Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: With What Must a Science Begin?

Another chapter whose contents may seem largely familiar to regular readers: this chapter deals with Marx’s relationship to Hegel’s Logic, and then, since this chapter is already more or less untethered from the text, it offers a number of other clarifications of aspects of Marx’s method. The chapter tosses around the term “real abstraction” quite often, as though readers will already know what I mean by this term. Folks who have hung around here for a while may well have a sense of this, but the reason I’m being so casual with the term in this chapter is because there is a lengthy discussion of this topic in the opening chapter of the thesis – the chapter I haven’t yet published to the blog, because I have to rethink it now that I know what the thesis will actually say… Hopefully it will be clear enough what I’m about without that information…

I’ve been meaning to mention, for those who haven’t yet seen them, that Limited, Inc. has also been posting a series on Marx recently – among other things, riffing on anthropological themes and – among my favourite topics when thinking about Marx – vulgarity. Where my work on Marx tends to inch its snail’s path through the micro-ecology of the text, Roger’s tends to explode small passages of text, chasing the embers to see where they land, examining what they set alight and, wherever possible, fanning the flames. Something about it reminds me of Marx’s comment from the Grundrisse:

…if we did not find concealed within society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic. (159)

It’s good stuff: go have a look.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

4 – With What Must a Science Begin?

In the preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx warns his readers that:

Beginnings are always difficult in all sciences. The understanding of the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will therefore present the greatest difficulty. (89)

In the previous chapters, I explored one of the reasons that the opening discussion of commodities should present such a great difficulty for readers: I argued that the narrative arc of this discussion relies on an undeclared theatrical conceit, such that the first chapter operates as a play staged for the reader’s benefit, which brings on stage three successive interpretations – “empiricist”, “transcendental” and “dialectical” – of the wealth of capitalist society and which then concludes by hinting that further interpretations are yet to be revealed. I drew attention to the various textual strategies through which the opening chapter of Capital hints at the existence of this theatrical conceit, and I also sketched the parallels between this chapter and the early sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, in order to suggest that this subtle and complex dramatic structure should be seen as one of the substantive claims of the opening chapter: in some way not yet fully fleshed out in the text, the production of capital renders socially plausible the emergence of multiple perspectives that each grasp slightly different aspects of the same conflictual social process.

At the same time, the ability to construct this narrative – to stage this critical adaptation of the production of capital – suggests that some perspective or combination of perspectives rendered plausible by the production of capital foreground the artificiality of this production and render socially plausible the emergence of particular kinds of critical scrutiny. The structure of the opening chapter thus hints at a forthcoming analysis of the social production of emancipatory possibilities, suggesting that the analysis of the production of capital will ultimately also explore how emancipatory impulses emerge immanently, as socially valid perspectives that express alternative forms of social production that could be staged through the reconfiguration and adaptation of the very social scripts, stage settings, and actors that already lie ready to hand.

I. Making It Explicit

As we move out of the first chapter, the text of Capital becomes gradually more overt and explicit on these points. The central theatrical conceit, for example, is openly declared in the first paragraph of the second chapter of Capital, when Marx notes:

As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it is as the bearers of these economic relations that they come into contact with one another. (179)

This sentence is often interpreted as a denial of human agency and as a declaration of the metaphysical primacy of economic factors in social causation. For reasons that will become clearer as we continue to move through the text, I suggest this sentence should be read, instead, as an attempt to reach for an appropriate metaphor to depict the peculiarly externalised, perceptibly “artificial” qualitative character of specific kinds of social relations involved in the reproduction of capital – social relations with the distinctive qualitative property that, much like parts in a play, they transcend the persons who fill them, thus turning those persons into social actors playing social roles in a quite literal sense. Rather than reading this line, in other words, as a declaration of a metaphysical assumption about the primacy of economic relations as causal factors in human behaviour, we should instead interpret it as picking out what Marx sees as an historically distinctive and anthropologically peculiar property of the production of the capital: that this process in some specific sense foregrounds its own “artificial” and “enacted” character, revealing itself to be a contingent product of human practices and thereby rendering socially explicit the possibility for persons to play quite different social roles than the ones they currently play. In some sense not yet fleshed out in the text, the production of capital confronts the social actors who enact this process with the possibility to transform at least certain aspects of their collective relations, by presenting those relations as distinct from the intrinsic identity of the persons who enact them. I suggest, in other words, that the decision to characterise the economy as a stage, to describe economic relations as roles, and to characterise the persons who play these roles as actors or bearers of economic parts, is not an attempt to privilege “material” causation in analyses of human practice: it is a specification of the unusual qualitative characteristics of a distinctive kind of sociality that Marx associates with the production of capital.

