The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter 3 – Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete
While he viewed the subject-matter of inquiry, capitalist economy, as a single whole coherent in all its manifestations, as a system of mutually conditioning relations of production and distribution, Ricardo at the same time did not regard this system as a historically emerging and developing integral totality of relations between men and things in the process of production.
All the merits of Ricardo’s method of inquiry are closely connected with the substantive viewpoint, that is, with the conception of the object as a single whole coherent in all its manifestations. Contrariwise, all the defects and vices of his mode of unfolding his theory are rooted in complete failure to understand this whole as a historically formed one.
The capitalist form of production seemed to him to be the natural, eternal form of any production whatever. That explains the non-historical (and even anti-historical) character of his abstractions and lack of historicism in the method of obtaining them. Deduction of categories, where it is combined with a non-historical comprehension of the object reproduced with its help in the concept, inevitably becomes purely formal.
It is easy to see that deduction in its very form corresponds to the conception of development, of movement from the simple, undivided, and general to the complex, divided, individual and particular. Now, if objective reality reproduced in concepts deductively is in itself understood as non-developing reality, as an eternal and natural system of interacting phenomena, deduction, naturally and inevitably, appears only as an artificial procedure in the development of thought. In this case, too, logic necessarily recurs to the view of the nature of deduction which was expressed in classically clear form by Descartes.
As he set about the construction of his system of the world, the deduction of all the complex forms of interaction in nature from the movements of the elementary particles of matter defined exclusively in geometrical terms, Descartes justified his mode of theory construction in the following way: ‘And its nature (of the world – E.I.) is much more easily conceived if one thus watches its gradual origin than if one considers it as ready made.’ Unwilling to come into open conflict with the theological teaching of the creation of the world, Descartes immediately qualified this statement: ‘At the same time I did not wish to infer from all this that our world was created in the way I suggested; for it is much more likely that from the beginning God made it in the form it was intended to have.’
It was obvious to Descartes that the form of deduction which he consciously applied was closely akin to the conception of development and emergence of things in their necessity. That was why he faced the ticklish problem of reconciling deduction and the idea that the object was eternally equal to itself and had not come from anywhere in particular, being once created by God.
Ricardo found himself in the same kind of situation. He understood quite well that only deductive movement of thought could express phenomena in their inner connection, and that one could only cognise this connection in considering the gradual emergence of divers forms of wealth from one substance common to them all – from commodity-producing labour. But how was one to link up this mode of reasoning wills the idea that the bourgeois system was a natural and eternal system that could neither emerge nor develop in reality’? Still, Ricardo reconciled these two conceptions, in their essence absolutely incompatible. This was reflected in his method of reasoning, in the method of forming abstractions.
The fact that the construction of theory begins with the category of value, later to proceed to the consideration of other categories, may be justified by the category of value being the most general concept which implies profit, interest, rent, capital, and all the rest – a generic abstraction from these real particular and individual phenomena.
The movement of thought from an abstract general category to the expression of specific features of real phenomena therefore appears as movement entirely in thought but by no means in reality. In reality all categories – profit, capital, rent, wages, money, etc. – exist simultaneously with one another, the category of value expressing what is common to them all. Value as such actually exists in the abstraction-making head only, as a reflection of the features which commodity has in common with money, profit, rent, wages, capital, etc. That generic concept comprising in itself all the particular categories, is value.
Here Ricardo reasoned in the spirit of contemporary nominalist logic rebelling against medieval realism, against creationist conceptions according to which the general, say, animal in general, existed before the horse, the fox, the cow, the hare, before the particular species of animals and was subsequently transformed or ‘split’ into the horse, the cow, the fox, the hare, etc.
According to Ricardo, value as such can only exist post rem, only as a mental abstraction from the particular kinds of value (profit, rent, wages, etc.), by no means ante rem, as an independent reality chronologically preceding its particular species (capital, profit, rent, wages, etc.). All these particular species of value eternally exist side by side with one another and by no means originate in value, just as the horse does not actually derive from the animal in general.
The trouble was, however, that the nominalist conception of the general concept, justifiably attacking the principal proposition of medieval realism, in general eliminated from the real world of individual things, along with that proposition, the idea of their real development.
Inasmuch as Ricardo held the bourgeois view of the essence of bourgeois economy, the one-sided and extremely metaphysical conception of nominalism in logic appeared to him to be most natural and appropriate. Only individual phenomena belonging to the particular species of value existed eternally – commodity, money, capital, profit, rent, etc. As for value, it was an abstraction from these individual and particular economic phenomena – universalia post rem, by no means universalia ante rem. That was why Ricardo did not study value as such, value in itself, most rigorously abstracted from profit, wages, rent, and competition.
Having formulated the concept of value, lie proceeded directly to the consideration of developed particular categories, directly applying the value concept to profit, wages, rent, money, etc.
That is the most natural logical move if one conceives reality reproduced by means of it as an eternal system of interaction of particular species of value.
If the content of the universal concept underlying the entire system of the theory is to be understood as a sum of features abstractly common to all particular and individual phenomena, one will necessarily act as Ricardo did. If the universal is understood as the abstract feature common to all individual and particular phenomena without exception, to obtain theoretical definitions of value one will have to consider profit, rent, etc., and abstract what is common to them. That was the way Ricardo acted. And that was what Marx sharply criticised him for, since here Ricardo’s anti-historical approach to value and its species was particularly apparent.
