From a Notebook on Dialectics : Part Four

From a Notebook on Dialectics : Part Four


[1] Nature does not require our permission to be dialectical

Nature is immanently dialectical. The understanding of definite natural forms can only be left to the work of natural scientists who are far better equipped to address it than most ‘philosophers’. In the end, the whole question is not as complex as some think. There are two fundamental bifurcations on the journey. One : either the cosmos is in a constant state of development, of evolution, arising and vanishing determinations and negations or it is not. Two : once we have accepted the proposition that the cosmos is in states of constant development we reach another fork in this road : either (a) all this evolution, this life and vitality, is producing and produced by conflicts and contradictions i.e. the cosmos, including humanity’s relations to it, is inherently dialectical without the need for gods, ghosts or ghouls. Or (b) we fall into the doctrines of various religions and accept that the ultimate cause behind all this evolution is divine impulse and intervention. We embrace the religious, theistic, pantheistic, call it what you like.

If you reject dialectics, you reject Marx and the tradition which has arisen therefrom. You cannot reject dialectics as a comprehensive outlook in one breath then refer to yourself as a “Marxist” in the next breath. One cannot reject the underlying, underpinning and mediating approach and then embrace the necessary outcomes of that same approach as the truth of the world spinning around us.

The essence or the focus of the dialectical approach is the disclosure of the inner contradictions within the world (its internally and dynamically active contradictions) which enable us to not only grasp the origins of the world but also its ‘impulse’, ‘vitality’, ‘life’; to grasp its inherent tendencies of development. Contradiction is the most fundamental, animating category of dialectics, in the dialectical method of approach. If we do not grasp the internal contradictory relations of the world – and especially the implicit tendencies of development which result from a grasp of them –  then how can we orientate ourselves in practice? Our conception, surely, is to inform what we actually do. It is not an academic or fatalistic conception. It is not a question of waiting for the apple to drop from the tree in order to pick it up but rather a question of actually shaking the tree in order to do so. If the conception does not focus on the contradictory life and tendencies of the object then how can it comprehensively inform our activity?

Thinking which appropriates the world by means of dialectics is itself a product of human history. And, accordingly, this way of thinking actually arises and develops historically under certain historical conditions which, when posited, render it possible and necessary. The only scientifically valid and non-ideological way to grasp the nature of dialectical thinking – as with all forms of thinking – is by a study of its origins and development within the unfolding of the historical process itself.

A comprehensive understanding of dialectical thinking is not rooted ideologically and rationalistically in thought itself but in the evolution of Nature and Society as a process of development. More specifically, in humanity’s activity in the transformation of Nature to meet its requirements, as expressed in the development and application of the different forms of human knowledge. Dialectical forms of thinking cannot grasp themselves independently of this process but can only be characterised and evolve in relation to it.

The understanding of dialectical thought proceeds on the grounds of, and arising out of, man’s activity and his reflection of this activity in the course of the unfolding of the historical process itself. We cannot explain the origins and development of dialectical thinking rationalistically and exclusively within the conceptualisations of its own thought-realm. The stage at which the historical process has arrived in the course of its development conditions and limits our knowledge. Engels writes that our knowledge is ‘limited in its actuality but unlimited in its disposition and potential’. Engels asserted that dialectical thinking is merely the expression of the forms of motion of the natural and social world reflected and articulated in the human mind and in our practical relations with Nature.

Dialectical thinking involves the study of the world in its development and not as a static, stationary formation using fixed categories. This ‘world in its development’ is grasped as the identity and conflict of arising and vanishing moments, giving the world its immanently contradictory character, the tendency to return to the old but at a different stage or higher phase of development, the ‘leap’ forward to a qualitatively new set of relations, etc. As one determinate formation or stage of it is passing away this becomes identified with and makes room for a new formation or stage which is emerging out of its passing and which is connected with it yet distinct from the older, dying phase, etc. Contradiction is precisely this identity of vanishing and arising moments which are nevertheless essentially distinct and opposed in their identity.

The development which takes place in human history is merely one form (the socio-historical form) of dialectical development. But Nature itself does not require the presence of an ‘active subject’, a transcendence or indwelling pantheism in order to be dialectical. It does not require permission to be dialectical. If the world is ‘living contradiction’, then clearly we can understand this world more deeply with a conception of contradiction within it and this must orientate us in our activities. This, of course, is not to deny the determinate character of the world, a world of objects caught in process. But to approach the world as if it is all ‘determinacy’ without ‘indeterminacy’ is one of the problems I am seeking to address in these articles on dialectics.

[2] Determinateness and Indeterminateness

The object of our observations presents a determinable form to us. The appearance of ‘stability’ to us. This is its ‘face’, its immediacy as an ‘exteriorisation’ of the procession of its internal mediations, of its internal dynamics animated by contradiction, by countless movements. The internal motion of the object presents itself in the form of an immediate, determinable exteriorisation or appearance. This apparent stability (determinateness) does not deny the inherent indeterminateness of and within the object. The object is this unity of determinateness and indeterminateness.

The determinateness and coherence of things persists (they maintain their stability) because they are constantly returning into themselves and re-affirming (re-positing) themselves out of negation. They are stable enough to maintain their coherence and integrity despite the countless movements and alterations taking place within them. They maintain a stability as wholes despite the constant changes taking place within themselves which take place within the limits and conditions of the determinateness of the object. This is precisely why things appear not to change as wholes, despite the fact that irreversible changes are constantly taking place in all objects.