The basis for this reading will become clearer as we move forward through the text. For the moment, I want to focus, not on the content of Marx’s claim, but on the form in which he presents the claim to his readers. Read as I have suggested, this sentence from the opening of the second chapter renders more explicit what was already implied by the tacit theatrical conceit that was already operative – but not explicitly thematised – in the first chapter of Capital. The tendency to deploy concepts tacitly, and only later expose them explicitly, is a very common element of the textual strategy in Capital: as the analysis moves forward, the text gradually mobilises more analytical resources, finally reaching the point where it states directly what, in earlier sections, was only implied. In this respect, the text mimics the movement that Marx, in the final section of the first chapter, describes as a general feature of the development of explicit theoretical awareness within a capitalist context – that such awareness arises retrospectively, through reflection on what has already become a matter of practical experience:

Reflection on the forms of human life, hence also the scientific analysis of those forms, takes a course directly opposite to their real development. Reflection begins post festum, and therefore with the results of the process of development ready to hand. (168)

This comment is articulated in the first chapter in the form of a general methodological principle. Yet the analysis of the commodity as a “social hieroglyphic”, and the comparative analysis of the “transparency” of other forms of social life, suggests that there is some unique way in which commodity production requires social actors to discover the implications of their own practices through a process of reflection after the fact. The discussion about value as a social hieroglyphic strongly suggests that the post festum character of our reflection arises – not one-sidedly, due to the characteristics of reflection or consciousness in abstraction from its object – but rather due to the specific sort of interaction that brings a particular kind of object and a specific kind of consciousness into relation with one another. In this case, this description of the form of reflection would not be an abstract methodological principle or general description of how humans learn about objects of any sort: it would instead pick out a very specific form of engagement that connects determinate forms of reflection with determinate objects of reflection. Seen in this light, the presentational strategy so often deployed in Capital of first showing something tacitly, and then revealing it explicitly, reflects Marx’s search for a presentational style adequate to the content that needs to be expressed: it manifests the distinctive qualitative character of a form of knowing or engaging that stands in a determinate relation with the object that is to be known.

As a consequence of this distinctive presentational style, the critical standpoint of the text – the perspective from which the text makes normative judgements about various aspects of capitalist society or about competing social and economic theories – is only very gradually assembled and rendered explicit through the immanent exploration of a network of interrelated and mutually-determining elements of social practice whose aggregate effect is the production of capital.

The difficulty presented by this textual strategy is most extreme in the opening chapter of Capital, when nothing has yet been rendered explicit, and where the text can only begin with what presents itself immediately to sense-perception. By the third section of the opening chapter, the text has assembled sufficient resources to declare that certain aspects of the opening discussions were incorrect (152). By the section on commodity fetishism, the text begins to offer some explicit critical analysis of the preceding discussion and to articulate some of the methodological principles that inform its presentation, such as the notion that critique consists in the demonstrating of the limitations and boundedness of the practices and theories being criticised, and thus proceeds, not through rejecting its target, but by demonstrating the constricted practical circumstances in which its target can be said to be socially valid (168-169, 173-177). By the opening to the second chapter, as mentioned above, the text can reveal explicitly the theatrical conceit that had already been tacitly operating through the opening chapter, and so on through the text. As the text accumulates insights from the analysis of additional elements of the production of capital, it can therefore become increasingly explicit and direct in its critical claims. The cumulative nature of the presentation makes the first chapter – and especially the opening discussion of the commodity, which has to provide the foundation for the accumulation of critical resources yet to come – easily “the greatest difficulty” when it comes to grasping the argument and identifying the critical standpoint of the text.

This analysis of Marx’s textual strategy may make Capital easier to interpret, but it leaves open the question of why Marx would ever adopt such a strategy for his work. Marx leaves a strong hint to the answer in the preface that I quoted at the opening to this chapter: the passage where Marx claims that beginnings are always difficult for a science. Both the term “beginning” and the term “science” are easily heard with too contemporary an ear, such that Marx is understood to be trying to write a scientific work in a contemporary sense – a work that secures scientific objectivity, for example, or a work that follows positivist principles. This reading then sits peculiarly with Marx’s various criticisms of political economy for its failure to situate its own claims historically. Similarly, it is easy to hear the discussion of “beginnings” as a synonym for the historical origins of the science – such that Marx is understood to be discussing the difficulty of introducing a novel set of concepts unfamiliar to readers. This interpretation, however, sits peculiarly with Marx’s decision to single out the opening discussion of the commodity as the “greatest difficulty”, given that the later claims in the text would be equally new to his audience. In this chapter I attempt to clarify the meaning of these terms by situating them in the context of Marx’s complex and often – as we have seen – subterranean dialogue with Hegel.

