The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter 3 – Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete
In analysing the method of political economy, Marx advances a number of propositions of enormous philosophical import. These include the well-known thesis concerning ascent from the abstract to the concrete as the only possible and correct procedure for the solution by thought of the specific task of theoretical cognition of the world.
The concrete, in Marx’s conception, is unity in diversity,
’It appears therefore in reasoning as a summing up, a result, and not as the starting point, although it is the real point of origin, and thus also the point of origin of perception and imagination ...
‘The totality as a conceptual entity seen by the intellect is a product of the thinking intellect which assimilates the world in the only way open to it, a way which differs from the artistic, religious and practical spiritual assimilation of the world.’ [Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]
The method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete, where ‘abstract definitions lead to the reproduction of the concrete by way of thinking,’ [Grundrisse] was defined by Marx as a correct method from the scientific standpoint. This method is, according to Marx, that specific ‘mode in which thinking assimilates the concrete, reproducing it as the spiritually concrete’. [Grundrisse]
It is only this method that permits the theoretician to solve his special task, the task of processing the data of contemplation and notion into concepts.
In view of particular significance of these propositions for comprehending the method of Capital one should dwell on them in greater detail, the more so that they have frequently become objects of falsification of Marx’s economic and philosophical ideas by bourgeois philosophers and by revisionists.
Let us recall first of all that by the concrete Marx does not at all mean only the image of living contemplation, the sensual form of reflection of the object in consciousness, and neither does he interpret the abstract as ‘mental distillation’ only. If one reads Marx’s above propositions from the standpoint of these notions of the abstract and the concrete, characteristic of narrow empiricism and neo-Kantianism, one would arrive at an absurdity incompatible with the theory of reflection. One would have the illusion that Marx recommends to ascend from a mental abstraction as something immediately given to the image of living contemplation as something secondary and derivative in regard of thought.
In reading Marx, one should therefore take care to free oneself from the notions uncritically borrowed from pro-Marxian and neo-Kantian treatises on epistemology.
From the standpoint of Marx’s definitions of the abstract and the concrete, the above propositions characterise the dialectics of the transition from living contemplation to abstract thought, from contemplation and notion to concept, from the concrete as it is given in contemplation and notion to the concrete as it appears in thought.
Marx is first and foremost a materialist. In other words, he proceeds from the view that all those abstractions through which and by the synthesis of which a theoretician mentally reconstructs the world, are conceptual replicas of the separate moments of the objective reality itself revealed by analysis. In other words, it is assumed as something quite obvious that each abstract definition taken separately is a product of generalisation and analysis of the immediate data of contemplation. In this sense, and in this sense only, it is product of the reduction of the concrete in reality to its abstract abridged expression in consciousness.
Marx says that all the definitions used in (pre-Marxian) political economy were products of movement away from the concrete, given in the notion, to increasingly meagre abstractions. In describing the historical path traversed by political economy, Marx therefore characterises it as a path beginning with the real and concrete and leading first to ‘meagre abstractions’ and only after that, from the ‘meagre abstractions’ to a system, a synthesis, a combination of abstractions in theory.
The reduction of the concrete fullness of reality to its abridged (abstract) expression in consciousness is, self-obviously, a prerequisite and a condition without which no special theoretical research can either proceed or even begin. Moreover, this reduction is not only a prerequisite or historical condition of theoretical assimilation of the world but also an organic element of the process itself of constructing a system of scientific definitions, that is, of the mind’s synthesising activity.
The definitions which the theoretician organises into a system are not, of course, borrowed ready-made from the previous phase (or stage) of cognition. His task is by no means restricted to a purely formal synthesis of ready-made ‘meagre abstractions’ according to the familiar rules for such synthesis. In constructing a system out of ready-made, earlier obtained abstractions, a theoretician always critically analyses them, checks them with facts and thus goes once again through the ascent from the concrete in reality to the abstract in thought. This ascent is thus not only and not so much a prerequisite of constructing a system of science as an organic element of the construction itself.
