The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete
The definition of abstract concepts shared by Chelpanov was clearly formulated by Christian Wolff. According to Wolff, abstract concepts have for their content properties, relations, and states of things mentally isolated from things and represented as an independent object.
Wolff is not the original source. He merely reproduces the view taken in theological treatises of medieval scholastics. All names/concepts (they did not distinguish name from concept) denoting properties and relations of things they called abstract, whereas names of things were called concrete.
This usage was originally determined by mere etymology. In Latin ‘concretus’ means simply ‘mixed’, ‘fused’, ‘composite’, compound; while the Latin word ‘abstractus’ means ‘withdrawn’, ‘taken out of’, ‘extracted’ (or ‘isolated’), or ‘estranged’. That is all that is contained in the original etymological meaning of these words. The rest pertains to the philosophical conception that is expressed through them.
The opposition of medieval realism and nominalism is not relevant to the direct etymological meanings of the words ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’. Both nominalists and realists equally apply the term ‘concrete’ to separate sensually perceived and directly observed ‘things’, individual objects, while the term ‘abstract’ is applied to all concepts and names designating or expressing their general ‘forms’. The difference lies in that the former believe names to be merely subjective designations of individual concrete things, whereas the latter believe that these abstract names express eternal and immutable ‘forms’ having their existence in the womb of divine reason, the prototypes in accordance with which the divine power creates individual things.
Contempt for the world of sensually perceived things, for the ‘flesh’, that is characteristic of the Christian world-view in general and is particularly clearly expressed in realism, determines the fact that the abstract (estranged from the flesh, from sensuality, the purely cognitive) is believed to be much more valuable (both on the ethical and epistemological planes) than the concrete.
The concrete is here a full synonym of the sensually perceived, individual, carnal, mundane, transient (‘composite and therefore doomed to disintegration, to disappearance). The abstract is a synonym of the eternal, imperishable, indivisible, divinely instituted, universal, absolute, etc. An individual ‘round body’ will disappear, but the ‘round body" in general exists eternally as form, as entelechy creating new round bodies. The concrete is transient, elusive, fleeting. The abstract exists immutably, constituting the essence, the invisible scheme upon which the world is built.
It is the scholastic conception of the abstract and the concrete that is at the bottom of the antiquarian respect for the abstract which Hegel later so caustically ridiculed.
The materialist philosophy of the 16th and 17th centuries which, forming an alliance with natural science, commenced to destroy the foundations of the religious and scholastic worldview, in effect re-interpreted the categories of the abstract and the concrete.
The direct sense of these terms remained the same: the term ‘concrete’ referred, just as in scholastic doctrines, to individual, sensually perceived things and their graphic images, while the term ‘abstract’, was used to refer to the general forms of these things, to immutably recurring properties and law-governed relations of these things expressed in terms, names, and numbers. However, the philosophico-theoretical content of these categories became the opposite of the scholastic one. The concrete, that which is given to man in sensual experience, came to be understood as the only reality worthy of attention and study, and the abstract, as a mere subjective psychological shadow of that reality, its meagre mental schema. The abstract became a synonym for expression of sensual empirical data in words and figures, a synonym for a sign description of the concrete.
But this interpretation of the relationship between the abstract and the concrete, characteristic of the first steps in natural science and materialist philosophy, very soon came into contradiction with the practice of natural-historical research. Natural science and materialist philosophy of the 16th-18th centuries tended more and more towards mechanistic views, and that meant that temporal and spatial characteristics and abstract geometrical forms became recognised as the only objective qualities and relations of things and phenomena. The rest appeared as mere subjective illusion created by man’s sense organs.
In other words, everything ‘concrete’ was conceived as a product of the activity of the sense organs, as a certain psychophysiological state of the subject, as a subjectively coloured replica of the colourless abstract geometrical original. the prime task of cognition was also viewed in a new light: to obtain the truth, one had to erase or wash off all the colours superimposed by sensuality upon the sensually perceived image of things, baring the abstract geometrical skeleton, the schema.