In this process of things ‘returning to themselves’ out of negation, the original determinateness of the object is and yet is not re-posited. Every ‘return to the old’ simultaneously involves an irreversible advance beyond the old because the return contains sublated within itself the antecedent negativity arising out of what was originally posited. Therein lies precisely the actual content of change. Change is a passing away of something and yet a return to it in a renewed form. The tree outside my window is not the same tree as it was yesterday (because of all the molecular changes which have taken place in its metabolism in the course of a day’s development) and yet it is “this” determinate tree as was here yesterday and therefore re-asserts and re-posits itself in its ‘negated negation’. In its indeterminacy, it reasserts itself as this determinate tree. In this re-positing, it reaffirms itself in its difference from its ‘old’ self. It ‘returns’ to itself only by going beyond itself. These alterations in going beyond itself are now sublated into itself in returning to itself and hence an irreversible advance within this return. There is real development despite the formal appearance of an unchanging return and ‘repetition’.

Change takes place within the coherence and integrity of the object because it is immanently self-contradictory. Beyond the conditions and limits of this determinateness of the object (its coherence and integrity as an object) lies its dissolution wherein it cannot maintain itself in contradiction but must perish in contradiction. The tree, after hundreds of years, loses its vitality, its water transport functions decline, its root system starts to become ineffective and its resistance to disease is undermined, etc. It starts to decay and disintegrate. It is weakened by disease and decay and one day it falls in the forest, breaks into pieces and is broken down by insects and saprophytes. Its components then enter as nutrients into the soil and other trees use them. It is broken down and its chemical components are assimilated as nutrients in the wider evolving ecosystem. A carbon atom – originally created in the cores of stars from simpler elements and thrown out into the universe in their explosive destruction – has made a journey through billions of years of time and it continues on that journey in forever changing situations and circumstances. Here as the carbon atom in a molecule of carbon dioxide, then as an atom in a molecule of glucose, and now as an atom covalently bonded to other atoms in a polysaccharide polymer stored in the human liver, etc. It then, once again, becomes the carbon atom in a molecule of carbon dioxide as a product of respiration (metabolism of glucose) and expelled into the external environment outside the human body. In all these different contexts it is the same carbon atom and yet is different as a function of these differing chemical and biochemical contexts in which it finds itself.

Objects altering retain their coherence and integrity as objects because they are always returning into themselves out of the countless negations taking place within them. These negations are undergoing negation which reasserts the positive coherence of the object itself. All the time they retain this integrity as determinate objects, each return out of negation is simultaneously an irreversible advance beyond the old determinateness. This is because the return contains superseded within it the mediations and countless negations of antecedent development; the negations being negated to bring the object back to itself. Each moment of change is simultaneously both a negation and a reaffirmation of the object.

‘Newness’ is always a synthesis, the outcome of the resolution of contradiction in the return to the old. Hegel : the positive, in passing over into its negative (mediation), sets up the contradictory dynamic in the relationship between the two. Each is in the other simultaneously determining of the other and self-determining and so negating of each other and of self in their relation. The outcome of the resolution of this contradictory dynamic is the synthesis which is ‘newness’. Within the stable parameters and framework of the originally posited, this synthesis is a return to the old. But it is simultaneously not the old because containing sublated (superseded) within itself the negations of the transcended contradictory relation. The resultant whole constitutes a ‘newness’ which is a synthesis giving birth to new contradictions in its self-movement.

This is why determinate objects sometimes appear not to ‘change’ because they are continuously reaffirming themselves in their return into themselves out of negation. (Hegel : ‘absolute negativity’ as the reaffirmation of a positive content of a determinate being). For example, the old oak tree at the end of the lane is always returning to itself out of the negations of daily and seasonal development. It daily reaffirms itself as this particular oak tree and seasonally when it produces its acorns, drops its leaves in the autumn, etc. It is the oak tree at the end of the lane and yet it is simultaneously a different oak tree from moment to moment, in constantly reaffirming itself in its return to itself. When it becomes old and diseased, decaying and disintegrating, and loses its leaves and branches, etc, and starts to decline, this is a real qualitative shift in its actual determinate character, etc. The “returns” now become of a qualitatively different nature. A return to a diseased and dying tree whose resemblance to the former determinateness has undergone a qualitative shift. Before a healthy tree in the prime of its development and at the height of its life from season to season and now an old, rotting, disease ridden tree in a state of terminal decline, decay and death.

The empty glass in front of me returns into itself and reaffirms itself in its negations (in its negativity) as this real determinate glass in front of me. But if I shock it by filling it with boiling water, it shatters and this specific process of returning ceases. The abrupt energetic changes taking place in the glass transcend all the conditions necessary for the former integrity and coherence of the empty glass. The ‘qualitative leap’ or transformation. A really new determinacy is created and so a qualitatively different process of returning is posited. All the possibilities and functionalities of the original glass have been extinguished in the destruction. What is possible now is conditioned by the new actuality (and the conditions corresponding to it) of the shattered pieces of wet glass on the floor. For what is possible can only be so on the ground of what is actual, on the ground of its conditions of existence. What is possible can only be made actual with the consummation of the conditions of the possible. The glass has smashed. The old possibilities are extinguished. New possibilities are posited in the actuality of the shattered pieces. Changes within the previously existing framework of the coherence and integrity of the object as a glass can no longer take place because that previous framework has been abolished. Its determinate character has been utterly transcended into something other in the form of the shattered pieces of glass on the floor. What is preserved (sublation) is the actual materiality of the glass itself which remains subject to similar changes as shattered pieces as when it was the material constituting the coherent object. For example, electronic and nuclear changes at the atomic level, etc

The glass in front of me is undergoing all manner of imperceptible changes but it retains its integrity as ‘this glass’ in front of me. It can carry wine, water, etc. I can see through it, etc, hold it in my hand as this particular glass. But change is constantly taking place within it which re-posits and reaffirms its determinateness. It does not transcend this essential determinateness as a coherent object called “glass”. These changes do not transcend its essential determinateness as “this glass”. These alterations do not shatter the glass into pieces. All these changes within the framework of the conditions and parameters of the actual existence of the glass involve the dialectics of possibility and actuality but within the framework of this determinate being called “glass”. Some event has to take place in order to break, to smash this framework and transcend its coherence as a specific object called “glass”.