Marx’s reference to the difficulty of beginnings for a science becomes clearer if this passage is understood as a reference back to Hegel – who uses similar vocabulary and poses a similar problem, but with a quite specific understanding of the key terms involved. For Hegel, a “science” is a reflexive system that organises all of its component categories in such a way as to reveal all of their necessary relations with one another, and the “beginning” of a science is the first principle or starting point from which the other categories of the science are then derived. By associating Capital with Hegel’s concept of science, Marx hints that there is some sense in which Capital appropriates Hegel’s methodological standards for a science and, particularly, for how a science must “begin” – repurposing at least some elements of Hegel’s work into the very different context of a critical theory of capitalist society. Marx suggests a similar point, less cryptically, in the afterword to the second German edition of Capital, where he famously professes his intellectual debt to Hegel, while also marking out his differences. In Marx’s words:

I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just when I was working on the first volume of Capital, the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began taking pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a ‘dead dog’. I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. (102-103)

What does it mean, however, to stand Hegel’s dialectical method back on its feet? In what way is Hegel’s work both a form of mystification, and yet still methodologically useful to Marx? To explore this question, I turn briefly below to the opening sections of the Science of Logic, where Hegel reflects most directly and concisely on the question of the beginning and the method of a scientific philosophy. After analysing Hegel’s presentation of his own method, I return to the question of why it might interest Marx to adapt this method when he chooses a form of presentation for his critique of political economy. This series of reflections of Marx’s methodology will then prepare us to return, in the following chapter, to a close reading of Capital, through which we can pursue the question left hanging from chapter 3: how does Marx make the case that, in spite of appearances, the “wealth of capitalist societies” does not consist solely of “external objects”, but also incorporates a “subjective” factor – labour-power?

II. Walking with Hegel

Hegel reflects on the requirements for a “scientific” philosophy in a number of works. For present purposes, I concentrate on the opening sections of the Science of Logic. It is important to recognize that “science”, for Hegel, is a term that picks out a particular kind of philosophical analysis – one that is organised as a reflexive system, and presented in such a way as to reveal the necessary relations that bind all of the moments of the system into a dynamic whole.

When Hegel talks about “science”, he is concerned with what would be required for philosophy to make good on the Enlightenment challenge to appeal to no authority other than that of reason. When he criticizes other approaches for not meeting the standards of science, he is saying that those approaches are assuming premises that, tacitly or explicitly, fall outside the philosophical system itself, and therefore outside the workings of reason. A “scientific” philosophy, for Hegel, is one that accounts for its premises immanently, through the development of its system (Hegel 1969, 27-29, 31, 40-45, 67-69). In recent commentaries on Hegel, this is often described as a commitment to construct a presuppositionless philosophy (Houlgate 2005); critical social theory modelled on this approach is sometimes described as a form of immanent, reflexive critique (Horkheimer 1933, Postone 1993). The meaning of both terms will become clearer as we look a bit more closely at why Hegel thinks this issue is so important.

In the first Preface to his Science of Logic, Hegel draws attention to what motivates his distinctive concept of “science”. In this text, the Enlightenment figures initially as a corrosive force – tearing down older forms of theology, custom, and metaphysics, disenchanting the myths on which these older forms relied, by appealing to the authority of experience (Hegel 1969, 25). With characteristic sarcasm, Hegel describes the self-confidence of the Enlightenment in the wake of its early critical success:

having got rid of the dark utterances of metaphysics, of the colourless communion of the spirit with itself, outer existence seemed to be transformed into the bright world of flowers – and there are no black flowers, as we know. (26)

Hegel proceeds to locate the black flowers in this radiant field. The Enlightenment critique, he argues, comes at a price. Fearing myth, it regresses into a myth of its own – the myth of the given, the belief “that the understanding ought not to go beyond experience” (25). Fearing dogma, the Enlightenment succumbs to the dogmatism of experience – thereby rejecting the possibility for critical transcendence of what is. The Enlightenment thereby loses its critical edge. It thus finds itself unable to identify a standpoint from which it would be possible to criticize the rising focus on the functional and the practical – the ascendancy of what would now be called instrumental reason – the subordination of life to the means of securing a living (25-26, 34, 43-45). For this reason, Hegel suggests, logic has been allowed to become a purely procedural exercise, devoid of substantive content and therefore of critical, living truth. Hegel’s task is to breathe life into the hollowed-out forms of reason that the Enlightenment has left behind in its wake – by restoring the speculative impulse in philosophy (31, 39).

To open the possibility for his own critical response, Hegel positions the corrosive, anti-speculative, impulse of the Enlightenment as a phase – as a symptom of the rawness of a new movement that hurls itself fanatically at what it seeks to overcome. This fanatical phase, Hegel argues, confuses its attack on an outgoing system, with the rejection of systematicity as such, and takes its critique of metaphysics, to be a rejection of all speculative forms of thought (27, 45-48). Hegel sees his work as a movement beyond this phase, one that will transcend a hollow procedural concept of reason, by developing a substantive, speculative philosophy that preserves reason’s living, transcendent, critical potential (28-29, 39, 48-50).

To achieve this goal, Hegel develops a distinctive methodology – an overview of which he provides in a section of the Science of Logic titled “With What Must the Science Begin?” (67-68). The question Hegel poses in this work is how to construct a philosophical system whose starting point is not dogmatic or arbitrary. Interestingly, Hegel regards this question as an historically-emergent one: “It is only in recent times,” he argues, “that thinkers have become aware of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy” (67). Earlier philosophers concerned themselves instead solely with an ontological question – with the question of what the first principle of a philosophical system ought to be, and what could be derived from this first principle. Contemporary philosophy, by contrast, is additionally concerned with the epistemological question of how we could be subjectively certain of any first principle (67).

