[OPE-L:8199] Re: philosophy and political economy

From: Michael Eldred (artefact@t-online.de)
Date: Tue Dec 17 2002 - 06:24:34 EST

Cologne 17-Dec-2002

 Re:     [OPE-L:8193]

Hi there Andy,

"Andrew Brown" <Andrew@lubs.leeds.ac.uk> schrieb  Mon, 16 Dec 2002 18:38:47

> 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.
> > ME 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
> continue?
> 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.

Of course we know about the future in some way. We are beings who are
oriented toward the future. We 'have' a future in the sense that we cast
ourselves into it with our projects. But we also always prepare for the
future from within a basic understanding which is historical and thus always
open. E.g. the Middle Ages did not know that in the course of sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries a new understanding of physical beings would slowly
emerge through the struggle of thinkers such as Galileo, Descartes, Newton,
Leibniz which would fundamentally change the casting of natural beings
within which the Middle Ages, with a certain interpretation of Aristotle,
understood natural phenomena.

What emerges during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a
mathematization of the natural world which, whilst owing a lot to Aristotle,
also breaks with his ontology of natural beings (_physei onta_) in casting
an homogenous space and a mathematically amenable time. The enormous
development of mathematics in these centuries was borne by this
fundamentally other understanding of natural beings.

The mathematical casting of the world was transferred to the emerging social
sciences which first became possible within the kind of thinking first
formulated in Descartes' writings. Even those thinkers who trenchantly
opposed Descartes, such as Leibniz, Spinoza or Kant, were still working
within the Cartesian casting of the ego cogito (from where the
subject/object distinction arises).

But that does not mean that the understanding of human being as
consciousness in which beings are represented as objects will remain the
self-evident way of understanding the world forever. The philosophical
struggle to free our thinking from this dichotomy has long since begun.

> > 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
> view.

Substance, form and magnitude are all concepts originally thought in
Aristotle's metaphysics which have long since been applied indiscriminately
throughout Western thinking. Substance is the Latin translation of the first
category, _ousia_, magnitude is the third category. These categories are
ways in which beings are addressed in their being. The concept of form
(_morphae_) was originally developed in Aristotle's Physics in order to
think the phenomenon of movement (_kinaesis_). One needs to appreciate the
phenomena which Aristotle had in view in the struggle to think these
concepts, and not unthinkingly transfer them to other phenomena to which
they may not apply.

With respect to the phenomenon of commodity exchange, which is a relation
(_pros ti_, the fourth category), it has to be examined carefully what role
the categories of substance and magnitude play. Commodity exchange is also
part of the realm of human practice (_praxis_), not that of natural beings,
so the concept of form in relation to the specific kind of movement which
exchange represents also has to be carefully examined.

Commodity exchange as a practice also has a different metaphysical
(ontological) structure from production (_poiaesis_), where the concepts of
matter (_hylae_) and form (_morphae_) again come into the own in grasping
the peculiar movement of pro-duction, i.e. bringing something forth under
the guidance of a know-how (_technae_).

Such a re-view of how metaphysical concepts are at play in Marx's analysis
of commodity exchange allows a reassessment of the value concept, which is
the fundamental metaphysical concept in his theory of capitalist society. As
such, the value concept must grasp a fundamental social phenomenon, namely,
commodity exchange.

> > 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
> capital?
> Turning to the specific 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 is not a thing at all. Usefulness is only the mode of being of
something. A toothbrush, for instance, is a thing which has the potential
for being used to clean one's teeth. This potential (which is what Aristotle
calls _dynamis_) is put to work (_energeia_ = in-work-ness) when someone
uses the toothbrush to clean their teeth. Such a potential is what it is
only in relation to human understanding which understands the toothbrush in
its potential for cleaning one's teeth. Only within the human practice of
toothbrushing is the toothbrush a thing with the potential for cleaning
teeth. Humans understand such a potential and actively use the toothbrush,
whereas the toothbrush itself has the passive potential to be used in such a
way. There is a unity here of thing and how it is understood. Usefulness is
a mode of being in which a thing offers itself to use in a human practice.

