[OPE] Hegel's method of abstraction

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Mon Sep 06 2010 - 16:29:49 EDT


Okay maybe I am being too unkind to Hegelian Marxisms, and I'll try to avoid
that sort of thing from now on. It's not a useful dispute anyway. The most
useful thing that Hegelian-type Marxist scholarship has done I think is to
clarify the Marx-Hegel relationship. When you are young, you get all kinds
of knowledges served up as a "given" datum. But as you develop your critical
faculties, you become much more concerned with the formulation of the
questions themselves, with why some things are being problematized, how
ideas are formed and where we get them from. If scholarly inquiry consists
only of restating the same thing over and over again, as a mark of
integrity, then I am not very keen on that. It is not that I do not
staunchly believe certain things, but rather that I am interested in the
process and not in endlessly reiterating results, which only deadens my own

My own experience in these things just leads me to the conclusion that the
dialectical characteristics of a reality are something to be "discovered" in
the study of the subjectmatter. This discovery requires a creative response
by the researcher confronted with the evidence he tries to explain: he or
she has to "reconstruct" the subjectmatter based on an analysis which it
contains, verifying how things are related to
each other, which determinants are involved, how different aspects mutually
influence each other and so on.

I don't believe that there is any such thing as "the dialectical method"
which exists independently of the subjectmatter to which it refers. I regard
such an approach as doctrinaire and dogmatic. Dialectical thinking is not
developed by following a dialectical rule-book, but in a dialogue with the
evidence and with other people. The root meaning of dialectics is dialogue.
The challenge is whether you can, in a dialogue, take any topic and tease
out its dialectical aspects, and that is not as easy as it sounds; normally
one can only do it in an area of knowledge where one has expertise and
sufficient background knowledge to understand the context, the relationship
between the general and the particular and so on. When, having traced out
and analysed the various interacting determinants and relationships involved
in a subjectmatter thoroughly, we are able to provide a summation of it in a
dialectical way, then I think that is only really the "icing on the cake".

Nobody I think has ever been able to specify "the dialectical method"
because there isn't one, there are only a variety of dialectical procedures
and interpretations.

The main point I've tried to get across in a simplified way is just that
forms of reasoning exist which, although they cannot be fully specified in
terms of formal deductive logic or binary code, are nevertheless
non-arbitrary, "reasonable" forms of inference. This is acknowledged by many
logicians and programmers, it is just that there is no agreement about how
the logical properties of such inferences and their validity should be
assessed and understood, or whether they can be classed in a standard way.
Logic as a science is still in its infancy because we have only scratched
the surface of all the different possible ways in which people reason. All
we have done is promote forms of reasoning which seem to be effective. But
in the light of the massive problems the world faces, we ought to think

In formal-logical determinism, human action is considered either rational,
and hence logically explicable, or else arbitrary or random. But in
dialectical determinism, human action may be non-arbitrary and determinate,
hence reasonable, even although it is not explicable exclusively in
formal-logical terms. The action selected by people from a limited range of
options for example may not be the most logical one, but it can be shown to
be non-arbitrary and reasonable under the circumstances, if the total
context is considered. All that means is just that both logic and meta-logic
operate simultaneously all the time, that there are different logical levels
which operate simultaneously, and that in interpreting this, our own biases
may blind us to what it going on.

The problem with the "levels of abstraction" or "levels of
generality"approach is not that it is an incoherent notion per se. The
problem is rather different. It is that by postulating that the "whole" is
more than
the sum of its "parts", that the whole and the parts are irreducible to each
other, "and therefore" must be analyzed at different levels of abstraction,
it becomes unclear how we can verify how the two are related; logically,
they could be related in any number of different ways, and it cannot be
proved how the parts determine the whole or the whole determines the parts,
because it is a prior assumption. If the principle of overdetermination is
assumed in the argument, there is nothing in the argument which can prove
the overdetermination, because is has already been assumed.

That is not what science does, because what science does is to explain how
the parts and a whole are related, and we cannot very wel do so, if each can
only be analyzed at their own level of abstraction. In my opinion, most of
the talk about "levels of abstraction" is merely a demonstration of a lack
of ability to grapple with anything real, an inability to move from the
general to the specific, or from the specific to the general, in a
non-arbitrary way. And I don't think that it helps anybody to paper over
this problem with a sophisticated language about "dialectics". Either you do
know how to analyse a problem or you don't, but if you don't, talk about
"dialectics" is not going to solve anything. So I regard the "levels of
abstraction" chatter mainly as a mask for incompetence to analyse something
real, or call things by their appropriate names. Ordinarily I see very
little point in pontificating about dialectics, and therefore I don't do so.
At best I might use the term, if I think that a complex causal chain, or a
relationship between logic and metalogic warrants it.

Just as example: Marx does not distinguish between micro and macro
economics - he provides a set of categories which operate both at the micro
and and macro level, at the national level and the international level. The
split between micro and micro is not necessarily inherent in reality, it can
just be a matter of the categories used to understand it, and often is.
Categories are contrived to mask certain things and reveal certain other
things, but the categorization which really works is the one which reveals
the whole thing as it really is. That is the task of science.

I believe that people already think dialectically even if they do not know
that they do so, like that horrible crude "Rosa Luxemburg" guy, and I think
there is still a large unexplored terrain of scientific inquiry which
consists in making human inferential processes explicit. In bourgeois
society, we are all supposed to think in the same market-oriented way, but
in reality we don't.

I just think that our ideas about what rationality is, are strongly
influenced by dogma and ideology. The analytical Marxist Jon Elster grew
rather pessimistic about the potential of "rational choice theory" - human
choices seemed to have less rationality than he had previously supposed.
This is a very fashionable bourgeois idea, but I dissent from it (in the
same way as intelligent bourgeois thinkers did). I think that people are
much more rational than the theories cooked up about human rationality,
which have obvious ideological uses, insofar as people try to impose their
own way of thinking on others. So really my conclusion is the exact opposite
of Jon Elster's: people are a whole lot more rational than we think they
are, it is just we haven't yet discovered how that works, and many of us
don't want to discover it. Jon Elster just ends up confusing rationality
with calculation, but as I said before, I think that is an mistake. I know
it to be a mistake, because I have worked very extensively on a routine
basis with words and with numbers as a job. That changes your whole
perception of what the problems are.

In life you have a choice: you can assume something, or you can try to
discover something, and you can discover something only by suspending an
assumption in some way, if you are open to something which differs from
previous belief. Okay, we always have to assume some things as well as
having to discover some things. But if we only assume things, we never learn
anything new. Fundamentally, the dialectical process as a creative process
is about the obtaining of assumptions and overturning them. Hegel's
dialectic culminates in the Absolute Idea. Marx's dialectic culminates in
the universe as we can know it. Which would you rather have?


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Received on Mon Sep 6 16:31:31 2010

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