The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete
Pre-Marxian logic, alien to the dialectical approach to the relation of the sensually empirical stage or form of cognition to the rational one, was unable, despite all its efforts, to provide a clear-cut solution to the problem of relation of notions to concepts.
The concept was defined as verbal designation of the general in a number of simple ideas (notions), as a name/term (Locke, Hobbes), or simply as any notion of a thing in our thought (Christian Wolff), or as something opposed to contemplation, inasmuch as it is a general notion or a notion of what is common to many objects of contemplation (Kant), or as a notion of definite, unambiguous, stable, generally accepted meaning (Sigwart), or a notion about a notion (Schopenhauer). Nowadays, too, widely current is the definition of concept as simply ‘the semantic meaning of a term’, whatever the latter might mean. Neo-positivists often refuse to deal at all with the relationship between concept and notion, proceeding to purely formal definitions of the concept-specifying the concept as ‘the function of an utterance’, ‘prepositional function’, and so on. Generally speaking, this question has remained extremely confused in modern bourgeois philosophy and logic. Very typical is the view expressed in Heinrich Schmidt’s Philosophical Dictionary. The concept is here defined as ‘the meaningful content of words’, and in the stricter ‘logical sense’ as a meaningful content of a word that is ‘freed from momentaneous perception in such a way that it may be transferred to other similar perceptions as their designation’.  The Kirchner-Michaelis’ Dictionary of Basic Philosophical Concepts attempts to avoid the identification of concept and notion: ‘The concept is therefore not just a closed general notion, it emerges out of notions through their comparison and extraction of that which is common to them.’ 
The Russian logician Vvedensky, a follower of Kant, proceeds from the assumption that a notion differs from a concept not in the ‘psychological mode of experience’ but in the fact that in the notion things are considered ‘with regard to any features whatsoever’, while in the concept, only ‘with regard to the essential features’. On the next page, however, he discards this distinction in a characteristic argument that ‘something may be essential from one viewpoint, and quite a different thin , from another’. But the question of whether certain features are ‘essential’ or ‘inessential’ is solved somewhere outside logic as a formal discipline, somewhere, in epistemology, ethics, or some such discipline. Therefore, logic, according to Vvedensky, is quite right in artlessly considering any verbally recorded ‘general’ entity . , any term regarded from its meaningful aspect, as a concept.
These argument, (highly typical of non-Marxist, anti-dialectical logic) lead in the final analysis, in a more or less roundabout way, to one and the same denouement: the term ‘concept’ is taken to mean any verbally expressed ‘general’, any terminologically recorded abstraction from the sensually given multiformity, any notion of what is common to many objects of direct contemplation.
In other words, all the anti-dialectical versions of the concept ultimately go back to one and the same classical source – the definition of Locke and Kant, and at times even further back, to the definition of medieval nominalism which did not distinguish between word and concept at all.
The fundamental weakness of the conception of Locke and Kant lies in that its attempts to distinguish between notion as a form of sensual empirical knowledge and concept as a form of rational knowledge are firmly based on a Robinson Crusoe model of epistemology, in which the subject of cognition is a separate human individual isolated from the concatenation of social links and opposed to ‘all the rest’. That is why the relation of consciousness to objective reality is given a very narrow interpretation here-only as the relation of the individual consciousness, many times repeated, to everything that lies outside this consciousness and does not depend on its existence and will.
But it is not only material nature that exists outside of and independently from the consciousness and will of the individual – so does the extremely complex and historically shaped sphere of the material and spiritual culture of mankind, of society. Rising to conscious life within society, the individual finds pre-existing ‘spiritual environment’, objectively implemented spiritual culture. The latter is opposed to individual consciousness as a specific object which the individual has to assimilate taking into account its nature as something quite objective. A system of forms of social consciousness (in the, broadest possible sense, including forms of political organisation of society, law. morality, everyday life, and so on, as well as forms and norms of actions in the sphere of thought, grammatical syntactic, rifles for verbal expression of notions, aesthetic tastes. etc.) structures from the very outset the developing consciousness and will of the individual, moulding him in its own image. As a result, each separate sensual impression arising in individual consciousness is always a product of refraction of external stimuli through the extremely complex prism of the forms of social consciousness the individual has appropriated. This ‘prism’ is a product of social human development. Alone, face to face with nature, the individual has no such prism, and it cannot be understood from an analysis of the relations of an isolated individual to nature.
The Robinson Crusoe epistemological model attempts to comprehend the mechanism of production of conscious notions and concepts precisely in the context of such a fairy-tale situation. The social nature of any, even the most elementary, act of production of conscious notions is here ignored from the outset, and it is assumed that the individual fir-,t experiences isolated. sensual impressions, then inductively abstracts something general from them, designates it by a word, then assumes an attitude of ‘reflection’ towards this general, regarding his own mental actions and their products-’general ideas’ (that is, general notions recorded in speech) as a specific object of study. In short, the matter is presented in the manner outlined by John Locke, the classic representative and systematiser of this view, in his Essay Concerning Human, Understanding.