The possibilities are becoming transformed into actualities within the glass itself but also a rebirth of new possibilities is emerging as a result of these changes. The chemical structure is modulating in this or that direction, way, etc, as its possibilities become transformed into actualities with the consummation of chemical, physical, thermodynamic, quantum conditions, etc. But this is re-creating possibilities, etc, which do not threaten the actual existence (integrity) of the glass itself. So, the glass is changing continuously and yet it retains its determinateness, its essential character as a glass. It is still this particular glass and not in pieces on the floor despite all the alterations taking place within it. Its indeterminateness is containable and does not break through the conditions of existence of the glass, do not abolish it as a coherent, stable object. Objects are only processes because they contain changes within an established framework, parameters, conditions of existence. Once that framework is shattered, a new process emerges, is posited and undergoes a period of development within a newly established framework with its associated, necessary conditions and parameters.

[3] Dialectics in Nature and Heuristic Function in the Natural Sciences

The world of objects is always more complex than our conceptions of it and always will be because its inexhaustibility and complexity determines this epistemological relationship to it. In other words, our conceptions are ‘limited in their actuality’ yet ‘unlimited in their disposition and potentiality’ (Engels). In this sense, I conceptually appropriate the object only approximately and this relation is not simply conditioned epistemologically by the nature of all our objects of investigation. It is also conditioned historically by the level at which investigative and research technique has arrived in the course of its socio-historical development. This is why knowledge in the Natural Sciences must always and will always contain within itself – regardless of time or place – a contradiction between itself as specific knowledge at a certain stage of development and the actual being of the object of investigation itself. Hence our knowledge of the object must be never ending. We are always approaching this ‘actuality’ in our conception but can never fully embrace it in its complexity.

Even the simplest mathematical equation is merely a formalised expression of dialectical relations in Nature; e.g. E = mc2, F = ma, etc; the description of precipitation reactions in Chemistry are the formalised conceptualisation of the actual dialectics of the reaction taking place in front of us in the reaction vessel, etc. For example, take Newton’s Law,  F = ma. This equation expresses an identity between the distinct variables of force, mass and acceleration or a distinction between variables in their identity as represented by the ‘=’ sign.

Force is identified as the product of mass and acceleration. But force, whilst being identical to mass times acceleration, is something more, in its moment of distinction, than merely the product of the two. The fact that different variables (representing different sides of a general relationship of motion) appear on opposite sides of the equal sign itself implies identification of distinct variables. The very existence of the equation itself denotes the distinctions within the identity and articulates dialectics in a formalised mathematical expression. If there were no distinction within the identity which is the equation, there would be no equation.

If we state that ‘Henry is a black cat’, Henry is always something more than his incomplete characterisation in the form of the universals ‘black’ and ‘cat’. However, being ‘black’ and a ‘cat’ are an intrinsic part of the being Henry, part of his identification as this specific creature which his keeper names ‘Henry’.

Force is the product of mass times acceleration and yet it is more than simply this product. To assert that force is absolutely identical with mass times acceleration is akin to asserting that the expressed outcome which is the whole is absolutely identical to the sum and product of its component parts without the distinction in which the whole is also greater than the summation and product of its parts.

‘Formal logic’ sees all identity with no distinction or all distinction with no identity. It always misses the distinction within the identity and vice versa. In other words, the positivist, empiricist, pragmatist, etc, would deny this latter principle. S/he would call it ‘illogical’ or, ironically, ‘contradictory’ as it is impermissible for contradiction to actually exist in the world of objects. Things, they would assert, are either different or the same  But the dialectician would acknowledge contradiction as an intrinsic part and expression of all forms of development and would recognise it expressed in the workings and equations of mathematics.

The mathematical equation represents an identification of different variables in a specific relationship with each other which reflects the real character of a specific relationship in Nature. Hence every mathematical equation is a formalised statement of dialectics, of contradiction within the world, however well disguised those relations may be within the formula itself.

If we are using dialectics as a means of investigation and discovery (heuristic function) then it would be absurd to use it if the world itself were not dialectical in its actual relations. Philosophically, if we proceeded on the basis of ‘evidence’ alone – which is the hallmark of the empiricist – the whole of the socialist project would not have come into being. The source of Marx’s theory was not ‘evidence’ alone. Marx uses dialectics in the elaboration of his conception in Capital where it animates his method and his form of presentation in Capital. Many natural scientists assert that contradiction is ‘irrational’ and a foible of defective thnking. When they encounter contradictions in the outcomes of their researches, usually they do not consider that such outcomes may actually reflect the contradictory nature of the object itself. Usually they put it down to a defect in method, thinking or even in the physical apparatus which they are using. This, of course, is not to assert that that may not be possible.

