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THE NEED FOR A GENUINELY EMPIRICAL CRITERION OF DECIDABILITY AMONG
INTERPRETATIONS: COMMENTS ON A PAPER OF FRED MOSELEY'S
Andrew Kliman, March 14, 2000; revised, April 27, 2000. Please do not
quote or cite without permission.
1. DOGMA AND APPEALS TO AUTHORITY vs. EMPIRICAL DEMONSTRATION
Fred Moseley's (2000) "The Determination of Constant Capital in the Case
of a Change in the Value of the Means of Production" is a critique of my
"Determination of Value in Marx and in Bortkiewiczian Theory" (Kliman
1999a).  Although the present paper is a rejoinder, I am
oppressively aware that I will not convince him, and I am oppressively
aware that I will not convince any proponent of simultaneist
interpretations of Marx's value theory.
That in itself does not bother me, because it is the disinterested reader
I have in mind. But the danger is that the disinterested reader, seeing
that a debate is ongoing, will wrongly take this as evidence that the
issues have not been decisively resolved. Perhaps s/he will even
conclude that "the truth is somewhere in the middle," in other words that
Marx's theory is riven with internal inconsistencies. To head off such a
reaction, I want to say two things to the disinterested reader. First,
the fact that the opponents of the temporal single-system (TSS)
interpretation of Marx's value theory are not and will not be persuaded
has no bearing upon whether it is correct. Second, the reason its
opponents keep arguing and resisting is that they refuse to accept
genuinely empirical criteria in order to decide whether an interpretation
is correct or not.
That people oppose a new truth even after it has been demonstrated is far
from uncommon. The _New York Times_ (March 11, 2000, p. A1) recently
reported that a nationwide poll in the U.S. found that "almost half the
respondents agreed that the theory [of evolution] 'is far from being
proven scientifically'." But this is not only, or even especially, a
problem among the uninformed public. The greatest resistance to new
truths comes from the experts. IT IS THE EXPERTS WHO HAVE A STAKE IN AND
COMMITMENT TO THE OLD IDEAS, AND THEY WHO HAVE THE MOST DIFFICULTY IN
BREAKING FREE FROM THEIR ACCUSTOMED CATEGORIES AND WAYS OF THINKING.
Max Planck (1949:33-34), who developed quantum field theory, complained
that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents
and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents
eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
The historical record provides ample evidence of this. Kuhn
(1970:150-51) notes that "Copernicanism made few converts for almost a
century after Copernicus' death. Newton's work was not generally
accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century
after the _Principia_ appeared. Priestly never accepted the oxygen
theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on."
The historical record thus suggests two things. First, the reaction to
the TSS interpretation that has come from simultaneist quarters is
precisely what one might expect, even if the subject matter were not
"political economy, [in which] free scientific inquiry does not merely
meet the same enemies as in all other domains" (Marx 1977:92, "Preface to
the First Edition" of _Capital_). Second, that proponents of
simultaneism refuse to accept the TSS interpretation does not make it any
But what *explains* their refusal to accept it? It is not merely that
they find it hard to break free from their accustomed categories and ways
of thinking. If this were the only problem, they could acknowledge that,
even though the TSS interpretation makes no sense to them, the empirical
evidence nonetheless confirms that it is correct. The acknowledgement
might go something like this:
The TSS interpretation doesn't make sense to me. It contradicts what I'
ve always thought _Capital_ is all about, and I don't think I'll ever be
able to shake the gut feeling that it contradicts what Marx actually
wrote. I just can't see how the proponents of the TSS interpretation can
read the texts the way they do. But I've got to admit that the evidence
shows the TSS interpretation is correct: WHEN YOU DO READ THE TEXTS THE
WAY THEY DO, MARX'S VALUE THEORY BECOMES A COHERENT WHOLE. All of the
things we all thought were errors or internal inconsistencies in Marx
turn out not to be. They've cleared up all the problems. And what more
can I say? Proof is proof. Now, don't get me wrong -- there's no way I'
m going to embrace the wrongheaded, unscientific drivel that the TSS
interpretation turns Marx's value theory into. But I have to admit that
this wrongheaded, unscientific drivel really is Marx's. That's what the
evidence shows. So I guess I'll just have to accept that I don't like
Marx's value theory. I don't agree with it. 
The proponents of simultaneism will acknowledge nothing of this sort.
They will keep on refusing to accept that the TSS interpretation is
correct. And that is because they refuse to use genuinely empirical
criteria in order to decide among interpretations.
At the 1999 miniconference of the International Working Group on Value
Theory, I asked a prominent proponent of simultaneism under what
conditions he would be prepared to accept that his interpretation was
incorrect. Although it is a simple and rather obvious question, he had
no answer to it. (I doubt that many natural scientists, faced with the
analogous question concerning their theories, would have trouble
answering it.) But if one can think of nothing that would falsify one's
interpretation, it is literally and precisely a dogma.
