Marx’s Capital – Philosophy and Political Economy. Geoff Pilling 1980
Chapter 3. The Concepts of Capital

IV: Abstract identity

Hegel rejected this Kantian view of the concept on the grounds that it was confined to what he called abstract identity or abstract universality. Some aspect common to a range of objects is isolated (abstracted) as that which is ‘general’ to them, to be set against a ‘particular’ which, on this view, can exist on its own. The necessity of the aspects chosen can never be demonstrated and, given that this necessity cannot be established, these ‘aspects’ out of which the general is constructed must remain ultimately arbitrary. In short, regularity in appearance is not sufficient to establish necessity. This Hegel points out when he notes the inadequacy of the consensus gentium as a proof for the existence of God. The fact that everybody agrees with the existence of God, is no necessary proof for God’s existence. Unless the nature of this individual consciousness is thoroughly explained and its inner necessity established, the proof is inadequate:

Among the so-called proofs of the existence of God, there used to stand the consensus gentium, to which appeal is made as early as Cicero. The consensus gentium is a weighty authority, and the transition is easy and natural, from the circumstance that a certain fact is found in the consciousness of every one to the conclusion that it is a necessary element in the very nature of consciousness. In this category of general agreement there was latent the deep-rooted perception, which does not escape even the least cultivated mind, that the consciousness of the individual is at the same time particular and accidental. Yet unless we examine the nature of this consciousness itself, stripping it of its particular and accidental elements and, by the toilsome operation of reflection disclosing the universal in its entirety and purity, it is only a unanimous agreement upon a given point that can authorise a decent presumption that that point is part of the very nature of consciousness.

Likewise, but from the opposite standpoint, Hegel praises Rousseau.

In the Social Contract Rousseau held that the laws of the state must spring from the universal will (volonte generale) but need not on that account be the will of all (volonte de tous). This, says Hegel, is a striking expression of ‘the distinction ... between what is merely in common, and what is truly universal’.

Hegel objected to the Kantian method of arriving at concepts because it made it impossible to trace the connection between the individual and the particular. All objects not included in a class were set against those standing outside this class. Identity (conceived as a dull sameness) and opposition were placed into two rigidly opposed criteria of thought. The direction Hegel took in trying to overcome the limitations imposed by such rigidity of thinking led to far richer results, and it was a method which guided Marx throughout Capital.

For Hegel a concept was primarily a synonym for the real grasping of the essence of phenomena and was in no way limited simply to the expression of something general, of some abstract identity discernible by the senses in the objects concerned. A concept (if it was to be adequate) had to disclose the real nature of a thing and this it must do not merely by revealing what it held in common with other objects, but also its special nature, in short its peculiarity. The concept was a unity of universality and particularity. Hegel insisted that it was necessary to distinguish between a universality which preserved all the richness of the particulars within it and an abstract ‘dumb’ generality which was confined to the sameness of all objects of a given kind. Further, Hegel insisted, this truly universal concept was to be discovered by investigating the actual laws of the origin, development and disappearance of single things. (Even before we take the-discussion further, it should be clear that here lay the importance of Marx’s logical-historical investigation of the cell-form of bourgeois economy, the commodity.) Thought that was limited to registering or correlating empirically perceived common attributes was essentially sterile – it could never come anywhere near to grasping the law of development of phenomena. One crucial point followed from this which has direct and immediate importance for Capital. It was this: the real laws of phenomena do not and cannot appear directly on the surface of the phenomena under investigation in the form of simple identicalness. If concepts could be grasped merely by finding a common element within the phenomena concerned then this would be equivalent to saying that appearance and essence coincided, that there was no need for science.

This insistence that the general is no mere mechanical summation of the individual phenomena concerned is reflected in Marx’s comment on Feuerbach:

[he] resolves the essence into the human essence. But the human essence is not an abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble [author’s emphasis] of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled: (1) To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract isolated human individual. (2) Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.

