Why Are Definitions Problematic? Ask Garrido #2

Engels

Hey y’all. This post is part of my series called ‘Ask Garrido’, where subscribers can shoot me questions on philosophy, Marxist theory, and geopolitics to answer through Substack. You can submit your questions on the comment section of my Substack posts.

Below is an email from a comrade concerning a highlight of Noah and myself discussing the Marxist understanding of definitions, provocatively titled ‘Why do Marxists See Definitions as Unscientific?’.


“Hi Carlos,

I’ve heard you and Noah talk about why definitions are problematic for Marxists. Can you explain further? It is a bit hard thinking about how communication in general is possible without definitions. Without communication, how is Marxism itself possible? Isn’t it dependent on communication?

Hope to hear your thoughts.

Best,

Andrew”


Hey Andrew, thank you for the great question.

In Anti-Dühring, Friedrich Engels writes the following on definitions:

From a scientific standpoint all definitions are of little value. In order to gain an exhaustive knowledge of what life is, we should have to go through all the forms in which it appears, from the lowest to the highest. But for ordinary usage such definitions are very convenient and in places cannot well be dispensed with; moreover, they can do no harm, provided their inevitable deficiencies are not forgotten.[1]

This quote arises in the context of the chapter’s attack on Dühring’s philosophy of nature. Specifically, Engels wants to point out the inadequacy, or, in other words, the abstract character, of the ‘definition’ of life. To understand this perspective on definitions we must comprehend the Marxist distinction between the abstract and the concrete, since it is, properly speaking, the abstract character of definitions which are problematic.

Today we hear the word abstract, and we conjure up images of mental abstractions, of generalizations which occur in our mind and are a disconnected reflection of the sensible things in the world.

This is not, generally, the way our tradition understands the ‘abstract’. We, of course, see a necessary role for mental abstractions in the process of acquiring theoretical knowledge. Theory is, always, a form of abstraction. However, this ‘abstraction’ can itself be more or less abstract or concrete – in the sense in which we specifically use the words.


Etymologically, the Latin concretus referred to that which is mixed, composite, fused. As Marx and Hegel have put it, the concrete is that which contains many determinations.[2] The concrete is the unity which contains the many, a unity of opposites. It is that which is most complex, the whole or totality. When we say, for instance, that Marx provides a concrete study of the capitalist mode of production, we mean that he has logically reconstructed the mode of production as a whole, comprehensively, on the basis of ascending from its germ (the commodity, the most abstract integral component of the whole) to the whole itself. In Hegel’s logic the absolute idea stands as the most concrete form of the concept, that last form the concept takes, precisely because it self-consciously contains within it the many determinations it has gone through to achieve this utmost moment of logical concreteness.

Abstractus, in Latin, refers to that which has been withdrawn, removed, extracted, estranged or isolated. It is quite evident to see how this operates in abstract thinking… in abstract mental abstractions. As Ilyenkov writes, “thinking abstractly merely means thinking unconnectedly, thinking of an individual property of a thing without understanding its links with other properties, without realizing the place and role of this property in reality.”[3] But the abstract is not simply this flaw in disconnected thinking, there are also real abstractions operative objectively in the world, abstractions which themselves can be understood concretely. For Marx, for instance, this is operative in commodity exchange, where the “general value-form is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour generally, of being the expenditure of human labour-power.”[4] As you find in the first four chapters of Capital Vol. I, the exchange value of commodities (which comes to dominate over its use-value) is a reflection of the abstract labor time that went into it. It is a quantitative metric of the socially necessary labor time needed to produce a specific commodity. For such quantifiability to take place qualitatively incommensurable activities must transmute themselves into being qualitatively commensurable. The labor that goes into making a shoe and the labor that goes into making a coat must lose their uniqueness and obtain an abstract form in which each is comparable, as qualitative equals, in terms of quantity. This is a real abstraction.[5]

That which is the most concrete, i.e., the ‘wholes’ or ‘totalities’ to be examined, cannot be studied directly qua whole. The concrete, in other words, cannot be a point of departure. Treating it as such limits you to engaging with what Marx called an “imagined concrete,” a concrete object of study approached through abstract thinking.[6] Instead, to understand the concrete concretely, an ascension from the abstract to the concrete is required. Marx, for instance, does not deal with the capitalist mode of production as a whole until the third volume of Capital, i.e., until he has arrived at the whole through a “process of concentration,” through an ascension to the concrete.[7]

