The book, Veblen, is about intellectual innovation, and how originality is shaped by the accumulation of schooling experiences. It examines a great American original, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a heterodox economist who became famous at the turn of the last century for his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here and in several companion works, many now neglected, Veblen exposed the defects of what we now call “mainstream economics” and proposed a bold alternative theory centered on problems of economic inequality which continue to haunt our own time.
My book examines the roots of Veblen’s ideas. This is a question scholars and others have written about since the time of Veblen’s death. With few exceptions, these accounts have offered a storyline that everyone is familiar with, whether or not they have ever heard of Thorstein Veblen.
I call this storyline the “outsider thesis.” It is the notion that creative individuals in nearly all walks of life enter the field where they will innovate from a place at the remote margins of the field or from entirely outside of it. This marginality gives them a creative edge over insiders, who are mired in the conventions of the field and cannot think outside the box. Yet that is precisely what innovators do; coming from the margins or the outside, they see things in a fresh light that enables them to discover new pathways beyond the imagination of insiders.
This outsider thesis is the centerpiece of previous explanations of Veblen’s originality. His interpreters portray him as the archetypal outsider, whose characteristics relegated him to the outer margins of the academic world where he spent his career. Among these alleged characteristics, scholars have especially emphasized Veblen’s impoverished upbringing on a farm of Norwegian immigrants, his late start speaking English, his sexual exploits, and his withdrawn personality.
Historical evidence strongly counters this narrative. Not only is every one of these descriptors simply wrong; my book refutes that whole notion of Veblen as an outsider. Archival documents, and other primary-source material I uncovered, demonstrate just the opposite. In the academic milieu where he was situated, Veblen was an insider par excellence.
Still further, my book shows that many of Veblen’s intellectual innovations actually derived from his position as an insider to the world of American higher education, which was undergoing major transformations at his time. These included the emergence of European-style research universities and the resulting rise of professional opportunities for young Americans who aspired to careers in one of the specialized academic disciplines then taking shape.
My book is the first to situate Veblen in this context and to demonstrate the connection between his later economic theorizing and his membership in the first homebred generation of American academics, who would build the modern university. In this building project, these young scholars were anticipated by their teachers, who had received advanced degrees in Europe and then carried back to the United States new ideas in philosophy, psychology, history, and economics (or “political economy,” as they called it).
This was the world inside which Veblen came of intellectual age in the 1880s and early 1890s. Beginning graduate study at John Hopkins University, Veblen earned a doctorate in philosophy at Yale University. Thereafter, he nearly earned a second doctorate in political economy at Cornell University, before his advisor departed to join the political economy department at the University of Chicago, where he also secured a faculty position for Veblen.
In my book, I follow Veblen’s educational path step by step. I demonstrate how his studies with a dozen different mentors accustomed him to a distinctive set of ideas about phenomena such as social evolution and social institutions. Because these ideas were continually reinforced by Veblen’s experiences as he moved across universities, disciplines, and mentors, they became second nature to him. As such, they provided tools he could adapt to the theoretical and practical problems he found when he turned to the agenda of contemporary economists.
Topping this agenda was the issue of wealth distribution, and the question of why some people receive larger shares of a nation’s wealth than others do. To this question, neoclassical economists of the time answered by asserting that people receive economic rewards in proportion to their productive contributions. To Veblen this theory was shot full of holes; and his writings upended it by creatively recrafting and repurposing the intellectual tools that his professors had previously plied in other contexts. According to Veblen’s theory, the individuals who receive the greatest economic rewards make no productive contributions, whereas productive men and women are continually bled dry by means of ever-changing parasitic institutions. In this far-reaching transposition of the lessons learned during his schooling lay Veblen’s originality.
I came to write Veblen out of years of skepticism about the “outsider thesis.” Added to this was my frustration, at once theoretical and methodological, with the tendency of intellectual historians to elide the schooling of the figure—the thinker, the protagonist—whose ideas they are analyzing.
I have read scores of intellectual biographies. Some simply ignore the protagonist’s schooling; some compress it into a sentence or paragraph. Some—those I myself have found most useful—devote a chapter or two to the ideas of one or two mentors who “influenced” the protagonist before she/he/they began their own careers. Unusual is the intellectual biography that ranges wider and digs deeper into the schooling process.
In some cases, this near-silent treatment is justified. In myriad ways, education occurs in all societies; it is a universal process. But the same cannot be said of “schooling” when we use the term to refer, less amorphously, to blocks of time—hours, days, months, years—allocated specifically to the activities of teaching and learning, whether these activities go on in homes, church basements, apprentice workshops, or the brick buildings called “schools.” The incidence of schooling in this sense rises and falls across different eras and social groups.
Now when the intellectual historian’s protagonist hails from a period or a group where schooling was a rare experience, the historian can hardly be faulted for neglecting schooling. Conversely, I know of no justification for the historian to skip school when the protagonist was schooled for extended periods of time. That, of course, is the case with all of us today. And it was already the case for Thorstein Veblen and a growing number of his (white, male, Protestant) contemporaries, especially those who, like him, came from well-off families and aspired to professional careers—academic careers, in particular.
Yet, one of the first things I noticed when I began research on my book was that Veblen scholars were cut from the same cloth as most other intellectual historians. Their overwhelming tendency was to ignore Veblen’s schooling altogether, even though he was one of the most thoroughly schooled members of his generation. Indeed, he was still a fulltime graduate student at age 35, by which point he was just a few years away from beginning his most famous book.
