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by Igor Naletov

Now we come to the problem of concreteness in theoretical knowledge. If the scientific value of knowledge, the possibility of its verification and practical use derives from its concreteness, direct relation to objective reality, then the striving of scientists for ever broader generalisations, for universal statements and conclusions must seem strange indeed, since the more general a statement, the farther it is removed from individual (empirically concrete) objects and phenomena. Again, it is evidently not without reason that theoretical notions and ideas are commonly believed to be abstract. And this would indeed be so if we identified concreteness with just one kind of it—empirical concreteness.

Of course, it would not be correct to deny concreteness to sensual perceptions. Yet in dialectical logic the concrete is by no means tantamount to the “sensually perceptible”. The concrete in dialectics is regarded as a unity in diversity, as a full representation of different aspects and relations of objects and phenomena and, understood like this, is one of the central categories of logic, an expression of the real general, multidimensional which is inherent both in reality and in our knowledge. Another aspect of the concrete is that it represents the objective diversity of a whole object, the totality of all its relations, both internal and external.

As regards the abstract as a logical or epistemological category, it expresses not only the specific distinction of thinking from reality and its sensual perception, but also represents a form of development common to both reality and cognition. In Marx, the problem of the relation of the abstract to the concrete includes not only the .relation of thought to the sensually perceptible but also the problem of the internal division of any object and its theoretical reproduction in the movement of notions. The question of the relation of the abstract to the concrete presents itself in two aspects: first, as the relation between partial and limited knowledge to fuller knowledge and, second, as the relation of the whole to its own moments standing out objectively in its content. [1]

For Marx, the abstract and the concrete express internal contradictions, the movement of which is the life of the object of investigation. It is . not a pure epistemological definition of the methods of work of the human brain in which one element (the concrete) can be identified with a sense perception, and the other element (the abstract), with the theoretical generalisation of the data of sensual experience. It is not a simple definition of the different poles of cognitive activity, even if they are regarded as connected with each other, but also an expression of the internal separation of objects and links between separate sides and phenomena existing objectively outside and * independently of human consciousness. Hence, the abstract, according to Marx, can express both the particular and the general to the extent to which these sides stand out objectively in the whole and represent internally dependent, but externally isolated formations.

Engels shows the same understanding of the categories of the abstract and the concrete. For him, the formation of general concepts is the process of abstraction from the multitude of inessential properties, features, objects and phenomena and of the retention of their common, stable, essential properties and features. On the other hand, the formation of theoretical concepts is at the same time a process of concretisation, integration, enrichment and retention in thought of the real content of all relations and links embraced by the given concept. It was Engels who defined exhaustive knowledge as the transformation of the single (concrete) into the universal (abstraction, law) and maintained that the “general law” of change of the form of motion is much more concrete than any single “concrete” example of it.

According to Marx, the coordination and combination of abstractions, the ascent from the simple to the complex is not the mental reproduction of the concrete. “... The method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete,” he wrote, “is simply the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category. This is, however, by no means the process of evolution of the concrete world itself.” [2] Hence, Marx regards the concrete as the unity of diverse aspects and as diverse aspects of the unity both in reality itself and in cognition. It is true of dialectically interpreted laws and abstractions, as well as of the particular phenomena they reflect. If an investigator proceeding from a general abstract law does not lose sight of the actual circumstances conditioning the operation of this law, if he takes into account the interdependence of this law and other laws and the numerous links connecting them, his thinking is concrete. “The concrete concept,” wrote Marx, “is concrete because it is a synthesis of many definitions, thus representing the unity of diverse aspects. It appears therefore in reasoning as a summing-up, a result, and not as the starting point, although it is the real point of origin, and thus also the point of origin of perception and imagination.” [3]

The interpretation of the concrete and the abstract by Marx and Engels was by no means playing up to the Hegelian manner of reasoning. It was a conscious and deliberate use of Hegel’s language, transformed and amended, which conveyed profound dialectical ideas.

Proceeding from his concepts of the abstract and the concrete, Marx, naturally, regards the ascent from the abstract to the concrete as the only possible and therefore correct scientific method whereby the concrete can be assimilated and mentally reproduced in theoretical analysis.

It should be noted, however, that some philosophers’ enthusiasm about the method of Marx’s analysis carries them sometimes too far and they begin to absolutise it and even counterpose the abstract and the concrete which is entirely alien to Marx’s analysis. In our opinion, such absolutisation is traceable to two inaccuracies in the interpretation of Marx. First, the abstract and the concrete as such are ascribed to reality itself as is evidenced, for instance, from the commonly used and nonetheless confusing expression “this concrete (i.e. sensually perceived) object”. Second, the abstract and the concrete as the starting and the final points of theoretical analysis are regarded as two poles in the development of scientific knowledge without taking into account their dialectical unity, mutual penetration similar to that of the magnet poles which can only exist as a single whole.

It is assumed, for instance, that the abstract and the concrete exist in reality as separate, isolated objects and phenomena. Marx’s “abstract labour”, “abstract man”, “abstract wealth” are sometimes regarded as objective: entities existing, so to speak, in a pure form. The analysis of these concepts, objective as they are, calls for a more subtle approach which would better accord with Marx’s conception. The acceptance of the reality of such things as “abstract labour”, “abstract man”, etc. would be tantamount to recognising the actual existence of matter, space and other special entities alongside definite objects and phenomena of the objective world.

