Marx’s Capital – Philosophy and Political Economy. Geoff Pilling 1980
Chapter 3. The Concepts of Capital

II: Form and content of knowledge

For Marx a study of the concepts of political economy as they had arisen in the pre-1830 period was decisively important for he held that without conceptual thinking, no conscious thinking was possible. Unlike the political economists he could not take the forms developed by the subject as ready and given. These forms had to be investigated, because it was only through them that the content of bourgeois relations developed and revealed itself. Here is one important aspect of Marx’s rejection of the empirical method of political economy.

Empiricism, as a theory of knowledge rests upon the false proposition that perception and sensation constitute the only material and source of knowledge. Marx as a materialist, of course, never denied that the material world, existing prior to and independently of consciousness, is the only source of sensation. But he knew that such a statement, if left at that point, could not provide the basis for a consistent materialism, but at best a mechanical form of materialism, which always left open a loop-hole for idealism. It is true that empiricism lay at the foundation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century materialism in England and France. But at the same time this very empiricist point of view provided the basis for both the subjective idealism of Berkeley and the agnosticism of Hume. How is it possible, starting with the proposition that sensation is the sole source and material of knowledge, to end up either denying the objectivity of the external world (subjective idealism) or denying the possibility of an exhaustive knowledge of that external world (scepticism)? To take the latter case, the argument runs as follows: to men are given directly perceptions and sensations; they provide the only legitimate source of knowledge. But in these perceptions are to be found no internal necessary connections. How do we know that one thing is the cause of another? We see only one thing followed by another; if this is constantly repeated we come to expect the second whenever the first occurs. This is merely a psychological expectation, not a causal connection. These were essentially the conclusions drawn by Hume from the empiricist theory of knowledge. It followed that any statements about the objectivity of the categories of philosophy or science (causality, interaction, law, etc.) are purely metaphysical, reflecting nothing in the sensed material of knowledge. On this view, logical categories are only schemes which we use (purely out of convention and habit) for the organisation of sense-data. But such schemes remain, necessarily, wholly subjective. They are subjective first in relation to the external world, the existence of which, according to scepticism, can never be established; second in relation to the very sense data themselves, since they are determined by the very constitution of the subject – that is by the aggregate of the individual’s former psychical experiences.

Marx’s objection to empiricism rests upon this: that its attention is directed exclusively to the source of knowledge, but not the form of that knowledge. For empiricism the form assumed by our knowledge tends always to be ignored as something having no inherent, necessary, connection with the content, the source of our knowledge. To return again to a previous example in the light of this: Ricardo saw in labour the source and measure of value, capital, etc. But he failed to consider the form assumed by this labour. Here was an expression not so much of the weakness of his economic theory as of his philosophical stance, empiricism. Here we can see why Marx considered it vital to examine economic forms and why political economy ignored this matter. (It must be said that this neglect is unfortunately to be found in much Marxist writing on Capital.)

To examine this matter further, let us consider Kant’s position, a position which appears to be at the root of many misunderstandings about Capital. In an effort to vindicate scientific reason in the light of Hume’s rejection of causation and of knowledge of the external world, Kant argued that the mind is an instrument which, by its very construction, always apprehends isolated, individual facts in rational form. Kant realised that without categories, rational thought was impossible; but for him these categories have their basis in our thoughts, thought which is necessarily sundered from the material world. Sensation and the logical moments of knowledge do not on this view have a common basis – there is and can be no transition between the two. (Or as the Althusserian; would put it, ‘Our constructions and our arguments are in theoretical terms and they can only be evaluated in theoretical terms – in terms, that is to say, of their rigour and theoretical coherence. They cannot be refuted by any empiricist recourse to the supposed “facts” of history’ (Hindess and Hirst, 1975, p. 3).) Concepts, according to Kantianism, do not grow up and develop out of the sensed world but are already given before it, in the a priori categories of reasoning. These categories are supposed to grasp the multifarious material given in sensation, but themselves remain fixed and dead. ‘Sensation’ and ‘reason’ were counterposed to each other in thoroughly mechanical manner, with no connection between them. And the same was true of the content of knowledge and its forms. On this last point Rubin is surely absolutely correct when he states:

One cannot forget that on the question of the relation between content and form, Marx took the standpoint of Hegel and not of Kant. Kant treated form as something external in relation to the content, and as something which adheres to the content from the outside. From the standpoint of Hegel’s philosophy, the content is not in itself something to which form adheres from the outside. Rather, through its development, the content itself gives birth to the form which is already latent in the content. Form necessarily grows from the content itself. (Rubin, 1972, p. 117)

We shall return to this question of economic form specifically in connection with the value-form. But let us note here that it was Hegel, on the basis of his criticism of Kantianism, who attempted to resolve the problem (of the connection between the ‘sensed’ and the ‘logical’, the ‘content’ and the ‘form’) by showing that thought is a dialectical process of movement, from thought of a lower grade to that of a higher grade.

According to Hegel, concepts developed by thought ceased to be dead, a priori products of the individual mind, but forms endowed with life, the life of the movement of thought itself. This is Lenin’s point when he says, ‘ What Hegel demands is a logic the forms of which would be forms with content, inseparably connected with that content’ and Lenin notes Hegel’s attack on logic considered entirely from the subjective standpoint:

Logic is the science not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development ‘of all material, natural and spiritual things’, i.e. of the development of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition i.e. the sum-total, the conclusion of the history of knowledge of the world.

In this respect there can be no doubt whatsoever that Marx adopted Hegel’s position (against Kant). In stressing the historical and objective nature of concepts, Hegel prepared the way for introducing the role of practice into human thought, even though his conception of this practice remained too narrow. Marx followed Hegel’s lead in insisting that the movement from the ‘sensed’ to the ‘logical’ was a process in which social man penetrated ever more deeply through the appearance of phenomena, deeper and deeper into their essence. It was this social practice that lies at the very heart and foundation of the development of man’s conceptual thinking. The form taken by man’s knowledge, summarised in the concepts of science, represents an index, a resume, of his education and in particular the education of his senses.

Speaking of the growth of human thought, Engels says that

the results in which its experiences are summarised are concepts, that the art of working with concepts is not inborn and also is not given with ordinary everyday consciousness but requires real thought and that this thought has a long empirical history, not more or less than empirical natural science. (Anti-Duhring)

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