Systematic Dialectic

Submitted by libcom on July 23, 2005

Systematic dialectic
Author: Arthur, Christopher J Source: Science & Society v62n3 (Fall 1998): 447-459 ISSN: 0036-8237 Number: 03961393 Copyright: Copyright S & S Quarterly Inc 1998


ABSTRACT: Systematic dialectic is distinguished from historical dialectic and its logic explored. As a strategy of exposition designed to articulate the forms of a given whole it orders the relevant categories in a linear development. The dialectical justification of the transitions is the central question addressed. What is given progressively as the further determination of the abstract beginning should be read retrogressively as a grounding movement validating the earlier categories from the perspective of the concrete whole.

IN THIS PAPER I BRIEFLY ESTABLISH the difference between historical dialectic and systematic dialectic; I go on to elucidate the latter.

The distinction between historical and systematic dialectic should be obvious enough, but unfortunately it is not often marked. Although most of Hegel's work (Phenomenology of Spirit, Science of Logic, Encyclopedia, and Philosophy of Right) was systematic, he frequently obscured this by using illustrations from different historical periods. As for Marx's great systematic work, Capital, this has suffered from a virtually universal misreading, originally sponsored by Engels, according to which its method is "logical-historical"; in other words, the two dialectics get conflated. But in this it is clear that the historical is taken to be precedent, the "logical" part consisting merely in tidying up the history by disentangling pure forms from contingent accretions.

While it is true then that parts of these works of Hegel and Marx are often read in an historical key, I emphatically reject such readings. Elsewhere I have explicitly argued against such a reading of Capital (Arthur, 1996; 1997). It is worth noting that Engels not only misread Marx but also Hegel, in that the logical-historical method was supposed to be derived by Marx from Hegel. However, Hegel took care to explain in his lectures on the modern state that he was not developing the categories according to any historical ordering (Hegel, 1942, 332 and Addition; 182 Addition). Unknown to Engels, Marx also made the same point in the "Introduction" to the Grundrisse, of course.

In discussions of dialectic generally it is most often taken to be a historical process; indeed it is frequently reduced to a type of efficient causality. A contradiction is said to "produce" a resolution in much the same way as a cause "produces" an effect. Now it is clear that if the paradigmatic works by Hegel and Marx mentioned above are not historical works any such interpretation is clearly irrelevant. What is characteristic of these works is that they treat a given whole and thus the ordering of the categories is in no way determined by historical matters, but is articulated on the basis of purely systematic considerations. Since all "moments" of the whole exist synchronically all movement must pertain to their reciprocal support and development. While this motion implies that moments become effective successively, the movement winds back into itself to form a circuit of reproduction of these moments by each other (Arthur, 1998). Theory can trace a logic of mutual presupposition in the elements of the structure and hence of the necessity of certain forms and laws of motion of the whole under consideration.

In sum, the reason why, in these paradigmatic works, systematicity is of the essence is because the object of investigation is a totality. Dialectic grasps phenomena in their interconnectedness, something beyond the capacity of analytical reason and linear logic (Arthur, 1997). As Hegel argued, science in treating a totality must take the shape of system, "since what is concretely true is so only as . . . totality" (Hegel, 1991, 14). The system comprises a set of categories expressing the forms and relations embedded within the totality, its "moments." The task of systematic dialectic is to organize such a system of categories in a definite sequence, deriving one from another logically. If such a systematic sequencing is to be undertaken, a method is required for making transitions from one category to another in such a way that the whole system has an architectonic. Now, if a whole is built up in this way, the systematic ordering of its categories may be understood both "forwards," as a progression, and "backwards," as a retrogression. After explaining this, I will lay special emphasis on the merits of the regressive aspect of the architectonic and hence the possibility of a "pull" from the end of the line for motivating dialectical transitions within the development of the categories; and I will then illustrate the point with examples from Hegel and Marx.

Let us turn then to an account of the meaning of system. In doing so I draw on the reading of Hegel provided by Klaus Hartmann ( 1972), and after him Terry Pinkard (1985), and (within Marxism) Tony Smith (1990), Geert Reuten and Michael Williams (1989). They are all concerned to rescue Hegel from any "metaphysical" reading. Thus Hartmann adopts a "non-metaphysical view" of Hegel, whose great merit is said to lie in his understanding of the necessity of categorial ordering, exhibited primarily in his Logic. Hegel's Logic shows how the categories may be systematically related to one another in such a manner that their exposition and "reconstruction" (Hegel, 1969, 39) provides a theory whereby each category gains systematic meaning in virtue of its positioning with respect to the other categories and the whole. Taken in isolation, in abstraction, from its systematic placing a category is imperfectly grasped.

