More on Dialectics

Chris Matthew Sciabarra cms10 at
Fri Sep 3 08:11:39 MDT 1999

Brief responses to various points below:

Charles: In _Materialism and Empirio-Criticism_ Lenin refers to this as the
dialectic of relative and absolute truth. Our knowledge approaches absolute
truth like an mathematical asymptotic curve.

Chris:  ... yes, and the more we learn, the more we realize how much we
don't know.

Charles: We can never grasp the whole of the universe, true. Dialectics
means we must use the concept of relative wholes. We cannot grasp THE
whole, but we can grasp A whole. Like the whole earth or the whole solar
system, even though we can't know every last atom of these.

Chris:  Yes, true, and I'm not disagreeing.  The problem is that Marxists
think they can run an economy as if they knew every last detail, and as if
they can transcend all the "unintended consequences" of human action.  This
will never happen... "unintended consequences" are quite simply an
extension of our sociality.  Central planning in the Marxist utopia
requires near omniscience and almost total predictability, and it is an
illusion.  The tragedy is that some regimes thought they COULD approach the

Charles: Marxist understanding of the relations of production as a whole at
a concrete moment with purposes of substantial planning to provide for all
basic needs and even most fancy wants for everybody does not fall into
Plantonic idealism. The number of economic transactions is finite, unlike
the universe. It is feasible to effectively and substantially comprehend
its totality for planning that surpasses the anarchy of production under
capitalism. By focussing on the social whole and its parts and their
interrelation, rather than only the private part, the concept of the whole
is a powerful relative truth.

Chris:  Not so in my book.  The economy is not static; it is constantly
growing and expanding and it is global.  Central planning cannot take into
account all of the vastly different contexts -- social, cultural, and
epistemic -- across the globe because it destroys the very process -- the
market price system -- that generates information of relative scarcities.

Charles: There is nothing in Marxism that implies that its understanding of
the whole of relations and forces of production is not of a structured
totality. Are you saying that Marx, Engels and Lenin did not consider the
economic whole a structured totality ? See _Capital_

Chris:  Yes, surely Marx and others saw capitalism as a structured
totality.  The problem emerges however, when Marxists say things like:  The
producers will have "a perfect understanding" of social forces, which are
"transformed from master demons into willing servants."  Or -- that the
proletarian will act in a way in which "the results" are fully "intended"
by him or her.  We never achieve that kind of control over anything.  It is
illusory.  People do not act with the predictability of a jar falling off a
table.  Every action, including the actions of a central planning board,
create "unintended consequences" which cannot be taken into account at the
time of the action.  And when such a board eliminates the mechanism by
which information on relative scarcities is generated, it is left with
little more than its whims to decide what is needed and what isn't.

Charles: You have not proven that the Marxist conception of the whole of
the relations and forces of production are Platonic idealism or demand a
divinity. In fact, it is the market's invisible hand handling the totality
or the knowing-how-without- knowing-what that you give in the reply to Sam
P. that is a mystical and divine like conception of knowing the total.
Atheism holds that nothing is, in principle, unknowable. We do not know
everything, but nothing in the universe is in principle unknowable. A first
principle of divinity and mysticism is that there are truths (such as your
truth of the total economy) that are unknowable in principle to humans and
only knowable to the divinity, or in your case knowable to the divine
invisible hand of the market, the price mechanism.
It is your argument here which is mystical and theist. You pose that
something is unknowable IN PRINCIPLE.

Chris:  I'm not saying that things are unknowable in principle.  I'm saying
that a Central Planning Board cannot know everything -- because it destroys
the means by which information is generated in order to make any decisions.
 Prices have an epistemic function; where there are no prices, there is
chaos.  I am saying too, that knowledge of various prices must be related
to the personal contexts of the decision-makers, where each personal
context has its own vast array of experiences and "tacit" concerns that are
simply not quantifiable by means of inputs-and-outputs, which is what a
Central Planning Board relies on.

Charles: History does not at all prove that the price mechanism works.
Capitalism doesn't work.
There is another error in the above that I can't quite articulate yet. It
is an error of making the price mechanism a subject such that it "knows the
whole". This may be super commodity fetishism , in that you posit that a
non-human thing has not only knowledge, but TOTAL knowledge. People can't
know, i.e. are like objects, and a thing can know, i.e. is like a subject.
This is a supernatural or divine commodity fetish of the price mechanism.

