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.


livingfossil said...

I think special sciences have to recognize the anomolous character of the objects they study. There's this 'stuff' out there that will comply (or not) to a given methodological stance, and render up 'responses' to it. These responses will confirm or deny the probings of a method. So, you can look at the 'stuff' of society from a variety of viewpoints: economic, cultural, historical, anthropological, ethological, whatever. And over time you will accrue enough confirmations and denials to start more specialized investigations. Woohoo!

But to actually get at what's going on you have to maintain a critical understanding of the interrelation between the primal ordering of a method and the responses of the stuff. You need a developed ontology.

You should allow non-blogger comments.

augenblick said...

Merleau-Ponty was fond of showing how the results of the sciences undermine the ontology from which they proceed. He does this in The Structure of Behavior with Gestalt psychology. A contemporary philosopher of science who follows a similar procedure is John Dupre who, in his The Disorder of Things, argues that biology reveals an ontology of the world far different from what biologists actually assume. Of course, Hegel was the first to do this. In the "Reason" section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, he shows how the results of physics, biology, physiognomy, and phrenology all undermine their presuppositions.

This is a kind of "naturalism" I'm okay with: one which is suspicious of common experience and routinely accepted assumptions. It's a naturalistic procedure by means of which any science can become "activated" with regard to its ontological basis. I'm not okay with the sort of naturalism which defers to "experts" and silences any position besides mechanism and transcendental realism.

All of this, of course, is quite beside the point I was trying to make in the original post, but it's still interesting.

I fixed the comments setting. It should be possible for anyone to comment now.

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