[OPE-L:8193] Re: philosophy and political economy

From: Andrew Brown (Andrew@lubs.leeds.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Dec 16 2002 - 13:38:47 EST

Hi Michael,

You write in 8167:

> The test for any philosophy must be the issues themselves and how they
> are brought to light.

True. My suggestion that you are misinterpreting Marx, due to your 
philosophical differences with Marx, can only be substantiated by 
reference to various issues, such as those considered below.

> >
> > You stated above that we do not know for how long Netwon's 1st
> > law will hold. Doesn't this generalise to the view that we do not
> > know that the future will be like the past? If so, then how can you
> > avoid scepticism given such a view?  Does your (Kantian?) appeal to
> > *our* 'understanding' in some way have the effect of avoiding
> > scepticism?
> I don't think it's much use arguing over general philosophical
> positions such as skepticism or material dialectics or idealism or
> realism or what-have-you. The differences only become apparent and
> arguable with respect to specific questions.

You stated that we do not know whether or not 'known' forms will 
continue to exist and used Newton's first law as an example. 
Specific questions: does this mean that we do not know the future 
will be like the past? If we do not know the future will be like the 
past then how do we know anything at all about the future? 
Specifically, if you like, how do we know we aren't all about to turn 
into large pink elephants? Or, to (badly) paraphrase Hume, how do 
we know to leave by the stairs rather than the window? Are 
elephants and stairs and other mundane things exempt from the 
general rule that we do not know for how long 'known' forms will 

To put it another way: the general reasoning behind your statement 
regarding Newton's first law appears to lead necessarily to the 
specific conclusion that we know nothing at all about the future (a 
situation practically tantamount to knowing nothing at all about 
anything). This specific conclusion is however self-contradictory 
thereby making your philosophy self-contradictory, such that the 
conclusion must be avoided somehow.

> > >
> > > This only makes the equation obtained more mediated. It doesn't
> > > question the 'law-likeness' of commodity exchange.
> >
> > What do you mean by 'law-likeness'?
> In this case, I mean that some sort of relationship between quantities
> is sought expressible in some sort of equation or set of equations
> (and be it only in terms of probability distributions).

I would argue that one can only 'explain' a *magnitude* by 
reference to another magnitude, or magnitudes.  'Equations' are 
simply a common way of expressing magnitudes and the 
relationship between the magnitudes of different things. From my 
perspective it therefore seems quite a leap to construe equations 
as relics of Cartesian thinking, as a search for Cartesian laws. 

In my view, the degree to which the LTV can be expressed in 
general equations diminishes as the level of abstraction becomes 
more concrete. As regards quantity, what one must do through the 
various levels of abstraction is establish a systematic relationship 
between labour time magnitude and price magnitude; this 
sometimes (at some levels) entails equations and sometimes 
doesn't. Contrast Ricardo's view that the LTV is true, and that it 
requires proportionality between labour time and price, even as 
Ricardo is aware that such proportionality does not hold. Ricardo's 
conundrum may be due to a method that has something in 
common with Descartes; Marx's view does not.

I agree that it is a great mistake to focus on magnitude at the 
*expense* of substance and form. Moreover, I would argue that 
substance and form are more important than magnitude (in general 
quality is prior to quantity). But all three dimensions must be 
accounted for, and are necessarily related to one another, in my 

> > I have two crucial points of disagreement with you. (1) According to
> > materialism, the phenomenon of use is necessarily related to the
> > material form of things, such that 'looking away' from material form
> > is unhelpful for grasping the phenomenon.
> I am asking you to consider the phenomenon of usefulness itself, not
> its material determinants. You say yourself that "the phenomenon of
> use is necessarily related to the material form of things". Something
> which stands in _relation_ to something else is not the thing itself.

At best this statement is misleading. How about the relation 
between water and H2O? Or the relation between capital and 
labour? Or between landlord and peasant? Or between value and 

Turning to the specifc relation in hand, we have the relation 
between the usefulness of a thing and its natural material 
determinations. On my view the phenomenon itself is *not* 
separate from the natural material determinations. It does not exist 
separately, its 'being' includes its natural material determinations. 
'It', the being in question, usefulness, is a unity of the subjective 
and the objective. Ultimately we may be getting back to the key 
issue of the relation between thought and being. For me, thought 
and extension are attributes of a single substance, they do not 
exist separately nor 'in the abstract'. 