What is the significance of Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach when considered in the light of the nature of concepts? Really this: that one can never get to the essence of any class (in this case to the essence of man) through finding a series of general attributes possessed by each member of the class taken separately. The essence of man can only be arrived at historically. (Feuerbach was, says Engels, a materialist in connection with nature but left materialism behind when he came to consider the social and historical sphere.) And it was only possible to demonstrate that this essence was not something ‘fixed’ and immutable, a dead generality, but developed and changed as part of the ‘whole ensemble’ of man’s social and historical relations. The essence of anything was in this sense not internal but could be grasped only in and through its relation with other things. To grasp the real essence of man it was above all necessary to examine the formation and growth of human society as a whole – and of its separate individuals – as this process has taken place and is taking place. As a separate individual a person is only a member of a class (in this case man) in so far as he actualises some aspect or side of a culture which has been formed historically prior to and independently of him. To the extent that the human individual embodies this historically developed culture, to that extent he expresses the true, always changing and deepening, universal in man. So this universal is no mechanically repeated ‘uniformity’ at dead repose in each and every member of society. It is, on the contrary, reality, repeatedly and directly broken up within itself into particular (separate) spheres which complement each other and are in essence mutually connected in their transition, thereby constituting a real living ‘ensemble’.

Now in criticising Feuerbach’s inadequate conception of man, Marx drew attention to the lack on the part of ‘contemplative materialism’ of a real appreciation of the nature of human practice. Feuerbach did not, says Marx (Thesis I), ‘conceive human activity itself as objective activity’. In probing to the real nature of man, Marx saw the peculiar feature of human life as arising from his labour, from his continual transformation of nature (both external and his own nature).

Labour is the source of wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source – next to nature – which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself. (Dialectics of Nature)

It was for this reason – because of the role played by labour in the development of man – that Marx regarded with such sympathy Benjamin Franklin’s definition of man as a toolmaking animal (I, p. 179).

Where does the Kantian understanding of concepts stand in relation to Franklin’s notion of man as a tool-making animal? Of, course Franklin’s definition would have to be rejected. For it is clearly the case that only a relatively small minority of men actually make tools. Such a definition would, therefore, have to be rejected as too narrow and restrictive. A ‘wider’ concept could be constructed by isolating any one of a number of commonly held features found amongst all men (consciousness, speech, etc.) and making these the basis for our understanding of man. And of course this is the usual method found in the social sciences. But it is a method having nothing in common with Marxism.

Marx rejected such conceptions because they remained abstract and ‘objectivist’, for they were never able to grasp the process through which the phenomenon concerned (in this instance man) actually came into being and did in practice distinguish itself from other phenomena (the lower animals, for example). In connection with Feuerbach, Marx says:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like [author’s italics]. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are actually producing their actual material life. (The German Ideology)

To recast this point. As in every attempt to form an accurate notion of any phenomena, Marx and Engels had here to answer two related questions in establishing the essence of man. They had first to establish the continuity between man and the rest of the world (here Darwin’s work played the vital role) and at the same time they had to establish the difference, within this continuity, between man and the rest of the organic world. Like all living matter, man reacts with his environment, a reaction arising from man’s unity with organic nature and nature as a whole. But his reaction with nature is purposive, unlike that of the animal which remains purely instinctive. Man sets out to achieve definite goals and aims; these goals and aims do not arise, we must stress, from ‘free will’ but are determined by the whole of man’s past practice. And man’s ability to carry out his necessary struggle against nature at a level qualitatively higher than other animals arises essentially from the development of tools. Here lies man’s true uniqueness and it explains Marx’s respect for Franklin’s basically materialist conception. In arriving at a conception of man which grasped, in the same concept, the unity of man with the animal world and at the same time his distinction from that world, Marx and Engels laid the basis for overcoming a one-sided (and therefore ultimately false) view of this problem. On the one hand, if one separates man metaphysically from the rest of nature one is forced ultimately to an idealist view of non-material forces as the ones which distinguish man. (Such views have, for example, taken the form of vitalism in biology.) On the other hand, equally one-sided would be the view that attempted to reduce the laws of social development to the level of biology. In other words, one cannot either separate absolutely the various forms of matter (the mistake in the first case); nor can one collapse the higher forms into the lower (as in the second case). In this last instance: social processes have certain specific features (‘peculiarities’) that are not inherent in biological phenomena as such, and no matter what biological forms of matter we may study we cannot deduce from them the laws of social phenomena, just as those biological processes cannot in turn be exhausted by the chemical and physical processes which they presuppose.

This latter viewpoint – the one that ignores the qualitative differences between material forms – (or rather tries to reduce more complex forms to simple ones) is a reflection of mechanism, the standpoint which dominated seventeenth- and eighteenth-century materialism. The seventeenth-century natural scientists picked out velocity, mass and volume as the simplest and most general aspects of all physical phenomena. (This was precisely the method of conceptualisation confined to ‘abstract identity’.) These aspects were in turn considered in a purely quantitative manner. The transformation of these aspects into unique, essential qualities of nature led these scientists to a denial of qualitative distinctions in nature, to a purely quantitative view of the world.

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