A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen


Carleton was one of the denominational colleges that were established as the frontier moved westward, and unquestionably it was fairly bad. But like so many small liberal-arts colleges of the time, it was the haven for a few learned men and devoted teachers—the saving remnant who seemed always to show up when such a school was established. One of these men in Veblen’s time was John Bates Clark, who later taught at Columbia University, where he was recognized as the dean of American economists of his day. Veblen became a student of Clark’s; Clark thought well of Veblen.

This approval may have required imagination and tolerance, for in various class exercises Veblen was already giving ample indication of his later style and method. He prepared a solemn and ostentatiously sincere classification of men according to their noses; one of his exercises in public rhetoric defended the drunkard’s view of his own likely death; another argued the case for cannibalism. Clark, who was presiding when Veblen appeared to favor intoxication, felt obliged to demur. In a denominational college in the Midwest at this time it seems possible that cannibalism had a somewhat higher canonical sanction. Veblen resorted to the defense that he was to employ with the utmost consistency for the rest of his life : no value judgment was involved; he was not being partial to the drunk; his argument was purely scientific.

Veblen finished his last two years at the college in one and graduated brilliantly. His graduation oration was “Mill’s Examination of Hamilton’s Philosophy of the Conditioned.” It was described by contemporaries as a triumph, but it does not survive. While at Carleton Veblen had formed a close friendship with Ellen Rolfe; she was the daughter of a prominent and affluent Midwestern family and, like Veblen, was independent and introspective—very much apart from the crowd—and also highly intelligent. They were not married for another eight years, although this absence of haste did not mean that either had any less reason to regret it in later leisure. The legend has always pictured Veblen as an indifferent and unfaithful husband who was singularly incapable of resisting the advances of the women whom, however improbably, he continued to infatuate. But the Veblen family considered the fault to be at least partly Ellen’s. She had a nervous breakdown following an effort at teaching; in a far from reticent and not necessarily accurate letter Florence Veblen concludes, “There is not the least doubt she is insane.” It was, in any case, an unsuccessful marriage.

After teaching for a year at a local academy following his graduation from Carleton, Veblen departed for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study philosophy. At this time, 1881, Johns Hopkins was being advertised as the first American university with a specialized graduate school on the European model. The billing, as Veblen was later to point out, was considerably in advance of the fact. Money and hence professors were very scarce; the atmosphere was that of a conservative southern town. Veblen was unhappy, did not complete the term, and began what was to be a lifetime of wandering over the American academic landscape.

His next stop was Yale. It was a time of considerable controversy at Yale—of what scholars with a gift for metaphors from the brewing industry call intellectual ferment. The principal focus of contention was between one Noah Porter, a pretentious divine then believed to be an outstanding philosopher and metaphysician, and William Graham Sumner, the American exponent of the British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer. The practical thrust of Porter’s effort was to prevent Sumner from assigning Spencer’s Principles of Sociology to his classes. In this he succeeded; Spencer was righteously suppressed. Porter’s success, one imagines, proceeded less from the force of his argument against Spencer’s acceptance of evolution as a social as well as biological axiom than from the fact that he (Porter) was also then the president of the university. In Veblen’s later writing there is a strong suggestion of Spencer. Natural selection is not the foundation of a system for Veblen, but it serves him as an infinitely handy explanation of how some survive and prosper and others do not. In Veblen’s scheme cupidity is more often the basis for such selection than moral worth.