Re: [OPE] Hegel's method of abstraction

From: howard engelskirchen <>
Date: Fri Sep 03 2010 - 13:32:58 EDT

Come on Jerry -- I use Stace because it sums up particularly effectively an
approach to Hegel that has seduced, wrongly I think, many Marxists. I leave
open the possibility of a more sophisticated reading, one for example that
by emphasizing materialist themes in his thought would draw from it lessons
more congenial to the scientific method. In answer to your question, I have
read Hegel (The Logic), have written and presented on Hegel (The Philosophy
of Right -- unpublished, but you are welcome to a copy), and am reading
Hegel (Phenomology of Spirit).
                                            Continuing right along we will
also want to have read, won't we, especially for the rational kernel in the
mystical shell question, Marx's attentions to Aristotle, e.g., The
Metaphysics (Scott Meikle reminds that Marx was an Aristotelian in
metaphysics), etc. . . . . I think, incidentally, that Lenin's exhuberant
no doubt late night outburst (I read the Conspectus on the Logic too),
saying that you can't be a Marxist or read Capital, especially its first
chapter, unless you've read Hegel's Logic, should be taken as nothing more
than that. A better way of putting the point would be to notice that you
need to read Marx carefully enough to grasp Hegelian and Aristotelian
threads of his thought, whether you're conscious of their roots or not, but
it does not take a PH D in western phlosophy to be a Marxist, as Lenin would
be the first to insist.

Mostly I agree with the spirit of your first point. Marx does talk of
personification, of course, and he does talk of people bearing or filling
roles. My point is to emphasize that in order to understand these roles you
must give an account first of all of a structure of labor. Aristotle talks
about things of the world being composites of matter and form, and he
included activity in the idea of matter. What Marx gives us is a composite
of labor activity and form -- he identifies the precise form of the
relationship of laboring individuals to nature and to each other. You
access these structures by means of abstraction, but labor activity is not
abstract and historically specific configurations of it are not abstract.
Once you have those configurations and understand how they operate and how
they reproduce themselves, then you can talk about personification.

I also agree that the idea of 'levels of abstraction' does have its uses,
but it gets misused if the idea is that in understanding Marx we abstract
from the concrete to higher and higher conceptual levels. In Method of
Political Economy Marx insists on starting with the simplest determinations
of the target of social investigation. These simplest determinations are
concrete structures of labor activity, but in order to understand them we
disregard all except their most decisive causal properties, what Marx calls
their 'differentia specifica'. Then we enrich our understanding by adding
layers of causal complexity. So I don't have a problem with using levels of
abstraction in that sense. For example, the social structure Marx
identifies as generating the commodity form is a simple determination. This
is a particular form of labor activity. It is not a mode of production. To
suppose that any time we talk about the simple determination of value we are
referring to a simple commodity mode of production is to confuse levels of

You emphasize the interconnectedness of the features of capitalism and
emphasize that one cannot understand anything unless you understand all the
dialectical interconnections. Look, social entities are like living things.
Just as with a living thing all the parts work together to make and to
reproduce a whole. It does not follow that you cannot understand anything
until you've understood everything. Nor does it follow that there are no
asymmetries. Some things are more important than others. So Marx tries to
understand those most important things first, capital's differentia
specifica. Then on that basis we can fill out our understanding of how the
causal dynamic of its underlying structure manifests itself.


----- Original Message -----
From: "GERALD LEVY" <>
To: "Outline on Political Economy mailing list" <>
Sent: Friday, September 03, 2010 7:57 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE] Hegel's method of abstraction

>> Whether this is Hegel or not I leave open. It is a common understanding
>> of
>> Hegel. It is not the method of science and not the method of Marx. A
>> natural scientist uses experimental design to strip away distracting
>> elements to focus on the specific, causally operative target of
>> investigation. Marx uses abstraction in the same way: he strips away from
>> particularities -- all abstraction does that -- but the crucial thing is
>> not
>> what he abstracts from but what he abstracts to. He does not abstract to
>> greater and greater generality and he scoffs at those (e.g. Wagner) who
>> do.
>> He abstracts to more and more decisive particularity. He identifies more
>> and more particular causal structures without being distracted by things
>> that, for the purpose at hand, a natural scientist would call noise.
>> For
>> example, people drag themselves off to work everyday for a mix of
>> reasons,
>> religious, legal, psychological, etc. Nonetheless, we can use abstraction
>> to specify the precise structural form of the relation their labor
>> activity
>> takes to nature and to each other and that their behaviors reproduce
>> without
>> considering those admixtures. But if we identify such a structure -- the
>> separation of the laboring producer from the means of production, say --
>> we
>> are not abstracting to generalities or assumptions or masks, but are
>> identifying a real and concrete social structure and its operative
>> properties.
> Hi Howard:
> On the last point first: character masks, like some other topics in Marx
> including abstract labor, have two sides. On the one side, they are are
> abstractions
> (and hence abstract from real and concrete aspects of social reality)
> but I think Marx's claim is that they also express some aspect of social
> reality.
> Thus, while it is obviously incorrect to assert that capitalists (or
> workers)
> do not have subjectivity, this *assumption* can be justified on two
> grounds: 1. the pursuit of surplus value and the force of competition
> increasingly
> compel capitalists *in general* to act as 'capital personified'; 2. what
> is assumed to be the
> case at a more abstract stage of the exposition can be explained and
> teased out
> at a more concrete stage. What's crucially important for a theory is that
> when
> one assumes away at one stage of the analysis an essential aspect of
> reality
> (e.g. the state) one must explain that (sub-) subject at a later stage.
> This is
> important *especially* for Marx's materialist method since if one does not
> do this one's theory
> increasingly departs from the real nature of the subject. An example of
> the dangers of developing an incomplete theory based on assumptions which
> are
> not thoroughly investigated and are inappropriate for grasping the real
> subject matter is Walrasian theory.
> As for the difference in methodology between Hegel and Marx, the former's
> world view and theory can not be grasped without understanding the crucial
> role that his religious and spiritual perspectives had on his writings.
> The subject to be investigated and unpacked was "spirit", for Hegel. Marx,
> rather famously, heaped scorn on this (idealistic) aspect of Hegelian
> theory. What, though, was the "rational kernel" in Hegel that Marx seized
> upon? The emphasis by Marxians on "dialectics", I think, both fails to
> grasp what Hegel understood by dialectics and (thereby) fails to grasp
> the significance of Hegel's *systematic* dialectical method as a means of
> teasing out all of the essential aspects of a complex subject matter and
> their logical relationship to each other.
> Although some pooh-pooh the idea of "levels of abstraction", I think it's
> *impossible* (I deliberately use a strong word here) to grasp, among
> other topics, the meaning of any individual section of _Capital_ to
> others and the relation of those to the whole project and the exposition,
> inter-relationship, and ordering of concepts necessarily associated with
> the real subject matter (capitalism) without some sort of a layered,
> logically-connected, presentation. In a sense, one can read much of Marx's
> critique of others (including Smith and Ricardo) as being insufficiently
> systematically dialectical. More than that, I'd say that it's impossible
> to
> really grasp _Capital_ without considering the role of that book within
> the context
> of his larger project.
> But - before I continue - let me ask: have you read Hegel? (That's a
> genuine
> question: I don't know if you have or haven't). Scholars should no
> more rely on secondary secondary sources for understanding Hegel that they
> should for understanding Marx.
> In solidarity, Jerry
> PS: I'll get back to you on your other post when I get a chance. It is
> true
> that I read it rather quickly.
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