Speaking of such things as “abstract labour” and “abstract individual”, Marx regarded them as clear-cut abstractions in a definite conceptual context and never treated them as actually existing independent separate entities.

Some literary critic may seize upon these words in an attempt to substantiate his own opinion that it is only concrete things which exist in objective reality. To forestall his argument, we shall state at once that this current view which is often expressed in literature and has many persistent advocates seems to us one-sided if only for the fact that the concepts of the abstract and the concrete are correlative and, as such, are only meaningful in inseparable unity with each other. The elimination of one concept makes its counterpart nonsensical. Understandably, this only holds true if the problem is treated from the same epistemological angle and within the framework of one and the same subject.

It stands to reason that the isolation and relative independence of objects and phenomena makes it in principle impossible to form an absolutely concrete notion of an object, whereas the objectification of the concrete tends in fact to absolutising it. A given object can never possess at a given moment all the possible properties and features which may reveal themselves in a different place and at a different time. One and the same man turns out to be different or, at least, not quite the same among his friends, in the office and at home. In which surroundings, then, are we to consider him concrete? Evidently, in all, but each time differently. Concreteness is relative, but not absolute.

Now, are all these subtleties really so important that we have to accentuate them? May be it is simply a question of terminology, and the “objectivity of concrete objects and phenomena” is identical with the “objective foundation of concrete analysis?”

We suppose that some philosophers accepting so far our reasoning might just intervene at this point and add that objective reality has neither abstract nor concrete objects and, consequently, the concepts of the abstract and the concrete are nothing but the product of our exalted materialistic imagination inventing the absolutes of the abstract and the concrete and striving to impose them on the virgin scientific mind with its natural aversion to metaphysical concoctions. So, they may conclude, we come in the end to what they have been trying to prove all along.

As regards the real existence of abstract and concrete objects, we might perhaps accept this view, characteristic of positivist philosophy, even at the risk of being censured by those who reject any shades and halftones in a philosophical controversy and recognise but one rigid scheme. We feel obliged, however, to make one important reservation and are ready to hold on to it as a matter of principle: we are convinced that objects in reality itself stand in different relations to one another and we can speak of some objects and phenomena as being relatively abstract (or, to be more precise, isolated, limited, specific), and of others as being relatively concrete (interconnected, united, integrated). When considering the relations of the first kind we form abstract notions, categories and ideas and then set about concretising them. The unity of the abstract and the concrete, i.e. the unity in diversity, gives a complete idea of an object, an idea which Marx calls concrete-universal as distinct from just concrete.

The real links between the concrete and the abstract being established, they become correlated concepts, and not metaphysical absolutes. It is through the interaction with each other that they get the measure of their truth, as well as the measure of their concreteness. Each concept turns out to be abstract to the extent to which it reflects the separateness, isolation and specificity which are objectively inherent in things. Similarly, category becomes concrete to the extent to which it reflects the integration, unity and mutual complementarity of things. “Logical concepts,” wrote Lenin, “are subjective so long as they remain ‘abstract’, in their abstract form, but at the same time they express also the Things-in-themselves. Nature is both concrete and abstract, [italics supplied], both phenomenon and essence, both moment and relation. Human concepts are subjective in their abstractness, separateness, but objective as a whole, in the process, in the sum-total, in the tendency...” [4]

The objective interpretation of the categories of the concrete and the abstract not only makes the presentation of material more difficult and the language more cumbersome. It brings in new entities which do not exist as independent objects of reality, tends to absolutise them breaking the inseparable bonds, the unity of mutually penetrating sides of the material world and is, in fact, incompatible with the dialectics of the abstract and the concrete.

This interpretation can at best postulate the transition from one isolated concept to another, e.g. from the abstract to the concrete. Important as it is, such transition is but one of the aspects of the dialectical relationship between these categories. However, to understand their relationship in a stronger, more profound sense as a a inseparable connection of two different aspects of scientific cognition, as a correlation, it is necessary to investigate the relation of these categories to objective reality and to define their counterparts in the objective world.

Analysing the transition from the abstract to the concrete, Soviet scholar E. V. Ilyenkov writes: “Understandably, concrete knowledge (or, more precisely, the knowledge of concreteness) can only appear as a result, a sum-total, a product of special work, and the abstract, as its starting point and material.” This is undoubtedly true in relation to some definite level of knowledge, theoretical knowledge in this particular case. In his analysis of the system of capitalist production Marx strictly adheres to the principle of ascent from the abstract to the concrete. Yet in presenting the dialectical relationship between these two categories one should also take into account the titanic work carried out by Marx in order to accumulate and screen the “Mont Blanc of facts”.

The concreteness in the implementation of the principle of concreteness itself calls also for differentiation between different levels of scientific cognition: empirical, theoretical, applied, philosophical, etc. At each of these levels the dialectical relationship between the abstract and the concrete inevitably acquires specific features. In this relationship one thing only remains constant, invariable, something like the space-time interval in Einstein’s theory of relativity: the inseparable unity of the abstract and the concrete in the process of cognition.

