The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete

The Definition of the Concrete in Marx

Marx defines the concrete as ‘the unity of diverse aspects. [Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy] This definition may appear paradoxical from the standpoint of traditional formal logic: the reduction of the sensually given diversity to unity appears at first sight to be the task of abstract knowledge of things rather than of concrete one. From the point of view of this logic, to realise unity in the sensually perceived diversity of phenomena means to reveal the abstractly general, identical elements that all of these phenomena possess. This abstract unity, recorded in consciousness by means of a general term, appears at first sight to be that very ‘unity’ which is the only thing to be treated in logic.

Indeed, if one is to interpret the transition from living contemplation and notion to the concept, from the sensual stage of cognition to the rational, only as reduction of the sensually given diversity to abstract unity, Marx’s definition will certainly seem hardly justifiable in ‘logical’ terms.

The whole point is, however, that Marx’s views are based on a conception of thinking, its goals and tasks, quite different from those on which old, non-dialectical logic built its theory. This is reflected not only in the substance of the solution of logical problems but in terminology as well. And that is inevitable: ‘Every new aspect of a science involves a revolution in the technical terms of that science’. [Marx, Capital 1886 Preface]

When Marx defines the concrete as unity of diverse aspects, he assumes a dialectical interpretation of unity, diversity, and of their relationship. In dialectics, unity is interpreted first and foremost as connection, as interconnection and interaction of different phenomena within a certain system or agglomeration, and not as abstract likeness of these phenomena. Marx’s definition assumes exactly this dialectical meaning of the term ‘unity’.

If one unfolds somewhat Marx’s aphoristically laconic formula, his definition of the concrete means literally the following: the concrete, concreteness, are first of all synonyms of the real links between phenomena, of concatenation and interaction of all aspects and moments of the object given to man in a notion. The concrete is thereby interpreted as an internally divided totality of various forms of existence of the object, a unique combination of which is characteristic of the given object only. Unity thus conceived is realised not through similarity of phenomena to each other but, on the contrary, through their difference and opposition.

This conception of unity in diversity (or concreteness) is not merely different from the one which old logic proceeded from, but is its direct opposite. The conception approaches that of the concept of integrity or wholeness. Marx uses this term in those cases when he has to characterise the object as an integral whole unified in all its diverse manifestations, as an organic system of mutually conditioning phenomena in contradiction to a metaphysical conception of it as a mechanical agglomeration of immutable constituent parts that are linked with each other only externally, more or less accidentally.

The most important aspect of Marx’s definition of the concrete is that the concrete is treated first of all as an objective characteristic of a thing considered quite independently from any evolutions that may take place in the cognising subject. The object is concrete by and in itself, independent from its being conceived by thought or perceived by sense organs. Concreteness is not created in the process of reflection of the object by the subject either at the sensual stage of reflection or at the rational-logical one.

In other words, ‘the concrete’ is first of all the same kind of objective category as any other category of materialist dialectics, as ‘the necessary’ and ‘the accidental’, ‘essence, and ‘appearance’. It expresses a universal form of development of nature, society, and thinking. In the system of Marx’s views, ‘the concrete’ is by no means a synonym for the sensually given, immediately contemplated.

Insofar as ‘the concrete’ is opposed to ‘the abstract’ the latter is treated by Marx first and foremost objectively. For Marx, it is by no means a synonym of the ‘purely ideal’, of a product of mental activity, a synonym of the subjectively psychological phenomenon occurring in man’s brain only. Time and again Marx uses this term to characterise real phenomena and relations existing outside consciousness, irrespective of whether they are reflected in consciousness or not.

For instance, Marx speaks in Capital of abstract labour. Abstractness appears here as an objective characteristic of the form which human labour assumes in developed commodity production, in capitalist production. Elsewhere he stresses that the reduction of different kinds of labour to uniform simple labour devoid of any distinctions ‘is an abstraction which is made every day in the social process of production’. It is ‘no less real (an abstraction) than the resolution of all organic bodies into air’. [Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]

The definition of gold as material being of abstract wealth also expresses its specific function in the organism of the capitalist formation and not in the consciousness of the theoretician or practical worker, by any means.

