Marx’s Scientific Method

May 2024 Forums General discussion Marx’s Scientific Method

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    Marx’s Scientific Method

    I give a passage from Marx’s “Introduction” to the Grundrisse freely translated into 20 “clauses”.

    This passage is as close as Marx came to fulfilling a plan he expressed to Engels at the time:

    • “If there should ever be time for such work again, I would greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence,  in two or three printer’s sheets,  what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered.”

    A poster [LBird] condemned the passage as meaningless and wrong, yet implored for a condensed ‘Reader’s Digest’ version for personal benefit.  Instead, I have fleshed it out for general accessibility to readers unfamiliar with the method of Hegel’s Logic.

    I have framed most “clauses” as questions, answered by Marx, to clarify the issues motivating his developing thought, and have linked the first occurrence of technical terms to their German original at the end.


    The Method of Political Economy

    1.  How do we begin a science?

    2.  How do we begin the science of political economy?

    • “The population is the real foundation of political economy.
    • The population is the subject—and the active agent—of the entire social act of production.

    • It therefore seems correct to begin the science of political economy with the population as a living whole.

    • But, on closer examination, this turns out to be false.”

    3.  Why is it wrong to start with the real-and-concrete thing we want to comprehend?

    • “Our conception of the population, as a living whole, is a hollow abstraction if we ignore its social classes.
    • Our conception of the social classes is a hollow abstraction if we are unaware of the foundations upon which the social classes rest [wage labour, capital, etc.]

    • These foundations are themselves hollow abstractions since they presuppose further determinations, such as private exchange, social division of labour, market price, etc.

    • Even the key economic category, capital, is a hollow abstraction if we leave aside determinations such as:  wage labour, value, money, price, etc.”

    4.  Thus, at the outset of science, we come face-to-face with a genuine contradiction.  It is both right and wrong to begin political economy with the population as a living whole.  How then to proceed?

    • “The only way forward is to accept the confusing status of our initial conception as unavoidable, and to take our “immediate” conception as just that—our “immediate”, or tentative, point of departure.
    • But we must simultaneously continue to recognize it for what it is—a confusing, because chaotic, conception of a living whole.”

    5.  So how can we get order out of chaos?

    6.  How then can we reconstruct our irrational “immediate” conception rationally?

    • “We can now retrace our journey on the basis of these pure abstract determinations to reconstruct an orderly, rational conception—i.e. something our intellect can grasp without confusion—of our “immediate” chaotic conception.
    • But now, when we return, our conception of the population, as a living whole, is no longer the confused conception we tentatively started out with, but a rich totality, synthesized out of its many simple abstract determinations and relations.”

    7.  So science is a round trip from our “immediate” confusing conceptions to our rational conceptions, via pure abstraction.  Give us historical instances…

    • Clause 5 describes the path historically taken by the founding fathers of political economy in the seventeenth century:
      • the pioneers [Petty, North, etc.] always began with a living whole:  the population, the nation, the state, several states, etc.;

      • but they always concluded by discovering through analysis a small number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as:  division of labour, money, value, etc.”

    8.  The Abstract Foundations of the Economic Systems.

    • “As soon as these abstract general relations [“moments” in Hegel’s terminology] had been more or less firmly established in the minds of the economists, there began, in the eighteenth century, the economic systems that used these abstract categories as their indispensable point of departure.”

    9.  Synthesis of the Economic Abstractions.

    • “The deterministic economic systems of the eighteenth century [Smith, Quesnay, etc.] ascended from simple abstract relations:  labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the concrete living whole:  the state, exchange between nations, the world market, etc.”

    10.  The Method of Scientific Development.

    • Clause 9 is obviously the scientifically correct method.”

    11.  So Clause 5—the descent from the concrete to the abstract—is the precondition of science, and Clause 9—the ascent from the abstract to the concrete—is the deterministic practice of science.  If the abstract determinants of science determine the concrete products of science, what sense can we make of our changing scientific conception of the same real-and-concrete thing we start and end with?