There can be no absolutely abstract or absolutely concrete knowledge, just as there are no absolutely abstract and absolutely concrete notions— certain knowledge and certain notions can be more abstract (less concrete) and more concrete (less abstract) than others. Since all our knowledge at any stage is realised through the interaction (collision) of the abstract and the concrete (more abstract and more concrete), it can be viewed as a constant process of transition from one level of concreteness to another and from one level of abstractness to another. For instance, from the sensual form of concreteness and its specific form of abstractness we pass to the empirical form of their interaction at the lower “floor” of scientific cognition. Science ascends from the empirical forms of the concrete and the abstract to the theoretical level of their relationship and further rises to the philosophical level. It is evidently within the limits of one level of cognition only that we can speak of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete, meaning a strictly definite form of either category.

The formation of abstractions, the deduction of the general, similar, identical has never been and will evidently never be a special aim of science. As a matter of fact, it takes no great effort to find similarity even between most different objects, such as, for instance, a shoe brush and a mammal. Science, for that matter, is notable for just the opposite tendency—the striving for mental reproduction, restoration of the concrete whole which is split in the process of abstraction.

Sensual cognition also reproduces an object in its wholeness, joining, however, only its external aspects and properties in a single sensual perceptible image. Each level of cognition, be it empirical or theoretical, has its own forms of concreteness and abstractness and the knowledge at each of these levels develops from the abstract to the concrete. On the whole, however, it passes on from one form of abstractness to another, and from one form of concreteness to another.

Generally speaking, the concreteness of a notion or any other form of knowledge should be linked, in our opinion, not only with the sense perceptions of the object under investigation, but also with the degree of reflection of all its bonds and relations of mediation with other objects and phenomena, with other aspects, tendencies and changes. Knowledge is concrete not only when it gives a detailed reflection of the properties and aspects of the object or phenomena under investigation, but also when it is capable of reproducing all its links and relations with other objects and phenomena, including their internal aspects and elements. Conversely, a notion, an idea or any other element of knowledge are abstract to a degree to which they are isolated from other objects and phenomena connected with them. An abstraction is concrete if it mentally reproduces the unity, diversity and manysidedness of real objects, if it singles out and indicates those aspects of the object or objects of interest which appear to be topical or important for human activity at a given moment.

An analyst can evidently always find at least one common objective feature of any two objects or phenomena whereby they can be placed into a single category. Such generalisations have no methodological value until they acquire theoretical concreteness. They are also very abstract in the sense that they do not indicate any concrete conditions under which the generalisation is of any scientific significance.

Scientific abstractions are a powerful means of cognition but they remain useless without close ties with the concrete, without practice. If an abstraction (a law, a principle) is combined with the diversity of the objective content of phenomena, and thinking concentrates on those elements of this diversity which have been placed in the foreground by life itself, such thinking is concrete, scientific and true. If scientific analysis proceeding from facts reveals underlying regularities and makes it possible to draw theoretical conclusions, we have the unity of the abstract and the concrete. Should thinking prove unable to find the unity, the order in a system, should it fail to single out the prevailing tendency in the actual diversity of phenomena, in that case a concrete approach to the problem gives way to empirical vacillations between the .concrete and the abstract and the investigator cannot see the wood for the trees.

Consequently, knowledge remains abstract, though not in the empirical sense of the word, as long as it does not distinguish between the essential, necessary and the inessential, accidental features and tendencies and does not reveal the law governing a given process. Abstract also will be the knowledge which does not show the opposite aspects and tendencies inherent in every phenomenon or process.

The number of such abstract, in the methodological sense, generalisations can be increased indefinitely, yet they would hardly add to the potential of science. Generalisations of this kind do not carry any new information, they are methodologically barren. Indeed, as Engels has wittily remarked in Anti-Dühring, a shoe brush grouped with mammals will not grow mammary glands and, consequently, such a generalisation will hardly do any good to humanity.

True, a lot of pseudo-scientific investigations are in fact concerned with inventing ever new abstract generalisations claiming to contribute to science. Paradoxical as it is, the empirical soundness of such investigations is usually unquestionable: most of the generalisations of this kind are indeed based on the common features of real things. It should be noted that such tendencies are particularly characteristic of philosophical investigations aimed exclusively at generalising the material of special sciences. The authors of such investigations can at best claim the invention of new terms of doubtful scientific value. It hardly needs mentioning that the growing number of abstract generalisations tend to clutter up knowledge with all kinds of pseudoscientific nonsense and turn science into a depot of useless ideas that will never be applied to real scientific and life problems.

Every generalisation which is to qualify as scientific (philosophical inclusive) should be concrete not only in the empirical, but also in the theoretical sense. Giving new information, it should also have a theoretical value, i.e. indicate ways for the further progress of scientific knowledge and disclose new links and relations of a given object with other objects and phenomena.

