[OPE] Bhaskar as Marx's method?

From: Jurriaan Bendien <jurriaanbendien@online.nl>
Date: Sat Feb 05 2011 - 10:01:49 EST

The problem with presenting Bhaskar (see picture attached) as Marx's method
is, that Bhaskar's method fromm its very origin is the philosophical method
of neo-Kantian transcendental realism. There are unobservable "hidden
mechanisms", which we have to postulate, because we can never observe them.

This has really nothing to do with science, or with Marx.

In the end, Bhaskar has so much difficulty reconciling the "inner" and the
"outer", that he resorts to a spiritualist metaphysics, in other words, he
ends up not even believing in his own "scientific realism". Ian would no
doubt not follow him there, but the point is that Bhaskar's point of
departure takes him there. It is just like Erik Olin Wright getting lost in
his own typologies (see Russell Jacoby's review
http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=3790 ).

Marx meant something quite different. Take, for example this famous passage
from Cap. Vol. 3, retranslated to remove Ben Fowkes's errors:

"Vulgar economics actually does nothing more than to interpret, to
systematize and turn into apologetics - in a doctrinaire way - the ideas of
the agents who are trapped within bourgeois relations of production. So it
should not surprise us that, precisely within the estranged form of
appearance of economic relations in which these ''prima facie'' absurd and
complete contradictions occur - and all science would be superfluous if the
form of appearance of things directly coincided with their essence - that
precisely here vulgar economics feels completely at home, and that these
relationships appear all the more self-evident to it, the more their inner
interconnection remains hidden to it, even though these relationships are
comprehensible to the popular mind" - Marx, Capital, Volume III', Penguin
edition, p. 956.

Marx does not say that the "inner connection" (the Zusammenhang, i.e. how
something fits together) is completely hidden and unobservable, he says that
"these relationships are comprehensible to the popular mind". People do
understand these things experientially quite well, even although the vulgar
political economists mystify their meaning. Precisely because the surface
appearance is taken as self-evident, what it really means, is hidden. Part
of the story hides the whole story. But that does not mean there are
unobservables, it is rather an argument about what the observables mean.

Furthermore, Marx does not say that the "hidden mechanisms" are unobservable
in principle. If that was the case, no science would be possible because
then we could never test out the existence of "hidden mechanisms"
experientially. We could never prove anything or reconcile coherence
criteria with correspondence criteria of truth. Marx is committed to the
idea, that at certain moments or junctures the "essence" does become

What Marx means is, that there is plenty to be observed, but the meaning of
what it is, is misconstrued. His "materialism" then consists in giving an
explanation of why the meaning is misconstrued, the practical reasons for
it. Marx aims to show that the reason why things appear other than they are
is not primarily a matter of accident, randomness, chaos or deliberate
deception, but instead is found in the social structuration of human
practices themselves.

For example, when Marx analyzes "wages" conceptually as an economic form (as
a social institution) in Capital, Volume I, he emphasizes very explicitly

 "All the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all
the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, all capitalism's
illusions of freedom, all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, have as
their basis the form of appearance discussed above, which makes the actual
relation invisible, and indeed presents to the eye the precise opposite of
that relation" (Penguin ed., p. 680).

He explains how the market relationship by its very nature inverts the real
social relationship involved, so that it appears as its very opposite. He
applies the same kind of argument in Capital to many different economic
"forms", in order to demonstrate how the very nature of an institutionalized
practice itself causes a misapprehension of its true significance, so that
things appear other than they are.

The real significance becomes apparent, Marx argues, only when, through an
historical study of the origin of the "form" (what gives rise to it), one
becomes clearly aware of what is actually involved in the emergence of the
form, i.e. the conditions necessary for its existence and perpetuation (and
eventual disappearance). Marx presents this argument not as a metaphysical
"philosophy of essentialism", but as a scientifically testable argument with
explanatory and predictive power.

Ian Wright's equilbrium philosophies are largely "pre-scientific", because
there are no real proofs for his equilibriums - he is mainly just using
mathematical descriptors to word the meaning of his idea in a coherent way.

His theory of dynamics is that "the tendency of the system is to stay the
same", but that is not what the theory of dynamics is about, for Marx. The
theory of dynamics aims to understand the real development of the system in
historical time.

Nobody disagrees with Ian, that scientific theory requires constants and
variables, and "ceteris paribus" clauses, in order to understand how
phenomena fit together and how they change. You don't even need Bhaskar's
pomposity for that. The scientific point is rather different.

Ian wants to "hold constant" the very thing which is a critical variable
(the variation of which is precisely what is important for the analysis),
and he wants to conceptualize the categories to understand the dynamics, by
deriving them from counterfactuals.

The result is not "a theory of dynamics", but "a theory of why the system is
stable, since each disturbance of the system evokes stabilizing forces".
There must be order in the chaos, because you can fit distributions of
observational data to an equation.

Again this is contrary to Marx's own method - Marx does not try to derive
his categories from counterfactuals, rather he highlights the contradictions
in the theories of the political economists, and the contradictions between
the interpretations of how things appear and how they really are, and then
he aims to show how these contradictions arise, why they necessarily arise,
and how they are resolved, in theory and practice. The chaos is only the
surface appearance, but in reality human communities are intentionial
communities structured according to purposes. Prices are not "random", they
are random only from a ceratin point of view adopted by the technocrats.

Let's say I want to give a scientific description of a giraffe. For the
purpose of my description, I start off by assuming the giraffe has no legs,
and I find the giraffe to be a "self-stabilizing" creature. Now of course I
can do this, and my description will provide some useable information about
the giraffe. But my description is nevertheless flawed, because a giraffe
does have legs. If I want to explain the giraffe's movement, it doesn't help
me to assume that the legs are not there.

The "working class heroes" try to show off their superior scientific,
academic and intellectual prowess, by displaying how "super-abstract" they
can think. The only problem with it is, that their "superabstract thought"
is so superabstract, that it never reaches any connection with the real
world it has abstracted from. Little surprise, therefore, that Bhaskar
returns, after rebelling against the theosophy of his parents, via Rom
Harre, to the nebulous realm of spiritualist metaphysics... without truly
shedding any new light on human spirituality at all.

Let's suppose that we really wanted to create a theory of capitalist
dynamics. How would we do it? Well, the first thing we would do, is to
define what it is that we have to explain. If we are scientific, what we
would do, is look at the actual historical development of capitalism, and we
would say that these are the trends we have to explain.


ope mailing list

Received on Sat Feb 5 10:05:07 2011

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Mon Feb 28 2011 - 00:00:02 EST