The dynamics of social change and revolution actually demand dialectics as a way of understanding it. There is no denial of the scientific legitimacy, validity and achievements of ‘formal logic’ under certain conditions and parameters. If humanity wins through to socialism, and with later developments in the ‘true realm of freedom’, dialectics will eventually be incorporated into scientific method and eclipse the current forms of positivism and empiricism which rule it. Even now, in various areas of the natural sciences and in technology, a dialectical conception and appreciation of relations and properties is becoming necessary. For example, for pragmatic technological purposes, at the present stage, we can use formal logic to design computers but will that apply to the nth generation, etc? Here is a prediction from a computer philistine like me : it will not be that long before computer scientists designing the future generations of computers will come up against theoretical and technical limits (perhaps they have already done so?) which compel them to go beyond formal logic and enter the sphere of dialectics proper in order to design more advanced computers. The more the technology evolves, the more it will demand a conscious dialectical approach to the problems of design which will undoubtedly emerge.

There are still physicists who argue about whether light is a wave or particulate. And some answer that whether or not it is either is a function of the experimental conditions which we impose. We have TV celebrity physicists here in the UK (e.g., Jim Al Khalili, who has relatively recently published a book titled Paradox) who think paradox is a fault in reasoning, a defect in experimental method or a foible in scientific method. Such ‘advanced minds’ are trying to understand Nature without a grasp of the simple truth that Nature in all its forms is inherently paradoxical because it is in a constant state of alteration and development; in negation is simultaneously positing ‘otherness’ which movement stands as moment of paradox and source of its further movement. ‘Conflict is the engine of progress’ wrote Marx.

People like Al-Khalili are very able scientists but they are hampered in their work by being poor philosophers. Many appear to assume that because they are prominent scientists (some eminent in their particular field) they are automatically legitimate and ‘correct’ in their philosophical and heuristic approach to their area of research. When they encounter contradiction in their work, they do not actually consider that contradiction is truly indwelling within the physical phenomena and processes under study and that the specific forms of contradiction (‘paradox’) give the physical world its real sources of movement and energy. If they did consider the truth of this inherent structure of motion, their grasp of dialectics would serve an important heuristic function in their work, helping them in their thinking and discovery.

Hegel analyses formal logic as a necessary but limited form of thinking for specific purposes. It constitutes a form of ‘external’ (ausserlich) thinking which makes ‘abstract identity its principle’ (Logic, Part 1, Encyclopaedia, p 58) which is a denial of contradiction as source of change within Nature and Society. Opposed categories are conceptualised as being isolated from each other so that in their difference from each other (distinction) their relation, identity and unity is denied. Contradiction is conceptualised as an aberrant foible or defect of thinking. Hegel shows how formal logic considers all things through its law of ‘abstract understanding’ (Verstand) which denies the vitality and movement of the world as living contradiction. For formal logic, ‘A’ must always be absolutely identical with itself (A=A). ‘A’ cannot simultaneously be equal to itself and not equal to itself at the same time, for this would undeniably imply movement and contradiction. Thus, formal logic denies contradiction in the world of objects. It fails to grasp opposites and distinctions in their integral relation and unity with each other; to recognise the necessary and inseparable connection between the parts of the whole; to see the transitional character of all forms; to understand the dialectical nature of all determinations through their inseparable relation to their negative; and to understand the movement of the world as a totality and its diverse and ever-changing forms as being animated by inner opposition, contradiction and the organic relationship and conflicts of opposing forces, tendencies, etc.

If we acknowledge that Nature is dialectical, then we have no other route to follow, eventually and ultimately, but a heuristic one which incorporates dialectical thinking into the work of the natural sciences. Such an approach would be a more productive in terms of discovery and the development of human knowledge. Since Nature operates and evolves dialectically, this must mean that scientific method itself, sooner or later, must integrate a dialectical way of approaching its objects of investigation. Hence the method of approach becomes more consonant with the dialectical character of its object of research. The categories deployed in the natural sciences are themselves subject to evolution as our knowledge becomes deeper, more embracing and comprehensive. For example, the entry of the category of ‘Relativity’ at the start of the previous century. In order to develop a deeper conception of Nature we need to approach it with a method of thinking which is animated by dialectics. Undoubtedly, within the natural sciences, dialectics (compared to the  empiricism and positivism that currently pervades it) would be more productive as a heuristic guide in research. We only have to consider the questions and problems of today’s physics to see that; e.g. in Quantum Mechanics, Particle Physics, Cosmology, etc, and in such areas as Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, etc. [ see, for example, (1) Horz et al, Philosophical Problems in Physical Science, Marxist Educational Press, Minneapolis, 1980. (2) M.E. Omelyanovsky, Dialectics in Modern Physics, Progress Publishers ]

[4] Dialectical Conception of Causality

If we consider the general state of flux and concatenation in the changing relations of any process (interconnections and interrelations), a cause is not only the cause of an effect and also the effect of an antecedent cause. In giving rise to an effect, cause simultaneously determines itself through its relation to effect as cause. Cause determines itself through the effect to be the cause of the effect and thus is self-mediating through its relationship to its effect. Cause and effect interpenetrate and contain each other. Likewise, effect is both caused and a cause of a succeeding effect as well as self mediating through its relationship to its cause. Each moment, in the different sides of its concatenation and relation, is both cause and effect, simultaneously both product and producer. Cause determines itself as cause as mediated through its effect and thus determines itself as well as being the cause of a succeeding effect and the effect of a preceding cause. Likewise effect is both the effect of a preceding cause and the cause of a succeeding effect. Effect is not only caused but also, through its reciprocal relation to its cause, determines cause as cause and, in so doing, mediates its own nature as effect. Cause not only has an effect but in the effect stands related as cause, to itself so that….

