Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Essence, Appearance and Elster

Since I’m writing on Elster… another bit that caught my eye in passing…

Elster (1985:124-25) understands that Hegel is being name-checked when Marx appeals to notions of essence and appearance in discussing the relation of value and price. Because, however, Elster assumes Marx is attempting to explain movements of price via his theory of value, he accuses Marx of missing Hegel’s point:

Marx frequently referred to a distinction between ‘Wesen’ and ‘Erscheinung’, essence and appearance, in economic life. I shall not go deeply into the darkly Hegelian origin of these notions, except to suggest that in his best-known application of them Marx may have misunderstood Hegel quite radically.

The appearance, that which appears, allows for two different antonyms. First, it may be contrasted with what is hidden, and accessible only by the mediation of thought. In this sense one may say that behind the appearance of a table is the atomic structure that forms its essence. This, broadly speaking, is how Marx conceived the relation between labour values and prices. The former are of a different and more fundamental ontological order than the latter, which, however, are the only ones that appear to the economic agents. Prices are on the surface of things, in the double sense of being immediately observable and of being explicable in terms of a deeper and more fundamental structure. Secondly, one may focus on the local character of the appearance – since what appears always appears to a person occupying a particular standpoint and observing the phenomena from a particular perspective. Hence any given appearance may be contrasted with the global network of appearances that is not tied to any particular standpoint. As far as I understand Hegel’s theory of essence and appearance, the second interpretation is the correct one. It says that the essence is the totality of interrelated appearances, not something that is ‘behind’ them and of a different ontological order.

Needless to say, I believe that it is precisely this second sort of analysis that Marx puts forward. Elster overlooks this possibility because he is misled by the peculiar presentational strategy that leads Marx first to speak in the voices of positions he intends to criticise, only in order to destabilise and relativise those voices as the argument moves on. Marx deviates from Hegel, not in wanting to view essence as persisting in some different ontological dimension than appearance – this is what he criticises political economy for doing, when he asks why it has never pursued the question of why a specific content appears in a specific form. He differs from Hegel in wanting to mobilise this sort of framework to make more visible the potential to disaggregate the parts that contingently generate a particular set of unintentional aggregate consequences like value.

Ironically, a few pages after the quotation above, Elster cites later passages in Capital – by which point, of course, the text has gathered the resources to be more explicit about its method – to suggest that Marx sometimes adopts a better understanding of the essence/appearance distinction – at which point Elster (126-27) argues:

We are dealing here [in the discussion of the wage form] with a generalized form of fetishism, that is structurally induced illusions about how the economy works. One might be tempted to conclude that the proper place for the essence-appearance distinction is not in economic theory proper, but in the sociology of economic thought…

One might indeed. Perhaps, in fact, one should. By not recognising the reflexive, iterative character of the text, Elster misses a great opportunity to realise how the essence-appearance distinction always already operates – even in the earlier sections where Marx has not yet tipped his hand and is still ventriloquising idealist metaphysical presentations in the main body of his text.


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