As long as a concept has a heuristic value and opens up new ways for scientific cognition, it remains scientifically valid, and not only historically significant. It should be noted, however, that the actual validity of a scientific concept, a theory or even a law is not an honorary title conferred on them in perpetuity, since methodological or heuristic value may not only be acquired, but also lost. Filling up a gap in our knowledge, scientific concepts give a fresh impetus to thought, but subsequent events may prove their empirical untenability. This problem, by the way, has given rise to continuous debates among the historians of science as to whether the concepts of ether, thermogen, phlogiston, vital force and the like should be regarded scientific. The answer to this question can never be a blunt “yes” or “no”.

In order to qualify as scientific, a concept must possess at least one of the above forms of concreteness and, besides, must help towards further progress of scientific knowledge. An abstract generalisation of empirical data is at best a prerequisite for scientificity. It is concerned with the knowledge already available and gives no new information, thus providing no basis for the analysis of reality, for distinguishing between separate properties and aspects of the world. Such concepts and statements result, as a rule, from the striving for unduly broad generalisations. The concept-of control relating, for instance, to social phenomena will be quite concrete if used in the analysis of social development. It will evidently be also concrete when applied to animate nature, since here, too, it can be connected with the ideas of feedback, data transmission, etc. In this field, like in the field of social phenomena, a comparatively weak information signal can actuate the feedback mechanism and bring about considerable changes, and not only in terms of power. Suppose now we comply with the insistent demands of some authors and extend the concept of control to the phenomena of inanimate nature. Of course, given the will, we should also discover here certain analogies with the feedback mechanism. Yet the character of interaction in inanimate nature (viewed independently from man’s activity) is different from that in living organisms, particularly in what concerns power relationships. Hence, we cannot speak of anything more than just a formal similarity between physical interaction in inorganic nature and feedback mechanisms in the organic world and in society. Any attempt to extend the concept of control to natural physical, geological or geographical processes will result in an untenable generalisation yielding no scientific results.

Take another example. The scientific value of the concept 01 information is common knowledge. This concept which is now widely used in different branches of knowledge has played an important role in the successful development of cybernetics and in the solution of numerous problems in genetics, neuropsychology and other sciences. It has also proved very helpful in defining the essence of consciousness and in studying the nature of the “ideal” as opposed to the “material” since it provided a link between the processes of man’s conscious activity and its neurophysiological mechanism. On these grounds some philosophers propose to regard the concept of information as a universal one and classify it as philosophical. Here, however, they transgress the demarcation line beyond which the concept of information loses its scientific concreteness without becoming concrete in the philosophical sense. A simple generalisation on the basis of empirical analogies deprives it of the necessary heuristic value. Hooker, for instance, identifies information with consciousness, on the one hand, and with brain processes, on the other, calling both “information concepts”. He in fact discards the problem of the relationship between consciousness and the brain by simply identifying them as equivalent “information-processing structures”. [5]

This solution, purely phenomenalistic as it is, is nevertheless regarded as sufficient grounds for proclaiming a “new systematic ontology” since the proposed concept endows consciousness with time-spatial and even causal characteristics without depriving it at the same time of some properties of mental activity. It is not hard to see that Hooker’s way leads to an ontology in the spirit of Plato.

The current attempts to identify the concepts of consciousness, the brain and information often go even further and tend to universalise the concept of information which is alleged to characterise any existing system in general. To substantiate this viewpoint, references are made to cybernetics which has purportedly provided conclusive evidence to the effect that the concept of information expresses the property of any moving matter. Such a broad interpretation of the concept of information, however, deprives it of its analytical possibilities and obliterates the border between inorganic processes in nature and the processes of control which are distinguished by the transmission, reception and coding of signals rather than by a specific power relationship.

As is evidenced from the above, the scientific value of a concept or other form of knowledge is directly connected with its concreteness and depends on whether it gives new information in the field where it is introduced. In modern science fruitless abstractions are still very numerous and constitute what may be called pseudoscience or metaphysics in the bad sense of the word. They are a useless ballast and science should get rid of them. In its struggle against the anti-metaphysical positivist programme dialectics definitely dissociates itself from fruitless abstractions. It should always be borne in mind, however, that the weak sprouts of new knowledge are sometimes not easy to distinguish from stunted and useless metaphysical concepts and that they can only turn into full-fledged concrete concepts of great scientific value as a result of subsequent development.

Abstract generalisations and metaphysical conclusions should by no means be regarded as just a nuisance having no serious effect on scientific cognition. In social sciences such abstractions are not infrequently connected with quite definite ideological aims. In view of their pseudo-scientific form and apparent empirical certainty they are taken for a solution to one or another problem, whereas they in fact detract science-from the true course. The seeming concreteness of a proposed concept is but empirical concreteness which levels up all facts and features relevant to this concept and equates the main and the secondary, the necessary and the accidental, the external and the internal traits. Such a concept, of course, is a platitude in the first place as it gives no grounds for some differentiation and analysis in a given field of knowledge. Yet it becomes something more than just a truism, a meaningless phrase—it turns into an instrument for deliberately juggling with facts instead of conducting a concrete scientific investigation. With positivism, by the way, it was a common and rather well elaborated trick which was time and again exposed by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

