Finished Hegel, moved on to Adam Smith

Hello friends! After something like five months, I’m finally finished with my Hegel reading. Most of that time consisted of my reading of the Greater Logic, which is 770 pages long. I really wanted to understand Hegel’s system and how it worked. But it also took about a month each to read Philosophy of Right and Phenomenology of Spirit.

Finally, late in the game, while reading Philosophy of Right, I understood Hegel. He is a mystic. He thinks that everything is governed by a Spirit that is trying to know itself. Thus, his method, which he calls a science, although it seems like intuition and speculation to us, is to him actually the Spirit attempting to know himself.

This is why he is so focused, too, on historicism and collective wisdom. Any one person can be led astray or confused, but in the working out of ideas at a historical level, he sees an inevitability–these ideas needed to progress in these ways.

That’s why it’s so hard to find a method in Hegel–it’s all post-facto analysis. You can attempt to use Hegel to reach forward and say “This is what is going to happen”, but there is no particular reason to think you might actually be right. Hegel himself distinguishes, in most cases, between the formal properties of a thing and its “determinate content”. The formal properties are the things that are definitionally true about it. Like, mankind will inevitably be torn between the fact that it wants its morality to both be self-determined (i.e. willed for its own sake) and that it wants a rational basis for that morality (i.e. a basis that comes from outside himself). That’s the formal property of modern ethics. But that tells you nothing about what that ethics will actually require. For that determinate content, he says, you have to look to history and society, which will go through many different determinations, over time, as the spirit works out greater and greater amounts of the truth.

What people also don’t necessarily understand about Hegel is that for him, this process was done. He had figured it all out. He understood everything. Prussia was the culmination of the Spirit, everything was finished, done, over. So there was really no need to project forward. Indeed, he says at one point that philosophy is just a process of catching up and codifying what the Spirit has already done on its own account.

So, basically Hegel is completely useless. But you already knew that! Still, it provides an interesting model for how to think about the formation of ideas. It’s interesting to think about how ideas have a natural negative, and that they grapple with this negative, until you eventually learn to hold both the positive and negative together at the same time (not a synthesis, as some would put it, but a truth that encompasses both in their distinct particularity).

I am into it!

Now I was going to read Marx, but I decided that I ought first to read Adam Smith, so I could understand the state of economics. Like, Hegel provides the polito-philosophical side of Marx, but the other side was classical economics. I am theoretically familiar with this, because I was an Econ major in college, and my business cards when I worked full-time said “Economist”. But I am very impressed with Adam Smith. The thing about being an Econ major is you never read actual books. Not even textbooks! Instead they give you these expensive course readers, and you read those (or if you’re me you just read the powerpoints the professor uploads to the course website).

So I hadn’t seen how these ideas got worked out in their original form. There is a lot to be said for Smith’s style of argumentation. He definitely understands how things should be proved in economics. He makes a hypothesis, then demonstrates it, using certain relationships. He doesn’t mess around with correlations and R values and charts, he explains things in words. So for instance, he says that if money works in this particular way, we would expect a bank that operates in this particular way to fail for this particular reason, and indeed that is what we see.

He also has very definite ideas about what constitutes the wealth of a nation (literally what the whole book is about). The wealth of a nation is the goods it produces, and its method for distributing those goods. He does not count services in this. In his mind, people buy services as a luxury out of the profit they get from creating goods. And there is a certain logic to this. His definition of capital is also admirably exact. It’s the money you use to make money. So a shopkeeper’s capital is his stock. He has money invested in his stock at any moment. A farmer’s capital is the value they’ve invested in improving their land. A manufacturer’s capital is their stock and their machines and the money they pay their workers. It’s all very simple in a way that it’s actually not when you learn it in econ class, after people have muddied everything up so thoroughly.

I think he also gets to the crux of the matter, which is, how can we have a wealthy and prosperous nation? For him, the core of a nation’s productivity is its capital. The only way for it to become richer is to for it to save up money and invest in itself.

This also made me reflect that, you know, this is what separates the middle-class from the working-class. The middle-class is running a small business. It invests in its own education, and it invests in housing. Of course, the way our economy has involved, this has become a generational process: parents pay for their kids education and their kids houses, so there’s really no way for a working-class person to break in. But still, it made me see that the middle-class truly is involved in the process of building capital in a way that I hadn’t necessarily understood.

Very, very useful. Not certain whether I’ll read Malthus and Ricardo when I’m done or will jump right into Marx. But Wealth of Nations is very long, so might take a while. On the other hand, it’s not total nonsense, so it’ll probably take less than six months. It also makes me wonder what in the world they were putting in the water in Scotland back in the 18th century. I mean, for this tiny nation of a million people to produce an Adam Smith and a David Hume in the same generation seems nuts–easily on par with Classical Athens producing a Plato and an Aristotle, but there were also a bunch of other extremely influential Scottish doctors and scientists at the time.

In the 18th Century, men were men, and men wore turbans