Re: [OPE] Models and Marx

From: howard engelskirchen <>
Date: Mon Feb 14 2011 - 00:56:09 EST

Hi Paul,

Your question is a difficult one for me and I cannot give an adequate answer
to it. I offer some suggestions.

First, I take very seriously Marx's brief observations in 'The Method of
Political Economy' section of the Grundrisse Introduction and interpret
Ian's work in that perspective. If we study capital and value as social
kinds, then we will want to identify their "simplest determinations." I
take it Marx refers here to the underlying causal structures that account
for what these social entities are and how they behave and reproduce
themselves as what they are. H2O is water's simplest determination. But
Marx also says that the progress of investigation must enrich these until we
can explain the phenomenon that triggered investigation -- 'population' is
Marx's example. And we will appeal to this phenomenon now not as a category
empty of causal connection, but as a "rich totality of many determinations
and relations." I understand Ian's work as engaged in this elaboration.

In oher words, Ian says "My starting premise is that dynamic multisector
models of capitalist competition . . . are a necessary prerequisite to the
investigation of issues in the theory of economic value." Because I'm
looking for capital's simplest determinations, its real definition, and
because I understand Marx to pursue this by abstracting precisely from
competition, Ian and I wind up doing very different things. By the same
token a simple determination of capital is meaningful only if it can
connect to an explanation of competition. So the work of elaborating the
capital's many determinations is on the one hand essential and moreover if
capital's many determinations and relations are to be developed to any
amplitude they will require a correspondingly rich use of the mathematical
tools at Ian's disposal.

A key question is whether one has built a so-to-speak ladder that moves step
by step from simplicity to complexity. That is, once you've identified the
few specific properties that distinctively characterize capital, if you
nonetheless start with your ladder pitched in mid-air, sooner or later,
like the buzzard in the Roadrunner cartoons, problems will bring you down to
earth. I don't think it's the case that no work can be done at any level
until the second step of the ladder is filled in, and then the third, and so
on sequentially, but I do think you sort of have to have the idea that those
connecting steps are or ought to be in place - that someone will make the
connect, or, say, marx already has, etc.

Second, I agree with Ian on emphasizing the importance of unobservable
causal mechanisms. He refers to an equilibrium point -- maybe a solar
system's center of gravity offers an analogy. I hope that if capital's
simplest determinations are made explicit it will be easier to connect such
things, e.g. equilibrium relations and their dynamics,with capital's
defining structures.

Third, Ian explains that he outlines a macrodynamic model of "a hypothetical
or 'ideal' capitalist economy." This raises questions that are difficult
for me and I have some questions. Ian emphasizes the importance of
abstraction and I agree; this is how we access the unobservable as I
explained in the excerpt I attached a few days ago. I referred to
'selective attention' as a form of the power of abstraction; we disregard
some things to focus on others that are the target of inquiry. Also, I
think we can hold particular features of a model constant the way we can
hold pressure of a gas constant in studying molecular motion. I'm less
certain how we work with hypothetical properties or mechanisms or when it
is appropriate to do so. In the excerpt I compared the use of abstraction
to the way a natural scientist uses experiemental design. But the one
advantage a natural scientist definitely does have over an economist is
that when a natural scientist abstracts from one thing to focus on another,
the thing focused on will still be a real entity. That is not always true
for economists. (If the natural scientist 'abstracts' to an unobservable
like gravity, the distinction may not be as clear cut -- still, the
experimenter wants to work with a real, not a hypothetical or ideal
mechanism.) What are the constraints in social science devoted to 'keeping
it real'? Marx anyway I think offers a good model.

