Letter from Thorstein Veblen to Sarah Mclean Hardy

Introduction by D.S. Mattison

Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen, Wikimedia.

A new feature Canon introduced in fall 2011 is to publish in each issue archival material of notable New School scholars. This semester we are pleased to bring you a letter written by one of the New School for Social Research’fs founding fathers: philosopher and economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857 – 1929). Born in Wisconsin to Norwegian immigrants, Veblen obtained his BA in philosophy from Carleton College in 1879. He began his graduate career in 1881 at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under pragmatist forefather Charles S. Peirce. After his first semester at Johns Hopkins, Veblen failed to secure the funding needed to continue his degree. He then transferred to Yale, where he earned his PhD in philosophy in 1884 with a dissertation on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Due to his professed agnosticism, Veblen was unable to find work in philosophy departments — at that time, theology and philosophy departments were one and the same. Veblen then exited academia and went to live on a farm in Iowa with his first wife, Ellen Rolfe. This lasted nearly a decade until until both of their families put an end to it, denouncing him as a good-for-nothing. Veblen then turned back to academia and enrolled at Cornell in 1891 to pursue a second PhD in economics. From Cornell, he traveled to the University of Chicago, where he lectured in economics from 1892 to 1906. He then taught at Stanford for three years before being dismissed for ‘personal affairs’. In 1911 Veblen took a position at the University of Missouri and one year later married his second wife, Anne Fessenden Bradley, a divorcee with two daughters. Following his seven years at Missouri Veblen obtained a job with the FDA and moved to Washington, DC, where he became editor of the radical journal The Dial (founded in 1840 by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret fuller). Veblen’s work with The Dial led him to New York in 1918, where only one year later, he joined the original faculty of the New School for Social Research, alongside Charles A. Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Alfred Johnson, Horace Kallen, and John Dewey. Due to dissatisfaction with changes in its administrative policies, Veblen left the New School in 1922. In failing health, he returned to property he owned in Palo Alto, dying a few months before the stock market crash of 1929.

This letter, reprinted with permission by the University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, was written in 1886 by Veblen to Sarah McLean Hardy, a young political economics lecturer at Wesleyan. In it he expresses frustration regarding the completion of his seminal work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was published three years later. Despite this initial frustration, Veblen seemed to have developed his intentions sufficiently to produce a truly remarkable contribution to philosophy, economics, and cultural theory. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen coins the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying expensive goods to convey one’s wealth and gives an elaborate account of the evolution of the institution of the leisure class and its subsequent iterations. As such, Veblen’s work has been called “institutionalism.”

Veblen details how man emerged from various archaic stages and how in each subsequent stage the leisure class became more and more developed to resemble what today has been referred to as “the one percent.” He writes:

From the days of the Greek philosophers to the present, a degree of leisure and of exemption from contact with such industrial processes as serve the immediate everyday purposes of human life has ever been recognized by thoughtful men as a perquisite to a worthy or beautiful, or even a blameless, human life. In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men’s eyes.1

And it is only these men who are free to do and consume as they please, all the while determining and structuring the lives of others, who by force of “invidious”2 desire, seek to emulate the pecuniary status set in place by those who have inherited wealth through the ages based upon their original ancestors’ exploitation and resource domination. The trajectory of this class concerns the construction of normative moral codes of decorum, grooming, and of course, conspicuous consumption of goods provided to them by the laboring classes to whom they give nothing in return except further symbols of the system of wealth that upholds their own place atop the cultural hierarchy.

Drawing from his life-long involvement in some of America’s most prestigious institutions of ‘higher’ learning, Veblen points to a particular brand of conspicuous consumption beholden to the scholarly class:

The effect of this factor of the standard of living, both in the way of retrenchment in the obscurer elements of consumption that go to physical comfort and maintenance, and also in the paucity or absence of children, is perhaps seen at its best among the classes given to scholarly pursuits. Because of a presumed superiority and scarcity of the gifts and attainments that characterise their life, these classes are by convention subsumed under a higher social grade than their pecuniary grade should warrant. The scale of decent expenditure in their case is pitched correspondingly high, and it consequently leaves an exceptionally narrow margin disposable for the other ends of life. By force of circumstances, their own habitual sense of what is good and right in these matters, as well as the expectations of the community in the way of pecuniary decency among the learned, are excessively high — as measured by the prevalent degree of opulence and earning capacity of the class, relatively to the non-scholarly classes whose social equals they nominally are. In any modern community where there is no priestly monopoly of these occupations, the people of scholarly pursuits are unavoidably thrown into contact with classes that are pecuniarily their superiors. The high standard of pecuniary decency in force among these superior classes is transfused among the scholarly classes with but little mitigation of its rigour; and as a consequence there is no class of the community that spends a larger proportion of its substance in conspicuous waste than these.3

