The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter 3 – Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete
The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete as a universal law to which scientific development is subject, was formulated by Hegel. But it became an actual method of development of concrete scientific knowledge only in the hands of Marx who gave it a materialist substantiation, whereas in Hegel, owing to the idealist interpretation and application of it, it appeared exclusively as a method for constructing a speculative science of sciences, an absolute system of the ‘world as a whole’.
Marx not only substantiated this law on the general theoretical plane, he actually applied it to the development of a concrete science, political economy. Capital, created with the aid of this method, contains a concrete and extensive practical proof of the necessity of this method, its real materialist substantiation as the only method that agrees with the dialectics of the objective reality.
Analysis of Capital with reference to the method of inquiry applied in it should also show the concrete essence of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete.
It should be shown as the only method that can ensure the solution of the central task of scientific investigation as it is seen in materialist dialectics – the task of tracing the concrete reciprocal conditioning of phenomena creating, through their interaction, a system that emerged and developed historically, and still continues to develop new forms of its existence and internal interaction.
This task cannot be solved in any other way. Any other method does not correspond to the objective nature of the object reproduced with its aid in the spirit.
It would be quite erroneous to derive the need for the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete merely from the fact that man’s consciousness is incapable of grasping the object in its entire complexity so that it has to ascend, willy-nilly, from incomplete one-sided (abstract) notion of the object to ever more complete and comprehensive knowledge of it. This explanation would simply be quite inadequate. To be more precise, that is not an explanation but a reference to a well-known fact. It is self-obvious that consciousness is indeed such. But all properties and specific features of consciousness themselves require materialist explanation. Besides, such a reference to the nature of consciousness would explain nothing, generally speaking, about the specificity of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete as a method of scientific theoretical inquiry. Familiarisation with an object, phenomenon, or system of phenomena also takes the form of gradual and ordered assimilation of new details, of transition from a one-sided and meagre notion of an object to a comprehensive (though still empirical) notion of it. Accumulation of empirical information through which reality becomes familiar but not yet cognised, also proceeds as development from one-sided to comprehensive knowledge.
This interpretation would thus take into account only those abstract identical features which theoretical reproduction of concreteness in the concept has in common with simple empirical familiarisation with phenomena, and would express the specificity of neither.
The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete is merely a method of reflection of concrete reality in thought rather than a method of creation of it by the power of thought, as it was presented by Hegel. That is precisely why it does not depend on thought at all where logical development of concepts by this method will begin and in what direction it will proceed. As Marx showed, it depends only on the relation in which the various aspects of the concrete whole stand to each other. The method of logical development must therefore correspond to the method of internal division of this whole, to the dialectics of the formation of concreteness outside thought, that is, in the final analysis, to the historical development of this concreteness, although, as will be shown later, this coincidence is by no means simple, dead, or mirror-like, being concerned only with universal moments of development.
The formula of materialism in epistemology and logic is the reverse of what has just been formulated: the object is such that only the given rather than some other form of activity of consciousness corresponds to it; the object is such that it can be reflected in consciousness only with the aid of the given method.
In other words, the discussion of the mode of logical activity here, too, becomes the study of the objective nature of the objective reality, a further elaboration of the category of concreteness as an objective category expressing the universal form of the existence of reality.
Here, too, the principle of coincidence of logic, epistemology, and dialectics is the dominant one: a question that is purely logical at first sight is essentially a question of universal forms in which objective concreteness emerges and develops.
A materialist substantiation of the correctness and necessity of the method of ascent from the, abstract to the concrete may only consist in demonstrating the real universal laws that equally dominate the formation of any concrete system of interacting phenomena (whether it be the capitalist system or the solar system, the chemical or the biological form of interaction, etc.).
Here again we run into the familiar dialectical difficulty: the approach to dialectics is dialectical in itself. It is apparently impossible to establish and theoretically express the universal laws of the formation of any concreteness on the path of inductive generalisation, of abstraction of the general and identical features, which the capitalist system has in common with the solar planetary system and the biological form of interaction in nature with the electromagnetic or chemical one.
Formulating the question in this manner means setting a task absolutely insoluble in its very nature. Mankind as a whole does not know all cases of concrete interaction in infinite nature, let alone the present author. Nevertheless we face the task of establishing exactly the universal (that is, logical) laws of the formation of any objective system of concrete interaction. In other words, we recur to one of the eternal problems of philosophy – whether it is possible to work out a really universal, infinite generalisation on the basis of studying a limited and necessarily finite series of facts, an if it is, how is one to approach the task.
