Re: (OPE-L) Re: subjects and objects in capitalism

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Wed Oct 01 2003 - 02:57:35 EDT

Kevin's assertion that Marx's theory of value lacked a mechanism or
philosophical basis underscores how deeply readings of Marx have been
obscured by the omnipresence of positivist philosophies of science.  Happily
those approaches are no longer tenable and one of the important
contributions of scientific realism to the study of social life has been to
open space for an appreciation of Marx's naturalism and of the foundation
his achievement offers social theory.  A good part of what is required to
get a sense of how significantly Marx foreshadowed scientific realism is
indeed metaphysics (in the philosopher's sense of ontology), but without any
'quasi' to qualify.

Unfortunately I will be away from my computer for two weeks, so I will not
be able to follow this up, but I will be delivering a paper in Amherst at
Rethinking Marxism titled "The Real Definition of Value."  My target is
precisely the philosophical basis of value. For any interested I'd be happy
to forward a draft for comment and critique -- in two weeks, that is.

Briefly, Marx's "Notes on Wagner" makes explict the way in which his
methodology prefigured scientific realism.  In "Scientific Realism: How
Science Tracks Truth," for example, Stathis Psillos recently wrote, "The
determination of reference (and of meaning) of a  term becomes, by and
large, an issue which cannot be solved a priori by means of conceptual
analysis, but is amenable to empirical investigation into the features of
the world and  of the natural kinds that populate it" (284).  Today the
materialist approaches that dominate science decisively reject axioms
arrived at a priori and rely instead on empirical investigation and results
determined a posteriori.  This is exactly Marx's argument in "Notes on
Wagner."  He rejects the idea of value as an abstract concept that can be
conceptually manipulated by splitting it up into, e.g., use value and
exchange value.  Wagner's method, he argues, "reminds one of the old
chemists before the science of chemistry: as cooking butter, which is simply
called butter in everyday life . . . has a soft consistency, they called
chloride butter of zinc, butter of antimony, etc."  The common name 'butter'
comes to be applied to all manner of substances with a soft, malleable
constistency.  But to refer to the features compounds such as zinc chloride
and antimony trichloride share with edible butter tells nothing about their
nature or how they work.  For that we need an understanding of their
molecular  structure and this knowledge is ultimately embedded in background
chemical theories.  Marx understood this and sought to reason about value in
an analogous fashion.  In effect he was looking to identify value as a
natural (or, better, 'social') kind.  For him this meant, as it means today,
giving an account not of the manifest properties of a thing but of its kind
constituting properties, the internal structure that makes it what it is.

The concept of natural kinds has only recently begun to get the  kind of
attention it requires -- effectively people have assumed that natural kinds
must be characterized by necessary and sufficient membership conditions,
must be ahistorical, unchanging, independent of their environment, etc., and
were to be understood in the context of scientific laws that were
exceptionless and independent of location or historical circumstance so that
they applied  to all times and all places (all possible worlds).  If that is
what natural kinds must be, then obviously they have  no applicability to
social science.  (And if science depends on identifying natural kinds then
the study of social life can make no claim to science.)  But recent work in
the realist tradition shows that even assuming that there are things in the
world that do have the characteristics just rehearsed, overall kinds are
better understood as open textured, historically situated, relationally and
historically defined, non-eternal and non-intrinsic constructions which are
the product of methods that are socially and  historically situated and
irreducibly political.  Then it becomes possible to talk of kinds not just
in physics and chemistry, but in biology and social life as well.

The point of attention to kinds is this:   in both natural and  social
science  we defer to the causal structures of the world.  These are not
social constructions -- or, to the extent they are, it is because we
function as ordinary causal forces in the world: social relations, Marx
emphasized, are material social relations.  They are embedded in locations
of space and physical circumstance and patterns of behavior not changed by
just thinking differently about them.  Identifying these structures is a
matter of survival, or, less dramatically, being able to do what we do -- if
induction and explanation are to frame generalizations to guide action, then
we must accommodate our conceptual practices to the causal structures of
nature and social life.

In order to do this we need a vocabulary.  That's the function of natural
kind terms and their real definition.  For example, if we want to explain
how to make hydrogen chloride in a laboratory by heating sodium chloride
with sulphuric acid then we need terms that refer to these things -- terms
moreover situated in a body of theory that tells us what the nature is of
the elements with which we work and how they behave.  We need concepts of
valency, chemical bonding and so forth.

The method  Marx describes in "Notes on Wagner," his last work of political
economy, corresponds to this:  he looks for causal structures in the social
relations of laborers to nature and to each other (and not to a priori and
axiomatic conclusions about their psychology) and he gives expression to
those structures  by terms that are embedded in a theory that tells us what
kind of structures they are and how they tend to behave.  At bottom, value
refers to a historically specific social form, a generative mechanism, for
the appropriation and distribution of labor to need -- as Marx pretty often
makes explicit, and occasionally even philosophically so.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Ian Wright" <ian_paul_wright@HOTMAIL.COM>
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2003 4:40 PM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] (OPE-L) Re: subjects and objects in capitalism

> Without wishing to sound too dismissive, Kevin is making the classic
> mistake of conflating use-value and exchange-value. Use-value
> (which is of course a psychological relation between a mind and
> an object of desire) is a condition for the possibility of the
> emergence of exchange-value (an objective relation between
> different concrete labours) in an economy.
> I think the problem arises from this:
> >The labor theory not only of Smith, but of Ricardo and Marx, lacked any
> >mechanism or philosophical basis.
> Which is not the case, as the law of value is precisely the
> *mechanism* by which subjective evaluations of the value
> of goods become constrained by objective conditions not
> under subjective control, namely the total available social
> labour-time.
> I would sincerely recommend that Kevin reads my paper,
> "Simulating the Law of Value", which explicates in great
> casual detail how this mechanism operates in the case of a
> simple commodity economy, and how subjective utility
> evaluations coexist with objective determination of the
> value of commodities by labour-time.
> _________________________________________________________________
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