So the concrete was interpreted as subjective illusion, merely as a state of the sense organs, while the object outside consciousness was transformed into something entirely abstract.
The picture thus obtained was as follows: outside man’s consciousness there exists nothing but eternally immutable abstract geometrical particles combined according to identical, eternal, and immutable abstract mathematical schemes, while the concrete is within the subject only, as a form of sensory perception of the abstract geometrical bodies. Hence the formula: the only correct way to truth is through soaring away from the concrete (the fallacious, false, subjective) to the abstract (as the expression of eternal and immutable schemes for constructing bodies).
This determines the strong nominalistic bias in the philosophy of the 16th-18th centuries. Any concept, except for the mathematical ones, was simply interpreted as an artificially invented sign, a name serving as an aid to memory, to ordering the varied data of experience, to communication with other men, etc.
George Berkeley and David Hume, the subjective idealists of those times, directly reduced concepts to names, to designations, to conventional signs or symbols, beyond which, they believed, it would be absurd to look for any other content except for a certain similarity of series of sensual impressions, the common element in experience. This tendency became particularly firm-rooted in England and is still living out its days in the shape of neo-positivist conceptions.
The weaknesses of this approach, that was in its perfect form characteristic of subjective idealism, were also peculiar to many materialists of that age. Particularly striking in this respect were the studies of John Locke. Hobbes and Helvétius were no exception either. In their work this approach was present as a tendency obscuring their basically materialist positions.
Taken to an extreme, this view results in logical categories being dissolved in psychological and even linguistic, grammatical ones. Thus Helvétius defines the method of abstraction as a means to fix ‘a great number of objects in our memory’. He regards ‘abuse of words’ as one of the most important causes of error. Hobbes follows a similar line of reasoning: “Wherefore, as men owe all their True Ratiocination to the right understanding of Speech; So also they owe their Errors to the misunderstanding of the same”.
Since rational cognition of the external world was reduced to a purely quantitative, mathematical processing of data, and for the rest, to ordering and verbal recording of sensual images, the place of logic was naturally taken, on the one hand, by mathematics, and on the other, by the science of combination and division of terms and propositions, the science of the correct usage of words created by men.
This nominalistic reduction of the concept to the word, the term, and of thinking, to the ability for correct usage of words that we ourselves create, undermined the materialist principle itself. Locke, the classical representative and the originator of this view, found already that the concept of substance could neither be explained nor justified as simply ‘the general in experience’, as the broadest possible universal’, as an abstraction from individual things. Naturally Berkeley rushed into this broach, using the Lockean theory of concept formation against materialism and against the very concept of substance. He declared it to be a meaningless name. Continuing his analysis of the basic concepts of philosophy, Hume proved that the objective character of such a concept as causality could also be neither proved nor verified by reference to the fact that it expressed ‘the general in experience’, for abstraction from the sensually given individual objects and phenomena, from the concrete might just as well express the identity of the psychophysiological structure of the subject perceiving things rather than an identity of the things themselves.
The narrow empirical theory of the concept reducing it to a mere abstraction from individual phenomena and perceptions, reflected only the superficial psychological aspects of rational cognition. On the surface, thought indeed appears as abstraction of the ‘identical’ from individual things, as ascending to increasingly comprehensive and universal abstractions. Such a theory, however, may equally well serve diametrically opposite philosophical conceptions bypassing as it does the most important point-the question of the objective truth of universal concepts.
Consistent materialists realised the weakness of the nominalistic view of the concept, its vulnerability to idealist speculations and errors. Spinoza stressed that the concept of substance, expressing the ‘first principle of nature’, cannot be conceived abstractedly or universally, and cannot extend further in the understanding than it does in reality’. [Spinoza, Improvement of the Understanding, Ethics and Correspondence, trans. to English 1901]
There is an idea running through Spinoza’s entire treatise-that simple ‘universals’, simple abstractions from the sensually given multiformity recorded in names and terms are merely a form of vague imaginative cognition. Genuinely scientific, ‘true ideas’ do not emerge in that way. The establishment of ‘the differences, the agreements, and the oppositions of things’ is, according to Spinoza, the mode of ‘chaotic experience’ uncontrolled by reason. ‘Moreover its (of the mode of perception – Ed.) results are very uncertain and indefinite, for we shall never discover anything in natural phenomena by its means, except accidental properties, which are never clearly understood, unless the essence of the things in question be known first.’ [ibid.]
