The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete
The search for the essence of man through ideally equating men in the concept of the genus assumes a metaphysical conception of the relation of the universal to the individual.
For the metaphysician only the individual is concrete – an individual sensually perceived thing, object, phenomenon, event, a separate human individual, etc. For him, the abstract is the product of mental separation whose counterpart in reality is similarity of many (or all) individual things, phenomena, men.
According to this position, the universal exists in reality only as similarity between many individual things, only as one of the aspects of a concrete individual thing, while its being separately from the individual thing, its being as such, is only realised in man’s head, only as a word, as the sense and meaning of a term.
At first sight, this view of the relation between the universal and the individual appears to be the only materialist and common-sensical one. But that is only at first sight. The thing is that this position completely ignores, in the very approach to the problem, the dialectics of the universal and the individual in the things themselves, in the reality outside the head.
This can be shown most graphically by considering the way in which the Feuerbachian and Marxist-Leninist conception of the essence of man diverge. While criticising Hegel quite sharply for his idealism, for taking ‘pure thought’ to be the essence of man, Feuerbach proved to be incapable of opposing to Hegel a conception of dialectics contained in the relations of man to man and of man to nature, in the material production of the life of society.
That was why he remained centred on the abstract individual both in sociology and epistemology, despite his own insistence that he was concerned with the ‘concrete’, ‘real’, ‘actual’ man. This man proved to be ‘concrete’ only in Feuerbach’s imagination. He failed to see wherein lay the actual concreteness of man. Apart from everything else, that means that the terms ‘the concrete’ and ‘the abstract’ were used by Feuerbach in a sense directly opposite to their true philosophical sense: what he calls concrete is in fact, as brilliantly proved by Marx and Engels, extremely abstract, and vice versa.
The term ‘concrete’ is applied by Feuerbach to an aggregate of sensually perceived qualities inherent in each individual and common to all individuals. His conception of man is based on these qualities. From the point of view of Marx and Engels, from the dialectical standpoint, that is a typically abstract portrayal of man.
Marx and Engels were the first to show, from the materialist viewpoint, wherein lies the genuine concreteness of human existence and what is the objective reality to which a philosopher is entitled to apply the term ‘concrete’ in its full meaning.
They discovered man’s concrete essence in the overall process of social life and laws of its development rather than in a series of qualities inherent in each individual. The question of man’s concrete nature is here formulated and solved as the problem of development of a system of social relations of man to man and of man to nature. The universal (socially concrete) system of interaction between men and things appears, with regard to a separate individual, as his own human reality that was formed outside of and independently from him.
Nature as such creates absolutely nothing ‘human’. Man with all his specifically human features is from beginning to end the result and product of his own labour. Even walking straight, which appears at first sight man’s natural, anatomically innate trait, is in actual fact a result of educating the child within an established society: a child isolated from society à la Mowgli (and such cases are numerous) prefers to run on all fours, and it takes a lot of effort to break him of the habit.
In other words, only those features, properties, and peculiarities of the individual that are ultimately products of social labour, are specifically human. Of course, it is mother nature that provides the anatonomic and physiological prerequisites. However, the specifically human form which they ultimately assume is the product of labour, and it can only be comprehended or deduced from labour. Conversely, all those properties of man that are not a product of labour, do not belong to the features expressing man’s essence (e.g., soft lobes of the ear, although they are a ‘specific feature’ of man and not of any other living being).
An individual awaking to human life activity, that is, a natural biological being becoming a social one, is compelled to assimilate all forms of this activity through education. None of them are inherited biologically. What is inherited is the physiological potential for assimilating them. At first they confront him as something existing outside and independently from him, as something entirely objective, as an object for assimilation and imitation. Through education, these forms of social human activity are transformed into a personal, individual, subjective possession and are even consolidated physiologically: an adult person is no longer able to walk on all fours, even if he wants to do so, and that is not at all because he would be ridiculed; raw meat makes him sick.
