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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.


The Nineteenth Century Problem August 15, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The universal historian Henry T. Buckle (1821-1862) was last subject of a serious scholarly monograph in 1958.  This is the fate of any number of nineteenth-century intellectuals.   The first reason for the disappearance of these writers has been the inability to connect them to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: the World Wars, National Socialism, the deradicalization of the European right after Nuremberg, the flight of the Marxist intellectuals, and so on.   Second, the nineteenth century has been the province of sociologists and literary scholars.  Such attention continues to be selective, judging from the ceaseless publications on the canonical sociologists: springtime for Weber, and winter for Gobineau and Bagehot.

Third, ignoring the nineteenth century allows anthropologists to get on with their own work.  Fourth, and finally, while some nineteenth century economists get attention — Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) has been accumulating more slim volumes as the months go by — the impression I get from some not so cursory reading of the literature is that the with the exception of the proponents of “evolutionary” and “heterodox” economics, philosophers of economics, and Philip Mirowski, it’s Smith, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, or monograph wilderness.  (more…)

Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, and Economic Determinism January 28, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Brooks Adams (1848-1927)

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) noted that Brooks Adams was “an eccentric.” Adams was disgusted with American society in his day and thought inertia was “social death.” He believed the only solution to the ills of society was progress and change, denouncing capitalists and bankers in much the same language as Karl Marx.  Adams, much like Marx, was to Kirk, an “economic determinist,” but unlike Marx, he “detested the very process of change which he urged society to accept,” and “longed hopelessly for the republic of Washington and John Adams,” condemning “democracy” as both “a symptom and cause of social decay.”  Adams’ “detestation” of capitalism stemmed from his aversion to “competition,” enjoining his fellow man to seek stability and order.  According to Kirk, however, Adams’ dream of harmony was subverted by his own understanding of historical laws, as “by the logic of his own economic and historical theories, permanence is never found in the universe.”  Kirk underscored that the persistent theme throughout Adams’ four works — The Law of Civilization and Decay, America’s Economic Supremacy, The New Empire, and The Theory of Social Revolutions — was man’s imprisonment by economic forces and civilization as the product of ceaseless centralization (The Conservative Mind, 367-9) (more…)