Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kant and Positivism

Bourgeois philosophy similarly fails to synthesize and grasp the totality and to get at the concrete, historical conditions of possibility of our existence. This is seen most perspicaciously where bourgeois philosophy is at its most radical and “critical”: in the thought of Kant. While the skeptic accepts the rationalist standard of knowledge (representation of mind-independent reality) but denies its possibility, Kant denies the rationalist standard of knowledge, limiting philosophical reflection to knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of experience. In this turn toward the transcendental (subjective, a priori) conditions of the possibility of knowledge lies Kant’s radicalism. And yet Kant’s philosophical enterprise exemplifies the antinomies of bourgeois thought because it stands in the same relationship to reality as do the special sciences.

In his “Copernican” turn, Kant displaces the conditions of knowledge from nature or from God on to the knowing subject. So instead of talking about substances represented, we're going to talk about representations and the (universal, necessary, and subjective) conditions of representation. Instead of talking about categories as predicates of objects, we're going to talk about categories as (universal and necessary) forms of the thinking of objects. Instead of talking about God as the maker of the underlying order of the universe, we're going to talk about the subject (universally and necessarily) ordering the manifold of perception. All these processes of representing, categorizing, synthesizing, etc., are universal and necessary (and hence a priori) conditions of the possibility of having experience of objects. This is precisely what Kant means when he uses the term “transcendental”.

Now in making this shift, Kant is arguing that the subject of knowledge (considered formalistically, that is, from a universal, abstract perspective) brings to the knowing situation specific forms of knowledge that serve a foundational role for the knowing situation. Therefore, those forms of knowledge are conditions of the possibility of knowledge. For Kant, these are space, time, and the categories. What the object is outside of its subjection to these forms of knowledge, we cannot know for certain, since the application of those forms is the sine qua non of something being an object of knowledge in the first place. So Kant doesn't deny that ultimate reality outside of these forms exists; he just denies that such an object is accessible to the kind of knowledge that we finite knowers have.

Given this shift, it is easy to see why the upshot of Kant's Copernican turn is the denial of our ability to know things as they are in themselves. We can never know the material, causal substratum of our concepts—the content of our categories and empirical concepts—since that's a mere "X" lying outside our forms of knowledge. And we can never know "totality", the ultimate object of philosophical knowledge, because the application of our categories is always restricted to mere appearances. We have to "bracket in" both of them.

In restricting knowledge to appearances, to what appears within the horizon of human cognition, Kant suppresses totality. This is the subject of the Antinomies of Pure Reason: every attempt by reason to ascend from a mere synthesis of appearance according to the understanding to a final synthesis of all conditions of the understanding by reason has to result in dialectical illusion. Furthermore, Kant brackets in the material (or immaterial) substratum of thought—the ultimate source of the content of our categories and empirical concepts—and he makes the categories into brute products of our unintelligible spontaneity. So you get a double-bracketing of totality and self. This corresponds to the third moment of the positivism effect, or the idea that the underlying, concrete reality lies methodologically and in principle beyond our grasp.

Since what we know we only know by virtue of applying our categories to the knowing situation, what something is before it enters into this knowing situation must be a mere "X", an indeterminate, value-neutral "given". This corresponds to the first moment of the positivism effect, according to which the data of the social sciences are "natural", value-neutral givens.

Finally, since according to Kant we are barred from knowing the subject of knowledge (the spontaneous self), the ultimate object of knowledge (totality), and the material basis of knowledge (the thing in itself), knowledge can perfect itself only through methodological refinement. This barring of knowledge from self-consciousness corresponds to the second moment of the positivism effect.

The opposite of Kant’s position would be to argue that objects cannot remain inviolate in their givenness. That is, concepts can't be empty universals under which we subsume irrational particulars. That's the first moment of the positivism effect. But to reverse this means that the phenomena themselves, the "data" of our experience, can't be value-neutral, "natural", mere givens. The reality we confront as standing over and against us has to include some determinacy of its own outside whatever our formalistic methodology tells us about it, and there must be some way for us to disclose that determinacy as well, for it to enter into our experience. This means that our concepts must be able to penetrate into the objects themselves with no irrational remainder. In other words, the content of the experience must also be determinable through and through.