Causality presents itself as an arising out of its negation and a passing away into it – as a becoming

[Hegel. Science of Logic (Vol. 2). George Allen and Unwin, London, 1929. p.204]

Cause and effect are distinct from one another only in their inseparable interconnection. Each cause is simultaneously the effect of a preceding cause and each effect is the cause of a subsequent effect. In their relation…. 

Each of these determinations cancels itself in its positing and posits itself in its cancellation…. Its becoming other is at the same time its own positing. [ibid., p.199]

Therefore cause and effect….

are, in themselves, one; but each is external to itself, and hence in its unity with the other is also determined as other against it. Consequently, although cause has, and also is itself, an effect, and effect not only has but also itself is a cause, yet the effect which the cause has and that which it is are different; and so with the cause which the effect has and the cause which it is. [ibid., p.199]

For example, consider the process of a burning candle. The heat of the flame causes the wax to melt which then serves as a fuel for the flame. Both wax and flame are simultaneously cause and effect. The flame, in melting the wax, continuously creates a reservoir of available fuel that serves as the source of its own perpetuation and the wax, in providing fuel for the flame, becomes a source of its own further liquefaction. But, says the formalist, the original cause or ‘prime mover’ of the whole process was the application of an external flame to the wick of the candle and therefore, in the final analysis, it is the flame that is the first cause of the whole process. Consideration of the matter shows, however, that even this assertion breaks down. The combustion here involves a relating of distinct materials in contact with each other. The candle itself is composed of combustible materials and thus possesses the specific quality of being combustible but only under definite conditions. It is not simply the flame that causes the process but also, at the same time, the fact that the physical and chemical nature of the constituent materials of the candle cause it to be combustible. Hence, it is the nature of the relationship between flame and candle that must be considered in order to understand the causality of the process.

If cause is abstractly assigned to one side of a relation and effect to another then what results is a one-sided, skewed knowledge of it. One side is seen as being active (cause) whilst the other is viewed as being passive (effect). Such a view fails to comprehend that cause and effect are not rigidly separated but develop in a mutual and reciprocal relation to each other in which each contains and passes into the other whilst, at the same time, maintaining its distinction from other. In the burning process, the flame and wax are inseparable but they are also distinct from each other. Reductionism is a type of formal causality (like the determinism of pre-Marxian Materialism) which contradicts this dialectical causality. Light a candle. Study it closely as it burns in a darkened room. You will see specifically the dialectics of the causality of the process at work.

[5] Relationship of ‘Concrete’ and ‘Abstract’ as Categories of Thought

No matter how “concrete” we become in our conception, the object retains within its own depth more secrets to discover and unveil. This renders our conceptions of Nature always, inherently, to a certain degree, “abstract”.  Every scientific conception contains a dialectic of the abstract and the concrete. This will continue to apply even if a heuristics, which is consciously dialectical in its approach, animates our methods of investigation in the Natural Sciences. If, for example, we study the behaviour of a sub-atomic particle in a variable magnetic field, no matter how “concrete” our determinations and understanding of its behaviour are, we can never fully embrace and articulate the object of investigation, never fully grasp it in its absoluteness, in the complexity and inexhaustibility of its ‘self-movement. Our knowledge of this phenomenon is always incomplete, relative, approximate but, nevertheless, is a definite, specific form of knowledge of it.

Lenin himself refers to dialectics as involving…

a de­tailed study of the pro­cess of de­vel­op­ment in all its con­crete­ness. One of the core prin­ciples of dia­lectics is that there is no such thing as ab­stract truth; truth is al­ways con­crete…..(Vol 38, Philosophical Notebooks)

Really? “Process of development in all its concreteness” is a metaphysical conception and not a dialectical one because Lenin identifies the world as “concrete”. In truth, the world is neither abstract nor concrete. Only concepts are an altering identity of both, with different, changing, relative degrees of concreteness and abstraction as our knowledge of the world deepens. If Lenin had been familiar with Marx’s writings on method in the Grundrisse, would he have made such a statement ? Lenin clearly did not grasp that the relationship between the “concrete” and the “abstract” is conceptual and dialectical. The world itself is neither concrete nor abstract. ‘Concrete’ and ‘abstract’ are categories which describe the relative and historically-conditioned degree of accuracy and precision of our knowledge of Nature resulting from its conceptual appropriation based on practice at a specific stage in the latter’s historico-technical development. The world of Nature is no more ‘concrete’ than it is ‘abstract’. Only thought appropriates it conceptually as an identity of both in which the “concrete” becomes “more concrete” (less abstract) as a intensifying concentration of interrelated abstractions. Every conception (in fact every word and term) is this identity of the concrete and the abstract which receive their determination in their dialectical relationship to each other and the relative degree of relations between the two. If “the truth were always concrete” and was not intertwined with a related degree of abstraction, then there would be no such ‘thing’ as “truth”. By its very nature, “truth” cannot be exclusively “concrete” even if we mislabel and misunderstand the world of objects with the word “concrete”. Since thought cannot exhaust its object, all conceptions must contain moments of abstraction and this must always be so, eternally, as long as people use science to seek to understand Nature. To assert that the world is “concrete” is not a dialectical proposition but is more in line with the precepts and paradigms of the methods of positivism and empiricism.

