Fairly Recently: Must- and Should-Reads, and Writings... (December 1, 2019)

Karl Marx’s Analytical System

4) Karl Marx’s Analytical System: 4.1. On Reading Capital: 4.1.1. Why Are We Making You Do This?: Marx spent the next 20 years of his life after writing On the Jewish Question trying to figure out the economics, and then write it down. And in 1867 he published Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. (Or, at least, he published volume I. He died before he finished volumes II and III to his satisfaction.) Capital is a big and difficult book. And we have set you to read it in order to gain a sense of what answers Marx arrived at: what he concluded and why, and whether his conclusions are correct.

Why have we set you to read it? We could, after all, digest it into twenty bullet points and say “these will be on the exam”.

4.1.2) The Skill of Reading Difficult Books: One answer is that the skill of reading difficult books is something we have to teach. The labor economists tell us that going to Berkeley, or to other elite American universities, is very good for you not just in terms of making you a more knowledgeable, thoughtful, and well-rounded person, but also in terms of inculcating you a lot of skills that give you many, many extra life choices. Chief among these skills are: presenting yourself in English in person; presenting yourself in English on paper; and figuring out how to get information out of all the written English words that appear before your eyes. Thus one thing we are here to do is to teach the valuable skill of reading hard and difficult but valuable books. And reading hard and difficult but valuable books with us on the teaching staff coaching you through the process is the best way to do that.

A difficult book has an author, who has something complex and non-transparent and important to say. The author has, in their mind’s eye, a reader. If you are going to understand the author, you need first to become that reader—to become the reader whom the author hopes to convince, and then watch the argument flow by while you yourself stand back thinking: does this really make sense. Odds are that if you cannot understand a passage well enough to figure out whether it is right or wrong, and if it is wrong how it is wrong, you have not yet made yourself over into the right kind of reader to make sense of the book. Most reading, after all, takes place between the ears.

A good rule of thumb when trying to make sense of an important author who has written a big, difficult book is to follow this strategy:

  1. Read through the book, taking notes.
  2. “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
  3. Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.
  4. Figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument might be.
  5. Decide what you think of the whole.
  6. Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future. More on that—on review, “studying”, preparing for the exam, &c., anon.

4.1.3) The Value of Intellectual Landmarks: Note that we are reading Marx’s Capital not because Marx was a sole unique genius and Capital the key to the riddle of history. This isn’t a Holy Writ. This isn’t a Sacred Text. As I have written elsewhere: The idea that the best way to understand the political economy of the 1970s is through intensive, group, line-by-line study of an unfinished, inconsistent, and ambiguous text first drafted in the 1850s by a very smart, sometimes far-sighted, but definitely not divine human being--that that idea is already a delusion peculiar to those who were a little too good in school in seeking truths from reading books rather than seeking truths from facts. It is not fully sane.

We are reading Capital because its arguments have resonated with a great many people over the years, have been judged as true or likely to be true by millions, and so gather together in one place a powerful current of ideas and claims that (a) might be true, (b) have been believed, and so (c) have been very influential. This is a floating marker buoy thrown into a broad social-intellectual current, and understanding where the marker bouy goes is the best way to gain an understanding of the current.

Here the full files are—unfinished: https://www.icloud.com/pages/0howtV7CndvjkSCCLmtjmq_SA

And the course slides:


#books #highlighted #history #historyofeconomicthought #moralphilosophy #politicaleconomy #2019-12-01