    • “Our conception of a concrete thing is “concrete” because it is the concentration of many abstract determinations;  our conception is “concrete” because it is a unity of the diverse.
    • In the process of thinking, our conception of a concrete thing appears as a process of concentrating many thought determinations.  And so the real concrete thing appears to us as a result of our thought, and not as a point of departure for our thought.

    • Despite this appearance, the real concrete thing is, in reality, the point of departure for both our observation and our conception of the thing.”

    12.  So how do we conceive the precondition phase of science?

    • “Along the first path [Clause 5]—when we analyze our immediate conception of a real concrete thing—we ‘evaporate’ our chaotic conception of it to leave behind its simplest abstract elements as ‘residue’.”

    13.  How do we conceive the development phase of science?

    • “Along the second path [Clause 9]—when we synthesize our coherent rational conception of the real concrete thing—we reproduce the thing by way of thought as a concept systematically constructed out of its simplest abstract elements.”

    14.  How can we badly misconceive the development phase of science?

    • “By this method [Clause 9], Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving that the Universal Idea—or principle behind the world—reproduced the world as a real concrete instance of itself, by concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself.”

    15.  Materialist Critique of Hegel.

    • “The method [Clause 9] of rising from the abstract to the concrete is nothing more than the way in which our thought appropriates real concrete things, and reproduces them as conceptually concrete things in our mind.
    • But Clause 13 is by no means the [Hegelian] process by which real concrete things come into being.

    • The real is not a product of conception;  rather conception is a product of the real.”

    16.  Consequently, how must we conceive our abstract categories of thought?

    • “The simplest economic category, e.g., exchange value, always presupposes a real-and-concrete population, as a living whole;  moreover it presupposes a determinate population producing under specific social relations:  a definite kind of family, or community, or state, etc.
    • Simple economic categories of thought can never exist other than as abstract, one-sided relations within an already given, real concrete, living whole.”

    • For example, the economic category exchange value also has a pre-capitalist existence where it is qualitatively different because, in a pre-capitalist world, it exists within a qualitatively different concrete, living whole.”

    17.  Critique of the Philosophical Mindset.

    • “Let us now consider how all of this is misconceived by the kind of consciousness—and this is characteristic of the philosophical consciousness [both Hegel and Kant]—for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is thus the only real world.
    • For those of such a philosophical mindset, our theoretical development of the simple abstract categories-of-thought “appears” as the real act of production—which only needs the outside world for its primal impulse—an outside world that is in any case, for them, the product of our abstract categories of thought.”

    18.  Critique of Abstract “Social Constructionism”

    • “The act of producing concrete things, theoretically, by developing their simplest abstract categories is, of course, a mere tautology.  It is an act of “production”, only in so far as the conceptual totality we produce is a totality of thoughts, is concrete in thought, and is in fact a theoretical product of thinking and comprehension.
    • But we must never forget that real concrete things are in no way products of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above our imagination and conception [as it is for Hegel].”

    19.  How then must we conceive theoretical development?

    • “The conceptual concrete is a product of our cerebral transformation of observation and perception into our worked-up concepts.
    • The concrete totality as it appears in our minds—as a conceptual totality of thoughts—is a product of our thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way open to it, a way different from our artistic, religious, and practical appropriations of this world.

    • The real subject [i.e. society] retains its autonomous existence outside of our minds—independent of the intellect—just as before;  that is, so long as we adopt a merely speculative, merely theoretical, intellectual attitude of thought towards it.

    • Hence, also for the theoretical method [Clause 9]—when we are engaged in developing and concentrating the abstract categories of thought—we must never lose sight of the reality we are replicating in thought.”

    20.  A Parting Thought.

    • “We must always keep in mind the real-and-concrete subject, society, as a living whole, as the presupposition [for it is the real precondition] of our theoretical synthesis of it.”


