Dialectics, Rothbard, Etc.

Doyle Saylor djsaylor at SPAMprimenet.com
Thu Sep 2 20:34:32 MDT 1999

Greetings Comrades,
    Responding to Chris Sciabarra, Sam Pawlett writes:

Totality of what? Preferences? Why is knowledge of totality impossible?
If something e.g. a totality, exists it must be ,at least in principle
be knowable.

Which is exactly what I thought also.  The word Chris uses, synoptic, is
precisely the sort of POMO term that I thought the libertarians would
eschew.  Totality is not incompatible with a Chomskyan vision for example
(the Universal Grammar).
I see totality when I look up to the big blue sky, in the youthful eyes of
the babies blue eyes, reflected in the rolling rising waves of the blue sea.

I get the blues and totally don't know what to do.  I presume to total my
budget.  I know the total gross national product, see the Federal Reserve.
Listen to totally awesome Liberace playing the Blue Danube.

Then Chris responds to various reactions about his views:

  It assumes that it is possible to have synoptic knowledge of a totality,
and proceeds to plan on the basis of the presumption.

Chris:  Ok, let me try to be brief, because these issues hark back to
debates that are as old as philosophy itself.  A "synoptic" whole is one
seen as if from the vantage point of omniscience.  Dialectics NEVER
approaches omniscience, even though it moves toward comprehensiveness.  The
whole point of dialectics, and the various abstractions that we need to
make in our analysis of any object, is that we can never understand the
whole QUA whole.  We understand the whole only thru the vantage point of
any given part.  True, we can piece together the various shifting
perspectives, and come up with a more comprehensive and enriched portrait
of the whole.  But we cannot grasp the whole as a single totality.  Plato,
in his earliest expressions of the dialectic, wedded the method to an
idealist ontology, as if human beings could act as gods and grasp the Forms
in their wholeness.  This "yearning for the divine" -- as the radical
feminist Cynthia Hampton has called it -- would have a very negative
effect, in my view, on the evolution of the concept of dialectics.
(Hegel's conception, in fact, has elements of the Platonic yearning, but it
is tempered by Aristotelian elements, to a certain extent.)  In fact, the
"yearning for the divine" is actually what Hayek called a "synoptic
delusion."  We delude ourselves into believing that it is possible to know
all things, and we delude ourselves further if we believe that such
presumed knowledge can become the basis for controlling all things.
Dialectics is not formalism or "organicism."  It requires human action,
shifting perspectives on a totality, awareness of dynamic and systemic

There is so much to go at above.  Yearning?  What can one say about a folk
psychology?  What is yearning Chris?  I would presume about a synopsis that
we consider something visual as a whole.  The whole being the physical unity
of gravity and other forces.  The problem with the way you are using
dialectic is that it is not grounded in material reality.  You talk about
the dialectic doing this and doing that, but what is actually happening?
You are enmeshed in a folk psychology.  Where a  myth about human
consciousness that is broadly shared by the community befuddles the
discussion, but where is the reality?  One could be materially responsible
that is point at the brain and say that the frontal lobe does such and such
and that is the dialectic, but otherwise one is dealing in something like
Plato's "wedding" to ideal ontology.

I agree that we can investigate a totality.  But we need to define our
terms.  Dialectics investigates STRUCTURED totalities... not the totality
of everything there is in the universe.  A totality is a whole structured
by abstraction of vantage point and levels of generality, and by an
understanding of its various units.  Synopticism robs itself of the role of
abstraction because it is, indeed, ultimately mystical.  I think central
planning fails precisely because it yearns control a society SYNOPTICALLY.

You are denying a totality by writing 'Dialectics investigates STRUCTURED
totalities'.  What does a dialectic do outside the human brain?  I mean you
are writing here like the idea is separate from the body, though I could see
that wording as an artifact of your composition and not consciously how you
think of the dialectic.  Then suddenly central planning becomes a stand in
for God in your terms.  All central planning represents is the action of
human beings in the real world.  Nothing needs to be assumed that such a
thing is outside the world.  If something goes wrong with the plan, fix it!
That is what every business does on a smaller scale.  Of course you are
inserting market prices and fluctuations due to unforseeable forces of the
public etc.  But every animal body is a whole of multitudes of cells with a
plan in each cell for the whole. Who cares about God anyway?  We are part of
the totality.  We can totalize to our hearts content.  All that seems to
bother you is the scale of planning on the state level.  Is any plan bad?
If not, then why does scale matter?

Sam continues: "What is "tacit" knowledge? "Tacit" to me, implies
unconscious. So, how
can one have knowledge that is unconscious? Belief that is unconscious?
Seems to me that once we enter the realm of "tacit" and "unconscious",
things start getting mystical."

Chris:  There is a whole literature on this subject that includes Gilbert
Ryle, Michael Polanyi, F. A. Hayek, and many others.  It is the distinction
between "knowing what" and "knowing how."  I may know how to play a piano,
but I may not know all of the physiological elements that go into actually
moving my fingers in order to play.  I may know how to speak a language,
but I may not know all of the rules of grammar that govern that language.
People who are entrepreneurial, who are creative, who do creative things
with given resources may just "have a hunch," or "have a gut instinct" --
while never being able to tell you exactly how they formed a judgment or
acted on an evaluation.  These are individualities of a particular time and
place that get lost when a central planning agency seeks to usurp that
The amazing thing about a market system is this:  Each individual on the
market gets to relate price signals to her own individual context of
knowledge, to her own purposes and goals, much of which is not visible to
others.  When the price system is transcended by a central planning
mechanism, planners substitute quantitative information about inputs and
outputs, but they cannot relate these quantities to the qualitative goals
of individuals.

What is missing in the above account is a grounding in human physiology.
That is why you can talk in a disembodied way about the dialectics.  The
more you commit to how the brain works, the more difficult it will be to
assume your libertarianism.  That is why you move back and forth between an
economic discussion and a philosophy discussion.  As long as you stay out of
what human consciousness really is, you can assert that freedom is such and
such.  Destroying individual liberties, bah humbug, what does the plan
destroy, you haven't got a clue.  But we all don't know what is being talked
about when we talk about the mind being destroyed, though we know more now
than the last decade, and now we know more than practically all humanity has
ever known.  Consciousness realism will eat your views and render them into
myth.  Your view depends upon not knowing what the brain does.  Dialectics
is still an ideal in the way you write, not a brain activity.  While your
thinking is external to a brain explanation you be able to speculate, but
once known, such assertions as destroying individuality will collapse,
except as they can be dealt with materially.
Doyle Saylor

More information about the Marxism mailing list