System & Method

by Andy Blunden

In his Email of 31 March 1997, Mustafa Cemal proposes a discussion of Essence, in Hegel's words "the most difficult part of the Logic". He also raises some other issues, namely:

In the Email of 29 March, Mustafa raised the question of method:

I would like to look at System and Method.

Firstly, we may say that systematicity is a property of the objective world; the fact that we can a posteriori (so to speak) observe that were not it not so, then there could be no understanding, is neither here nor there. The adequacy of countless concepts of systematicity in Nature have been proved by practice, for example the "Law of Large numbers" in probability theory.

Secondly, at this point in the development of natural science and philosophy (if not since the Greeks), we can say with confidence that contingency or chance also exists, objectively, in Nature and not just in our minds, for example the observation of wave-particle behaviour. Likewise, we must agree with Hegel that Contradiction exists in Nature, not just in our minds. Thus, both Necessity and Freedom (or Contingency or Chance) are objective categories, and an adequate Logic must be able to comprehend both these "moments" as objective aspects of any particular object of thought.

So far, so good.

However, with Marx, the concept of system in philosophy was transformed from an absolute to a relative, and this is central to Marx's critique of Hegel. As marvellous a creation as is Hegel's system of the Absolute Idea, it is of relatively limited application in understanding the material world. Hegel's system is relevant to the most general laws which are manifested in the process of cognition, or reflection generally.

By Hegel's system, I specifically refer to the overall system of the Science of Logic: Being (Quality-Quantity-Measure) Essence (Existence-Appearance-Actuality) Notion (Concept-Object-Idea), etc. Hegel's system has been compared to fractal mathematics in that this system which characterises the overall form of the Logic, is reflected in the infinitesimal internal movement or structure of the Logic, within each stage or sub-stage or "moment". I think that when Engels talks of the "dialectical method" of Hegel's Logic, that aspect of the Logic which had to be retained, it is this internal dynamic to which he is referring.

Hegel was investigating the "the form of pure thoughts, of abstract essentialities". He did not set out to investigate Nature as such. What he set out to do he did marvellously well. Likewise, Marx set out to, among other things, elucidate the laws of movement of political economy, capitalism in particular, and he did that job marvellously well. Neither the means nor the end was the same with Hegel and Marx, though there are symmetries. And there is of course an objective, material basis for that symmetry!

Both thinkers produced results which are of immense importance and deserve to be the foundation of any further work in the respective area of research / practice. Both, though Marx in particular, went about their task in a way which was in itself of immense significance. While the results of Marx's investigation of political economy is directly relevant chiefly to political economy, how he went about his task is of universal significance.

This brings us to the question of what Engels calls method (see Part IV of Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). I think the point Mustafa makes above re "method" is completely correct. In reading Lev Vygotsky, Revolutionary Scientist, by Fred Newman and Lois Holzman, [Routledge 1993] I was particularly impressed by the following quote from Vygotsky, which becomes a pre-eminent theme of their book:

"The search for method becomes one of the most important problems of the entire enterprise of understanding the uniquely human forms of psychological activity. In this case, the method is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the result of study". [Vygotsky, Mind in Society, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press 1978, my emphasis]

In terms of Hegel's system, what is under discussion with tool-and-result is what Hegel would call the dialectic of Means and End, the immediate precursor of the Idea:

"The teleological relation is a syllogism in which the subjective end coalesces with the objectivity external to it, through a middle term which is the unity of both. This unity is on one hand the purposive action, on the other the Means, i.e. objectivity made directly subservient to purpose". [The Shorter Logic s. 206]

Newman and Holzman make a nice metaphor in likening a tool bought from the hardware store to a ready-made concept which is acquired and used by ordinary consciousness, in contrast to the "tool" of the tool-maker who "makes" the object by making the tool. Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky were great tool-makers. They did not pick up ready-made concepts; each derived a new dialectical concept or Notion of the object (logic, capitalism, thinking-and-speaking). For Marx and Vygotsky, if not Hegel, the theoretical work was part and parcel of an historical practice of transforming the object itself. Understanding is a means of transforming; transforming is a means of understanding; the theoretical task of understanding becomes identical with the practical task of transforming.

In analysing the split between Left and Right Hegelians in the 1840s, Marx and Engels have given us the concept of method and system:

"Whoever placed the chief emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative in both spheres [politics and religion]; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition, both in politics and religion." [op cit Part I]

They showed how Hegel, in constructing the supreme system, effectively abolished the requirement or possibility of system altogether,

"The proof must be derived from history itself ... This conception, however, puts an end to philosophy in the realm of history, just as the dialectical conception of nature makes all [systems of] natural philosophy both unnecessary and impossible. It is no longer a question anywhere of inventing interconnections from out of our brains, but of discovering them in the facts. For philosophy, which has been expelled from nature and history, there remains only the realm of pure thought, so far as it is left: the theory of the laws of the thought process itself, logic and dialectics".


"Hegel was not simply put aside. On the contrary, one started out from his revolutionary side, described above, from the dialectical method. But in its Hegelian form, this method was unusable. ..." and:
"According to Hegel, ... the dialectical development apparent in nature and history,... is only a copy of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where .... This ideological perversion had to be done away with. We comprehended the concepts in our heads once more materialistically - as images of real things instead of regarding the real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept".

That is, following Feuerbach's criticism of Hegel, the objective idealist method was also negated, not just his system; but there is a difference.