Although it is natural to read a linear exposition as one in which later categories are developed from their antecedents - at least in the sense that the latter must be analytically presupposed - in Hegel's view this cannot be the whole story, for he rejects any dogmatic founding category. The progressive development is therefore not securely established on a given presupposition. There is, however, another consideration. Since the linear progression cannot be validated as a deduction, it can only be reconstruction; as such what it is heading for must be granted.

But have we not merely duplicated the problem of the foundation? If the beginning cannot justify the end is it not also the case that the end cannotjustify the beginning? The answer is that there is indeed an asymmetry here. The end, as the most concrete, complex, and complete reality, does adequately support and sustain all the elements that make it up, and thereby retrogressively justifies the logical sequencing from this viewpoint. Insofar as Hegel's dialectics finish with something "absolute," its absolute character grants validity retrospectively to all the stages of its exposition and their dialectical relations through integrating them into its architectonic; if the truth is the whole, the moments of the whole gain their validity within it. Tony Smith explains this retrogressive character of systematic dialectic as follows: "If the theory culminates in a stage that is true 'for itself,' i.e., concretely and actually, then this shows that an earlier stage leading up to it must have been true 'in itself,' i.e., abstractly and potentially" (Smith, 1990, 49). The method required, then, is to develop categorial items in a sequence that is to be considered as "grounding" of categories regressively, and as disclosure, or presentation, of further categories, progressively.

The fact that the logical progression is at the same time "a retrogression" means that the beginning may be shown to be "not something merely arbitrarily assumed" but itself grounded as an abstract moment of the whole (Hegel, 1969, 70). The following key passage sums up Hegel's view:

Each step of the advance in the process of further determination, while getting further away from the indeterminate beginning is also getting back nearer to it.... What at first sight may appear to be different, the retrogressive grounding of the beginning, and the progressive further determining of it, coincide and are the same. The method, which thus winds itself into a circle, cannot anticipate in a development in time that the beginning is, as such, already something derived. . . and there is no need to deprecate the fact that it may only be accepted provisionally and hypothetically. (Hegel, 1969, 841.)

While every category depends on its antecedents for its constitutive moments, the problem of the beginning is resolved if the richness of the granted content presupposes analytically the simpler, more abstract, antecedent categories. To reiterate, the progressive introduction of new categories cannot be deduction (for the beginning is not to be taken as an axiom), it can only be a reconstruction of reality which takes for granted that what it is headed for is logically complete. So the sequence of categories has to be read in both directions, as a disclosure, or exposition, progressively, and as a grounding movement retrogressively (Hartmann, 1972, 1047; Pinkard, 1985, 104-8). What constitutes progression is an arrangement of categories from abstract to concrete; successive categories are always richer and more concrete (Hegel, 1969, 840; Marx, 1973, 100). Indeed the basis of the advance is generally that each category is deficient in determinacy with respect to the next and the impulse for the transition is precisely the requirement that such deficiency must be overcome (Hegel, 1969, 828-9). It is important that the transition involves a "leap" to a qualitatively new categorial level. A dialectical development has nothing in common with a vulgar evolutionism predicated on extrapolating an existent tendency.

All stages are deficient with respect to the final fulfillment of the dialectic in a systematically ordered totality. Indeed the progressive/ regressive sequencing depends upon the presupposition that there is a whole from which a violent abstraction has been made so as to constitute a simple beginning which in virtue of this negation of its positioning in the whole has "lost its footing," so to speak, and thus there arises a contradiction between the character of the element in isolation and its meaning as part of the whole. The treatment of this moment as inherently in contradiction with itself, on account of this, is given if it is assumed throughout the dialectical development that the whole remains immanent or implicit in it.

