Adam Smith on the Emergent Meaning of “Stuff”

adam smith "speaking of smith"

Lauren Hall for AdamSmithWorks

While it’s not in the nature of Smith to wax too philosophical over human meaning, I think his treatment of property, combined with the themes of spontaneous order and emergent meaning that thread their way throughout his work, can help us come to terms with and understand the role that property or “stuff” plays in our lives and why it matters.
Someone drove a car into our home early Sunday morning. Apart from the immediate terror of waking up to what sounded like a bomb going off in our home, the driver took out our family library, one filled with beloved children’s books, philosophy, religion, and history books gifted from our parents, and random books on gardening and home improvement. In the immediate blankness and forced inactivity of waiting for the insurance assessor to arrive I sat down with Adam Smith this morning, whose volumes were safely tucked away in my professional library upstairs, to think a little about grief and loss and the nature of property itself. 

In one sense of course, this tragedy has left us feeling very grateful. No one was killed. Our family dog, nestled in her crate in the room the driver plowed through, was unharmed beneath a pile of rubble. Our children were not playing in the window seat when the driver shot through it at 40 miles an hour. We have homeowner’s insurance that will help us rebuild. We are unlikely to be substantially financially worse off now than we were before. We are deeply grateful for all these things.

What we lost was really stuff, and sententious people on the internet will tell us that “stuff can be replaced.” And while that too is true, this room held more than stuff. Or rather, stuff for humans is more than simply replaceable objects. Smith was well aware of the foundational nature of “stuff,” seen most clearly in the first pages of his Lectures on Jurisprudence, where he argues that “The first and chief design of every system of government is to maintain justice; to prevent the members of a society from incroaching on anothers property, or siezing what is not their own. The design here is to give each one the secure and peacable possession of his own property” (I.i, emphasis mine). 

While it’s not in the nature of Smith to wax too philosophical over human meaning, I think his treatment of property, combined with the themes of spontaneous order and emergent meaning that thread their way throughout his work, can help us come to terms with and understand the role that property or “stuff” plays in our lives and why it matters.

This particular room, wiped out in thirty seconds when one and a half tons of steel barreled through it, was perhaps the most meaningful room in our home. My husband spent all summer renovating it, fixing the previous owner’s incompetent insulation techniques, clearing decades of mouse droppings from within the aged walls, re-siding the exterior to replace the cheap, decades-old, eyesore, vinyl siding, installing new windows, making the exterior of our aged home a reflection of the human beings who reside inside. The pride he took in that work was a reflection of who he is, which is just one reason property matters. It is the result of our labor, a reflection of our values, an external representation of our unique and irreplaceable personalities, and of the day-to-day ways we live our lives. Property is a reflection of, and in many ways a protection of, our uniqueness as individuals, which is why Smith positions it so centrally in his understanding of human social life.

Inside that room, my husband spent weeks building a window seat and crafting built-in bookcases for the hundreds of books we have collected both together and apart, the library of a family and of five separate but intricately connected lives. Peering through the window at the rubble inside I can see one volume of my husband’s childhood set of Little House on the Prairie jumbled together with A Hat for Minerva Louise and an old soccer ball. Somewhere under the shattered wood pieces and wet insulation are the Thomas Merton books my mother read when she was in college, gifted to me upon my conversion to Catholicism, as well as the biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and other political figures my husband loves. Somewhere, perhaps wedged into the driver’s wheel well, is the copy of Meditation, by Eknath Easwaren, gifted by my father when I graduated from high school. In one sense all these books are just “stuff” and can be replaced, but at some point any collection of stuff creates its own meaning, in the way a hoarder’s home becomes a powerful symbol of mental illness, or someone’s vibrant garden represents the dedication of seasons of careful attention and artistry. In our case, this room held the meaning not only of my husband’s skill and pride in the place he lived, but also as a collection of ideas, of the idiosyncratic brains that all libraries represent. Individual books can be replaced, but the collection of books – the living conglomeration of the different parts of our lives when books are read, gifted, passed on, borrowed, dog-eared, and underlined – is much more than the sum of its parts. As with so many things in our lives, when we collect stuff – arrange it, take care of it, and make decisions to keep or lend or throw away -- meaning emerges.

Smith believed the meaning property creates extends into political systems themselves, arguing that “Property and civil government very much depend on one another. The preservation of property and the inequality of possession first formed it, and the state of property must always vary with the form of government” (401). Property is also foundational for the “natural jurisprudence” Smith advocates in the TMS, when he lays out the hierarchy of human duties, first our duties to ourselves, then to close family, then on to friends and community. It’s no accident that those closest to us, those toward whom the claims of justice are most strong, are also those with whom we share property. With them, and with that property, we construct our own unique shared meaning that reflects the uniqueness of the relationship itself, just as our collections of books represent unique and asymmetrical relationships among ourselves, the authors, and the people who gifted, recommended, or inherited those volumes. 

So by all means, when someone experiences a profound loss of “stuff”, whether through natural disaster, or divorce, or hurtling steel death traps, console them and offer them assistance. But do not tell them to “be grateful it was just stuff.” Our stuff is part of what makes us human. It is bound up with our sense of identity, our purpose in life, our past memories, our future hopes, and the way we craft meaning by interacting with our stuff to create new and powerful and wonderful things that never existed before and may never exist again. Stuff and our relationship to it is in fact one of the most peculiarly human things we do, which is why Smith places it front and center of his theory of jurisprudence. Stuff matters not just because of what we do with it but because of what it says about who we are.
Joanna J Bryson

I came here looking for an easy way to copy & paste a Smith quote I'd seen in my physical copy of Katharina Pistor's "The Code of Capital", but this is lovely and profound in itself. I'm sorry for your losses.

Thomas Strenge

Wonderfully explained. Thank you for sharing.