But the social human nature, of individual consciousness, which this theory drives out of the door, gets back through the window. ‘Reflection’, that is, consideration of the products of mental activity and operations upon them (syllogisms, reasoning based on concepts only), reveals it once that these products contain a certain result that is fundamentally inexplicable from the limited personal experience.
Insofar as social human experience is here interpreted only as reiterated personal experience, as a mere sum of separate experiences (rather than as the history of entire human culture), all forms of consciousness that have matured in the long and contradictory development of culture, appear to be in general inexplicable from experience, given a priori. There is no way in which they could necessarily be deduced from individual experience, and yet they most actively determine this experience, shaping the form in which it proceeds.
This conception is ultimately embodied in Kant’s doctrine of ‘the unity of transcendental apperception’, in connection with which Kant gives his definition of the concept as a general notion, or notion of those general elements that are inherent in many objects of contemplation. Kant’s doctrine of the concept is not reduced to this simple definition, of course; but it underlies all his constructions and has integral ties with them. At first sight, this definition coincides with one-sided empirical interpretation of the concept by Locke. And that is indeed so. But narrow empiricism is inevitably complemented by its counterpart, the idea of extra-experiential, non-empirical origin of a number of most important concepts of reason, the categories. The categories of reason, constituting a most complicated product of thousands of years of development of the culture of human thought, cannot be interpreted as general notions, as notions about the general element in many objects given in individual contemplation.
The universal concepts, the categories (cause, quality, property, quantity, possibility and so on) refer to all objects of contemplation without exception, rather than to ‘many’. Consequently, the must contain a guarantee of universality and necessity, a guarantee that a contradictory case will never come up in human experience in the future (a phenomenon without a cause, or a thing devoid of qualities or unamenable to quantitative measurement, etc.). Empirical inductive abstraction naturally cannot contain such a guarantee-it is always threatened by the same kind of unpleasantness that happened to the proposition ‘all swans are white’.
For this reason Kant in fact adopts a fundamentally different definition for these concepts as a priori forms of transcendental apperception and not at all as ‘general notions’. The very concept of concept is thus rent by dualism. In actual fact there are two mutually excluding definitions. On the one band, the concept is simply identified with the general notion, and on the other, concept and notion are separated by a gap. The ‘pure’ (‘transcendental’) concept, a category of reason, proves to be entirely whereas the ordinary concept is simply reduced to a general notion. That is the inevitable retribution for the s’ row-minded empiricism, which no school of logic can escape which identifies the concept with the meaning of any term, with the sense of a word.
The materialist dialectics of Marx, Engels, and Lenin gave a fine solution to the difficulties of defining the concept and its relation to the notion expressed in speech, as it fully took into account the socio-human, socio-historical nature of all forms and categories of cognition, including the forms of the empirical stage in cognition.
Owing to speech, the individual ‘sees’ the world not only and not so much through his own eyes as through millions of eyes. Marx and Engels therefore always interpret notions as something other than sensual images of things retained in individual memory. From the standpoint of epistemology centred on the social individual, a notion is a social reality, too. The content of a notion comprehends that which is retained in social memory, in the forms of this social memory as represented, first of all, by speech, by language. If an individual has acquired a notion of a thing from other individuals who observed it directly, the acquired form of consciousness of it is precisely that which he would have received had he contemplated this thing with his own eyes. Having a notion means having a socially comprehended (that is, expressed in speech or capable of being expressed in speech) contemplation. Neither I nor some other individual form a concept of some thing if I, through speech, observe this thing through the eyes of another individual or this other individual contemplates it through my eyes. We engage in mutual exchange of notions. A notion is precisely that-verbally expressed contemplation.
Contemplation and notion thereby appear as categories expressing the socio-historical nature of sensuality, of the empirical form of knowledge, rather than an individual’s psychological states. The notion always contains only that which I in my individual contemplation perceive in a social manner, that is, am capable of making the property of another individual through speech, and thereby my own property as a socially contemplating individual. Being capable of expressing the sensually contemplated facts in speech means being capable of transposing the individually contemplated onto the plane of notion as social consciousness.
But this in no way coincides yet with the ability and capability of working out concepts, the ability for logical processing of contemplation and notion into concept. It does not yet mean an ability for proceeding from the first, sensual stage of knowledge to the stage of logical assimilation.
In referring to theoretical processing of sensual data, Marx takes these data mostly to be something different from what the individual carrying out this logical processing directly saw with his own eyes or touched with his fingers. Marx always has in mind the entire totality of the factual empirical data, the socially implemented contemplation. The material of logical activity available to the theoretician, his sensual data, are not only and not so much what he as an individual contemplated directly but rather everything that he knows about the object from all other men. And he can know all this from other men only through speech, only due to millions of facts having been already recorded in social notions.
