Author(s): Özgür YALÇIN

In very broad terms, we can say that there are mainly three competing approaches to the examination of social phenomena in general and the economic phenomena in particular. One of them relies on the assumption that economic relations are governed by natural law-like regularities. In this approach, individuals as rationally motivated actors are regarded as agents of those economic relations. In this perspective, whether environment as the context of human agency may change is not a question that needs to be taken into account; hence, possible role of human agency in the change of environment is not also considered. Opposing to this position are materialist accounts that deal with the change of material conditions as the basis of human social relations. These materialist accounts do not grant human agency an autonomous role in the initiation of transformative processes of material context, and they construe human actions as motivated by the rational evaluations of existing material conditions, e.g. class actions motivated by class interests. Against these converging approaches in terms of their conception of rationalist human action, there are approaches that reject the assumption of rationalist human action as the basic form of human action. They argue for the need to explain how human beings develop particular forms of motives, if human agents are not rationally motivated by an external stimulus of the conditions. Therefore, there is also a need to give an account of how human actions and environment are interrelated in order to explain the change of environmental context. In this article, I aim to highlight the primacy of non-rationalist and non-teleological human action in the constitution of economic phenomena and economic change by discussing Veblen’s social theory. I present Veblen’s critiques of the marginalist utilitarian school and Marx (and Marxism). According to Veblen, both of these approaches conceive human actors as passively responding to the stimulus of environment by means of rational calculation of their economic interests. Thus, such approaches ignore the institutional conditioning of human actions, and therefore, within the terms of such approaches, economic change becomes unexplainable in terms of cause and effect relations in which human action has a place. On the basis of Veblen’s criticisms of rationalist human agency, then, I argue that human action founded on the creative, active human agency is the central explanatory tool that makes possible Veblen’s non-teleological evolutionary theory. I claim that Veblen’s notion of human action in terms of habituation allows us developing a conception of human action which shapes and is shaped by the physical and institutional complex. Thus, human evolution appears as a non-teleological, cumulatively caused process. Then, I explicate the primacy of human action and active human agency in Veblen’s conception of technological change through a critique of David Seckler’s behaviouralist interpretation of Veblen’s social theory. Seckler claims that Veblen’s understanding of human evolution depends on a unilinear causality flowing from thoughts to action via the mediation of technological change, in which “idle curiosity” is the primary instinct. In contrast to Seckler, I show that the instinct of idle curiosity actualizes itself within the processes of human action in continuum.


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