Furthermore, this material basis cannot enter experience by means of a contemplative, knowing relationship without falling back on a representational, subjective point of view. The radicalism of Kant’s position lies in his account of agency: we know by virtue of our activity (acts of synthesis and the like). Yet Kant attempts to understand this agency through a representational framework. That is what ultimately makes his position bourgeois and contemplative. So by saying that in knowing we're active, Kant says we're embodied agents in the world, but then he withdraws that when he tries to make it function within a representational framework. If we can only know what we have made, if this is some version of maker's knowledge, then we need a more serious understanding of human beings as makers or determiners of the world. We need that framework of radical activity but now liberated from the contemplative stance, from a representational framework. That's what's at stake in the idea that the unity of the world is not the unity of judgment (since judgment is a way of representing) but is rather a unity of action and deed. It is at this point that Kantian critical philosophy meets dialectics as exemplified in Hegel’s account of Lordship and Bondage.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Marxism and the Critique of Positivism

Marx is often understood as providing us with the laws according to which the capitalist mode of production operates. The capitalist mode of production is the object “out there” that we as knowing, cognizing subjects represent using the theoretical framework provided by Marx. The economy is a given, external, social object which we can grasp by means of a linguistic or mental representation. The strength of Capital, in contrast to bourgeois economics, is that it is the most accurate representation of this social object.

Yet if historical materialism is right, then theoretical reflection is part of social reproduction and is therefore situated “in” society itself. Theoretical reflection is subject to the uniform principles in accordance with which social reproduction takes place, and so social critique must involve a self-critique of Marxist theory. Such a self-critique will situate its own theoretical practices and simultaneously account for its own procedure and its truth. In order to be consistent, Marxism has to give an account of itself that does not rely upon a representational or Platonic theory of knowledge and truth. What we know by means of Marx’s theories cannot be an object “out there”. In “representing its object”, Marxism in fact represents itself (it is an object for itself), and its understanding of itself as representational is due to the effects of what Marx called “fetishism”. But if what it thought belonged to the commodity actually belongs to itself, then Marxism’s own theory of itself as an accurate representation of the mode of production has to be false. Marxism is not a “mirror” or a “picture” of capitalism; it is an “internal moment” of capitalism itself.

The representational self-understanding of Marxism is itself an effect of the domination of the whole of the society by the capitalist mode of production. As this mode of production comes to characterize the totality of modern society, the totality itself as a phenomenon vanishes from view and become inconspicuous to cognizing subjects. Reified, capitalist society divides up into discrete, autonomous spheres, each operating according to its own laws. Various sciences arise to study the laws according to which these spheres operate. They treat society, economy, law, the family, etc., not as institutions arising out of concrete human acts, but rather as “given” realities “out there” which their theories attempt to represent (albeit imperfectly). In theorizing society this way, the human sciences must remain unable to account for the real grounding of their objects in human relations and accomplishments, and they must remain essentially unreflective with regard to their own material, historical conditions of possibility. Marxism traditionally understood as the accurate representation of the laws of the movement of capitalist society is just such a representational theory of society and economy following from the objectification of society and its fragmentation into discrete components. The epistemic appropriation of social relations by means of the production of such representational theories is itself an effect of the ubiquity of the capitalist mode of production.

Seen from an abstract, epistemological point of view, this process has three components:
  1. The data of social theories are taken to be "natural", ready-made, and value-neutral. Therefore, the job of the social theorist is to observe this reality and by means of induction to generalize the laws operative in these particular fields.

  2. Given the capacity of sociology, economics, etc., to generate such law-like generalizations, methodology progressively overcomes and replaces critical reflection upon the basic concepts and phenomena of the field. Methodology is taken to be a sufficient model of analysis itself.


