Hello friends! Normally at the end of the year I go back through my written log of books and write about the books I ‘liked’ the best. But this time I’m not gonna do that. Instead I’m just going to go through from memory and talk about whatever struck me the most about my reading this year.
Probably the most influential book I read in the last twelve months was Jurgen Habermas’s Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. This book attempts to trace the evolution of what Habermas calls "The Philosophy of the Subject", which is the idea that our perception inherently orders reality, and, as such, by examining the nature of our own experiencing, we can learn fundamental truths about reality, starting from Kant, through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, and terminating in Foucoualt and Derrida.
I wasn’t familiar with many of these concepts at the time (though I had read much of Kant), so I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but I frequently thought about this book over the next year. See, in the Anglo-American tradition, philosophers turned to logic: the study of how we can determine whether or not a statement is true. But, unfortunately, logic requires inputs. You cannot know, a priori, whether a given statement is true, unless you start with some truths. So as a way of getting to truth, it starts to seem a bit beside the point.
In the continental tradition, they kept searching for sources of validity–sources of those inputs–but continually rejected the idea of empiricism. They wanted some pre-scientific or non-scientific source of truth. Eventually, with fits and starts, they settled on phenomenology: can we find some kind of truth in the nature of experiencing. This is, on the one hand, not subject to empirical investigation, because experience isn’t accessible to science (all that’s accessible are peoples’ linguistic and conceptual descriptions of experience). Secondly, if we’re very careful, phenomenology can appear to give us things that are universally true. Now, can we know for a fact that causality truly exists in some way apart from the human brain? No. But we can know that causality is a core part of how we experience the world. The fact of causality–that everything we experience has some cause–is a truth. Of course, this gets us into trouble because it leads to the question of first causes, but Kant was careful to draw a line around what a human is actually capable of experiencing. Once we put the concept of ’cause’ outside the realm of direct human experience (like, before the first human ever existed), then it breaks down–it becomes ungrounded.
Anyways, phenomenology is intoxicating because it allows you to say things with absolute certainty: this is what I am experiencing; I am definitely experiencing this thing. This then gets extended into the realm of meaning: this thing definitely means something to me. Science can’t assign a meaning to this word or to this concept, but I can. I know what it means. I know for an absolute fact that I’m typing right now on a keyboard. I don’t need to prove it logically. It’s just self-evident.
And that seems to be intoxicating because we go from the skeptical approach, where we can know nothing, to a much more open approach, where, actually, there’s a lot of things we can know! We can know what words mean! We can know what concepts are! We can know what parts of human experience those concepts refer to!
Unfortunately, as the philosophy of the subject progresses, it hits a dead end, because each person tries to create universal truth out of their individual experience, and it’s not clear that this is possible. I can say what a word means with absolute certainty, but that doesn’t mean it means the same thing to you. I can say with absolute certainty the meaning of a text (to me), but that meaning might not have validity to anyone else.
Habermas attempts to solve this conundrum through his theory of communicative action, which is the core of his philosophy (we can come to agreement, through discussion, about things we subjectively experience in common). I don’t know much about that because I didn’t read those books. This book is just his tracing, essentially, of the claim to universal knowledge, and the ways that claim gets subverted and eventually turns, over time, into the solipsism and irrationality of a ‘critical’ approach where, suddenly, the overt meanings of every word and concept are effaced, and now nothing means what you think it means. The philosophy of the subject leads to absolute truth, but it’s incommunicable and, taken too far, it becomes irrelevant and sterile.
I found Hegel pretty frustrating. To put it bluntly, I don’t think Hegel makes logical sense. Unlike Kant, who was obscure in a way that later commentators could clear up and explain, Hegel continues to be obscure to this day, because even in their original form, the ideas didn’t make logical sense. His insight is that truth is developed through a historical process–essentially, he believes in progress, where over time, knowledge develops and develops and we get closer to the truth. What people fail to understand about Hegel (or willfully refuse to understand, because it’s uncomfortable) was that he was a mystic. He believed in a kind of pantheistic notion of the universe, where the universe is one great spirit, and this spirit seeks to know itself. And Mankind is the knowing and thinking part of the spirit, which, through struggle, seeks to understand more and more of its essence, by incorporating more and more of the spirit into its thinking nature. To Hegel, this doesn’t occur through a straightforward march of progress, but through a process whereby certain truths come into vogue and are then rejected, and then the rejection is rejected, which produces a new truth. But who is carrying out this process? Is it individual mankind? Or man as a whole? What are the mechanics of it? It’s all very unclear.
