Ollman, Abstraction and Dialectics

Hans Despain DESPAIN at econ.sbs.utah.edu
Thu Mar 30 11:58:48 MST 1995

Dumain recently recommended Bertell's Ollman's book, *Dialectical
Investigations*, especially chapter two.  I also would applaud
Ollman's book.  However, it is a very narrow defination of

    Ollman early in his book argues that dialectics is a way of
thinking about an ever changing world.  He uses an analogy of jumping
in car while it is moving; this is meant to explain why it might be
important to be aware of dialectics as a way to understand the world.
He says: "Society is like a vehicle that every one of us tries to
climb aboard to find a job, a home, various social relationships,
goods to satisfy our neeeds and fancies. ...Marxism also lays out a
method (dialectics) and a practice (class struggle) for updating this
study and helping to bring about the most desirable outcome.  No one
who is about to climb aboard the moving vechicle that is our rapidly
changing society can afford to proceed without it" (9-10).

    This is a terrible analogy for describing what dialectic as a
method or as practice is able to achieve.  First, in society
(especially a Marxian view) we are not given a choice to jump aboard,
we are given our society and must function within it, or attempt to
change it.  No one must learn how to climb aboard.  Second, this
analogy sounds as if dialectics will turn out answers to how we might
naviagate society, as though we are driving a car.  But in fact,
dialectics only allow us to understand the engine and material of the
car.  It is only with a well developed ethic that we are able or
capable of achieving some sort of direction.  Marxian dialectics seem
to have very little to say about ethics, in fact *dialectic* is
synonymous with *science* for Marx.  Though minor, this analogy is
the first of many mentions by Ollman which in my opinion exaggerates
the potential and expections of dialectic as method.

    It seems to me that Ollman's view of the world is one that works
dialectical (or perhaps chaotic) whereby dialectics is to capture
this dialectical world in thought.  Therefore, there seems to be a
nexus to dialectics of nature for Ollman, though he does not
explicate, develop, or defend such a stance.  Dialectics for Ollman
are a method to capture and understand a dynamic world.  Ollman puts
it this way:

"Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the
common sense notion of "thing" [as static], as something that *has* a
history and *has* external connections with other things, with
notions of "process," which *contains* its history and possible
futures, and "relation," which *contains* as part of what it is its
ties with other relations.  Nothing that didn't already exist has
been added here.  Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws
boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is
"abstracts") in which to think about the world" (p. 11).

    Hence, dialectics is the proper method for thinking about the
world, because the world itself is dialectic.  Ollman argues that
Marx uses dialectics to capture and understand these realities about
the world, i.e., a way of understanding external relations between
(dynamic) "things."  Moreover, in order to capture and understand
*internal* relations demands a very special "mode" of thinking.  This
special mode of thinking, for Ollman, is the method and process of
abstraction.  According to Ollman, only dialectical thinking is
capable of properly accessing *abstract* thinking.

    Ollman turns his attention in chapter two, toward "modes of
abstraction."  He presents three general modes of abstraction,
including; extension, generality, and vantage (point).  Extention has
to do with time and space, e.g., past, present, phases (non-time).
Extention allows us to view notions, concepts, and categories in
limited theoritical space.  Like all thinkers dialecticians can
always have a *too* limited or *too* extensive abstraction, however,
it is the dialectical method itself, i.e., dialectical metamorphoses,
such as changes from quality to quantity which offer heed from the
dialecticians from being too narrow, or not narrow enough in her
theoritical space.  (Or as I interpret this, because the method of
dialectics moves from one category to the next in a dialectical
logical way, a certain extension will give way and either become more
or less extensive or manifest into a new category).

    The second main mode of abstraction is generality, which has to
do with different levels of abstraction, i.e., dialectic of
abstraction must be stratified in its approach.  Ollman argues for
seven main levels of generality beginning with; 1) individual; to the
level of 2) modern capitalism; 3) capitalism as such; 4) class
society; 5) human speices; 6) animal speices; and 7) material bodies.
I question just how we are to use such categorisation, but perhaps he
only means to demonstrate an example.  But again this seems misleding
to a least a precise defination of the use and potentiality of
dialectics.  Though I think that Ollman's point is that many
paradigms begin from a given generality and remain on this level
throughout there analyses, in this since, one can argue that a science
must have a realitivity with respect to generality.

