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Reading :: The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (second reading)

Posted by: on May 27, 2015 | No Comments
The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital
By Evald Ilyenkov

This is my second review of Ilyenkov's 1960 book. My first review was 10 years ago, written as I was doing research for Network, but for my current project on the history of activity theory, I wanted to reread Ilyenkov's major books in context. Of course, you can never get eough context. I reread this book about six months ago, and have been trying to catch up with some of its influences (such as Lenin) and history since then, as well as commentary on Ilyenkov's works. So this review is influenced by those readings and specifically interested in how Ilyenkov was trying to solve problems that also cropped up in relation to activity theory's development.

Ilyenkov is interested in the abstract and the concrete. Why are abstract concepts considered different from concrete ones (p.13)? He reviews the history of the separation, from "logical treatises of medieval scholarship" (p.13) through Berkeley and Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Helvetius (p.16), Spinoza (p.17), Kant (p.24), Hegel (p.25), Mill (p.28), to Marx (p.32 et passim):
Marx defines the concrete as ‘the unity of diverse aspects. This definition may appear paradoxical from the standpoint of traditional formal logic: the reduction of the sensually given diversity to unity appears at first sight to be the task of abstract knowledge of things rather than of concrete one. From the point of view of this logic, to realise unity in the sensually perceived diversity of phenomena means to reveal the abstractly general, identical elements that all of these phenomena possess. This abstract unity, recorded in consciousness by means of a general term, appears at first sight to be that very ‘unity’ which is the only thing to be treated in logic. (p.32)
Ilyenkov explains that this definition makes sense dialectically:
When Marx defines the concrete as unity of diverse aspects, he assumes a dialectical interpretation of unity, diversity, and of their relationship. In dialectics, unity is interpreted first and foremost as connection, as interconnection and interaction of different phenomena within a certain system or agglomeration, and not as abstract likeness of these phenomena. Marx’s definition assumes exactly this dialectical meaning of the term ‘unity’. 
If one unfolds somewhat Marx’s aphoristically laconic formula, his definition of the concrete means literally the following: the concrete, concreteness, are first of all synonyms of the real links between phenomena, of concatenation and interaction of all aspects and moments of the object given to man in a notion. The concrete is thereby interpreted as an internally divided totality of various forms of existence of the object, a unique combination of which is characteristic of the given object only. Unity thus conceived is realised not through similarity of phenomena to each other but, on the contrary, through their difference and opposition. (pp.32-33)
That is, concreteness is defined through relations: the links rather than the node. Unity emerges from difference and opposition, which yield a unique combination (p.33). And this unity is not subjective:
The most important aspect of Marx’s definition of the concrete is that the concrete is treated first of all as an objective characteristic of a thing considered quite independently from any evolutions that may take place in the cognising subject. The object is concrete by and in itself, independent from its being conceived by thought or perceived by sense organs. Concreteness is not created in the process of reflection of the object by the subject either at the sensual stage of reflection or at the rational-logical one. (p.33)
Similarly, the abstract in Marx is not purely ideal, it's an objective characteristic. For instance, Marx calls gold the "material being of abstract wealth"; that doesn't make gold ideal, it simply describes gold's function within the capitalist formation (p.34). Ilyenkov argues:
‘The abstract’ in this kind of context, very frequent in Marx, assumes the meaning of the ‘simple’, undeveloped, one-sided, fragmentary, ‘pure’ (i.e., uncomplicated) by any deforming influences). It goes without saying that ‘the abstract’ in this sense can be an objective characteristic of real phenomena, and not only of phenomena of consciousness. (p.34).
Thus, Ilyenkov quotes Marx as saying, the abstract is a category of dialectics (p.35). It's not (necessarily) idealist, but rather something one can study materially. In fact, Ilyenkov suggests, we must: the concrete in thinking is a synthesis of numerous definitions, and it is realized in thinking through the abstract (p.37).