That is what I mean by the phenomenon of usefulness _itself_. The form of
the toothbrush, e.g. that it has a handle to be held in the hand and
bristles for cleaning the surface of the teeth, and its material, e.g. that
the handle must be made of a fairly rigid material, and that the bristles
must be more flexible, are determined by the relation to the use, namely,
teethcleaning. It is the use, the practice, which determines what form and
material the toothbrush is to have, not the other way round.

In the production of a tootbrush, it is its usefulness, i.e. its potential
for use, which is the guiding end or _telos_ for production. The material
cause (what the toothbrush is made of) and formal cause (causa formalis, the
shape assumed by the toothbrush) and also the efficient cause (what actions
are carried out by the maker in production) are all guided ultimately by the
_telos_ or causa finalis that, in the end, a useful toothbrush should be the

Modern science has disposed of Aristotle's distinctions between four kinds
of causes in favour of a single understanding of cause as causa efficiens.
Why? Because only this concept of cause is suitable for mathematization. But
that does not mean the Aristotle's distinctions do not point to genuine
phenomena that we can still see today if we just try.

> 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).

In the practice of exchange, the usefulness of things is not abstracted from
altogether. They must show themselves as being useful in some way, otherwise
there would be no motivation for exchange and no exchange would take place.
The peculiar thing about exchange is that entirely different things with
entirely different potential uses are somehow set equal to each other. When
heating coal is exchanged for a toothbrush, coal and toothbrush are
completely different with respect to usefulness. They are different
use-values and yet somehow equated in being exchanged for each other. The
owner of heating coal is prepared to give a certain amount of coal in
exchange for a toothbrush in order to be able to use it in the practice
teethcleaning. A certain amount of coal becomes the equivalent to a
toothbrush. In this relation of practical equivalence, the specific
use-values of coal and toothbrush are abstracted from and even quantified.
They are both abstractly useful things which have the potential for being
exchanged on the market for something else. Their usefulness does not
disappear altogether, but becomes abstract in their exchangeability, i.e. in
their potential for being exchanged.

Exchangeability as a _dynamis_ now has to be distinguished from usefulness
as the potential or _dynamis_ for being used in a specific practice.
Exchange itself is an abstract practice in that it brings into equivalence
completely different use-values. In this abstract practice only the abstract
usefulness of the things exchanged counts. Exchangeability is another word
for exchange-value, i.e. the potential to exchange for another commodity.
Exchange-value is abstract, relating as it does to the abstract practice of
exchange, whereas use-value is always specific to a specific use or set of

The practice of commodity exchange is thus an abstract mode of sociation of
the owners/producers of different useful things based on the exchange of
abstract equivalents. In this mode of sociation (or association, if you
prefer), usefulness becomes abstract usefulness, but nevertheless it is the
diverse uses practiced in society which, as Aristotle says, "holds
everything together". Otherwise (as he also says), "there would be no
exchange and no association".

The abstractness of commodity exchange as a mode of association is not at
all exhausted in what has been said so far. Other aspects of its
abstractness can be shown up by looking also at other relations of
(concrete) exchange between humans such as the exchange of words, the
exchange of glances.

All this needs to be seen clearly before introducing any consideration of

> > 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.
> > 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.

Why is SNLT a "property" at all? Note that above I have not treated
usefulness as a property but as a mode of being of a thing _in relation to_
human practice.

> 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.

Yes, I do disagree. The diverse magnitudes of many and various commodities
in the practice of generalized commodity exchange only come into a unified
dimension once money mediates exchange. Money itself is customary, based on
the abstract custom of commodity exchange. Money itself is a usage. This
abstract custom or usage links the diverse usages of a society in using
diverse useful things. And money has a unified quantitative dimension. The
diverse commodities each have a price in money. It is this price which is
the magnitude of abstract exchange-value. I don't see any explanans for this
exchange-value residing in labour or labour-time under some sort of