    The third mode of abstraction is the vantage point.  This is
simply pointing out that "things" can be analysied from many vantage
points and perspectives, the dialectician attempts to take no vantage
point for granted or over-emphasizing a particular perspective,
without seriously considering "all" others.  Vantage point also seems
to be tied to the Marxian concept of ideology.

    Thus, Ollman presentation of dialectics seems to be one of a
giant (social scientific) miroscope to zoom in and out, from side to
side, over and under, when investigating social and production
relations. Marx actually uses such an analogy in his first preface to

    The second half of the book are examples of how Ollman has, and
other can use the modes of abstraction, assumingly in concrete with
dialectical logic, to analysis and investigate issues such as "class
consciousness;" "history;" "freedom and repression;" "the Eastern
Block crisis;" "the U.S. constitution;" and the "State."  (Personal I
believe Ollman's modes of abstraction can be especially benefical for
studing the State, especially in the U.S. where the game for the
politician is to over-emphasize his case while minimizing all other

     The great thing about Ollman's book is that it is a very
simplified version of dialectics.  Perhaps his modes of abstraction
can be described as *pratical dialectics*.  The problem is it is
impossible from Ollman's presentation to differentiate dialectics from
the method of say Max Weber, or Rousseau, amoung many other thinkers
who certainly think in all three modes of abstraction.  Moreover, how
then is one to distingish between Marxian, Hegelian, Engelsian, and
Lukcasian dialectics, certainly modes of abstraction are something
all these thinkers employ.  Furthermore many Russian thinkers have
used modes of abstraction to explain or describe dialectics in the
past; it seems to me, that *abstraction* by itself to expound
the conception of dialectic remains idealist.

    Ollman also ignores dialectic as method, as a systematic
organization of ontological categories, i.e., has Tony Smith expounds
dialectics.  Though *abstraction* can be an introduction to
dialectics, I believe Smith's systematic dialectics is a *minimal*
reading and presentation of Marxian dialectics.  Therefore, as I have
said in a previous post, Ollman book is especially benefical when
read with Smith's works.  But I will still emphasize and insist that
this is a *minimal* reading, though extermely essential reading of

    Finally, I will say that Bhaskar in a sense can be said to offer
a minimal reading of dialectics himself (I know this seems to be an
oxymoron).  In the sense that he differentiates and distingishes
between ontological, epistemological, relational, and pracitical
dialectics, so that each can be analysized and investigated
separtely.  It is in this sense that Ollman's *Dialectical
Investigaitions* is useful as an introduction; Smith's *Logic of
Marx's Capital: A Reply to Hegelian Criticism* as a presentation of
Marx's (and Hegel's) epistemological dialectics (abstracting away
from other philosophical issues), and Bhaskar as an introduction to
how these issues must be differentiated and tackled one at a time, so
that each can be put in phase with the other (Engels, Lukcus, Marx
and Hegel are too often contridictory and out of phase with one

    It seems that one major problem in trying to understand
dialectics is dealing with all the different definations
and characterizations of dialectics.  For example, ontological
dialectics, such as dialectics of nature; dialectical materialism, or
social dialectics.  Epistemological dialectics, such the dialectics
of Hegel from Klaus Hartmann's "non-metaphysical" interpretation,
expounded by Terry Pinkard and Tony Smith; or dialectics of Marx from
Smith's minimal reading of Marxian dialectics.  Relational dialectics,
such as Lukcas' class and historical dialectics, or Mao's social
class dialecitcs.  And finally practical dialectics, either as modes
of abstraction, e.g., Ollman (remaining on the level of science), or
dialectics of practice as Bhaskar expounds (attempting to couple
them with ethics toward human emancipation).

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

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