Toward a Grand Union: The Banyan Tree of Knowledge

By Brinkman, Richard; Brinkman, June | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Toward a Grand Union: The Banyan Tree of Knowledge


Brinkman, Richard, Brinkman, June, Journal of Economic Issues


The Debate and the Problem

Many attempts have been made to achieve the goal of a unity of knowledge. This paper approaches the how of this desideratum from the vantage of Veblenian economics. Secondarily, the intent is also to demonstrate that a unity of knowledge, so formulated, is important and relevant to the overall dynamics of culture evolution.

This goal has historically been addressed from the vantage of the philosophical, the humanities, and the "soft" sciences, called social (Bunge 2003; Cua 1982; Dewey 1939; Frisina 2002; Kapp 1961; Kroeber 1955; Leary 1955; and Malinowski 1944). Alternatively, and stressing the methodology embedded in the "hard" sciences, the goal of a unity of knowledge has also been associated with the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry. This approach, among others, is associated with a framework called consilience (Wilson 1998; Damasio et al. 2001).

In the literature of Veblenian economics, the issue of unity and synthesis has been debated by John Elliott, Jerry Petr, and Allan Gruchy in the conception of a "Grand Union" (Elliott 1984; Petr 1984; and Gruchy 1987). Elliott argued that it would be advantageous "if economists writing in the institutionalist tradition were to establish connecting linkages with Schumpeter, Marxian studies, and such contemporary economists as Michael Kalecki, Robinson, and Piero Sraffa," which might be called a "grand union" (1984, 89). Petr similarly argued that a potential "constructive synthesis" of heterodox economists would possibly serve to promote positive ends-in-view for Veblenian economists and noted the apparent endorsements by Gunnar Myrdal and Marc Tool (1984, 591). Gruchy was not convinced: "It is the conclusion of this study of the fundamentals of institutional economics that it is not feasible to think in terms of a grand union of economic dissenters" (1987, 159).

The desideratum of a "grand union" requires a clarification as to the "what is" of Veblenian economics, in the context of conception and theory. Theory, in turn, relates to the Veblenian dichotomy that has frequently been conceptualized as the Veblen-Ayres dichotomy. However, so formulated, this assumes that the Ayresian dichotomy, which juxtaposes all technology (as the instrumental) to all institutions (as the ceremonial), represents a continuity of the Veblenian dichotomy that is subject to question (Hodgson 2004, 355-378). The Veblenian dichotomy, however, does not assert that all institutions are ceremonial as to origins and function, nor did Veblen assume that technology was always instrumentally positive. By comparison, Veblen argued that while business institutions and the pecuniary comprise the ceremonial, he did not, thereby, assume that all institutions function as the ceremonial.

Therefore, the Ayresian dichotomy as a theory of cultural lag locks Veblenian economics into a theory of dissent (Klein 1994, 1993). The Ayresian dichotomy, consequently, does not provide for the positives of amelioration, as assent, in that it precludes institutional adjustment via the application of instrumental knowledge to social institutions. But if institutions are always ceremonial, why then have institutional adjustments (Atkinson and Reed 1990, 1096, 1098)? By comparison, the Veblenian dichotomy potentially represents a theory of both assent (institutional amelioration and adjustment) and dissent (institutional critique).

The Veblen-Dewey-Kuznets Dichotomy: The Place of Science in Modern Civilization

The place of science is that technology, defined as "applied science," serves as the basic dynamic that has propelled humankind's civilization (culture) forward (Veblen 2003, 16). In the tradition of Veblenian economics, Simon Kuznets argued that a scientific epoch served to innovate the era of modern economic growth (1966). Both Wesley Mitchell and Kuznets argued that "all empirical knowledge, all scientifically tested information . …

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