Chris:  The price mechanism does not know anything; people know things.
Prices are the result of social interaction.  They communicate different
things to different people who have different arsenals of experience and
knowledge to which prices are applied, and by which decisions are made.
Central planning eliminates a social mechanism by which this
decision-making process ensues.  And if history does not prove that
attempts to destroy the price mechanism have resulted in calculational
chaos, shortages, and economic stagnation -- I guess I've been reading the
wrong history books!  :)

Charles: Thanks for this. I'll study it.

Chris:  My pleasure!


I have to say that I largely agree (!) with Sam Pawlett's discussions.  I
found his post really fine reading, and agree with the points he has made.
The issue here, though, is not so much that things are unknowable, but that
not everything is quantifiable as inputs and outputs.  There is simply a
dimension to knowing that is qualititative and tacit; we are not inside
peoples' heads -- we don't know everything about their preferences, the
intensity of their preferences, or even the future state of their
preferences.  My argument is that the price system has a kind of dynamism
that allows individuals to relate the various bits of information about
relative scarcities to THEIR OWN CONTEXT OF KNOWLEDGE.  When that process
is usurped, when all the individual contexts are somehow merged as if they
were a SINGLE context with no differentiation among the parts, the result
must be distortion.  The whole is not simply the sum of its quantifiable
parts.  It is an integration, more than the sum; it is not simply summing
up input 1 and input 2 and input 3, etc.  Marxists, who understand this
principle so well in most areas of analysis, suddenly become static,
bourgeois thinkers when it comes to "planning" an economy.  Suddenly, the
whole is looked at like one giant computer, rather than as a complex
mechanism of quantities and qualities, shifting perspectives and unintended

Doyle:  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

Chris:  Actually, it is a lot older than POMO.  Plato uses the phrase:  "Ho
... sunoptikos dialektikos" -- "He who thinks synoptically is a dialectician."

It would have been better to say "comprehensively" -- since Plato's
"synoptically" can only be rendered as omniscience, total knowledge of the
Forms, given his idealist ontology.

Doyle:  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.

Chris:  Yes, but it is always seeing the total from your perspective.  It
is structured by your context of knowledge, your goals and purposes.

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.

Chris:  I think there is a misunderstanding here; I do not believe that
dialectic is unconcerned with material reality.  My point was that the
Platonic idealist conception -- WHICH I REJECT -- has had some deleterious
consequences, which, thru the years, have been manifested in other
conceptions of dialectic, including Hegel's and Marx's.  I cover this in my
next book -- TOTAL FREEDOM, which features a history of dialectic in Part One.

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!

Chris:  My point, again, is that once central planners destroy the
mechanisms by which individuals-- and individuals acting in concert -- make
decisions, they substitute their own illusory guesses.  I'd like one single
example of central planning that works -- and I'm not talking about the
kind of central planning that one finds in the military and for weapons of
mass destruction.  Planners are very good when they plan to destroy the
world.  Not too good when it comes to serving consumers.

Doyle:  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?

Chris:  It is not the scale so much as the means.  Businesses plan because
they have a means by which to gain information, and they relate that
information to their own individual contexts and market contexts.  Central
planners don't.  Throughout 20th century history, the planners almost
always have to refer to some market somewhere in order to judge the
efficacy of their plans.  The Soviet Union functioned primarily because of
-- not in spite of -- its vast system of "black" markets.  Markets are like
weeds, as one of my colleagues once said... they spring up even when you
don't want them to.

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.

Chris:  Well, I think we're talking passed one another.  I think dialectics
is an activity, and I think it is an activity worthy of rational
individuals who relate to the real world.  I think you may be criticizing
the Platonic ideal of dialectics that << I've >> criticized.  It was not my
intention to say that dialectics is Platonism; it is my belief that
vestiges of Platonism have remained in the dialectical tradition thru
Marxism, and that these vestiges have been terribly distortive of the
function of dialectics in the real world.


Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Visiting Scholar
NYU Department of Politics
715 Broadway
New York, New York  10003-6806
Dialectics and Liberty Website:
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