In other words, all those features the sum of which makes up the much talked-of essence of man, are results and products (ultimate ones, of course) of socio-human labour activity. Man does not owe them to nature as such, still less to a supernatural force, whether it be called God or by some other name (e.g., the Idea). He owes them only to himself and the labour of previous generations. This is even more true of the more complex forms of human activity, both sensual and objective (material) and spiritual, than of straight walking.
Mankind’s culture accumulated throughout history appears to a modern individual as something primary, determining his individual human activity. From the scientific (materialist) point of view the individual, the human personality should therefore be regarded as a unitary embodiment of universal human culture, both material and spiritual. This culture is naturally realised in the individual in a more or less one-sided and incomplete manner. The extent to which an individual can make the riches of culture into his property does not depend on him alone; to a much greater degree it depends on society and on the mode of division of labour characteristic of society.
Actual assimilation of some area of culture or other, some form of human activity or other, means assimilating it to such an extent as to be able to develop it further in an independent, individual, and creative manner. Nothing can be assimilated through passive contemplation – that is like building castles in the air. Assimilation without active practice yields no results. That is why the form of assimilating universal human culture by the individual is determined by the form of the division of labour. Of course, there is one-sidedness and one-sidedness. The principal achievement of Marx and Engels in the solution of this problem was their careful and concrete study of the contradictions of the bourgeois division of labour.
The antagonistic class division of labour makes each individual into an extremely one-sided man, a ‘partial’ man. It develops some of his abilities through eliminating the possibility of developing others. Certain abilities are developed in some individuals, while others, in other individuals, and it is this one-sidedness of development that links individuals with one another as men, acting as the form in which universal development is realised.
The concrete fullness of human development is here due to the fullness of personal, individual development, to the fact that each individual taken separately proves to be a defective, one-sided, that is, abstract, man.
If Feuerbach regarded such an objectively abstract individual as a ‘concrete’ man, that was a manifestation not only of the limitations of a bourgeois theoretician, of an ideological illusion veiling the actual state of things, but also of the logical weakness of his position. To construct a concrete conception of the essence of man, of man as such, Feuerbach made an abstraction from all the actual differences developed by history, looking for that general property that would be equally characteristic of tailor and painter, locksmith and clerk, peasant and clergyman, wage worker and entrepreneur. He endeavoured to find the essence of man, the genuine concrete nature of the human being, amongst properties common to individuals of any class and any occupation. He made an abstraction precisely from all the elements that constituted the real essence of mankind, developing through opposites as a totality of mutually conditioning modes of human activity. [See Hegel on Abstract General]
According to the logic of Marx and Engels, a concrete theoretical conception of man, a concrete expression of the essence of man could only be formed in the diametrically opposite way, through considering exactly those differences and oppositions (class, professional, and individual) which Feuerbach ignores. The essence of man is real only as a well-developed and articulated system of abilities, as a complex system of the division of labour which, in accordance with its needs, moulds the individuals – mathematicians, philosophers, entrepreneurs, bankers, servants, etc.
In other words, a theoretical definition of the essence of man can only consist in revealing the necessity which gives rise to and develops all the multiform manifestations and modes of socio-human activity.
In regard of the most general characteristic of this system, of the ‘universal definition’ of human nature, one must point out that that characteristic should express the real, objectively universal foundation on which the entire wealth of human culture necessarily grows. Man, as is well-known, becomes separated from the animal world when he begins to work using implements of labour which he himself created. Production of labour implements is exactly the first and in time, logically and historically) form of human life-activity, of human existence. [See Engels’ Part Played by Labour]
Thus the real universal basis of everything that is human in man is production of instruments of production. It is from this basis that other diverse qualities of the human being developed, including consciousness and will, speech and thinking, erect walk and all the rest of it.
If one were to attempt a universal definition of man in general, a short definition of the concept, it would sound like this: ‘man is a being producing implements of labour’. [Franklin, see Capital I, ch 7.] That will be a characteristic example of a concrete universal definition of a concept.
This definition, from the standpoint of old logic, is inadmissibly ‘concrete’ to be universal. Such undoubted representatives of the human race as Mozart or Raphael, Pushkin or Aristotle, can hardly be included in this definition by means of simple formal abstraction, through a syllogistic figure.