The most interesting of his books is also the most difficult, Phenomenology of the Spirit is a wildly exciting look at the history of Western thought, and the ways it’s shifted and permutated over time, the ways that sometimes it’s embodied in an individual and sometimes in a society, and the ways that society, at war with itself, has produced new truth. Its very ambiguity–who is the protagonist here? How are they evolving?–is its strength. It’s almost like a work of abstract art or a work of music, where you see certain themes taking on a life of their own and rising and falling. Philosophy of the Right attempts an equal performance when it comes to the nature of the Laws and the state, but it’s not quite as bravura, because the answer is so predetermined (Prussia is the culmination of human civilization), The Greater Logic is his 800 page explication of his logical system. I read it so you don’t have to–there’s no system. Believe me. There is no system. It’s so vague and fuzzy. He’s more of an artist than a philosopher. He’s like one of these provocative thinkers who throws out wild statements and crazy notions, and then is like, but it’s all a SCIENCE, man. This is a SCIENCE.
After Hegel I read the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. Very worthwhile. I studied Economics in college, and we were taught Neoclassical economics: the updated form of Classical economics that arose specifically to dispute with and disprove Marx. And we were told, implicitly, that Marx was illogical and had no solid empirical basis.
The thing about Marx is that his predictions aren’t very different from those under Neoclassical economics. Under Neoclassical economics, in a system of perfect competition there will be no profits, aside from a certain set return to capital, which is necessary for anyone to invest in any productive venture. So "zero profits" under "perfect competition" actually means "four to five percent returns on capital." It’s precisely through the division of Economics into macroeconomics (the performance of the economy as a whole) and microeconomics (the performance of individual firms) that Neoclassical economics effaces and ignores Marxist economics. Because Marx begins (in volume 1) with microeconomics, but unlike the typical Neoclassical economist, he looks at what happens to profits after they’re generated. How does capital flow through the economy (volume 2) and then how is it eventually reinvested (volume 3). And this process of the flow of capital leads to certain predictions that are pretty intelligent and sound: he predicts ongoing capital accumulation, and an increasing share of production going to capital rather than to labor.
Alongside the purely economic argument, however, is the moral argument that all the returns from production ought to go to labor, and that capitalism, as a force, is nothing more than a way for a certain class to seize control of an increasing share of the returns from production. This is less convincing than his purely economic argument, but not entirely unconvincing. As a moral argument, though, it has to be analyzed like other moral arguments. And he definitely harms his work by not recognizing that he’s not making an empirical argument here. Because even Marx admits that capitalist production produces a larger quantity of goods than pre-capitalist production, and that capitalist production is impossible without the accumulation of capital. So why should the accumulation of capital not be encouraged by having some return on capital? His arguments on this score are three-fold.
- Excess Means of Production – The means of production are basically the means that produce shit. Under capitalism, the system will focus on making more means of production than people really need, because the means essentially are capital. When you produce means of production (rather than consumer goods), you’re producing more wealth, and ultimately capitalism wants to produce wealth, not consumer goods.
- Underproduction of Objects for the General Welfare – A concomitant of the means of production being underproduced is that capitalism is capable of producing lots of consumer goods for everyone, but it doesn’t, because that doesn’t result in increasing wealth for capitalists
- Over-exploitation of Labor – For a capitalist, the primary cost is labor. The capitalist will always be driven to pay labor as little as possible, because that is the main source of profits. As a system (through a complex process that’s too long to discuss here), capitalism will tend to expropriate more and more of a laborer’s production. Essentially, his argument is that because capitalism allows the production of the necessities (the means of subsistence) for less and less money, it can afford to pay workers less and less for a full day’s work (under the theory that capital will always drive the cost of labor to barely above the means of subsistence necessary to keep the laborer alive for a day’s work).