To begin with, the ‘chaotic experience’ forming universals is never completed, so that any new fact may overthrow the abstraction. Second, it contains no guarantees that the given universal really expresses a genuine universal form of things rather than a merely subjective fiction.
In opposition to ‘chaotic experience’ and its philosophical justification in empiric conceptions, Spinoza sets up a higher mode of cognition based on strictly verified principles and concepts expressing ‘the adequate essence of a thing’. These are no longer ‘universals’, no longer abstractions from the sensually given multiformity. How are they formed and where do they come from?
Comments on this point often run as follows: these ideas (principles, universal concepts) are contained in the human intellect a priori and brought out by an act of intuition or self-contemplation. In this interpretation Spinoza’s position becomes very much like that of Leibniz or Kant and has very little to do with materialism. But in reality it is all rather different-quite different, in fact. The thinking of which Spinoza treats is by no means the thinking of a human individual. This concept is by no means fashioned in his theory after the model of individual consciousness, but is actually oriented at mankind’s theoretical self-consciousness, at the spiritual-theoretical culture as a whole. Individual consciousness is taken into account only insofar as it embodies this thinking, that is, thinking which agrees with the nature of things. An individual’s intellect does not necessarily contain the ideas of reason at all, and no self-contemplation, however the rough it may be, can discover them in it.
They mature and crystallise in the human intellect only gradually, through reason’s indefatigable work aimed at its own perfection. These concepts are by no means self-obvious to an intellect that is not developed through this kind of work. They are simply absent in it. It is only reasonable knowledge taken as a whole that, as it develops, works out such concepts. Spinoza firmly asserts this view by an analogy with the perfection of instruments of material labour.
As far as the “method for finding out the truth [is concerned], the matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools.... For, in order to work iron, a hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. We might thus vainly endeavour to prove that men have no power of working iron.
“But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labour and greater perfection.... So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other intellectual operations, and from these operations gets again fresh instruments, or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds till it reaches the summit of wisdom.” [ibid.]
Try as one might, this argument can hardly be made to resemble the view of Descartes, according to whom the higher ideas of intuition are directly contained in the intellect, or to that of Leibniz, according to whom these ideas are something like the veins in marble. According to Spinoza, they are innate in quite a specific sense-as natural, that is inherent from nature, intellectual capabilities, in precisely the same way as man’s hand is originally a ‘natural instrument’.
Here Spinoza attempts a fundamentally materialist interpretation of the innateness of ‘intellectual instruments’ deducing it from man’s natural organisation rather than from the ‘God’ of Descartes or Leibniz.
What. Spinoza failed to understand was the fact that the originally imperfect ‘intellectual instruments’ are products of material labour rather than of nature. He believed them to be products of nature, and in this, and only this, point lies the weakness of his position. But this weakness is shared by Feuerbach even. This defect can by no means be regarded as idealist wavering. That is merely an organic, shortcoming of the entire old materialism.
Spinoza’s rationalism should therefore be strictly distinguished from the rationalism of both Descartes and Leibniz. His contention is that man’s ability to think is inherent in man’s nature and is explained from substance interpreted in a clearly materialistic manner.
When Spinoza calls thinking an attribute, that means precisely this: the essence of substance should not be reduced to extension only; thinking pertains to that very nature to which extension belongs-it is a property just as inseparable from nature (or substance) as extension and corporeality. It cannot be conceived of separately.
It is precisely this view that motivated Spinoza’s criticism of ‘abstract universals’, of those ways in which scholastics, occasionalists, and nominalist empiricists attempt to explain substance. That is the reason why Spinoza held a low view of the path from concrete existence to an abstract universal. This mode is incapable of solving the problem of substance, always leaving a gap for scholastic and religious constructions.