The historical emergence of this question reveals that earlier forms of philosophy treated the principle of a philosophical system dogmatically, positioning the beginning as a kind of foundational exception to the system itself. If the beginning or principle of a philosophy cannot be rationally grasped, Hegel argues, competing philosophical systems bounce off of one another, hurling dogmatic claims and counter-claims about first principles, with no rational means to adjudicate such disputes. Contemporary philosophy therefore tends to oscillate between the poles of dogmatism and scepticism – a situation that, in turn, leads some to repudiate reason altogether, in favour of frank irrationalism. Hegel understands contemporary philosophy to be trapped in a restless circuit amongst these alternatives (67, 74-75). He intends his work to break through this impasse, by unfolding a method that enables the beginning or principle of philosophy to remain immanent to reason. A philosophical system is “scientific”, for Hegel, to the extent that it is adequate to this task.

With these goals in mind, Hegel proceeds to outline a method for a philosophical system that would be self-grounding and presuppositionless. Such a philosophy would not rely on any dogmatic starting point, but would rather encompass its beginning within the philosophical system itself:

But if no presupposition is to be made and the beginning itself is taken immediately, then its only determination is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such. All that is present is simply the resolve, which can also be regarded as arbitrary, that we propose to consider thought as such. (70)

In the opening moments of the presentation of the philosophical system, therefore, the first principle with which the system begins might appear dogmatic or arbitrary. This arbitrary appearance is gradually dispelled, however, as inferences are drawn from the starting point, and the beginning is thus determined ever more concretely. Since these determinations are inferentially derived from the starting point itself, Hegel regards each layer of determination as a further development or specification of the principle. He therefore argues that the principle is preserved as the foundation of all the developments that flow out of it (70-71). In Hegel’s words:

Further, the progress from that which forms the beginning is to be regarded as only a further determination of it, hence that which forms the starting point of the development remains at the base of all that follows and does not vanish from it. The progress does not consist merely in the derivation of an other, or in the effaced transition into a genuine other; and in so far as this transition does occur it is equally sublated again. Thus the beginning of philosophy is the foundation which is present and preserved throughout the entire subsequent development, remaining completely immanent in its further determinations. (71)

It is not sufficient, however, simply to derive a long, linear “chain” of inferences from the starting point. Instead the unfolding of the system must loop back on itself, reflexively justifying its point of departure by demonstrating how the system that has been unfolded from that starting point, generates that very starting point as its own product or result:

This is true in still greater measure of absolute spirit which reveals itself as the concrete and final supreme truth of all being, and which at the end of the development is known as freely externalising itself, abandoning itself to the shape of immediate being – opening or unfolding itself [sich entschliessend] into the creation of a world which contains all that fell into the development which preceded that result and which through this reversal of its position relatively to its beginning is transformed into something dependent on the result as principle. (71)

What initially looks one-sided, immediate, and arbitrary, is thus progressively demonstrated to be the fully mediated and necessary result of the system as a whole. Hegel describes this demonstration as a process in which the philosophical system loops back on itself, forming a circle:

Through this process, then, the beginning loses the one-sidedness which attaches to it as something immediate and abstract; it becomes something mediated, and hence the line of the scientific advance becomes a circle. (71-72)

This circular, reflexive movement ensures that the beginning remains immanent to the philosophical system (69, 71-72, 74-75). Hegel describes this circular movement that ensures the reflexivity of the system as the essential requirement of the science of logic:

The essential requirement of the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also last and the last is also first. (71)

Hegel understands this method as a simultaneous response to the ontological question of what the first principle is, and the epistemological question of how that principle can be known: the first principle is nothing other than the unfolded system, and this principle can be known in no other way, aside from through the process by which the system is unfolded (68).

One important implication of this approach is that the form and the content of the philosophical system are understood to be unified: the form in which the system is presented, is itself the system’s substantive claim (67-68). Hegel thus insists that the presentation of the text ought to be set out according to the order required to render explicit the necessary relationship of each moment of thinking to other moments and to the whole (71-72). The beginning of the system thus must be what comes first in the process of thinking – not in the sense of whatever immediately comes to mind when a philosopher begins their investigation, but in the sense of what necessarily must come first in thinking, in order to derive the system in such a way as to reveal the necessary relationships among all its moments (68-69):

This the principle ought also to be the beginning, and what is the first for thought ought also to be the first in the process of thinking. (67-68)

The process of thinking then structures the order of presentation within the system, such that it becomes impossible to describe this process adequately, other than by presenting the system in full. As Hegel complains:

to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner and such a manner is alone here in place (68).