Write down any sentence (even the simplest) on a page and within that sentence are to be found the dialectics of the abstract and the concrete. Every conception, every statement or sentence is a relationship between different degrees of abstraction and concreteness. Whether that conception is commodity and capital, I and thou, etc. [Marginal Notes on Marx’s Method of Political Economy] . ‘The sleeping cat is black and white’ is more concrete than ‘The cat is black and white’ because it is a congerie of more determinations. Accordingly the second sentence is less concrete (or more abstract) than the first. A third description may contain more determinations regarding the cat and so be even more concrete. Every sentence, description, conception, etc, is therefore an identity of relative degrees of concreteness and abstraction which seeks to graps the world of objects, Nature, in their movement. But this world itself is neither concrete nor abstract.

[ See my work on Marx’s method of political economy : ]

The relationship between Nature’s forms and the conceptual content of our knowledge of them is always deepening so that our knowledge is always approaching more closely to the actuality of the object itself in its ‘self-relation and movement’. But this knowledge can never fully embrace the object in the totality of its existence independently of our conception. Nature (the Kantian “thing-in-itself”, Ding an sich) is not unknowable but it can never be fully appropriated by thought in the totality of its complexity and determinations. This was the outcome of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s ‘Ding an sich’.  We will never be able to sit back and fold our arms and say “Well, that’s it. We have done it. We know it all. We are all know-alls” and research and scientific thinking then comes to an end. Nature is inexhaustible and infinitely complex and diverse and hence our conceptions can only appropriate it approximately and relatively. But within our relative conception is subsumed this absolute relation. But it is Nature itself which is the ‘master’ in this relationship. Thought can never exhaust Nature but rather the latter keeps the former ‘on the run’.

[6] ‘Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice’

Man demonstrates the relative truth of his conceptions in practice, in technique, in struggle. We demonstrate that the object “for us” has a correspondence with the object “in and for itself”, independently of our conception of it. If this were not the case, the whole of scientific technique, medicine, technology, etc, would be built on quicksand. So, as Marx writes in the Theses on Feuerbach

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. (Thesis 2)

Marx was struggling to establish a wholly new theoretical framework for a revolutionary conception and practice (“activity” “praxis”). His critique of “critical criticism” (Bauer, Stirner, etc) was a necessary part of the development of his revolutionary critique and the condensed outcome of this work is the Theses on Feuerbach. It was a document which fundamentally shifted the whole centre of gravity of philosophical thought. Some say it effectively abolished philosophy and that all philosophy ‘post-theses’ has merely been a return to pre-Marx philosophy but in different forms and guises. A major implication of the Theses : If practice is not the ultimate criterion of the correspondence of our conceptions of Nature with Nature itself, then we inevitably retreat into conceptions themselves, rationalistic or otherwise, so that conceptions become the ultimate criterion of themselves divorced from human practice. But Marx’s second thesis has revolutionary implications because it relates actual living struggle to the conception of that practice and its posited goals. The criterion of practice is, of course, to paraphrase Lenin, sufficiently definite to demonstrate the approximate truth of our conceptions yet it is also sufficiently indefinite to ensure that dogmatism does not develop in these conceptions, thereby allowing room for development in both our conceptions and practice.

[7] ‘Prediction’ and Dialectics

Are dialectics ‘predictive’ ? Well, I think it depends what we mean by ‘predictive’. Physics is predictive in the immediate sense in that we can predict the approximate degree of force at which a projectile hits a surface if we know its mass and acceleration. Using Relativity, we can predict how many micro or nanoseconds an atomic clock will lose if placed at higher altitudes under different gravitational conditions, or if subject to increased acceleration, compared to being stationary at sea level. In Chemistry, we can predict the properties of the next undiscovered or unsynthesised member in a homologous series of organic compounds such the Alkanes, Alcohols, Carboxylic Acids, etc. In the development of the Periodic Table (Periodicity), we accurately predicted the properties of elements before they were actually discovered. In fact, we predicted their very existence as well as their properties before discovery. In Biology, we can predict how a living system will behave if subjected to certain constraints, etc, homeostasis, and in Chemistry, in reaction kinetics, we have the Le Chatelier Principle, in Enzymology, the Michaelis-Menton Equation, etc.

I do not think dialectics is ‘predictive’ in this highly specific sense – which we find in the natural sciences – because in dialectics there are sublated elements of fatalism and, of course, scepticism preserved (not absolutely annihilated) within dialectical thinking in so far as the latter, fatalism, reflects a certain recognition of the general trend of development which a formation must necessarily follow once its general principles of development have been discovered and the latter, scepticism, the conception that how this trend of development will turn out in its particulars and detailed expression cannot be fully known. So this type of thinking (dialectics) is, in a certain sense, both predictive and not predictive at the same time. Predictive in a broad general sense but unpredictive in terms of the specificity of details.

For example, we cannot fully know how the unfolding structural crisis of the capital order will turn out in all its detail and particularity but we do know that this crisis will (indeed must) unfold globally, based on our studies in Marx, Meszaros, etc. Not predictive as in the Natural Sciences but nevertheless predictive in the broad dialectical conception of the term. This, of course, serves to orientate us in our theoretical and practical work (activity) i.e. in the intrinsic unity between them. [ See Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach ]

[8] Hegel’s Theology

Nature preceded Man historically and thus spatio-temporally as a totality of real, material, determinate forms, subject to alteration, subject to various forms of transformation, subject to evolution and ‘revolutions’ so to speak, etc. But not subject to any mediation by a ‘demiurgos’ or as an idea in the mind of God. It had real tangible existence. If this were not the case, we would not be here today. All this pre-human natural development takes specific forms according to the relations of each determinate form or process. The plant does not evolve in the same way as the primate because they are determinately different forms of life. The evolution in both is a dialectical process but this evolution is determinate, real, without the need for divinity, a demiurgos, etc. The dialectics of the process in each are absolutely identical to the actual specific process itself.

