Marx’s method (II): ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’

In my previous notes I quoted Marx describing his approach as “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. What a wonderful description, but what does it mean? Marx goes on to discuss it in some length in that section of his notebooks for Capital, first using the concept of ‘population’:

“When we consider a given country politico-economically, we begin with its population, its distribution among classes, town, country, the coast, the different branches of production, export and import, annual production and consumption, commodity prices etc.

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.”

Shortly after this passage, he clarifies the relation between the abstract and the concrete:

“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. … the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.”

For brevity, I’m cutting out the parts where Marx offers the contrasting conventional method of analysis employed by political economists. He also wants to distinguish his approach from Hegel’s idealism, arguing that his own abstractions are reliant on, and grounded in, the concrete. These ‘real abstractions’ exist dialectically with the concrete.  He gives the example of the abstraction of ‘exchange value’, which can only exist in a dialectical relationship with the concrete social relations found in society, such as the family, commune or state.

This section in Marx’s notebooks is an attack, not just on Hegel’s idealism, but philosophy in general, which he claims equates reality with consciousness. For Marx, thought is a product of material, concrete conditions. Thought does not exist apart from the world, but is “a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts.” The real is a presupposition of the abstract:

“The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition.”

Marx then goes on to discuss how an abstraction can change in relation to the concrete world. Simple abstractions might appear to presuppose the more complex reality of the world, but in fact, he argues, they express the historical development of the social conditions and relations at particular times and places. He starts by discussing the category of ‘possession’, which has both abstract and concrete qualities reflecting the social relations of a given historical moment, e.g. possession of a flint axe in the Stone Age, differs from the modern judicial meaning of possession of property. Similarly, the category of ‘money’ existed in a simple form prior to the existence of ‘capital’ and may continue to exist in its simpler form depending on the historical development of the society. That is, the category of money, for example, is not trans-historical or absolute but rather expresses the concrete development of the social conditions in which it is being used as a category. “To that extent”, says Marx, “the path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the combined, would correspond to the real historical process.” In effect, this is a warning not to methodologically employ abstract concepts such as ‘money’, ‘exchange’, or labour’, etc. to all people at all times across all places. It is an argument for grasping the contingent basis of theoretical concepts prior to their application in the concrete world, i.e. “rising from the abstract to the concrete.” Marx underlines this again with a useful discussion of the seemingly simple category of ‘labour’ and concludes that

“even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.”

Like most of us, Marx understood history as developing, carrying with it remnants of earlier historical ways of living and understanding our lives. Thus, modern ‘bourgeois’ society is “the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production.” As such, our modern categories, when analysed, are found to comprise the remnants of history, too, yet should not be applied to all of history:

“The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society… The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly.”

Thus, it is not simply a mistake to apply existing categories to history but also a constraint because it limits our ability to understand the present as well as the past. Marx argues that categories such as ‘money’ and ‘labour’ express both “what is in the head as well as in reality”, and therefore “the characteristics of existence” but from specific, limited points of view. Thus, says Marx, it is a mistake to think that society , “begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.What does he mean by this last remark about ‘science’? It seems to be a rejection of positivism.

He then goes on to discuss the example of rent, property and agriculture, and provides a wonderful description of the centrality of the specific mode of production in all societies:

“For example, nothing seems more natural than to begin with ground rent, with landed property, since this is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and of all being, and with the first form of production of all more or less settled societies – agriculture. But nothing would be more erroneous. In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.”

So, Marx’s starting point of analysis is the dominant, ruling, mode of production in society i.e. capital, rather than what he argues are related but secondary (derivative??) categories such as ‘population’ or ‘landed property’. Although there may appear to be a ‘logic’ to starting with a specific point of interest (e.g. ‘population’, ‘higher education’, ‘science’, ‘hacking’, etc.) and then developing one’s analysis from there, Marx argues that the mode of production (i.e. capital) dominates – “rules” – the body and mind to such an extent that without starting from an examination of capitalism’s fundamental categories (and therefore one’s own abstractions) is to approach one’s analysis (e.g. of ‘population’) more-or-less blind. In effect, he is saying that we are born out of capital – we are capital – and must begin our analysis from that point.

“Capital is the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting-point as well as the finishing-point, and must be dealt with before landed property. After both have been examined in particular, their interrelation must be examined.

…It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development. The point is not the historic position of the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Even less is it their sequence ‘in the idea’ (Proudhon) (a muddy notion of historic movement). Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society.”

In the final passage of this section of his notebooks, he demonstrates the method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete” using the example of ‘national wealth’, which he says arose in the 17th century as the idea that

“wealth is created only to enrich the state, and that its power is proportionate to this wealth. This was the still unconsciously hypocritical form in which wealth and the production of wealth proclaimed themselves as the purpose of modern states, and regarded these states henceforth only as means for the production of wealth.”

Having explained how the term came into use and over time came to uncritically justify the conception of the modern state, he then finishes by outlining his “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete” in the study of capitalist society:

“The order obviously has to be

(1) the general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society, but in the above-explained sense.

(2) The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property. Their interrelation. Town and country. The three great social classes. Exchange between them. Circulation. Credit system (private).

(3) Concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state. Viewed in relation to itself. The ‘unproductive’ classes. Taxes. State debt. Public credit. The population. The colonies. Emigration.

(4) The international relation of production. International division of labour. International exchange. Export and import. Rate of exchange.

(5) The world market and crises.”

In summary, (1) start with simple, abstract concepts that seemingly apply to all people at all times e.g. ‘labour’; (2) move on to an examination of contemporary forms of those abstractions e.g. ‘wage labour’; (3) next, examine the inter-relation of those abstractions in concrete social forms e.g. the ‘workplace’; (4) examine the concrete/abstract dialectic developed so far in the more expansive, global setting e.g. global labour market; (5) examine the dialectic developed so far at a systemic level e.g. the inter-relation between global production, exchange, unemployment, crises, etc. Thus, we’ve started from a simple abstraction of ‘labour’ and moved to examine that abstract category both in terms of its appearance at a local, social level, and its role in international politics, markets, war, etc. To conceive of ‘labour’ or any other simple category in any other way is to fall short of understanding it.

I think that’s what Marx’s means by his “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Marx’s method (II): ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’”

  1. In his 1859 Preface, Marx expressed this approach in a different way:

    “… the reader who really wishes to follow me will have to decide to advance from the particular to the general.”

    That is, start from specific abstract concepts (‘particulars’) such as ‘commodity’ or ‘money’, and advance (i.e. ‘rise’) to a general understanding of capitalist society.

    When I first read this, I mistook ‘particulars’ for ‘concrete’, but I don’t think this is so in the context of what he is saying in the Preface. Were it so, he would be advocating the exact opposite approach to what I have discussed above i.e. starting from the concrete appearance of things as they are and then explaining the world on the basis of appearance. This is the liberal approach which aims to justify the status quo, rather than forcefully critique it.

  2. Thank you for your great note. Actually it’s more than note, it is a great essay i say… I’ve read an acedemic essay on Marx’s method that it claims that it has these steps. from concrete to abstraction from abstraction to determination from determination to total concrete.

    is labour an abstraction? or a concrete, real?

    and these above-steps are correct in terms of marx’s method?

    and the third thing i really didnt understand in your post, is the part of “rejection of positivism”

    You are saying this because positivism does not gives any importance to a data in terms of its relations with others, and its contemporary position at the time? I mean , do positivists take the labour as it is the same both for 15th and lets say 21th century? As far as i understand, marx does not do this, he seemingly as you say, abstracts it according to its time and space and its position, relation with these.

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