This determines an approach to comprehending the process of cognition quite different from the one that may be established from the standpoint of nominalist interpretation of thinking and its relation to sensuality: contemplation and notion are for Marx only the first, sensual stage in cognition. And that is sharply different from t e interpretation of the sensual stage of cognition characteristic of the followers of Locke and Helvétius. The latter two, inevitably, refer that form of consciousness that Marx calls notion (Vorstellung), to the rational, logical stage in reflection, owing to their abstract anthropological conception of the subject of cognition.
The difference between concept and general notion expressed in word was originally clearly established by the dialectician Hegel, and he did it in the framework of logic (something no one had done before him). The reason that he could do so was that his starting point in logic was mankind as a whole in its development rather than an isolated individual.
Hegel pointed out on numerous occasions that if the process of cognition is considered from the psychological standpoint, that is, in the form in which it goes on in the head of an isolated individual, ‘one can stick to the tale that we begin with sensations and contemplations and that intellect extracts something general or abstract from the diversity of the latter’. [Hegel, Science of Logic]
This phase of the development Hegel calls the transition from contemplation to notion, that is, a certain stable form of consciousness, an abstract general image that is given a name, an expression in speech, in a term.
however, thought striving for truth does not take this form of consciousness to be either its goal or result but merely a premise, material for its specific activity. Old logic, notes Hegel, constantly confuses psychological premises of a concept with the concept itself, taking any abstract general notion to be a concept once it has been expressed in a term, a word, in speech.
For old logic, any abstract general. notion recorded in a word is already a concept, a form of rational cognition of things. For Hegel it is merely a prerequisite of an actual concept, that is, of such a form of consciousness which expresses the real (dialectical) nature of things.
‘In the new times, no other concept fared worse than the concept itself, the concept by and for itself, for concept is usually taken to mean abstract definiteness and one-sidedness of conception or of intellectual thinking, with which, of course, one cannot cognitively bring into consciousness either the entirety of the truth or beauty concrete by itself.’ [Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics]
Hegel further explains that the concept is interpreted in this logic extremely one-sidedly or lopsidedly, namely, it is considered only from the side which is equally inherent both in the concept and in the general notion.
In this framework, the concept is essentially equated with the simple general notion, and all those specific features of the concept owing to which it proves to be capable of expressing the concrete nature of the object are left outside the sphere of interest of old logic.
‘What one usually calls concepts, and moreover definite concepts, e.g. man, house, animal, etc., are least of all concepts, they are simple definitions and abstract notions – abstractions which borrow from the concept only the element of generality and leave out the particular and the individual, thereby being abstractions precisely from the concept.’ [Hegel, §164 Encyclopedia]
It is easy to see that this distinction is closely linked with Hegel’s critique of the metaphysical approach in logic and epistemology. In no way rejecting the quite obvious fact that the concept is always something abstract in comparison with the sensually concrete image of a thing, Hegel shows at the same time the superficiality of the view reducing the concept to mere expression of the abstractly identical, abstractly general property, feature or relation inherent in a whole series of phenomena. This reduction explains absolutely nothing about its ability to reflect the nature of the object more profoundly, correctly, and completely than do contemplation and notion.
‘However, if what is taken over into the concept from the concrete event must serve merely as a marker or sign, it may, indeed, be some merely sensual individual definition of the object.’ [Hegel, Science of Logic]
The difference between the image of living contemplation and the concept is thus reduced to a purely quantitative one. The concept expresses or, to be more precise, designates only one of the sensual properties of the phenomenon, whereas the sensual image contains a whole series of them. As a result, the concept is considered only as something more meagre than the image of living contemplation-only as an abstract one-sided expression of this image.
The transition from the image of contemplation to the concept is thus regarded merely as destruction of the sensually given concreteness, as elimination of a great number of sensually perceived properties for the sake of one of them.
‘The abstract [says Hegel in this connection] is counted of less worth than the concrete, because from the former so much of that kind of material has been omitted. To those who hold this view, the process of abstraction means that for our subjective needs one or another characteristic is taken out of the concrete ... and it is only the incapacity of understanding to absorb such riches that forces it to rest content with meagre abstraction. [Lenin, Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic]
The transition from concrete contemplation to abstractions of thought appears, as a result, only as departure from reality given in direct contemplation, only as manifestation of the ‘incapacity’, weakness of thought. Not surprisingly, Kant, starting out from this premise, comes to the conclusion that thought is incapable of attaining objective truth.
Lenin took very copious notes of this passage in Hegel, making this remark à propos of it:
‘Essentially, Hegel is completely right as opposed to Kant. Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract-provided it is correct (NB) (and Kant, like all philosophers, speaks of correct thought) – does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it.’ [ibid.]