Separate abstract definitions, whose synthesis yields the ‘concrete in thought’, are formed in the course of ascent from the abstract to the concrete itself. Thus the theoretical process leading to the attainment of concrete knowledge is always, in each separate link as well as in the whole, also a process of reduction of the concrete to the abstract.
In other words, one can say that the ascent from the concrete to the abstract and the ascent from the abstract to the concrete, are two mutually assuming forms of theoretical assimilation of the world, of abstract thinking. Each f them is realised only through its opposite and in unity with it. The ascent from the abstract to the concrete without its opposite, without the ascent from the concrete to the abstract would become a purely scholastic linking up of ready-made meagre abstractions borrowed uncritically. Contrariwise, a reduction of the concrete to the abstract performed at random, without a clearly realised general idea of research, without a hypothesis, cannot and will not yield a theory either. It will only yield a disjoint heap of meagre abstractions.
And still why did Marx, taking all this into account, define the ascent from the abstract to the concrete as the only possible and scientifically correct mode of theoretical assimilation (reflection) of the world? The reason is that dialectics, as distinct from eclecticism, does not reason on the ‘on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand’ principle but always points out the determining aspect, that element in the unity of opposites which is in the given instance the leading or determining one. That is an axiom of dialectics.
The specific and characteristic feature of theoretical assimilation (as distinct from mere empirical familiarity with facts) is that each separate abstraction is formed within the general movement of research towards a fuller and more comprehensive, that is, concrete, conception of the object. Each separate generalisation (according to the formula ‘from the concrete to the abstract’) has a meaning only on condition that it is a step on the way to concrete comprehension of reality, along the way of ascending from an abstract reflection of the object in thought to its increasingly concrete expression in the concept.
If a separate act of generalisation is not simultaneously a step forward in the development of theory, a step along the way from the already available knowledge to new and fuller knowledge, if it does not push ahead theory as a whole enriching it with a new general definition but merely repeats what was known already, it proves to be simply meaningless in respect of the development of theory.
In other words, the concrete (that is, the continual movement to increasingly more concrete theoretical comprehension) emerges here as a specific goal of theoretical thought. As such goal, the concrete determines, as a law, the theoretician’s mode of action (mental action are meant here, of course) in each particular case, in each separate generalisation.
The abstract from this standpoint proves to be merely a means of the theoretical process rather than its goal, while each separate act of generalisation (that is, of the reduction of the concrete to the abstract) emerges as a subordinate, disappearing moment of the overall movement. In the language ‘a disappearing moment’ is one that has no significance by itself, divorced from the other moments - it is only significant in connection with these, in living interaction with them, in transition.
That is the whole point. Precisely because Marx was a dialectician, he did not restrict himself to a mere statement of the fact that in theoretical thought both movement from the concrete to the abstract and from the abstract to the concrete take place, but singled out first of all that form of the movement of thought which in the given instance proves to be the principal and dominant one, determining the weight and significance of the other, the opposite one. Such is the form of ascent from the abstract to the concrete in special theoretical studies. It is therefore a specific form of theoretical thought.
Of course, that does not mean at all that the other, opposite form has no place in thinking. It merely means that the reduction of the concrete fullness of facts to abstract expression in consciousness is neither a specific nor, still less, determining form of theoretical reflection of the world.
Man eats to live-he does not live to cat. But only a madman will conclude that man must do without food at all; it would be just as stupid to insist that this aphorism depreciates the role of food.
The same is true of the present instance. It is only a person quite ignorant in scientific matters that can take the absorption of the sensually concrete fullness of facts in abstraction for the principal and determining form of the theoretician’s mental activity. In science this is only a means necessary for carrying out a more serious task, the task which is specific for the theoretical assimilation of the world, constituting the genuine goal of the theoretician’s activity. Reproduction of the concrete in thought is the goal which determines the weight and significance of each separate act of generalisation.
