Re: [OPE-L] "Levels of abstraction"

From: GERALD LEVY (gerald_a_levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Mon Feb 04 2008 - 13:11:54 EST

[JB wrote]
What the totalitarian does is that he foists his "superior abstractions", based on stylized, unrealistic assumptions, directly on historical reality. He claims to know the essence of society and the march of history on the basis of his "philosophy" in advance, before he has even studied it conscientiously and thoroughly. As long as this occurs among neo-Hegelians pontificating about the "totality" within the confines of the professorial drawing room, it does little harm, at most it invites ridicule. But it does a great deal of harm, when bureaucrats who think they stand on the shoulders of Karl Marx (or some other luminary) try to reorganise the world according to their abstractions, and when, if the world they haven't studied does not turn out to conform to their abstractions, because in fact it is organised in a different way, they try to punish people for it, and force them violently to conform to their abstractions. In that case, the tyranny of concepts becomes a real tyranny.
Hi Jurriaan:
I don't think it can fairly be said that Paul C and Dave Z have not "conscientiously and thoroughly"
studied history. Indeed, like yourself, they are both committed to the importance of
empirical research. Nor is Paul C a 'neo-Hegelian' - indeed, he has been influenced by
Althusserian writings and hence is opposed to "totalizing" philosophies. And, Dave and he
are no more attempting to impose their theories on us than we are on them.
[JB wrote]What Marx referred to as the materialist view about history was only a methodological guide to the study of history (a set of insights providing an orientation for research), to obtain a rational understanding of it without myth or mysticism. All abstractions should be relativised by human practice relevant to those abstractions. Through studying historical facts, we might actually reach the conclusion that our starting assumptions would need to be modified, and therefore no "doctrine" is possible, Kautsky notwithstanding. Marx denied having a "philosophy of history" and a "theory of history" universally applicable, never mind a dialectical-materialist theory of the cosmos as a whole. The whole point of e.g. the critique of Herr Duhring was to show how ridiculous such world schematism really is. If "Marxism" claims such a universal theory, this is a forgery of Marx's work.Time and again, Marx & Engels criticized academics who tried to knock up their skimpy knowledge of historical facts as quickly as possible into a grand "philosophical system" that would explain everything. The validity of the materialist view was only to be proved by actually applying it in real research, which showed that it could coherently explain the facts. Point is that the philosophy comes after the experience ("Minerva's owl flies at dusk"), not before it, and if it comes before the experience, it presumes that we can have real knowledge before having any experience of what we are talking about. This does not deny that we use theory in verifying experience - facts do not spontaneously order themselves - or that we have our "personal metaphysic", but is says that such insight is only a guide to experiential knowledge, that it is modified and qualified by experience, and is not a masterkey unlocking the truth of the totality in advance of experience or in spite of experience. For all the odes to "materialism", detaching theory from experience is in fact the height of idealism.This is why I am very skeptical about "historical materialism" as a "philosophy of history", a "doctrine" or a "system of sociology". This confuses science with ideology. It aims to get people to see things in a certain way in advance of a proof explaining why they should see it that way. No doubt there is ideology within science, to the extent that some assumptions are unquestioned and popular paradigms exist, but that is not to say that asserting an ideology is itself practising science.
I agree with much of the above  and I agree that there are many examples of Marxians 
who have done exactly what you are cautioning against.  There are still many examples
among Marxians today of  shallow sloganeering and  abstract schematism.  And, yes, much
of what passes among Marxians for analysis is abstracted from history and experience.
But,  what - for instance - Allin and Paul C wrote about prices of production and value was not an 
ideological  attempt to foist "stylized, abstract assumptions" directly on reality.  Rather, it was
an attempt to  examine that issue more concretely and empirically.  Their testing  of null
hypotheses, for instance a steel theory of value, was a model of how scientists could 
empirically examine alternative hypotheses.   Their perspective  may be largely different  
than your own or mine but it is not historically and empirically uninformed. Nor was it
merely ideology. 
In solidarity, Jerry

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