A further implication of this method is that the beginning – because it is preserved and determined in increasing detail over the course of the work – is not truly known at the outset – even though the immediate starting point appears to be plainly stated and displayed in full view in the text (70-72). Instead, the beginning can be recognized for what it is, only when it can finally be situated in the network of relationships that “mediate” this beginning – that determine it, flesh it out, and give it a substantive character. As the system is unfolded, each new relationship that is derived, alters our understanding of all the relationships analysed before. Not until the final step in the analysis, do we have a sense of the whole network. Only with the whole network in view, do we fully understand all the moments that, ultimately, are what they are, only in and through their relationships with one another and the whole. It is at this point that we finally grasp what the beginning always already was – and why the system had to be unfolded in this specific order, from this particular starting point (71-72). As Hegel expresses this point:

It also follows that because that which forms the beginning is still undeveloped, devoid of content, it is not truly known in the beginning; it is the science of logic in its whole compass which first constitutes the completed knowledge of it with its developed content and first truly grounds knowledge. (72)

As the beginning comes to be known – as it is fleshed out through the derivation of further categories and thus comes to be determined more and more concretely as it is saturated with the network of relations shown to bind together those categories – the network derived from the beginning is shown to loop back on itself to reveal that this specific beginning was the necessary starting point for grasping the internal relations that comprise the network. In this way, the choice of a specific beginning is demonstrated not to have been arbitrary – the beginning is shown to be the necessary, and therefore non-dogmatic, starting point for the science:

But because it is the result which appears as the absolute ground, this progress in knowing is not something provisional, or problematical and hypothetical; it must be determined by the nature of the subject matter and its content. (72)

In less hyperbolic vocabulary, a philosophical system is scientific, for Hegel, to the extent that it can justify its own point of departure by showing how the relations between the various elements of this system could have been revealed only from that particular starting point, and thus that the starting point is reflexively implied by the entire network of relations. In this way, the starting point that initially looks arbitrary and dogmatic is demonstrated to have been immanently necessary all along, even if the basis for this necessity becomes explicit only once the system as a whole is known. Hegel understands such a scientific philosophy to carry a very specific presentational burden: in order to be adequate to its content – to its substantive claims – the presentation needs to take the form that renders explicit the necessary logical relationships that bind moments of the process of thinking to one another and to the process as a whole. In this way, the presuppositions or conditions of each moment are exposed within the system, enabling the system to render explicit – and thus rationally available – insights that are implicit within the individual moments, taken in isolation.

Hegel insists that this distinctive method relates in a very specific way to its object of analysis – that the method “must be determined by the nature of the subject matter and its content”. For Hegel, this object is thought, seeking to think itself non-dogmatically, but in a manner that captures its own necessary movement and process of self-development. Hegel therefore does not claim to put his method forward as an all-purpose, decontextualised analytical technique that could be applied to objects of whatever indifferent sort, but instead understands the method to be immanent to a specific object.

For Marx to appropriate aspects of Hegel’s method for his critical analysis of a very different object – not the immanent development of thought in the free play of its own self-determination, but the immanent development of the distinctive form of domination Marx calls “capital” – either Marx must believe that Hegel’s method is not as specific to its object as Hegel maintains, or he must believe that Hegel has badly mistaken the object to which his method appropriately applies. I attempt to illustrate in the chapters to come that Marx believes the latter: Marx takes Hegel, much like the political economists, to have mistaken his object by failing to recognise the practical genesis – and therefore the boundaries and limitations – of the qualitative characteristics Hegel attributes to the free self-development of thought. In the tacit metacommentary that Marx continues to make on Hegel’s work in the first six chapters of Capital, Marx hints that Hegel hypostatises experiences that are socially valid within a very specific form of collective life, overlooks the ways in which determinate forms of collective practice constitute this social validity – and, as a tragic result, mistakes the symptomatic manifestations of a distinctive form of domination for the telos of thought in its free process of self-realisation. As Marx comments in the afterword the second German edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary. (103)

Hegel uses his method to demonstrate the necessity and rationality of the categories and relations that comprise his system, where those categories are taken from what has been sedimented in the language and the culture of his own time. Marx argues that Hegel’s attempt to demonstrate the necessity and rationality of what exists has been used uncritically – “to transfigure and glorify what exists”. This uncritical appropriation of Hegel’s method is what Marx associates with the mystification of the dialectic, and what Marx seems to have in mind when he accuses Hegel of standing dialectics on its head (103).

In what Marx calls its rational form, the dialectic operates as a critical tool, revealing the ways in which what exists is neither necessary and nor rational – revealing the ways in which what exists has emerged from something else, and the ways in which it can be reconfigured once again. If the principles of necessity and rationality are stripped from the dialectic, however, what remains is the practice of organising categories into a system in a manner that exposes the properties of the categories by gradually revealing the network of relations through which the categories mutually determine one another. When this method is combined with Marx’s orientation to social practice – with his treatment of conceptual and theoretical categories as real abstractions, as abstractions that arise in thought because they are first primed by our collective practical experience – the dialectic becomes a method for analysing both concepts and practices as these mutually determine one another within the context of the relational networks within which they have come to be suspended.