Spinoza rightly believed that the way leading from concrete existence to an empty universal, the way explaining the concrete by a reduction to an empty abstraction, was of little value from the scientific standpoint.
“Thus, the more existence is conceived generally, the more is it conceived confusedly, and the more easily can it be ascribed to a given object. Contrariwise, the more it is conceived particularly, the more is it understood clearly, and the less liable is it to be ascribed, through negligence of Nature’s order, to anything save its proper object.” [ibid.]
No comments are needed to realise that this view is much closer to the truth than the view of narrow empiricism insisting that the essence of rational cognition of things lies in regular ascents to increasingly more general and empty abstractions, in moving away from the concrete specific essence of things under study. According to Spinoza, this way does not lead from the vague to the clear but, on the contrary, it leads away from the goal.
The way of rational cognition is precisely the reverse. It begins with a clearly established general principle (but not with an abstract universal by any means) and proceeds as a step-by-step mental reconstruction of a thing, as reasoning which deduces the thing’s particular properties from its universal cause (ultimately from substance). A genuine idea, as distinct from a simple abstract universal, must contain necessity, following which one can explain all the directly observable properties of the thing. As for ‘universals’, they reflect one of the more or less accidental properties out of which no other properties are deducible.
Spinoza explains this conception of his by citing an example from geometry-a definition of the essence of a circle. If we define a circle as a figure in which ‘all straight lines drawn from the centre to the circumference are equal, every one can see that such a definition does not in the least explain the essence of a circle, but solely one of its properties’. According to the correct mode of definition, a circle is ‘the figure described by any line whereof one end is fixed and the other free’. This definition, indicating the mode of the origin of a thing and a comprehension of the ‘proximate cause’, and thereby containing a mode of its mental reconstruction, enables one to deduce all the other properties of it, including the one pointed out above. [ibid.]
One should thus proceed not from a ‘universal’ but rather from a concept expressing the actual, real cause of the thing, its concrete essence. Therein lies the gist of Spinoza’s method.
“... We may never, while we are concerned with inquiries into actual things, draw any conclusions from abstractions; we shall be extremely careful not to confound that which is only in the understanding of the thing itself”. [ibid.]
It is not the "reduction of the concrete to the abstract" or explanation of the concrete through including it into a universal that leads to the truth but, on the contrary, deduction of the particular properties from the actual universal cause. In this connection Spinoza distinguishes between two kinds of general ideas: notiones communes, or concepts expressing the really universal cause of the origin of a thing, and the simpler abstract universals expressing, simple similarities or differences of many individual things, notiones generalis universales. The former include substance, the latter, for instance, existence in general.
To bring any thing under the head of the general ‘universal’ of the existing means to explain absolutely nothing about it. This used to be the vacuous preoccupation of scholastics. Worse still is the deduction of the properties of things according to the formal rules of syllogistics ex abstractis – ‘from the universal’.
It is difficult to study and mentally reconstruct the entire process of the emergence of all the particular specific properties of a thing from one and the same really universal actual cause expressed in the intellect by the notiones communes. This ‘deduction’ is merely a form of reconstructing in the intellect of the real process of emergence of a thing out of nature, out of ‘substance’. This deduction is not formed according to the rules of syllogistics but according to the ‘truth norm’, the norm of agreement, unity of thinking and extension, of the intellect and the external world.
It would hardly be appropriate to discuss here the shortcomings of Spinoza’s conception, as they are well known: Spinoza failed to understand the connection between thinking and practical activity with objects, between theory and practice, the role of practice as the only objective criterion of the truth of a concrete concept. From the formal standpoint Spinoza’s view is, of course, incomparably deeper and closer to the truth than Locke’s.
Locke’s theory afforded an easy transition to Berkeley or Hume without any essential alterations, merely through interpreting its propositions. Spinoza’s position is not amenable to such an interpretation in principle. It is not for nothing that contemporary positivists brand this theory as ‘rank metaphysics’, whereas Locke sometimes rates a polite bow.
