Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Self-Reflexivity

Circular Reasoning

I’ve just been reading a work that makes the very common argument that Hegel begins the Science of Logic with the category of Being because that category is the most abstract and free of determination possible – qualities that apparently assure us that Hegel isn’t presupposing any more than he absolutely has to, at the outset of his system. This interpretation is presented as though Hegel’s process was a sort of modified Cartesian method where, instead of trying to cast everything into doubt, he tries to come up with an indubitable abstraction – as though the starting point is chosen because, after trying to force himself to think of concepts increasingly free from concrete determination, he finally reaches a point where this process of abstraction can continue no further and, on this bedrock, constructs his system. For some reason, I always find this interpretation very irritating. Perhaps because Hegel says quite expressly that this is not what he is doing…

Specifically, he responds to hypothetical critics who might find the starting point – or, indeed, the subsequent exposition of the categories – to be arbitrary. Yes, Hegel responds: it looks arbitrary at first. This is because the non-arbitrariness of the categories and their relations cannot be demonstrated, other than through the presentation of the system as a whole. The justification for the starting point and for the order of exposition is not that, by starting with something as free of determinations as possible, we give ourselves the most solid possible anchor from which to derive the other categories – this would be a linear model of derivation, one that would rely on precisely the sort of exceptionalised, external starting point that, in Hegel’s view, would toss the starting point of the system outside the system.

For Hegel, this kind of move, when trying to construct a science of logic, is tantamount to claiming that the starting point of logic is illogical and that the ground of reason is irrational. Hegel knows no greater horror. The whole point of the system is to avoid precisely this problem. Everything must be in its place. Everything. Even the starting point. Especially the starting point. It is therefore of pivotal importance, not simply that the other categories in the system should be derivable from the starting point, but that the starting point should be derivable from the presentation of all of the other categories in the system.

What justifies the starting point and the subsequent order of exposition of the categories is therefore not some external criterion – not even the criterion that the starting category be as abstract as possible so as to smuggle as few assumptions as possible into the system – but rather the immanent criterion that the relations between the categories become visible only if the categories are positioned relative to one another in this exact way. As such, the “justification” can’t be evident at the start – or, indeed, at any point until the work has been presented in full. In Hegel’s inimitable formulation:

But 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.

The notion that the starting point of the Logic is justified because it is the most abstract category thinkable to us, is precisely such an external justification. It offers a rationale outside the science. This is not sufficient for Hegel’s goal of justifying his categories in a “scientific manner”.

Reaching for terminology to describe his method, Hegel argues that the system must be conceived, not as a linear derivation of categories from an a priori foundational category, but rather as a circle, whose starting point is therefore encompassed within its own trajectory, implicated by all the other moments of the system, and derivable from those other moments:

Through this progress, then, the beginning loses the one-sidedness which attaches to it as something simply immediate and abstract; it becomes something mediated, and hence the line of the scientific advance becomes a circle. 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 that knowledge.

Perhaps a better contemporary image for Hegel’s circle would be of a hologram – where it becomes possible to reconstruct an image of the original object from the recorded light scattered from its surface… Regardless, Hegel’s image of the circular character of the system is intended to map out an alternative to systems that rely on an exceptionalised starting point that is derived in some qualitatively different manner from the other components within the system.

Certainly this seems to be what Marx takes from the Logic in constructing the order of presentation in Capital – as he argues to Kugelmann:

even if there were no chapter on ‘value’ at all in my book, the analysis I give of the real relations would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relation. The chatter about the need to prove the concept of value arises only from complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science.

That Marx’s reference to “science” here is meant in a Hegelian inflection becomes clear a few sentences on (perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term “inimitable” in relation to Hegel above…):

Where science comes in is to show how the law of value asserts itself. So, if one wanted to ‘explain’ from the outset all phenomena that apparently contradict the law, one would have to provide the science before the science. It is precisely Ricardo’s mistake that in his first chapter, on value, all sorts of categories that still have to be arrived at are assumed as given, in order to prove their harmony with the law of value.