The first two arguments are moral arguments about societal allocation of resources. How much capital stock is enough? How much is too little? How much of society’s production should go to producing luxuries? It’s kind of impossible to say, but it’s not unreasonable to say that the decision should be made democratically, rather than through the private interest of the owner of capital.
The third argument is what’s drawn the most flack, because although later commenters have tried to obfuscate this, Marx’s argument against capital does, in some part, rely on the assertion that the life of the laborer under capitalism really, really sucks. And this has not proven to be empirically true. In the long run, real wages haven’t fallen. Wages haven’t been driven to the means of subsistence. And the share of profits going to labor, while it’s sometimes gone down and sometimes gone up, hasn’t trended inexorably in one direction.
Western Marxists (who largely tend to be in the humanities rather than in the social sciences) tend to attribute the prosperity of labor (relative to Marx’s predictions) to a number of causes, but the main thing they say is, "The collapse just hasn’t happened yet!" Lately there’s been the concept of ‘environmental capitalism’ where looting the planet has allowed the inflation of prosperity for everyone. Before that we had the concept of impperialistic capitalism, under which other countries were being looted to allow ordinary people in the West to prosper. Now we also have the concept of Racial Capitalism, under which the continued exploitation of racial minorities creates a surplus for white workers.
Some of course also attribute the relative power of the worker, especially during the first seventy years of the 20th century, to trade unionism, but this ignores the core of Marx’s critique, which is both practical and moral. The practical element is that the power of capital is destined to grow, as capital accumulates, while the power of labor will remain static or decrease, so over time capital will overcome any trade union. And, morally, an eight hour day is still slavery: why should the capitalist be allowed to keep any of their illicit gains.
I don’t know the answer! It would be awfully convenient for Western Marxists if capitalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions sometimes soon, but it’s unclear whether that will happen, and I don’t think anyone truly expects it to. Ultimately, although the theoretical core of Marxism has proven to be the most accurate (re: how capital accumulates, how it will destroy other capitals, and how it will distort the state), it’s the moral core that has proven the most enticing for intellectuals. People desperately seek the moral clarity Marx offers–the idea that private ownership of means of production is fundamentally wrong and illogical.
But it’s precisely this part of his argument that has the least going for it. Even if we accept many of his conclusions about capital acting in such and such a bad way, it’s also clear that it’s created tremendous wealth and prosperity. Moreover, his conclusions were underpinned by the inevitability of capital’s collapse (in a series of financial crises, which would radicalize the working class). It’s this certainty of collapse which gave the feeling of eternal Truth to Marxism. If you were Marxist you weren’t merely asserting that something was true (i.e. "Labor should get a larger portion of the world’s wealth), you were also issuing a warning ("This will happen inevitably. It is the guaranteed end-point of capitalism.") But without that prediction to underpin it, Marxism loses a lot of its rhetorical power, particularly since state Marxism hasn’t necessarily resulted in better social or economic well-being than capitalism.
But of course that’s why Marxism is more or less dead in the social sciences, as an avowed philosophy, and continues only in the humanities, where people don’t really understand the economic logic at play. In the social sciences, however, there’s been great work done lately on state capitalism, on organizational capture, rent-seeking, corruption, and other political economy factors that underpin the niceties of the Neoclassical view. However, I would like to say that there’s very little in Marx that, per se, doesn’t accord with the Neoclassical view. Some say that marginalism–a modification of classical economics in which the prices of goods and labor are set by marginal utility and marginal cost (i.e. how much production will one extra unit of labor provide) has somehow disproved Marx’s labor theory of value, but this doesn’t really hold up. The whole idea of Marxism is that capital is illusory: all capital is merely someone else’s labor. The machine you own isn’t really creating anything: it’s the laborers who created the machine who are truly, in some philosophical way, responsible for the machine’s outputs. I think it’s super interesting, and his ideas should be incorporated into economics curricula post-haste.
Okay, that endeded up being really long, but I want to finish by writing about Schopenhauer. I read a few of his books this year: namely The Four-Fold Root and World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. Loved Schopenhauer. Marx is a little easier to read than Kant and much easier than Hegel, but Schopenhauer is the first of these philosophers that writes in something approaching plain language. When you read Schopenhauer, you understand him. He writes so straightforwardly.