More mundanely, what do we gain by abstracting all natural 
material determinations from usefulness? We gain nothing but 
falsity if we believe that usefulness as such *is* a thing that is 
abstracted from natural material determinations. Usefulness, 
abstracted from natural material determinations, does not and 
cannot exist or take effect in this state of abstraction. Different 
natural material determinations entail different uses (different forms 
of usefulness) and the 'real' abstraction from all natural material 
determination in exchange is the abstraction from any use 
whatsoever. This, in turn, is the abstraction from usefulness as 
such, given that usefulness cannot exist outside of any 
specification (despite usefulness being a condition for exchange).

> That's what I mean by "looking away".

Again, 'looking away' does not appear to be very helpful, and is 
false if we mistake our abstraction for a self-subsistent entity. 

> > (2) According to
> > materialist dialectics usefulness 'as such' and matter 'as such'
> > exist and take effect only in specific (determinate) forms.
> I would say that usefulness itself is only every concrete, whereas
> matter is a concept that only makes sense within the context of
> metaphysics (whether it be Aristotelean or some later metaphysics). I
> am using the term metaphysics here as a synonym for ontology, i.e. the
> _logos_ concerning beings in their being.
> > Given (1) and (2) then the abstraction from all specific natural
> > material properties of the commodity evident in exchange is an
> > abstraction from usefulness *as such*. I will elaborate further
> > below.
> Labour, too, only ever exists in a concrete, particular form, so your
> argument would apply also to labour.

No. The key to the whole argument regarding value is that there is 
one property left that is *not* abstracted from in exchange, viz. 
SNLT. Every other property *is* abstracted from in exchange, thus 
we have the spectral peculiarity termed *abstract* labour. In other 
words, this one property, SNLT, can plausibly be considered to be 
systematically related to exchange value magnitude, whereas no 
*natural* material property could plausibly be considered to have 
such a relationship. Thus the only natural material properties 
common to commodities are height, weight, etc. which are clearly 
not systematically related to exchange value. 

Now, you may disagree that SNLT might plausibly be considered 
to be systematically related to exchange value magnitude. In this 
connection note that in order to grasp *any* society it is extremely 
important to grasp how labour is 'determined' (organised and 
distributed) in that society. The argument that abstract labour is 
the substance of value is the necessary *starting* point for 
grapsing how labour is determined in capitalistic society. But it is 
only the starting point. The notions of value and abstract labour, the 
law of value, and so on, are developed and modified as the 
presentation gets more and more concrete. This is what 'Capital' is 
all about, as I interpret it.

> >
> > But, for materialist dialectics, to abstract from all concrete (i.e.
> > specific or determinate) natural material properties is to abstract
> > from use value as such, for reasons stated above and elaborated upon
> > below.
> Here, again, you are only understanding use-value through natural
> material properties. But properties are not the phenomenon of
> usefulness itself. Usefulness, as the word says, is the potential for
> use. Potential in Greek is _dynamis_, one of the most important
> categories in Aristotle's metaphysics. Use is a phenomenon involving a
> relation between humans and things in which humans understand the
> things as suitable for a certain concrete use and employ them
> according to such understanding. Without such understaning, there
> would also be no use. Your insistence on "material properties"
> neglects these aspects of usefulness and use and therefore one-sidedly
> truncates the phenomenon.

Quite to the contrary. My grasp of usefulness embraces its 
subjective and objective (material) aspects. I have never at any 
stage *reduced* usefulness to its' natural material determinations. I 
agree that without the subjective phenomenon of usefulness, there 
would be no usefulness. It is just that I also affirm that without the 
natural material determinations of the use value there would be no 
usefulness either. I have insisted that usefulness embraces the 
natural material determinations of the useful thing, that it does not 
exist nor take effect without them, regardless of their specification, 
such that the abstraction from natural material properties in 
exchange entails abstraction from usefulness as such. This means 
that usefulness is a condition for, rather than cause of, exchange 
value. Your own view seems to me to be one-sided since it does 
*not*, it seems, embrace the material aspect of usefulness: when it 
comes down to it, you seem to think that usefulness 'as such' can 
exist and take effect without any natural material determinations, 
that the natural material determinations of the use value are not 
part of the very being of usefulness -- this seems to me to be one-
sided and thereby false. 

> > > > Value abstracts entirely from use-value, in
> > > > this sense. What determinate material property, one might ask,
> > > > is left after abstraction from use-value?
> > >
> > > None, because the phenomenon left over by abstraction can only be
> > > a social phenomenon, not a material property (which is a
> > > metaphysical construction: a substance endowed with properties or
> > > 'accidents' is Aristotelean metaphysics, not appropriate for
> > > social phenomenality).
> >
> > The determinate property left, on my view, is purely social.
> A property inheres in a substance and therefore cannot be social,
> which is a phenomenon of relation.

You don't think society has any properties?