On the other hand, the definition of man as ‘a being producing implements of labour’. That will be assessed by old logic as a purely particular definition of man rather than a universal one, it will be recognised to be a definition of quite a specific, type, class, or occupation of men – workers of machine-building plants or shopworks and nothing but.
What is the cause of this divergence? The fact of the matter is that the logic of Marx, on the basis of which this concrete universal definition was worked out, is founded on a different conception of the correlation between the universal, the particular, and the individual (separate) from that of non-dialectical logic.
Production of implements of labour, of instruments of production is indeed a real and therefore quite specific form of human existence. At the same time that does not make it less real as a universal basis of the rest of human development, a universal genetic basis of all that is human in man.
Production of labour implements as the first universal form of human activity, as the objective basis for all other human traits without exception, as the simplest, elementary form of man’s human being – that is what is expressed in the universal concept of the essence of man in the system of Marx and Engels. But, being an objectively universal basis of man’s entire most complex social reality, production of labour implements was a thousand years ago, is now, and will be in the future quite a particular form of man’s activity actually realised in individual acts performed by individual men. Analysis of the social act of the production of labour implements should reveal the internal contradictions of this act and the nature of their development giving rise to such abilities of man as speech, will, thought, artistic feeling, and further, class division of the collective, emergence of law, politics, art, philosophy, state, etc.
In this conception, the universal is not metaphysically opposed to the particular and the individual as a mental abstraction to a sensually given fullness of phenomena, but is rather opposed, as a real utility of the universal, the particular, and the individual, as an objective fact, to other just as objective facts within one and the same concrete historically developed system, in this case, to man’s social and historical reality.
The problem of the relation of the universal to the individual arises in this case not only and not so much as the problem of the relation of mental abstraction to the sensually given objective reality but as the problem of the relation of sensually given facts to other sensually given facts, as the object’s internal relation to the object itself, the relation of its different aspects to one another, as the problem of internal differentiation of objective concreteness within itself. On this basis and as a consequence of it, it arises as the problem of the relation between the concepts expressing in this connection the objective articulated concreteness.
To determine whether the abstract universal is extracted correctly or incorrectly, one should see whether it comprehends directly, through simple formal abstraction, each particular and individual fact without exception. If it does not, then we are wrong in considering a given notion as universal.
The situation is different in the case of the relation of the concrete universal concept to the sensually given diversity of particular and individual facts. To find out whether a given concept has revealed a universal definition of the object or a non-universal one, one should undertake a much more complex and meaningful analysis. In this case one should ask oneself the question whether the particular phenomenon directly expressed in it is at the same time the universal genetic basis from the development of which all other, just as particular, phenomena of the given concrete system may be understood in their necessity.
Is the act of production of labour implements that kind of social reality from which all other human traits may be deduced in their necessity, or is it not? The answer to this question determines the logical characterisation of the concept as a universal or non-universal one. Concrete analysis of the content of the concept yields in this case an affirmative answer.
Analysis of the same concept from the standpoint of the abstract logic of the intellect yields a negative answer. The overwhelming majority of beings that are undoubtedly individual representatives of the human race do not directly conform to this definition. From the standpoint of old non-dialectical logic this concept is too concrete to be justified as a universal one. In the logic of Marx, however, this concept is genuinely universal exactly because it directly reflects the factual objective basis of all the other traits of man which have developed out of this basis factually, historically, the concrete universal basis of anything that is human.
In other words, the question of the universal character of a concept is transferred to another sphere, that of the study of the real process of development. The developmental approach becomes thereby the approach of logic. This approach also determines the proposition of materialist dialectics to the effect that the concept should not express the abstractly universal but rather that universal which, according to Lenin’s apt formula, embodies in itself the richness of the particular, the individual, the single, being the concrete universal.
This richness of the particular and the individual is naturally embodied not in the concept as such but rather in the objective reality which is reflected in the concept, that particular (and even individual) sensually given reality whose characteristics are abstracted as definitions of a universal concept.