In other words, the concept may be something abstract as compared to the sensually perceived concreteness, but its strength and advantages over contemplation do not lie therein. The ascent from the sensually contemplated concreteness to the abstract expression of it is merely the form in which a more meaningful process is realised-the process of attaining the truth which contemplation is incapable of grasping. In commenting on Hegel, Lenin points out that scientific (that is, correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature not only more deeply and correctly than living contemplation or notion but also more fully. And ‘more fully’ in the language of dialectical logic means nothing else but ‘more concretely’.
‘Consequently [continues Hegel in the passage quoted by Lenin] abstracting thought must not be considered as a mere setting aside of the sensuous material, whose reality is said not to be lowered thereby; but it is its transcendence, and the reduction of it (as mere appearance) to the essential, which manifests itself in the Notion only.’ [ibid.]
In the process, the concrete is by no means lost, as Kant believes, along with the empiricists; on the contrary, its real meaning and content are brought out by thinking. That is precisely why Hegel regards the transition from the sensually contemplated concreteness to the concept as a form of movement from appearance to essence, from consequence to its antecedent.
A concept, according to Hegel, expresses the essence of contemplated phenomena. And that essence is by no means reducible to the abstractly identical in different phenomena, to the identical elements observed in each of the phenomena taken in isolation. The essence of an object is almost always contained in the unity of distinct and opposed elements, in their concatenation and mutual determination. That is why Hegel says of the concept: ‘As far as the nature of concept as such is concerned, taken by itself it is not an abstract unity opposed to the distinctions of reality, but, as a concept, it is already a unity of different definitenesses, and thereby concrete reality. So notions like “man”, “blue”, etc., should not be called concepts but abstract general notions, which only become concepts when it is shown that they contain distinct aspects in unity, whereby this unity determined within itself constitutes the concept’. [Lectures on Aesthetics]
If man’s thinking merely reduces the essentially sensually concrete image of an object to an abstract one-sided definition, it produces only a general notion and not a concept. This is quite a natural process if it is interpreted as transition from contemplation to notion. But if it is taken to be what it is not, namely, transition to the concept, the most important feature of this transition is left unexplained.
Lenin stressed, on more than one occasion, Hegel’s idea that transition from notion to concept should be considered in logic first of all as transition from superficial knowledge to deeper, fuller, and more correct knowledge. “The object in its existence without thought and Notion is an image or a name: it is what it is in the determinations of thought and Notion,” says Hegel, and Lenin makes a marginal note.
’That is correct! Image and thought, the development of both, nil aliud.’ [Lenin, Consp. Hegel’s Logic]
In analysing Hegel’s arguments about the relation of notion to thought, Lenin deemed it necessary to point out that Hegel’s idealism was not in evidence in regard to this point: ‘Here, in the concept of time (and not in the relation of sensuous representation to thought) is the idealism of Hegel.’ [ibid.]
Hegel’s main idea is that intellectual abstractions do not take consciousness beyond the empirical stage of cognition, that they are forms of sensual empirical consciousness beyond the empirical stage of cognition, that they are forms of sensual empirical consciousness rather than thought in the strict sense of the term, are notions and not concepts. Confusing the two, identifying notion with concept on the grounds that both are abstractions, is a most characteristic mark of metaphysics in logic, of the logic of metaphysical thinking.
Therefore the first task of logic as a science studying logical processing of empirical data into concepts (transition from contemplation and notion to concept) is strict objective delimitation of concept and verbally expressed notion.
This delimitation is by no means a theoretical nicety. It is of enormous significance for epistemology as well as pedagogics. Formation of abstract general notions is in itself a sufficiently complicated and contradictory process. As such, it forms the subject-matter of special investigation, although not in logic.
The task of logic as a science grows out of the real needs of the developing cognition of the phenomena of the surrounding world. The question with which a thinking man turns to logic as a science is not at all the question of how abstractions should be made in general, how one can learn to abstract the general from the sensually given facts. To do that, one need not at all ask the logicians’ advice, one merely has to have a command of one’s native language and the ability to concentrate one’s attention on the sensually given similarities and differences.
The question with which one turns to logic and which can only be answered by logic involves a much more complicated cognitive task: how is one to work out an abstraction which would express the objective essence of facts given in contemplation and notions? The manner in which processing a mass of empirically obvious facts yields a generalisation expressing the real nature of the object under study – that is the actual problem, whose solution is identical with that of the problem of the nature of concepts as distinct from abstract general notions.
Concepts being defined as reflection of the essentially general, materialism in logic compels one to distinguish between what is essential for the subject (his desires, aspirations, goals, etc.) and that which is essential for the objective definition of the nature of the object entirely independent of the subjective aspirations.
Neo-Kantian logic consciously blurs this distinction, purporting to prove that the criterion for distinguishing between the subjectively essential and that which is essential as far as the object itself is concerned can neither be found nor given. This view is most consistently developed in pragmatist and instrumentalist conceptions. Any concept is construed as a projection of subjective desires, aspirations and impulses on the chaos of sensually given phenomena. Clearly, it is not only the boundary between the subjective and the objective that is obliterated here but also the boundary between the spontaneously formed notion and concept, between empirical and rational logical cognition.
