Dialectics, Rothbard, Etc.

Charles Brown CharlesB at SPAMCNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Thu Sep 2 12:11:14 MDT 1999


>> Chris Matthew Sciabarra <cms10 at is2.nyu.edu> 09/02/99 12:30PM
Charles writes: "By synoptic you mean an abstract whole, summary, like I
asked you to give of your ideas in the first post. Every table of contents
of a book simulates one. An outline of the whole.
Doesn't dialectics have as a central concept that synoptic knowledge of a
totality is possible at one phase of the thought process ? Marx proceeds
from the abstract to the concrete and all that. Doesn't this deny abstract
thought ? Every word we use is an abstraction , a synopsis of a whole."

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 context.


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.

Sam Pawlett asks:   "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

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.


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_

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."

Charles: Maybe you could give a synopsis of the debate :>)

Chris:  Well, as an extension of what I've said above, let me say that
since no human being or group of human beings can ever actualize the kind
of divinity demanded by "synoptic" knowledge, it follows that human beings


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.


 I would have no objection to worker
councils and decentralized collectives managing their affairs within the
context of a price system, in which prices transmit knowledge of relative
scarcities, serving as signals which are related by the acting individuals
(as individuals or in groups) to their own context of knowledge, their own
purposes and goals.  When that price system is destroyed, the delicate
interconnections providing such signals is destroyed as well.  Mises and
Hayek view the result as calculational chaos; history, I think, proves this
as well.


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.


Charles continues: "I'm interested if I don't have to read the concrete
whole of the Austrians' work first. I gotta get a glimpse of the whole
somehow.  How about this ? What did they discover different and the same as
Lenin ?"

Chris:  Fair request.  Let me continue too, but please understand that I'm
simplifying and summarizing a very complex business cycle theory.  The
Austrians argue that there has been an incestuous relationship between the
state and the banking sector almost since the beginning of modern


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



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