Consider an example: I don't know about you, but when I buy a coat I
consider what it is worth. It has to fit me and be the colour I want, but
these are easy preconditions. I see the worth of the coat residing in the
quality of the material and the workmanship, but also in how versatile the
coat is. A top quality fabric will last longer and look better longer than a
cheaper material which gets shabby in a short time. I can see how well the
coat is tailored, how much work has been put into it, including into the
finer details, such as inner pockets. The coat is also worth more if it is
reversible for rainy weather or has a removable inner lining for winter. The
style of the coat also has to appeal to me for it to be worth anything to

On the other hand, if I don't like the coat's cut, the coat is worth less to
me, and I won't buy it. All these various factors go into assessing the
coat's value in money terms. Since the coat is offered for sale in a store,
it is on the market and many different prospective buyers will make their
individual assessments of the coat's worth. All this is not just the
subjective assessment of the coat's value as opposed to some such thing as
an objective value of the coat (residing, say, in SNLT). The coat's value
_is_ such only in its relation to its potential for being sold, and this in
turn depends on how much money some buyer or other is prepared to give for

The coat manufacturer makes a collection of coats and positions it in the
market at the top end, the middle or the lower-priced market. The
manufacturer makes his/her cost calculations accordingly, deciding on the
quality of the material, the care put into the tailoring, the quality of the
coat's design by a top or average designer, the likely production runs,
factory capacities, etc. The manufacturer knows that the coat's saleability
-- and thus also his/her profit -- depends on whether the coat's style is in
fashion or not. A false decision here and all the costs and labour are for
nought. This shows that the coat-commodity's saleability is a recognition of
its abstract usefulness, and that this abstract usefulness can be traced
back to the coats' concrete usefulness, including their fashionableness.
Fashionableness is part of the coats' use-value and is constantly changing,
thus constantly also changing the coats' value. Next season, the coat may be
worth next to nothing. The labour that was put into it turns out then to be
'socially unnecessary', i.e. worthless.

> 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
> grasping 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.

I have no quarrel with concepts having to be systematically developed. What
I am questioning is the starting point itself. Since the starting point is
all-decisive, it must be well-founded.

> > ME 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.

Where does this distinction between subjective and objective come from?

> 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.

My example above of the toothbrush should make it clearer how I think that
the material aspect comes into the phenomenon of usefulness.

> > > AB The determinate property left, on my view, is purely social.
> >
> > ME 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?

I wouldn't want to commit myself to such a general statement. But I am wary
of the conceptual schema of substance and property which is too easy to
apply unthinkingly.

> > 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.

I regard Marx's Capital, like other great philosophical works, as a starting
point for rethinking. In my view, none of the great thinkers can be taken as
'cut and dried'.

> > And I don't agree that focus on the _magnitude_ of exchange value
> > 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.

I make a distinction between explanation and phenomenological understanding.
An explanation always explains something that is obscure in terms of
something else that is clearer. Thus, in your case, you want to explain
quantitative exchange ratios on the market in terms of something else,
namely, quantities of labour measured by time, which you presumably would
say is clearer.

I am more concerned with uncovering the phenomenon itself in its various
aspects, not explaining it terms of something else.

> > > 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.

Since in the modern age we take it for granted that an explanation must be
found for everything (Leibniz' grand principle: nihil est sine ratio), it at
first seems strange to question whether commodity exchange can be traced
back to a ground which would explain it. Moreover, science has long since
taken for granted that its concepts must be quantifiable.

> > 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.

The simplest phenomena are hardest to see. That's why words such as
substance, form, magnitude, matter, subject/object, etc. etc. are used so
unthinkingly. It takes an enormous effort to start to see the phenomena
indicated by these words.

The way I see it, philosophy is concerned with making the self-evident
questionable. The eros of philosophy is questioning (Greek: _erotan_). Borne
by this eros, philosophy is the striving (_philein_) for wise insight

> > > AB 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.

No, of course not. No philosopher can be an authority. The thinking of the
great philosophers only lives on in our own attempts to think them through
once again and make sense of them for ourselves. Nothing is more arid than
the mere history of ideas. Nothing is more authoritarian than employing a
philosopher as an authority.

> Many thanks, Michael.

Cheers and thanks,
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