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Viscount James Bryce on the Marketplace and the American Intellect August 25, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The British social theorist James Bryce is chiefly known as a writer on the American party system (The American Commonwealth, 1888)  and may perhaps be one of the most tolerable early sociologists of modern democracy (Modern Democracies, 1921).  This will be the subject of a later post.

Bryce was quite indebted to European thinkers, even those from whom he tried to distance himself.   Perhaps nowhere is the influence of Tocqueville more apparent than in Bryce’s discussion of the effect of commerce and the marketplace upon the American intellect.  Here Bryce elaborates upon the conclusion of Tocqueville, that the materialism of American culture explained its lack of genius and refinement.

James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce (1838 1922)

In the nineteenth century, capitalism and art never mixed well in the minds of social theorists.  Consider for a moment the distaste of business and money expressed by John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold.  If not commerce, then the natural sciences or industry were the source of the ills of the present.

The market was another sign of modernity and its triumph over history. This caused many theorists — French, German, and English, from Rousseau and Gibbon and back again — to bemoan the discontents of progress and capitalist modernity.  Whether progress was worth the costs and what progress consisted of were the chief concerns of sociology at this time.  It was this sentiment which welded to together the works of Weber, Simmel, Marx, and Durkheim.  Bryce was no different.

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