Sunday, October 08, 2006

Getting real

Andy Newman, a member of the beleagured Scottish Socialist Party and keen blogger, has given one of his recent posts the apologetic title Philosophical self-indulgence from me. Andy has a bone to pick with self-proclaimed Marxists who don't believe in what he calls 'scientific realism'. Richard Seymour, the proprietor of the popular English blog Lenin's Tomb, is singled out for criticism:

“Lenin” argues that the truth of concepts such as atoms is unknowable, then all truth is unknowable, and all we have is language...he rejects the concept of a knowable independently existing reality...

Here are some comments I made in reply to Andy:

I agree that the view that objective reality is completely unknowable because language gets in the way is one that Marxists should reject, but do we have to go to the opposite extreme and argue for the 'naive realist' view that the world can be experienced 'directly', without being mediated by the concepts that the mind provides?

I know that there are some in the Marxist tradition who have done this - Lenin with his 'camera theory of perception' in Materialism and Empiriocriticism is one - but there are also instances of a more subtle approach being taken (Lenin himself seems to take a more subtle approach in his later Philosophical Notebooks).

Language does not make reality unknowable in the way that Derrida and other post-structuralists have claimed it does, but equally we cannot experience reality without language, without a set of concepts. So both the extreme postmodern view you attribute to Richard of Lenin's Tomb and the naive realist view that the real Lenin fell for in his early work on philosophy are mistaken.

As I understand him, Marx argues that the key to thinking is 'abstraction' - that we grasp reality by 'abstracting' it through applying concepts to it. Marx tries to create abstractions that are dialectical - that contain contradiction and change - in contrast to 'static' bourgeois abstractions and the concepts that are based on them. But what he is abstracting doesn't pre-exist in concepts before he comes to it - he is imposing order upon a mass of data and sensations, and he can only ever 'capture' so much of that mass in any one abstraction. Reality is infinitely complex and cannot be grasped in toto, just as it cannot be grasped without language.

In Capital, of course, Marx goes back again and again to his massively complex subject, abstracting it in different ways to bring out its different aspects. That's why he 'contradicts' himself, in the eyes of bourgeois social scientists, by talking at one time about a capitalist class, at another time about capitalist classes, at another time about bankers as a distinct class, and so on.

Marx, then, has a radically different method than bourgeois realists, who think that reality comes in pre-cut categories and treat their concepts like pigeonholes. And underlying this different method is a different ontology - an ontology which denies that the world exists nicely and tidily 'out there', and merely has to be 'photographed' by us.

There are important epistemological consequences of Marx's ontology and his dialectical method. When making projections about the future or generalisations about the past, Marx often talks of 'tendencies', rather than laws, and he makes it clear that there are a multiple 'countervailing tendencies' which can cancel out these tendencies, at least for periods of time.

Bourgeois social scientists don't understand this subtlety, and delight in announcing that Marxism has been 'refuted' because, say, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was largely absent in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. They have a crude positivist method based on the belief that human life can be understood with the same sort of rigorous rules that are used in physics (or were used in physics - in recent decades the rise of chaos theory, which has more than a little affinity to the Marxist method, as Alan Woods has pointed out, has led to significant changes to methodology in physics and and a number of other natural sciences).

More on all this later. I bet you can't wait.


Blogger Tim Barton said...

We may or may not be able to take a Kantian stance on the 'unknowable ground of all being'. I personally think, from a non-left ideologised perspective, coming instead from philosophy first principles, but still as a creature of the left, that Kant is right.

Marx may or may not feel that acknowledgement of this requires a rejection of his historical materialism, but, I don't think it does. His views fit the macroscopic world just fine. Kant's views fit the ground of being, at a level well away from that on which we live, and do not imply that there can therefore be no direction in human proress, nor that we cannot discern it if there is - indeed, his political ideas of universal ethics / world government are not, I think, a contradiction.

Quantum mechanics has given 'validity' to a Kantian position, but frankly such a position was strong already - but not one that can be mistaken as a precursor to Po-Mo nihilist 'nothing is true, so everything is allowed' nonsense.

I say, no threat to Marx and Historical materialism can come from
accepting that the ultimate ground of being is beyond our reach.


3:29 am  
Blogger Mike B said...

As you know I've been doing a bit of reading on the debates in English Marxism lately, I'm finally getting around to reading the Poverty of Theory, the object of your thesis. The methodological questions are really interesting in themselves, but I've been thinking about how it reflects on my supposed discipline, economics.

Marxist economists are in quite a different position to the historians, relative to the orthodoxy. While the historians are more systematic than the orthodoxy, and are attacked for trying to impose 'laws' on the facts, the situation is reversed for marxist economists. The main critique of neoclassical economics, as with Marx's critique of political economy, is that it reifies social relations, is ahistorical, and too deterministic. Marxists are generally less deterministic than the orthodoxy. Yet Marxist economists are obviously still concerned with issues of causality and historical process, tendencies. I think this had led to some really interesting thought on epistemology - especially how to think about causality - in a broader discipline whose orthodoxy is woefully inattentive to that kind of thing.

I'd like to write some thoughts about it, but dont know when I'll find the time.

2:19 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Don't leave us hanging Mike! Some references, at least?

9:05 am  
Blogger maps said...

PS: have discovered this post from a young philosopher who mkakes my points rather more coherently:
He's not a Marxist but recognises the uniqueness of Marx's philosophy.

9:13 am  
Blogger Mike B said...

Will try to write something soon... unfortunately sick right now and have a pile of essays to mark... i guess I'm thinking of the 'classical marxist' economists who arrived in a wave in the 1970s... a very diverse group and lots of disagrements, but they share a project of reviving Marx's approach to political economy (which was a critique but also obviously a positive contribution) rather than a collection of ossified categories. I'm thinking of people like Anwar Shaikh (US), Ben Fine (UK) and Suzanne de Brunhoff (France), and journals like Capital and Class. Anwar Shaikh's webpage has most his writings, but his accessible methodological stuff is jumbled together with more technical mathematical academic work. The 1982 essay "Neo-Ricardian Economics: a wealth of algebra, a poverty of theory" is a good starting point, developing the central ideas in a polemic:

7:44 pm  

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