The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter 3 – Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete

Marx’s View of the Development of Scientific Cognition

As we know, the question of the relation of the abstract to the concrete in thought arose before Marx in the light of another, more general, problem: which scientific method should be used? [See A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]

This question assumes a view of scientific development as of a natural historical process. In general, Marx has always been decidedly opposed to the Leftist view of the development of spiritual culture which ignores all the previous attainments of human thought. In science, just as in all the other fields of spiritual culture, actual progress is always attained by further development of the values created by previous development, not by starting from scratch; by a theoretically developed head rather than by the Lockean tabula rasa.

It goes without saying that the assimilation of the results of previous theoretical development is not a matter of simply inheriting ready-made formulas but rather a complex process of their critical reinterpretation with reference to their correspondence to facts, life, practice. A new theory, however revolutionary it might be in its content and significance, is always born in the course of critical reassessment of previous theoretical development. Lenin emphasised this point in his struggle against the Leftist views of the proponents of the so-called proletarian culture, who insisted that proletarian culture should be developed ‘straight from life’, – while all attainments of human thought should be discarded as – useless refuse.

The more revolutionary a theory, the greater its role of the genuine heir of previous theoretical development and the degree in which it assimilates the ‘rational kernels’ accumulated by science in previous development. That is a necessary law of the development of science, of theory. A new theoretical conception of the empirically given data always emerges in the course of revolutionary critical reassessment of the old theoretical interpretation of these f acts.

‘Settling critical accounts’ with the earlier developed theories is not a matter of secondary importance, but a necessary element in the elaboration of theory itself, an element in the theoretical analysis of facts. It is not accidental that Capital has a subtitle, a second title: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production.

In Capital, the analysis of concepts developed in the entire preceding history of political economy organically coincides, in essence, with an analysis of the stubborn facts of economic reality. These two aspects of scientific-theoretical inquiry coincide or merge in one single process. Neither of them is conceivable or possible without the other. Just as critical analysis of concepts is impossible outside an analysis of facts, theoretical analysis of facts is impossible unless there are concepts through which they may be expressed. Marx’s dialectical logic fully takes this circumstance into account.

That is why dialectics is the area where conscious, intentional coincidence of the inductive and the deductive moments takes place, the two constituting indissolubly linked ,and, mutually assuming moments of inquiry.

Old logic was more or less consistent in interpreting induction as analysis of empirical facts, as formation of analytical definitions of the fact. That is why induction appeared the basic, if not the only, form of attaining new knowledge. Deduction was mostly considered as analysis of the concept, as the process of establishing distinctions within the concept. As such, it largely appeared to be the process and form of explication or exposition of already existing knowledge, knowledge that is already there in the head, rather than a form of obtaining new knowledge and new concepts. The point is that man (on condition, of course, that he really forms a conception of facts) never takes up analysis of facts with an empty consciousness but always with a consciousness developed by education. In other words, he always approaches facts having in mind certain concepts. Whether he wants it or not, he cannot actively grasp or conceive facts in general without that condition – he may, at best, only passively contemplate them.

In the simplest generalisation, induction is indissolubly linked with deduction: man expresses facts in a concept, and that means that a new analytical definition of facts is at the same time formed as a new, and more concrete, definition of that concept which serves as the basis for interpreting these facts. If that is not the case, an analytical definition of the fact os not formed at all.

Whether man wants it or not. each new inductive definition of the fact is formed by him in the light of some ready-made concept which at some time learnt from society, in the light of some conceptual system or other. He who believes that he expresses facts ‘without any bias whatsoever’, without any ‘preconceived ideas’, is not actually free from them. On the contrary, he often proves to be slave to the most banal and absurd ideas.

Here as well as anywhere else freedom lies in conscious mastering of necessity rather than in trying to escape from it. A genuinely unprejudiced person does not express facts without any preconceived ideas’ whatsoever, he does it with the aid of consciously assimilated correct concepts.

With regard to philosophical categories, this was demonstrated quite convincingly by Engels in his critique of empiricism: a natural scientist who prides himself on his freedom from any logical categories proves to be a captive of the most banal conceptions of them. By himself, he cannot form them out of facts – that would he equivalent to a claim to do something that can only he done by mankind in its development. He therefore in effect always borrows logical categories from philosophy. The only question is, from what philosophy he will borrow them: from a good-for-nothing fashionable system or one that is actually the peak of development, a system based on the study of the entire history of human thought and its attainments.

This is true, of course, not only of the concepts of philosophy: the same thing happens with the categories of any science. Man never begins reasoning ‘from scratch’, ‘straight from the facts’. The great Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov said once that without an idea in the head you can’t see facts. Mindless contemplation and induction without ideas are products of the imagination, just as ‘pure thought’.