As an illustration, let us cite a characteristic example of present-day philosophising on the subject of the abstract and the concrete-an article by Rudolf Schottlaender, a West-German theoretician, which reflects, as in a mirror, the level of bourgeois thought in the field of dialectical categories.
The Alpha and Omega of his approach is the opposition of the abstract and the concrete as categories belonging to two fundamentally different spheres. For Schottlaender, the abstract is only a mode of action of the subject of cognition. The concrete is identified with the sensually perceived image of living contemplation in its entirety, while the object outside consciousness is not distinguished at all from its sensual experience. The subject ‘takes out’, ‘extracts’, ‘takes away’ from the concrete certain general abstract features, apparently motivated by a purely subjective purpose, constructing a concept out of these features. Whether the features abstracted are essential or inessential is determined, according to Schottlaender, entirely by the goals of the subject of cognition, his ‘practical’ attitude to the thing. One cannot consider the essential from the standpoint of the object itself’ J, Schottlaender believes, without going back to the positions of the ‘scholastic quintessence’, of the ‘real essence’.
The abstract and the concrete are thereby metaphysically distributed between two different worlds-the world of ‘the subject of cognition’ and the world of ‘the object of cognition’. On these grounds Schottlaender believes it expedient to drop the problem of the relation of the abstract to the concrete as a question of logic, which studies the world of the subject.
And, since he is dealing with logic, it is not the concrete that he opposes to the abstract but the ‘Subtrahendum’ invented for the purpose, that is, everything that the subject making an abstraction consciously or unconsciously leaves aside, the unused remainder of the richness of the sensually perceived image of the thing. And further lie believes it, expedient, in the spirit of the modern semantic tradition, also to rename the abstract ‘Extrahendum’ (that is, what is extracted and incorporated in the concept).
In as much as a complete synthesis of abstractions corresponding to the infinite fullness of the sensual image is unattainable, philosophical justification of any abstraction (the ‘Extrahendum’) may be reduced to an indication of the goal or value for the sake of which the subject of cognition has made the extraction. The sensually, intrusively grasped fullness of the thing minus the ‘Extrahendum’ is called the ‘Subtrahendum’. The latter is stored away by the subject of cognition as reserve for the occasion when ‘the essential’ will turn exit to be precisely there, in the light of other objectives, values, or aspirations.
In approaching the question of the relation of concept to notion one must apparently fully take into account the fact that the notion, as a form and a stage in reflecting objective reality in man’s mind is also an abstraction, whose formation is affected by a great number of factors, and first of all the direct practical interest, man’s need and the purpose reflecting the need ideally.
The links between the concept-a theoretical abstraction expressing the objective essence of the thing-and practice is much broader, deeper, and more complicated. In the concept, the object is comprehended from the standpoint of mankind’s practice in its entire volume throughout the history of world development, rather than from the standpoint of the particular, narrow pragmatic objective and need. Only this viewpoint coincides in the long run with consideration of the object from the object’s own point of view. Only from this standpoint can one distinguish the objectively essential definitions of the thing – ‘that in which the object is what it is’; in other words, the abstraction of a concept is formed.
To define a concept does not at all mean to find out the sense imparted by men to the corresponding term. To define a concept means to define the object. From the standpoint of materialism, it is one and the same thing. The only correct definition is therefore to arrive at the essence of the matter.
One can always establish a convention or agreement on the meaning or sense of a term; the content of a concept is quite a different tiring. Although the content of a concept is always directly brought out as the ‘meaning of a term’, that is by no means one and the same thing.
That is an extremely important point closely linked with the problem of concreteness of the concept as interpreted in materialist dialectics (dialectical logic).
Neo-positivists reduce the problem of defining the concept to establishing the meaning of a term in a system of terms built according to formal rules, and the question of correspondence between definitions of the concept and its object existing outside and independently from consciousness, that is, from definition, is thus eliminated in general. As a result, they arrive at the absolutely insoluble problem of the so-called abstract object. This designation refers to the meaning of such a term that cannot be applied as a name to an individual thing given in the individual’s immediate sensual experience. Let us note that the sensual image of the single object in the individual’s consciousness is here again named the concrete object, which is in complete agreement with the age-long traditions of extreme empiricism.
Insofar as the whole of actual science consists of definitions that have no immediate equivalent in the individual’s sensual experience (that is, have some ‘abstract object’ for their meaning), the question of the relation of the abstract to the concrete is transformed into the problem of the relation of a general term to an individual image in the consciousness. As a question of logic, it is also ignored, being replaced by a partly psychological, partly formal linguistic question. But on this plane it is indeed impossible to solve the problem of the objective truth of any general concept, for the formulation of the question itself precludes any possibility of answering it. Neo-positivist ‘logic’ focused on the study of links and transitions between one concept and another (in actual fact, between one term and another), assuming beforehand that there is no transition from the concept to an object outside consciousness (that is, outside the definition and sensual experience), and there can be no such transition. Passing from term to term, this logic can at no point discover a bridge from a term to an object rather than to another term, a bridge to ‘concreteness’ in its genuine sense rather than to a thing given to an individual in his direct experience.
