Guest Post: Basic Readings on Capitalism

Guest post from William Hebblewhite:

Capitalism is a word we hear a lot about these days. It’s an all pervasive social form; an economic system which represents the highest order of individual freedom; an historical abnormality. It is often difficult to have a real, true sense about what capitalism is, where it came from, what it represents and what the future holds or capitalism. I am under no illusion that I can offer any answers to these questions. Luckily for me, there has been a myriad of writers across the ideological spectrum who have attempted to answer them for me. Here I list some of my favourites, and ones which I believe really showcase the vast vista that is capitalism, and the subtly and multivalent definitions that can arise from that one word.

The list is separated into disciplinary categories: History, Philosophy and Economics. I do not mean to purposefully exclude other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology or political science, but I believe most of the work done in those disciplines can easily be folded into the others. For instance, David Harvey, one of the world’s foremost critics and commentator on Capitalism is a trained geographer. His interpretation of what capitalism is, and what is does to the world is uniquely informed by this geographical perspective. However, much of Harvey’s work can be broadly construed as philosophical and economic. Another case is that of the work of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, who were economists by training, while their work also fits into the category of philosophy – particularly when they start speaking about “freedom” and its relation to capitalism. What I mean to be saying by these examples is that my categorisation is not to be taken too seriously, but rather that it provides an easy way for new readers to the subject to engage in those questions and topics that are of most interest to them.

Lastly, this is not a comprehensive list, and I do not suggest it is. This just represents a small window to the wide world of academic work on capitalism. There are wonderful authors which I have not listed with wonderful pieces on capitalism. There are also authors who I have not listed, merely because I have not discovered them yet. If you know of other works, or authors you think should be listed do leave a comment. With that being said, let us dive straight into my selections.

History:

Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View (2002, Verso), and Liberty and Property (2012, Verso)
Robert Brenner,  Merchants and Revolution (1993, Princeton University Press – Available on Verso)
T.H. Ashton and C.H.E. Philpin (eds.), The Brenner Debate (1985, Cambridge University Press)
Charlie Post, The American Road to Capitalism (2012, Haymarket Books)
Leo Panitch & Sam Gidins, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012, Verso)
Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism (2001, Monthly Review Press)
David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies and Global Capitalism (2011, Brill)
Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963, Princeton University Press)

Economics

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014, Belknap Press), The Economics of Inequality (2015, Harvard University Press)
Anthony Atkinson, Inequality: What Must Be Done (2015, Harvard University Press)
Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism (1962, University of Chicago Press)
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (2012, Routledge)
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776, available via the Liberty Fund)
Karl Marx, Das Kapital Volume 1 (1867, available via Marxists.org)
David Harvey,  A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2010, Verso)
Steve Horwitz, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (2000, Routledge), and Monetary Economics, Free Banking, and Economic Order (2019, Routledge)

Philosophy

David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010, Oxford University Press)
Louis Althusser, On The Reproduction of Capital (2014, Verso)
Yann Moulier Boutang, Cognitive Capitalism (2011, Polity)
Edward Younkins, Capitalism and Commerce (2001, Lexington Books)
G.A Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995, Cambridge University Press)
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (2013, Basic Books)
Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism?  (2014, Routledge) and Markets Without Limits (2015, Routledge)
Nancy Fraser & Rahael Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (2018, Polity Press)
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009, Zero Books)


William Hebblewhite received his PhD in philosophy from Macquarie University. His research is focused on areas of contemporary European philosophy and political philosophy. In particular, he is interested in equality, and the relations of equality that exist in economic, social, moral and political spheres. He tweets @Whebblewhite.


I’ve added the year of publication and publisher for all of the texts Will suggests. Where possible, it is that of a cheap paperback edition or a free pdf. Any inaccuracies in this regard are my responsibility – Maks.

A few excerpts from Malebranche’s *the Search After Truth*

The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.

Portrait of Nicolas Malebranche

So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:

All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.

I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)

This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:

He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.

Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)

He goes on:

If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)

Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:

The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)

To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.

Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:

There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.

In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”

The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.

All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Review of Susanna Berger’s *The Art of Philosophy*

Berger - Book Cover

I was tidying up some files in my PhD folder when I found this review I’d written of Susanna Berger’s wonderful book, The Art of Philosophy. Re-reading it now, I think it’s still a neat précis of her book. As I recall, I wrote it for a student-run journal, and by the time I’d written it a new editorial team took over and wasn’t keen any more. I thought I’d share!