Luckily, philosophy has never even tried to obtain this understanding within the inductive approach. The actual development of science and philosophy has long found a practical way of solving this antinomy, which only seems insoluble in principle as long as it is formulated metaphysically.
In actual fact, mankind has always obtained universal, ‘infinite’ generalisations and conclusions, not only in philosophy but in any area of knowledge as well, through analysis of at least one typical case rather than through abstraction of those identical features that all possible cases have in common.
Suffice it in this connection to remember the words from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature:
‘A striking example of how little induction can claim be the sole or oven the predominant form of scientific discovery occurs in thermodynamics: the steam-engine provided the most striking proof that one can impart heat and obtain mechanical motion. 100,000 steam-engines did not prove this more than one, but only more and more forced the physicists into the necessity of explaining it. Sadi Carnot was the first seriously to set about the task. But not by induction. He studied the steam-engine, analysed it, and found that in it the process which mattered does not appear in pure form but is concealed by all sorts of subsidiary processes. He did away with these subsidiary circumstances that have no bearing on the essential process, and constructed an ideal steam-engine – (or gas engine), which it is true is as little capable of being realised as, for instance, a geometrical line or surface, but in its way performs the same service as these mathematical abstractions: it presents the process in a pure, independent, and unadulterated form. [Fragment, Induction and Analysis]
It is not induction directed at the search of abstractions expressing the general features of all the particular cases but in depth analysis of one particular case aimed at revealing the process under study in its pure form that has been the method of philosophy whenever and wherever it really arrived at objective discoveries. It is only men like Comte and Spencer who tried to follow the path of induction and abstraction – with suitably meagre results.
Philosophy has always been concerned with its own specific problems essentially different from the desire to find the abstract general features which a crocodile has in common with Jupiter and the solar system with wealth. Philosophy has always had its own serious problems, the solution of which brought it closer to the establishment of the universal laws of everything that exists, to revealing the content of categories.
Marx, as is well known, gave a critical analysis of the Hegelian system of universal categories, but he did not do that by comparing these categories with the features which mankind has in common with the atomic nucleus or both of them with the structure of the great Universe.
Hegel’s system was critically overcome through its critical comparison mostly with one instance of dialectical development (but, what is most important, a most typical one) – with the dialectics of social production relations at one stage of their development.
A critical overcoming of the universal categories historically developed by philosophy, with reference to at least one typical case, is the real path always taken by the evolution in understanding the content of universal categories.
The basic task of the theoretical analysis of the universal is always actual] reduced to the analysis of the individual from the standpoint of the universal. One must only be able to single out in the individual that which constitutes the universality of this case rather than its individuality or specificity. It is at this point that one most requires a conscious attitude to abstraction and the methods of it obtaining. For the most ordinary error of theoretical inquiry is made when that which actually refers to the given concurrence of transient circumstances in which a real universal form is contemplated, is taken for the universal form itself of the individual fact.
To reveal the content of such a universal category as concreteness, one may and must study at least one typical case of a living dialectically developed system of internally interacting objective phenomena.
The system of capitalist relations between men typical instance of such a self-developing relatively independent system (concreteness). We shall consider it as an immediate particular case of concreteness in general, in which the universal outlines of any concreteness may and must be revealed. Materials from other fields will be considered to the extent in which they are characteristic in themselves.
The choice of this material is determined by reasons other than subjective caprice or personal inclination. A much more weighty consideration in favour of this choice is that no other concreteness has been comprehended as profoundly as this one. No other system of concrete interaction has been presented to the mind in the entire complexity and fullness of its internal dialectics, in the entire complexity of its structure as the system of capitalist relations revealed in Capital and other works of the founders of Marxism-Leninism, and that is exactly why it is most expedient to use this material as the basis for considering the universal characteristics of any concreteness, for explicating the category of concreteness in general.
This mode of consideration fully coincides with what Marx himself did in his cognitive practice.
When Marx set himself the task of revealing the universal law of capitalism as such, as a historically determined system of social production, he did not take the path of inductive comparison of all without exception, of capitalist development that took place on the planet in him time. He acted differently, as a dialectician: he took the most characteristic and best developed case, namely capitalist reality in England and its reflection in English economic literature and worked out a universal economic theory, mostly on the basis of detailed investigation of this angle instance.