Nor was this particular proponent of simultaneism the only one who had no
answer. None of them had an answer. The only one who even gave it a
shot was Fred Moseley. He eventually said that textual evidence must be
used to decide whether an interpretation is correct and, if the existing
evidence is insufficient, then there needs to be more evidence. But as I
pointed out at the time, this doesn't answer my question. *Of course*
one refers to the textual evidence. Yet the problem is that, referring
to the exact same textual evidence, temporalists and simultaneists again
and again and again come to opposite conclusions. We read it
differently. It therefore just doesn't help to say "look at the
evidence"; that is a pseudo-criterion. What is needed, instead, are
genuinely empirical criteria of decidability. One needs to be able to
specify THE CONDITIONS UNDER WHICH ONE WOULD ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE
EVIDENCE FALSIFIES ONE'S INTERPRETATION. If one cannot, then one is
holding fast to it dogmatically.
Reading Fred's paper, I see that nothing has changed. He continues to
put forth his pseudo-criterion: "the main criterion for choosing between
different interpretations . IS WHAT MARX ACTUALLY WROTE about this
subject. One should read everything Marx wrote on this subject, in
systematic and chronological fashion" (Moseley, 2000, introductory
section). Okay, and then what? What would Marx need to have written
that would lead you to conclude that your interpretation is incorrect?
Fred still fails to answer this question.
Without genuinely empirical critieria of decidability, without some
standards that exist *outside* the interpreter's own head, we have a
vicious circle in which an interpretation is allowed to confirm itself.
One reads the texts and arrives at an interpretation. Then one does what
Fred recommends; one reads some more. But one necessarily does so ON THE
BASIS OF one's own interpretation -- its concepts, its delineation of the
issues, its notion of what constitutes textual evidence, and so forth.
Is it any wonder, then, that one finds that the new evidence confirms one
's interpretation and contradicts one's opponents' interpretation? Fred'
s recommendation thus allows the proponents of one interpretation to
decide that "the evidence" shows that their interpretation is correct and
the contrary interpretation is wrong. It is as if you were to ride into
a small Southern town, get picked up by the chief of police and, since
this same individual also serves as the town's prosecutor, judge, and
jury, you are quickly sent up the river, never to be heard from again.
Meanwhile, the chief of police/prosecutor/judge/jury counts the ballots
in the local election and finds that he's been unanimously re-elected.
This is not a mere abstract possibility; it is precisely the method of
Fred's paper. He claims to conduct "a comprehensive review of everything
Marx wrote on this subject of the determination of constant capital in
the case of a change in the value of the means of production" (Moseley,
20000, end of introductory section). But who is it that has decided what
evidence is "on this subject" and what is off the subject? FRED MOSELEY.
As I will discuss in greater detail below, he ignores the most crucial
piece of evidence I presented in my paper, Marx's critique of Ramsay. In
this text, Marx EXPLICITLY ASSUMES THAT THE VALUE OF THE MEANS OF
PRODUCTION IS CHANGING, and he computes the value transferred according
to the current cost of the means of production when they enter
production, not according to their post-production replacement cost. The
reason Fred ignores this text is *not* that he lacked the time to finish
his critique of my paper; it is absent from his own "comprehensive review
of everything Marx wrote on this subject," which he did complete.
And who has decided what "this subject" is and isn't? FRED MOSELEY. As
I will also discuss below, he defines the subject as the "determination
of constant capital," a concept I reject as overly broad, vague, and
misleading. Moreover, he dismisses a whole slew of evidence I presented
because it supposedly does not pertain to the determination of the sum of
value transferred "in the case of a change in the value of the means of
production." But who is it that has decided that my evidence does not
pertain to that case? FRED MOSELEY. Whose criterion of what pertains
and what doesn't did he employ? FRED MOSELEY'S. And finally, who is it
that has decided what each of the texts mean and what the evidence as a
whole indicates? FRED MOSELEY, and FRED MOSELEY.
Any guesses as to whose interpretation he finds to be supported by his
There does exist a simple and widely accepted method for breaking out
of this closed circle, an empirical criterion of decidability. I have
proposed it persistently for several years now, most recently in the
paper Fred critiques, but he and other proponents of simultaneism have
just as consistently rejected it or ignored it. What is even worse, he
distorts it beyond recognition. It is very telling that in a paper so
chock-full of quotations, some of which are nearly 500 words long, he
chooses to give readers his interpretation of the criterion without also
letting my own words speak for themselves.
According to Fred's account, my "main criterion for choosing between
different interpretations . is which interpretation can better derive
more of Marx's main conclusions (most importantly, the falling rate of
profit)." This is appallingly wrong, but it gets worse. Later in the
paragraph, he opposes to this his pseudo-criterion of reading everything
Marx wrote, which gives the distinct impression that I favor the
criterion of "deriving results" without regard to, and instead of,
referring to the textual evidence. Even worse, as the paragraph
continues, "better derive more of Marx's main conclusions" morphs into
what "makes it easier to derive a falling rate of profit."