Spinoza’s conception of the nature and formal composition of concretely universal concepts (that seems to be the best way of rendering his term notiones communes), as opposed -to simple abstract universals, abounds in brilliant anticipations of dialectics. For instance, the concept of ‘substance’, a typical and principal example of such a concept, is obviously viewed as a unity of two mutually exclusive and at the same time mutually assuming definitions.
Thinking and extension, two attributes and two modes of realisation of substance, have nothing abstract-general in common and neither can they have anything of the kind in common. In other words, there is no abstract feature that would simultaneously form part of the definition of thinking and of the definition of the external world (‘extended world’).
This feature would be a universal that would be broader than the definition of the external world and of thinking. Such a feature would not he compatible either with the nature of thinking or that of extension. It would not reflect anything real outside intellect. The conception of ‘God’ characteristic of scholastics, is constructed precisely out of such features.
According to Malebranche, both extended and ideal things are ‘contemplated in God’-in that general element that mediates between the idea and the thing as a middle term, as a feature common to both. And such a common element (in the sense of an abstract universal) between thinking and extension does not exist. What is common to both of them is their primordial unity. Spinoza’s God therefore equals nature plus thinking, a unity of opposites, of two attributes. But in this case there is nothing left of the traditional God. What is called God is actually the extended nature as a whole with thought as an aspect of its essence. Only nature as a whole possesses thinking as its attribute, as an absolutely necessary property. A separate, limited. part of the extended world does not necessarily have this property. For instance, a stone as a mode does not ‘think’ at all. But it does form part of ‘substance’ that thinks, it is its mode, its particle – and it may well think if it forms part of an appropriate structure becoming, e.g., a particle of the human body. (That was exactly the way in which Diderot decoded the main idea of Spinoza’s teaching: can a stone feel? – It can. All you have to do is pound it, grow a plant on the powder, and eat the plant, transforming the matter of the stone into the matter of a sentient body.)
However, these brilliant gleams of dialectics in Spinoza, combined with a fundamentally materialist view of the human intellect, were buried in the general flow of metaphysical thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries, being deluged by it. The Lockean theory of abstraction with its bias towards nominalism, for some reasons proved to be more acceptable for the natural and social sciences of the times. The rational kernels of Spinoza’s dialectics came to the surface only in German classical philosophy late in the 18th and early in the 19th century and were developed on a materialist basis only by Marx and Engels.
Immanuel Kant, endeavouring to reconcile the principles of rationalism and empiricism on the basis of subjective-idealist views of cognition, was driven to the conclusion that a hard and fast division of concepts into two classes, abstract and concrete, was in general impossible. As Kant puts it, it is absurd to ask whether a separate concept is abstract or concrete, if it is considered outside its links with other concepts, outside its usage.
’The expressions abstract and concrete refer not so much to the concepts themselves-for any concept is an abstract concept-as to their usage. And this usage can again have different grades;-according as one treats a concept now more, now less abstract or concrete, that is, takes away from or adds to it now more, now fewer definitions’, writes Kant in his Logic.
According to Kant, a concept, if it is really a concept rather than an empty appellation, a name of an individual thing, always expresses something in general, a generic or specific definiteness of a thing, and is thus always abstract, whether it be substance or chalk, whiteness or virtue. On the other hand, any such concept is in some way or other defined ‘within itself’, through a number of its features. The more such features/definitions are added to a concept the more concrete it is, in Kant’s view, that is, the more definite, richer in definitions. The more concrete it is, the fuller it characterises the empirically given individual things. If a concept is defined through inclusion in ‘higher genera’, through ‘logical abstraction’, it is used in abstracts; it is applicable to a greater number of individual things and species, but the number of definitions in its composition is fewer.
’Through abstract usage a concept approaches a higher genus, through concrete usage, on the contrary, it approaches the individual.... Through very abstract concepts, we learn little about many things; through very concrete concepts, we learn much about few things;-thus what we win on one side, we lose again on the other.’ [Kant op. cit.]
The limit of concreteness is thus a sensually contemplated individual thing, a separate phenomenon. A concept, however, never reaches this limit. On the other hand, the highest and most abstract concept always retains in its composition a certain unity, a certain synthesis of different definitions that one cannot break up (through formulating the ultimate definition) without making the concept senseless, without destroying it as such. For this reason even the highest generic concept has a measure of concreteness.