Because he’s so straightforward I have a lot less to write here, but essentially he’s one of the first phenomenologists. He’s like, what is this nonsense about trying to seek truth outside our individual experience. That’s like saying, "I want to know what’s true besides all the things that I know are indisputably true". Essentially he’s the first in a long line of people trying to pick fights with Descartes. Where Descartes in his Meditations performed the "Cartesian reduction" wherein he said maybe the world is an illusion, and nothing I know is real, Schopenhauer is like hold on, even if it’s an illusion, what does that mean? You know that everything you’re experiencing is something you’re truly experiencing.
So while someone like Kant tries to seek a priori wisdom, Schopenhauer is like no, let’s start with the sensing, experiencing world, and see what universal truth we can intuit from the fact of this world. Anyway, he agrees with Kant more than he disagrees with him (although his critique of Kant at the end of World as Will is incredible), but his main departure is where he tries to make some judgements about the nature of the ‘thing-in-itself’. This is an idea that obsesses continental philosophers. Kant basically says, we can only know things as they appear to us, we can’t know things as they truly are. For instance, we can measure the force of gravity, but we can’t know why this force exists at this level, but not at some other level. On the more existential level, why is there something instead of nothing? Why does matter have such and such a property instead of another? Why are loud things loud? Why are soft things soft? Why aren’t they spikey instead? Why are things how they are? We can know the answer in a causal way (they are this way, because something else is this other way, or because our organs percieve in this way). But we can’t know why those relationships exist.
Philosophers hate that concept. Ever since Kant they’re trying to get at the thing-in-itself. So Schopenhauer, being a very logical person, says, there is one example of the thing-in-itself that we CAN know. And that is…ourselves. When a person does something, there’s always a proximate cause (they’re trying to achieve this thing or avoid this harm), but you never know the deeper cause (WHY do they want to achieve this thing or avoid this stuff?) Why is Schopenhauer a philosopher and not a cartoonist? Even to Schopenhauer it’s a mystery–as he puts it "We can do what we will, but we can’t will what we will". Essentially, you can’t change your own essential nature. But that nature is, as he puts it, your Will. It’s a blind, terrible force of pure wanting, pure impulse. And he develops this into a long theme, but essentially everything is will. Why do planets move? Because they will it. And yes is it because of gravity? Totally–gravity is the exterior form of their movement (the representation or appearance) while Will is the interior form. If the planet was capable of thinking, it would believe that it moved because it wanted to. Similarly, people believe we are doing what we want to because it is our will, but everything we do is also predictable and predetermined. It’s a whole complicated thing on free will. But very intuitive and understandable! Highly recommend
Anyway that was my major reading for the year. A bunch of German philosophers. I also read a few books by Husserl, but I won’t even attempt to summarize him right now. After him I’ll try Nietzsche probably.
In non-Germans, I was less of a prolific reader, and nothing is coming strongly to mind right now, so let me look at my book list.
Okay, I went through four distinct phases.
- I tried to read more African-Americans this year, particularly older, classic books. I really liked Ann Petry’s The Street and Charles Chesnutt’s The Colonel’s Dream and The Marrow of Tradition. They’re essentially big social novels, in the early 20th century tradition, about African-American people and issues. People call Chesnutt the first African-American novelist, though it’s not strictly true. His works failed commercially however, and for the last thirty years of his life he abandoned writing and built a successful court reporting business, I believe. I also got really into slave narratives, of which by far the best (of the ones I read) was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. There aren’t that many slave narratives by women, and fewer that deal frankly with the sexual aspects of slavery. I was very moved by the book, and I thought it was written incredibly well, too. It’s one of the more famous narratives, and rightfully so. I also liked [Native Son](https://www.amazon.com/Native-Son-Richard-Wright-ebook/dp/B002BY779U/ref=sr_1_1?crid=MEFI26VKQG25&keywords=native+son&qid=1671754763&sprefix=native+son%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-1). It’s little read now, and often considered a bit racist. Every white person in the book is nuanced and complex, and every Black person is awful and ignorant. As someone who often writes unflattering portraits of my own people, I respected the amount of feeling Wright must’ve had–the sheer anger–when he wrote this. It’s not his fault white people loved it so much! I think he was really getting at something, in his own way.
