[OPE-L] Concepts and Starting Points

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Fri Dec 02 2005 - 09:06:22 EST

> As for surprising you, Jerry, perhaps we are mixing the distinct meanings
> of  'starting point' -- or perhaps I have misunderstood.
> If we look to the Method of Political Economy, the idea of starting point
> can mean two things -- (1) the thing, like 'population', with which we
> begin an investigation, or (a distinct point) (2) the 'simplest
> determination'
> with which understanding begins.  The 'immense accumulation' of the first
> sentence of Capital, I take it, is like 'population'.  The 'economic cell
> form' arrived at by means of a process of abstraction seems to me to refer
> to the 'simplest determination'.  Thus, reading the first Preface
> strictly, it's the 'commodity form' or the 'value form of the commodity'
> that is the cell form; it is the commodity situated and understood, not
> the commodity simply.

Hi Howard and everyone else:

I agree that there are different meanings of 'starting point'.   Yet, Marx
was quite emphatic that he did not begin with "concepts" but with the

You cited the _Grundrisse_ and _Capital_; I was citing the "Marginal Notes
on Wagner."    In the "Marginal Notes on Wagner", Marx repeatedly makes
this point (excerpts follow):

    *    "Herr Wagner also forgets that for me neither 'value' nor
          'exchange-value' are subjects, but the _commodity_"
          ("Marginal Notes on  Adolph Wagner's 'Lehrbuch der
           politischen Okonomie'" _Theoretical Practice_, Issue 5,
           Spring, 1972, p. 42)

    *    "According to Herr Wagner, _use-value and exchange-value_
          should be derived d'abord from the _concept of value_, not
          as with me from a _concrete entity the commodity [Konkretum
          der Ware] ...." (Ibid, p. 45)

     *   "De prime abord I do not start from 'concepts' and  hence do not
          start from the 'concept' of value, and therefore do not have to
          'divide' the latter in any way.  What I start from is the simplest
          social form in which the labour product is represented in
          contemporary society, and this is the 'commodity'.  I analyse
          this, and indeed, first in the form in which it appears."  (Ibid,
          p. 50)

          Later in the same paragraph:

          "Thus it is not I who divide 'value' into use-value and
          exchange-value as oppositions into which the abstraction
          'value' divides itself, but the _concrete social form_ [Gestalt]
          of the labour-product:  a '_commodity_'  is on the one hand
          use-value and on the other 'value', not exchange-value, for
          the mere phenomenal form is not its true content." (Ibid, p. 51)

    *   "Herr Rodbertus, for whom 'use-value' and 'exchange-value'
         are both by nature mere 'concepts' ....." (Ibid, p. 55)

         Later in the same paragraph:

         "This involves a '_logical_' opposition only for Rodbertus and
         kindred German professorial school-masters who start from the
         'concept' of value, not from the 'social thing', the 'commodity',
         and let this concept divide of itself (into two), and then argue
         with each other about which of the two mental phantoms is the
         true  Jacob!" (Ibid)

Marx must have thought that this point (starting with a concrete, the
commodity, rather than a concept) was a crucial point since he made
it repeatedly and forcefully.  I think this point was important for him
because he wanted to emphasize that his presentation was rooted in
a material reality than merely a concept: in that sense, it could be seen
as a statement of difference from a Hegelian ('idealist') starting point.

How do you and others on the list view the significance of these


Of course it could be objected that I have only posed the question
above as a 'Marxological'  issue.  That side-steps the more fundamental
methodological question: should a reconstruction in thought of a
social subject begin with an examination of a concept or a concrete
material reality?

Without referring to Marx, how would others on the list answer that

It should be noted that the 'starting point' has been a controversial
point among Hegelians (see Tony S's _The Logic of Marx's Capital_).
Also note that for Geert and Michael W in _Value-Form and the State_
the presentation begins with the opposition between 'sociation' and
'dissociation' (notions) _rather than_ the commodity.   What are the
merits and demerits of following the same procedure?

In solidarity, Jerry

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