Thus, it is not the concept of man as a being producing labour implements that contains in itself the concepts of all the other human traits but rather the actual fact of producing labour implements contains in-itself the necessity of their origin and development. It is not the commodity concept or value concept that contains in itself the entire diversity of other theoretical definitions of capitalism but rather the real commodity form of links between producers is the embryo from which all the ‘riches’, including the poverty of the wage workers, develop. That was why Marx was able to reveal all the contradictions of modern society in his analysis of simple commodity exchange as an actual, directly observable relation between men.
Nothing of this sort, naturally, is to be observed in the concept of commodity. In his polemics with bourgeois critics of Capital, Marx had to emphasise the fact that the first sections of this book do not contain an analysis of the concept of commodity at all but an elementary economic concreteness called commodity relation – a real sensually contemplated fact, and not an abstraction existing in the head.
The universality of the category of value is therefore a characteristic not only and not so much of the concept, of mental abstraction, as, first of all, of the objective role played by the commodity form in the emergence of capitalism. Only as a result of this does universality prove to be also a logical characteristic of the concept expressing this reality and its role in the structure of the whole under study.
The word ‘value’ and the corresponding, rather definite, notion, were not created by Petty or Smith or Ricardo. Anything that could be bought, sold, or exchanged, everything that cost something, was referred to as value by any merchant of those times. Had theoreticians of political economy attempted an elaboration of the concept through abstracting the general element possessed by all referred to as ‘value’ in the traditional usage, they would never construct a concept, of course. They would merely brought out the meaning of the word ‘value’, precisely the same meaning that was implied by any merchant. They would have enumerated the properties of those phenomena to which the word ‘value’ was applicable. The whole thing would not have gone beyond finding out the limits of the applicability of the word, the name, beyond an analysis of the sense implied in the name.
The whole point is, however, that they formulated this question in quite a different way, so that the resultant answer to it proved to be a concept. Marx clearly showed the real essence of such an approach. The classics of political economy, beginning with Petty, did not at all engage in making abstraction from all those individual cases that were observed on the surface of capitalist commodity circulation, and that the current usage referred to as cases of the movement of values. They raised the question, quite explicitly and directly, of the real source of the value properties of things, of the substance of value.
Their main achievement lay precisely in that they attempted to strictly define the substance of value through considering elementary commodity exchange. Owing to this, they discovered that the substance of value was contained in social labour. In working out the concept of value, they actually closely studied the exchange of one commodity for another in an attempt to understand why, on what objective basis, within what concrete substance, one thing was actually equated with another. In other words, without realising clearly the logical essence of their operations, they actually considered one specific case of the movement of values, namely the fact of simple commodity exchange. Analysis of this specific case yielded the concept of value.
William Petty, the first English economist, obtained the concept of value by reasoning thus: ‘If a man can bring to London an ounce of Silver out of the Earth in Peru, in the same time that he can produce a Bushel of Corn, then one is the natural price of the other. ...’ [Theories of Surplus Value IV]
Let us note that this argument does not contain the word ‘value’ at all – Petty speaks of ‘natural price’. Yet what emerges here is exactly the concept of value as the embodiment of socially necessary quantity of labour time in a commodity.
A concept, inasmuch as it is a real concept rather than merely a general notion expressed in a term, always expresses the concretely universal, not the abstractly universal, that is, it expresses a reality which, while being quite a particular phenomenon among other particular phenomena, is at the same time a genuinely universal, concretely universal element, a ‘cell’ in all the other particular phenomena. [See Capital, Chapter One, § 3]
The classic representatives of bourgeois political economy spontaneously, by trial and error, discovered this correct path of defining value. But they did not quite realise the genuine significance of this mode of thought. The philosophy of Locke, at which their thinking was consciously oriented, offered them no key to the problem of defining universal concepts. This led them to a number of paradoxes, quite instructive from the logical viewpoint, and a number of fundamental difficulties, the genuine meaning of which was only elucidated in Marx’ analysis.