Indeed, he continues in the next chapter, for Marx and Engels,
definitions of concepts are nothing but definitions of different elements of the actual concreteness, that is, of the law-governed organisation of a system of relations of man to man and of man to things. Scientific study of this concrete reality must yield ‘abstract’ definitions of concepts expressing its structure, its organisation. Each abstract definition of the concept must express a discrete element that is actually (objectively) singled out in the concrete reality. The solution is very simple at first sight, yet it cuts it a stroke the Gordian knot of problems that idealist philosophy has so far been unable to unravel. (p.55)
 The idealist, mystical reading of the abstract is incorrect:
Marx uncovered this mystification by showing the reality of ‘the concrete’ as a whole system of interacting things, developing and resulting from development, as a whole divided in accordance with some law, rather than as an individual isolated thing. Given this interpretation, any shade of mystification disappears. 
The concrete (and not the abstract) – as reality taken as a whole in its development, in its law-governed division – is always something primary with respect to the abstract (whether this abstract should be construed as a separate relatively isolated moment of reality or its mental verbally recorded reflection). At the same time any concreteness exists only through its own discrete elements (things, relations) as their specific combination, synthesis, unity. (p.58)
Using this distinction, Ilyenkov later attempts a Marxist definition of man, grounded in Marxism's founding myth of mankind:
Nature as such creates absolutely nothing ‘human’. Man with all his specifically human features is from beginning to end the result and product of his own labour. Even walking straight, which appears at first sight man’s natural, anatomically innate trait, is in actual fact a result of educating the child within an established society: a child isolated from society à la Mowgli (and such cases are numerous) prefers to run on all fours, and it takes a lot of effort to break him of the habit. 
In other words, only those features, properties, and peculiarities of the individual that are ultimately products of social labour, are specifically human. Of course, it is mother nature that provides the anatonomic and physiological prerequisites. However, the specifically human form which they ultimately assume is the product of labour, and it can only be comprehended or deduced from labour. Conversely, all those properties of man that are not a product of labour, do not belong to the features expressing man’s essence (e.g., soft lobes of the ear, although they are a ‘specific feature’ of man and not of any other living being). (pp.71-72, my emphasis)
As I've noted elsewhere, this founding myth valorizes labor as what makes us human. Solzhenitsyn noted one of the moral problems with this account. But in this passage Ilyenkov even notes distinguishing physiological characteristics of humans and disallows them as markers of humanity, since they do not express the human essence as products of social labor. Now think through the implications for class (do the upper bourgeoise labor?) and contribution (do the severely disabled labor?).