He understood that the universal laws of the development of capitalism are the same for any country, and that England, having advanced farther than any other country along the path of capitalist development, demonstrated all phenomena in their most distinct form. All that which in other countries was present as a very weak and hardly distinguishable rudiment, as a tendency that was not yet fully formed, obscured and complicated by secondary external circumstances, existed here in the most developed and classically clear-cut form. On some occasions only did Marx use materials concerning the capitalist development of other countries (in his analysis of rent, for instance, he used numerous materials from the economic development of the Russian village). This way, the way of establishing the immediately common features of different instances of capitalist development, was not a royal road for arriving at a universal theory of capitalist development. The royal road of his inquiry was invariably the study of English economic reality and a constructive critique of English political economy.
The same considerations should apparently be taken into account in tackling the problem of the categories of dialectics as logic and epistemology, as the science of thought. It is capitalist reality theoretically revealed in Capital and other works of the same cycle (both by Marx and by his best pupils and followers, in the first place by Engels and Lenin) that provides the most comprehensive picture of a historically emergent and developed concreteness, as a most typical instance of concreteness in general. It is Capital that we regard as heretofore unsurpassed model of conscious application of the dialectical method, of dialectical logic in the fullness of its content. It shows many sciences their own future, demonstrating in classically clear-cut form all those aspects of the method that have not yet been realised in other sciences in the same consistent manner.
It should also be pointed out that constructive critique of previous theories – a necessary moment of the theoretical elaboration of the scientific problems of our times – assumes that critically assimilated is the best-quality theoretical (mental) material, the really best models of theoretical comprehension of the actuality which appears in the given case as the object of attention and inquiry.
As Marx developed his economic theory, the principal theoretical opponents with whom he argued in working out his comprehension of reality, were the classic representatives of bourgeois political economy rather than the contemporary representatives of vulgar economy and of the ‘professorial form of decay’ of theory. The latter were Marx’s contemporaries only chronologically, not from the standpoint of theoretical comprehension of the subject-matter. In regard to theory they were infinitely inferior to the classics and were by no means a theoretical opposition worthy of serious argument. Unfolding his theoretical comprehension of reality in the form of serious argument with the classics, Marx merely ridicules, whenever the occasion warrants, such ‘theoreticians’ as Senior, Bastiat, MacCulloch, Roscher, etc. Criticising these latter was only appropriate when the theoretical comprehension of the subject-matter had already been unfolded in its essence.
As far as philosophical categories, the categories of dialectics are concerned, classical bourgeois philosophy still remains the only worthy and serious theoretical opponent of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which, however, does not at all eliminate the task of fighting against modern bourgeois systems but, on the contrary, helps to lay bare their desire to escape the great philosophical problems.
The attitude of Marx, Engels and Lenin to Hegel or Feuerbach was fundamentally different from their attitude to Schopenhauer, Comte, Mach, or Bogdanov. Sharply criticising the speculations of petty idealists, they never even tried rational kernel in their writings.
In denouncing the mixed-up sophistic argumentation of Machists, Lenin first of all reduces it to the classically transparent and principled expression which these views were given by Berkeley and Fichte. That is not merely a polemic manoeuvre but the best way of theoretically uncovering the essence of their position. On the other hand, when Lenin faces the task of further elaboration of materialist dialectics, he leaves aside Machists as Berkeley’s theoretical adherents and goes back to a critical analysis of Hegel’s The Science of Logic as the real peak of bourgeois thought in comprehending the universal laws of nature, society, and human thought.
The above may be summed up as follows: a genuinely concrete substantiation of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete as the only scientifically correct method of logical development, as the only method corresponding to the objective dialectics, should be looked for in Marx’s Capital, and in the analysis of its logical structure.
Logic, epistemology, and dialectics consistently coincide in Capital, and this systematic coincidence, the coincidence of induction and deduction, of analysis and synthesis, characterising the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete, is the distinguishing feature of Marx’s method of inquiry. Let us first consider the problem in its concrete economic expression, and then proceed to general methodological and logical conclusions.
Let us pose this question: is it in general possible to understand theoretically (to reproduce conceptually) the objective essence of such phenomena as surplus-value and profit if the category of value has not been previously and independently analysed? Can money be understood if the laws governing the movement of simple commodity market are not known?
Those who have read Capital and are familiar with the problems of political economy are aware that this is an insoluble task.
Can one form a concept (a concrete abstraction) of cap ital through purely inductive generalisation of the abstract features observed in any of the various kinds of capital? Will such an abstraction be satisfactory from the scientific point of view? Will such an abstraction express the inner structure of capital in general, as a specific form of economic reality?
As soon as we pose the question in this form, the need for a negative answer to it becomes apparent.