  3. As a result of their emphasis on methodology and as a result of their treating the data as mere givens, the social sciences beget a dissolution of their understanding of the social totality (and so the source of reification itself is lost, if not the phenomenon itself), and they continually "bracket in" their historical and ontological conditions.
Therefore, to criticize the representational character of social theory in its attempt to achieve a correspondence between its representations and the object “out there”, we must also engage in a more general critique of the very idea of epistemology itself, since epistemology is the search for transhistorical foundations upon which to rest the correspondence between subject and object. The critique of the theory/object division in Marxism and the critique of the subject/object division in epistemology entail one another. In criticizing itself, Marxism understands that its object (the economy) isn’t initially what it thought it was, i.e., something heterogeneous, standing over and against it, determining its theories. The two are internally related to one another.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Art and Melancholia in Marx's Grundrisse

In the final section of the "Introduction" to the Grundrisse, Marx puzzles over what he sees as a disparity between the development of the material base of a society and the development of a people’s art.

It is known in the case of art that specific times of artistic flowering by no means stand in a proportional relation to the general development of society, therefore [they do not stand in a proportional relation] to the general development of the material basis, to the general development, as it were, of the bone-structure of its organization.

Marx specifically has ancient Greek society in mind, in which we find works of art whose beauty rivals that of contemporary works, and yet this society had not yet emancipated its social form of organization from nature. If we are to understand a people’s culture in accordance with the material conditions of production and reproduction of that society, should not the most advanced forces and relations of production coincide with the most beautiful works of art? Why should we find works of art that rival the moderns in a society where the division of labor is still confused with division into natural kinds (male and female, for instance)?

In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller noted a similar disparity between the flourishing of the arts and a people’s political freedom, which he generalized to all epochs.

And indeed it must give pause for reflection that in almost every historical epoch in which the arts flourish, and taste prevails, we find humanity at a low ebb, and cannot point to a single instance of a high degree and wide diffusion of aesthetic culture going hand in hand with political freedom and civic virtue, fine manners with good morals, refinement of conduct with truth of conduct. (10,4)

Schiller notes the inverse relation that appears to hold between the flourishing of art and political freedom. The Golden Age of Greek culture flowers only after the collapse of Greek democracy. The need for taste makes itself felt only under conditions where there is a relative lack of freedom, as though the former makes its appearance in order to stand in for the latter and hold its place while it is absent.

"It is known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art” Marx continues, “but [also] its ground."

All mythology controls and rules and forms the powers of nature in the imagination and through the imagination; therefore mythology disappears with actual domination over natural powers.

Mythology implicitly contains the domination of nature explicitly enacted by capitalism. The religious person sacrifices to the god in exchange for the god’s control over the portion of nature falling under his jurisdiction. By sacrificing to the god, he makes a deal whereby the god will hold back the destructive power of nature. Sacrifice is a form of indirect control. This is why we see the disappearance of mythology once it is possible for mankind to directly control nature. The purpose of mythology is extinguished with the actual domination of the world. Yet this form of total domination is possible only within the capitalist mode of production and the generalization of the value-form into a world system. The process of demythification presupposed by this system and extended by it replaces all the old, imagined forms of the domination of nature by actual, material ones.

Yet despite the fact that we have emancipated ourselves from the old forms of superstition, we continue to glance back at the art of the ancients as both a standard and an unrealizable ideal.

However, the difficulty does not lie in understanding that Greek art and epic are tied up with a certain social form of development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic enjoyment and serve in a certain relationship as the norm and unreachable standard.

Our experience of ancient art, therefore, is an experience of beauty that is also tinged with melancholy and dissatisfaction. Though it is linked inextricably with a form of social development in which man is less free, art nevertheless presents an image of lost harmony which Marx directly associates with childhood.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does not the na├»vete of a child delight him, and must he not himself strive to reproduce its truth again at a higher level? Does not the character of every epoch revive true to its nature in the nature of the child? Why should not the historical childhood of mankind, where mankind is displayed at its most beautiful, exercise an eternal charm as a never-recurring stage? … Rather, [the charm] is the result of the art and is inseparably connected with the fact that the immature social conditions under which it originated, and alone could originate, can never recur.