In any case, Ilyenkov goes on to argue that
In other words, all those features the sum of which makes up the much talked-of essence of man, are results and products (ultimate ones, of course) of socio-human labour activity. Man does not owe them to nature as such, still less to a supernatural force, whether it be called God or by some other name (e.g., the Idea). He owes them only to himself and the labour of previous generations. This is even more true of the more complex forms of human activity, both sensual and objective (material) and spiritual, than of straight walking. 
Mankind’s culture accumulated throughout history appears to a modern individual as something primary, determining his individual human activity. From the scientific (materialist) point of view the individual, the human personality should therefore be regarded as a unitary embodiment of universal human culture, both material and spiritual. This culture is naturally realised in the individual in a more or less one-sided and incomplete manner. The extent to which an individual can make the riches of culture into his property does not depend on him alone; to a much greater degree it depends on society and on the mode of division of labour characteristic of society. 
Actual assimilation of some area of culture or other, some form of human activity or other, means assimilating it to such an extent as to be able to develop it further in an independent, individual, and creative manner. Nothing can be assimilated through passive contemplation – that is like building castles in the air. Assimilation without active practice yields no results. That is why the form of assimilating universal human culture by the individual is determined by the form of the division of labour. Of course, there is one-sidedness and one-sidedness. The principal achievement of Marx and Engels in the solution of this problem was their careful and concrete study of the contradictions of the bourgeois division of labour. (pp.72-73)
That is, the essence of man is the product of sociohuman labor activity and thus owed to past generations (not God). The human personality is the unitary embodiment of universal human culture. The assimilation of a specific culture or activity happens not through contemplation but through the division of labor. Contra Feuerbach:
According to the logic of Marx and Engels, a concrete theoretical conception of man, a concrete expression of the essence of man could only be formed in the diametrically opposite way, through considering exactly those differences and oppositions (class, professional, and individual) which Feuerbach ignores. The essence of man is real only as a well-developed and articulated system of abilities, as a complex system of the division of labour which, in accordance with its needs, moulds the individuals – mathematicians, philosophers, entrepreneurs, bankers, servants, etc. 
In other words, a theoretical definition of the essence of man can only consist in revealing the necessity which gives rise to and develops all the multiform manifestations and modes of socio-human activity. (pp.73-74)
 Ilyenkov immediately appeals to Engels' account of how humans arose from animals:
 Man, as is well-known, becomes separated from the animal world when he begins to work using implements of labour which he himself created. Production of labour implements is exactly the first and in time, logically and historically) form of human life-activity, of human existence.  
Thus the real universal basis of everything that is human in man is production of instruments of production. It is from this basis that other diverse qualities of the human being developed, including consciousness and will, speech and thinking, erect walk and all the rest of it. 
If one were to attempt a universal definition of man in general, a short definition of the concept, it would sound like this: ‘man is a being producing implements of labour’. That will be a characteristic example of a concrete universal definition of a concept.
The production of labor implements is the "simplest, elementary form of man's human being," realized in individual acts (p.75). Yet "the social act of the production of labor implements" has internal contradictions, resulting in "speech, will, thought, artistic feeling, and further, class division of the collective, emergence of law, politics, art, philosophy, state, etc." (p.75). Here, the universal is not opposed to the particular and individual; the unity of universal, particular, and individual are opposed to other unities in the same concrete, historically developed system. That is, the object has internal relations in its aspects (p.75).

Let's skip a bit. In Ch.2, Ilyenkov discusses the "spiral-like character of development of reality and its theoretical reflection" (p.114). Quoting Marx, he argues that the circular nature of interaction is a universal law of dialectics: a "spiral-like" development of systems of interacting phenomena (p.116), a system of mutually conditioning aspects (p.117). Ilyenkov's discussion of this point leads to Ch.3, "Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete," in which he argues with Marx that one should begin with abstract definitions, then reproduce the concrete by way of thinking (p.135). In this approach, analysis and synthesis are interwoven (p.141). Concreteness, he says later, is linked with dialectical development: "self-development through contradictions" (p.155); longtime readers of this blog will recognize a theme that third-generation activity theorists in particular make a central tenet.

Later in the chapter, Ilyenkov quotes Engels in Dialectics of Nature to demonstrate the movement from the abstract to the concrete in Carnot; see my previous review for more on this aspect of Ilyenkov.