The cardinal difference between Marxian analysis of value as the universal basis for all the other categories of capitalist economy, and that kind of analysis which was attained in bourgeois political economy, lay precisely in the fact that Marx formed scientific definitions of ‘value in general’, ‘value as such’, on the basis of concrete consideration of direct exchange of one commodity for another involving no money. In doing so, Marx made a strict abstraction from all the other kinds of value developed on this basis (surplus-value, profit, rent, interest, and so on). Ricardo’s main error, according to Marx, lay in his inability ‘to forget profit’ in considering ‘value as such’, so that his abstraction turns out to be incomplete, insufficient, ‘formal’.
Marx includes in the definitions of ‘value in general’ only those definitions that were revealed through analysis of one kind of value, precisely that kind of value which proves to be elementary, primordial both logically and historically (that is, both in essence and in time). The product of his analysis are genuinely universal definitions of value in general, definitions that have the meaning of concretely universal definitions in regard of money and profit alike. In other words, these are the concretely universal definitions of all the other specific kinds of manifestation of value.
That is a most splendid example of a concretely universal concept. Its definitions express that real (rather than formal) general moment which constitutes the elementary, ‘generic’ essence of all the other particular categories. These genuinely universal definitions are further reproduced in money, in profit, in rent, constituting definitions common to all these categories. But, as Marx shows, one would never have been able to reveal these definitions through simple formal abstraction from the specific features of commodity, money, profit, and rent.
Universal definitions of value directly coincide in Capital with the theoretical expression of the specific features of simple commodity exchange, of the laws which reveal these specific features. The reason for that is that the specific feature of simple commodity form lies exactly in that it constitutes the genuinely universal foundation of the whole system, its ‘elementary cell’, the first real form of manifestation of ‘value in general’.
In considering this specific instance, Marx reveals in it, through his analysis, by ‘the power of abstraction’, the universal definitions of value. Analysis of exchange of linen for a coat, an individual instance at first sight, yields universal rather than individual definitions as its conclusion. One sees at a glance that this raising of the individual to the universal is radically different from the simple act of formal abstraction. The specific properties of the elementary commodity form distinguishing it from profit, rent, and other kinds of value are not ignored here as something inessential. On the contrary, theoretical analysis of these properties leads to the formation of a universal concept. That is the dialectical way of raising the individual to the universal.
Old non-dialectical logic would here recommend a different approach. In accordance with its principles, a definition of ‘value in general’ would have to be formed through abstraction from the specific features of all kinds of value, including simple commodity exchange, through identifying the common features of commodity, profit, rent, interest, etc. The specific features of the commodity form of value would have been ignored as ‘inessential’. The universal would have been taken in isolation from the particular.
Marx practises quite a different approach. Insofar as the universal exists in reality only through the particular and the individual, it can only be revealed by a thorough analysis of the particular rather than an act of abstraction from the particular. The universal is the theoretical expression of the particular and the individual, an expression of the law of their existence. The reality of the universal in nature is the law of the existence of the particular and the individual rather than mere formal affinity of phenomena in some respect, serving as a basis for including them in one class.
It is Marxian dialectics that permits to bring out the actual, real general content of the commodity form, of money, of profit, and of all the other categories. This general content cannot be revealed through an act of simple formal abstraction. It. is only useful in the initial classification of phenomena. It proves inadequate where a more serious task arises-that of working out universal objective theoretical definitions, concepts; moreover, it is here applied beyond its sphere and cannot solve the task. A more profound method is needed here.
It is indicative that Hegel, who came very close to the correct dialectical conception of the problem of the concretely universal, betrayed dialectics on the most significant point, and that owing to the idealist nature of his conception.
