[OPE] Hegel's method of abstraction

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sun Sep 05 2010 - 12:22:11 EDT

I think Hegel's claim is essentially that abstractions can be inferred from
other abstractions in a non-arbitrary (reasonable) way, on the ground that
the universe of human meaning has an intrinsic meta-logical structure. The
world spirit is expressed through the meanings which people actually have
and use.

These meanings can be ordered by philosophical thought, in such a way that
the Logos contained in them is made explicit. Thus, by starting off from the
simplest, basic and most obvious distinction such as being and not-being (or
identity and non-identity, yes and no, affirmation and negation), all the
categories of human thought can be inferred and developed by philosophical
thought, because of the meaning which they contain or imply. As a
parenthesis, Hegel's claim here is actually highly problematic, since the
cognition of "being" or "identity" assumes that the three processes of
identification, distinction and generalization operate simultaneously, while
the priority of one of them over the others cannot be easily proved (why is
"existence" prior to "difference" or "sameness" etc. ?).

The proof that the Hegelian procedure followed is non-arbitrary and
well-reasoned, is supposed to be that the assumptions made in the
association of different meanings are self-validating - upon conclusion of
the "systematic dialectical procedure" all meanings contained in the whole
are ordered in a way, such that they are consistent, explain each other, and
are self-explanatory. In other words, the dialectical "unravelling" of
phenomena is the way the philosopher can show, how the phenomena reveal
themselves in their intrinsic necessity, how they conform to a Logos which
is intrinsic to them.

I think Marx agreed with Hegel that formal logic does not exhaust Reason,
since Reason contains more than formal logic: it contains also
non-arbitrary, reasonable inferences which lack any formal proof since they
depend on "reasonable", practical assumptions which do not follow from the
argument, but are presupposed by it. Marx also does accept the idea of a
"self-validating" meta-reasoning, by which the progress of the argument
itself validates its initial assumptions.

The central, inescapable problem however concerns "what exactly can validate
the assumptions" used in the reasoning: - "if" P, then Q, but that might be
a very big "if". How to we arrive at a starting point which guarantees that
the subsequent argument will validate itself, rather than give rise to
contradictions, inconsistencies and paradoxes? In other words, how can we
show that the link between the reasoning and the meta-reasoning is not
arbitrary? In anything is clear, it is that we cannot have the proof before
the pudding.

Here Marx parts company with Hegel I think, because Marx differs from Hegel
about the source of the assumptions. In Hegel's world (similar to the world
of Althusserian Marxists), the assumptions are validated by the meaningful
content of the categories themselves, implied by language and symbol systems
(for example, if you accept Marxist principles, then you can reason about
all kinds of things).

So Marx says for example:

"...Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of
thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and, unfolding itself
out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to
the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete,
reproduces it as concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process
by which the concrete itself comes into being". (Grundrisse, Penguin
edition, p. 101).

Hegel takes the existence of meanings as a given "raw material", which the
philosopher operates upon and refines. Similarly the Marxist philosopher
takes Marxism as a "raw material" and operates on it.

But Marx suggests a threefold ontology:

World 1. The given meanings that the philosopher operates upon,
World 2. Those given meanings in themselves, as they actually manifest
themselves among people,
World 3. The material-practical reality which exists beyond those meanings,
and which shapes up those meanings.

Hegel's illusion is to suppose that World 3 (the real-concrete that exists
beyond the interpretation of it) is itself a product of the Idea, brought
into being by the Idea. This notion has a superficial plausibility insofar
as people really do bring a material-practical reality into being, if they
act appropriately according to an idea. It is just that this does not prove
that material-practical reality as a whole is the product of the Idea. Hegel
provides no such proof, and there can be no such proof; it is a metaphysical
thesis, in the same way that mechanical materialism (the search for
mechanisms) is a metaphysical thesis.

