The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete

The Conception of the Abstract and the Concrete in Dialectics and in Formal Logic

The terms ‘the abstract’ and ‘the concrete’ are employed both in everyday speech and in the special literature rather ambiguously. Thus, one hears of ‘concrete facts’ and ‘concrete music’, of ‘abstract thinking’ and ‘abstract painting’, of ‘concrete truth’ and ‘abstract labour’. This usage is in each case apparently justified by the existence of shades of meanings in these words, and it would be ridiculously pedantic to demand a complete unification of the usage.

However, things are different when we are dealing not merely with words or terms but with the content of scientific categories that have become historically linked with these terms. Definitions of the abstract and the concrete as categories of logic must be stable and unambiguous within the framework of this science, for they are instrumental in establishing the basic principles of scientific thought. Through these terms, dialectical logic expresses a number of its fundamental principles (‘there is no abstract truth. truth is always concrete’, the thesis of ‘ascending from the abstract to the concrete’, and so on). Therefore the categories of the abstract and the concrete have quite a definite meaning in dialectical logic, which is intrinsically linked with the dialectico-materialist conception of the truth, the relation of thought to reality, the mode of theoretical reproduction of reality in thinking, and so on. As long as we deal with categories of dialectics connected with words, rather than with words themselves, any licence, lack of clarity or instability in their definition (let alone incorrectness) will necessarily lead to a distorted conception of the essence of the matter. For this reason it is necessary to free the categories of the abstract and the concrete from the connotations that have been associated with them throughout centuries in many works by tradition, from force of habit or simply because of an error, which has often interfered with correct interpretation of the propositions of dialectical logic.

The problem of the relationship of the abstract and the concrete in its general form is not posed or solved in formal logic, for it is a purely philosophical, epistemological question, quite outside its sphere of competence. However, when it is a matter of classifying concepts, namely, of dividing concepts into ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’, formal logic necessarily assumes a quite definite interpretation of the corresponding categories. This interpretation appears as the principle of division and may therefore be established analytically.

On this point, most authors of books on formal logic apparently give a rather unanimous support to a certain tradition, albeit with some reservations and amendments. According to this traditional view, concepts (or ideas) are divided into abstract and concrete in the following manner:

’Concrete concepts are those that reflect really existing definite objects or classes of objects. Abstract concepts are those that reflect a property of objects mentally abstracted from the objects themselves.’ [N I Kondakov]

‘A concrete concept is one relating to groups, classes of things, objects, and phenomena or to separate things, objects, or phenomena.... An abstract concept is a concept of properties of objects or phenomena, when these properties are taken as an independent object of thought.’ [M S Strogavich]

‘Concrete concepts are those whose objects actually exist as things in the material world.... Abstract concepts are those that reflect a property of an object taken separately from the object, rather than the object itself.’ [V F Asmus]

The examples cited to illustrate the definitions are mostly of the same type. Concrete concepts are usually said to include such concepts as ‘book’, ‘Fido’, ‘tree’, ‘plane’, ‘commodity’, whereas abstract ones are illustrated by ‘whiteness’, ‘courage’, ‘virtue’, ‘speed’, ‘value’, etc.

Judging from the examples, the division is in fact the same as in the well-known textbook on logic by G. I. Chelpanov. Improvements on the Chelpanov definition are mostly concerned not with the division itself but with its philosophico-epistemological foundation, for Chelpanov was, philosophically, a typical subjective idealist.

Here is his version of the division of concepts into abstract and concrete ones:

’Abstract terms are those that serve for designating qualities or properties, states, or actions of things. They denote qualities considered by themselves, without the things.... Concrete concepts are those of things, objects, persons, facts, events, states of consciousness, if we regard them as having definite existence. ...’ [Textbook on Logic]

The distinction between ‘term’ and ‘concept’ is a matter of indifference for Chelpanov. ‘States of consciousness’ are in his view in the same category as facts, things, and events. ‘Having definite existence’ is for him the same as ‘having definite existence in the individual’s immediate consciousness’, that is, in his contemplation, conception, or at least imagination.

Chelpanov therefore regards as concrete anything that may be conceived (imagined) as a separately existing single thing, or image, and he regards as abstract anything that cannot be so imagined, that can only be thought of as such.

The individual’s ability or inability to conceive something graphically is, in fact, Chelpanov’s criterion for the division into the abstract and the concrete. This division, however shaky it may be from the philosophical standpoint, is rather definite.

Inasmuch as some authors endeavoured to correct the philosophico-epistemological interpretation of the classification without changing the actual type of examples concerned, the classification proved to be open to criticism.

If one includes among concrete concepts only those that pertain to objects of the material world, a centaur or Athena Pallas will apparently be regarded as abstract concepts along with courage or virtue, while Fido will be included among concrete ones along with value.

What is the use of such a classification for logical analysis? The traditional classification is destroyed or confused by this kind of amendment introducing a completely alien element into it. On the other hand, no new strict classification is obtained.

Attempts by certain authors to oppose a new principle or basis of division to the one suggested by Chelpanov can hardly be regarded as apt, too.

Kondakov believes, for instance, that the division of concepts into abstract and concrete should express a ‘difference in the content of concepts’. That means that concrete concepts must reflect things, and abstract ones, properties and relations of these things. If the division is to be complete, neither properties nor relations of things can be conceived in concrete concepts, according to Kondakov. It remains unclear how one can conceive of a thing or a class other than through a conception of their properties and relations. In fact, any thought about a thing will inevitably prove to be a thought about some property of this thing, for conceiving a thing means forming a conception about the entire totality of its properties and relations.

If one frees the thought of a thing from all thoughts of properties of this thing, there will be nothing left of the thought other than the name. In other words, the division of concepts according to their content means, in actual fact, this: a concrete concept is a concept without content, while an abstract one does have some content, though very meagre. Otherwise the division will not be complete and will thus be incorrect.

The principle of division suggested by Asmus, ‘actual existence of the objects of these concepts’ is just as unfortunate.

How is one to understand this formula? Do the objects of concrete concepts actually exist, while the objects of abstract concepts are nonexistent? But the category of abstract concepts embraces not only virtue but also value, weight, speed, that is, objects whose existence is no less real than that of a plane or a house. If one means to say that extension, value, or speed actually do not exist outside a house, a tree, a plane, or some other individual things, clearly the individual things also exist without extension, weight and other attributes of the material world only in the head, only in subjective abstraction.

Real existence is consequently neither here nor there, the more so that it cannot be made into a criterion of division of concepts into abstract and concrete. That can only create the false impression that individual things are more real than universal laws and forms of existence of these things.

All of this shows that the amendments to the Chelpanov division introduced by some authors are extremely inadequate and formal, and that the authors of books on logic have failed to make a critical materialist analysis of this division, restricting themselves to corrections of particulars, which merely confused the traditional classification without improving it.

We shall therefore have to undertake a small excursion into the history of the concepts of the abstract and the concrete to introduce some clarity there.

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