Here the empiric tendency, the Lockean tradition apparently makes itself felt. However, Kant combines with it an extremely rationalistic view of the nature of ‘synthesis of definitions of a concept’. This synthesis or combining of definitions in the concept (that is, the concreteness of the concept) naturally cannot be simply oriented at the sensually given empirical multiformity of phenomena. To claim a theoretical significance, this synthesis must be based on another principle the ability to combine definitions a priori, independently of empirical experience. The concreteness of a concept (that is, that unity in diversity, the unity of different definitions that has a universal and necessary significance) is thereby explained and deduced by Kant from the nature of human consciousness which allegedly possesses original unity, the transcendental unity of apperception. This latter is precisely the genuine basis of the concreteness of a concept. In this way, the concreteness of a concept has no firm links with ‘things-in-themselves’, with the sensually given concreteness.
Hegel also assumed that any concept was abstract, if abstractness is to be interpreted as the fact that a concept never expresses in its definitions the sensually contemplated reality in its entirety. Hegel was in this sense much closer to Locke than to Mill or medieval nominalism. He realised quite well that definitions of concepts always include an expression of something general, if only because concepts are always embodied in words, and words are always abstract, they always express something general and are incapable of expressing the absolutely individual and unique.
Therefore anyone thinks abstractly, and the thinking is the more abstract the poorer in definitions those concepts that one uses. Abstract thinking is by no means a virtue but, on the contrary, a shortcoming. That is the whole point – thinking concretely, expressing through abstractions the concrete and specific nature of things rather than mere similarity, merely something that different things have in common.
The concrete is interpreted by Hegel as unity in diversity, as unity of different and opposing definitions, as mental expression of organic links, of syncretism of the separate abstract definitenesses of an object within the given specific object.
As for the abstract, Hegel interpreted it (just as Locke did, but not Mill or the scholastics) as anything general, any similarity expressed in word and concept, a simple identity of a number of things with one another, whether it be house or whiteness, man or value, a dog or virtue.
The concept ‘house’ is in this sense in no way different from the concept ‘kindness’. Both register in their definitions the common elements inherent in a whole class, series, genus, or species of individual things, phenomena, spiritual states, etc.
If a word, term, symbol, name express only that – only the abstract similarity of a number of individual things, phenomena or images of consciousness – that is not yet a concept, according to Hegel. That is merely an abstractly general notion or representation (Vorstellung), a form of empirical knowledge, of the sensual stage of consciousness. This pseudo-concept always has a certain sensually given image for its meaning or sense.
As for concepts, they express not merely the general, but the general that contains the richness of particulars, comprehended in their unity. In other words, a genuine concept is not only abstract (Hegel, of course, does not negate that), but also concrete-in the sense that its definitions (what old logic calls features) are combined in it in a single complex expressing the unity of things, rather than merely joined according to the rules of grammar.
The concreteness of a concept lies, according to Hegel, in the unity of definitions, their meaningful cohesion – the only means of revealing the content of a concept. Out of context, an individual verbal definition is abstract and abstract only. Immersed into the context of a scientific theoretical discourse, any abstract definition becomes concrete.
The genuine sense, genuine content of each abstract definition taken separately is revealed through its links with other definitions of the same kind, through a concrete unity of abstract definitions. The concrete essence of a problem is therefore always expressed through unfolding all the necessary definitions of the object in their mutual connections rather than through an abstract ‘definition’.
That is why a concept, according to Hegel, does not exist as a separate word, term, or symbol. It exists only in the process of unfolding in a proposition, in a syllogism expressing connectedness of separate definitions, and ultimately only in a system of propositions and syllogisms, only in an integral, well-developed theory. If a concept is pulled out of this connection, what remains of it is mere verbal integument, a linguistic symbol. The content of the concept, its meaning, remains outside it-in series of other definitions, for a word taken separately is only capable of designating an object, naming it, it is only capable of serving as a sign, symbol, marker, or symptom.
