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Justin Smith wrote a fairly critical blog post on René Girard to which I feel moved to reply. A lot of it attacks Girard’s appeal in Silicon Valley, which I don’t know much about. But the post also criticises Girard’s theory itself. The conclusion states that “René Girard, in sum, is not a particularly great theorist”.

We don’t all have to like the same things, but I think Girard deserves a better reading than Smith is willing to give him.

First, Smith gives a gratuitously unattractive and unfair representation of Girard’s method:

a theorist for him is someone who comes up with a simple, elegant account of how everything works, and spends a whole career driving that account home. A theorist spends all of their time on the positive construction of a case, and none of their time on skeptical doubts or objections, and least of all on the nagging call of humility that pipes back up again whenever a philosophically minded person starts to feel as if they’ve got something right — the call that says, “Why should I, of all people, be the one to have got things right? …

In the last post I questioned G.A. Cohen’s critique of the Labour Theory of Value, which comes in two parts: (1) the LTV involves a mistaken idea that labour creates value; (2) Marx’s theory of exploitation can be retained without the LTV.

These have been taken as established by some Analytic Marxists. And I was told by a very reliable source that Cohen saw this article as his best work. So I’m stepping carefully here and very willing to be corrected.

I didn’t say much about (1). Cohen’s argument is, roughly, that what determines value in Marx’s system is not the labour hours that went into a commodity when it was made, but rather the labour hours that it would take to make the commodity now. For this reason, he says, labour can’t create value. The labour that determines the value of the commodity is counterfactual labour — the labour it would take to make it now — not actual labour. …

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As I was writing on Marx on value, a few analytic political philosophers recommended this essay to me: G.A. Cohen’s “The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation”.

I puzzled over it for a while, but I think it must be wrong, at least on one central point. The article has many strengths, but here I want to share a criticism.

The introduction is nice and short; it reads:

This essay shows that the relationship between the labor theory of value and the concept of exploitation is one of mutual irrelevance. The labor theory of value is not a suitable basis for the charge of exploitation laid against capitalism by Marxists, and the real foundation of that charge is something much simpler which, for reasons to be stated, is widely confused with the labor theory of value. …

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In 1932 L. Susan Stebbing gave a wonderful presentation to the Aristotelian Society, on ‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’.

In it, she begins with a number of accurate historical statements, for example that J.M.E. McTaggart was ‘the greatest deductive philosopher of this century (and […] the greatest since Spinoza)’. I have removed as unnecessary the words ‘in my opinion’.

Stebbing’s purpose is to pursue a different method from ‘deductive philosophy’, namely that of analytic philosophy. A chief inspiration for this project is G.E. Moore. But Moore had presented his difference from philosophers like McTaggart as a difference of opinion. Moore’s philosophical opinions were the commonsensical opinions of the normal man he aspired to be. McTaggart’s were deviant and atypical. There is a Chestertonian swagger in Moore’s writing. …

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Medieval philosophers spoke of words being ‘imposed’ for things, either directly or by way of the ideas of things. When we acquire language, we learn which words are imposed for which things. It is as if we begin by encountering the things and then wonder what they are called. Or perhaps we learn the names and then wonder what they name (Alfred North Whitehead wrote that whereas Adam saw the animals in the Garden and named them, modern children name the animals and then see them).

R.G. Collingwood lampooned this picture of language-acquisition:

…in a child’s acquisition of his mother tongue every word he is to use must first be explained to him; and it is actually supposed that this comes about by its mother, or other instructor, pointing to the fire and saying ‘fire’, giving it milk and saying ‘milk’, touching its toe and saying ‘toe’, and so forth. When the fact comes out that when a mother points to the fire she probably says ‘pretty’, when giving it milk, ‘nice’, and when touching its toe, ‘this little pig went to market’, the conclusion can only be expressed in the words of a (possibly mythical) schoolmaster: ‘parents are the last people in the world who ought to be allowed to have children.’ (Principles of Art, ch.11, …

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In his Ethics, Spinoza often discusses how our emotions lead us to ‘strive to imagine’ various things. We strive to imagine things that affect us with joy (3p12) and things that exclude the existence of what causes us sadness (3p13). We strive to imagine someone we hate being affected with sadness and someone we love being affected with joy (3p26).

What does it mean to ‘strive to imagine’ something? To a contemporary reader, it can often seem that Spinoza is talking about ‘cognitive dissonance’: we try to imagine the world in a way that makes us feel good.

In some cases, this is what he seems to mean. For instance, he tells us that we can see ‘how it easily happens that people think too well of themselves and those they love, and think too poorly of those they hate’ (3p26s): this follows, apparently, from the previous propositions, which describe us striving to imagine the things that make us joyful and exclude what makes us sad. …

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The University of the West of England has announced a plan to close its BA Philosophy programme, halting student recruitment for the 2020/21 academic year.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t any stated financial reason for closing the programme, and the strategic reasons for it are very much down to interpretation. I think this is encouraging for those who want to save the programme, since it suggests that the decision can be swayed by a demonstration of popular support.

James Ladyman has written an open letter in defence of preserving this programme, while a student-led petition to save it is heading towards its target of 10,000 signatures. …

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V is for Value

This is the third in a series of posts where I think out loud about Marx’s theory of value, provoked by some online conversations. The first two are:

Marx on Value

Marx, Value, Surplus Value

I’m trying to understand how the way that Marx thinks about value informs his understanding of exploitation. The claim that only labour creates value seems relevant, except that the notion of creating value is difficult to understand.

As Stanley Jevons pointed out, value as classically understood is a dimensionless quantity. Commodities exchange according to their value. Thus if 6000 ounces of butter exchange for 1 ounce of gold then the value of gold in terms of butter is 6000 oz / 1 oz. That is to say: the value of gold in terms of butter is 6000 oz/oz, whose units cancel out. …

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Hao Wang’s second book on Gödel, A Logical Journey, explores a number of interesting relationships: between mathematics and philosophy, between Western and Chinese thought, between early modern and contemporary philosophy, etc.

One of the more interesting relationships it examines is between philosophy and what Wang calls ‘ideology’. There is a nice discussion of this in Chapter Three. The chapter begins:

Philosophy as an attempt to find the key to life and the universe has been suffering increasingly from the difficult choice between plausible irrelevance and exciting but unconvincing speculation (101).

And then a bit further on:

For most people, academic philosophy today is largely irrelevant to their deep concerns. Those individuals who ask for more than what business, science, technology, and ordinary politics offer have to look elsewhere for satisfaction: to the traditional religions or to popular psychology, combined, perhaps, with Zen, Taoism, or body mysticism, or with such grand philosophies and ideologies as Marxism, liberalism, conservatism, or neo-Confucianism (101). …

In my last post I presented an outline of Joan Robinson’s critique of Marx on value, as I understand it (this is in Economic Philosophy rather than her book on Marx).

My point in all of this is that it’s very important to clarify this question of value if we want to understand Marxism rather than using it as a branding slogan.

Those who claim that value is just the price at which one commodity exchanges for others, or even the underlying determinant of this, miss the whole point of the transformation of value into price in Volume Three of Capital, which explains how commodities don’t exchange according to their values under normal conditions of capitalism. …


Alexander Douglas

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website:

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