This use of the term ‘abstract’ is not a terminological whim of Marx’s at all: it is linked with the very essence of his logical views, with the dialectical interpretation of the relation of forms of thinking and those of objective reality, with the view of practice (sensual activity involving objects) as a criterion of the truth of the abstractions of thought.

Still less can this usage be explained as ‘a throwback to Hegelianism’: it is against Hegel that Marx’s proposition is directed to the effect that ‘the simplest economic category, e.g., exchange value ... cannot exist except as an abstract, unilateral relation of an already existing concrete organic whole ‘. [ibid.]

‘The abstract’ in this kind of context, very frequent in Marx, assumes the meaning of the ‘simple’, undeveloped, one-sided, fragmentary, ‘pure’ (i.e., uncomplicated) by any deforming influences). It goes without saying that ‘the abstract’ in this sense can be an objective characteristic of real phenomena, and not only of phenomena of consciousness.

’It is precisely the predominance of agricultural peoples in the ancient world which caused the merchant nations – Phoenicians, Carthaginians – to develop in such purity (abstract precision)’ [ibid.]; it was not, of course, the result of predominance of the ‘abstractive power of thought’ of Phoenicians or the scholars writing the history of Phoenicia. ‘The abstract’ in this sense is by no means the product and result of thinking. This fact is just as little dependent on thinking as the circumstance that ‘the abstract law of multiplying exists only for plants and animals’.

According to Marx, ‘the abstract’ (just as its counterpart, ‘the concrete’) is a category of dialectics as the science of universal forms of development of nature, society and thought, and on this basis also a category of logic, for dialectics is also the Logic of Marxism.

This objective interpretation of the category of the abstract is spearheaded against all kinds of neo-Kantian logic and epistemology which oppose, in a crudely metaphysical way, ‘pure forms of thought’ to forms of objective reality. For these schools in logic, ‘the abstract’ is only a form of thought, whereas ‘the concrete’, a form of a sensually given image. This interpretation, in the Mill-Humean and Kantian traditions in logic (e.g., Chelpanov and Vvedensky in Russia), is alien and hostile to the very essence of dialectics as logic and theory of knowledge.

The narrow epistemological (that is, essentially psychological, in the final analysis) interpretation of the categories of the abstract and the concrete became firmly rooted in modern bourgeois philosophy. Here is a fresh example – definitions from the Philosophical Dictionary by Max Apel and Peter Ludz [Berlin 1958]:

abstract: divorced from a given connection and considered by itself only. Thus abstract acquires the meaning of conceptual, conceived, in opposition to given in contemplation.

’abstraction: the logical process for ascending, through omission of features, from that given in contemplation to a general notion and from the given concept to a more general one. Abstraction decreases the content and extends the volume. Opposed to determination.

’concrete: the immediately given in contemplation; concrete concepts denote that which is contemplated, individual objects of contemplation. Opposed to abstract.’

This one-sided definition (abstraction is, of course, mental separation, among other things, but it is by no means reducible to it) varies but insignificantly from dictionary to dictionary. It has been polished in dozens of editions and has become generally accepted among philosophers in capitalist countries. That is certainly no proof of its correctness.

A ‘concrete concept’ is reduced by these definitions to ‘designating’ the sensually contemplated individual things, to a mere sign, or symbol. In other words, ‘the concrete’ is only nominally present in thought, only in the capacity of the ‘designating name’. On the other hand, .’the concrete’ is made into a synonym of uninterpreted, indefinite ‘sensual givenness’. Neither the concrete nor the abstract can, according to these definitions, be used as characteristics of theoretical knowledge in regard of its real objective content. They characterise only the ‘form of cognition’: ‘the concrete’, the form of sensual cognition, and ‘the abstract’, the form of thought, the form of rational cognition. In other words, they belong to different spheres of the psyche, to different objects. There is nothing abstract where there is something concrete, and vice versa. That is all there is to these definitions.

The problem of the relation of the abstract to the concrete appears in quite a different light from Marx’s point of view, the point of view of dialectics as logic and theory of knowledge.