When we glance back at childhood, we cannot help but think of it idealistically as a time when worry and the responsibilities inherent in freedom did not yet exist for us. But why should the most beautiful occur during a "never-recurring stage"? What have we parted with in the passage to modernity that is now accessible to us only through works of art? Beauty enjoyed is freedom bereaved, as Schiller pointed out. But then why do we cast a backward glance at beauty just as we become emancipated from the slavery and superstition of our pre-modern past? For Schiller, art is more than the placeholder of freedom; in modernity, it is also the placeholder of the lost authority of nature.

Humanity has lost its dignity; but Art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone. Truth lives on in the illusion of Art, and it is from this copy, or after-image, that the original image will once again be restored … But not everyone whose soul glows with this ideal was granted either the creative tranquility or the spirit of long patience required to imprint it upon the silent stone, or pour it into the sober mould of words, and so entrust it to the executory hands of time.

“Significant stone” is nature that has been worked up by the artist into a beautiful form. It is nature as artist medium, nature as used directly in the work of art. A work is beautiful just in case the purpose of the artist dovetails with the medium in such a way that the union between form and content appears “natural”. Under such circumstances, nature appears as just the sort of thing to receive human purpose, whereas under ordinary circumstances, human ends appear at loggerheads with natural ones. But the confusion of natural and human purpose in ancient society is what made it unjust—the social and political roles men and women respectively played in ancient Greece were based upon nothing less arbitrary and irrational than what sex they were born. We have moved beyond such a society toward a more just one, yet in the process, we have lost the orientation nature once provided. A beautiful work of art becomes a way to enjoy that lost harmony with nature but without the accompanying injustice and irrationality. The lost harmony between man and nature survives in modernity, but merely as an after-image, as “illusion”. This image of man and nature in harmony once again is what Schiller calls “silent stone”. It is that upon which the artist imprints his intention. It is the artistic medium considered, not as value-neutral raw material, but as a source of orientation and inspiration for human freedom.

Under conditions of modernity, art is our only access to nature as an independent source of meaning. Yet because the work of art is principally for enjoyment, it can lay no claim to truth or goodness. Its image of reconciliation is merely illusory. If nature appears as a source of meaning in the work of art, it must therefore appear as a lost source of meaning, as a source of meaning which no longer really exists. That is why our enjoyment of beauty is tinged with sadness.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Marx's "Method" (work in progress)

Like the rest of the introduction to the Grundrisse, the third section is both abstract and difficult. Nothing in Capital is as hard to slog through, simply because Marx is presenting here in vague outline what he intends to fill in later. Nevertheless, some of what he says here is intriguing, and it's gotten me thinking about the subject of Marx's so-called "method".

My thesis is that almost none of what Marx says here is important. It's misleading to believe that reading this will prepare you to read Marx's Capital. If Marx felt it was necessary to introduce his readers to his method before presenting to them the arguments of Capital, he would have included a methodological introduction, like many philosophers before him had done, and as many bourgeois economists today, Paul Samuelson included, do. But Marx deliberately did not include an introduction in any of the editions of Capital. The theoretical introduction of the Grundrisse does not make it into the final copy of Capital. Granted, he remarks in the Afterward to the second German edition that he is "inverting" Hegel's dialectic, standing it up on its feet, but there's no systematic exposition of this approach that would put it on the same level of scientific precision as one encounters in the body of the work.

At times Marx makes it appear as though there is a Marxist "methodology" separate from the actual concrete phenomena he analyzes in his work. Engels did much to extend the so-called “dialectical method” from the sphere of political economy and generalize it into a broad account of both nature and society. Lenin was highly influenced by such formalistic accounts, and no one less than Trotsky wrote an essay on the "ABC's of Material Dialectics".

