Re: [OPE-L] abstraction and surprise

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Thu Dec 01 2005 - 10:47:26 EST

Hi all,

Thanks for the argument below, Andrew.  We have learned the world is made of
things in relation and dialectics gives us a way of studying relation.

For Jerry on cells and DNA:  yes, for the DNA, of course, but one thing we
learn from our understanding of living things is that they do not just trace
an inevitable unfolding from DNA to the persistence of a species in an
environment over time.  While what occurs must be latent in DNA, emergent
structures exploit one possiblity rather than another in ways that are not
foreordained except in the sense that parameters are established.  It would
not be too hard, after all, to make our dialectical logic pretty linear too,
as contradictions march on ineluctably from seed to fully developed

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 comnmodity' that is the
cell form; it is the commodity situated and understood, not the commodity

In referring to value abstracted from exchange as a starting point I was not
referring to the immediate starting point, like population, but to the
simplest determination out of which the totality is unfolded.  I thought
this corresponded to the account of Chris and other VFTs, but perhaps I am
wrong.  I will relook at some of this material.

As I have tried to suggest, the really fundamental question presented by
this conversation, and I think the ultimate source of e.g. Paul C's concern,
is whether our logic follows causal mechanisms of explanation.  This has
been challenged on the idea that we  must insist on system rather than
history.  But that counterposition leaves out social science, distinguished
from history precisely on the question with which we started -- depth.  The
historian focuses on events, the social scientist on underlying and abiding
systemic structures.  But these latter are causal.  Our use of Hegel can
cause problems if our logic has lost the ability to refer to causal
structures of the world.  If, like Hegel, for example, we strip away all
material determination, how can it so refer?  There can be no objection to
exploiting dialectics.  But we have left Hegel standing right side up if we
ignore cause.  So this is the issue:  does the simplest determination with
which we begin refer to causal structures of social life, or does it refer
to abstractions incapable of picking out causal mechanisms?


----- Original Message -----
From: "Andrew Brown" <A.Brown@LUBS.LEEDS.AC.UK>
Sent: Thursday, December 01, 2005 6:17 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] abstraction and surprise

HI Paul,

You ask, "I think it might help me here if you were to give an example
of a premise
that was necessarily interrelated to the rest of the world, and show
how this is different from the method of successive approximation."

I reply: I think the point is rather less grand, it is that things and
hence their concepts have necessary relations, not that any one thing is
necessarily related to absolutely everything else in the rest of the
world! Relations of prime interest are systemic ones. For example, the
necessary relations between commodities, value, money, and all the other
aspects that constitute the capitalist system. The system is very
complex but we know that it self-reproduces and self-develops which
means it does have some order, a set of interrelations of its parts. We
therefore need to grasp the functions, and dysfunctions, of its parts
within the reproduction of the system as a whole. If we are Keynes we
might discover that one part, wages, while initially appearing to be a
cost, draining the system, actually turns out to be a key part of
aggregate demand, vital to systemic reproduction. If we are Marx we
discover that commodities function as representations of social labour,
and that profit functions as the outward form of exploitation: profit,
exploitation, social labour, commodities are all necessarily related in
the system as a whole [we also discover Keynes was wrong because of his
one-sidedness]. So I'm quite surprised that you ask me the question
really: economists above all deal with a system of necessarily related

As Howard said, there are many other system, such as the human body. You

will not grasp any one organ of the body properly only by interrogation
of the inner structure of the organ, you also must understand the
function (or dysfunction) of the organ within the reproduction of the
human body overall. In this way heart, brain, bones, feet, etc. are
necessarily interrelated in the system that they constitute and within
which they function.

The method of successive approximation simply says 'start simple, get
complex', so far as I know - it says nothing one way or another about
systems of internal relations.

You also wrote "The kind of work that Ian Wright is doing
involves rigourously applying a few simple fixed rules and investigating
the implications of this - deriving for example the law of value from
such simple assumptions.

I also think that paradoxically Marx's method of exposition with
the circuit notations in Capital is actually very similar to formal
syntax. One should not be so ready to dismiss formal synatax."

I reply:
Actually, I was careful not to make any such dismissal. I said
scientific theory cannot be solely based on formal systems, not that
they are useless. [I admit that it is easy, when pursuing my line of
argument, to find oneself falling into the trap of making sweeping
dismissals.. thus I actually spent some time re-drafting the email to
which you replied, removing any such dismissals!] Marx indeed studies
pure forms in exchange - but his theory is not solely based on such
study, nor does he present his study of exchange forms explicitly
according to rules of syntax (in the manner you give by way of example
below) - though I am interested to see how you have done this latter.
But Marx only does this analysis of form after having spent much effort
uncovering the relevant aspects of content, viz. value and all that. His
critique of Ricardo is precisely that Ricardo remains at the level of
formal abstraction and never bothers to fathom the nature of the labour
that constitutes value.

Regarding looking at the interrelation of form and content you asked:
"When you 'look at their interrelation' as you put it, is this:

a) a heuristic for investigation
b) a didactic tactic for explanation
c) a rigourous procedure to be followed in investigation"

I reply:
Basically, it is simply a recognition that they are interrelated and so
must be comprehended as such. However, of course there is more to
dialectics and dialectical logic than this, which I presume is what you
are getting at. But rather than talk about this in the abstract, without
space or time to do it properly, then I think it better simply to say
that there is nothing imposed upon the investigation or the
presentation, no set formula or pattern that must be evident, no way of
sneaking anything in, because anything you put in must be scrutinised
for what it is, and for how it relates to other aspects. Prior knowledge
of philosophical aspects of dialectics can be very helpful for social
science but one may not need the help, or one might not find it helpful.
This is true of any philosophy or methodology - would you agree?

Many thanks,


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