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Charles Camic — a professor of sociology at Northwestern and author of Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics, just out from Harvard University Press — suggests that this extensive training may have made Veblen the most formally educated American of his period. And it situated him ideally to take a leading role in the development of the American version of the professional academic. Veblen was a key member of the generation of thinkers for whom, Camic writes, academe was becoming “a recognized career on the country’s social landscape.”
Veblen’s first teaching position was at the University of Chicago, where he both benefited from and contributed to the institutional emphasis on rigorous research under William Rainey Harper, who helped found the university. Marital problems and rumors of an affair got Veblen fired; he was let go from his next job, at Stanford, for similar causes. Camic quotes Veblen’s contemporary Charlotte Perkins Gilmans on the relationship that triggered his ouster from Stanford: “It seemed to me a needless piece of sex extravagance.”
I spoke with Camic about Veblen’s entanglement with the modern research university, the history of disciplinarity, the status of the academic outsider, and Veblen’s sex life.
One of your big arguments is that, despite his latter-day reputation as an outsider, Veblen was in fact the consummate academic insider. He spent his whole life in the academy and was entirely its creature. How did the misrecognition emerge? Why are we attracted to it?
A lot of academics want to see themselves as distinctive people with distinctive backgrounds — as outsiders, even when that’s somewhat implausible.
Veblen has been an easy person to point back to among academics who want to stand apart from the rest of the academy — whose intellectual identity is bound up with being different from their philistine contemporaries. C. Wright Mills is a great example of that. There’s not much intellectual affinity between Mills’s work and Veblen’s. But Mills wanted to find someone who was cast aside allegedly because of his radical ideas: this suffering outsider. Veblen is a hook on which to hang one’s marginality, even though it wasn’t true of Veblen in the period when he wrote his work.
You write about “iconoclasm” as a period style in Veblen’s time. Are there cognate fantasies of oppositionality in our own period?
Those who subsequently describe Veblen as an outsider frequently rolled out in support of that view the iconoclastic tone with which he put his words on the page. But lots of academics of his time used that combative way of writing. That didn’t make them outsiders. It went along with their insider status. My friend Andy Abbott has speculated that the identity of the rebel outsider goes back to artistic movements in France in the early 19th century.
It’s still a very popular identity — and often with a basis. Lots of those who describe themselves as academic outsiders have been excluded in despicable ways — the doors haven’t been open to them. There are people who really are outsiders.
But it’s a misuse of the term to describe someone who’s had a fairly comfortable life within the academy as an outsider, just because it feels like a nice identity.
One of Veblen’s fields of expertise was “political economy.” What was that? An article in The Chronicle Review from a couple of years ago, by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, argued for a return to “political economy” in these terms: “Political economists drew on all the streams of academic speculation — they were as much philosophers as social scientists, and they recognized none of the distinctions among the various contemporary social sciences.”
If you had a room full of historians of economics, I doubt you’d get a uniform answer, because those terms were greatly in flux. Before there was the academic enterprise that we call economics, there was a set of writings that went back to the 17th century and in some ways could even be traced back to Aristotle talking about the household. “Political economy” was advice to the prince on the fiscal management of the state.
Some of the threads in what we now call “economics” go back to that earlier period and continue into the 19th century: advice to the legislator on taxation, tariffs, whether currency should be gold-based or paper-based — all issues that we would now locate in what we call economics.
In the late 19th century, scholars moved into the academy. They were speaking primarily to other academics. They embedded some of those old issues in a more technical, theoretical apparatus.
In the mid-19th century, one of the great works of what we think of as economics was John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. He saw himself as giving advice to policy makers. Fifty years later, Alfred Marshall wrote a great work called Principles of Economics. Broadly speaking, with this linguistic change went a seismic shift from discourse that was primarily aimed at policy makers to discourse aimed at professional scholars.
Modern-day critics tend to use “political economy” to capture a more outward-looking economics that would deal with widespread social changes.
In Veblen’s time, that outward-looking tendency was often oriented to Darwinian or evolutionary science, as then understood. Some of that part of Veblen’s work now seems at best sort of silly and at worst part of the most sinister racial discourse of the period. Since Veblen, has economics engaged with evolutionary theory?
There’s a broad movement, anchored in England, that associates itself with the banner of evolutionary economics and often taps into Veblen. There’s a Journal of Evolutionary Economics, there’s an Association for Evolutionary Economics, in which some of Veblen’s ideas, including his more strictly evolutionary ideas, are frequently drawn upon. They don’t use the same racialized vocabulary — thank God — that Veblen used, but they want to capture something that Veblen and his contemporaries really wanted to capture: change, the idea that everything was mutable. There isn’t this thing called “the economy” that is more or less similar whether we’re talking about one time and place or another time and place.
One of the disciplines that track change or mutability over time is, obviously, history. Veblen wasn’t a historian, but he was also multidisciplinary in what to us look like promiscuous ways — involved in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and of course economics. That’s one of the reasons that nonspecialists still like to read him. On the other hand, he was an early devotee of disciplinary specialization.
When we call Veblen multidisciplinary, we’re speaking a little bit anachronistically. He certainly trained in a variety of fields, most obviously philosophy and political economy. He also worked with several historians and psychologists. So he had this multidisciplinary training — but in a period when there weren’t yet disciplines.
Before the birth of the modern academy, in the 1880s and 1890s, what we think of as “fields” were really just professorial chairs, not attached to departments. A local businessman might be interested in political economy, so he’d give Yale some money to found a chair in political economy. The person put in that chair might be there for all sorts of reasons — probably because he was known to the local gentleman who ponied up the money. But subsequently, if someone established a chair in sociology, that same person might move over into that chair if it paid more.