The concrete in thinking is not, of course, the ultimate goal, an end in itself. Theory as a whole is also only ‘a disappearing moment’ in the real, practical objective exchange of matter between man and nature. From theory, transition is made to practice, and this transition can also be described as a transition from the abstract to the concrete. Practice no longer has a higher goal outside itself, it posits its own goals and appears as an end in itself. That is why each separate step and each generalisation in the course of working out a theory is constantly commensurated with the data of practice, tested by them, correlated with practice as the highest goal of theoretical activity. That is why Lenin, in speaking of the method of Capital, points out one of its most characteristic features: ‘Testing by facts or by practice respectively, is to be found here in each step of the analysis.’ [Lenin’s Summary of Dialectics]
Constant correlation of ‘each step’ in the analysis with the direction of the path of scientific research as a whole and ultimately with practice is linked with the very essence of Marx’s conception of the specificity of the theoretical assimilation of the world. Each separate step in the analysis, each individual act of reduction of the concrete to the abstract, must from the beginning be oriented at the whole which ’looms in the notion’, in living contemplation, the reflection of which is the highest goal of theoretical work (of course only as long as we deal with theoretical work, as long as man stands to the world only in a theoretical relation). Therein lies the profoundly dialectical meaning of Marx’s proposition that it is exactly ascent from the abstract to the concrete that constitutes a trait specifically inherent in the theoretical process and is the only possible and therefore the only scientifically correct mode of developing scientific definitions, a mode of transforming the data of living contemplation and notion into concepts.
That means that all genuinely scientific (not absurd or vacuous) abstract definitions do not emerge in the human head as a result of mindless random reduction of the concrete to the abstract-they appear solely through consistent advancement of cognition in the overall law-governed development of science, through concretisation of the available knowledge and its critical transformation.
It would be wrong to take the view that each science has to go through a stage of one-sided analytical attitude to the world, a stage of purely inductive reduction of the concrete to the abstract, and that only later, when this work is fully accomplished, can it proceed to link up the abstractions thus obtained in a system, to ascend from the abstract to the concrete.
When Marx refers to the history of bourgeois political economy, to the fact that at its origin it really followed the one-sided analytical path, only later to adopt the scientifically correct path, he does not of course mean that every modern science should follow this example, that is, first go through a purely analytical stage and later proceed to ascend from the abstract to the concrete.
The one-sided analytical method, which is indeed characteristic of the first steps of bourgeois political economy, is by no means a virtue that could be recommended as a model. It was rather an expression of the historical limitations of bourgeois political economy, in particular conditioned by the absence of a well-developed dialectical method of thought. Dialectical logic does not at all recommend modern science first to take up pure analysis, pure reduction of the concrete to the abstract, and later to proceed to pure synthesis, pure ascent from the abstract to the concrete. Concrete knowledge is not to be obtained on this path, and if it is, that can only be due to the same kind of wanderings which the development of bourgeois political economy was subject to before Marx.
The example cited by Marx is rather an argument in favour of the thesis that science in these days should from the very beginning take the road that is scientifically correct rather than repeat the wanderings of the 17th century, it must from the very outset use the dialectical method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete in which analysis and synthesis are closely interwoven, rather than the one-sided analytical method. This is an argument in favour of science working out its abstract definitions, from the very outset, in such a way that each of them should at the same time be a step on the road of advancement towards concrete truth, towards cognition of reality as a unified, coherent, developing whole. Bourgeois political economy took a different road at the beginning, but that is no reason to take it for a model.
Science, if it is genuine science rather than a conglomeration of facts and various data, should from the very beginning reflect its object and develop its definitions in a way that Marx characterised as the only possible and correct one in science, and not leave this method for later use in literary exposition of the already obtained results, as neo-Kantian revisionists like Cunow, Renner and others advised to do. Later we shall discuss in detail these attempts to distort the essence of Marx’s thought about the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete, to present this method only as a literary style of expounding available results allegedly obtained in a purely inductive manner.
