Re: [OPE-L] Absolutes in Marxian Theory?

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Sat Dec 31 2005 - 16:44:55 EST

Hi Jerry,

Here is what I take from the quote you address:

Resnick and Wolff argue that since they reject absolute truth, they must
conclude truths are 'intra-theoretic'.  This is a non-sequitur.  My
impression is that the most thoroughgoing critiques of the futility of
notions of absolute truth have been conducted by realists not anti-realists.
This goes back to the point I made earlier about leaving practice out of the
picture.  Our empirical investigations and observations always come to us
interpreted by background theories which frame our scientific projects.  We
understand them according to how our theory interprets them.  Is our theory
right?  The only resort we have -- in the last analysis -- is the test of
practice.  But the result of practice is interpreted.  This is the necessary
and inevitable dialectical interplay between theory and practice.   All our
understanding is subject to revision in light of new data or new insight and
any understanding we do have can only be considered approximately true and
only fallibly so.  Still, we are able to demonstrate a high degree of
practical success best explained by the truth of our theories.

So the relative and approximate characer of our epistemological claims is
consistent with realism.  Resnick and Wolff's quick conclusion that if truth
is not absolute then truths must be intra-theoretic has simply not taken
account of advances in scientific realism over the last half century.

For example, on the next page, 33, they write, "Marxian theory's
epistemological standpoint may be labeled relativist or conventionalist."
Put the conventionalist claim to one side.  There is room for agreement
here -- *all* epistemological standpoints are relative.  Moreover, R and W
couple this with the statement a few pages later that "Marxian theory is not
relativist in the limited sense of merely standing in front of a plurality
of theories and insisting that no objective truth can ever arbitrate between
them." (36).

Okay.  But how can objective truth ever arbitrate between theories whose
truths are intra-theoretic?  That was my question to Antonio.

Moreover, references to the 'plurality of theories and their truths' as a
reflection of epistemologtical relativism are plentiful, but issues of
ontological realism are, as far as I can see, not treally taken up.  Lack of
attention to realism's concerns gives rise to e.g.,

"It follows that the social predominance of one theory over others depends
upon a precise set of social conditions of existence, that is, a precise set
of the divers processes comprising the social totality . . . Thus, for
Marxian theory, the conditions of existence for the theory's social
predominance over others include, for example, the class processes within
that society, the technical process of transforming nature, legal processes
of conflict adjudication, and so on."

Without doubt science must be self-critical and any scientific realism must
be a critical scientific realism, exactly because the social predominance of
one theory over others depends on such factors.  That is a profoundly
important point and we can't do science without at the same time doing a
critical sociology of science -- we have the example of a 'critique' of
political economy.  But it needs emphasis that while we may explain the
social construction of the predominance of one theory over others in this
way, we have not said anything about the truth of the socially predominant
theory.  Not its absolute truth, but its fallible, approximate and revisable
understanding of how well it tells us what the world is like from the point
of view of accommodating transformative social practice to those
constraints, natural or social.

In sum, we need the explanation of the ways in which our epistemologies are
relative.  Good.  A necessary underlaboring.  But without equally
thoroughgoing attention to realism's concerns, ontological relativism will
overrun the premises by default: the way the world is depends on our
theories and is relative to them.



----- Original Message -----
From: "Jerry Levy" <Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM>
Sent: Saturday, December 31, 2005 9:14 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Absolutes in Marxian Theory?

> > But how is this difference to be resolved?  Resnick and Wolff write in
> > Knowledge and Class (p.32), "It is not sensible in and for Marxist
> > to imagine or seek after any absolute criteria of an absolute truth.
> > Truths are intra-theoretic rather than intertheoretic; they are in a
> > particular sense, relative to the theories in which they are
> > If I read this right this means there isn't any argument at all because
> > we're just talking past one another.  They have their truth and I have
> > mine and that's that.  But that can't be right.  I agree truth claims
> > relative to the theories in which they are constructed, but their truth
> > depends on the way the world is, not the theories.
> Howard, Antonio and others,
> Part of Marx's critique of Hegel, I believe, was directed against
> the idea that there are absolutes.  In the Hegelian system, of course,
> pride of place is given to the conception of "Absolute Mind".
> It was the concern of Marx (and Engels) to show that rather than
> being natural, eternal, or absolute, history is social, contingent,
> and relative. They _also_ wanted to reveal underlying social
> structures, but it is very rare when either use the word 'absolute'
> approvingly.  In cautioning against search for "absolute truth",
> aren't Resnick and Wolff  cautioning against dogmatism?  (Recall,
> of course, that Hegel's conception of absolute was a consequence
> of his religious dogmatism).  When we reject the idea that there
> is "absolute truth" then we begin to comprehend the social
> world as a more complex and multi-sided reality.  There is also
> an anti-authoritarian consequence:  when we reject the conception
> that a deity, caste, emperor,  priest, scholar, etc. has revealed the
> "absolute truth" then we begin the process of "ruthless critique"
> of _all_ that is.
> Can you (or anyone else on the list) make a theoretical claim
> about capitalism which is 'absolutely' true?
> In solidarity, Jerry

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Mon Jan 02 2006 - 00:00:03 EST