The only bridge leading from term to object, from the abstract to the concrete and back, a bridge that permits to establish a firm unambiguous connection between the two, is, as Marx and Engels showed already in The German Ideology, practical activity involving objects, the objective being of things and men. The purely theoretical act is not enough here.
‘One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent, realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content,’ [German Ideology] wrote Marx as early as 1845, almost a hundred years before the latest positivist discoveries in the field of logic were made. As a result of this operation, ‘the problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life’ [op. cit., and it is perceived by philosophers of this trend as a task to be solved verbally, too, as a task in inventing special magic words which, while remaining words, would nevertheless be something more than mere words.
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels demonstrated brilliantly that that task was an imaginary one, arising merely from the view that language and thought are separate spheres organised according to their own immanent rules and laws rather than forms of expression of real life, of objective being of men and things.
‘We have seen that the whole problem of transition from thought to reality, hence from language to life, exists only in philosophical illusion.... This great problem ... was bound, of course, to result finally in one of these knights-errant setting out in search of a word which, as a word, formed the transition in question, which, as a word, ceases to be simply a word, and which, as a word, in a mysterious super-linguistic manner, points from within language to the actual object it denotes.’ [German Ideology]
In these days too, many bourgeois philosophers attempt to solve this pseudo-problem rooted in the conception that the whole gigantic system of ‘abstract concepts’ is based on such a shaky and elusive foundation as the individual image in an individual’s perception, as ‘the only individual’ that is, apart from everything else, termed the ‘concrete’ object. All this is but the old search for the absolute. While Hegel looked for the absolute in the concept, neo-positivists are searching for it in the sphere of words or signs combined according to absolute rules.
Marx and Engels, resolutely discarding idealism in philosophy, viewed thought and language as ‘only manifestations of actual life’, [German Ideology] and definitions of concepts, as verbally recorded definitions of reality. But reality was here construed not as simply a sea of individual things in which separate individuals catch abstract general definitions in the net of abstraction, but rather a concreteness organised in itself, that is, an articulate system of men’s relations to nature. Language and thought are precisely a direct expression (form of manifestation) of this system of men and things.
On this basis Marx and Engels solved the problem of the objective meaning of all those ‘abstractions’ which to this day appear in idealist philosophy (including neo-positivist philosophy) as specific ‘abstract objects’ independently existing in language.
Marx and Engels gave a materialist interpretation to all those mysterious abstractions which, according to idealist philosophy, exist only in consciousness, in thought and language, finding their objective factual equivalents in concrete reality. The problem of the relation of the abstract to the concrete thereby ceased to be, one of relation of a verbally expressed abstraction to an individual, sensually given thing. It emerged as the problem of internal division of concrete reality within itself, as the problem of the relationship between the discrete elements of this reality.
The solution of the problem found by Marx and Engels is apparently very simple: definitions of concepts are nothing but definitions of different elements of the actual concreteness, that is, of the law-governed organisation of a system of relations of man to man and of man to things. Scientific study of this concrete reality must yield ‘abstract’ definitions of concepts expressing its structure, its organisation. Each abstract definition of the concept must express a discrete element that is actually (objectively) singled out in the concrete reality. The solution is very simple at first sight, yet it cuts it a stroke the Gordian knot of problems that idealist philosophy has so far been unable to unravel.
The abstract is not, from this point of view, just a synonym of the purely ideal, existing only in the consciousness, in man’s brain in the shape of sense or meaning of a word-sign. This term is also applied by Marx, with every justification, to reality outside consciousness, e.g.: ‘human labour in the abstract’, [Capital Vol. I] abstract – isolated-human individual, [See Theses on Feuerbach] or ‘Gold as the material aspect of abstract wealth’, [Contribution to Critique of Political Economy] and so on.
All these expressions will seem absurd and incomprehensible to logicians and philosophers for whom the abstract is a synonym of the purely ideal, mental, intellectual, while the concrete is a synonym of the individual, sensually perceived. That is solely due to the fact that their kind of logic would never be able to solve the dialectical task that the concrete reality of capitalist relations poses before thought. From the standpoint of school logic, this reality will appear wholly mystical. Here, for instance, it is not ‘the abstract’ that has the meaning of an aspect or property of ‘the concrete’, but on the contrary, the sensually concrete has the meaning of mere form of manifestation of the abstractly universal. In this inversion, the essence of which was not revealed before Marx, lies the whole difficulty of the understanding of value form.