In this sense, Hegel and Hegelianism emphatically deny the existence of Nature prior to Man. As does Berkeley who denies the existence of Nature independently of the subject in his subjectivism. Berkeley propounded the doctrine that the forms of matter only exist for the conscious subject and not in and for themselves independently of the subject. Which is, of course, a denial of materialism. Berkeley essentially denies the materiality, the substantiality of the world outside of consciousness. The world, according to Berkeley, only exists if Iam aware of it. Hence the question of Nature predating human society is an immaterial question for Berkeley.

For materialism, whether Dr Johnson kicks the stone or not, the stone remains a determinate real material entity independently of consciousness just as Nature’s existence prior to Man is now an irrefutable and indispensable precept of Science. The stone has a history in geological time and has come to be as ‘this stone’ in front of me as a result of that real, material history, etc. The sandstone block which forms the doorstep to my house was formed as a result of the sedimentation and aggregation of sand particles in running water or sea water which were later subjected to high pressures and temperatures to form the rock. This process took place over millions of years before people or their primate ancestors even existed. It was mined in a Yorkshire quarry a century ago and now it is under my feet every day as I step out onto the street.

For Hegel, Nature cannot possibly precede Man. The Logic precedes Nature and Nature precedes Mind in the Encyclopaedia. Mind is the return of the ‘Notion’ to itself out of alienation in Nature, etc. For Hegel, Nature cannot precede Man in real, material forms, spatio-temporally, before consciousness emerges with Man. And, of course, all this is, as a whole, incompatible with Marx’s materialism. It is one thing to assert that thought reflects the material world in its various forms but it quite something else to assert that this world is ‘identical with our consciousness’.

Marx wrote that…

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought (p.29, Volume 1 Capital, Lawrence & Wishart, 1954).

Marx, in my understanding, is asserting here that Hegel’s philosophy is, at root, theological, pantheistic and embracing a theological teleology with a reserved place for god and religion. This means Hegel’s philosophy presents, on inspection, as a sophisticated form of transfigured theology.

Hegel asserts the ultimate epistemological primacy of ‘The Idea’ over Nature. He is not Berkeleian in his theory of knowledge but nevertheless he is an idealist. Hegel speaks of the ‘Idea which has Being is Nature’ (italicisation SM). Of course, we need to grasp what Hegel means specifically by ‘The Idea’ which is differentiated from what is understood by empiricism and generally. However, regardless, his conception of ‘The Idea’ cannot be accommodated to the scientifically-verified proposition that Nature precedes Man historically and logically. To do so would require recourse to religion.

Marx wrote that…

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 the concrete in the mind. 

But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being. For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole.

As a category, by contrast, exchange value leads an antediluvian existence. Therefore to the kind of consciousness – and this is characteristic of the philosophical consciousness – for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is thus the only reality, the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production – which only, unfortunately, receives a jolt from the outside – whose product is the world itself; and – but this again is a tautology – this is correct in so far as the concrete totality is a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending. [Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin, 1993. Introduction, (3) The Method of Political Economy. p.101]

(SM : Marx, in my opinion, deploys the term ‘concrete’ problematically here as developed previously in section [5]. ‘Concrete’ and ‘abstract’ are categories of thought and not of the object. The world of objects is not ‘concrete’ as such but is merely appropriated in increasingly more concrete forms (progressively less abstract forms) of its conception as human thinking develops historically)

For example, Hegel reveals his ‘fall into this illusion’ in the Zusatz to section 234 (p.291, Logic, Encyclopaedia, Wallace Edn) where he writes of the distinction between ‘spirit and nature’ as being between one where the ‘latter moves only in a recurring cycle, while the former certainly also makes progress’. Nature, Hegel implies, does not ‘make progress’. In other words, for Hegel, there is only real development in thought itself or in the thought of Nature but not in Nature itself independently of thought.

For Hegel, the ‘Notion’ (Begriff) was an all-embracing conception. However, he frequently contradicts this all-embracing characterisation in his approach to Nature. Sometimes it is ‘indwelling in Nature’, sometimes ‘only in potentio’, and at other times, not at all. Only found in its real home in thought in which each being, in passing into its opposite, only passes into what is implicit within itself and yet remains itself within this identity and opposition with its other. However, a study of any form of movement shows that this ‘notional’ relation is found in all forms of development from the transformations of the sub-atomic particle to the development of the content of a scientific theory. In this sense, everything is ‘notional’ and Hegel’s conception actually corresponds universally to each and all forms of development. This, I think, is why we can characterise his Idealism as ‘objective’. This is also why Hegel characterises formal conceptions as not being capable of grasping the Notion which he refers to as Verstandliche, ausserlich, etc, and as being ‘finite conceptions’. However (and Hegel also notes this in the Logic) formal conceptions in the Natural Sciences are only limiting cases of dialectical thinking.

Hegel himself was influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Eleaticism, Plato and Aristotle. This, in turn, influenced the the formation of the  demiurgical character of Hegel’s philosophy which distinguishes ‘The Idea’ as universal in its relation with Nature or Mind. This distinction implies a pantheistic theology and teleology. It exposes Hegel to the assertion that his doctrine is dualistic at root because Nature, in its process of development, is not grasped as immanently dialectical but only dialectical as the ‘external’ animation and manifestation of ‘The Idea’.

