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Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’

 

 

By Jason Devine

 

January 29, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Leon Trotsky once contended that the “Dialectic training of the mind” was “as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist.”[1] Regardless of one’s appraisal of the man, his observation was incontestably correct. To be a revolutionary in our modern times is to be a Marxist, and to be the latter is to adhere to Marx’s dialectical method. This method, by its very nature, cannot be unconsciously absorbed: it must be consciously striven for and then put into practice. The essential path to beginning this process of “training” is the study of works of dialectical logic.[2] Of course, not all such works are equal or accessible. For example, to fully understand Marx’s dialectics, a study of the works of Hegel is necessary; but starting with Hegel is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, one piece of writing which is generally accessible and, moreover, an exemplar, is Plato’s dialogue Parmenides.

 

It should be recalled that, as Hegel’s system is an organic integration and summation of all previous philosophy, any previous work could be said to be necessary for an understanding of his thought. Certainly this touches the very heart of the man’s philosophy, for he had already noted in 1807, in his famous preface to the Phenomenology, that,

 

The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety. [3]

 

In Hegel’s perspective there is only one Truth, one Philosophy and, therefore, all philosophical systems are merely abstract i.e. one-sided aspects in the development of philosophy.[4] To underline this truth and explain himself more fully, Hegel moved from a seemingly abstract example to a more concrete one, by making a brilliant analogy with a plant:

 

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its one-sidedness, and to recognise in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments.[5]

 

Hegel here kept repeating over and over again, in different forms, the principle he later expressed in the proposition, “the truth is concrete.”[6] Just as the different stages of a plant constitute its total existence viz. that is, its very truth, likewise all philosophies are mere moments in the necessary, general progress of human reason. Hence, all things are processes which find their truth in movement. Hegel summarised this in the following statement:

 

For the real subject-matter is not exhausted in its purpose, but in working the matter out; nor is the mere result attained the concrete whole itself, but the result along with the process of arriving at it. The purpose by itself is a lifeless universal, just as the general drift is a mere activity in a certain direction, which is still without its concrete realization; and the naked result is the corpse of the system which has left its guiding tendency behind it.[7]

 

To understand the result, one must understand the beginning and the process linking the two. In this respect, then, to move forward, one must go backwards. In other words, since the truth is concrete, then to grasp anything in its truth means to apprehend it historically, in its motion.[8] This historical sweep is the transition from the simple to the complex or, more specifically, the movement from the abstract to the concrete, the dialectical method first elucidated by Hegel.[9]

 

However, not all contributions to the construction of Hegel’s system are equal. Certainly Hegel himself highlighted specific philosophers and writings over others.[10] Thus he wrote in his preface to the Phenomenology, that “the Parmenides of Plato” was “perhaps the greatest literary product of ancient dialectic.”[11] Hegel had previously made a similar statement in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy: “Plato, in one of his dialogues…accords the chief part to Parmenides, and puts in his mouth the most lofty dialectic that ever was given.”[12] Finally, he went so far as to assert that “The fully worked-out and genuine dialectic is, however, contained in the Parmenides – that most famous masterpiece of Platonic dialectic.”[13] This is undoubtedly the highest of praise coming from the founder of modern dialectic.[14] Such statements, then, should command the attention of all Marxists, and especially those of the latter who want to deepen their study Hegel and dialectics.

 

Yet this philosophical glorification does not say much as to what it was, specifically, in Plato’s philosophy and his Parmenides, that so captivated Hegel’s attention. There are many connections between both philosophers and I can in no way exhaust them all in this essay.[15] Therefore, I intend here only to review some of the linkages between Plato’s dialogue and Hegel’s Logic, in the realms of structure and methodology, and, more importantly, how they relate to Marx’s critique of political economy.[16] I will show that while it has been long recognised that the source of Marx’s dialectic is in Hegel’s philosophy, one of the key origins of latter’s dialectic method, and of the shape it took in his Science of Logic, lies within the Parmenides, and, further, that this was taken up by Marx in his analysis of the commodity. To be more exact: Hegel paralleled Plato and later Marx paralleled Hegel…

 

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Notes

 

[1] Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1981), 54.

