost arguments from Veblenian thought can be combined with insights delivered by cognitive science to tackle some of the theoretical problems of today's economics.

The paper is intended to reappraise Veblen's theory of human nature and especially the psychological, biological, and cultural aspects of his instinct theory. (1) According to Veblen, "[instincts] are the prime movers in human behaviour" (1914, 1) and the starting point of his theory of institutional change. (2) Veblen ascribed the origins of institutions to learned habits and ultimately to innate instincts, which provide a set of basic drives of human action, in the context of particular material conditions (Edgell 1975). Compared with instincts, which are directed toward a concrete objective end, habits are the means by which these ends can be reached and a flexible way of adapting to complexity (Brette 2003).

Veblen himself considered "The Instinct of Workmanship" (1914) to be his most important work because it delivered the psychological foundations of his approach in the most comprehensive way (see Hodgson 2004, 143). The central idea of his book is that during human phylogeny natural selection forces would have led to the selection of a natural propensity or instinct to engage in working activities that are useful for survival. Such an instinct would entail an appreciation of effective work, distaste for futile effort, and a drive for technological improvement (Veblen 1914, 33-5; Rutherford 1984). According to Veblen, the "instinct of workmanship" is a generic feature of human nature that guides the life of man in his utilization of material things and gives rise to a proclivity for purposeful action (see also Edgell 1975).

In general, Veblen identified instincts as specific innate tendencies of the mind that have evolved in the process of adaptation of species to their environment (see Jensen 1987). In particular, Veblen defined the instinct of workmanship as the main determinant of technological progress in that it "occupies the interest with practical expedients, ways and means, devices and contrivances of efficiency and economy, proficiency, creative work and technological mastery of facts" (1914, 33). In Veblen's concept, workmanship refers to tool-using activities, from the "industrial employments" of primeval man to the "machine process," in other words, it centers on sophisticated human skill in manipulating physical objects (Ayres 1958). The central capacity of craftsmen is to imagine particular forms of artifacts and to bring manual skills and perceptual acuity into the service of their implementation. Workmanship is oriented toward serviceability for the ends of life. Veblen considered technological advancement to be a result of the "instinct of workmanship" that is expressed in an institutional context more or less favorable to its emergence (see Brette 2003).

An understanding of human behavior is the starting point for all economic reasoning. In Veblen's view, human nature comprises irreducible innate instincts and learned habits. He conceived the individual in both biological and socio-economic terms. Human behavior is described as one in which agents and social environment interact. The limited reception of Veblenian economic psychology is partly due to the unsubstantiated nature of his specific hypothesized instincts (see Twomey 1998). But, as will be shown in this paper, recent results from cognitive disciplines provide evidence to reaffirm major ideas about human nature found in Veblen's thought. …

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