The cosmos (inclusive of all forms of development) unfolds and evolves dialectically. This dialectic is not articulated as being metaphysically distinct from all this development and yet in some way being connected with it. Or even ‘indwelling’ in it like some mystical or imparted force or ‘demiurgos’. Rather the specific forms, in their variety, of this cosmic development are simply the absolute identity of this development with dialectic itself. Without the need for any thought or demiurgos whatsoever. And, as Marx writes, reflected in the human mind in various forms of thought only when Man as species comes into being after millions of years of prehistoric development.

[9] Note on Philosophical Relationship of Marx to Hegel

Hegel himself, student, 19 years of age when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, was impacted by all the unfolding events in the course of and subsequent to this revolution. The French Revolution had a deep and profound philosophical and political influence on Hegel’s development as a thinker. In so far as Hegel (1770-1831) was a contemporary of these momentous events and a student of them, they served as an impulse in the development of his thought. It is also worth noting that Fichte’s Science of Knowledge was published in 1794 which was the year in which the French Revolution reached its high point of development, the Terror, the overthrow of Robespierre’s regime (Thermidor), followed by the Directory.

Hegel assimilated ‘the vantage point of capital’. Meszaros covers this in the first chapter of Beyond Capital in which he looks at Hegel’s conception of ‘universal permanent capital’. Marx also remarks that Hegel’s outlook is consonant with that of classical bourgeois political economy which is so ‘cooped up’ with its own categories as being as ‘natural’ as daylight and not as historically originated categories. Hegel’s conception of the ‘universal permanent capital’ (in the Rechtsphilosophie) parallels Adam Smith’s conception of capitalism as being a naturally-ordained order. As with classical bourgeois political economy in general, Smith saw the capital system as being as permanent as a law of Nature. Classical political economy critiqued feudalism as a historically transient order only to arrive at bourgeois society which is the ‘universal permanent’ order. It saw feudalism as a transient form that necessarily led up to itself as the permanent form. Marx, in the Grundrisse, remarks that Christianity approached Paganism along similar lines.

Marx was a student of Hegel all his life. He always gave Hegel his due. Marx was not deterministic in his evalution of the relationship between thought and ‘Being’. His understanding of the historicity of thought was not ‘one-sided’ This is often stated by academics here in the Britain and the US, i.e. that Marx was an ‘economic determinist’ or ‘reductionist’ in that he grasped the development of human thought as simply the ‘product of conditions’ without acknowledging that thought itself is simultaneously a mediating producer of conditions, guiding practice and change. Marx, of course, addresses this question directly in the Theses on Feuerbach. He locates his centre of gravity within materialism but that does not mean he was ‘one-sided’. The Theses represent a fundamental break with both Feuerbach and previous forms of materialism in terms of their ‘contemplative’ naturalistic form. The ‘active side’ integrated into Marx’s materialism (dialectics) was developed by the idealism of previous German philosophy. But Marx breaks with Hegel (The German Ideology, The Holy Family, etc) in terms of epistemology, practice, etc. This is why Marx said that his method was the inverse of Hegel’s method.

Marx resolves the historic philosophical problems of dualism which are found residing and well hidden in Hegel and his predecessors like Descartes. Man is an active yet distinct part of Nature and human thought is a product of Man’s relationship with Nature and mediates that relationship. But in terms of the relationship between the conceptual content of our knowledge of Nature and Nature itself, this dualism is also resolved. Marx does not deny the ‘mental’ or the ‘ideal’ but locates it historically and epistemologically within the conditions of its actual creation and development as both product and producer which is always mediating social development. Marx’s critique of Hegel enabled him to move on in his overall conception. However, even when he was writing Capital in the 1850s and 1860s, he was using the Science of Logic as a guide in his work.

When Marx wrote about the events of his time – for example, the revolutions of 1848 or the Paris Commune of 1871 – was he simply giving an ‘objective’ ‘journalistic’ or ’empirical’ account of these events? How did he approach an analysis of these events? In a study of these writings I think we can discern an understanding of Marx’s approach and that would help us in our approach to current events. 2018 is not 1848, of course, but it would undoubtedly be helpful to study Marx’s approach in his day. The method of approach will be actually found in the way Marx develops the content in these works as an articulation of the unfolding events of the times. Marx himself intended to write a ‘few pages’ on the ‘rational kernel’ enclosed within the ‘mystical shell’ (Ideenmystik) in Hegel. But it seems that formally he didn’t get round to it. Lenin, however, states (in his Philosophical Notebooks, Volume 38, Collected Works) that Marx did leave us the ‘logic of Capital

If we sit down and write a piece of work on contemporary events and questions, then what sort of method animates our approach to events? We could deploy ‘common sense’, ‘positivism’, etc, in our approach but where does that lead us in a world which is riven with paradoxes, an unfolding complex of contradictions and not simply a mechanical assemblage of the ‘ready made’ ?

In Trotsky’s notebooks*, Max Eastman was posing similar questions in his day. What is the ‘practical use’ of the dialectic? It contradicts ‘common sense’, ‘science’, etc. Eastman sought to drown the dialectic in the fine traditions of American pragmatism, Dewey, James, etc. The philosophy of ‘The Man who built America’. That is, the man of and for capital. Not of those who really ‘built’ America with their labour on the basis of the mass murder and expropriation of the ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples. Later Eastman became a right-wing reactionary.

*Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-1935. Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism. (Translated, Annotated and with Introductory Essays by Philip Pomper, 175 pp) New York, Columbia University Press, 1986.

Is there then a dialectic for theory and a different one for activity determined by positivistic and pragmatic paradigms? The realpolitik of the global representatives of capital is based on such paradigms. But this realpolitik is very clearly rooted in and articulates the interests of global capital; this is the ‘bottom line’ so to speak.

Shaun May

August 2018