In explaining his conception of the dialectics of the universal and the particular, Hegel comments on the well-known argument of Aristotle on geometric figures. According to Aristotle, “amongst figures, only the triangle and the other definite figures”, the rectangle, the parallelogram etc. “are really something. For the common is the figure; but this general figure, that is the common, does not exist”, it is nothing real, it is nothing, an empty thing of the mind, it is only an abstraction. “On the contrary, the triangle is the first figure, the real, general, which also appears in the rectangle, etc.” – the figure reduced to the simplest definition. On the one hand the triangle stands side by side with the rectangle, the pentagon, etc., as a particular thing, but on the other hand-and here lies the greatness of Aristotle’s intellect – it is a real figure, a really general figure.’ [Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy]
At first sight, Hegel sees the principal difference between the concrete universal concept and the empty abstraction in that it has an immediately objective meaning and expresses a certain empirically given concreteness. Hegel himself often warned, however, that the relationship between the universal, the particular, and the individual should by no means be likened to mathematical (including geometric) images and their relations. The latter, according to his explanation, are merely a certain allegory of a concept: they are too much ‘burdened with sensuality’. The genuinely universal, which he interprets as a concept fully freed from the ‘sensual matter’, ‘from the matter of sensuality’. He attacked materialists on this point, for their interpretation of the universal essentially eliminates the universal, transforming it into ‘the particular side by side with other instances of the particular [Besonderen]’.
The universal as such, the universal which includes the richness of the particular and the individual, exists according to Hegel only as a concept, only in the ether of pure thought, by no means in the sphere of ‘external reality’. That was, properly speaking, the reason why Hegel believed materialism to be impossible as philosophy (for philosophy is a science of the universal, and the universal is thought and nothing but thought).
For the same reason, the definition of man as a creature producing labour implements is just as unacceptable to Hegelian logic as a universal definition, as it is to the logic that preceded it. In Hegel’s view, that is also merely a particular definition of man, a particular form of the revelation of his universal ‘thinking’ nature.
An idealist conception of the universal, its interpretation only as a concept, directly leads Hegel to the same result as its metaphysical interpretation. If Hegel’s logic in its original dogmatic form were to be applied to the analysis of Marx’s Capital, Marx’s entire line of reasoning would appear to be incorrect. According to Hegel, definitions of value cannot be obtained in the way Marx obtained them. A Hegelian adept would say about the first sections of Capital that definitions of one particular form of value are there taken to be universal definitions of value, while they are not universal definitions at all. He would recommend to deduce universal definitions of value from definitions of reasonable will (the way they are deduced by Hegel in The Philosophy of Right).
All of this proves that Hegelian logic, despite all its advantages over the old metaphysical logic, cannot be adopted by materialism without a radical critique, without radical elimination of all traces of idealism. The category of value in Marx is fundamentally different from mere formal abstraction as well as from Hegel’s ‘pure concept’. It is obviously ‘burdened with sensuality’, appearing as theoretical expression of the particular. Value, says Marx, has a ‘sensual-supersensual character, something that, from the Hegelian viewpoint, just cannot be. Moreover, the simple (universal) form of value, as Marx emphasises, by no means was the universal form of economic relations at all times, not at the beginning. Only capitalist development turned it into such a form.
Direct commodity exchange, as a phenomenon in considering which one may obtain a universal definition of value, as a phenomenon in which value is represented in pure form, is realised before the appearance of money, surplus-value and other particular well-developed forms of value. That means, apart from other things, that the form of economic relations which becomes genuinely general under capitalism, was realised before that as quite a particular phenomenon or even as an accidental individual phenomenon.
In reality it always happens that a phenomenon which later becomes universal originally emerges as an individual, particular, specific phenomenon, as an exception from the rule. It cannot actually emerge in an other way. Otherwise history would have a rather mysterious form.
Thus, any new improvement of labour, every new mode of man’s action in production, before becoming generally accepted and recognised, first emerge as a certain deviation from previously accepted and codified norms. Having emerged as an individual exception from the rule in the labour of one or several men, the new form is then taken over by others, becoming in time a new universal norm. If the new norm did not originally appear in this exact manner, it would never become a really universal form, but would exist merely in fantasy, in wishful thinking.
In the same way, a concept expressing the really universal, directly includes in it a conception of the dialectics of the transformation of the individual and the particular into the universal, directly expressing the individual and the particular which in reality, outside man’s head, constitutes the universal form of development.