I mean by this that mostly he seems to me to abstract to real causal
properties of the relations and processes he investigates. By contrast,
Althusser argues that Marx's object is ideal: "Marx, therefore, does not
even study the English example, however classic and pure it may be, but a
non-existent example" R.C. 194. In the section from Capital as a Social
Kind that follows the one I gave an excerpt of I draw as sharp a
distinction as I can between this appropach and my own. Marx studies
capital as a social structure in England, Germany and elsewhere. He
abstracts to really existing features that are common, and distinctively so,
to the entities that fall within the extension of the term 'capital'. He is
not studying social relations that are hypothetical or ideal.

Fourth, I find Ian's treatment of the transformation problem interesting and
important, but I am not convinced that he has made the problem go away.
Social kind analysis, I think, must have ramifications here, but I will have
to turn my attention to the issue before I an able to say anything
meaningful about it.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Paul Cockshott" <>
To: "Outline on Political Economy mailing list" <>
Sent: Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:05 PM
Subject: Re: [OPE] Models and Marx

> Howard, how do you interpret Ians Model in the light of your stuff on
> social kinds?
> ________________________________________
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of howard engelskirchen []
> Sent: Saturday, February 12, 2011 4:25 PM
> To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
> Subject: Re: [OPE] Models and Marx
>> Hence we can also say that the theory of phlogiston modeled the causal
>> mechanisms involved in combustion but did so poorly based on the
>> criteria by which we judge or rank competing theories: empirical
>> accuracy, logical consistency, generality and simplicity.
> Hi Dave,
> What causal mechanisms involved in combustion did the theory of phlogiston
> pick out or refer to?
> There's a difficulty here. Phlogiston is a substance given off in
> combustion. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to this. You
> don't
> call my model of fairies in the garden 'poor'.
> howard
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Dave Zachariah" <>
> To: "Outline on Political Economy mailing list" <>
> Sent: Saturday, February 12, 2011 7:28 AM
> Subject: Re: [OPE] Models and Marx
>> On 2011-02-11 00:40, Paul Cockshott wrote:
>>> The difference between the theory and the model is that the theory
>>> needs to be materialised and activated as a physical model before
>>> any predictions emerge.
>>> A theory is more abstract than a model, it tells you how to go about
>>> constructing a model, but until you have built the model and activated
>>> it you get no predictions out. This was harder to see in the past since
>>> the computations required to model the mechanics of the solar system
>>> according to Newtons laws were done by people using papers and pencils
>>> so the model in the sense of the computing system that produced the
>>> results, was distributed over the notebooks, the clerks who did the
>>> menial
>>> calculations and the directors like Laplace who developed the high level
>>> equations.
>>> A model now can be physically localised in an appropriately configured
>>> universal computer - and we at times abstract from the computer itself
>>> and say that the software package, independent of the hardware, is
>>> the model. But such a model is still something concrete, with a material
>>> existence and more importantly, a specific parametrisation.
>>> The general theory of celestial mechanics is not a model, but part of
>>> the means of production of models. The theory can be used to produce
>>> a multiplicity of models -- of different planetary systems, of galactic
>>> dynamics,
>>> etc.
>>> A model may be built in accordance with a theory, and if the theory
>>> allows a large
>>> number of models to be built, all of which models turn out to have a
>>> good
>>> predictive
>>> ability we say that the theory is a law.
>> Paul, I agree with what you wrote, especially about the 'materiality' of
>> predictors. The meaning of words like 'theory' and 'model' are in this
>> context of course somewhat elusive. By 'model' above you mean a concrete
>> empirical predictor. In my original post I meant to say that theories
>> 'model' (as a verb) causal mechanisms and can be used to produce a >
>> Hence
>> we can also say that the theory of phlogiston modeled the causal
>> mechanisms involved in combustion but did so poorly based on the
>> criteria by which we judge or rank competing theories: empirical
>> accuracy, logical consistency, generality and simplicity.
>> specific models (as instances) of physical systems where those
>> mechanisms are active. E.g. Newton's laws model certain causal
>> mechanisms of the universe and can be used to generate a predictive
>> model of the trajectory of celestial bodies.
>> //Dave Z
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