Posts tagged dialectical materialism

Posted 4 years ago

The Concept of Method: Dialectics and Metaphysics

(via fuckyeahmarxismleninism)

This is really bad philosophy, and an extremely crude representation of dialectical materialism. It’s articles like these that make me see why John Roemer called dialectics “the yoga of Marxism”- when you maintain that ‘internal contradictions’ inhere in all that exists, you can easily (though unconvincingly) explain them away when they crop up in your arguments. 

I think, at its most basic level, the article confuses a presentation of an alternative view with an argument against another view. It sets up ‘materialist dialectics’ as an alternative to ‘metaphysics.’ It traces the origin of metaphysics to the ‘17-18th centuries,’ when, in reality, the provenance of metaphysics goes at least as far as Aristotle. Without making reference to the work of any philosophers, it flatly claims that, in the past as now, metaphysics “does not recognize the emergence of the new.” These claims might be more plausible if an argument were offered in support of them, but that is nowhere to be found.

We also have the most basic of logical errors to be found in the contradictory phrase ‘For it (dialectical philosophy) nothing is absolute.’ If, as the article goes on to claim, dialectics are an ‘essential truth,’ then it would appear that they make up a fundamental component of the structure of reality- and henceforth be the very kind of absolute truth the article earlier denies. At a more basic level, of course, the claim that ‘nothing is absolute’ is in and of itself an absolute claim. 

I also have yet to come across a convincing explanation as to why, on the orthodox Marxist view, ‘internal contradictions’ inhere in all phenomena, and this article merely takes this as a statement of fact rather than offering reasons why this is the case. Despite the article’s self-professed commitment to the principles of science, the insistence on the presence of internal contradictions defies an important idea in the history of science- Ockham’s razor. In its most basic form, Ockham’s razor states that in considering two theories with roughly equal explanatory power, we should favor the simpler one. So, if we have a theory of reality that works just as well as this form of dialectical materialism, but doesn’t posit the counterintuitive and unfalsifiable idea that an object must contain internal contradictions in order to exist, we should use the former as our mode of inquiry. 

I see this article as part of the rather troubling trend to denounce any idea outside the direct ‘non-revisionist’ heritage of Marx as wrong merely because it is ‘bourgeois’ or ‘reactionary.’ This line of thinking, in addition to being intellectually irresponsible, also contradicts Marx himself. He saw the capitalist system as the womb in which socialism would grow and out of which it would be born- so ideas stemming from that system, even from ‘bourgeois’ sources can have a role to play in the development of a more egalitarian world. 

Posted 4 years ago

Dialectical materialism, reconstructed from the overlaps in some theories of contemporary analytic philosophy.

Posted 4 years ago

Some notes on the dialectic

A graduate student told my Philosophy of Criticism class that a good rule of thumb when doing philosophy is to ask the question: “is the focus of our inquiry a thing [sometimes called an ‘entity’], a property, or a relation?” Analytic philosophy has tools for explaining all of them, but it has mostly focused on the first.

There are a few ways of viewing what Marx calls the “dialectic” with analytic philosophy in mind:

  1. The instrumentalist approach. View the dialectic as a methodological tool for explanations in the social sciences, without accepting it as a description of the reality described by the natural sciences. This was the approach favored by the Western Marxists (Frankfurt School, etc.), but very few (if any) of the analytical Marxists used it. It still poses difficulties for analytic philosophers because it’s willing to tolerate contradiction in the realm of ideas.
  2. Throw out the dialectic. The analytical Marxists focused on entities rather than dialectics, and were condemned by orthodox Marxists for “eviscerating” a dynamic and procedural philosophy by reducing it to a set of logical propositions. I think this approach is also problematic because it was overzealous in its desire to rid Marxism of what it perceived as “bullshit,” and so threw away everything near the dialectic, losing a lot of valuable theory. 
  3. Replace “dialectic” with “relation.” Many people choose to use the word “dialectic” for what contemporary logic calls a “reciprocal, two-way relation.” I believe they do so incorrectly, as the dialectic contains contradictions at its core that most people do not intend or actually express. So, I propose a “third way” between the instrumentalist approach and ridding ourselves of the dialectic altogether: view what Marx calls “dialectics” instead as “reciprocal two-way” relations and see what remains of his theory. 

For example, when Harvey writes in his explanation of Capital that values, use values, and exchange values relate to each other dialectically, he (and Marx) are not referring to the traditional Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis process. I think the contradiction implied in the phrase “dialectical relation” is unnecessary and irrelevant- Marx’s model works just as well if we see instead that a reciprocal, two-way relation holds between the various conceptions of value in Capital.

I favor the approach of the third way because it avoids the unnecessary and logically untenable contradiction of the dialectic without reducing Marx’s theory to the mechanistic and rigid interpretations of previous analytical Marxists (G.A. Cohen, Jon Elster, etc.). By making relations the primary focus of our inquiry, we can adequately grasp the social sciences and retain the dynamism and insight into processes that Marx’s view has. 

Posted 4 years ago
All such conceptions [immaterial labour and alike] ignore what is to my mind probably the single most powerful, and enduring insight of Marxist theory: that the world does not really consist (as capitalists would encourage us to believe) of a collection of discrete objects, that can then be bought and sold, but of actions and processes. This is what makes it possible for rich and powerful people insist that what they do is somehow more abstract, more ethereal, higher and more spiritual, than everybody else. They do so by pointing at the products—poems, prayers, statutes, essays, or pure abstractions like style and taste—rather than the process of making such things, which is always much messier and dirtier than the products themselves. So do such people claim to float above the muck and mire of ordinary profane existence. One would think that the first aim of a materialist approach would be to explode such pretensions—to point out, for instance, that just as the production of socks and silverware involves a great deal of thinking and imagining, so is the production of laws, poems and prayers an eminently material process. And indeed most contemporary materialists do, in fact, make this point. By bringing in terms like ‘immaterial labor’, authors like Lazzarato and Negri, bizarrely, seem to want to turn back the theory clock to somewhere around 1935.
David Graeber, The Sadness of Post-Workerism (via 20yardsoflinen)