This passage expresses a tension and frustration that, for me, deeply resonates with the “scholarly class” at the New School today and perhaps also points to Veblen’s own frustration voiced in his letter to Ms. Hardy. Indeed, according to Veblen no academic institution, American or otherwise, can escape the fact that it is founded upon the laurels of the leisure class. As participants in this institution, we can become suspicious about the very purpose of our pursuit of higher learning. We understand that it frees us from other modes of existence, but at the same time we are chained to Veblen’s scorching diagnosis of the system from which academia first derived. Who is being funded and how seems to be uncertain every year. What we can extrapolate from Veblen’s theory, however, is that whatever the case, our university system is involved with members of the leisure class or at least their modern ancestors: scholarly philanthropists, bankers, and businessmen — backers of the American dream. The meta-history for these sources of the funding is so entangled that you can have difficulty navigating around them. And even if you find your way, you still might ask yourself whether you really have regained your firm and unshakeable stance on the purpose and aim of pedagogy.

Before I conclude, I want to briefly address Veblen’s relationship to women. As may be evident in the tone of this letter, Veblen apparently had a weakness for the “weaker” sex. When reading Veblen’s theories on the evolution of the institution of property as having its roots in “trophy wife stealing”, one can come to the quick and hasty assumption that he viewed women as lesser and weaker than men. This view seems supported by Veblen’s assertion that in later “barbarian” culture, the trophy wives become the active “vicarious consumers” and therefore the representatives of their husband’s wealth. But as with his diagnosis of academia, this does not mean that Veblen supported this practice, indeed, it seems he liked strong intellectual women, maybe even too much. His second wife, Ann Bradley, for example, was a suffragette, a pin-wearing member of the socialist party, and an advocate of labor rights. In a section of the Leisure Class, in which Veblen adopts William James’ theory of habit as a physical principle, Veblen says that romantic inclinations can be as habitually ingrained as any other practice. To my mind, Veblen’s habitual penchant for falling for radical women is an indication that he challenged the status quo even in this pursuit.

My aim in this introduction has been to provide an impetus for my fellow New Schoolers to feel connected to an important member of our school’s vast history. It is my hope that you will be drawn either to question the inherited structures of power which grant our degrees or to dig deeper into its rich legacy. Considering Veblen’s continued importance, reading his Theory of the Leisure Class perhaps ought to be compulsory for all New School students, or for anyone interested in the social and political problematics of economic and academic liberty.

1 Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 29.

2 By “invidious” Veblen means “a comparison of persons with a view to rating and grading them in respect of relative worth or value — in an aesthetic or moral sense — and so awarding and defining the relative degrees of complancency with which they may legitimately be contemplated by themselves and by others. An invidious comparison is a process of valuation of persons in respect of worth,” Ibid., 27.

3 Ibid., 77.


Letter from Thorstein Veblen to Sarah Mclean Hardy:

January 18, 1896

are not really as strong as you seem. I hope that yesterday’s dissipation has had no bad consequences.

I want to say a word about the Leisure Class, to which I had no chance to give articulate
expression. As I said, the character of this monograph, as near as I can see, is not
approximately up to grade. It disappoints me and puzzles me that I am unable to say what I want to in the way I want to say it. However, I shall go on with it, though it is very doubtful if it will ever be presentable for publication.

It is now (in first draft) about half written, or perhaps rather more, and promises to be longer than was originally planned. I expect, D.V. [Deo volente, or god willing], to complete the rough draft in a month from this time, and shall then have to revise and verify and rewrite. After that, and this is what I am coming to, I want permission to send you at least portions of the mns. [manuscript] to get your criticism of it, if it should not be too much of a task. Can you do this for me? Or can you undertake it provisionally?

I have, of course, no other claim than that your kindness in the past has established a
precedent.

You have sown the wind, and are beginning to reap the whirlwind.

I wish you a happy journey [to Hawaii] and propitious return, and I beg you to let me hear from you, If you are not displeased with me, before leaving.

Truly yours,

T. B. Veblen

Letter from Thorstein Veblen to Sarah Mclean Hardy