Veblen and Freud on Instincts

life and death drives

I recently got my hands on a paper by Bill Waller entitled Veblen and Instincts Reconsidered. In the paper Waller discusses the role of ‘instincts’ in Veblen’s work and argues that it is important that those working in the evolutionary tradition of economics should take them on board.

Before commenting on one aspect of this paper I should note that this is not something that I am particularly interested in. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Veblen’s taxonomy could do with a good deal of cleaning up as it comes across as rather arbitrary and lacking in structure. I believe that the best way of doing this is introducing certain Freudian terms. In doing so we can then highlight where we are dealing with instincts proper and where we are dealing with something less fundamental.

First we should briefly lay out the Freudian conception of ‘instincts’, or ‘drives’ (I prefer the latter term but I will use the former since it is the one that Veblen scholars seem to favour). Freud’s theory of the instincts basically arises out of a borrowing of metaphors from energetics and thermodynamics. He saw humans as having two broad instincts: the life instincts and the death instincts. The life instincts — or Eros — were those that gave rise to unifying social phenomena; that is, anything that aimed at reproduction. So, broadly those aspects of life that would fall under the heading of ‘love’ — friendship, sexual relationships, the formation of social groups and so on. The death instincts — or Thanotos — were those that tended toward destruction; that is, any activity that aimed at annihilation. Broadly speaking, those aspects of life geared toward ‘aggression’ — envy, destroying groups, aimless violence against fellow creatures and so on.

A wonderful example of the death instinct often quoted by the great French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was one noted by St. Augustine which the latter thought to be a manifestation of Evil proper,

The weakness then of infant limbs, not its will, is its innocence. I myself have seen and known even a baby envious; it could not speak, yet it turned pale and looked bitterly on its foster-brother.

What Augustine noted was that even newborn babies, who can barely control their own motor functions, still manifest bitter hatred. This is a good indication that we are dealing with instinct proper. An instinct is something that is stripped of all else. It is, in a sense, a baseline determinate of our very being.

The theory of instincts in Freud, as I said, have their roots in energetics and thermodynamics. The life instincts are broadly commensurate with the law of the conservation of energy while the death instincts are broadly commensurate with the entropy principle. What is nice about Freud’s theory is that it really reduces surface phenomena — friendship, violence etc. — right down to their most basic level. It judges such surface phenomena on the basis of whether they aim at reproduction and creation or deconstruction and destruction. Of course, acts are rarely totally constructive or totally destructive and so instinctual processes are seen, in this framework, to intermix. But keeping them analytically separate is nevertheless quite useful.

In his paper Waller lays out Veblen’s five basic instincts. As we will see, they are not very basic at all. Looked at from a Freudian point-of-view they can easily be broken down further and given analytical coherence.

The first of Veblen’s instincts that Waller lays out is ‘the parental bent’. Waller writes,

As noted above the parental bent is the last instinct introduced in Veblen’s work. This instinct is more than the motivation to procreate that Veblen thought was quasi-tropismatic.  Instead for Veblen it was the proclivity “to the achievement of children” and “a primary element in the practical working out of parental solicitude.” Veblen argued that this solicitude was extended beyond the scope of children to a general solicitude toward the well-being of the entire community:  “… this instinctive disposition has a large part in the sentimental concern entertained by nearly all persons for the life and comfort of the community at large, and particularly for the community’s future welfare.” (p4)

This is, of course, just the life instinct in naked form. It is just a love relation geared toward successful reproduction plain and simple. True it is not exactly synonymous with “the motivation to procreate” but it is a key part of the procreative process. Children that are born and not properly raised are not good candidates to carry out one’s genetic legacy.

The second of Veblen’s instincts that Waller lays out is ‘the instinct for workmanship’. He writes,

The character of this instinct “occupies the interest with practical expedients, ways and means, devices and contrivances of efficiency and economy, proficiency, creative work and technological master of facts.  Much of the functional content of the instinct of workmanship is a proclivity for taking pains.  The best or most finished outcome of this disposition is not had under the stress of great excitement or under extreme urgency from any of the instinctive propensities with which its work is associated or whose ends it serves. (p5)

Again, this is but another manifestation of the life instinct. It is analogous to the so-called ‘parental bent’ insofar as it promotes reproduction and advancement of the species. Just as sexual reproduction introduces new genetic formations into the population, ‘workmanship’ introduces new organisational formations into the community. The processes are conceptually identical.

The next instinct that Waller discusses is that of ‘idle curiosity’. This is effectively the tendency for humans to play. Not just in the childish sense, however, but also in the sense that they might play with ideas and concepts and arrive at new discoveries. Again, what we see is the life instinct but this time, rather than reorganising genetic sequences or orgnaisational formations, it seeks to reorganise symbols and ideas to produce new insights.

The fourth of Veblen’s instincts that Waller introduces is the ‘predatory instinct’. He writes,

Veblen argued that the aversion to labor is a result of the predatory habits of thought.  He argues that “[w]hat meets unreserved approval is such conduct as furthers human life on the whole, rather than such a furthers the invidious or predatory interest of one as against another. “ From this he argued that contrary to much evidence and speculation human being are not naturally a predacious species.  Instead predation arises once humans have “outdistanced all competitors, and then it prevails only by sufferance and within limits set by [the instinct of workmanship].” (p6)

What we see here, of course, is the death instinct. This is the destructive component of human life. One that seeks not to form larger and more complex groups, but rather to attack others in the pursuit of some sort of immediate instinctual satisfaction. This is an instance of the death instinct that seeks to tear down structures without replacing them with anything else. It is the drive, for example, that humans have toward war and conquest.

Finally, there is the ’emulatory instinct’. This is the instinct that Veblen think leads people to copy or emulate one another. I’m not convinced that this is an instinct at all. Rather it seems closer to what Freud would have called ‘identification‘. Identification is merely a process by which people identify with one another and through which they form their identities and personalities. It may be in the service of the life instinct or the death instinct; that simply depends on the ‘tone’ given to an identification. Thus, we might identify with a positive image our parents have of us or a negative image. Identification or emulation is no more an instinct than is motor function or speech.

As we can see, by introducing the Freudian terminology — which is certainly the most precise in this regard — Veblen’s work can be systematised and organised in a much better fashion, as can the base determinants of human behavior and activity.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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One Response to Veblen and Freud on Instincts

  1. William Waller says:

    This is a very interesting comment on my paper. I will give it serious consideration as I revise and refine the paper. Regards

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