This ascension, therefore, requires initially the descending from the concrete (the whole) to the abstract (its determinate components). We exist, for instance, within the capitalist mode of life as a concrete reality. But to study such a reality Marx had to descend from the immediate experience of the concrete to its abstract components in order to reconstruct them logically through this process of ascension to the real concrete. Descending from the concrete to the abstract is a means, an intermediary disappearing moment for the ascension to the concrete. Both of these movements, the descending from the immediate concrete to the abstract to reascend from the abstract to the concrete, thereby reconstructing the concrete whole in the mind, are integral to the process of mental concrete abstraction… the antidote to the one-sidedness and disconnection central to abstract thinking. Primacy, however, is given to the ascension to the concrete. It is, as Ilyenkov notes, “the principal and dominant [movement], determining the weight and significance of the other, the opposite one [descending from the concrete to the abstract],” which “emerges as a subordinate disappearing moment of the overall movement.”[8]

So, what does this have to do with the Marxist tradition’s view of definitions?

Well, definitions, though helpful for practical purposes, too easily lend themselves to abstract thinking – i.e., to completely misunderstanding the world. One cannot provide one-sentence textbook definitions for complex (concrete) things in the world. Even for the most elemental things in the world, a basic abstract definition tells me very little about such a thing. This approach to definitions attempts to freeze frame whatever is being defined – to remove it from its spatial-temporal context, from the web of relations it exists in, and to ignore how such context is the horizon for the form the defined thing takes. Definitions, in other words, force our thinking into seeing things statically, disconnectedly, and free from the contradictions which pervade a thing’s existence as a complex, heterogenous entity.

This does not mean we condemn definitions. They are, after all, an integral component of communication. Human social life without definitions would be impossible. But it does mean that, when participating in scientific inquiry (as Engels mentioned), or, frankly, in any other activity, we should not treat definitions as these pure sacrosanct things reality must mold itself into (for instance, how the purity fetish outlook treats the pure ‘idea’, or ‘definition,’ of socialism as something which could be used to look at socialist countries and say, ‘that’s not real socialism because it is not an accurate representation of the pure idea, or definition, that exists in my mind’). We should be cognizant of the fact that the things ‘definitions’ define are themselves in constant motion, riddled by contradictions, and necessarily interconnected to a host of other things within a given totality… all of which must be grasped so that phenomenon, currently captured abstractly through a definition, could be understood concretely.

I can, for instance, tell you about how capitalism is a system where the owners of capital are in power over the productive forces and the state apparatuses (ideological and repressive) of society, and where such dominance is used to perpetuate the process of capital accumulation rooted in the exploitation of the working class’s labor. This, for instance, is a somewhat helpful ‘definition.’ But could one say they understand this concrete reality (this ‘whole’ form of life) concretely on the basis of such a definition? Of course not! It is not without reason that Marx’s Capital remained an open, unfinished project… it’s object of study was itself unfinished, continuously developing, obtaining greater concreteness. Therefore, those (like Marx and Engels) attempting to concretely reconstruct the mode of life as a whole in writing, require an openness in their intellectual project that reflects the open dynamism of its object of study. This is why Marxism (dialectical materialism) is creative through and through. It holds as an ontological reality this incessant development of the world, and thus understands that to continue to know it concretely (and, of course, to change it in a revolutionary manner), its thinking must creatively develop with it.


[1] Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 2016), 81.

[2] G. W. F. Hegel. Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol. 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974., pp. 13.  Karl Marx. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books, 1973., pp. 101.

[3] Evald Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2022), 27.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital Vol I (Moscow: International Publishers, 1974), 57.

[5] This is explored in Alfred Sohn-Rothel’s Intellectual and Manual Labor, which anticipates the argument from Richard Seaford in Money and the Early Greek Mind that the real abstraction found in the introduction of coinage (money commodity, universal equivalent) in Miletus was what sparked the development of philosophy, i.e., ideal concrete abstractions into the question of being.

[6] Marx, Grundrisse, 100,

[7] Marx, Grundrisse, 100.

[8] Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete, 139.


Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). He has written for dozens of scholarly and popular publications around the world and runs various live-broadcast shows for the Midwestern Marx Institute YouTube.

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