This provides the basis for the transitions in the development of the categorial ordering. There is an impulse to provide a solution to a contradiction - a "push," one might say - and there is the need to overcome the deficiency of the category with respect to the posited end of the process - a "pull," one might say. For the most part these elements exist in combination. Since dialectic is generally regarded in the former sense as the positing and resolving of contradictions I want here to stress the importance of the final goal and the notion that any given stage is always deficient with respect to it.'

The impulse to move from one category to the next is the insufficiency of the existing stage to comprehend its presuppositions; while it is a necessary result of the previous stage it depends on conditions of existence that have yet to be developed; each stage "takes care of," with the minimum of new elements, the problem perceived with the previous stage, but in turn is found insufficient. The presentation ends when all the conditions of existence needing to be addressed are comprehended by the entire system of categories developed. If it is presupposed that the whole system of categories is complete and internally self-sustaining, then it is possible to reconstruct its order precisely through moving sequentially from categories deficient in such respects (that is in being inclusive and self-sustaining) to ones less so, until the system as a totality is thereby exhibited as such. The method of presentation consists in exhibiting its categorial articulation in such a manner as to show how the logic of the system tendentially ensures its completeness through "positing" all its presuppositions. Moreover a system is complete only when it returns to, and accounts for, its starting point; Marx was therefore correct in the first instance, having started with "the commodity," to draft a final section entitled "the commodity as product of capital" (Marx, 1976, 949).

Hartmann, followed by Smith, gives an account of the relation of Hegel's Logic to the "Realphosophie" (domains of nature, society, culture, etc.) as follows: "The Logic contains all ontological distinctions of note on a comparatively abstract plane, discounting the difference externality might make categorially" (Hartmann, 1972, 113). Then the more "concrete" determinations of Realphilosophie are "principled" by the body of logical categories; and the persuasiveness of the Realphilosophie provides a proof of the logic indirectly.

I believe that much of Hegel's and Marx's work can be interpreted in this way, as informed by Hegel's dialectical logic. In the remainder of this paper, then, I elucidate the points about dialectic made in its first half by treating some case studies, one from Hegel and two from Marx. These are: 1 ) the transition from right to morality in Hegel's Philosophy of Right; 2) the derivation of money in Capital; and 3) the resolution of the contradiction in the general formula of capital in Capital. The general aim in my interpretations of these examples will be to demonstrate that "contradictions" in the strict sense may be predicated of a given stage only in virtue of the systematic placing of that stage with respect to the totality in question, whether of Right (in the first example following) or of value (in the examples from Capital).

1. Hegel's overall objective in his political philosophy is to demonstrate that freedom is actualized in a system of "right." This system of right he articulates in a dialectical development from the supposedly basic right to property onwards to rights of citizenship and to the state organized so as comprehensively to underpin all the various spheres of right. At the end of the section on "abstract right" he explains how right in the abstract is unable to maintain itself because, without morality, custom or law, everyone in defending their own property and honor against transgression may be "asserting a right" but their purely personal actions are seen by the other party as themselves transgressive of their rights; hence a vendetta situation develops.

Now many philosophers address this problem by arguing that to keep the peace a superior force must come on the scene. Hegel does not take this route at all. He wants the concept of right itself to become more developed, more comprehensive in its scope. This higher form of right at the next level is the concern for right as such, not simply one's own rights, a concern to do right even where this might not seem immediately in one's interests. How is this idea to be dialectically developed? In the basic vendetta situation there is no contradiction at all, only conflict, and there is nothing contradictory about supposing such vendettas interminable. The contradiction arises only if the concern for right as such is brought to bear.

Clearly it is not possible for all parties to be "in the right" all the time, so a situation in which everyone is left free to claim and defend their own rights contradicts the demand of a system of right that right be actualized in reality. There is clearly a "pull" to the next higher category of right: "morality," as Hegel calls it. However, there is more to it than this; for if this concern is imputed to the agents involved in a vendetta (that is, if the whole is taken to be immanent in the moments of each stage rather than merely an external benchmark of progress), then their own consciousness becomes contradictory. For if each claims to be avenging an infringement of right as such they are claiming that their cause is just, but justice is a universal that transcends the specific interest particular people have in prosecuting their own claims. Here, however, each is acting as judge and jury in their own case and their attempt to pursue the criminal cannot be distinguished from the subjective motive of revenge. This may be viewed as giving a "push" to resolve this contradiction, to sort it out by casting around for a solution. Hegel concludes as follows:

The demand that this contradiction . . . in the manner in which wrong is annulled be resolved . . . is the demand for a justice freed from subjective interest.... This implies the demand for a will which, though particular and subjective, yet wills the universal as such. But this concept of morality is not simply something demanded, it has emerged in the course of this movement itself. (Hegel, 1942, 103.)

