Dialectic as method

Hans Despain DESPAIN at econ.sbs.utah.edu
Thu Jun 22 23:08:44 MDT 1995

Hello, Chris thanks for your response on dialectic as method.
However, I am still a bit confused on exactlly how you formalate
this.  It is true that your account is addressing "epistemological"
questions, but it still sounds to me that your thrust is ontological.
Your use of the word "contextual" sounds epistemological, but what is
the context.  Perhaps it is here that we do agree?  Let me offer my
account. Contextual for my use would be the "systematic" structure of
our categories, following (as you suggest) an empirical moment or
assessment of the "proper" categories.  Is this what you have in mind

Let me suggest where I see an ontological/epistemological ambiguity in
your account.  You said that the "structure" (I assume our subject,
e.g., Political Economy?) "constituted by internally related parts
and its process of becoming a structure (its history--which includes
its past, present, and possible future).  This is an epistemological
orientation that is contextual."  O.K., we agree that "internal
relations" is central, but I understand this to be an ontological
step.  In fact, dialectics seems to me to demand both ontology and
transcendental retroductive argument.  Thus, the epistemology in my
account is not the internal relations themselves, but (1) the
categories used to describe our subject; (2) the (dialectical)
structure of our argument, that is to say the organization and
ordering of our categories.

Let me offer an (analogous) example, the Political Economy of Hegel
and Marx both give an ontological priority to Labor.  But, for Hegel
labor is an *abstract mental process*, while for Marx it is a
*practical process*.  Thus, for Hegel labor is the same in capitalist
society as it is for any other society, for Marx capitalist labor
is necessarily a form of self-alienation.  The point here is that the
question of the function of labor seems to me to be an ontological
question, the result of its placement in the system, connected to its
ontological vision is epistemological.

Or another example may be Steve Keen's argument against the labor
theory of value.  Keen draws from a neo-Sraffian or post-Kenyesian
rejection of the labor theory of value, and suggests that capital too
can be argued to be a source of value.  He claims the significant of
his contribution is that it is an internal critique, that is
dialectical.  To me the problem here is not so much the neo-Sraffian
argument, but Steve's dialectics.  He pulls labor from its
ontological position, and claims that capital and labor have the same
ontological grounds.  This seems to me to be a mistake and a
confussion between ontology and epistemology.  For ontologically it
is a truism that labor is prior to capital.  And his dialectical
arugment establishes the grounds for being committed to a labor
theory of value (at least qualitatively).  It is Marx's ontology
which differentiates his dialectic from Hegel, and re-constructs the

Thus, for me the process of abstraction is being used very
similarly by both Hegel and Marx (not to mention non-dialectical
thinkers).  Whereby, unlike Hegelians, I do not believe that Marx's
abstaction are one-sided or incomplete, nor do I think that Hegel's
abstraction are necessarily incomplete.  The difference to me is the
ontological commitment.

> > I would further argue that ontological dialectics commitments us an
> > ontological connectedness of the world, telling us that "things"
> > are related, but I would further argue, seemingly unlike Chris,
> > that our (construction of) epistemological dialectics suggest *HOW*
> > "things" (categories) are related.

That is not to say how this or that particular is ontologically
related (like dialectical materialist argue), but *HOW* our
cagetories to understand the particular, structure or
subject are related.  For example, how value and use-value are
related.  This for Marx is (most) central to his understanding of
capitalism.  His empirical moment convinced him that "value" is a
very important category, and of course, labor is given a primary
(ontological) position in his system.  The value/use-value
contradiction (in a Bhaskarian sense) sets in motion his (Hegelian)
master-slave relations of capitalism, rather then a system of
"freedom".  Thus, it is *HOW* the categories are related which is
(dialectic) epistemologically important.

Therefore, the empirical moment which you point out is agreed to be
central (certainly for Marx and Hegel, not so much for many Marxists
and Hegelians).  But, it is dialectics as method, or epistemological
dialectics, or to say again differently, the "systematic" organization
of our categories, based on our dialectical argument or retroductive
reasoning of *HOW* these categories are related which will determine
our result.  Thus, if dialectic as method cannot tell us *HOW*
categories are related, then it seems to me we have an *a priori*

*HOW* categories are related also demonstates the *falliblity* of
dialectics as method.  If the ontological commitment is
(TRANSCENDENTALLY) wrong founded the epistemological result will be
faulty.  Thus, Bhaksar's Dialectical Critical Realism is of the
utmost importance for a *real* defination and commitment to

Finally, it seems that you arguing that *ontologically dialectics*
cannot tells us much about how things are related (dialectical
materialists may not like this, but regards), I believe that
this should not be conflated to mean that epistemological we do not
know much about *HOW* our categories are dialectically related.  For
this is the very thrust of dialectics as method.

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

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