If one were interested in the sexual life of the professoriate at the turn of the last century, it would be strange to omit Veblen.
Specialization becomes more defined in the late 1880s and early ‘90s, at Cornell. The real explosion of department-creation comes at the University of Chicago in the early ‘90s, right when Veblen is there. Chicago is specializing, and Veblen, as usual, has his ear to the ground. When someone at Chicago suggested that maybe Veblen wanted to teach a course in sociology now and then, he was very emphatic: “I don’t know about sociology.” It takes a long time for specialization to develop. But once it does, it catches on like wildfire.
Veblen’s work has a multidisciplinary flavor not only because his training was multidisciplinary, but also because there was a similar mind-set that cut across different disciplines at the time, because so many of the scholars were trained in the German historical school. There was an emphasis on things like mutability and on wholes being greater than the sum of their parts. Veblen picks up this language, but he crafts it to tackle what are becoming more specialized problems in economics.
Among the many fields that you yourself draw on are the history and philosophy of science. You mention, for instance, Peter Galison’s notion of “trading zones” — border zones between disciplines where, in your paraphrase, “similarities that are only superficial ... nevertheless allow productive intergroup dialogue to take place.” In Veblen’s period, where were those trading zones especially rich?
In the 1880s and early 1890s, there were lots of streams of conversation: a more philosophically inflected discourse involving Kant and Hegel, a more anthropological conversation in which proto-anthropologists spun their tales of Indigenous peoples the world over, and so on. These conversations overlapped in different ways in different degrees, because there weren’t neat barriers between disciplines. There were many trading zones, where different things were traded for different periods of time and for different purposes. The anthropologists talked about “the mutability of human nature,“ while the biologists talked about the mutability of characteristics in species over the long haul of time. There’s a trading zone: They’d be both talking about mutability and change, but, in fact, they’re talking about something different.
The width and depth of trading zones really change a lot in the period of the formation of universities. The 1890s is a moment of big change. The zones were wide and open — a lot of free trade in those trading zones — in the 1880s. But by the turn of the century, the zones close.
I’m curious about the trading-zone metaphor as it applies to the social sciences and the humanities, rather than what Galison is talking about originally — collaborations in the hard sciences, between physicists and engineers for instance. One of the things that is so interesting about your book is that you seem consistently engaged with questions proper to epistemology and to the philosophy of science — how terms of art in different disciplines refer to different real phenomena, and how disciplines themselves understand this relation.
I have a very strong self-identity with science studies, which is very open in its boundaries. It includes people ranging from medical school to French literature and so on. It’s a very encompassing field. Some of the ideas that inform it do come from the philosophy of science. The field in many ways originates in the ‘60s with Thomas Kuhn, who was very engaged with philosophical issues. So inasmuch as I’m a citizen in the world of science studies, which has a nontrivial philosophy-of-science component, it’s a component of how I think of things.
But I couldn’t publish anything I’ve ever written in a philosophy-of-science journal — even with five revise-and-resubmits.
Let’s talk about Veblen’s The Higher Learning in America, which criticizes what he saw as the tendency to run universities like businesses.
It was written as part of the 1904 book The Theory of Business Enterprise. It applied some of that book’s ideas to the running of the university. Veblen was thinking particularly of the University of Chicago’s President Harper, who was very sensitive to donors and who established a business school. Veblen was horrified at the notion of business schools.
In 1904, that component of the book got sliced off. There’s no clear answer as to why. The two prevalent views are that publishers, then as now, prefer short over long. The other explanation is that Harper was the reviewer of the book and didn’t like Chicago represented as a business enterprise — so he told the publisher that that chapter had to go.
Higher Learning comes up often in essays by Chronicle Review contributors. In the past six months we’ve published two, one of which we called — you can’t blame the authors for this — “You Can’t Trust the Businessmen on the Board of Trustees.” What can today’s academics learn from Veblen about their own social or economic role?
In terms of the basic dichotomy that underlies a lot of Veblen’s work — the distinction between “industrial” work, by which he means work that contributes to the good of the community, and “pecuniary work,” which has as its aim profit-making — it’s not clear where the specialized academic falls.
Veblen doesn’t adequately resolve that. I think he can’t. He’s premised so much of his theory on that simple dichotomy. In Veblen’s conception, the specialized academic produces knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not pursuing it for an industrial or a pecuniary purpose.
Real ideas, Veblen says, come serendipitously. The university has to preserve that. Any other purpose — including laudatory social welfare — is deeply problematic for him, insofar it impinges on the unhampered pursuit of knowledge.
In an otherwise appreciative review of your book in The Wall Street Journal, Zachary D. Carter takes you to task for spending too little time on the marital scandals that afflicted Veblen at both Chicago and Stanford. Next time, will you leaven the disciplinary details with more stuff from your subject’s sex life?
Carter is wrong in his description of the private life, just incidentally. He makes it racier than it actually was. But inasmuch as the private life impacts the career story that I’m telling, I do go into it.
Carter counts three or four affairs. Unless he has access to Thorstein Veblen’s deep confessions, I don’t know where he’s coming up with these other affairs! If one were interested in the sexual life of the professoriate at the turn of the last century, it would be strange to omit Veblen. But if I were writing that book — which I wouldn’t be interested in writing — it would be incumbent on me to say that this reputation of sleeping with every graduate student who came to his office is false.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.