The important thing to understand here is that, while dialectical development is immanent in the content under consideration, whether one thinks of the categorial structure as progressive or regressive in its architectonic the transitions are conceptual necessities. This is the sense here in which the concept of morality is required. As mentioned above such a move represents a qualitative leap. While there is a structural tendency for the categorial level of righting wrong abstractly to issue in vendetta, this tendency cannot of itself transcend this fate. It would be wrong to interpret Hegel's transition here as a quasi-causal story in which the agents involved in a vendetta are supposed to wake up to the requirements of morality as a result of its structural features. They may or may not. It is not relevant. What is relevant is that it is a requirement of reason that a new category come to life.

It is also a consequence of Hegel's systematic approach that both the claims of the individuals for their rights, and the concern of moral consciousness to do the right thing, are presuppositions of any coherent articulation of a legal system of right by the state. This illustrates also a general point about systematic dialectic: that nothing is lost, that every "refuted" position is yet preserved within a more comprehensive form of realization of the concept in question, here that of "right."

2. For our first case from Capital let us see how the contradiction between use value and exchange value gives rise to money. According to Marx this contradiction is present in the commodity as such and expressed already in the simple form of value. Yet if one thinks about such a relation of commodities as constitutive of barter there is a problem, for it is hard to see anything contradictory about the persistence of barter relations. There is a contradiction in the commodity only if it is claimed that it is imbued with a universal, namely value, as a result of its participation in a whole network of capitalist commodity production. Marx's argument in Chapter One is that this category, and its contradiction with use value, requires the development of money.

But, again I stress, there is no contradiction whatsoever in supposing that exchange can be carried on without money: barter is a well-attested phenomenon historically and anthropologically. It has no necessity to develop into a money system. Yet Marx in Capital tries to demonstrate the necessity of money. He predicates this on the fact that "exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions" (Marx, 1976,198). These contradictions arise only because it is presupposed in his discussion that the commodity is to be a bearer of value. It is only on this basis that the forms of value Marx considers in his first chapter are said to be "defective" or "deficient." They are deficient in that the presence of value is not adequately expressed in the first three forms considered, but only in the money form. Thus the derivation of money is not based primarily on a "forwards" argument but rather on a "backwards" dialectic in which it is assumed that value is to be socially validated and then money is shown to be (at this stage) the most adequate actualization of value through an argument establishing the inadequacies of less developed expressions of commodity relations.

If at the start one imputes value to a single commodity (through an analytical abstraction from the world of exchange relations) one immediately creates a contradiction between use value and value, because value has a purely social reality (Marx, 1976, 138-39). Since in isolation commodities lack "a form of value distinct from their natural forms" (Marx, 1976, 141) such a commodity can appear only as a particular use value, yet at the same time is required to realize the universal negation of use value, for that is how value is socially constituted (Marx, 1976, 128). If value cannot appear in an isolated commodity, then, since "essence must appear" (Hegel, 1991, 131), in effect it is not really present in such a case. Thus one can say a "demand" has arisen for this contradiction to be superseded through the said commodity finding a way of distinguishing itself as a value from itself as a use value, to express this value as other than itself therefore. This it does in calling on another commodity to be its equivalent as value. In this simple relation Marx rightly saw the germ of money, which as a special commodity excluded from all others is "value for itself" and reflects back on them an adequate value form in their price.

It is important to notice that the whole argument is driven conceptually: for the concept of value to be meaningful money is required. There is no trace in Marx's presentation of a quasi-causal story about commodity exchangers having as a result of the structure of their situation a tendency to invent money.

If the validating of the value inherent in commodities is only accomplished in the dialectical movement to a higher category, to money, it is also true that the commodity as such retains its contradictory character. The resolution of contradictions does not abolish them, nor discard them, but grounds them, gives them "room to move," as Marx puts it (Marx, 1976, 198). Furthermore, money itself turns out to embody a contradictory unity of use value and exchange value at a higher level. And so does each further concretization. The key question is this: is capitalism finally able to resolve this contradiction? Or does it remain prey to it however it adapts itself? Will it run out of "room to move"?