Formally imitating the external features of the specialised language used in mathematics, linguistics, physics and biology, the positivist philosophers create an illusion that the representatives of these sciences understand the language of their philosophy. It sometimes escapes the natural scientists that the terms borrowed from their language lose their concreteness and turn into verbal dummies preserving, however, the form and the reputation of scientific certitude and clarity. It is not fortuitous that Lenin has always been intransigent to “play with words”. The application of various terms borrowed from biology and energy physics, such as “exchange of substances”, “assimilation and dissimilation”, “power balance”, “enthropy” and the like to such socio-economic phenomena as crises, class struggle, competition, capital, etc. is in a sense a verbal ornament which adds nothing to the understanding of these phenomena for all its seeming newness. Yet it is not a harmless play, particularly when it comes to analysing the trends of social development. Such a terminological confusion tends to mislead a biologist or a physicist just as much as a sociologist or a political economist. With an indiscriminate approach to philosophical generalisations it becomes, in fact, inessential whether new scientific data are translated into the language of some special science or are given a philosophical interpretation: in both these “metaphysical” variants the concrete meaning of the scientific data is reduced to naught.

Modern bourgeois philosophy also abounds in the substitutions of special scientific terms for concrete concepts in sociology or political economy. It is true not only of positivism, but also of other philosophical trends which claim to offer alternative solutions.

For instance, according to Jurgen Habermas, historical materialism is a one-sided, excessively concrete doctrine badly in need of a generalisation i.e. of a broader, more general, outlook. This “generalisation”, as proposed by Habermas, boils down to replacing Marx’s concept of productive forces by a concept of labour or purpose-oriented rational actions covering both the selection of means for given purposes and the selection of purposes themselves out of a multitude of possible variants. The concept of the relations of production is to be eliminated in favour of such concepts as interaction, communicative activity, institutional framework, organisational principle, etc.

In Habermas’s opinion, labour is the sphere of learning and assimilation of useful technical information, whereas interaction is characterised by the processes of socialisation and moulding of personality on the basis of the generally recognised system of social norms. Hence, the first sphere corresponds to technical interest, and the second, to practical interest. The Marxist concept of superstructure becomes irrelevant. Some phenomena classified as superstructural, such as culture, social norms, and educational establishments, are to be transferred to the sphere of interaction. Other components of the superstructure, such as power and ideology are interpreted either as a deviation or a distortion and, consequently, as some secondary phenomenon in the sphere of communicative relations.

This kind of interpretation of history, its inner content cannot be accepted, first of all, from the methodological viewpoint, the more so as it claims to “restructure” the Marxist concept. Habermas seeks to consider classes, power and ideology from the theoretical-informative aspect, qualifying them at that as a distortion of the normal process of human relations. Being restricted to .the appearance of things, such an approach is at best superficial. But it is not so harmless as it may seem: speaking of the “distortion” in the communicative systems, Habermas completely ignores the real, essential differences between communicative processes in the opposite social systems— capitalism and socialism.

Starting with a seemingly modest proposal to amend Marx’s concept of the determining role of the mode of production in the historical process and to supplement it with a “second dimension”, the communicative one, Habermas actually seeks to turn Marx’s concrete definition into an empty abstraction and thus deprive it of its scientific value. The interpersonal communicative factor introduced by him by way of supplementing the dialectical understanding of the nature of man immediately calls for a new sacrifice: the “generalisation” of the Marxist understanding of man’s nature. The new way of thinking advocated by the Frankfurt School is obviously constrained by the concepts of the mode of production, social relations and the socio-economic formation, particularly when it comes to the analysis of such concepts as capitalism and socialism, the bourgeoisie and the working class. The concept of “communicative processes” is more congenial to this “way of thinking” if only for the fact that it is abstract.

Habermas goes even as far as claiming certain affinity between Marxism and positivism, alleging that they both reduce, “restrict” history to its one dimension—labour and production activity. According to Habermas, the dimension of communication, intersubjectivity and interpersonal relations obvious in Marx’s concrete analysis completely disappears in his philosophical and historical generalisations resolving in the concept of practical actions aimed at nature.

This model, according to Habermas, had an adverse effect on Marx’s understanding of anthropogenesis. The process of labour and production activity regarded by Marx as the determining factor in the evolution of man from the animal world is confined exclusively to the sphere of instrumental activity characteristic of the animal world. Contrary to Marx, Habermas maintains that the determining factor in the process of anthropogenesis was the emergence of the communicative dimension (language), i.e. the replacement of the institutional control by the behavioural control effected with the help of norms and linguistic incentives. Thus mankind regarded by Marx as the object of evolution becomes, according to Habermas, its subject.

There are absolutely no grounds for regarding Marx’s view on anthropogenesis as limited or lopsided. He has developed a consistent theory of man’s practical activity directed to the external world as the motive force of anthropogenesis. This activity contributed to the formation of erect gait, the appearance of the first signs of the community of interests and joint labour, as well as to a considerable weakening of the instincts that determined primitive man’s behaviour. It also accounted for such new phenomena as the deepening process of socialisation, the development of consciousness and language, the emergence of a new type of behavioural control, etc. The factors singled out by Habermas were operative either in the first, or in the second group of changes accompanying the process of man’s evolution. Neither of them would anyway be regarded by Marx as having an independent value. Habermas’s views do not supplement, but distort Marxism.

