The 2 Most Influential Works of English Non-fiction

Perhaps in no other living language than German have seminal non-fiction works flourished as in English.  (I limit the observation in this way to exclude scholarly or ecclesiastical Latin works from the mix.)  Why that is the case I don’t pretend to know.  But if you consider the works of Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Orwell, Wiliam James, Herbert, Spencer, Emerson, Bentham, Jefferson, Paine, Blackstone, Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, More, and many others, you see that it would be foolish to pick out the two most infuential works of English non-fiction.

Quickly occupying the field where angels fear to tread, let me suggest them: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection … (1859) and Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

I suspect that there would be near-universal agreement with the selection of Darwin’s work.  As a work of pure argument, it is breath-taking:  superbly constructed, intellectually honest, supported by meticulously selected details from seemingly unrelated fields, and written in that patient Victorian style (now an acquired taste for most, who consider it plodding) with old-fashioned respect for the intelligence of the reader.  As for the thesis, it presents one of the most elegant theories ever proposed for any field.  It is of the kind that once you see it, you understand its novelty, its predictive power, its testability.  And you wonder why you hadn’t seen it before.

I won’t dwell on Darwin here because he demands careful and many looks.  I will, however, suggest one thing:  his theory is itself partially an outgrowth of the other work I selected.  In fact, a case can be made that the intellectual river from Smith to Malthus to Darwin is the reason the English and not the Germans came on natural selection as a mechanism for change.  And that is because Darwin could see that groups behaved in certain ways as a result of the cumulative actions of individuals, acting for reasons of individual interest and not to conform to an ideal imposed by categorical thinking.  Germans, who possibly had the more careful scientists and more wealth of biological detail, were mired in the thinking of Hegel, whose approach dominated fields well beyond the metaphysical and whose hold lasted a long time and with wide berth.  You need only read Alexander Herzen’s memoirs to see Hegel’s hold on liberal and revolutionary thought in Russia in the 19th Century.  (Herzen is a project for a later post.)

Smith would perhaps be less universally regarded as presiding over Hobbes or Locke or Paine.  It is true that post-Reagan conservatives in the US regard his observations about self-interest as being the supreme touchstones of moral philosophy, more trenchant than the maxims of either Jesus or Kant.  I suspect, however, they came to this position not so much from considering Smith’s argument, but rather from consulting their own greed first and looking up supporting quotations later, most likely from quotation lists.

Smith’s work was published just as the Age of Revolutions was beginning.  Although he was routinely quoted in newspapers and pamphlets in America during the founding period, and while his approach to trade meshed entirely with the interests of American merchants aroung the turn of the 19th Century, his entire framework was not immediately accepted as a whole, nor did it provide any step in the chain leading to the various revolutions around the world or even help inflame them.

The odd thing about the reception of the original framework for classical free market thinking is that it was not adopted by the conservatives of the time or the monied classes or the aspirants to wealth creation.  Alexander Hamilton, the original hero of the American right wing, and the person most credited by them for creating the American economy and the original proponent of high finance capitalism, never bought into the Smith approach.  In fact, in his Report on Manufactures (1791) (a later (1913) Senate printed version is digitized by Google here) expressly adopts the approach of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, whose protectionism and subsidies to domestic manufacturing were among the chief evils that Adam Smith sought to combat.  It is an interesting side note to see how Hamilton’s approach became a pillar of the Republican Party’s orgin and later political dominance in the US, until it was ultimately rejected by them.  (The hard right now calls it socialism.)  That history of an idea shows how the interests of a social class can dispose of its intellectual foundations as easily as the Soviet Union used to dispose of the history of its former supporters.

What is relevant to Smith’s importance today, is not so much how it was treated at the time, nor how it provided cover or impetus for particular policies, but rather how it explains the inevitable spread of “liberal” capitalism, despite the consequences.  And the key to that is found in the first chapter of Wealth of Nations.  Much like Darwin’s work, which begins with the fancy pigeons, Smith’s work starts off with a part usually ignored and, when not, often ridiculed — the example of the pin makers.  How that relates to my point will be left to a later post.

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  1. I remember reading this when I first joined the blogosphere in 2013, DK. Then, as now, I was hesitant to comment. I am in awe of the depth and breadth of your scholarly knowledge. Yet today, I wanted to let you know that I appreciate the clarity and elegance of your connections and arguments. Darwin’s work fascinated me in my early years of college, but alas, I chose not to pursue a degree in ecology. The links to Smith are important and so relevant to these times.

    • Many thanks, Carol. This is a very old post. As you can see, I had intended to follow up with a series of posts explaining my point. In those days, however, I had so few visitors that I often gave up on follow through. And no one ever noticed.I have many very long posts that I shelved because I assumed (almost certainly rightly) that blog readers are not interested in them.

      I think blogs by reputation are not thought of something people read in detail. I think people read them like any other form of social media–not for reading pleasure or enlightenment or even to get involved in a conversation but either as a way to keep up with acquaintances (or famous people) or to kill time at the office.

      In any event after four years I have never been able to stimulate any sort of discussion on any issue, but that might be because no one is interested in what I am (or at least what I have to say).