‘This inversion, through which the sensually concrete emerges only as a form of the abstractly general, and not, conversely, the abstractly general as a property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. That is what makes its comprehension difficult. If I say that Roman law and German law are both laws, that is self-obvious. If I say, on the contrary, the law, this abstraction, realises itself in Roman law and in German law, in these concrete laws, then the relationship becomes mystical.’ [Capital]
And that is not simply, a mystifying form of expressing facts in speech, in language, neither is it a speculative Hegelian turn of speech, but rather a completely accurate verbal expression of the actual ‘inversion’ of elements of reality connected with one another. That is an expression of nothing but the actual fact of universal dependence of the separate isolated links of social production upon each other, a fact completely independent of either men’s consciousness or their will. To man, this fact inevitably appears as the mystic power of ‘the abstract’ over ‘the concrete’, that is, the power of a universal law guiding the movements of separate (individual) things and persons over each individual person and each individual thing.
This ‘mystical’ turn of speech, so reminiscent of the Hegelian mode of expression, reflects the real dialectics of ‘things’ and relations’ within which the thing exists. The most interesting point is, however, that the mystical nature of this expression results precisely from the fact that ‘the abstract’ and ‘the concrete’ are used in the sense attributed to them by school logic.
Indeed, if ‘concrete’ is applied to the definition of t thing, and ‘abstract’, to the definition of a relation between them, regarded as a special and independent object of thought and definition, a fact like money instantly begins to appear quite mystical. For objectively, apart from the illusions that one may have on this score, ‘money, though a physical object with distinct properties, represents a social relation of production’ [Contribution to Critique of Political Economy] (italics mine – E.I.). For this reason bourgeois economists, as Marx remarks, are continually amazed ‘when the phenomenon that they have just ponderously described as a thing reappears as a social relation and, a moment later, having been defined as a social relation, teases them once more as a thing’. [ibid.]
Let us point out that this ‘mystique’ is not a feature specific for capitalist production only. The dialectics of the relation between an individual ‘thing’ (that is, the object of a ‘concrete concept’) and that ‘relation’ within which the thing is this particular thing (that is, the object of the ‘abstract concept’) is a universal relation. This is a manifestation of the objectively universal fact that there are in general no things in the world that would exist in isolation from the universal links-things always exist in a system of relations to one another. This system of interacting things (what Marx calls concreteness) is always something determining and therefore logically primary with regard to each separate sensually perceived thing. The extraordinary situation when ‘relation’ is taken for a ‘thing’, and a ‘thing’ for a ‘relation’, arises precisely due to this dialectics.
A system of interacting things, a certain law-governed system of their relations (that is, ‘the concrete’) always appears in contemplation as a separate sensually perceived thing, but it appears only in some fragmentary, particular manifestation, that is, abstractly. The whole difficulty of theoretical analysis is that neither the ‘relation’ between things should be regarded abstractly, as a specific independent object, nor conversely the ‘thing’ should be viewed as an isolated object existing outside a system of relations to other things, but rather each thing should be interpreted as an element or moment of a certain concrete system of interacting things, as a concrete individual manifestation of a certain system of ‘relations’.
The turn of speech presenting ‘the concrete’ as something subordinated to ‘the abstract’ and even as its product (and that is the root of the entire Hegelian mystification of the problem of the universal, the particular, and the individual) expresses in actual fact the absolutely real circumstance that each individual phenomenon (thing, event, etc.) is always born and exists in its definiteness and later dies within a certain concrete whole, within a system of individual things developing in a law-governed way. The ‘power’ or the determining action of the law (and law is the reality of the universal in nature and society) with regard to each individual thing, the determining significance of the whole in relation to its parts, is exactly what is perceived as the power of ‘the abstract’ over ‘the concrete’. The result is the mystifying expression.
Marx uncovered this mystification by showing the reality of ‘the concrete’ as a whole system of interacting things, developing and resulting from development, as a whole divided in accordance with some law, rather than as an individual isolated thing. Given this interpretation, any shade of mystification disappears.
The concrete (and not the abstract) – as reality taken as a whole in its development, in its law-governed division – is always something primary with respect to the abstract (whether this abstract should be construed as a separate relatively isolated moment of reality or its mental verbally recorded reflection). At the same time any concreteness exists only through its own discrete elements (things, relations) as their specific combination, synthesis, unity.
That is exactly why the concrete is reflected in thought only as a unity of diverse definitions, each of which records precisely one of the moments actually distinguished in its structure. Consistent mental reproduction of the concrete is therefore realised as ‘ascent from the abstract to the concrete’, that is, as logical combination (synthesis) of particular definitions into an aggregate overall theoretical picture of reality, as movement of thought, from the particular to the general.
The order of singling out the separate (particular) definitions and linking them up is by no means arbitrary. This sequence is generally determined, as the classics of Marxism-Leninism showed, by the historical process of the birth, formation, and growing complexity of the concrete sphere of reality which in this given case is reproduced in thought. The fundamental, primary, universal abstract definitions of the whole, with which a theoretical construction should always begin, are not formed here, by any means, through simple formal abstraction from all the ‘particulars’ without exception which form part of the whole.