    German Terms

    ⁽¹⁾ scheint;
    ⁽²⁾ Realen;
    ⁽³⁾ Konkreten;
    ⁽⁴⁾ wirklichen Voraussetzung;
    ⁽⁵⁾ Bevölkerung;
    ⁽⁶⁾ Grundlage;
    ⁽⁷⁾ Subjekt;
    ⁽⁸⁾ ganzen gesellschaftlichen Produktionsakts;
    ⁽⁹⁾ falsch;
    ⁽¹⁰⁾ Klassen;
    ⁽¹̯⁾ Abstraktion;
    ⁽¹²⁾ Elemente;
    ⁽¹³⁾ Vorstellung;
    ⁽¹⁴⁾ Bestimmung;
    ⁽¹⁵⁾ analytisch;
    ⁽¹⁶⁾ einfachere Begriffe;
    ⁽¹⁷⁾ vorgestellten Konkreten;
    ⁽¹⁸⁾ dünnere;
    ⁽¹⁹⁾ einfachsten Bestimmungen;
    ⁽²⁰⁾ Momente;
    ⁽²¹⁾ Zusammenfassung vieler Bestimmungen;
    ⁽²²⁾ Einheit des Mannigfaltigen;
    ⁽²³⁾ erscheint;
    ⁽²⁴⁾ Anschauung;
    ⁽²⁵⁾ Vorstellung;
    ⁽²⁶⁾ Anstoß.

    sarda karaniwan

    And I thought this would be accessible to the ordinary human intelligence.You know Engels already warned Marxs about using deep-meaning academic words to explain something as this will be useless and will not draw interest from the ordinary people which is the FORCE that we need."Jes Sui Charlie", look how simple and short that principle is, but the ordinary people have easily grasp it. What is only despicable here is the use of violence and a sacrifice of human life.Too much intellectualism will alienate you from the ordinary people."A theory becomes a force once it is grasp by the masses ( the ordinary people).— Karl Marxsardaan Ordinarian


    SardaI quite agree. We in the Socialist Party say that socialism is intelligible to the vast majority – otherwise there'd be no point advocating it – so I think postings like #1 have to be taken for what they are – to be discussed by those who enjoy discussing such things (not me), and not to be thought of as essential reading for all.

    sarda karaniwan

    I guess that's the poverty of philosophy, hehe.I'm not trying to offend anyone especially twc, just a bit of advice, thank you.sardaan Ordinarian


    We can't be all things to all people at all times.There is an important place for ideas to be discussed in depth and detail, which as we are engaged in a battle of ideas, is essential.But then there's also a place for popularising and explaining in simpler terms for those who are new to the subject, this is also essential.Both are equally important.

    sarda wrote:
    "Je suis Charlie", look how simple and short that principle is, but the ordinary people have easily grasp it.

    “Je suis Charlie” is in no way a principle.  A principle is a rare and precious thing indeed.Principles are not immediately accessible to us.Principles are hard won by analysing phenomena, as in Clause 5.Principles are the abstractions science constructs rational explanation out of [Clause 9]—i.e. an explanation our intellect can grasp without confusion.The Party Principles are instances of hard-won abstract determinants that guide us to Socialism.Instead, “Je suis Charlie” is just a real-and-concrete concept that seeks rational explanation in terms of principles.  At most it is an emotive rallying cry.As a real-and-concrete concept, “Je suis Charlie” appears immediately accessible to us.  But immediate accessibility and comprehension are at opposite poles, like Clause 5 and Clause 9.The downside of immediate accessibility is that “Je suis Charlie” inspires no immediate analysis, and so it tends to remain un-analysed.  It tends to persist, in a state of suspended animation, in our consciousness at the dangerous level of prejudice, which is why it appeals simultaneously to everyone and to no-one, differently and the same.For its passionate adherents, “Je suis Charlie” remains a vague abstraction—an incoherent jumble in their minds of abstract determinations tossed haphazardly together, so that any identifiable principles, that constitute the chaotic conception in their minds, remain scrambled in an irrational mix.That is the opposite of Marx’s, and our, rational way forward to Socialism.You might attempt to re-read the original post with this in mind.

    sarda karaniwan

    Ah, Okay.sardaan Ordinarian

    sarda karaniwan
    rodshaw wrote:
     to be discussed by those who enjoy discussing such things (not me), and not to be thought of as essential reading for all.

    Well rodshaw, you're right.sardaan Ordinarian

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