      As it is, I have a few more things to get off my mind and onto the net, and then I think I will move on to other activities unrelated to blogging.

      • Thank you for your very thoughtful reply, DK. I agree that much of the blogosphere is more like Facebook – a place for slogans and rather superficial exchanges. It seems WordPress promotes a competitive, “publish what people want and do it everyday” mentality, at least that was I observed in the recent course on blogging I took. Yet it’s also a place where I have been able to discover treasures like your thoughtful scholarly posts, gifted poets, photographers, and writers. There are many gifted bloggers whose work challenges me to consider issues from many different perspectives.

        I’m sorry I haven’t been better at letting you know that I appreciate your work. I think what you have to say is extremely important for people to hear. I would be happy to highlight one (or more) of your posts on Voices from the Margins. I believe others (Jeff, Nicci, and Skywalker) would also do so.

        Again, thank you for your thoughtful and honest comments, DK. I hope you decide to keep sharing your knowledge.

        • Carol:

          I hope I did not sound like I was lamenting that I was underappreciated. Far from it. I realize that there are few people nowadays interested in literature and the like. I had thought, however, that blogging might be a space that people of like interest might aggregate a bit of space for exchange of ideas on like subjects. I was influenced in this thinking by Science Blogs in the old days, where a critical mass of good bloggers were all under the same roof. This attracted readers who became part of the conversation in long, and often quite good, commentary.

          But that fell apart, more or less, when some of the better bloggers went elsewhere and some dispute broke up many of the others. Nevertheless, that’s what I thought blogging could achieve in the humanities.

          The problem is that there must be a “distributor” to attract people who are interested. For example, let’s say you are interested in cultural anthropology. I would bet there are at least 5 or 6 very good blogs on that subject on WordPress. If one began blogging on cultural anthropology, you would probably soon find those bloggers. However, if you had no interest in blogging youself, but you still wanted to read about cultural anthropology, you probably would never find them because you would have to register on WordPress to easily find them and to create a “reader” or “feed” to read them. Otherwise, you would have to link to each of the 5 or 6 periodically to see if there was anything new. My guess is that my hypothetical reader will not do that.

          There must be a distributor like a magazine (Harpers, Atlantic) or an e-zine (Slate, Salon), or an aggregator (Yahoo, Buzzfeed), otherwise it’s just too much work for the occasional (even serious) reader.

          But that’s not what WordPress does. I took a look at the Blogging 101 “course” at WordPress after I learned from you there was such a thing. What was eyeopening was that they actually encouraged lazy writer for lazy readers. (I remember one blogger they pointed out as a model. She was especially lauded for her “rhythm,” because she wrote short, one sentence paragraphs. This is not the kind of writing I was interested in either reading or writing.)

          Now I have no beef with WordPress. They created the site. They have their own business plan. Good for them. The problem is that that plan does not involve promoting intelligent discussion of arcane subjects. It is closer to Buzzfeed than Science Blogs. In fact, the instruction at Blogging 101 seemed to me tried to encourage the blogger to become an amateur Yahoo writer or Buzzfeed contributor of (god forbid) an examiner.com stringer. It is not so much as Facebook among friends as people who share each other’s take on popular internet subjects, You see that from what they promote on “Freshly Pressed.”

          Given that, no one is going to register because they think they can collect in their reader an assortment of writers they might read every day. It wouldn’t matter if Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling were WordPress bloggers, no one would think to register with WordPress unless they intended to blog themselves.

          So that’s my take on why a critical mass can’t be achieved. No one is going to make his own Atlantic or Paris Review by finding the bloggers to put in his reader. That’s my only point.

          You have to accept it for what it is. I did for four years. You can’t do it forever unless you really have an insatiable need to write things whether anyone is interested in it or not. I don’t have that need. And frankly, my arthritis and eyesight are making it too difficult to proof-read on the screen, so it really is time to call it a day.

          • I am glad I went through blogging 101, DK. It helped me think critically about why I write – something I rarely had time to do when I developed and evaluated programs or worked in academia. At that time, I was too busy writing course syllabi, grants, or technical reports. Now that I’ve retired, I have time to share information from my research and experiences. Yet, bridging cultures and disciplines presents a set of unique challenges. Blogging allows me to experiment to see what works in what ways, if at all. At the moment, I see it as “research” that may be helpful for the two book-length manuscripts I began and plan to finish when winter arrives.

            I have also learned to really care about the virtual friends I have met through WordPress. In important ways, the feeling of belonging to a community is something new for me to experience. I really have lived my life on the margins. Yet your experiences with the Science blogging community are a crucial reminder that things change and groups drift apart.

            I do understand moving on to other things, but I shall miss your posts. They challenge me to think critically and provide information, perspectives, and connections that are new for me. I am grateful for that. When you do “call it a day” for posting on your blog, please know you are always welcome to post guest essays on Voices from the Margins.

            Thank you for the conversation, DK. I really do miss science and have often wondered how I ever ended up in a profession that I have always viewed as so critically flawed…

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