In his conspectuses and notes on Hegel’s logic, Lenin continually refers to one of the pivotal points of dialectics – to the conception of the universal as the concretely universal as opposed to abstractly universal distillations of the intellect. The relation of the universal to the particular and the individual is expressed in dialectics by ‘a beautiful formula’, as Lenin puts it:
“Not merely an abstract universal, but a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular.”
‘Cf. Capital,’ Lenin makes a note in the margin, and then continues:
‘A beautiful formula: “Not merely an abstract universal, but a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular, the individual, the single” (all the wealth of the particular and the single!)!! Trés bien!.’ [Lenin, Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic]
The concrete universal expressed in the concept does not, of course, comprise in itself all this wealth in the sense that it comprehends all the specific instances and is applicable to them as their general name. That is exactly the metaphysical conception which Hegel opposes, and that is what Lenin approves about his position. A concrete universal concept comprises in itself ‘the wealth of the particulars’ in its concrete definitions-in two senses.
First, a concrete universal concept expresses in its definitions the specific concrete content (the internal law-governed structure) of a single, quite definite form of the development of an object under study. It comprises in itself ‘the whole wealth’ of the definitions of this form, its structure and its specificity. Second, it does not express in its definitions some arbitrarily chosen form of development of the object as a whole but that, and only that form which constitutes the really universal basis or foundation on which ‘the whole wealth’ of other formations grows.
A most striking example of such a concept is the value category in Capital. This concept is the result of an exhaustive analysis of one ‘most elementary economic concreteness’ of the capitalist world – direct exchange of one commodity for another involving no money. The specificity of this form consists in that it contains, like a ‘cell’ or embryo, the wealth of more complex, more developed forms of capitalist relations. That is why ‘in this very simple phenomenon (in this “cell” of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all the contradictions) of modern society.’ [Lenin’s Consepectus of Hegel’s Logic] That is why the result and product of this analysis, expressed in definitions of the category of value, offers a key to a theoretical conception of the whole of the capitalist world.
The difference of this category from mere abstractions (like ‘furniture’, ‘courage’, or ‘sweetness’) is of fundamental nature. The latter, of course, do not contain any ‘wealth of the particular and the individual’ – this ‘wealth’ is merely externally correlated with them as with general names. The concrete definitions of such concepts do not in any way express this wealth. The concept of furniture in general records merely the general element which a table has in common with a chair, a cupboard, etc. It does not contain specific characteristics of chair, table, or cupboard. Definitions of this kind do not express a single species. On the contrary, the category of value comprises in itself an exhaustive expression of such a species whose specificity lies in being simultaneously the genus.
That does not, of course, belittle the significance and cognitive role of elementary, ‘intellectual’ general abstractions. Their role is great: no concrete universal concept would be possible without them. They constitute the prerequisite and condition of the emergence of complex scientific concepts. A concrete universal concept is also an abstraction – in the sense that it does not record in its definitions the absolutely individual, the unique. It expresses the essence of the typical and in this sense of the general, million-fold repeated phenomenon, of an individual instance that is an expression of the universal law. In analysing the simple form of value, Marx is not interested, of course, in the individual features of a coat or linen. Nevertheless the relation of coat and linen is taken for the immediate object of analysis, and precisely for the reason that it is a typical (and in this sense general) case of simple commodity exchange, a case corresponding to the typical peculiarities of exchange without money.
‘In a general analysis of this kind it is usually always assumed that the actual conditions correspond to their conception, or, what is the same, that actual conditions are represented only to the extent that they are typically of their own general case.’ [Capital Vol III]
Of course, concrete universal concepts are for this reason similar to simple intellectual abstractions in that they always express a certain general nature of individual cases, things, phenomena, also being products of ‘raising the individual to the universal’. This moment or aspect pointing to an affinity between a scientific concept and any elementary abstraction is certainly always present in the concept and is easy to discover in it. The point is, however, that this moment in no way gives a specific characterisation of the scientific concept, it does not express its specificity. That is precisely the reason why logical theories that simply equate such abstractions as value and whiteness, matter and furniture, on the grounds that both kinds equally refer to many individual phenomena rather than to a single individual one and are in this sense equally abstract and general, do not assert something absurd at all. Yet this conception, sufficient for simple abstractions, is quite inadequate for complex scientific ones. And if this is taken to be the essence of scientific concepts, this view becomes false, just as, for instance, the proposition ‘value is the product of labour’ is false. A concrete phenomenon is here characterised in a much too general and abstract way and therefore quite incorrectly. Of course, man is an animal, and a scientific concept is an abstraction. The inadequacy of such a definition, however, lies in its extreme abstractness.