Thus value, the primary universal category of Capital, is not defined through abstractions that would retain the general features equally inherent in commodity, money, capital, profit, and rent, but through the finest theoretical definitions of one ‘particular’, namely, commodity, all the other particulars, however, being strictly left out of account.
Analysis of commodity, this elementary economic concreteness, yields universal (and in this sense abstract) definitions pertaining to any other particular form of economic relations. The whole point is, however, that commodity is the kind of particular which simultaneously is a universal condition of the existence of the other particulars recorded in other categories. That is a particular entity whose whole specificity lies in being the universal and the abstract, that is, undeveloped, elementary, “cellular” formation, developing through contradictions immanently inherent in it into other, more complex and well-developed formations.
The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in the concept reflects quite precisely the objective dialectics of the development of one kind of actual (historically defined) relations between men into other kinds of relations, just as actual, mediated by things. The entire movement of thought from the abstract to the concrete is therefore at the same time absolutely strict movement of -thought from fact to fact, transition from considering one fact to considering another fact, rather than movement ‘from concept to concept’.
This specific feature of Marx’s method had to be continually stressed by the classics of Marxism in their arguments against Kantian interpretations of the logic of Capital. This specific feature consists in flat in applying this method ‘we are dealing with a purely logical process and its explanatory reflection in thought, the logical pursuance of its inner connection.’ [Supplement to Capital Vol III on Law of Value]
The problem of the relation of the abstract to the concrete in the concept is correctly solved only on the basis of this approach. Every concept is abstract in the sense that it records only one of the particular moments of concrete reality in its entirety. Each concept is concrete, too, for it does not record the formal general ‘features’ of heterogeneous facts but rather in a more precise manner the concrete definiteness of the fact to which it pertains, its specific feature due to which it plays this and not some other role in the aggregate whole that is reality, having this particular function and ‘meaning’ and not some other.
Every concept (if it is really a well-developed concept and not merely a verbally fixed general notion) is therefore a concrete abstraction, however contradictory that may sound from the standpoint of old logic. It is always a thing that is expressed in it (that is, a sensually, empirically stated fact), but a thing considered with regard to its property which it has specifically as an element of a given concrete system of interacting things (facts) rather than simply as an abstract thing belonging to an indeterminate sphere of reality. A thing regarded outside any concrete system of relations with other things is also an abstraction – no better than relation or property regarded as a specific object unconnected with things, the material carriers of relations and properties.
The Marxist conception of the categories of the abstract and the concrete as logical (universal) categories was further elaborated in Lenin’s numerous philosophical works and fragments as well as in his excursions into logic which he undertook in considering social, politico-economic, and political problems. Whenever he touched on these problems, Lenin unswervingly defended the views developed by Marx and Engels, emphasising the objective significance of theoretical abstractions and sharply rejecting empty formal abstractions which record in verbal form arbitrarily chosen formal affinities, ‘similar features’ of heterogeneous actually unconnected phenomena. For Lenin, ‘the abstract’ was always a synonym of verbiage divorced from life, a synonym of formal word-creation, of an empty and untrue definition to which no definite fact corresponds in reality. And on the contrary, Lenin always insisted on the concrete nature of the truth and of concepts expressing reality, on the indissoluble links between word and deed, for it is only these links that ensure actual reasonable synthesis of the abstract with the concrete, of the universal with the particular and the individual. Lenin’s views on this score are of enormous importance for logic, requiring further careful study, generalisation, and systematisation. It is easy to see that these views have nothing in common with the metaphysical division of concepts, given once and for all, into ‘abstract’ (concepts of individual things or facts) and ‘concrete’ (referring to relations and properties considered ‘in isolation from things’, as ‘specific objects’). Lenin assessed concepts of both type as equally abstract, he did not value them highly at all, always insisting that facts and things should be comprehended in their overall cohesion and concrete interaction (that is, in their ‘relations’), while any consideration of social relations should always be based on a most careful and thoughtful treatment of ‘things’, of strictly attested facts, the social relations never to be taken as ‘a specific object’ considered separately from things and facts. In other words, Lenin insisted on all occasions on concrete thinking, for concreteness was to him, just as to Marx, a synonym of the objective meaning and truth of concepts, while abstractness, a synonym of their emptiness.
What we have said here warrants the following conclusion: both in dialectical and formal logic, it is inadmissible to divide concepts, once and for all, into two classes – abstract and concrete. This division is connected with traditions in philosophy that are far from the best, precisely those traditions against which not only Marx and Lenin fought but also Hegel, Spinoza, and generally all those thinkers who understood that concept (as a form of thought) and term (a verbal symbol) were essentially different things. There are certain grounds for dividing terms into names of separate things sensually perceived by the individual and names of their ‘general’ properties and relations, while in regard to concepts this division has no sense. It is not a logical division. There are no grounds for it in logic.
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