The Intellectual Antecedents of Thorstein Veblen: A Case for John Bates Clark

By Stabile, Donald | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Intellectual Antecedents of Thorstein Veblen: A Case for John Bates Clark


Stabile, Donald, Journal of Economic Issues


In a thorough survey of Thorstein Veblen's "intellectual antecedents," Stephen Edgell and Rick Tilman provide a list of possible influences on Veblen's ideas [Edgell and Tilman 1989, 1003-1004]. A name missing is Veblen's one-time professor, John Bates Clark (1847-1938). Clark's influence on Veblen has usually been construed as minimal at best and mainly one of opposing ideas [Henry 1995, 3]. Clark was a neoclassical marginalist, while Veblen was an evolutionary institutionalist. Furthermore, Veblen did not indicate any influence from Clark. Joseph Dorfman relates that Veblen admired Clark as a teacher, but "the only teaching of Clark that he remembered was a lecture on suavity" [Dorfman 1972, 31]. Veblen added to this perception of minimal influence by his critical review of Clark's economics [Veblen 1932b].

The marginalist approach that Veblen criticized, however, was not the economics Clark had taught him. In his premarginalist writings, when Veblen was his student, Clark made a case for what he termed an anthropological approach to economics. Ben Seligman once suggested that Clark's early ideas were "paradoxically enough, a possible influence on Veblen's thinking," but he did not explain his suggestion [Seligman 1962, 313]. This note will compare Clark's early writings to Veblen's ideas and explore the plausibility of Seligman's suggestion.

A case for Clark having influence on Veblen must remain speculative. Edgell and Tilman warn that "establishing intellectual ancestry is a complex exercise and in the case of Veblen, exceedingly so. . . ." They then refer to a test of similarity devised by Quentin Skinner, which asks if the ideas of two thinkers were similar, if the second thinker could have gotten the ideas only from the first, and if the similarity could not be random [Edgell and Tilman 1989, 1019]. This note will present intimations of Clark's influence on Veblen consistent with tests one and three regarding anthropology, the analysis of consumption, and the nature of competition. It will be argued that the interests of Clark and Veblen were too parallel to have been random. As for test two, the evidence is circumstantial. Although the ideas they shared can be traced to a variety of thinkers, Veblen had heard of them from Clark early in his intellectual life and used terms and examples analogous to what Clark had written.

There is no case to be made, however, that Veblen was a follower of Clark. While they analyzed similar issues that can be construed as dating from their initial contact, each took a different intellectual path in later years. Clark transformed himself into a neoclassical marginalist, while Veblen became a Darwinian. Because of his Darwinian approach, Veblen abjured static economic theories of both classical (natural law) and neoclassical (equilibrium) varieties. Whatever he may have thought of Clark's ideas when he initially heard them, in his later days Veblen usually turned Clark's arguments around to suit his own analytical framework and thereby opposed Clark's method and conclusions. In this sense, Clark served Veblen as a catalyst and a contrast, as can be seen in their similar but divergent interest in anthropology.

Anthropological Economics

Veblen's interest in anthropology is well known [Hamilton 1991, 937-8; Edgell and Tilman 1989, 1004]. He began his most intense essay on economic method with a quotation: "Anthropology is destined to revolutionize the political and social sciences . . ." [Veblen 1932a, 56]. The source of this interest in anthropology has remained obscure. For example, in his recent book on Veblen, Tilman writes that "no adequate explanation exists as to why Veblen became so intrigued with anthropology. . . ."[Tilman 1996, 19]. It might have come from his courses with Clark.

Clark and Veblen spent three overlapping years (1877-1880) at Carleton College [Dorfman 1972, 13, 37; Henry 1995, 1-3]. During those years, Clark had just finished, or was at work on, the articles [Clark 1877a; 1877b; 1879; 1880; 1881] that would enlarge his reputation as an economist. …

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