The problem with presenting such a method as a fact accomplished prior to the science itself is that it is susceptible to skepticism. As such, there have been both socialist and bourgeois critics of dialectical method. None other than Eduard Bernstein, Engels's personal secretary, attempted to rescue scientific Marxism from the mysticism of Hegelian dialectics in his 1899 The Preconditions of Socialism (see chapter 2 especially). Since traditional, orthodox Marxists see dialectics as providing the teleological framework through which to understand the inevitable collapse of capitalism and its “supersession” by communism, it's no accident that Bernstein's rejection of dialectics goes hand-in-hand with his embrace of reformism. Socialism will not come about as a result of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, according to Bernstein; rather, socialism will occur under capitalism once the proletariat attains for itself a more just share of surplus. Bernstein adds the Marx stamp of approval to this position at the beginning of his book when he quotes Marx as saying, "Hence the Ten Hours' Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of the principle." The realization of the political “principle” of Marxism is none other than the concrete condition under which the life of the proletariat as a class is made empirically more tolerable through the larger portion of surplus distributed to working individuals. (Bernstein's socialism has been the most influential, far surpassing Lenin’s.) Bourgeois critics usually find nothing but either metaphysics or mathematics in Capital. The metaphysics they dismiss without further adieu, and so they spend the rest of their time pointing out what a buffoon Marx was for having improperly formulated labor as a series of simultaneous equations rather than linear equations, etc. Outside of metaphysics, there is nothing but positivism.

The assumption shared by both socialist and bourgeois critics of Marx's method is that the rejection of dialectical formalism entails empiricism. Reformist socialists like Bernstein, who see in dialectics nothing more than the imminent, messianic coming of communism, are led through their rejection of it to assume that the only scientific socialism worthy of the name must concentrate exclusively on improving the concrete living conditions of the working classes, increasing their share of distribution, and expanding their consumption. But the Bernsteinian approach is similar in essential ways to the approach of bourgeois economists who also reject "metaphysics" in favor of what is observable and measurable. Moreover, bourgeois economists since Adam Smith have long argued that free markets negotiated by owners of private property would yield the fastest possible growth of production. This in turn would enable social peace and a rising standard of living. Nowhere has Smith's prophecy enjoyed more relevance than in the United States, whose working class has reaped the benefits of increased consumption since the 19th century. By concentrating almost exclusively on improving the standard of living of the proletariat, reformist socialists in the tradition of Bernstein have played directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie. They have demanded from capitalism the one thing capitalism has turned out to be very good at providing. (For more on this, see Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, "Exploitaton, Consumption, and the Uniqueness of US Capitalism”, Historical Materialism, volume 11:4 (209-226).)

All of this might lead one to believe that one must either embrace materialist dialectics as the proper method of political economy, or one must embrace the method of bourgeois economics or reformism. But Marx did not understand things this way. He neither begins Capital with a systematic statement of his methodology, nor does he advocate bourgeois economics or reformism. How does Marx proceed, then, and what makes his way of proceeding differ from the method of bourgeois economics generally? If we answer this question, we can figure out what it means that Marx has a "dialectical" way of proceeding, but going the other way will never help us. That is, we can't understand Marx beforehand by figuring out what "dialectics" is and then reading the book. The latter would assume that Marx has a method which he is then going to apply to the object, economics, the way a biologist might have a scientific method which she then applies to a living thing. But as it turns out, Marx questions the relationship between thought and its object that is assumed by this approach. Adopting a thoroughly Marxist perspective will require one not only to see capitalism differently, but also to see the relationship between thought and object ├╝berhaupt differently.

To begin, we might consider two ways in which we can "ground" our inquiry: in facts or in abstractions. In the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx refers to the former as "concrete particulars" and the latter as "abstract ideas". In political economy, an example of a concrete particular might be something like division of labor, the price of a commodity, exchange, etc. These are all observable, simple, measurable phenomena. An example of an abstract idea might be population, society, etc. These are things which, if we abstract from the particular things determining them like classes, etc., are very general ideas which we could apply to a vast multiplicity of human organizations.

