Thorstein Veblen and Human Emotions: An Unfulfilled Prescience

By Wolozin, Harold | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Thorstein Veblen and Human Emotions: An Unfulfilled Prescience


Wolozin, Harold, Journal of Economic Issues


By centering on instinct as a prime mover in economic behavior, Thorstein Veblen tapped into the function of the mind itself-in particular, the commanding role of the unconscious in human motivation and behavior. In this paper, I expose his seminal focus on instinct to the powerful beam of light of psychoanalytic theory. The results of this analysis point to (1) a new perspective on Veblen's insights into the relationship between economic institutions and human emotions and (2) the contribution psychoanalytic theory can make to the analysis of economic behavior--in particular, the roles of restlessness, phantasy, and the irrational.

Veblen on Instinct, Institutions, and Human Emotion

In his wide-ranging works Veblen singled out instinct, in particular the instinct of workmanship, as the prime mover of economic behavior. He described man as "a coherent structure of propensities and habits, which seeks realization and expression in an unfolding activity" (1898). These included a number of basic instincts including workmanship, parental bent, idle curiosity, and so on. He described these instincts as "products of his (man's) heredity traits and his past experience" (my italics). To Veblen, instinct was the pilot and motor of human action. He held "he is not simply a bundle of desires that are to be saturated.... It is the characteristic of man to do something, not simply to suffer pleasures and pain" (390).

Yet Veblen, in his depiction of the roots of instinctual behavior, had created a dilemma. On one hand, in describing instincts as timeless propensities he was in essence saying that they were deep emotions, self-directed roads to "satisfaction." On the other hand, tying instincts to "past experience" suggested that the resulting instinctive behavior was the product of institutions, handmaidens of past experience (1898, 386, 390). This point-counterpoint of internal propensities and emotions and external influences (institutions) dominated his economic analysis. It also presented him with an unresolved dilemma, namely, the relationship in human behavior between the raw, timeless emotion of instinct and institutions. As I shall explain, the path he took in coping with this dilemma established a template for subsequent developments in institutional theory, leading many institutionalists to conclude that "it's all culture," a position which Veblen himself did not unequivocally hold.

The evolution of Veblen's thinking on this issue is not, however, clear cut. Although Veblen singled out the prime, teleological role of "hereditary" instincts (the instinct of workmanship, the parental bent, idle curiosity, sentiments) (1931), he was less than consistent in his work in depicting their influence. In his pioneering 1899 work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, he forcefully depicted man as "a centre of unfolding impulsive activity--teleological activity" (15-16). He drew a sharp line between "the human endowment of instincts" and the "habitual elements of human life." Instincts are "transmitted intact from the beginning of humanity," while the "habitual elements ... change unremittingly and cumulatively, resulting in a continued proliferous growth of institutions." As to instincts, "no heritable modification ... is to be looked for" (306). However, in a later work, The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (1914), he described the instinct of workmanship as "concerned with the ways and means of life rather than with one given ulterior end" (318). In The Place of Science in Modern Civilization (1961), he had modified his position that instincts are prime movers to conclude that institutions were on a par with if not superceding instincts in determining human conduct. It "takes place under institutional norms and only under stimuli that have an institutional bearing" (242). Thus, Veblen had backed down from his initial, strong depiction of instincts as prime movers. Institutions were now either on a par or even replacing instincts as prime movers of human and economic behavior. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Thorstein Veblen and Human Emotions: An Unfulfilled Prescience
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.