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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 170-171

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Book Review

The Intellectual Legacy of Thorstein Veblen:
Unresolved Issues

The Intellectual Legacy of Thorstein Veblen: Unresolved Issues. By Rick Tilman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. 252 pages. $59.95.

This collection offers eight original or substantially revised essays from Tilman's career-long work on Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). The first and last are devoted to Tilman's critique of the common view that Veblen's "social and intellectual marginality were mutually reinforcing" (226). The Veblen that Tilman presents is a man with strong family ties to a respectable, highly successful, hardworking farm family of the upper Midwest. Using some new archival material, but relying much more on reinterpretation of the same material used by Joseph Dorfman in his massive Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934), Tilman offers a late-twentieth-century view of Veblen's roots that contrasts rather sharply with Dorfman's 1930s interpretation. Tilman presses the point that Veblen was by no means a marginal individual in his early years and that neither early marginality nor later social iconoclasm accounts for his intellectual contributions.

In five of the remaining essays, Tilman explores the sources of Veblen's genius by describing his relationships to Darwin and biology, to psychological theories, to American Pragmatism and John Dewey, to Kant, and to modern industrialism. In a sixth essay on "Veblen and the New Deal," Tilman argues that Veblen's radicalism made him an unlikely source of liberal ideas.

Those who know the literature on Veblen well will find this collection provocative. Casual readers or those new to Veblenian scholarship should be warned that the views presented here are those of a passionate partisan for an interpretation of Veblen not shared by all. Tilman's Veblen is a radical who is often mistakenly classed with thinkers such as John Dewey as a pillar of a cohesive American Progressive movement. Highly suspicious of state-led reform, Veblen, in Tilman's estimation, [End Page 170] is a revolutionary rather than a reformer and, above all, an "eclectic" who created a world view that was very nearly his alone.

Tilman deserves credit for his devotion to Veblen's intellectual legacy and for the ambitious reach of these essays. Most recent literature on Veblen has focused on his differences with what the discipline of economics has become and on Veblen's thought in the context of the philosophical and psychological thought of his era. Tilman continues in this tradition but has added an ideological element; his argument is that Veblen was much further to the (old) left of the political spectrum than most have appreciated.

Much remains to be done in understanding Veblen as reporter of his times--as reporter of financial innovation and of organizational efforts among engineers in particular--and as synthesizer of newly emerging social scientific thought. Such work will demystify Veblen as an original American genius and will properly deemphasize efforts to classify his ideas along a political spectrum dominated by Cold War ideology. Such work will inevitably follow the lead set by Tilman in trying to understand Veblen in a broad intellectual and social context.

Anne Mayhew
University of Tennessee