It is only at first sight that this question might seem a), merely ‘epistemological’ one, a question of the relation of’, a mental abstraction to the sensually perceived image. In; actual fact its real content is much wider and deeper than.’ that, and it is inevitably supplanted by quite a different problem in the course of analysis – the problem of the relation of the object to itself, that is, relationship between different elements within a certain concrete whole. That is why the problem is solved, first and foremost, within the framework of objective dialectics – the teaching of the universal forms and laws of development of nature, society and thought itself, and not on the narrow epistemological plane, as neo-Kantians and positivists do.

Insofar as Marx treats the epistemological aspect of the problem, he interprets the abstract as any one-sided, incomplete, lopsided reflection of the object in consciousness, as opposed to concrete knowledge which is well developed, all-round, comprehensive knowledge. It does not matter at all in what subjective psychological form this knowledge is ‘experienced’ by the subject – in sensually perceived images or in abstract verbal form. The logic (dialectics) of Marx and Lenin establishes its distinctions in regard of the objective sense and meaning of knowledge rather than in regard of the subjective form of experience. Poor, meagre, lopsided knowledge may be assimilated in the form of a sensual image. In this case, logic will have to define it as ‘abstract’ knowledge, despite its being embodied in a sensually given image. Contrariwise, abstract verbal form, the language of formulas, may express rich, well-developed, profound and comprehensive knowledge, that is, concrete knowledge.

‘Concreteness’ is neither a synonym for nor a privilege of the sensual-image form of reflection of reality in consciousness, just as ‘abstractness’ is not a specific characteristic of rational theoretical knowledge. Certainly we speak, as often as not, of the concreteness of a sensual image and of abstract thought.

A sensual image, an image of contemplation, may just as often be very abstract, too. Suffice it to remember a geometric figure or a work of abstract painting. And vice versa, thinking in concepts may and even must be concrete in the full and strict meaning of the word. We know that there is no abstract truth, that truth is always concrete. And that does not mean at all that only the sensually perceived image, the contemplation of an individual thing may be true.

The concrete in thinking also appears, according to Marx’s definition, in the form of combination (synthesis) of numerous definitions. A logically coherent system of definitions is precisely that ‘natural’ form in which concrete truth is realised in thought. Each of the definitions forming part of the system naturally reflects only a part, a fragment, an element, an aspect of the concrete reality – and that is why it is abstract if taken by itself, separately from other definitions. In other words, the concrete is realised in thinking through the abstract, through its own opposite, and it is impossible without it. But that is, in general, the rule rather than an exception in dialectics. Necessity is in just the same kind of relation with chance, essence with appearance, and so on.

On the other hand, each of the numerous definitions forming part of the conceptual system of a concrete science, loses its abstract character in it, being filled with the sense and meaning of all the other definitions connected with it. Separate abstract definitions mutually complement each other, so that the abstractness of each of them, taken separately, is overcome. In short, herein lies the dialectics of the relation of the abstract to the concrete in thinking which reflects the concrete in reality. The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in the course of theoretical processing of the material of living contemplation, in processing the results of contemplation and notions in terms of concepts is the subject-matter of study in the present work.

Of course, we cannot claim to offer an exhaustive solution to the problem of the abstract and the concrete at all the stages of the process of cognition in general, in all forms of reflection. The formation of the sensually perceived image of a thing involves its own dialectics of the abstract and the concrete, and a very complicated one, and that is even more true of the formation of the notion connected with speech, with words. Memory, which also plays an enormous role in cognition, contains in its structure a no less complex relation of the abstract to the concrete. These categories also have a bearing on artistic creativity. We are compelled to leave all of these aspects out of consideration, as subject-matter of a special study.

The path of cognition loading from living contemplation to abstract thought and from it to practice, is a very complicated path. A complex and dialectically contradictory transformation of the concrete into the abstract and vice versa takes place in each link of this path. Even sensation gives a rougher picture of reality than it actually is, even in direct perception there is an element of transition from the concrete in reality to the abstract in consciousness. The transition from living contemplation to abstract thought is by no means the same thing as the movement ‘from the concrete to the abstract’. It is by no means reducible to this moment, although the latter is always present in it. It is the same thing only for those who interpret the concrete as a synonym of an immediate sensual image, and the abstract, as a synonym of the mental, the ideal, the conceptual.

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