Habermas and other philosophers make a serious error believing that Marx’s concept of the essence of man can be supplemented by introducing at least one more feature—the factor of personal intercourse. This insignificant, at first sight, addition turns the Marxist conception of man into an empty abstraction which gives no methodological guidelines for understanding man’s nature as the concrete expression of social relations. Yet it would be even more naive to think that the introduction of this abstraction does not do any harm to social sciences. The new concept of man shifts the emphasis and substitutes a secondary feature for an essential one. It can hardly be expected to provide a solid basis for a more profound understanding of social development.

What complicates the matter is that such an approach seems to be quite relevant and even necessary from the empirical viewpoint: it ostensibly concentrates on those aspects of the concepts of man and society which have not received sufficient attention and appears therefore scientifically valid. However, for all the seeming empirical soundness and even appropriateness of the proposed amendments they are basically fallacious: the fault lies with the methodology itself which presents the empirical material in an entirely wrong light.

It would probably be unnecessary to focus attention on such attempts to “complement” Marx if they were merely aimed at filling up gaps in our concepts of society and man and did not represent a methodology incompatible with Marxism. In point of fact, they remind one of the behaviour of a cuckoo trying to lay an egg into another bird’s nest. The eggs do look very similar, yet the nestlings are quite different. Since the methodological principles of Marx (and Habermas, too) do not always lie on the surface, one might get an impression that the point at issue is a purely factual one. Let us see if it is really so.

Suppose, you allow your mind’s eye to dwell on an array of well-known personalities: Pushkin and Dantes, Gandhi and Goebbels, Raskolnikov and Pyotr Zalomov, Mozart and Salieri... Nothing seems to be simpler than to define the essence of man by passing from one personality to another. Similarities and differences, differences and similarities, the twists of characters, the vicissitudes of life... It may be that we shall succeed in determining the general traits and the specific features of each man’s character. Having thus defined man’s essence, we may turn our attention to his surroundings and project his behaviour in different circumstances in order to reproduce the make-up of every single individual and thus to understand the relations between people. After that we may go even further and try to understand the nature of society as a whole, proceeding again from the obtained definition of man.

Such an approach appears to be quite relevant by virtue of its empirical concreteness. Indeed, we are seemingly concerned with concrete individuals, concrete biographies reproducing each man’s life story with all its details, both significant and otherwise. One would naturally expect it to be the only correct path that would lead us to the comprehension of a concrete living being... Yet it is precisely this path that leads nowhere. True, the real scientific value of empirical concreteness is not quick to reveal itself. We only find it out after discovering that the single standard needed for comparing the heroes of our scientific drama turns out to be nothing better than just their general biological characteristic. The only catch that the empirical net thus brings us is a lean and meagre abstraction indicating that each of our heroes belongs to the species of Homo sapiens. And that is all that remains of the living, thinking, feeling and acting individual.

After the empiricist has thus stripped his Man of every possible garment, he desperately starts covering him up with interpersonal intercourse, thinking ability, and what not...

Then comes the turn of logic. Following its strict rules and proceeding from the obtained definition of Man, the empiricist sets about reconstructing society at large.

David Hilbert once noted that every man has a definite horizon and when it narrows down to a point, the man starts talking about his viewpoint. We do not think Hilbert’s statement is applicable to the whole of mankind, but in the situation we are dealing with his joke evidently hits the nail on the head. What can the empiricist see from his viewpoint? Evidently, what appears to Marcuse (or Adorno, or Habermas) and what he is horrified by.

The biological nature of man—once we decide to start with it in accordance with Marcuse’s logic—is, first and foremost, the sphere of instincts and attractions which have always been kept in check, at least till nowadays. Repression, in Marcuse’s opinion, marks the entire history of man. Speaking of repression, Marcuse distinguishes “basic repression” connected with the general conditions of human existence, i.e. with the environmental influences, and the “additional repression”, resulting from the system of class domination and state power. According to Marcuse, it was the mind .or human intellect alone that succeeded in escaping the effect of this omnipotent press. However, representing a pure cognitive ability and being free from the bodily functions of physical enjoyment and satisfaction of natural needs, intellect can be put to the task of practical and technical conquest of the world. The mind, alas, betrayed the pleasure-oriented body. Human sensuality was also seriously affected, though the senses are suppression-resistant too. Their power of resistance derives from the dual nature of the senses: they are the source of knowledge, on the one hand, and the instrument of pleasure and physical satisfaction, on the other. The system of suppression is therefore unable to cope with the senses and keep them in check by restricting their sphere to investigation activities only. As a result of the general distortion of man’s sensuality, the cognitive function of the organs of perception was separated from the pleasure-seeking function. The senses were generally distrusted as a source of information, the data provided by them had a limited cognitive value, and they were suppressed by the mind. Above all, the senses could not serve as a basis for technical activity.

This withering influence was exercised by civilisation on practically all sides of the individual. Suppression was in fact the only, or at least the main feature of “socialisation”.