"My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of "the Idea", he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of "the Idea". With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought". [Marx, Foreword to Capital]

So, we have the concept of system, [Mustafa Cemal says: "System, by formal definition, depends on necessity or order. But nature contains disorder (contingency). Since Hegel's system - including the concept of Contingency - is based on contradiction, it corresponds to Nature"] and method [Mustafa says: "Method is applied to some process, that is, it presupposes applied and applicant. Therefore, we will have assumed as if abstract thinking (Understanding) is primary"].

Method and System are a unity of opposites, concepts indicating aspects or points of approach to a theory, roughly analogous to tool and result: Marx used a specific method in his critique of political economy, that is, he had a certain mode of thinking [the difference is here only formal] - the dialectical materialist method; the product was a system of concepts - commodity, value, surplus value, abstract labour, alienation, etc., etc. - the system of Marxist political economy which allow us to perceive regularity and "order" in capitalist economy and orient our practical activity within it.

After The Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology was written in 1845-6; the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy in 1857 and the Grundrisse in 1857-8 and the first volume of Capital completed in 1867. Thus, Marx fashioned the theoretical tools required for a critique of political economy by using Feuerbach's imperfect but revolutionary method of materialist critique on Hegel's system, and vice versa! A full decade wasrequired to formulate the basic concepts of political economy, which in turn required a further decade of work before the publication of Volume I of Capital.

The theoretical "tools" fashioned by Marx and Engels between 1844 and 1857 consitute a basic theoretical "tool-kit" which we in 1997 should have no embarrassment in borrowing from the hardware store of revolutionary theory. These fundamental epoch-making concepts constitute a system - the concepts of dialectical materialist philosophy: dialectics, materialism, materiality, self-consciousness, labour, etc. It is a system in a radically different sense from the system of Hegel's Logic, but a system nonetheless, a system in the sense Mustafa requires when he says:

"logic gives any opportunity to us for to understand the world, then the world must at least contain some systematic relations."

In the critique of political economy, the system becomes a method - the dialectical materialist method, and its product is the system of Marxist political economy - value, commodity, etc.

The merging of the dialectical materialist method with the "system" of concepts of Marxist political economy is the method of Marxist economic analysis, such as it is nowadays. Marxist economic analysis is part of the critique of capitalism, and as Marx emphasised, "critique" in the dialectical materialist outlook is revolutionary-practical, not just demolishing an idea but negating it in practice, and constructing in place of capitalism an economy based not on exchange of commodities but on the planned division of labour of the producers. I.e, method becomes system and system becomes method.

The young Lev Vygotsky was clearly quite explicitly guided by - used - the dialectical materialist method when he began his work on language and speech in 1924. The system of concepts which was the historical, theoretical result of his work - word-meaning (the "germ" of the whole relation), speech as extension of gesture, speech as social relation, "inwardising" of social relations, awareness following spontaneity, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), chain-concept, pre-concept, pseudo-concept - constitute a system of concrete concepts which provide the basis for psychological and educational work after Vygotsky's premature death.

Vygotsky's work was learning and development. He worked with communities, in his home town of Gomel as well as social and cultural groups. His research work grew up as an extension of his practical work, struggling to make a success of the Russian Revolution in a 1001 different ways. The concept of "tool-and-result" which Newman and Holzman embrace in their work in New York's community development work is a natural continuation of Vygotsky's "method-and-system". They sometimes talk of this method as ZPD factory/ZPD - the community struggles to work out how to create conditions in which learning leads development and by doing so lead development with learning.

"Tool-and-result" is a part of the dialectical materialist method. "Tool-and-result" is a part of the system of concepts of dialectical materialist philosophy. The point made by Mustafa, that "method" is semantically "instrumenatalist", is perfectly true. It is also true that "system", as in "philosophical system" represents what is temporal, limited and relative in a theory. Words carry their meanings with them. Newman and Holzman deal with this problem by making up words using hyphens and slashes - "tool-and-result", "ZPD-factory/ZPD" and so on. Maybe this is easier in German?

In his exposition of the dialectic of Means and End, Hegel winds up with the summation: "As such, the Notion is now the Idea", in other words, in Hegelian language, "tool-and-result" is "Idea", which is a formulation which hardly adds any clarity! "System-and-method", "tool-and-result", "Means-and-End" are all, alternatively, the unity of the theoretical and practical Idea, or conscious practice, summed up by Engels:

"The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets is practice, namely, experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end to the Kantian ungraspable "thing-in-itself"."

One of the issues for us is the question: "How are we to learn from the practice of the great Marxists of the past? How can we copy their way of working in different circumstances and in confronting different aspects of the world?" The materiality of the world means that all systems of concepts reflecting the general laws of motion of different aspects or "levels" of movement are inter-related and inter-connected, but distinct and different.At the most general level of abstraction we may share the same method - tools-for-making-tools-for-making-tools - so to speak, but in considering different aspects of the world, we shall find different systems of concepts applicable. Thus in a sense the method is that aspect of a theory which is absolute, less specific and more "transferable"; while system denotes that aspect of a practice which relative, more specific, less "transportable". The method is the inner structure, the system th outer form; The method is the subjectivity, the system the objectivity. Method is the inner, system is the external. The method is manifested in the system, but the method must be true to the system. The method is the "germ" of the system.

And in all this "system" is not structure but means "systematicity" in Mustafa's sense; "method" is "mode of thinking" in Mustafa's sense.