I have to admire Marx’s wild optimism here: yes – precisely what Capital needs is less discussion of value, since the need for this category is simply so obvious from the rest of the work… Marx may have been right that the demands that he “prove” the category of value are misplaced – but a bit of Hegelian stage whispering to clarify his method would not have been amiss, whether it breaks with the immanent presentation of his categories or not…

I’ve said more on this dimension of Hegel’s (and Marx’s) method in the thesis – apologies for the gestural repetition here – just venting in order to clear the system for more reading…

Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

This coming Friday, I have to fulfil a mandatory pre-submission requirement for the thesis that basically involves presenting on the structure and the major claims of the thesis, and then taking questions from faculty and students who happen to attend the event. The faculty who attend are provided with the abstract, first chapter, and table of contents for the thesis – unless they are actual supervisors, they are unlikely to have read anything else. The students who attend are not, to my knowledge, supplied with anything. Presumably they are either friends of the presenters, and therefore know their work through that connection, or they are simply there to see what this hurdle requirement entails. The purpose of the requirement is to provide a sort of check and balance on the supervision process – making it less likely that theses will be sent out for examination (which, here, is an entirely external process) when they are likely to require major amendments or not to pass.

If any readers from my university would like to attend, the event will be held in the Research Lounge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday 27 February. There will be four or five of us presenting and taking questions – each of us with an hour to ourselves. I don’t know as of yet which hour is mine. If this matters, send me an email, and I’ll let you know when and if I find out…

Since the introduction I recently posted to the blog was mainly a placeholder – and one that was specifically not very well-designed, I didn’t think, for people who weren’t going to read the rest of the thesis – I have rewritten it for purposes of distribution to the staff who will be attending this event. I think it’s much better than the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, so, to satisfy my archivalist impulses, I’ve posted it below the fold. As before, it still needs a lot of detail work (and footnotes have been stripped from the blog version), but as an overarching introduction it does a much better job – I think – of preparing the reader for the sort of thesis they are about to read, the terminology used in the thesis, and the style of argument the thesis makes. I think…

I belong to the first group of students to whom this presentation requirement has been applied, so the groundrules for the event – and what you have to do to “pass” – are still a bit unformed. I’m not expecting any major dramas, but who knows… I’ll let folks know next week…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Thesis Workshop: Introduction – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

It’s a bit rough and ready, but I’ll post the working introduction to the thesis here anyway. If I keep this introduction in anything like its current form, I’ll need to make some slight modifications to several of the later chapters, since the introduction currently covers some of the ground discussed in later chapters, and would make those discussions seem repetitive…

Lots of detail work still to do – but this should be the end of the thesis-related posts for now. I’ll put up a PDF of the version of the thesis that is actually submitted when that is ready to go.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

Okay. Last substantive chapter of the thesis. This chapter was very difficult to write. I think it was worth the difficulty. But perhaps that’s just relief at finishing the argument…

This chapter outlines the derivation of the category of labour-power, explores how this derivation fundamentally alters our sense of the opening categories, and generally tries to pull everything together. I’m queueing this piece for publication several days before it will appear on the blog, so I’m not certain whether there will be an introduction and conclusion to be posted hot on the heels of this chapter, or whether this will be it for a while. I have considered possibly just ending the thesis with this chapter, as anything that follows will likely be a bit more prosaic than the ground this chapter covers, ensuring the thesis ends, so to speak, on a whimper. I suspect, though, that I need a more formal conclusion just to get a quick outline of the major points all in one place… So: a concluding chapter probably still to come, and an introductory chapter definitely still to come (and, since we all know the beginning can’t really be fully grasped until it can be shown to be the necessary starting point of the system derived from it, it’s surely fitting that what should have been first in the order of presentation, will instead appear last… ;-P).

[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.]
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Thesis Workshop: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

Now that we’ve finally escaped chapter 3 of Capital, a quick breeze through chapters 4 and 5, focussing on the imagery in chapter 4 of capital-as-Geist, and then on the impasse Marx sets up in chapter 5, as a wedge through which he will drive the category of labour-power in the following chapter.