If such a network is analysed, not as a product of necessity and reason, but instead as a contingent and arbitrary product of collective human practice, the critical potential of the relational – dialectical – analysis is unleashed. It becomes possible – as we have already begun to explore in the first chapter – to differentiate out the effects and potentials of the network itself, from alternative potentials that could be constructed from a reconfiguration of the various components that have been contingently assembled into the network at this particular moment. Dialectics – as the analysis of the contingent nature of the relations into which component practices have been contingently suspended in the production of capital – can thus help render explicit the potentials of the disaggregated parts of this relation, making it easier to think how we might adapt existing social materials to produce very different forms of collective life.

With this discussion in mind, it is now helpful to see whether and how we can see elements of this methodology operating in the text.

III. Producing the Commodity

In chapters 2 and 3, I explored some of the textual evidence that elements of the first chapter of Capital could be seen as an elaborate and somewhat playful metacommentary on aspects of Hegel’s work, by drawing attention to certain parallels between Marx’s discussion and the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology. The above discussion of Hegel’s method from the Logic adds a further layer to the claim that Marx is engaged in a playful dialogue with Hegel from Capital’s opening chapter.

Hegel, as we have just discussed, insists that the essential requirement for a scientific philosophy should be that the system loops back on itself, such that the beginning should be demonstrated, over the course of the work, to be a necessary product of the system derived from that beginning. Marx suggests that his work should be associated with Hegel’s method – and then pointedly begins Capital with the category of the commodity. The beginning Marx selects for Capital is therefore – and in the most crass and explicit way – a product. The gesture seems almost playful – expressing an almost-too-literal loyalty to Hegel’s criterion that scientific systems must be grounded on a category that these systems can be shown to have produced. Just as Marx seems to have transposed Hegel’s high drama of consciousness in search of certain knowledge of its object, into the debauched territory of the search of certain knowledge about the wealth of capitalist societies, Marx also seems to have selected a beginning for his system that translates Hegel’s lofty requirements onto a vastly more mundane practical plane.

We have already seen how, even in his opening chapter, Marx moves from a presentation of the commodity as “an extremely obvious, trivial thing”, through an analysis that demonstrates how, instead, “it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (163). We have also explored how the opening chapter suggests that this gradual development of our understanding of the commodity is not yet complete – how the narrative structure of the chapter suggests that the opening determination of the commodity as an “external object” will not be the culmination of the analysis, because the parallels with Hegel’s Phenomenology foreshadow the need to identify a subjective basis for the wealth of capitalist society.

These points, which in the previous chapter were established through a close examination of peculiar textual moves, can now be revisited in light of the analysis of Hegel’s method above. If the commodity is intended as the “beginning” of a scientific analysis in Hegel’s sense, then the full implications of this category cannot be known at the outset, because the category starts out appearing to be an ungrounded and arbitrary “immediacy” – an “obvious, trivial thing”. As the text develops, our understanding of this opening category will gradually be further complicated and fleshed out by a network of relationships that will be derived from – shown to be presupposed or implied by this category – the opening category. Yet each new determination derived from this opening category will react back on how we understand that category, progressively redetermining it again and again and again as the system unfolds, since the characteristics of the beginning are actually determined by the mutual relations established by all of the components of the entire network. Once the entire system has been presented, this presentation will reflexively demonstrate a particular beginning to have been the necessary starting point for the analysis of the network, by showing how this beginning is also the necessary product of the system as a whole.

Direct textual evidence that Marx intends the commodity to be the beginning of this kind of reflexive system is most explicitly provided in the draftwork that has been published as “Results of the Immediate Process of Production”. In this draft, in what had been designed as a bridging section between volumes 1 and 2, Marx reflects back on the textual strategy operative in that draft. He refers back to the opening category of the commodity, and notes that the argument has now demonstrated how this category has been shown to be the result – the product – of capital:

As the elementary form of bourgeois wealth, the commodity was our point of departure, the prerequisite for the emergence of capital. On the other hand, commodities appear now as the product of capital. (949)

Marx then describes the “circular nature of our argument”, arguing that the analysis has shown how the commodity could only ever have emerged as an elementary form of wealth – the starting presupposition of the text – under the conditions of capitalist production:

…a highly developed commodity exchange and the form of the commodity as the universally necessary social form of the product can only emerge as the consequence of the capitalist mode of production. (949)

He goes on to stress that the circular or reflexive character is a practical dimension of capitalist production, such that the reflexive character of the presentation provides theoretical expression to an actually existing social phenomenon:

…if we consider societies where capitalist production is highly developed, we find that the commodity is both the constant elementary premiss (precondition) of capital and also the immediate result of the capitalist process of production. (949)

The reflexive mode of presentation adopted in the text is therefore socially bounded – specific to a social object that possesses reflexive characteristics in practice, such that dimensions of social experience could prime the development of this theoretical method.