- I got into a phase where I tried to read a lot of popular novels. I got really into Walter Scott. The best of his books was The Antiquary. I’m pretty sure this book has no plot. It’s just about an old guy who likes old stuff. Definitely listen to it in audio, via librivox, like I did. Can’t imagine anyone would be patient enough to read it. Reminded me a lot of Bleak House in some ways, with its fiery protagonists and genteel older man. Scott’s most famous book is Ivanhoe, which is a complete and total mess, but kind of fun–it features cameos from Robin of Loxley AND King Richard the Lion-Heart. It basically throws everything from 1200 into one big stew and sees what’ll stick. There’s tournaments, there’s heroic Anglo-Saxons trying to defend their land, there’s everything! Other charming popular novels were Little Women and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I thought the latter, in partcular, was deeply affecting. Was clearly cribbed wholesale from slave narratives and probably doesn’t deserve to be read anymore (why read a white woman’s reinterpretation when you could just read the original?) But as a powerful piece of rhetoric, which systematically combines and explicates and argues against every slavery trope (it starts with a kind master, progresses to an indifferent one, and ends with an evil one, to show that all are terrible and that there is no good slavery).
- Finally, I had my Soviet phase, which was dominated by Nadezhdha Mandelstam’s two magisterial memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Probably two of the best books I’ve ever read. They describe the spiritual corruption of Stalin’s terror, and its effect on the intelligentsia in particular, in such close detail. And they’re also full of love for Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and everyone else who managed to retain a shred of courage during the terror. Because Nadezhda Mandelstam managed to avoid the camps, they’re also one of the few accounts you’ll read of civilian life during the terror. Another good one in that vein was Lydia Chukovskaya’s novella [Sofia Petrova](https://www.amazon.com/Sofia-Petrovna-European-Classics-Chukovskaya/dp/0810111500/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1JK96ROY7ESIJ&keywords=sofia+petrovna&qid=1671754784&sprefix=sofia+petrovn%2Caps%2C154&sr=8-1), about a working woman who loses her son to the Terror and, essentially, goes mad. It was written in 1940, when the terror was abated (because of the war), but hardly over. I got really fascinated in what being an official writer in the Soviet Union entailed, so I read Inside the Writer’s Union. Great look at how the later Soviet Union co-opted writers with the carrot and not the stick. Being an official writer in the Soviet Union carried immense perks. The writer’s union had its own resorts, its own clubs, its own apartment blocks. Writers could become incredibly rich, by Soviet standards.
Of course this only scratches the surface of all the cool books I read this year, and I doubt anyone besides my dad and my wife has even managed to read this far, so I’m just gonna have a final, unranked list of books.
- Bambi was re-released this year in a beautiful NYRB classics edition. It’s very clearly a parable about anti-Semitism. It’s about Bambi’s fear of Him–the hunter. But it’s also a beautiful and emotional coming of age story as Bambi grows to take the place of the Old Stag (who turns out to be his dad).
- My Experiments With Truth was a book I’d read in my teens, but I re-read it recently. I blogged about it earlier, but I just wanted to note the book was so human, and it made me feel connected to the India of a hundred years ago (Gandhi came from my region of India and is of a similar caste as my family) in a way I never had before.
- The Great Impersonation probably should be listed under popular novels. Oppenheim was a bestseller in the teens and twenties. Literally all of his books are about how terrible Germany is. This is his most famous, about a german spy who kills a British nobleman and takes his place! It got me super into Oppenheim and I read two more of his books in quick succession.
- Pull Devil, Pull Baker is one of those books it’s impossible to recommend, because it’s so strange. A novelist finds a Russian expatriate noblemen, penniless and dying, in a Hong Kong hospital, and she records his stories, along with some reflections on the nature of truth and storytelling. Apparently this guy really existed! I kept believing I was reading some post-modern fictional performance, but apparently not! Re-released this year by Boiler House Press, a great press.
