DIALECTICS: THE VIOLENCE OF ABSTRACTION 2

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sat Apr 8 01:38:27 MDT 1995


SUMMARY & COMMENTARY BY R. DUMAIN -- PART 2

Sayer, Derek.  THE VIOLENCE OF ABSTRACTION: THE ANALYTIC
FOUNDATIONS OF HISTORICAL MATERIALISM.  Oxford; Cambridge, MA:
Basil Blackwell, 1989.  (Ideas)

Chapter 4 ('Ideal superstructures') is a real eye-opener.  Let's
cut to the chase:

"In my view, Marx's critique of idealism involves something quite
different from, and very much more radical than, this
straight-forward inversion of idealism's supposed order of
priorities, and the inversion metaphor is in important ways
misleading.  What Marx does, in criticizing Hegel and his 'left'
followers .... is first and foremost to deny the very existence of
the 'ideal' as a separable entity.  The 'cunning of reason', the
'spirit of the age', Hegel's _Weltgeist_, the Young Hegelians'
'self-consciousness', and so on, cannot for Marx be the subjects
of history for the simple reason that they do not exist.  They are
reifications: philosophers' fictions, abstractions made flesh,
speculative constructions .... Marx's central criticism of
idealist history is that it is 'an imagined activity of imagined
subjects'".  [p. 85]

The whole point is that the products of consciousness are denied
an independent existence, and consciousness is the consciousness
of real subjects [p. 86].

But now:

"But it is equally important to realize that the other term in the
equation -- the 'material' -- is also and _ipso facto_
transformed.  If consciousness ceases to be regarded as 'a living
individual', but instead is recognized as an attribute or
predicate of 'real living individuals' themselves, then the
material existence of these individuals can no longer be
conceptualized in ways which exclude their consciousness.  The
material premise from which historical materialism starts is not,
abstractly, 'matter', as opposed to 'spirit' .... It is 'real
individuals. their activity and the material conditions under
which they live' ... -- real individuals who are amongst other
things conscious, and act on the basis of their conceptions."  [p.
87]

Can I stress this argument enough?  Please read it over and over
until you see its implications.  All the wasted mental
hand-wringing (mind-wringing) over Marx's initial
conceptualization of ideology, being, and consciousness -- it is
to weep.

Sayer goes on to marshal Marx's comments on Feuerbach and his work
18TH BRUMAIRE to drive home his argument.

"Marx is precisely unlike his materialist precursors, in his
inclusion, within what he understood as the realm of material
life, of those attributes of human beings -- the 'active side' --
which were previously separated off under the illusory guise of
the ideal.  Indeed, what he retained from the idealist tradition,
whilst resituating it in terms of the natural history of humanity
rather than the biography, was a conception of the internality of
the relation between what Spinoza called thought and extension.
The reason inversion is so inadequate a metaphor for this critique
should by now be evident.  The metaphor suggests a simple reversal
of terms -- 'material' and 'ideal' -- which leaves their referents
intact." [p. 87-88]

Has the matter ever been stated more plainly?  Think of how much
ink has been spilled over the question of Marx's materialism,
citing Marx's 'naturalism' that unites the truth of both
materialism and idealism.

Further:

"Now it is notable (and usually goes totally unremarked in
commentary) that the structure of Marx's argument against the
historical primacy of (ostensibly) other elements of what is
normally taken to be the superstructure -- in particular, law and
state -- is identical with that of his critique of idealism.  His
denial of superstructural primacy, just as with that of the
primacy of 'the ideal' more generally, rests on a prior denial of
superstructural _independence_ -- 'relative' or otherwise."  [p.
88-89]

And:

If, with Cohen and 'traditional historical materialism', and with
'relative autonomy' theorists, we see the 'economic structure of
society' as exclusive of morality, law, religion, science, art,
politics, and the rest, then we have to conclude from these curt
propositions that Marx was indeed an economic determinist, and a
pretty vulgar one at that.  This is implausible, given the
oft-remarked undeterministic character of any of his substantive
historical analyses .... His concern is to deny that law,
religion, politics and so on have a history in themselves, which
is independent of that of production and its social relations,  He
does not say these are epiphenomenal, secondary, subordinate, or
otherwise marginal factors in history as such.  The two claims are
very different."  [p. 89]

Sayer further sees this very reification of concepts as a
consequence of social relations, particularly of the division of
labor [p. 92].  Note that _The German Ideology_ is heavily cited
in this chapter.  Also important for understanding the Hegel
connection is understanding (for which Sayer credits Patrick
Murray) Marx's reliance on Hegel's logic of essence [p. 93]

There is much more detail to this chapter, but what a fresh
breeze.  Your Bhaskar can bite me and your anal-ytical
philosophers can kiss my anus, 'cause today Sayer is my only
sunshine.

[end of part 2.  I may write a part 3 on chapter 6.]


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