Re: (OPE-L) dialectical dancing

From: Christopher Arthur (cjarthur@WAITROSE.COM)
Date: Tue May 25 2004 - 10:23:41 EDT

here is a review I published in Radical Philosophy minus the notes

"Bertell Ollman.  Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx¹s Method,
University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2003. 233 pp. $ 39.95
hb., $ 18.95 pb., 0-252-02832-5 hb., 0-252-07118-2 pb.

Bertell Ollman has been a lively presence in the field of Marxian studies
for over thirty years. His most distinctive contribution lies in his
elucidation of Marx¹s method, specifically dialectics. Here he gives us
Œthe best of my life¹s work on dialectics¹. The various chapters are
(lightly revised) reproductions of earlier published material: four
chapters from his first (and best I think) book Alienation (1971), three
from his Dialectical Investigations (1993), plus five more occasional
pieces. The whole forms an ideal introduction to his thought for newcomers,
and a useful compendium for those renewing their acquaintance with it.
Ollman¹s book has two major themes: the philosophy of internal relations
(first expounded in Alienation), and the method of multi-variant
abstraction (the central chapter of Dialectical Investigations). These I
will summarise in a moment; but first let us attend to what Ollman thinks
about dialectic in general; one is struck by its epistemological and
methodological characterisation: ŒDialectics is a way of thinking that
brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in
the world. As part of this, it includes how to organize a reality viewed in
this manner for purposes of study and how to present the results of what
one finds to other people.¹ (12)  Dialectics is a method one Œputs to
work¹, not the way reality works, although to be sure it is useful because
of the prevalence of Œchanges¹ and Œinteractions¹ in the world. Only in a
late chapter does Ollman become self-conscious about this peculiar modality
of his dialectic, and make a gesture towards ontology. But much more could
be said.
Of course Œchange and interaction¹ is a banal phrase in its own. What makes
Ollman¹s work interesting is when he insists that these features determine
what a thing is. Strictly speaking there are no things, only processes and
relations, interactions are Œinneractions¹.  So he gives us a full-blown
philosophy of internal relations. He introduces this idea with an acute
observation on Marx¹s writing, namely the impossibility of finding in it
neat definitions, because the meaning of a term shifts with its context.
Here is Ollman¹s explanation: ŒThe philosophy of internal relations ...
treats the relations in which anything stands as essential parts of what it
is, so that a significant  change in any of these relations registers as a
qualitative change in the system of which it is a part. With relations
rather than things as the fundamental building blocks of reality, a concept
may vary somewhat in its meaning depending on how much of a particular
relation it is intended to convey.¹ (5) This approach certainly clarifies
much that is obscure in Marx¹s discourse.#
For Ollman it appears all relations are internal relations. (177) This view
is implausible; a mind, a society, a solar system, are different realms of
being with the Œparts¹ having differing status in relation  to the whole.
With an all-embracing philosophy of Ollman¹s kind there is a double danger:
first, of Œthinning¹ out the concept of internal relation such that it can
indeed cover Œeverything¹ at the cost of being uninformative; second, of
over-extending the range of a Œthick¹ concept to cases where it does not
really apply, at the cost of mysticism.  I do not doubt that much of Marx¹s
work, especially his Capital, treats with great sophistication totalities
characterised by internal relations. But in my opinion this does not derive
from a general philosophical position, but from the peculiar character of
his object.
 At all events, given that Œeverything¹ forms a totality, discrimination of
parts necessarily involves Œabstraction¹ in a strong sense (a whole
constituted by external relations must also be studied through abstracting
parts but in this case one simply reads off the relevant unique
distinctions from the reality).  Ollman considers the chapter on
abstraction to be Œthe most important chapter¹ of his book. To think
Œchange and interaction¹ in an adequate way requires Œthe process of
abstraction¹. (10) Thought must abstract from the whole categories
identifying the key relations and these must be capable of prioritising
movement over stability and interaction over isolation.#
The two aspects of Ollman¹s  philosophy are connected insofar as Œit is the
philosophy of internal relations that gives Marx both license and
opportunity to abstract as freely as he does, to decide how far into its
internal relations any particular will extend.... Since boundaries are
never given and when established never absolute it also allows and even
encourages reabstraction, makes a variety of abstractions possible, and
helps to develop his mental skills and flexibility in making abstractions.¹
Ollman distinguishes these conjoint aspects to abstraction: Œextension,