Empiricism assuming that it ‘operates only with undeniable facts ... operates predominantly with traditional notions, with the largely obsolete products of thought of its predecessors’. [Dialectics of Nature, Chapter 6] That is why an empiricist easily confuses abstractions with reality, reality with abstractions, and takes subjective illusions for objective facts and objective facts and concepts expressing them, for abstractions and illusions. As a rule, he posits abstract truisms as definitions of facts.

It follows that ‘empirical induction’ itself takes the form of concretisation of notions an concepts that serve as the basis for considering facts, that is, the form of deduction or process of filling the original concepts with new and more detailed definitions obtained from facts through abstraction.

The old opposition of deduction and induction is rationally sublated in materialist dialectics. Deduction ceases to be a means of formal derivation of definitions contained a priori in the concept, becoming a means of actual development of knowledge of facts in their movement, in their internal interaction. This deduction organically includes an empirical moment: it proceeds through a rigorous analysis of empirical facts, that is, through induction. In this case, however, the names ‘induction’ and ‘deduction’ express only an external, formal resemblance between the method of materialist dialectics and the corresponding methods of ratiocinative, intellect-oriented logic. In actual fact, that is neither induction nor deduction but rather a third method including the other two as sublated moments. Here they are realised simultaneously, as mutually assuming opposites, resulting in a new and higher form of logical development precisely through their reciprocal action.

This higher form, an organic combination analysis of facts with analysis of concepts, is exactly the method of ascent from the abstract o the concrete of which Marx speaks. That is the only logical form of the development of knowledge which corresponds to the objective nature of the thing. The point is that no other method can reproduce the objective concreteness in thought as reality that emerged and developed historically. One cannot do it in any other way.

As such, the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete is by no means merely a method for expounding available knowledge obtained in some other way, as Marx’s teaching has often been presented by revisionists who distorted the method of Capital in the spirit of banal neo-Kantianism.

That is the way in which the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete is interpreted by Rudolph Hilferding. Quoting the Preface to Marx’s economic MSS of 1857-58 (‘On the first path the full idea will evaporate until it becomes an abstract definition; on the second, abstract definitions lead to reproduction of the concrete through thinking’), Hilferding makes this comment: ‘It is clear from this already how false it is to equate deduction and induction as sources of knowledge of the same value. Rather, deduction is only a scientific method of presentation which, however, must be preceded in the spirit by induction if it should really arrive, in the final analysis, from the general to the presentation of the particulars Hilferding calls the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete deduction and interprets it in an extremely one-sided manner, only with regard to its external resemblance to deduction as it is traditionally conceived, denying that it has any advantages as a method for the study of real facts and reducing it merely to a form of systematic presentation of available knowledge, which must in his view be obtained in some other way in advance, namely, the inductive way.

Karl Renner, the well-known Austrian Marxist, author of Economy as a Whole and Socialisation follows the same avenue of thought in the Preface to his work. He reduces the essence of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete applied in Capital, to the manner of presentation characteristic of German philosophers, which Marx, according to Renner, learnt from his contemporaries. Insofar as this manner of presentation has allegedly become quite alien to the modern reader, Renner believes it appropriate to replace it with quite a different one. ‘I know no book grown out of such a great mass of empirical data as Marx’s Capital, and only a few books whose method of presentation is as deductive and abstract.’ Therefore Renner believes it expedient to present the content of Marx’s theory in another manner, one which ‘proceeds from the visual evidence of the facts of experience, arranges them in a certain order, and thus gradually advances to the abstract concept’, that is, inductively. In this case, Renner believes, the method of presentation will correspond to the method of investigation, whereas in Capital the two are in contradiction.

As a result, Renner generalises, quite uncritically, the empirical phenomena of modern capitalism as they appear on the surface, passing off his generalisations for a theoretical expression of the essence of these phenomena. Following this path he discovers, for instance, that a worker buying shares thereby becomes owner of the social means of production, which results in automatic ‘democratisation of capital’ and ‘socialisation’ of social production, making revolution unnecessary. Thus Renner supplants Marx’s method of studying phenomena by the method of apology, disguising it as a different manner of presentation.

The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete can just as little be interpreted as a method of purely logical synthesis of available abstractions (previously obtained in a purely analytical manner) in a system. The notion that cognition involves at first ‘pure’ analysis producing numerous abstractions followed by just as ‘pure’ synthesis, is the same kind of invention in metaphysical epistemology as the idea of induction without deduction.

In substantiating this view, the development of science in the 17th and 18th centuries is often taken as an example, but the facts are often violated, unwittingly. Even if one should agree that characteristic of that time was indeed the analytical attitude towards facts (although synthesis, despite the illusions of theoreticians, was carried out here as well), one must not forget that that was not the initial stage in the scientific development of mankind and that the ‘one-sided analysis’ characteristic of that epoch assumed ancient Greek science as a prerequisite. And ancient Greek science, the real initial stage in the scientific development of Europe, is much more characterised by a generalised synthetic view of things. In referring to the history of metaphysics of the 17th and 18th centuries, one should bear in mind that it is not the first but rather the second great epoch in the development of thought. In that case, it is synthesis rather than analysis that emerges historically as the first stage in the processing of facts in thought.