In Ch.4, "Logical Development and Concrete Historicism," Ilyeknov describes logical development as an expression of concrete historicism in investigation: "a historically posterior result arising from the entire preceding development does not remain merely a passive result, merely a consequence. Each newly arisen (higher) form of interaction becomes a now universal principle dominating all historically preceding forms, transforming them into secondary external forms of its specific development, into ‘organs of its body’, as Marx put it in connection with one instance of this kind. They begin to move according to laws characteristic of the new system of interaction in which they now function" (p.209). That is, the system is a developmental spiral in which one level of development becomes the new normal, setting the stage for the next:
In this case, too, development takes the spiral-like form which we analysed in the first part of the work as a most characteristic feature of internal interaction, of concreteness in the genuine sense of the concept. 
The necessarily assumed condition of historical emergence of the object becomes in this case the necessarily posited consequence of its specific development. 
In this form, the historically necessary conditions of the emergence of the object are preserved in its structure throughout its development, its specific movement. All those moments which, though present at the birth of the new form of development, were not absolutely necessary conditions of this birth, are not, in the final analysis, preserved or reproduced. These forms are not observed at the higher stages of development of the object – they disappear in the course of its historical maturing, becoming lost in the darkness of the past. 
For this reason, a logical consideration of the higher stage of development of an object, of an already developed system of interaction, reveals a picture in which all the really necessary conditions of its emergence and evolution are retained and all the more or less accidental, purely historical conditions of its emergence are absent. (p.210, his emphasis)
One can see why he asserts in the next section that "A concrete understanding of reality cannot be attained without a historical approach to it. The reverse is also true – historicism devoid of concreteness is pure fiction, pseudohistoricism" (p.212). The latter leads to attempting to trace every preceding condition, which he terms "bad infinity" (p.213). (I just want to go on record as suggesting "Bad Infinity" as a great book title.)

On to the next and last chapter, "The Method of Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete in Marx’s Capital." Here, he discusses the dialectical understanding of contradiction as opposed to the logical understanding, a topic that he undertakes in more detail in his later book Dialectical Logic. (Bakhurst argues that Ilyenkov's argument is weak here, if memory serves, although that part of the book didn't make it into my review.) Here, Ilyenkov argues that while logical contradictions are disallowed,
Dialectics proceeds from a diametrically opposite view. Its solution of the problem is based first of all on the assumption that the objective world itself, the objective reality is a living system unfolding through emergence and resolutions of its internal contradictions. The dialectical method, dialectical logic demand that, far from fearing contradictions in the theoretical definition of the object, one must search for these contradictions in a goal-directed manner and record them precisely – to find their rational resolution, of course, not to pile up mountains of antimonies and paradoxes in theoretical definitions of things. 
The only way of attaining a rational resolution of contradictions in theoretical definition is through tracing the mode in which they are resolved in the movement of the objective reality, the movement and development of the world of things ‘in themselves’. (p.244, his emphasis)
So, rather than being disallowed, in dialectics we can see "Contradiction as a Principle of Development of Theory" (which is the title of the last section in this chapter). He argues:
Dialectics consists exactly in the ability to discern the inner contradiction of a thing, the stimulus of its self-development, where, the metaphysician sees only an external contradiction resulting from a more or less accidental collision of two internally non-contradictory things. 
Dialectics requires in this case that external contradiction of two things be interpreted as a mutually necessary manifestation of the inner contradiction of each of them. The external contradiction emerges as an inner identity of mutually exclusive moments mediated through a relation to something else and reflected through something else, as an internally contradictory relation of a thing to itself, that is, as a contradiction in one relation and at one and the same moment in time. Marx proceeds from an external manifestation of a contradiction to establishing the inner basis of this contradiction, from the appearance to the essence of this contradiction, whereas the metaphysician always tries to act in a precisely reverse manner, refuting the theoretical expression of the essence of a thing from the standpoint of external appearance, which he believes to be the only reality. (p.266)
For Ilyenkov, inner contradictions are crucial for understanding development. Interestingly, he argues that "external contradiction of two things be interpreted as a mutually necessary manifestation of the inner contradiction of each of them"—that is, external contradictions are important for development primarily because they exacerbate inner ones. Although Ilyenkov became crucial to Engestrom's third-generation understanding of activity theory, 3GAT focuses on interactions between activity systems and provides a fourfold typology of contradictions, including those between activity systems. It's a bit startling to read that external contradictions spark development primarily by exacerbating internal ones, and I'm not sure that I want to follow Ilyenkov here.

In any case, this book was even more thought-provoking the second time around. I'm glad I read it, and I'm also glad I took the time to read some of the other background around it. If you're interested in activity theory, contradictions, or Soviet philosophy, check it out.