Thus the concrete meaning of a separate verbal definition is always contained in something else-whether it be a sensually given image or a well-developed system of theoretical definitions expressing the essence of the problem, the essence of the object, phenomenon, or event.
If a definition exists in the head separately, in isolation from the sensually contemplated image, unconnected with it or with a system ‘of other definitions, it is ratiocinated abstractly. There is certainly nothing commendable about this way of ratiocination. Thinking abstractly merely means thinking unconnectedly, thinking of an individual property of a thing without understanding its links with other properties, without realising the place and role of this property in reality.
‘Who thinks abstractly?’ asks Hegel; and his answer is, ‘An uneducated person, not an educated one.’ A market-woman thinks abstractly (that is, one-sidedly, in accidental and unconnected definitions) in regarding all men exclusively from her own narrow pragmatic viewpoint, seeing them only as objects of swindling; a martinet thinks abstractly in regarding a private only as someone to be beaten up; an idler in the street thinks abstractly in seeing a person being taken to execution only as a murderer and ignoring all of his other qualities, not interested in the history of his life, the causes of his crime, and so on.
Contrariwise, a ‘knower of men’ thinking concretely will not be satisfied with tagging phenomena with abstract indices- a murderer, a soldier, a buyer. Still less will the ‘knower of men’ view these general abstract tags as expressions of the essence of an object, phenomenon, man, event.
A concept revealing the essence of the matter is only unfolded through a system, through series of definitions expressing separate moments, aspects, properties, qualities, or relations of the individual object, all these separate aspects of the concept being linked by a logical connection, not merely concatenated in some formal complex grammatically (by means of such words as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘if ... then’, ‘is’, etc.).
The idealism of Hegel’s conception of the abstract and the concrete consists in that he regards ability for synthesising abstract definitions as a primordial property of thinking, as a divine gift rather than the universal connection, expressed in consciousness, of the actual, objective, sensually perceived reality independent of any thinking. The concrete is in the final analysis interpreted as the product of thought.
That is also idealism, of course, but a much more ‘intelligent’ one than Kant’s subjective idealism.
Late 19th-century bourgeois philosophy, that was gradually sliding towards positivism, proved incapable of remembering even the views of Kant and Locke, let alone Spinoza or Hegel. To take a particularly clear example – Mill believed Locke’s theory of abstraction and its relation to concreteness to be an ‘abuse’ of those concepts that in his view were conclusively established by medieval scholastics.
“I have used the words concrete and abstract in the sense annexed to them by the schoolmen, who, notwithstanding the imperfections of their philosophy, were unrivalled in the construction of technical language, and whose definitions, in logic at least, have seldom, I think, been altered but to be spoiled.” [Mill, System of Logic]
The Locke school, in Mill’s view, committed an unforgivable sin in extending the expression ‘abstract name’ to all ‘general names’, that is, to all ‘concepts’ ‘which are the result of abstraction or generalisation’. [ibid.]
Summing up, Mill declares:
’By abstract, then, I shall always, in Logic proper, mean the opposite of concrete; by an abstract name, the name of an attribute; by a concrete name, the name of an object." [ibid.]
This ‘usage’ is in Mill closely linked with his subjective-idealist conception of the relation between thought and objective reality.
Mill does not like Locke’s view that all concepts (except for individual names) are abstract, all of them being products of abstracting an identical property, the general form of many individual things.
In Mill’s opinion, this usage deprives a whole class of words of a brief specific designation, namely the class of names of attributes. By attributes or properties Mill means general properties, qualities or relations between individual things that may and must be conceived abstractly, that is, separately from the individual things, as specific objects.
Thus, concepts like ‘house’ or ‘fire’, ‘man’ or ‘chair’ cannot be thought of in any other way than as a common property of individual things. ‘House’, ‘fire’, ‘whiteness’, ‘roundness’ always pertain to some individual thing or other as their characteristic. One cannot conceive ‘fire’ as something existing separately from individual fires. ‘Whiteness’, too, cannot be conceived as something existing separately, outside individual things and independent from them. All of these general properties exist only as general forms of individual objects, only in the individual and through the individual. Therefore, conceiving them abstractly would mean conceiving them incorrectly.