Labour is treated by Marcuse in a similar vein. One of the results of the total suppression of the individual in all extant “industrial” civilisations was the transformation of man from an “instrument of pleasure” into an “instrument of labour”. It was just to prepare man for productive activity that history remoulded both his biology and his psyche. The concept of production is brought in by Marcuse for the sole purpose of putting a finishing touch to the sombre picture of the suppression of the individual by industrial civilisation which adds yet another set of restrictions to the natural repressive forces. Marcuse’s Conclusions are based on a conviction that man as a biopsychical system is predestined to live exclusively for pleasure. Later, however, the author has substantially modified this view. Pleasure as understood by Marcuse cannot be derived from productive labour, nor from the extension of man’s domination over matter. It must be, first and foremost, a result of the complete satisfaction of man’s natural needs and of the free play of the natural forces inherent in the human body.

In Marcuse’s opinion, dialectics must free itself from the abstract universal forms of objectivity, as well as from the abstract universal forms of thinking. To this end, it should “conceive its world as a definite historical whole in which present reality is a result of the historical practice of man”. [6] Yet practice is understood by Marcuse in accordance with his productivity principle, i.e. as activity detrimental to man. History thus turns into a continuous process of man’s own enslavement, the restructuring of his whole organism aimed at suppressing to a maximum his biological pleasure centres. This process goes side by side with the expansion of the possibilities of using man as an instrument of labour, a working machine and a means for conquering nature.

Marcuse comes out with great fervour against industrial civilisation, the technological mode of thinking, scientism, etc., and also criticises positivism, linking it with modern trends toward rationalisation. Yet it needs no special insight to perceive that Marcuse’s own methodology underlying his criticism is a typical expression of the very rationalisation he speaks about with such disfavour. Indeed, his empirical approach, the denial of objective laws in nature and society, the atomised picture of social life (cf. the atomisation of the world by Hume, Ayer and the Vienna Circle), etc. are nothing but the characteristic features of the positivist method. Ironically, despite the premises which are not typically positivist, Marcuse’s methodology reflecting the standard patterns of the “technical” style of thinking, is indeed eloquent proof of the existence of a powerful ideological press acting on such different people as Ayer and himself.

Marcuse’s reasoning, like that of all positivists, is traceable to the old empiricist tradition. Roughly speaking, its logic boils down to the following. To form a concept of society, a philosopher takes the features common to every individual and supplements them with other features conditioned by the environment, thus obtaining “human nature”. Proceeding from this basis, he constructs the “ideal” model of relations among people fitting it as close as possible to his abstract concept of man. Then he compares this ideal model with the actual relations interpreted in the light of his theoretical premises and proposes to restructure the actual relations, i.e. society, bringing it in conformity with “human nature”. The starting point in such “concrete” analysis is nothing but the abstract inherent in each single individual, i.e. the features common to all people. This approach, seemingly very “concrete”, is in fact extremely abstract if only for the fact that the analysis concentrates on the personal qualities of a single individual taken at that outside the process of their formation and development and regarded as something static, immutable, accomplished.

If the abstraction of man is to be scientifically valid, it must represent him not as an “atom”, but as a social being, and take into account both his place in society and the system of social relations. Another essential, though subordinate, characteristic of this abstraction is that it must reflect man’s relation to nature. Speaking of man as an individual, we have no right to ignore the general factors determining his personal qualities. This is just a paraphrase in terms of methodology of what Marx wrote almost a century and a half ago: “... the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” [7]

Taking typical “atomised” individuals, outstanding or otherwise, for the starting point in the analysis of man’s essence is attempting to revive obsolete methodological standards, long since discredited. To be sure, it is not easy to carry out the investigation in such a way as to start from the concept of the system of social relations and, using it then as a premise, proceed to the analysis of man’s essence, nor is it easier to start analysing social relations abstracting them from an individual. To arrive at this starting point in theoretical analysis, this elementary cell of the “socium”, Marx and Engels had to study all the history and prehistory of human society. It was titanic work indeed.

The essential characteristic of Marx’s analysis is that it permits revealing not only the general qualities inherent in every individual, but also the necessary features and relationships reflecting the laws of man’s historical development. It is the analysis of the sum total, the ensemble of the socio-historical forms of social relations which reveals the real trend of this development in its concreteness from the theoretical, and not empirical point of view. The universal is not equivalent to the similar represented in each individual object and regarded as their common feature. It is, first and foremost, a law-governed relationship of two or more individuals in which they pose as the moments of one and the same concrete and real, and not only formal, unity. According to Hegel, whose view was also shared by Marx, the form of universality as a law or the principle of connection of details within a whole which is totality. The universal can only be obtained through analysis, and not through abstraction.

A single individual is essentially a “man” only because his unique make-up embodies historical necessity, and not because he possesses certain features, sometimes of secondary importance, common to other individuals. This viewpoint makes it possible to regard an individual as a personality not in the abstract sense, but as an embodiment (more or less adequate) of the entire history of mankind, of human civilisation as a whole. This viewpoint alone provides a basis for understanding every single individual as a human being since it reveals a core in the totality of his personal traits. This viewpoint, too, will undoubtedly prevent us from placing in the same category Mozart and Salieri, Gandhi and Goebbels who may appear to be absolutely similar from the viewpoint of abstract logic.

