Volume 55, Issue 3, 2018
Marxian “Abstraction” and Contemporary Philosophy of Science
The method of “abstraction” had been the centerpiece of earlier attempts at founding a Marxist philosophy of science – from Engels to Soviet Marxism. This paper confronts Marx’s writings on abstraction with contemporary views of the method, stemming mostly from the analytic and (post-)empiricist traditions. In Section 2, I reconstruct the roles that abstraction was to play, according to Marx, in the construction of a scientific theory, focusing exclusively on his own writings. The analysis reveals certain rules, left mostly implicit in Marx, for the correct application of the method of abstraction. These are discussed in Section 3. The first rule states that concepts of the historically specific aspects of target systems (e.g., the capitalist economy) cannot be defined simply by means of transhistorical concepts. The second rule prohibits abstraction from the explanatorily relevant aspects which pertain, in Marx’s vocabulary, to the “essence” of the target system. In Section 3, I confront Marx’s notion of “abstraction” with contemporary statements on the method. It is shown that it covers both abstraction and idealization as understood in some modern accounts (notably, that of M. R. Jones). Under this approach, abstraction involves the tacit omission of properties, which are simply left unspecified. In contrast, idealization consists in the explicit counterfactual ascription of properties (and values of magnitudes). Finally, the representational goals pertaining to Marx’s “abstraction” are discussed, using distinctions due to M. Weisberg. It is shown that Marx was a proponent of “minimalist idealization”, focusing on the identification of causally relevant mechanisms that characterize all capitalist societies. I conclude with a suggestion for further research.