Of course, the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete is seen most clearly in those works of Marx which expound his theory systematically: Zur Kritik der politischen Okonomie (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Okonomie (Outline of a Critique of Political Economy), and in Capital. That does not mean at all, however, that the exposition is here fundamentally different in its method from the investigation, or that the method applied by Marx in the investigation is directly opposed to the manner of exposition of the results of the investigation.
If that were so, the analysis of the ‘logic of Capital’ would contribute nothing to an understanding of the method of research, the method of processing the data of contemplation and notion applied by Marx. Capital would in this case be only instructive as a model of literary exposition of results previously obtained and not as an illustration of the method of obtaining them. In this case Marx’s method of investigation should not be reconstructed from an analysis of Capital but rather from an analysis of the rough notes, excerpts, fragments, and arguments that came into Marx’s head in his original study of the economic facts. In that case one would have to agree with the insistence of the author of an anti-Marxist pamphlet, theologian Fetscher, who wrote this: ‘The method which Marx followed in Capital is essentially the same as the one applied by bourgeois scholars. Dialectics was used by Marx, as he says himself in the Afterword to the second edition of Capital, only as a "method of presentation", a method which indeed has a number of advantages and which we shall not consider here in greater detail’, 5 as it has no bearing on the problem of the method of cognition.
Fetscher offers here a rather free interpretation of Marx’s well-known statement that the presentation of a theory in its developed form cannot but be different from the search that resulted in this theory; but the formal difference between the two, referred to by Marx, does not affect the essence of the method of thinking, of the mode of processing the data of contemplation and notion into concepts. This mode of analysis remained the same, namely, dialectical, both in the preliminary processing of data and in their final elaboration, although, of course, it was perfected as the work went on which culminated in the creation of Capital.
The main advantage of the mode of presentation, which is by no means of literary stylistic character, consists in that the author of Capital does not dogmatically and didactically present ready-made results obtained in some mysterious manner but rather goes through the entire process of obtaining these results, the entire investigation loading to them, before the reader’s eyes. ‘The reader who really wishes to follow me will have to decide to advance from the particular to the general,’ warned Marx already in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The method of presentation loads the reader from a comprehension of certain particulars, from the abstract, to the increasingly more concrete, developed, general, comprehensive view of economic reality, to the general as the result of combining the particulars.
Of course, the process of investigation is not reproduced in all the details and deviations of more than twenty-five years of research but only in those principal and decisive features which, as the study itself showed, really advanced thought along the path of concrete understanding. In the final elaboration of the facts for publication Marx no longer repeated those numerous deviations from the principal theme of investigation that are inevitable in the work of any scholar. In the course of actual investigation facts are often considered that are not directly relevant: it is only their analysis that can show whether they are relevant or not. Besides, the theoretician has to recur, as often as not, to the consideration of facts that once seemed to be exhaustively analysed. As a result, research does not proceed smoothly forward but moves ahead in rather complicated manner with frequent reversions and deviations.
These moments are not, of course, reproduced in the final presentation. Due to this, the process of investigation appears in its genuine form free from accidental elements and deviations. Here it is straightened out, as it were, assuming the character of continuous motion forward, which is in agreement with the nature and motions of the facts themselves. Here thought does not proceed from the analysis of one fact to the analysis of the next one before it has really exhausted this fact; that is why one does not have to recur time and again to one and the same subject in order to tackle what has been left unfinished.
Thus the method of presentation of material in Capital is nothing but the ‘corrected’ method of its investigation, the corrections not being arbitrary, but in complete accordance with the requirements and laws dictated by the investigation itself. In other words, the method of presentation is in this case the method of investigation freed from anything in the nature of accessories and any confusing elements - a method of investigation strictly conforming to the objective, logical laws of study. That is a method of investigation in pure form, in a systematic form unobscured by deviations and chance elements.
As for the differences of form, of which Marx speaks in the Afterword to the second edition of Capital, they have to do with quite different circumstances, in particular, the fact that Marx personally became familiar with the different circles of the capitalist hell in a sequence that is different from the one that corresponds to the law of their own development and is presented in Capital.