The concreteness understood dialectically has nothing to do with the establishment of such “similarity” of individuals. It represents the unity of all features and qualities of a man in their real connection with one another, in their dependence both on the biological nature of man and on the totality of all social conditions which play the dominant role. This approach alone can give us a theoretically concrete, and not an abstract concept of man. In other words, the theoretical definition of the “universal in man” is called upon to correct all the fallacies, contradictions and errors of empirical analysis without denying its role in principle. Attempting in our times to construct a philosophical system or even a concept of man on an empirical basis is very much like starting to advocate the idea of the earth’s flatness. The concrete concept of man can only be developed if we proceed from the dialectical unity and interaction of the diverse forms, of specifically human activity, man’s social abilities and social needs.

According to the materialistic concept of the essense of man, the universal form of man’s existence is represented in labour, in social man’s direct transformation of nature (his own nature inclusive) with the help of instruments which he himself makes. It is not accidental that Marx was of such a high opinion of Benjamin Franklin’s famous definition: “Man is a tool-making animal.” In making tools man does not simply accept nature’s demands, but creates a new system of relations; however, these relations on which he depends are out of his control. Such is Marx’s viewpoint. The definition of man as a tool-making animal is a characteristic example providing a vivid illustration to the Marxist understanding of the universal as concrete and as related to necessity.

The universal understood as concrete is opposed to the multitude of individuals not as an abstraction, but as their own substance, as a concrete form of their interaction. It is only in this capacity that the universal as concrete determination embodies all the richness of the particular and the individual, and this not only as possibility, but also as necessity. The universal therefore cannot be understood as the abstract identity of a multitude of events which serves as a basis for their classification under a single category. It implies additionally the singling out of essential links and relations and becomes, as it were, the “substance of law”. The universal is thus conceived as divided internally, as the identity of contradictions, i.e. as a living, concrete unity.

The universal, as we see, turns out to be concrete only if it reflects the essential features of the objects and phenomena of reality and does not take into account the inessential, accidental features and properties. Thus, we can speak of theoretical concreteness which consists not in direct connection with objective reality, not in the detailed representation of individual aspects and properties, not in direct sensual perception, but in the singling out of the main, the essential, the necessary, the regular. From the empirical viewpoint, theoretical knowledge is indeed abstract in the sense that it is removed from sensual perceptions and its links with the external world are mediated. Yet it is concrete in the sense that it reveals those links and relations which are outside the sphere of empirical knowledge. In point of fact, theoretical concreteness includes empirical concreteness which is preserved in the body of a deeper and more concrete conception— not in the sense that theory is specific and demonstrative in accordance with the requirement of empirical concreteness, but only in the sense that it preserves in most cases more or less direct links with experience, experiment, practice. Without revealing the main, the essential, the necessary, i.e. the substance of scientific law, knowledge would remain quite abstract from the theoretical viewpoint.

Lenin wrote: “Essentially, Hegel is completely right as opposed to Kant. Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract—provided it is correct (NB) (and Kant, like all philosophers, speaks of correct thought)—does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, of a law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely.” [8]

Indeed, without the knowledge of law individual facts, even a multitude of them, remain abstract. They may be snatched out of the context and their significance may be arbitrarily overemphasised, they may be opposed to all other facts and events. It stands to reason that such knowledge would not be truly scientific. Moreover, one and the same fact or a totality of facts may be interpreted in entirely different ways in the context of different theories. Hence, one and the same empirical basis may be used to construct very different scientific (not to speak of speculative and pseudo-scientific) theories. It should also be borne in mind that the significance of various facts, their real scientific value cannot be established if we ignore laws.

The thing is that facts characterising one or another object or event prove, as a rule, contradictory. If we see an apple falling and trust our own eyes, we should expect it to fly upward or sideways on the other side of the planet. Standing on the shore, we can see the ocean retreating and then advancing again, we can observe a bird soaring up or falling or evenly descending. Examples of this kind can be cited ad infinitum, and in any of them the correctness of our observation, the scientific value of our knowledge can only be proved if we reveal the operation of laws behind them: the law of gravitation in the first example, the law of tidal motion in the second, the aerostation law in the third, etc. In other words, in each of the phenomena we observe we must define the internal links which do not lie on the surface. The knowledge of laws, undoubtedly, makes our cognition more concrete, though it is quite obvious that laws are abstract statements.


[1]  For detailed analysis of this question see E. V. Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s “Capital”, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982. [—> main text]

[2]  Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, op. cit., p. 206. [—> main text]

[3] Ibid. [—> main text]

[4]  V. I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic”, Collected Works, Vol. 38, 1972, p. 208. [—> main text]

[5]  See C. A. Hooker, “The Information-Processing Approach to the Brain-Mind and Its Philosophical Ramifications”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, September 1975, p. 1. [—> main text]

[6]  Herbert Marcuse, Der eindimensionale Mensch. Studien zur Ideologie der fortgeschrittenen Industriegesellschaft, Luchterhand, Neuwied, 1967, S. 156. [—> main text]

[7]  Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, in: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, Progress Publishers. Moscow, 1976. p. 4. [—> main text]

[8]  V. I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic”, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 171. [—> main text]

Contents of
Alternatives to

SOURCE: Naletov, Igor [Naletov, I. Z. (Igor´ Zinov´evich)]; translated from the Russian by Vladimir Stankevich. Alternatives to Positivism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984. 470 pp.

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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