 

[2] “But theoretical thinking is an innate quality only as regards natural capacity. This natural capacity must be developed, improved, and for its improvement there is as yet no other means than the study of previous philosophy.” Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 42-42.

 

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, tran. J.B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 68.

 

[4] “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes). Rectilinearity and one-sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness—voilà the epistemological roots of idealism. And clerical obscurantism (= philosophical idealism), of course, has epistemological roots, it is not groundless; it is a sterile flower undoubtedly, but a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.” V.I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 357.

 

[5] Hegel, Phenomenology, 68.

 

[6] “For the truth is concrete; that is, while it gives a bond and principle of unity, it also possesses an internal source of development. Truth, then, is only possible as a universe or totality of thought; and the freedom of the whole, as well as the necessity of the several sub-divisions, which it implies, are only possible when these are discriminated and defined.” G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), tran. William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 19-20.

 

[7] Hegel, Phenomenology, 69.

 

[8] “It was the exceptional historical sense underlying Hegel’s manner of reasoning which distinguished it from that of all other philosophers. However abstract and idealist the form employed, yet his evolution of ideas runs always parallel with the evolution of universal history, and the latter was indeed supposed to be only the proof of the former. Although this reversed the actual relation and stood it on its head, yet the real content was invariably incorporated in his philosophy, especially since Hegel – unlike his followers – did not rely on ignorance, but was one of the most erudite thinkers of all time. He was the first to try to demonstrate that there is an evolution, an intrinsic coherence in history…This monumental conception of history pervades the Phänomenologies, Asthetik and Geschichte der Philosophie, and the material is everywhere set forth historically, in a definite historical context, even if in an abstract distorted manner.” Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Part One, Franz Duncker, Berlin, 1859,” in Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 224.

 

[9] Jason Devine, “On the “Philosophy” of “Dialectical Materialism”,” accessed 9 January 2018, http://links.org .au/node/4667.

 

[10] For example, that Hegel held Heraclitus in higher esteem than most philosophers is shown in his statement that “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.” See, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greek Philosophy to Plato, trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 279.

 

[11] Hegel, Phenomenology, 129.

 

[12] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume 1, 250.

 

[13] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume 2: Plato and the Platonists, trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 56.

 

[14] “The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 29.

 

[15] Hegel’s critique of Kant’s Thing-in-itself, in his Logic, is rooted in Plato’s analysis of Being, as contained in his dialogue Parmenides. There Plato argued that to speak of non-being means to understand something of non-being: “Then I will begin again, and ask: If one is not, what are the consequences? In the first place, as would appear, there is a knowledge of it, or the very meaning of the words, ‘if one is not,’ would not be known.” See, Plato, “Parmenides,” in The Republic and Other Works, tran. B. Jowett (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), 415. Compare this with Hegel: “The Thing-in-itself (and under ‘thing’ is embraced even Mind and God) expresses the object when we leave out of sight all that consciousness makes of it, all its emotional aspects, and all specific thoughts of it. It is easy to see what is left – utter abstraction, total emptiness, only described still as an ‘other-world’ – the negative of every image, feeling, and definite thought. Nor does it require much penetration to see that this caput mortuum is still only a product of thought, such as accrues when thought is carried on to abstraction unalloyed: that it is the work of the empty ‘Ego’, which makes an object out of this empty self-identity of its own. The negative characteristic which this abstract identity receives as an object is also enumerated among the categories of Kant, and is no less familiar than the empty identity aforesaid. Hence one can only read with surprise the perpetual remark that we do not know the Thing-in-itself. On the contrary there is nothing we can know so easily.” Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, 72.

 

[16] “For the method is nothing else than the structure of the whole in its pure and essential form.” Hegel, Phenomenology, 106.

 

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