This abstraction will of course express the identical features that industrial, financial, commercial, and usurious capital have in common. It will indubitably free us from repetitions. But that will exhaust its actual cognitive potential. It will not express the concrete essence of any of these kinds of capital. It will just as little express the concrete essence of their mutual connection, their interaction. These are precisely the features from which an abstraction is made. But, from the standpoint of dialectics, it is exactly the concrete interaction of concrete phenomena that constitutes the subject-matter and goal of thinking in concepts.
The meaning of the general is contradictory, as Lenin pointed out; it deadens living reality but at the same time is the only possible move towards its comprehension. In the given instance, however, it is easy to see that the general does nothing but deaden the concrete, moving away from it and being in no way at the same time a step towards it. It is from the concrete, as from the ‘inessential’, that this general is an abstraction.
Neither does this abstraction express the universal nature of capital (of any capital – industrial, financial, or commercial).
Marx’s Capital demonstrates in a very graphic manner that the concrete economic nature of commercial capital, as a concrete aspect of the capitalist whole, cannot in principle be understood or expressed in theoretical abstraction unless industrial capital is previously understood in its inner structure.
To consider the immanent definitions of industrial capital is the same as to reveal the essence of capital in general. It is just as undoubted that industrial capital cannot be understood before value.
‘... The rate of profit is no mystery, so soon as we know the laws of surplus-value. If we reverse the process, we cannot comprehend either the one or the other.’ [Capital I]
Let us stress that the point here is understanding (expressing in a concept), for it is of course quite possible to create the abstraction of profit in general. In the latter case it is sufficient to reduce the empirically observed phenomena of profit to an abstract expression. This abstraction will be quite adequate for distinguishing with certainty between the phenomena of profit and other phenomena, for ‘recognising’ profit. This is quite successfully done by every entrepreneur, who can very well distinguish between profit and wages, money, and so on.
In doing so, the entrepreneur does not understand, however, what profit is. He does not need it, either. In practice, he acts as an instinctive adherent of positivist philosophy and empirical logic. He merely lends a generalised expression to phenomena that are important and essential from his point of view, from the standpoint of his subjective goals, and this generalised expression of phenomena excellently serves him in practice as a concept permitting him to distinguish with certainty profit from non-profit. As an honest-to-goodness positivist, he sincerely believes all talk about the inner nature of profit, about the essence and substance of this phenomenon, so dear to his heart, to be metaphysical sophistry, philosophising divorced from life. Under conditions of capitalist production, the entrepreneur does not have to know any of this. ‘Anyone can use money as money without necessarily understanding what money is.’ [Theories of Surplus Value III]
The narrow practical intellect, as Marx emphasised, is basically alien and hostile to comprehension (c.f. the remark about Friedrich List in Chapter One of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).
It may even be harmful to the entrepreneur to philosophise on the problem of profit. While he is trying to understand it, other, smarter and more practical and pushy operators, will snatch his share of profit. A businessman will never exchange real profit for an understanding of what profit is.
In science, in reasoning, however, comprehension is important. Science as thinking in concepts begins only where consciousness does not simply express in other words the conceptions of things spontaneously thrust upon it but rather attempts to analyse both things and conceptions of things in a goal-directed and critical manner.
To comprehend a phenomenon means to establish its place and role in the concrete system of interacting phenomena in which it is necessarily realised, and to find out precisely those traits which make it possible for the phenomenon to play this role in the whole. To comprehend a phenomenon means to discover the mode of its origin, the rule according to which the phenomenon emerges with necessity rooted in the concrete totality of conditions. it means to analyse the very conditions of the origin of phenomena. That is the general formula for the formation of a concept and of conception.
To comprehend profit means to establish the universal and necessary nature of its origin and movement in the system of capitalist production, to reveal – its specific role in the overall movement of the system as a whole.
That is why a concrete concept can only be realised through a complicated system of abstractions expressing the phenomenon in the totality of conditions of its origin.
Political economy as a science historically begins where recurrent phenomena (profit, wages, interest, etc.) are not merely registered, in terms of generally understood and generally acceptable designations (that takes place before science and outside science, in the consciousness of the practical participants of production) but are comprehended concretely, through analysis of their place and role in the system.
Thus, it is in principle impossible to comprehend (express in a concept) profit unless surplus-value and the laws of its origin are comprehended previously and independently from the former.
Why is that impossible? If we answer this question in a general theoretical form, we shall thereby show the real necessity of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete, its applicability to any field of knowledge.
We shall therefore turn to the history of political economy.
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