Susanna Berger’s The Art of Philosophy is an examination of the tradition of visual representations of philosophy common between the late sixteenth- and early eighteenth centuries. The tradition produced many large-scale tableau representations of entire philosophical systems, with the aim of exhibiting complex ideas in a more accessible form. Her central argument is that such representations, what she calls “plural images”, were not merely instruments for presenting philosophical systems, but that their production in itself was a form of philosophical thought. In so doing, Berger addresses an oft-neglected aspect of the study of early modern philosophy, namely, the visual culture which accompanied it. On her view, such representations formed a visual commentary, which emphasized that they were not just illustrating concepts, but offering in themselves new and enriching additions to philosophical ideas (p.3). As such, by studying the early modern visual depictions of Aristotelian philosophy, on which her book focuses, we can gleam an interesting insight into the way in which the key texts of the 17th century philosophical education were introduced to students. By doing so we can come to gauge their reception with more sensitivity to the context in which they were taken up.

The first chapter of The Art of Philosophy focuses on Siegmund Jacob Apin’s Dissertatio de variis discendi methodis memoria causa inventis earumque usu et abusu (1725). Berger uses Apin’s text to introduce several of the central arguments of her book. Though the treatise itself is unillustrated, it offers a view of a diverse group of didactic and mnemonic images, and it orients the reader towards the idea that visual representations of philosophy could not merely aid the study of the subject, but in themselves be works of philosophy. This chapter argues that the kinds of representation described by Apin were designed to integrate them with the lived activities of the viewer (p.42). In this way, such images could be used to make the acquisition of knowledge easier. This argument is picked up and illustrated in the second chapter by an analysis of several plural images, such as Meurisse and Gaultier’s Artificiosa Totius Logices Descriptio (1614) or Marshall and Meurisse’s An artificiall description of logick (1637).

The third chapter turns away from text embedded within images, to images embedded within text. In this discussion, Berger focuses on images contained within student notebooks, to argue that the ubiquity and variety of pictorial representations of philosophical concepts reveals that such images and the activity of drawing them were an important component of early modern philosophical education and thinking (p.145). Her contention is that these images were not merely used as study aids (as would be the case if these images were merely used to help with committing the material to memory), but that the drawings were crucial in the development of new philosophical ideas.

Berger continues the discussion of student notebooks in the fourth chapter which explores the way in which images in manuscript sources served as tools by which students and scholars could come to grips with difficult theories. One such example is the representation of the Square of Opposition – a diagram used to illustrate simple logical statements and the way they relate to each other (p.148). What emerges from this and the previous chapter is the ubiquity of the use of visual representations as study aims. Students found them useful in clarifying their thinking – and in so doing, showed that these representations were crucial to the way in which their own thinking developed and occurred.

The fifth chapter concludes the book with the argument that visual representations played a double role. That is, that beyond being essential tools for the transmission of knowledge, they also became dominant metaphors for understanding the activities of the mind (p.173). This is to say, that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the production of visual representations of knowledge and the production of knowledge.

Finally, the book ought to be praised for its extensive scholarly apparatus, and in particular the two appendices, which catalogue the surviving impressions of philosophical plural images, and offer transcriptions of the text inscribed into them. The Art of Philosophy is a book rich in examples and arguments. Berger shows persuasively that the visual culture arising from philosophy was crucial in the way in which the early moderns thought of the discipline. This book will thus be of interest not just to scholars of early modern visual culture, but also to teachers interested in presenting philosophy in an alternative format. It stands as a significant achievement in scholarship that is both rigorous and accessible.


Beyond my review, you might also want to check out this excerpt adapted from the book – with a tonne of images courtesy of the author!

Malebranche was kind of a dick

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I’m slowly making my way through Malebranche’s magnum opus, The Search After Truth – so far its a super fun text. Malebranche spends a lot of time in the first two major sections on criticising his contemporaries for their lack of clear thinking. This quote is just a small sample – but there are many many others in the first two books of this text. Not long after this passage, he moves on to criticising some prior thinkers: Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne. He’s particularly strong worded about Montaigne, of whom he says that “He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so.” Malebranche is by no means an exception in his harsh words about other thinkers. We see this happen today as well – with some prominent philosophers having a reputation for just how mean they are about others. Personally, I think this sort of adversarial attitude hurts us more than helps.

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Current Reading

When philosophers are on the money: thinkers commemorated on currency

I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the sometimes odd choices for the historical figures that adorn the currencies we use every day. The design of our legal tender is usually taken to be one of the ways of asserting our national identity and acknowledging those who made key contributions to our nations. This is why the US has its presidents on its money and why dictatorships and monarchies put their sovereign on theirs.