Abstract names, names of ‘attributes’, are quite a different matter. Abstract names (or concepts, which is one and the same thing according to Mill) express general properties, qualities and relations that not only may but even must be conceived independently from individual objects, as separate objects, although in direct contemplation they appear to be the same kind of general properties of individual things as ‘whiteness’, ‘woodenness’, ‘fire’, or ‘gentleman’.
Among such concepts Mill includes ‘whiteness’, courage’, ‘equality’, ‘similarity’, ‘squareness’, ‘visibleness’, ‘value’, etc. These are also general names but the objects of these names (or what in formal logic is referred to as the content of these concepts) should not be conceived as general properties of individual things. All these properties, qualities or relations are only erroneously taken to be the general properties of the (individual) things themselves, says Mill. In actual fact all these ‘objects’ exist not in the things but outside them, independently from them, though they are merged with them in the act of perception, appearing as general properties of individual things.
Where do such objects exist, then, if not in the individual things?
Mill’s answer is: in our own spirit. These are either ‘Feelings, or States of Consciousness’, or ‘the Minds which experience these feelings’, or ‘the Successions and Co-existences, the Likenesses and Unlikenesses, between feelings or states of consciousness’. [ibid.]
All these objects should also be conceived abstractly, that is, separately from things, precisely because they are no properties, qualities, or relations of these things. Conceiving them separately from things means conceiving them correctly.
The fundamental defect of this delimitation lies in it stipulating that some concepts should be linked in the mind with individual things (phenomena), given in contemplation, while others should be considered outside this connection, as specific objects conceived quite independently from any individual phenomena whatsoever.
For example, value in general, value as such, may according to Mill be conceived in abstraction, without analysing any of the types of its existence outside the head. This may and must be done precisely for the reason that it does not exist as a real property of objects outside the head. It only exists as an artificial method of assessment or measurement, as a general principle of man’s subjective attitude to the world of things, that is, as a certain moral attitude. It cannot therefore be considered as a property of things themselves, outside the head, outside consciousness.
According to this kind of logic, of which Mill is a classic representative, that is precisely why value should be regarded only as a concept, only as an a priori moral phenomenon independent from the objective properties of things outside the head and opposing them. As such, it exists only in self-consciousness, in abstract thinking. That is why it can be conceived ‘abstractly’, and that will be the correct mode of considering it.
We have dealt with Mill’s views in such detail only because they represent, more consistently and clearly than others, the anti-dialectical tradition in the interpretation of the abstract and the concrete as logical categories. This tradition is manifested not only as an anti-dialectical one but also as generally anti-philosophic. Mill consciously rejects the arguments developed in world philosophy during the past few centuries. For him, not only Hegel or Kant never seem to have existed – even Locke’s studies appear in the light of unwanted sophistication in dealing with things that were established absolutely rigorously and for all time to come by the medieval Schoolmen. That is why everything seems so simple to him. The concrete is that which is immediately given in individual experience as an ‘individual thing’, an individual experience, and a concrete concept is a verbal symbol that may be used as a name of an individual object. That symbol which cannot be used as a direct name of an individual thing is ‘the abstract’. One may say, ‘That is a red spot’. One cannot say, ‘That is redness’. The former is therefore concrete, the latter abstract. That is all there is to it.
All neo-positivists retain the same distinction, the only difference being that the abstract and the concrete (just as all philosophical categories) are here treated as linguistic categories, and the question of whether phrases expressing ‘abstract objects’ are permissible or impermissible is reduced to that of fruitfulness or expediency of their utilisation in building ‘language frames’. ‘The abstract’ is here consistently treated as everything that is not given in individual experience as an individual thing and cannot be defined in terms of those types of objects that are given in experience, cannot be a direct name of individual objects that are moreover interpreted in subjective-idealist manner.
This interpretation of the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ is refuted by the entire heritage of the history of philosophy and by Marxist philosophy; we are now passing on to the exposition of the treatment of these questions in the latter.
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