What "makes it easier to derive a falling rate of profit" is simply not
at issue, not at all. It is exceedingly easy to derive a falling rate of
profit in any manner of ways. The simplest is to assume that capitalists
destroy all the output; the profit rate falls to -100%. But this has
nothing to do with "WHAT MARX ACTUALLY WROTE about this subject," and
PRECISELY BECAUSE it does not, I reject the notion that it is evidence of
interpretive adequacy. An accurate interpretation of Marx's value theory
must be able to show that the rate of profit can fall FOR THE REASONS HIS
THEORY INDICATES, ON THE BASIS OF HIS OWN, ACTUAL PREMISES.  In
particular, since "Marx actually wrote" -- not once, but over and over --
that the profit rate falls because productivity rises, an accurate
interpretation must be able to reproduce the cause as well as the effect.
And it must do so without violating any of his other premises, for
instance that no capitalist voluntarily adopts a new technique that will
lower his own rate of profit. Simultaneist interpretations cannot do so.
The TSS interpretation does.
In any case, the point is not to derive Marx's conclusions, but to test
whether an interpretation does conform to what "Marx actually wrote."
HIS THEORETICAL CONCLUSIONS -- TAKEN TOGETHER WITH THE PREMISES THAT LEAD
TO THESE CONCLUSIONS -- ARE A PART, A LARGE PART, OF WHAT "MARX ACTUALLY
WROTE." Once one recognizes this exceeding simple but continually
overlooked fact, it is clear that we can reject as inaccurate any
interpretation that, deploying its reading of his theory's premises, is
unable to arrive at its conclusions.
As I discuss in detail in Kliman (2000), all simultaneist interpretations
fail many applications of this test, while the TSS interpetation passes
them all. And as I show in Kliman (1999b), simultaneist interpretations
are unable even to replicate Marx's conclusion that surplus-labor is
necessary and sufficient for profit to exist, even in the absence of
But all of these instances are merely *applications* of the criterion of
decidability I have proposed. Despite what Fred writes, the replication
of theoretical results is *not* the criterion itself. So what is it?
Let me quote from the paper of mine (Kliman 1999a, emphases added) he
It is a standard tenet of hermeneutics that A TEXTUAL INTERPRETATION IS
ADEQUATE TO THE DEGREE THAT IT CAN UNDERSTAND THE TEXT AS A COHERENT
WHOLE. This may be impossible -- the text may indeed be
self-contradictory -- but if it is possible, then AN INTERPRETATION
ACCORDING TO WHICH THE TEXT FORMS A UNIFIED WHOLE IS SUPERIOR TO ONE THAT
DOES NOT. Apparent self-contradictions are prima facie indications of
the interpreter's misunderstanding (see, e.g., Warnke 1993:21).
So I certainly agree with Fred that an accurate interpretation must
conform to what the author actually wrote. But I go much further. I
insist that it must not merely seem to conform to this or that passage or
set of passages, when they are considered in isolation. An accurate
interpretation must be able to conform to the text when it is considered
AS A WHOLE. And again, theoretical results, taken together with their
premises, are PART OF THAT WHOLE.
Testing interpretations against the original theory's conclusions
provides a broad test and, more importantly, a GENUINELY EMPIRICAL test,
of their relative adequacy. It provides a clear and simple answer to
the question I posed last year. I will ask it of myself. Under what
conditions would I be prepared to accept that my interpretation is
incorrect? Answer: if my interpretation cannot reproduce the original
theory's conclusions on the basis of its premises. That's not so hard,
is it? Why is Fred and why are other proponents of simultaneist
interpretations unwilling to judge their interpretations according to the
Deciding among interpretations according to how well they conform to the
text as a whole is, as I have noted, a widely accepted criterion that has
been worked out and refined over centuries. I therefore think it is
ill-advised to brush it aside and caricature it as Fred has does, or to
give it the silent treatment that has come from simultaneist circles in
general. But I am not one who maintains that authority or tradition are
necessarily right, so if Fred or other proponents of simultaneism have
any *argument* against deciding among interpretations by how well they
conform to the text as a whole, I am willing to listen. Or if they have
any *argument* that theoretical results are not part of the text as a
whole, and therefore that an adequate interpretation need not conform to
them, I am willing to listen. But they first have to provide us with
these arguments, and stop stonewalling and caricaturing.
And let's get real. Please don't tell me that the original theory may be
internally inconsistent, so you don't have to replicate its conclusions.
I have dealt with that objection many times, most recently in footnote 3
of the present paper. And I do so again now: if there exists an
interpretation that is able to resolve the apparent internal
inconsistencies, the original theory cannot be said to be internally
inconsistent. So you *do indeed* have to replicate its conclusions. HIC
RHODUS, HIC SALTA.
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