The other week I was having coffee with a friend who mentioned someone telling them about their list of philosophers who’ve made their way onto their national currencies, which made me curious to see who was deemed important enough.

I started with Wikipedia’s list of people on banknotes, and just searched for the term “philosopher”, which yielded some of the usual suspects (cough Descartes cough). It also presented me with a bit of a problem – the list didn’t count some philosophers as philosophers. The German political theorist Clara Zetkin (featured on East German marks from 1975 to 1990) is listed as a “Marxist theorist”, and not a philosopher. The Chinese philosophers Yi I and Yi Hwang are listed as “Confucian scholars”. There are more examples I could cite. The Wikipedia page is rather long, so there wasn’t a very good way of classifying these.

Besides the obvious issue with classifying who was a philosopher and who wasn’t, the second issue was my ignorance of so many of the people on the list. Thankfully, Twitter (shout-out to my friend Patrick for his help with some of these!) was a huge help.

One thing that is a mystery still is why these people were chosen. Descartes seems an obvious choice for France, given that he is without a doubt the most influential of her philosophers. But why Montesquieu as opposed to Émilie du Châtelet? (That’s a naïve question, I know – the only woman that is listed as appearing on the old French franc is Marie Curie – and she wasn’t even French, and she appears with her husband, Pierre; so there’s definitely a theme here…).

Putting the politics of choosing who gets to be on money aside, I find some of these portraits to be pretty interesting aesthetically. Some people are surrounded by some items relevant to their life. A good example is Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose portrait on the Mexican 200 peso note is set next to a book, an inkwell and part of the cloister where she lived. Are these objects the subject of the portrait would have chosen? De la Cruz was a nun – would she think any of these objects are fitting her memory?

The French 100 franc note featured a portrait of Descartes, and behind him was one of the muses holding a thick book and sitting next to an hourglass. Perhaps an allusion to his famous Olympica dreams, where he was presented with the book of knowledge. Really though, it seems an odd choice, given his other achievements are so much more prominent than his whacky story about how he had a bad dream and as a result became a philosopher.

I don’t feel it’s within my power to compile a full list of philosophers on national currencies, but it is nice knowing some have made the cut. I wonder if any contemporary philosophers would make it? I reckon Martha Nussbaum might be a good candidate – her work is wide ranging but at the same time accessible. Or maybe someone more niche would fit? It’s hard to see how any criteria proposed would be sufficient.

I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments – who do you think deserves to be put on a banknote? Why?

Psychoanalysing Descartes – Freud’s reading of Descartes’ Olympica

A little while ago I wrote on this blog about Descartes’ Olympica dreams. The three dreams he had one night in 1619. The then 23 year old philosopher reported nightmares and dreams which made him decide to become a philosopher. In my previous post I remarked that Freud supposedly interpreted these dreams in a letter, but that the library holding my university’s copy of the Collected Psychological Works of Freud was being renovated, and I had no easy way to access them. Well.. when I went to get vol.21, which contains the letter in question, it wasn’t on the shelf, and it seems that it indeed has been lost or worse! Perhaps some Jungian villain decided to abscond with the tome. I don’t know.

Thankfully a friend was able to deliver the Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy to me, and so I’m able to relay to you his interpretation of Descartes’ dreams.

Freud begins his letter by saying that usually he’d be reluctant to discuss or analyse dreams when the dreamer is unavailable to comment. This, according to him, is particularly true of historical figures. Presumably, not just because we are unable to confirm with them details that might link them to the real world, but because the real world as they knew no longer exists. With Descartes, however, Freud is happy to report the task is easier than expected. He describes the dreams like so:

 

Our philosopher’s dreams are what are known as ‘dreams from above’ (Träume von oben). That is to say, they are formulations of ideas which could have been created just as well in a waking state as during the state of sleep, and which have derived their content only in certain parts from mental states at a comparatively deep level. That is why these dreams offer for the most part a content which has an abstract, poetic or symbolic form.

Being “dreams from above”, Freud says, the dreams are a mystery to us, the interpreters, but to the dreamer they are easily decipherable because they are close to our waking thoughts already. And thus,

The philosopher interprets them himself and, in accordance with all the rules for the interpretation of dreams, we must accept his explanation, but it should be added that we have no path open to us which will take us any further.

I think Freud sheds a bit of light on the young Descartes. The idea of becoming a philosopher must always have been close to his thoughts. His education clearly steered him towards a life of contemplation.

Source: Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy, reprinted in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol 21