Two questions arise from this dichotomy: (1) where do we begin, and (2) what is the foundation upon which political economy rests? Do we begin from very simple phenomena like exchange or actual consumption of goods in one place and build up general theories by means of an inductive method, or do we start from general ideas like society and population, things which are common to all societies, and derive possible ways of being social or being economic out of them? That's the question of beginning. But what are the basic laws or categories we're going to produce by means of this method? Will they belong only to particular societies, or can we generalize them to all societies? What can we say about the people who participate in societies? Do they have properties belonging intrinsically to them? Can we base our economics on those properties? In general, what are the basic, most foundational predicates for economics, and what grounds their universality and necessity?

Many believe Marx proceeds in a basically inductive, linear fashion. According to this interpretation, Marx starts with an observable fact (the existence of commodities) and breaks that fact down into its atoms: use-value, exchange-value, and value. He disregards use-value as irrelevant. Exchange-value on its own is incapable of telling us anything about capitalism. This leads him to construct a proper foundation for his analysis of capitalism: the labor theory of value. This is the building block upon which he will construct everything else, the Archimedean point from which we can learn everything we need to know about capitalism. This in turn is founded upon Marx's insight that all history is the history of class struggle. The labor theory of value is true, because it expresses class relations under capitalism. (See David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, Chapter 1.)

The great thing about this interpretation of Marx—aside from the fact that it turns Marx into a convenient popinjay for bourgeois economists and, therefore, for undergraduates—is that it fits in nicely with the way we expect theorists to proceed. Marx begins with a visible phenomenon—the commodity—and analyzes it into its components. He proceeds by means of analysis to discover a secure principle upon which to base the rest of his inquiry, and he uses that foundation to construct a theory of capitalism. Because Marx proceeds in such a straightforward, linear, analytical fashion, it's easy for us to see right away that Marx's foundation, his theory of value, is wrong. He's going to base the rest of his theory on a wrong foundation, so we can stop right here and not bother ourselves with the rest of what he says.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Marx never argues that the commodity, the value theorem, or anything else serves or can serve as the foundation of a critique of political economy. It's true that Marx considers the commodity to be the material embodiment of use-value, exchange-value, and value, and that we have to understand these concepts if we're going to understand anything at all about capitalism. And yet, in order to fully understand these concepts, according to Marx, we already need to know the inner logic of capitalism itself. So what appears at first to be an a priori beginning to the inquiry, or what appears at least to begin with some elemental "givens", is actually no "beginning" at all in the strict sense of the term. Marx begins in medias res, in the middle of things. (See Harvey, ibid.)

What appears as an origin or a given is really a result of a complex process, and it is the job of the critique of political economy to reproduce in thought the complex process that brought about this result. Yet we cannot reconstruct this process simply by looking at the order in which phenomena arise in time. As Marx argues in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, although phenomena like money and property appear at the beginning of civilization, their character under capitalism is entirely different. Therefore, no foundation in history, as a mere concatenation of events in the order in which they occurred, is available to us. Furthermore, we cannot reconstruct this process by going back to a more fundamental principle (like some take the labor theory of value to be), because, according to Marx, the only way we can understand anything else going on in capitalism is by means of the inner structure of the commodity. And those atoms themselves which make up the commodity—use-value, exchange-value, and value—cannot be understood except in relation to one another. So we cannot understand what exchange-value is abstracted from use-value and value. We cannot understand value without thinking about it in terms of exchange-value and use-value. We cannot understand use-value except in terms of exchange-value and value. No concept can be understood in isolation, as the foundation of all the others.

So in answer to the question—Does Marx begin from concrete particulars (like actual commodities or particular events in history), or does he begin from abstract ideas (like the labor theory of value or Hegelian metaphysics)?—we reject the premise. The premise is that there is any "given" one can begin from. But it is the very idea of a "given" which Marx rejects. Theoretical insight into capitalism comes about not through the linear construction of a theory on a foundation but rather through the process of thinking the relations that make up the capitalist mode of production.