The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete does not correspond to the order in which certain aspects of the object under study for some reason or other came into the field of vision of individual theoreticians or the science as a whole. It is oriented exclusively at the order which corresponds to the objective interrelations of various moments within the concreteness under study. This genuine sequence, it goes without saying, is not realised all at once. A justification of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete must not be looked for in the scientific careers of theoreticians or even the historical development of science as a whole. Science as a whole also arrives at its genuine starting point through long and arduous search.
Marx, for instance, came to the analysis and comprehension of economic relations from the study of legal and political relations among men. The sphere of law and politics proved for him the starting point of the study of the structure of the social organism. In the presentation of the theory of historical materialism Marx’s requirement is to proceed from an understanding of economic, material relations to an understanding of law and politics.
Theoreticians of the Fetscher type might insist, on these grounds, that Marx’s thesis according to which the starting point for an understanding of all social phenomena must be economy rather than law or politics, belongs merely to the peculiarities of the literary manner of presentation of Marx’s theory, while in the investigation itself Marx and Marxists did the same as any bourgeois scientist.
The point is, however, that although the sphere of law and politics was studied by Marx before he took up economic inquiry, he understood this sphere correctly, from the scientific (materialist) standpoint, only after he had analysed economy, be it in very general outline.
The same is true of Marx’s view of political economy. Marx studied the laws of movement of money, profit, and rent much earlier than he succeeded in realising the genuine, dual nature of commodity and of labour producing commodities. However. until he understood the real nature of value, his conception of money and rent was incorrect. In The Poverty of Philosophy he still shared the illusions of the Ricardian theory of money and rent. Only a clear conception of the nature of value attained in the 1850s showed both money and rent in the true light. Before that, money could not be understood in principle.
In the early 1850s Marx spent much time trying to understand the confusion and conflicts involved in the circulation of money in times of crisis and ‘prosperity’. It is these attempts that led him to the conclusion that the laws o the circulation of money could not be understood unless one worked out in the greatest detail the concept of value. Having worked out the value concept, he saw that he had shared a number of Ricardo’s illusions.
The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete as a method of inquiry into facts cannot therefore be justified by references to the order in which the study of data proceeded. It expresses the sequence in which the objectively correct conception corresponding to the object takes shape in the theoretician’s mind, rather than the order in which certain aspects of reality for some reason or other draw the theoretician’s attention and thus enter the field of science.
The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete expresses the internal law of the development of scientific understanding which in the course of historical advancement paves its way rough a mass of accidental moments, deviations, often in a roundabout way unbeknown to the theoreticians themselves. This law is therefore difficult to discover on the surface of scientific development (that is, in the consciousness of theoreticians themselves). In the consciousness of theoreticians this law may not appear at all for a long time or it may appear in a form that will make it unrecognisable. An individual representative of science, as Marx pointed out, often has quite an erroneous conception of what -,he actually does and how he does it. In view of this, one must not judge a thinker by what he thinks of himself. It is much more important (and difficult) to establish the objective significance of his views and their role in the development of science as a whole.
For this reason, the genuine significance of the facts of a scientist’s biography and the genuine order of development of scientific definitions cannot be revealed through a purely biographical inquiry. The actual progress of scientific knowledge (that is, systematic advances of thought to concrete truth) often significantly diverges from the ordinary chronological sequence. Lenin in his fragment On the Question of Dialectics pointed out that chronology with regard to persons is unnecessary in the analysis of the logic of the development of knowledge, that it does not always correspond to the actual order of stages by which thought conceives its subject-matter.
Taking all this into account, one can draw the conclusion that all the characteristic features of Marx’s method of inquiry appear most clearly and distinctly in Capital and not in the rough notes, excerpts and arguments that came into his head as he was studying the economic facts.
