[OPE-L:3722] RE: Hairsplitting

andrew kliman (Andrew_Kliman@msn.com)
Thu, 28 Nov 1996 08:06:12 -0800 (PST)

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A reply to Alejandro Ramos' ope-l 3721.

I agree with everything Alejandro wrote in response to me. I certainly do
think the task of understanding Marx by returning to an examination of what he
actually wrote is an important one. And I certainly do think the new evidence
Alejandro turned up is important.

My comment about "hairsplitting" was not directed against the gathering and
evaluation of textual evidence. Rather, I was questioning a *particular* way
of employing the evidence when interpreting.

Four or five years ago, some cops in Los Angeles were put on trial for
viciously beating and seriously injuring a Black man, Rodney King. The
evidence, for once, was clear --- an observer had videotaped the whole thing.
But the cops were acquitted (which precipitated the LA rebellion), partly due
to the racism of the white jury, but partly because the defense lawyers
distorted the evidence on the tape by playing it slowly, playing a few
isolated frames of the tape, and so on. By taking the evidence out of its
context, the meaning and impact of it became muted or lost.

I think something similar can happen when textual evidence is taken out of
context and, particularly, when isolated words and formulations are stressed
to the exclusion of the meaning of the whole. The inevitable result of this
approach is that "inconsistencies" are found and the overall meaning tends to
get lost. This is especially liable to happen when one is looking at texts
that were not written for publication, much less revised for publication.

For another analogy, try saying any word 50 or 100 times in a row. It becomes
a bunch of nonsense syllables.

I think a better way of examining the evidence is by taking it as a whole and
locating particular passages and formulations within that whole. It is
especially important to subject an interpretation of a particular passage to
the whole, i.e., to determine whether the interpretation accords with the
meaning of the whole or leads the whole to be inconsistent. All else being
equal, interpretations of the latter type should be rejected if
interpretations of the former type are possible.

When this is done, it is clear that Marx was expressing one and the same idea
in various ways again and again --- price-value differences cause the value of
constant and variable capital to differ from the value of means of production
and subsistence. The *conclusive* evidence that supports this interpretation
is that Marx's Ch. 9 transformation and statements later in Vol. III based on
it *make sense* under this interpretation, while they fail to do so under the
two-system interpretation. Both Fred and Alejandro have made this point in
the recent discussion, but it has been resisted and has not been accorded the
weight it deserves.

I do not understand the reason for this resistance. I have tried at several
points, on this list and elsewhere, to have a serious discussion about it, but
to little avail. This is unfortunate because, if there is no agreement that
an interpretation in which a text makes sense is prima facie superior to one
in which it doesn't, I don't think there can be much forward movement in
interpretative controversies. Criteria for deciding among interpretations are
needed. Why has this become so controversial?

Andrew Kliman