Chapter 4 contains one of the more overt references to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the text – a number of commentators have noticed the parallel being drawn there between capital and the Geist. There is a certain tendency, however, to beat up on the authors who notice this gesture, as though these authors are attributing to Marx the position that capital is actually the Geist – an autonomous, self-grounding process that has achieved independence from human agency. I’m not convinced this is a fair reading of other commentators who have noticed this same reference in the text. Regardless, in my discussion of this issue below, I position this gesture into the context of Marx’s critique of Hegel: Marx is not saying that capital is the Geist – he’s saying that the process of the production of capital includes within itself a perspective that makes that process appear to possess certain qualitative attributes that Hegel attributes to the Geist. This is the same move Marx makes when criticising any competing form of thought: critique for Marx involves a process of demonstrating why a competing position is plausible – a demonstration that, for Marx, takes the form of showing what aspect of practical experience could plausibly be interpreted in the form being criticised – and then, having done that, showing all the other things that competing position can’t grasp, because it gives too much ontological weight to one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon. If the reader were in any doubt as to whether Marx thinks capital just might be a god-process after all, this passage of text is filled with Marx’s signature destabilising gestures that – more clearly in this section than in many other passages in Capital mock the perspective being presented overtly in the text. All this and more below…

Chapter 5 presents a nice deconstructive analysis of an aporia within commodity circulation – a process that both presupposes the creation of surplus-value, and yet offers no perspective from which this creation can be grasped as anything other than a mysterious, occult phenomenon. This analysis sets up for Marx to offer a preliminary practice-theoretic account of this phenomenon, beginning in the following chapter.

[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.]
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Thesis Workshop: Crossed Circuits

After this chapter, readers will finally be able to make their escape from the deconstructive thicket that is the third chapter of Capital. Before we part ways with this chapter, though, Marx engages in some extremely clever moves to begin to open a wedge through which he will finally drive the category of capital in the following chapter. Here he begins to make the case that commodity circulation allows – and, in some cases, necessitates – exchanges that are not driven by the need to meet material needs, but rather by the need to make money. This may sound like an obvious point, but Marx needs to make it in a way that makes clear that this is not a possibility that arises extrinsically to commodity production, as some sort of corruption of a more fundamental process, but rather is implied by the very nature of the process itself. This chapter is also, by the way, where I most directly treat the issue of crisis – a topic I can approach only in an extremely preliminary way in the thesis, since I am focussing only on the opening chapters of Capital

So one last dance with chapter 3 – and then we get to meet the Geist!

[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.]
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Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

[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.]

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Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

[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.]

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Thesis Workshop: Personifying Commodities

Okay. Now we get to the new stuff. The argument put forward in this and the remaining chapters, although it has been discussed on the blog in somewhat abstract terms from time to time, will probably seem at least somewhat new – and at the very least much more fully developed than what I have been able to post here before. This chapter begins to unfold what might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of moments in Marx’s text where he writes as though he is reducing other phenomena to an economic or material dimension of social experience that he finds more ontologically fundamental – as though he is making a sort of metaphysical claim about the primacy of the economic. My reading of these passages is that they are attempts to make a very different sort of claim – a claim that is very specific to capitalism, and that attempts to pick out the distinctive qualitative characteristics of a form of sociality that Marx regards as unique to capitalist societies. But better to let those who are curious click through to the actual argument, which makes the case as well as I know how – and will therefore make it better than what I could summarise here.

One funny aspect of drafting and re-drafting: I’ve done a number of essentially stylistic revisions since I got the whole argument roughly into the form I was after. I find it interesting the way my evaluation of chapters changes due to the uneven periodisation of the revision process. This chapter, for example, came out of the original drafting process relatively cleaner and clearer than the other chapters. As a consequence, I’ve been focussing my editing energy on those other chapters, and only very slightly revising this one. So now, doing one further edit tonight, I’m finding myself mildly disappointed in this chapter, because the others have (I think…) now been edited into forms that surpass it… More editing to come I guess… ;-P In any event, I think the chapter is in an adequate state to post it here…

[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.]

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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.]

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