The example referred to thus shows something diametrically opposed to what it was intended to show.

Analysis and synthesis are (and have always been) just as indissoluble internal opposites of the process of thinking as deduction and induction. If at certain epochs one was overestimated to the detriment of the other. this should not be raised to a law that thought should be subject to in the future, a logical law. a precept according to which each first pass through a purely analytical stage of development later to proceed, on this basis, to a synthetic one.

But that is exactly the conception on which the opinion is based that the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete can be applied only then and there where the concrete has previously been ‘distilled’ into the abstract.

The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete is first of all a method of analysis of real empirical facts. As such, it organically comprises in itself the reverse motion as its internally necessary opposite: each step on this path is exactly an act of ascent from the sensually given concreteness to its abstract, theoretical expression. That is why the ascent from the abstract to the concrete in thought is at the same time a continually renewed movement from the concrete in contemplation and notion to the concrete in the concept.

Abstract definitions of sensually given facts, that are synthesised on the path of ascent towards the concrete truth, are formed in the process of motion itself. They are by no means taken ready-made as products of the previous, allegedly purely analytical, stage of logical cognition.

If there is any sense in the assertion that ascent from the abstract to the concrete assumes a purely analytical reduction of the sensually empirical concreteness to abstract expression, as a special stage of logical development interior in time and essence, this meaning would appear to be that theoretical consideration of reality assumes the existence of a well-developed vocabulary, a spontaneously formed terminology, and a system of abstract general conceptions. This ‘purely analytical’ stage in the reflection of objective reality in consciousness is only a prerequisite of logical theoretical activity rather than its first stage.

Thus we may sum up the above as follows: the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete is a specific form of the activity of thought, of logical transformation of contemplation and notion into concepts. It is by no means an artificial procedure, a manner of presentation of already existing knowledge, or a formal method for combining available abstractions in a system.

This is first and foremost a natural law of the theoretical development of mankind established by philosophy and, in the second place, a consciously applied method of development of theory.

Each inductive generalisation taken separately (according to the formula ‘from the concrete in contemplation to the abstract in thought) is in fact always realised in the context of the overall advance of cognition and is in this sense only a ‘disappearing moment’ in the general movement to concrete truth. Thereby ascent from the abstract to the concrete in thought and the dialectics of thought are indissolubly linked.

It is not for nothing that Lenin, having carefully copied a lengthy definition of the path from the abstract to the concrete given by Hegel in the last section of his greater Logic, describes it as follows:

‘This extract is not at all bad as a kind of summing up of dialectics.’

The definition quoted by Lenin characterises reasoning as ascent from the abstract to the concrete:

‘... Cognition rolls forward from content to content. This progress determines itself, first, in this manner, that it begins from simple determinatenesses and that each subsequent one is richer and more concrete. For the result contains its own beginning and the development of the beginning has made it the richer by a new determinateness. The universal is the foundation; the progress therefore must not be taken as a flow from Other to Other. In the absolute method the Notion preserves itself in its otherness, and the universal in its particularisation, in the Judgement and in reality; it raises to each next stage of determination the whole mass of its antecedent content, and by its dialectical progress not only loses nothing and leaves nothing behind, but carries with it all that it has acquired, enriching and concentrating itself upon itself. ...’ [Lenin quoting: Hegel’s Logic, LCW. 38, p 231]

It is these sections of Hegel’s Logic, where the idea is expounded of ascent from an abstract universal definiteness of the object to its increasingly more concrete embodiment, that Lenin singles out in his conspectus as the sections in which idealism is felt least of all and where the dialectical method is in the foreground.

‘It is noteworthy that the whole chapter on the “Absolute Idea” scarcely says a word about God (hardly ever has a “divine” “notion” slipped out accidentally) and apart from that – this NB – it contains almost nothing that is specifically idealism, but has for its main subject the dialectical method. The sum-total, the last word and essence of Hegel’s logic is the dialectical method – this is extremely noteworthy. And one thing more: in this most idealistic of Hegel’s works there is the least idealism and the most materialism. “Contradictory”, but a fact!’ [Lenin: Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic, Vol. 38, p 234]

In the dialectical view of the process of cognition, the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete, from the universal theoretical definition of the object given in contemplation and notion, to its increasingly more concrete definitions, appears as a form of theoretically correct transformation of empirical facts in a concept. That is the view taken by Marx, in the Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and by Lenin in his notes on and evaluation of the last chapter of Hegel’s Logic.

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