Dialectics and Absences

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Wed Feb 22 23:53:48 MST 1995

>BTW, I think some of the criticisms directed to Despain's distinction
>between ontological and epistemological dialectics do not seem to me
>fair. This distiction is not to deny the fact that ontology and
>epistemology are overlapping, it only tells about the irreducibility
>of these categories, which is the basic premise of Bhaskar's realism.
>In this regard, we may approach to the problem of dialectics,
>following Bhaskar (Reclaiming Reality, p. 115), from three
>angles. First, we may have epistemological dialectics, or dialectics
>as a (scientific) method, a view exemplified by Marx's comments on
>method in Capital, which provides a conception of Marxist social
>science. Second, we can conceive dialectics as a set of laws or
>principles governing some sector of the reality (e.g., social) or the
>whole of it (both nature and society), a position which may be called
>ontological dialectics, as in Engels's "dialectical materialism". As
>a third category, we may have a relational dialectics, which explains
>the movement of history, characterized by the attempt of Lukacs, in
>his History and Class Consciousness, to explain history on the
>basis of the class consciousness of proletariat as an "identical
>For example, for Engels, dialectics is also a methodological category,
>but it receives its potency from just its being a universal principle
>characterizing the reality itself. For Lukacs, on the other hand,
>dialectics, as an ontological category governing history, only
>applies to human sphere, and therefore, it is the only legitimate
>method for Marxist social science; whereas for Colletti, even if
>dialectical contradictions have ontological status in capitalism,
>it has no merit as a scientific method because it violates the
>principle of non-contradiction, the most important principle in
>any scientific inquiry.

I think that both Ehrbar and Fellini (cited above) made some very useful
clarifications. I just want to take up two points for now. First, the issue
of "ontological" and "epistemological" dialectics. My question to Despain
tried to get at the nature of the distinction to be made here. Fellini's
cataloguing of the different ways that these terms have been used
historically seems accurate enough to me, but I still wonder if this misses
the point a bit. Perhaps I can reformulate the problem as follows: Is it
undialectical to separate epistemology and ontology to the extent that they
exist as separate dialectics? BTW, I for one would be very interested in a
posting from Fellini on social theory, and on Bhaskar's Transformational
Model of Social Action, in particular.

Second the nature of the absences and things which are not that Ehrbar
discusses following Bhaskar. First, a question: Where would "things that
have ceased to be" fit in? Or, alternately, is there another category of
"things that were" that is important, and cannot be entirely subsumed under
the heading of "things that are not"? I have not read Bhaskar on absences,
but it certainly seems to me that this is a crucial category. But I am not
convinced by the argument that "if the world were packed with things that
are, then there would be no room for change and for his 'openness'." This
reservation is linked to my question about "things that cease to be",
because that category of non-things could provide the "space" for openness
even if the world ever became temporarily full of things that are.

My final comment is that there seems to me to be an important temporal
dimension to it all. At the very least, we could not perceive the difference
between things that are, and things that are not, without some notion of the
passage of time. There are also connections here to the notion of
"affordances" developed by the cognitive psychologist Gibson (and endorsed
by Bhaskar), in that he argues that sense perception involves the gathering
of information on what is variable (things that are not) and what is
constant (things that are) in what he calls the "ambient array" (which I
take to mean the constantly changing field from which our senses learn to
select information that is relevant to us).

Howie Chodos

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