> > Though
> > exchange abstracts from the *natural* material properties of the
> > commodity, and hence from use-value, it does not abstract entirely
> > from the determinate *social* property of SNLT. Social labour is a
> > special property of matter (if you don't agree that matter thinks
> > you won't agree with this) and it is extremely important to
> > recognise that the magnitude of social labour time *can* plausibly
> > be considered to be systematically related to the magnitude of
> > exchange value, whereas this is true of no other property.
> I don't think that social labour can be a property of something at
> all.

Nor do you think that 'thought' is a property of matter. This is your 
philosophical position. It is contentious, like all philosophies. I have 
a different philosophy, equally contentious. We are beginning to 
clarifiy where our differences lie. Unless my philosophy is clearly 
mistaken then it would seem to be preferable as an interpretation of 
Marx's philosophy, since it renders Marx's 'Capital' coherent rather 
than confused, mixed up, 'not on the ball', 'clinging on to 
Descartes', as it is on your interpretation. 

> And I don't agree that focus on the _magnitude_ of exchange 
> is appropriate. The insistence on quantitative considerations
> prejudices the view of the phenomenon of exchange, which has manifold
> aspects that need to be adequately conceptualized.

The quantitative consideration is as follows: exchange value has a 
magnitude; the natural material properties of commodities do not  
explain this magnitude (though they are a condition for it) because 
the natural material properties of commodities are not 
systematically related to exchange value magnitude. I would have 
said that any enquiry that does *not* make these considerations is 
going to fail to uncover the systematic interconnections of the 
manifold aspects of exchange. 

> > Clearly we disagree about SNLT. Do we also disagree regarding
> > my statement about what other determinate properties might be left
> > after the abstraction evident in exchange? That is, do you think
> > that there is a specific (determinate) social property of the
> > commodity which is systematically related to exchange value? You
> > have mentioned 'usefulness'. But if 'usefulness' is to be a
> > *determinate* property of the commodity remaining after the
> > abstraction evident in exchange, then usefulness must have a
> > determinate quantity and this quantity must be systematically
> > related to exchange value magnitude. At least that is how I am using
> > the term 'determinate'.
> Yes, you seem to assume that everything depends on explaining the
> magnitude of exchange value, i.e. the proportions in which commodities
> exchange, in terms of something, which would be the quantitative
> explanans for exchange value.

It is rather that I would like, and believe there to be, *some* 
explanation for exchange value magnitude. The alternative you offer 
does not, it seems to me, offer any explanation whatsoever for 
exchange value magnitude; indeed it inherently makes impossible 
the explanation of exchange value magnitude. As I see it, I am 
trying to avoid this extreme, rather than leaning towards an 
extreme of my own.

> > I would suggest that your view stems from your own philosophy
> > rather than from Marx's error.
> Yes, my view stems from my own philosophy which allows me to see
> Marx's error. But that's no help, if my own philosophy is to be
> anything more than a personal opinion. All I can do is to try to show
> up the error of conception in Marx's presentation (and therefore also
> in most Marxist thinking).

But, if you agree that Marx's philosophy has something to do with 
it, then it is wrong to suggest that Marx did not have his 'eye on the 
ball'. Your suggestion implies that Marx made a simple error, but 
philosophy is extremely complex, and complex philosophical 
differences should not be construed as simple errors. Instead, it is 
helpful to make explicit that Marx's views stem, in the abstract, 
from materialist dialectics. 

> > > > Yes this is true. Usefulness is a condition for value. But, the
> > > > general natural material properties that determine usefulness
> > > > (extension, age, etc.) are abstracted from in exchange, hence
> > > > abstract usefulness cannot be the substance of value. Labour, by
> > > > contrast, has the determinate quantity of SNLT, and this
> > > > quantity is not palpably abstracted from in exchange. This is
> > > > why abstract socially necessary labour is the only possible
> > > > substance of value. Do you see what I am getting at?
> > >
> > >ME  I believe so, but I can't see such a determinate measure as
> > >SNLT nor
> > > even a substance being constituted by the social practice of
> > > generalized commodity exchange.
> >
> > Clearly your problem with SNLT abstractly stems from you having a
> > different philosophy to materialist dialectics. The question of
> > 'substance' is quite complex in this case. We can fruitfully leave
> > it at this stage.

I appreciate your exposition of Aristotle. You write:

> It's worth thinking about further in relation to Marx's concept of
> value.

This is true, though clearly one cannot hold (an interpretation of) 
Aristotle up as an *authority* such that any contradiction with (an 
interpretation of) Aristotle is ruled out from the off.  

Many thanks, Michael. 


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