While the analysis is reflexive, returning to the category of the commodity from which it began, the understanding of the commodity that is in play at the end of the analysis is different from how the commodity appeared to us at the outset:

The commodity that emerges from capitalist production is different from the commodity we began with as the element, the precondition of capitalist production. We began with the individual commodity viewed as an autonomous article in which a specific amount of labour-time is objectified and which therefore has an exchange-value of a definite amount.

The commodity may now be further defined… (953)

In each of these respects – and more explicitly than in the first volume of Capital – Marx positions his method as a practice-theoretic translation of the method Hegel sets out in the Logic.

Marx makes very few explicit methodological pronouncements in Capital itself. The text nevertheless becomes much more explicit in its later sections, showing that Marx adopts this reflexive dimension of Hegel’s method into the presentational strategy for Capital. Thus, for example, in the chapter on “Simple Reproduction”, Marx references the characteristically Hegelian move of showing that the starting-point has now been revealed as a result:

But what at first was merely a starting-point become, by means of nothing but the continuity of the process, by simple reproduction, the characteristic result of capitalist production, a result which is constantly renewed and perpetuated. (716)

This chapter marks out a long narrative arc, which begins in chapter 6, in the discussion of the “Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power”, where the existence of the free labourer in the labour market is put forward as a precondition of capitalist production (271-274). From the explicit introduction of this topic in chapter 6, it takes Marx until chapter 23 to close the loop, finally making explicit that a phenomenon that was originally introduced into the analysis as a seemingly dogmatic and arbitrary starting point, has now been demonstrated to be the necessary result of the capitalist system as a whole:

Capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour-power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that the capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternating rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms the product into a means by which another man can purchase him. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market price of his labour.

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer. (723-724)

By the point in the text that Marx can refer explicitly to this practical process, our understanding of the opening category of the commodity has been considerably transformed, in particular by the insight that generalised commodity exchange and the existence of the commodity as an elementary form of social wealth – is reliant on capitalist production, which is in turn reliant on the reproduction of the “peculiar commodity” of labour-power. Marx therefore focusses on the reflexive reproduction of this peculiar commodity – and of the capital-wage relation – as both the premise and the result of capitalist production. Our opening understanding of the commodity is gradually transformed such that the “extremely obvious, trivial thing” with which we are presented, comes to be grasped as an extremely complex social relation implicating a distinctive form of domination. We will explore the first steps in that transformation – the process by which Marx redetermines the opening category of the commodity by the derivation of the category of labour-power – in some detail in the chapters to come. First, however, a few more observations about Marx’s method will be useful.

Even though Marx is parsimonious with explicit declarations of his method, we can already see the practical evidence of this method at work in the opening chapter of Capital, as the text gradually complicates our understanding of the opening category by introducing new interpretations of the wealth of capitalist societies. Marx uses each new determination to relativise earlier determinations, revealing them explicitly as bounded, partial perspectives that fail to grasp what the later determinations would reveal. Marx’s appropriation of Hegel’s method therefore allows the gradual accumulation of additional categories – all understood as connected, if contingently, in the same network of relations. Each new category then renders explicit further perspectives on the complex process by which capital is produced, transforming our sense of the implications, consequences, and potentials of claims put forward earlier in the analysis.

This method continues to operate as the text develops, with Marx gradually demonstrating that earlier categories can be shown to presuppose or imply later ones – to betray the traces of a much more complex social reality than the early categories, as originally understood, would be able to grasp. By drawing systematic attention to such traces, Marx makes the case that further categories, or additional specifications of existing categories, are necessary in order to express explicitly the dimensions of social experience that earlier categories only imply. In this way, Marx can assert that later categories are immanent to earlier ones – that it is not possible to retain the earlier categories as valid, without also accepting the validity of the later ones. It is in this sense that Marx’s work constitutes as immanent critique of political economy.

At the same time, as further categories are derived, Marx explores the implications and presuppositions of these new categories as well. These newly-accessible implications and presuppositions, however, often suggest the existence of social trends that directly oppose the trends that could be explicitly thematised by earlier categories. In this way, Marx progressively assembles the resources to grasp the production of capital as a contradictory process built out of an aggregation of social practices, each with their own internal multiplicities, both when analysed in isolation and within the overarching relation within which they are currently suspended. By analysing the production of capital from the standpoint of each perspective made available by the components of this assemblage, Marx can point to a wide range of conflictual practical potentials for constructing very different forms of collective life. At the same time, Marx can assemble the resources to criticise the opening perspectives put forward in his own text, by revealing the practical preconditions that render these perspectives socially valid – but valid as partial perspectives, whose fragmentary insights into aspects of capitalist society fail to grasp the countervailing tendencies that are also characteristic of this same form of collective life.