The greatest defect of Ricardo’s method of inquiry, according to Marx, lay in that he did not study specially the theoretical definitions of value as such completely independent from the effects of production of surplus-value, competition, profit, wages, and all the other phenomena. The first chapter of Ricardo’s principal work treats not only of exchange of one commodity for another (that is, of the elementary form of value, value as such), but also of profit, wages, capital, the average rate of profit, and the like.
‘One can see that though Ricardo is accused of being too abstract, one would be justified in accusing him of the opposite: lack of the power of abstraction, inability, when dealing with the values of commodities, to forget profits, a factor which confronts him as a result of competition.’ [Theories of Surplus-Value II]
But this requirement, the requirement of objective completeness of abstraction, is impossible to satisfy unless, first, one gives up the formal metaphysical conception of the universal concept (as a simple abstraction from the particular and individual phenomena to which it refers), and second, one accepts the standpoint of historicism in the conception, in this instance, of the development from value to profit.
Marx demands from science that it should comprehend the economic system as a system that has emerged and developed, he demands that the logical development of categories should reproduce the actual history of the emergence and unfolding of the system.
If that is so, value as the starting point of theoretical conception should be understood in science as an objective economic reality emerging and existing before such phenomena as profit, capital, wages, rent, etc., can emerge and exist. Therefore theoretical definitions of value should also be obtained in quite a different manner than mere abstraction of the features common to commodity, money, capital, profit, wages, and rent. All these things are assumed to be non-existent. They did not exist eternally at all, but somehow and at some point did emerge, and this emergence, in its necessity, should be discovered by science.
Value is a real, objective condition without which neither capital nor money nor anything else is possible. Theoretical definitions of value as such can only be obtained by considering a certain objective economic reality capable of existing before, outside, and independently of all those phenomena that later developed on its basis.
This elementary objective economic reality existed long before the emergence of capitalism and all the categories expressing its structure. This reality is direct exchange of one commodity for another commodity.
We have seen that the classics of political economy worked out the universal concept of value exactly through considering this reality, although they had no idea of the real philosophical and theoretical meaning of their acts.
One would assume that Ricardo would have been not a little perplexed if someone were to point out the fact that both his predecessors and he himself did not work out the universal category of his science by considering an abstract general rule to which all things having value are subject – on the contrary, they did so by considering a very rare exception from the rule – direct exchange of one commodity for another without money.
Inasmuch as they did so, they obtained a really objective theoretical conception of value. But, since they did not adhere strictly enough to the consideration of this particular mode of economic interaction extremely rare in developed capitalism, they could not fully grasp the essence of value.
Herein lies the dialectics of Marx’s conception of the universal – the dialectics in the conception of the method of elaborating the universal category of the system of science.
It is easy to see that this conception is only possible on the basis of an essentially historical approach to the study of objective reality.
Deduction based on conscious historicism becomes the only logical form corresponding to the view of the object as historically emerging and developing rather than ready made.
‘Owing to the theory of evolution, the whole classification of organisms has been taken away from induction and brought back to “deduction”, to descent – one species being literally deduced from another by descent – and it is impossible to prove the theory of evolution by induction alone, since it is quite anti-inductive.’ [Engels. Dialectics of Nature]
The horse and the cow did not of course descend from the animal in general, just as the pear and the apple are not products of self-alienation of the concept of fruit in general. But the cow and the horse undoubtedly had a common ancestor in the remote past epochs, while the apple and the pear are also products of differentiation of a form of fruit common to both of them. This actual common ancestor of the cow, the horse, the hare, the fox and all the other now existing species of animals did not of course exist in divine reason, as an idea of the animal in general, but in nature itself, as a quite real particular species, from which divers other species descended through differentiation.
This universal form of animal, animal as such, if you wish, is by no means an abstraction comprising in itself only that feature which is common to all the now existing particular species of animals. This universal was at the same time a particular species possessing not only and not so much those traits that were preserved in all the descendants as features common to them all, but also its own specific features, partly inherited by the descendants, partly entirely lost and replaced by new ones. The concrete image of the universal ancestor of all the species existing at present, cannot in principle be constructed out of those properties that these species have in common.
Doing this sort of thing in biology would mean taking the same wrong avenue by which Ricardo hoped to arrive at a definition of value as such, of the universal form of value, assuming that these definitions were abstractions from profit, rent, capital, and all the other particular forms of value that he observed.
The idea of development as real descent of some phenomena from others determines the dialectical materialist conception of deduction of categories of ascent from the abstract to the concrete, from the universal (which is in itself quite a definite particular) to the particular (which also expresses a universal and necessary definition of the object).
The basic universal foundation of a system of theoretical definitions (the basic concept of science) expresses, from the standpoint of dialectics, concrete theoretical definitions of quite a specific and definite typical phenomenon sensually and practically given in empirical contemplation, in social practice and experiment.
This Phenomenon is specific in that it is really (outside the theoretician’s head) the starting-point of development of the analysed totality of interacting phenomena of the concrete whole which is, in the given case, that concrete whole that is the object of logical reproduction.
Science must begin with that with which real history began. Logical development of theoretical definitions must therefore express the concrete historical process of the emergence and development of the object. Logical deduction is nothing but a theoretical expression of the real historical development of the concreteness under study.
To understand this principle correctly, one must take a concrete, essentially dialectical view of the nature of historical development. This most important point of Marx’s logic – his view of the relation of scientific development to historical one (the relation of the logical to the historical)must be considered specially. Without it, the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete remains inexplicable.
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