level of generality, and vantage point¹. (74) The first refers to the
temporal or spatial range covered by the abstraction. The second brings
into focus a specific level of generality for treating the material thus
designated. The third aspect refers to the perspective on it flowing from
the research agenda.
Ollman's discussion of abstraction in general and of these three aspects is
very useful. It should be taken into consideration by all social scientists
aiming to achieve clarity about the salience of their study. Ollman is also
certainly correct in pointing to the flexibility and fertility of Marx¹s
use of abstraction. But insofar as Ollman¹s concentration is on the
methodological process of abstraction in theory, this means the ontological
issue of abstraction is relatively neglected. He briefly notes that Marx
recognised that there is something strange about capitalism in this respect:
ŒAbstractions ... exist in the world. In the abstraction, certain spatial
and temporal boundaries and connections stand out, just as others are
obscure and even invisible, making what is in practice inseparable appear
separately and the historically specific features of things disappear
behind their more general form.... Marx labels these objective results of
capitalist functioning ³real abstractions² , and it is chiefly real
abstractions that incline the people who have contact with them to
construct  ideological abstractions. It is also real abstractions to which
he is referring when he says that in capitalist society ³people are
governed by abstractions².¹ (62)#
Even here, once again Ollman stresses the epistemological consequences and
fails to follow up the significant remark by Marx that Œindividuals are now
ruled by abstractions¹.#  It is around this issue that the differences
between Ollman¹s approach and my own turn. Ollman devotes a chapter to Œa
critique of systematic dialectics¹, a view attributed to ŒTom Sekine,
Robert Albritton, Christopher Arthur, and Tony Smith¹. (182) He
characterises this interpretation of Marx¹s method as follows: Œ(1) that
Marx¹s dialectical method refers exclusively to the strategy Marx used in
presenting his understanding of capitalist political economy; (2) that the
main and possibly only place he uses this strategy is in Capital I; and (3)
that the strategy itself involves constructing a conceptual logic that Marx
took over in all its essentials from Hegel.¹ (182)
Ollman does not deny that this interpretation offers important insights
into Marx¹s expositional strategy, but he also wishes to take ŒSystematic
Dialectic¹ to task for the following reasons: (1) Marx had other aims in
Capital  beside the presentation of a categorial dialectic; (2) Marx
employs many other strategies of exposition, especially in other parts  of
his corpus; (3) It is wrong to restrict Marx¹s dialectical method to that
of presentation instead of combining ontology, epistemology, inquiry,
intellectual reconstruction, exposition, and praxis. (87)
Speaking for myself, the short reply to these criticisms is that I have
never doubted any of these points. Systematic dialectic addresses itself to
a very specific problem: the exposition of a system of categories
dialectically articulated. I never said this was all Marx did, or needed to
do. However, a longer answer is required to point (3) which in turn refers
back to the reasons why exposition is so important, why - apart from the
obvious  - the focus of research is on Capital, and why Hegel¹s logic is so
relevant. It is simply incorrect to state that ontology has been ignored in
Systematic Dialectic. Indeed, the guiding principle is the need to identify
the logic proper to the peculiar character of the specific object, as Marx
himself recommended in his 1843 notes on Hegel. There is no universal
method guaranteed to unlock all secrets.
Capital is characterised by an ontology peculiar to itself insofar as it
moves through abstraction. Theory must follow this real process of
abstraction, and elucidate what is negated in it. I argue for the relevance
of Hegel¹s logic because capital grounds itself in a process of real
abstraction in exchange in much the same way as Hegel¹s dissolution and
reconstruction of reality is predicated on the abstractive power of
thought. The task of the exposition is to trace capital¹s imposition of
abstraction on the real world. Once this has been done it is perfectly
possible to change the vantage point and present it as a system of
alienation, reification, and fetishism. But, once again, fetishism is real,
not just how things are Œviewed¹. (104)
Ollman has a distinctive position worthy of attention. Much that he says
about the relevance of the philosophy of internal relations to Marx¹s work
is certainly illuminating, and much of the methodological advice about the
handling of abstraction to be taken on board. But there is also a certain
one-sidedness: the pertinence of internal relations is over-generalised,
and the discussion of abstraction is primarily from the vantage point of
method, whereas Marx¹s ontological insight about the rule of abstractions
leads us into a dialectic of capital itself."
Chris Arthur

17 Bristol Road, Brighton, BN2 1AP, England

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