We must use insights garnered from one standpoint to throw light upon another. Looked at from the perspective of use-value, capitalism will look one way. Then we shift perspectives and look at it from the point of view of value, and it looks another. Then we move to another perspective, keeping in mind what we already saw, and applying it to this perspective. In light of what we see now, we revise what we already saw in order to come to a fuller understanding of what capitalism and its contradictions are.

We don't make our account of capitalism concrete by having the right starting point. The concrete comes about as a result of moving between perspectives and revising our current and previous interpretations in light of what we have already seen and are currently seeing. This is why in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, we come to that which is concrete not at the beginning, but only by breaking down population and building it back up again. Then and only then is population “determinate”. But this is a result of analysis, not a given.

And this is the way people normally go about learning things. It's rare that one perspective on the world turns out to be entirely wrong, and even if it is wrong, we don't simply throw away what we had. Rather, we revise our beliefs on the basis of the shortcomings of our previous view on things, and we come up with a new account of the phenomenon that takes into account and makes up for our previous errors. In the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel called this process of learning "determinate negation". It is the essence of dialectics, and it is something nearly every reasonable person practices on a day-to-day basis.

Although rejecting the “myth of the given” gets us out of the dichotomy of empiricism and mysticism, it is still not enough to bring us to a concrete understanding of Marx’s actual dialectical procedure. This is because one can reject foundationalism but still reject dialectics. Indeed, most forms of pragmatism follow just such a path. Since Marxist praxis is often confused with pragmatism, a closer look at pragmatism will help us see better what is distinctive in dialectics.

Philosophical pragmatism has taken a few forms, but in general it is the view that the truth consists in the agreement qualified scientists reach about some phenomenon or proposition—or—the test of truth is its practical value for the achievement of human ends. Pragmatism differs from positivism in its assertion of the unity of fact and value. We can form no conception of philosophical “Truth” abstracted from human values. There is no cognition that is not relative to the human, practical perspective. Pragmatism follows dialectics in its rejection of foundationalism—we cannot base our theories on “sense particulars” or static universals, because what counts as a particular or a universal is relative to what we value collectively or what “works” best for our purposes. It also follows dialectics in its insistence upon seeing an underlying relation between people where there appears to be a relationship between things. However, it differs from dialectics where it insists that cognition remain at the level of apparent reality, at the level of what we can manipulate or what simply works. Any philosophy that asks us to accept the role of science as the careful recording of facts chooses to leave the world mystified. By subjectivizing the relationship between subject and object, it leaves the question of our historical development aside, and so it becomes the willing instrument of the prevailing system of power.

By contrast, dialectics starts from a recognition of our own partiality rather than a methodological distrust of our means of getting at “Truth”. The partisanship of critical philosophy—Marx’s included—stems from its goal: the reconstruction of society on the basis of non-exploitative relations between persons. Self-directing, self-conscious human beings will be at the center of this society, not objects. And this brings us to the positive core of dialectics: the idea that the perceived world itself is a product of human activity. What we call “nature” is in fact humanized nature.

Therefore, to call Marx's dialectical way of proceeding a "method" is misleading. There really is no positive doctrine here, nothing that is accepted at the beginning as an accomplished fact, and certainly nothing on the order of what Engels referred to as the "unity of opposites" or the "negation of the negation". We can define dialectics negatively as the rejection of a "given". Positively, the core of dialectics consists in the idea that the world of perception is a product of human activity. There is nothing our senses or our intellects are in touch with immediately, tout court. We can adopt foundational or transcendental perspectives provisionally as a means of getting inquiry off the ground, but, as Wittgenstein says, we climb up the ladder only to throw it away when we're done. There is no beginning which in and of itself is not already a result. We start in the middle of things, trying to figure out what is going on around us. We can achieve a scientific perspective on capitalism, but we achieve that orientation as a result of the inquiry, not as something at the beginning.