That is where the genuine sequence of the development of scientific definitions is revealed, which, only gradually came to light in the course of preliminary study of the material and was not always clearly realised by Marx himself. A most characteristic trait of Marx was, at all times, a sober critical attitude to his own achievement: many times he resolutely corrected, ’post factum’, the errors and omissions of the preliminary stage of inquiry. In general it is possible to distinguish, with objective rigorousness, between the kernels of objective truth and the form in which they originally appeared in consciousness only after the event: the rudiments of more advanced forms can only be correctly understood when these more advanced form are already known.
Thus, if one tried to reconstruct Marx’s method of inquiry from the mass of rough notes and fragments from his archives rather than from Capital, that would only complicate matters. To understand them correctly, one would all the same have to analyse Capital first. Otherwise ‘rudiments of more advanced forms’ simply cannot be distinguished in them. Besides, it is hard to understand why this inquiry should prefer an early and preliminary form of expression to a later, more refined, and mature form of expression. That would only result in the earlier form of expression being taken for an ideal one, and its later form for a distorted variant. The formulations and the method of their development in Capital would indeed have to be attributed to the literary manner of presentation and its perfection rather than to the enlargement of the scope of thought, of perception and method of inquiry.
(This awkward trick is, by the way, assiduously practised by present-day revisionists, who insist that genuine Marxism should be looked for in the manuscripts of the young Marx rather than in his mature works. As a result, Capital is presented as a distorted conception of the so-called real humanism developed by Marx and Engels in 1843-1844).
That was why Lenin pointed out that in developing The Great Logic of Marxism one should first of all have in mind Capital, and that the method of presentation applied by Marx in Capital should serve as a model for a dialectical interpretation of reality and a model for the study and elaboration of dialectics in general. Proceeding from these preliminary considerations, one can undertake a more detailed study of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete as a scientifically correct method of forming scientific definitions, as a method of theoretical processing of the data of living contemplation and notion.
Let us recall once again in this connection that the data of living contemplation and notion are here taken to mean something different from what an individual personally contemplation and pictures in sensual images. This interpretation, characteristic of pre-Marxist philosophy and of the anthropological conception of the subject of cognition, is quite false and extremely narrow. The data of contemplation and notion were always interpreted by Marx as the entire mass of the socially accumulated empirical experiences, the entire colossal mass of empirical data available to the theoretician from books, reports, statistical tables, newspapers, and accounts. It stands to reason, however, that all these empirical data are stored in social memory in an abridged form, reduced to abstract expression. They are expressed in speech, in terminology, in figures, tables, and other abstract forms. The specific task of the theoretician who uses all this information about reality does not, of course, consist in lending this abstract expression still more abstract form. On the contrary, his work always begins with a critical analysis and revision of the abstractions of the empirical stage f cognition, with the critical overcoming of these abstractions, attaining progress through a critique of the one-sidedness and subjective character of these abstractions and revealing the illusions contained in them, from the standpoint of reality as a whole, in its concreteness. In this sense (and only in this sense) the transition from the empirical stage of cognition to the rational one also appears as a transition from the abstract to the concrete.
Of course, the ascent from the cognition of the simple commodity form to the comprehension of such well-developed forms of bourgeois wealth as interest also appears, from a certain standpoint, as the movement from the concrete to abstract forms of its manifestation on the surface of events. Interest, for instance, expresses in its impersonal quantitative language the most complex and profound processes of capitalist production. In interest, surplus-value assumes an extremely abstract form of manifestation. This abstract quantitative form is only explained from its concrete content. But this is also evidence of the fact that any abstract moment of reality finds a real explanation only in the concrete system of conditions which gave rise to it, and it can only be correctly understood through it. Thus interest is concretely (scientifically) understood only in the final analysis, as final result, whereas on the surface of phenomena it appears as a very abstract form.
All of this must be taken into account.
In view of the fact that Marx formulated his ideas on the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete in direct polemics with its Hegelian interpretation, it will be appropriate to take a critical look at the latter. The materialist nature of Marx’s method will stand out clearly and graphically in comparison with it.
Contents | next section