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History of Political Economy 35.1 (2003) 171-173
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Veblen in Perspective: His Life and Thought. By Stephen Edgell. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. xiii; 207 pp. Cloth $56.95; paper $22.95.
There have been other recent books on Thorstein Veblen, including works by Rick Tilman (Edgell's sometime coauthor) on “unresolved issues” in Veblen's intellectual legacy (Tilman 1996) and Elizabeth and Henry Jorgensen on the vexed topic of Veblen's relationships with women (Jorgensen and Jorgensen 1999). Veblen's work has also continued to be the subject of a substantial journal literature in both institutional economics and the history of economics. Now is a good time to take stock of what has been learned about Veblen, both in terms of his life and in terms of his theoretical project.
The first two chapters of Edgell's book deal with the major biographical issues and were, for me, the most satisfying part of the book. The first chapter is a summary of Veblen's “life and times” focusing on the American economic, political, and social milieu, and Veblen's personal problems and academic career. The second chapter consists largely of a critique of Joseph Dorfman's portrayal of the Veblen family as poor and culturally isolated, and the resulting thesis of Veblen's “marginality.” Dorfman's treatment has been disputed before, but this is the most extensive and consistent critique of Dorfman's “pathography” to date. The archival evidence overwhelmingly supports Edgell's point of view.
The third chapter is a rather odd conglomerate. The first part argues that, although not culturally isolated, Veblen did show a significant interest in his Norwegian cultural heritage. In terms of the influence of his ethnic background, Edgell admits “it is not easy to know how much weight to attach to Veblen's experience of Nordic values” (64), but goes on to speculate anyway. The second part of this chapter deals with the impact of contemporary evolutionary thinking on Veblen and includes what I found [End Page 171] to be an underdeveloped discussion of the Darwinian as opposed to the Spencerian and Lamarckian elements in Veblen's evolutionism. Edgell finds the evidence of whether Veblen is Darwinian or Lamarckian to be “mixed,” but his reading is based too much on the early Theory of the Leisure Class and does not adequately disentangle the various, and different, methodological, biological, and social evolutionary threads in Veblen's discussion.
The next chapter carries on this theme, dealing with Veblen's treatment of evolutionary change and the issues of instincts, habits, and institutions. Unfortunately, a number of recent and important contributions to the debate over these issues do not appear in the bibliography, and Edgell's treatment suffers as a result. Edgell also favors an interpretation of Veblen that has him positing two opposed basic instinctive drives—predation and workmanship. However, Veblen does not talk explicitly of an instinct of predation in The Instinct of Workmanship, and even in The Theory of the Leisure Class he states that predatory emulation is “but a special development of the instinct of workmanship, a variant, relatively late and ephemeral” (270). It is only because of this that workmanship can become Veblen's “ulterior norm of life” (270).
The next three chapters deal with Veblen's treatment of the institutions of the leisure class, the development and functioning of business institutions, and the possible development of non-predatory institutions out of the cultural impact of machine technology. For anyone familiar with Veblen scholarship there is little in these chapters that is particularly new. Edgell does discuss The Leisure Class as a founding contribution to the sociology of consumption, but recent work on conspicuous consumption within economics is not mentioned. On the “predatory” institutions of business, Edgell takes the view that Veblen's treatment stresses the survival of modern capitalism rather than its imminent demise. On the possibility of “workmanship institutions” to replace the predatory institutions of business, Edgell goes over the lengthy debate concerning Veblen's “soviet of engineers,” a debate created largely by Tilman's stubborn attempts to read The Engineers and the Price System out of the Veblenian canon.