Ollman and Ontology

Hans Despain DESPAIN at econ.sbs.utah.edu
Sat Apr 1 10:17:52 MST 1995

The discussion of Ollman and dialectics has been quite benefical for
myself.  Both Ralph Dumain and Chris Sciabarra have offered much
information.  First, I realize that Dumain did not ever intend "to
recommend Ollman as gospel." In fact judging from our posts we seem
very similar in our assessment of Ollman's *Dialectical
Investigations*.  I have already posted my issues with the book, but
overall I highly recommend reading Ollman for a straight forward
presentation of the subject.  BTW, Dumain you are right that the
implied ontological commitment I pointed out is in especially the
first chapter.  Although I personal do not care for this chapter
much, I must admit as a presentation to someone who for the first time
is hearing of dialectics, this chapter gives a very good similified
version.  In this sense, my critique and questions are quite minor.

Moreover, perhaps a critique is overstating my case, for Ollman
himself at the end of chapter two, in footnote 5, says: "Not all of
the important questions associated with dialectics have been dealt
with in this essay. ...I am painfully aware of their absence, but my
purpose here was not provide a complete overview of dialectics but
to make it possible for people to put it to work by deconstructing
the much-negelected process of abstraction, which, along with the
philosophy of internal relations..."  Ollman continue on that there
will be a volume to follow which will deal with some of these issues.
In fact, Tony Smith gave a review of this book and stated that this
is intended to be a four volume set.  Hence, again as an introduction
to dialectics (modes of abstraction), I know of no better

I also agree with Dumain when he suggests that the problem of
contradiction is "vitally important" to the process of abstraction.
And it is in this sense that even chapter one expresses the problems
related to dynamic systems, and capturing them in thought.

Sciabarra's comments on Ollman's *implied* ontological commitment, and
the issue of ethics is especially enlighting.  On major problem with
"Marxian science" and "scientific socialism" is a negelect of both
ontology and (especially humanistic) ethics.  We all know that there
is an implied ethic within *Capital* and an explicit ethic in Marx's
early writings, which is intimately related to (but separted from)
Marx's epistemology.

But explicating that ontology and how that ethic is to be achieved is
very difficult, and often contridictory task.  This is the problem
for Engelsian Marxists, Dialectical Materialists, Lukcas and
Historical Materialists, Hegelian Marxists, Althrussians, etc. In
this sense, both Ollman and Tony Smith must both be applauded for
disentangling Marx's epistemology from these endless controversies.
This also is why Ollman and Smith are so accessible.

However, this disentaglement can only be achieved for a moment,
espeically when the ontology lies dorminant, but active in the text
or epistemology.  Hence, in the case of Ollman, I agree with
Sciabarra that *internal philosophy* is an implied ontological
commitment.  Moreover, I agree that Ollman's espistemology can be
supported by an insistence that we can know SOMETHING without having
to know EVERYTHING.  However, I don't see a problem with explicating
and developing an ontology, even if it extermely flexible.  (I
believe that Bhaskar's ontology of *stratification* is compatible
with both Ollman and Smith; and of course Marx).

Ontology is also what makes compatible the epistemolgy and ethic that
is needed for a vision of an *alternative* system, human
emancipation, self-determination, and freedom.  Sciabarra suggests
that Ollman's notion of ethics is "natrualistic" and "secular."  I
take "natrualistic" to be some sort of *objective standard* (in a
Realist sense, e.g., H. Putnam).  Whereby the *objective standard* is
determined socially, and the *universal* ethic, should be in phase
with the *individual* ethic, in the Kantian or Hegelian sense, which
seems quite appropriate for Marxism.  "Secular" I interpret to mean
social relations, intimately connected and related to Ollman's
*internal philosophy*.

I would also agree that Sciabarra that Rand and Marx are committed to
a similar humanistic ethic, but their means of achieving it are
ontologically incompatible.  There is a parrallel issue with Hegel
and Marx, and of course Kant and Hegel.

With respect to Ollman's "modes of abstraction" I would be willing
support both Hayek and Rand are dialectical thinkers.  However, in a
systematic sense (e.g., the Marxian dialectic as presented by Tony
Smith, or the Hegelian dialectic as presented by Klaus Hartmann)
neither can be said to be dialectians.  I would leave the title of
dialecticians to a systematic presentation, and not to dynamic
thinking.  This is my issue with Ollman's broad defination of
dialectics.  Which is not to say that such thinkers cannot be given a
systematic dialectical interpretation.  But it is to say that they
are not systematic dialecticians.

Hans Despain
University of Utah
despain at econ.sbs.utah.edu

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