IV. Real Abstractions

Although Marx uses this method to criticise political economy, he does not understand his critique as an analysis of purely conceptual contradictions existing only at the level of thought: he does not criticise the political economists for mere errors in thinking, but rather understands their errors as expressions of determinate, socially real, characteristics of the phenomena they are trying to analyse. Tensions within political economic categories are primed by real tensions that become practically manifest in collective experience. This point is already central in some of the earliest draftwork for Capital – as in this passage from the Grundrisse, which also captures Marx’s conception of his work as a Hegelian “science” in which the order of presentation of the categories becomes paramount to the substantive claims of the text. Marx writes:

In the succession of the categories, as in any other, historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject – here, modern bourgeois society – is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins where only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well. This is to be kept in mind because it will shortly be decisive for the order and sequence of the categories. (106)

Political economic categories are, in other words, “real abstractions” – concepts that arise in thought because they are enacted in practice, concepts that formally and consciously articulate insights that initially arise as dispositions, habits of perception and forms of subjectivity integral to specific kinds of practical enactment. Such concepts therefore capture – although perhaps only in a partial or one-sided way – the qualitative properties of the real social experiences they attempt to express. The adequate critique of such “real abstractions” does not result from debunking merely conceptual errors, but instead through demonstrating the dimensions of social experience whose qualitative characteristics – when hypostatised – lend themselves to this specific sort of error. In one of the very few explicitly methodological statements in Capital, Marx describes this kind of critique – characterising it, significantly, as “the only scientific” method:

It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e., to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosized. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. (ftnt. 4, p. 494)

Marx’s critique of political economy attempts to move from “the actual, given relations of life”, to “the forms in which these have been apotheosized”, by illustrating what specific aspect of “given relations” has primed some specific theoretical articulation within political economy. It is for this reason that Marx – in footnotes and asides throughout the text – will link the discussion in the main text with particular theorists or schools of thought: these gestures tie a specific theoretical articulation to a specific set of given relations, and suggest that the apotheosis – what I have been calling the “hypostatisation” – associated with a particular theory has been primed by – and tends to articulate and thus reinforce – our collective experience of this particular aspect of a “given relation”. To say the same thing another way, such moves mark out what Marx regards as the sphere of social validity for a particular theoretical articulation: by pointing to a dimension of collective practice that, taken in isolation, might suggest the validity of a particular theory, Marx intends to limit and bound the validity of that theory to that one dimension of social practice – with the whole remainder of the text then sketching the broad terrain that is thereby not grasped.

To return from these general methodological reflections to our more systematic reading of the text: Chapters 2 through 6 of Capital allow Marx to mine the resources he needs to expose the social preconditions – and therefore the boundaries and limits – of the opening perspectives that position the commodity as an “external object” that is reciprocally exchanged, equivalent for equivalent, by members of a community of commodity producers. In the process, Marx advances his tacit metacommentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology, suggesting that Hegel has mistaken the qualitative characteristics of a process of domination to be the characteristics of a process of free self-realisation.

In the following chapters, I sketch some of the key movements of this narrative arc, focussing on how Marx attempts to demonstrate that later categories can simultaneously be presupposed by earlier ones, and yet can also make visible the practical implications that contradict what those earlier categories seemed to imply about the nature of social relations and material reproduction. This demonstration establishes – more clearly than the limited examples mobilised in the first chapter – the contradictory character of the production of capital – the way in which this social process relies on the suspension into a distinctive relation of moments that, taken in isolation, suggest the possibility to realise very different potentials than those that are fully realised through the production of the relation as a whole. Through this analysis, Marx criticises the opening perspectives put forward in his own text, by revealing the social preconditions that render these perspectives socially valid – but valid as partial perspectives, whose fragmentary insights into aspects of capitalist society fail to grasp the countervailing tendencies that are also characteristic of this same form of collective life.

Progressively through these early chapters, Marx mines the resources that will enable him to make explicit the argument that generalised commodity exchange – the focus of the opening chapters – does not arise autonomously, as the expression of an independent and self-subsistent form of collective life. Instead, it emerges as a subordinate moment, embedded within and historically inseparable from an overarching social relation whose general tendencies are diametrically opposed to those suggested by the practices immediately associated with commodity exchange. Marx thus positions the opening perspectives presented in Capital as expressions of fragmentary moments of the production of capital, and therefore presents them as socially valid in a limited and bounded way. By demonstrating the social validity of the opening perspectives, Marx simultaneously lays the foundation for criticising any attempt to overreach the boundaries of this social validity – for example by hypostatising these limited, bounded, and partial aspects of the production of capital as though they express unconditioned attributes of the human personality, transcendental conditions for the process of exchange, intrinsic attributes of material production, or a spontaneously-emergent and free-standing form of social life in the present time or in capitalism’s pre-history.

This methodological discussion has prepared us to understand some of the strategic motivations that lead Marx to structure his argument in what might otherwise seem an overly indirect or even contradictory way. At this point, I want to rely on this understanding of Marx’s method as we explore the steps through which Marx leads up to the claim, finally made explicit in chapter 6, that a “subjective” factor – labour-power – is, counter-intuitively, the basis for the wealth of capitalist societies.

One response to “Thesis Workshop: With What Must a Science Begin?

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