So the solution to the problem of introducing assumptions non-arbitrarily is
to be found in the relationship between World 2 and World 3, which involves
that the meanings contained in World 2 are practically limited in their
variability by World 3, and in this way that World 3 determines World 2.
That determinism does not exist in Hegel's thought, it is a materialist
determinism, and therefore Hegel's distillation of the pure categories can
be considered essentially speculative and idealist. He claims his procedure
is non-arbitrary, but in the end he can sustain his claim only with
reference to "what words and concepts can be reasonably understood mean", as
defined by the philosopher. In other words, he only gets as far as saying
that, if we assume that certain things have a certain meaning, then all
kinds of things follow, then it all makes sense.

Hegel tries to make his procedure rigorous by starting from very basic,
simple concepts and then "deducing" more complex concepts or concepts with
more content from them, but the procedure is essentially still arbitrary,
since the meanings Hegel accepts can be contested; they need not mean, what
he says they mean. At most Hegel can say, that if one assumes these
meanings, then everything follows and makes sense. But he does not escape
from the problem of tautology, namely that the meanings are meaningful only
if we assume their meaning already; "in the last instance", the assumption
of the meanings is validated only by a "meta-meaning". But since the
meta-meaning is itself distilled through the assumption of meanings, it is
just meanings turning on themselves, evolving themselves by themselves out
of themselves. It's a highly creative process, but it's just that it is
speculative, and therefore ultimately still arbitrary.

The way out of the problem, Marx suggests, is that we assume that World 3
exists and is quite independent of World 1 and World 2, even if World 3 can
be influenced by World 1 and World 2. The non-arbitrariness of the
abstractions which are incorporated into the argument as assumptions, then
derives from a correct contextualizing and appreciation of the relationship
between World 2 and World 3 - the fact, that in practical life people must
necessarily assume certain things, which makes some antecedents and
consequences more likely and rule others out. In other words, "philosophy
has to become worldly".

But if we do so, the philosophical project in fact collapses, since, to
validate the assumptions we must appropriate something in thought which
exists at least partly, or wholly, beyond thought. And if that is the case,
then we cannot simply deduce a specific category from a more general
category by force of thought only, because that would be arbitrary - the
specific category exists as a specific category in virtue of conditions that
exist beyond the thought-world, not inside it, and therefore we have to
appropriate the specific category in relation to the mind-independent
conditions which give rise to it - a relationship which is practical,
discoverable and scientifically testable, rather than assumed. The process
of generalization and specification must, in brief, refer to something
external to thought.

As similar problem has arisen in modern times in the form of
"mathematicism". The idea is that meaning can be reduced to quantities, and
that numericality provides the greatest precision of meaning for the
smallest meaningful distinctions. It therefore seems that mathematical
meaning can exhaustively contain all other conceivable meaning, as the
"queen of the sciences". Unfortunately, although this seems prima facie
plausible, mathematicism does not escape from the problem of qualia, i.e.
that to get the mathematical reasoning off the ground, we must still assume
something which is not contained in mathematics, or assume something that
does not follow from the mathematical argument. It leaves the problem, that
at any time some definitions must be regarded as axiomatic, without any
mathematical proof (a proof contained within the mathematical argument) that
those axioms are true. At best we can say that mathematics in its best sense
offers the possibility of gaining the most knowledge by making the least
assumptions, and the most possibility of validating them, if one gives it a
chance to develop itself. But that hope has suffered a considerable knocking
by the financial crisis. It turns out that the problem of qualia is actually
much more significant than previously supposed.

Hegelian Marxism is admirous of the profundity and erudition which seems to
inhere in Marx and Hegel, but in fact its love of the grand system, the
grandiose thought, is blind: it embraces the theoretical system as the
answer, but has lost the questions to which it was supposed to be an answer.
And thus it is an answer... in search of a question which will validate the
answer. But that is hardly a dialectical approach, because it is not a
dialogue but a monologue, ultimately pure dogma.


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Received on Sun Sep 5 12:24:11 2010

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