Among Veblen scholars, I could count exceptions to this tendency on one hand. What was more, even the few scholars who broke from it deemed sufficient abbreviated accounts of the work of a couple of Veblen’s mentors. This method, while preferable to wholesale neglect, precluded considering whether Veblen’s ideas were shaped not merely by his contact with a couple teachers, but by the cumulative impact of his experiences with a phalanx of teachers.
My book takes a different tack. It pries open the black box of Veblen’s schooling using a method that has been surprisingly underutilized by Veblen scholars (and many other intellectual historians). My research goes down into the weeds, combing through Veblen’s academic records, copies of reading lists for the courses he took, and unpublished lecture notes by his teachers. It also digs into neglected contemporaneous printed sources, like the annual “catalogues,” “registers,” and “circulars” of the college and the universities he attended.
Veblen illustrates the value of these underestimated materials for excavating the early lives and schooling experiences of social thinkers prior to the start of their intellectual careers. The book places schooling front and center, which is where I believe it belongs when we study the intellectual development of well-schooled figures like Thorstein Veblen.
I would be happy if readers opened Chapter 3, “Beginnings.” Here I tell a family story and a national story as a prelude to the story of Thorstein Veblen as an intellectual innovator.
The family story is that of Thomas and Kari Veblen, a newly married couple who saw few opportunities in their native Norway. So, in 1847 they crossed the Atlantic in a whaling tub and made their way to the upper Midwest where, after a rough start, they built a prosperous farm, where they adopted the latest technological innovations.
Simultaneously, Thomas and Kari tended carefully to the schooling of their nine children, enrolling seven of them (including two daughters) in the preparatory program of a nearby college, where four of them then continued their studies into the college proper.
By a stroke of fortune, that college was Carleton College, named for a Boston brass manufacturer who in 1871 gifted the school with a million dollars (in today’s dollars), the largest sum given up to then to a Midwestern college. Spending wisely, the college soon boasted a cutting-edge curriculum in the natural sciences (which taught evolutionary theory with approval), the humanities, and the social sciences.
In the social sciences, Carleton established one of America’s first professorships in the subject of political economy, hiring for it the future giant of American (neoclassical) economics, John Bates Clark. Following Clark’s example, Veblen then decided to attend graduate school and, for this reason, to leave the farmlands to live in the industrializing cities of Baltimore and Chicago (with many destinations in between). The timing of this move coincided with the birth of graduate schools in the United States, which were then trumpeting their use of modern scientific methods to study the natural world and the social world, economic life in particular.
In microcosm, this saga was the drama of postbellum America: the Great Atlantic Migration, the agricultural settlement of the Midwest, the explosive takeoff of urbanization and industrialization, the transformation of higher education through capitalist philanthropy, and the celebration of scientific methods.
All of these epochal developments enveloped the family of Thomas and Kari Veblen and also buffeted the budding economist in their midst. In the third chapter of my book, the reader sees the nesting of these Russian dolls.
In addition to examining the social origin of Veblen’s ideas, my book analyzes their vital substance.
Here too Veblen departs from conventional wisdom, which portrays Veblen primarily as an iconoclastic satirist of America’s wealthy in The Theory of the Leisure Class. An iconoclast Veblen was, but mainly because he was also a professional economist involved in debates with classical and neoclassical economists over the distribution of wealth among different social classes.
Then, as now, the issue of wealth distribution was an explosive and divisive one on the national stage, where battles raged between Capital and Labor and their spokespersons. Whether Veblen would have written about the leisure class outside of this context is unlikely; for, as he knew, satires of the leisure class were by then commonplace. Veblen did not think he needed to add another one unless it had something more to offer.
And The Theory of the Leisure Class did just that. Here (and elsewhere) Veblen maintained that most academic economists, as well as many journalists and political commentators, thought about economic life in the wrong way. They viewed economies in static terms, presenting economic life as essentially the same in all times and places. Moreover, they viewed economies as made up of separate individuals, all of them acting out of self-interest. Today, we find many economists and pundits who still hold to these notions in updated forms.
But Veblen relentlessly criticized these views. He insisted that economic life is constantly changing, and that economies are structured differently in different places and times. Not only this, but in economic life there are no standalone individuals. Economic activities, such as production and consumption, are always shaped, said Veblen, by the evolving institutions that people are embedded in.
From this critical perspective, Veblen attacked prevailing theories of wealth distribution that posited that people with wealth earned it through their individual contributions to improving the process of economic production. To the contrary averred Veblen—where there is wealth, there is robbery: predatory behavior by powerful parasitic groups that contrive to get “something for nothing” via social institutions, which evolve to adjust to historical change by devising ever-new mechanisms for thievery.
Observing his own society, Veblen saw economic institutions as enabling the accumulation of vast fortunes for the predatory class as its members pursued private profit. But he then pivoted to groups with other motives. Writing, in despair, about the beleagured men and women who served the interests of community at large by devoting themselves to the design and functioning of the “machine process,” Veblen posed the paradox: “Why are large and increasing portions of the community penniless… Why do we … have hard times and unemployment in the midst of excellent resources, high efficiency and plenty of unmet wants?”
More than a century after Veblen penned this question, the paradox remains, giving alarming pertinence to his forceful analysis of the predatory stratagems of modern economic institutions.
Charles Camic is the Lorraine H. Morton Professor of Sociology and a member of the Science in Human Culture Program at Northwestern University. Formerly, he was the Martindale-Bascom Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A specialist in sociological theory and the sociology of knowledge, he has written extensively on the development of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American and European social thought. He is the coeditor of Social Knowledge in the Making (University of Chicago Press, 2011).