- Last of the Innocent is the sixth volume in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s critically acclaimed Criminals series. I got this as a Humble Comics bundle ages ago. This year, as part of my plan to collect all my comics in my calibre library, I ran across the series again. For the first few volumes, Criminals seemed like generic noir, but it’s not. What sets it apart is how fully it inhabits that veil between regular life and the underworld. When you’re in the underworld, everything is up for grabs, and it’s rare that you’re just an ordinary mentally stable person who commits crimes. I remember very well from my days as an addict, the feeling that anything is possible, and I grew to enjoy these reminisces. Also, the unnamed city where these stories takes place strongly resembles San Francisco. This is the best and most critically acclaimed of the seven volumes.
- Manhunt is the book I read this year that made me feel the most feelings. An extremely complex exploration of gender and desire, combined with a gendercide fantasy about trans-woman in a post-male future who hunt down and kill TERFs.
- The Recognitions is difficult, but not as difficult as its reputed to be. I thought it was a cynical and angry, but very human book, about what it means to be authentic in a world where so many people seem spiritually adrift. Pair it with Fire the bastards! which is an almost-deranged pamphlet that systematically dismantles the initial critical reaction the Recognitions got upon release. The writer of this pamphlet’s viewpoint is, essentially, if critics can’t recognize a bona fide masterpiece, then what are they good for?
- The Byzantine Economy is definitely not of interest to anyone but me, but I kept wondering how Byzantium could continue to be Europe’s richest state for so long. The usual answer is ‘trade’, but that’s not really true. It wasn’t a huge trading or naval power–much of its external trade was carried on by Italian city-states (which led to its downfall). The real truth lay in its administrative state. Almost alone of the nations of Europe, Byzantium had the power to directly collect taxes (i.e. there was a land tax, so every farmer or landlord paid the government directly, in coin). A highly monetized economy and relatively high literacy allowed it to, almost alone in the region, maintain a strong central state. I got really big into economic history this year and read a lot about some very abstruse issues, like monetization and the metal value of the currency. Also read a lot about medieval economic theory, which was fascinating, particularly the concept of a "just price" and a "just profit". It wasn’t enforced, but merchants were theoretically only supposed to make such-and-such profit and no more. I also looked into the history of poor relief and welfare, which for most of the middle ages (esp. in England) was considered rather unobjectionable and was handled locally, since the assumption was that the only people who’d need it would be those who were sick, disabled, or old.
- From Poor Law To Welfare State was the best book I could find about the development of the U.S.’s poor relief system. It’s actually stunning how much of our welfare state was stealthily dismantled during the Clinton era. We really don’t realize how much more there used to be, and how slowly that system arose.
- Razorblade Tears is about a black ex-con and a white ex-con who team up to avenge the murder of the gay sons they were estranged from. Probably the most purely fun book I read this year, and perhaps ever. Highly recommend.
AND AND AND AND I JUST WANT TO MENTION THE FOLLOWING BOOKS WITH MINIMAL COMMENT. THEY WERE VERY GOOD THO
- Gorbachev died this year. He was a really cool and honorable guy (by William Taubman)
- New Teeth is Simon Rich doing his thing, writing funny short stories about whatever he happens to be doing in his life this year (in this case it’s parenting)
- Map: New and Selected is so wry, funny, and thoughtful. Grew to love Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry. I always expect Nobel Laureates to be really heavy and serious (see: Tomas Transtormer), but she’s so human!
- Paths of Glory is basically The Caine Mutiny. Combo of a thorny ethical situation, military fog of war, and a courtroom scene. To cover their own incompetence these French generals order a random soldier in each corps executed for cowardice. Based on real life events! (by Humphrey Cobb)
This is only a fraction of what I read this year, and there are major authors I haven’t included. Like I read City of God, by Saint Augustine. I read Little Women, Empire of Pain, Consent (by Vanessa Springora), Passing by Nella Larsen. I read The Bluest Eye! It was so good! But what am I gonna say in a blog post about The Bluest Eye? So I guess I’ll have to leave it. Next year I’m really gonna try to write about more books during the year so I’m not left at the end with SO MANY it’s impossible for me to talk about them all.
To show you out, here’s a picture of Ol Blue Eyes himself: Hegel