3. The clearest example of the reading of Capital as a dialectic informed by the need to reconstitute the given whole is the transition to production which Marx makes in the chapter "Contradictions in the General Formula of Capital."

In the previous chapters he has dealt with simple circulation of commodities and the mediation of this in money. Now it is clear that there is no contradiction involved in the idea of simple circulation at value. There is indeed no contradiction in the idea that clever merchants are generally successful at selling dear and buying cheap. (But notice that it is contingent that an increment in value is gained at the expense of another through luck or judgment or cheating.) Why then does Marx find it necessary to turn to production in order to resolve contradictions? It arises only from the demand that the concept of capital be actualized. This demand is only supportable on the assumption that the object of the exercise is to explain capitalism as a going concern, trace its potential to reproduce itself together with all its conditions of existence, and identify any insurmountable contradiction. It is presupposed at this point in the argument that capital is defined as self-valorizing value, in which surplus value accrues to capital as a matter of necessity in virtue of its form. Only on this presupposition is Marx entitled to formulate the key contradiction: "Capital cannot arise from circulation and it is equally impossible for it to arise apart from circulation" (Marx, 1976, 268). The solution is stated to lie in the purchase of the value-producing agent itself, labor. However, here there is an unexamined precondition, namely that there be a labor market. Yet nothing whatsoever is done by Marx to explain this at the point where it is introduced. This is not because he is unaware that he is making such an assumption; he simply declares the origin of free labor to have no theoretical interest!2 (Marx, 1976, 273). Nothing could show more clearly the nature of Marx's dialectic. He does not derive free labor from the dialectic of circulation as its result. Rather he says the concept of capital demands its prior presence if the dialectic is to proceed. And he proceeds! But this issue is not left hanging forever. This condition of existence of capital which at the outset is taken as a premise (and shown to be historically a contingent result of the developments covered in the last part of Capital) is later itself grounded as a result of the capital relation itself (Marx, 1976, 724). We see now why Marx has no interest in deriving the labor market prior to the capital relation; it is derived as its consequence; capital "posits" its own preconditions. Nothing could more clearly illustrate that Capital is the exposition of the reciprocal conditions inherent in a whole and not a quasi-historical development from primitive conditions to advanced ones.

Marx's development of the capital relation contains no argument of a quasi-causal character purporting to show how capitalism arose, such as the argument that given monetary circulation there will be a structural tendency for some people to start making money of money and then to subordinate the immediate producers to such aims. Rather his dialectic is about the necessity, if valorization is to be secured, of the exploitation of labor. It is a conceptual link that is established.

To sum up: what all these cases show is that systematic dialectic, as employed by Hegel and Marx, investigates the conceptual connections between the inner forms of a given whole; a sequence of categorial levels is established in which more developed forms ground earlier ones. This logic does not depend in any way upon the historical developments that first threw up the elementary preconditions of the system, for these are grounded and articulated within the logical ordering itself (Marx, 1973, 459-61).

Further research is necessary into the forms of capitalism in order to carry out in a more sustained way the program Marx initiated, evidently under the influence of Hegel's method. (For a beginning see Arthur, 1993.) It is also necessary to consider exactly how Marx differed from Hegel. On the "non-metaphysical" view of Hegel Marx was able to adopt his method wholesale and simply apply it more rigorously and more radically than Hegel. I believe the problem with Hegel lies deeper, for the "pan-logicism" of his philosophy is an aspect that cannot be ignored; in my view it is this that allowed him to become the ideologist of capital rather than its radical critic. But that would have to be demonstrated on another occasion.


1 For an attempt to grasp the dialectic of history from the appontment of its outcome, see Ollman 1993.


2 Although the chronological origin of free labor has no interest from the point of view of systematic dialectic, which is concerned with the relation of synchronic elements, historically it is of interest, for Marx never tires of pointing out that the origin of capitalism cannot be explained on the basis of free labor as a natural premise. It is, rather, unnatural to separate the worker from the means of production, and this requires a special explanation in terms of an antecedent history. However, this process vanishes in its result and systematically is of no interest, for the system itself reproduces this condition of its existence.




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