Dialectical logic does not at all reject the truth of the proposition that a universal concept is an abstraction expressing the ‘general nature’, the ‘mean type’ of the separate cases, individual things, phenomena, events, yet it goes further and deeper, and therein lies the difference between its conceptions and those of old logic. A dialectical conception of the universal assumes the transformation of the individual into the universal and of the universal into the individual, a transformation continually going on in any actual development.
It is easy to see, however, that this position presupposes a historical view of things, of the objective reality expressed in concepts. That is why neither Locke and Helvétius nor even Hegel could give a rational solution to the problem of the relation of the abstract to the concrete. Hegel was unable to offer such a solution, because the idea of development, the historical approach were only put fully into practice in his system with regard to thought but not to the objective reality itself constituting the subject-matter of thought. Objective reality develops in Hegel’s view only inasmuch as it becomes the external form of the development of thought, of spirit, inasmuch as the spirit, imbuing it, quickens it from within, making it move and even develop. Objective sensual reality does not possess its own immanent spontaneous movement. Therefore in his eyes it is not genuinely concrete, for the living dialectical interconnection and interdependence of its different aspects belongs in fact to the spirit permeating it rather than to reality itself as such. Therefore in Hegel only the concept and nothing but the concept is concrete as the ideal principle of ideal interconnection of individual phenomena. Taken in themselves, individual things and phenomena are abstract and abstract only.
However, this conception contains not only idealism but also a dialectical view of cognition, of the process of apprehension of sensual data. Hegel calls an individual thing, phenomenon or fact abstract, and this usage is well founded: if consciousness has perceived an individual things as such, without grasping the whole concrete chain of interconnections within which the thing actually exists, that means it has perceived the thing in an extremely abstract way despite the fact that it has perceived it in direct concrete sensual observation, in all the fullness of its sensually tangible image.
On the contrary, when consciousness has perceived a thing in its interconnections with all the other, just as individual things, facts, phenomena, if it has grasped the individual through its universal interconnections, then it has for the first time perceived it concretely, even if a notion of it was formed not through direct contemplation, touching or smelling but rather through speech from other individuals and is consequently devoid of immediately sensual features.
In other words, already in Hegel abstractness and concreteness lose the meaning of immediate psychological characteristics of the form in which knowledge exists in an individual head, becoming logical (meaningful) characteristics of knowledge, of the content of consciousness.
If an individual thing is not understood through the universal concrete interconnection within which it actually emerged, exists, and develops, through the concrete system of interconnections that constitutes its genuine nature, that means that only abstract knowledge and consciousness have been obtained. If, on the other hand, an individual thing (phenomenon, fact, object, event) is understood in its objective links with other things forming an integral coherent system, that means that it has been understood, realised, cognised, conceived concretely in the strictest and fullest meaning of this word.
In the eyes of a materialist metaphysician, only the sensually perceived individual is concrete, while the universal is a synonym of the abstract. For a dialectical materialist things are quite different. From his viewpoint, concreteness is, first of all, precisely the universal objective interconnection and interdependence of a mass of individual phenomena, ‘unity in diversity’, the unity of the distinct and the mutually opposed rather than an abstract identity, the abstract dead unity. At best, the latter only indicates or hints at the possibility of the presence in things of internal links, of latent unity of phenomena, yet that is not always the case and by no means obligatory: a billiard ball and the Sirius are identical in their geometric form, but it would not do at all to look for any real interaction here, of course.
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