Monday, August 09, 2010

Erwin Marquit - Contradiction as Source of Structure and Development in Nature, Society, and Thought

Americans like their politics in simple black and white, no ambiguities, no contradictions. That's part of the reason we hate European politics, I think - too many political parties, too much compromise, no clear and easy options.

This article takes a detailed look at the dialectics of contradiction in multiple quadrants of experience - from science to society and politics, and even human thought (cognition). Dialectics have not gotten much traction in the states, since the founding fathers, who were fans of the Socratic method (and thank them for that!) - we tend to prefer rhetoric these days (talking at, not talking with). Modern dialectics are too closely linked to Marx.

Which leads me to mention that this comes from - Marxist Thought Online. Read at your own risk.

Contradiction as Source of Structure and Development in Nature, Society, and Thought

In developing the dialectical- and historical-materialist worldview, Marx and Engels found it necessary to test its appropriateness as a universally scientific methodology in the spheres of nature, society, and thought:
The fact that our subjective thought and the objective world are subject to the same laws, and, hence, too, that in the final analysis they cannot contradict each other in their results, but must coincide, governs absolutely our whole theoretical thought. It is the unconscious and unconditional premise for theoretical thought (Engels 1987b, 544).
Scientific activity represents the dialectical unity of theory and practice. One aspect of this activity is the theoretical description of the structural development of material systems (in the social, biological, and physical spheres). This, of course, includes the investigation of the laws governing the motion and development of the system on specific levels of organization. In their intensive research activities, scientists often introduce fundamental concepts intuitively, without the conscious appreciation of their dialectical nature. This paper will explore the various ways in which dialectical oppositions, for which we have the philosophical term contradictions, form the basis for the existence of structures and the processes of development that these structures undergo. Familiarity with the various ways in which contradictions enter into the stability and development of material systems can serve as an important methodological tool for further scientific investigation.

To discuss contradictions as a source of structure and development, it will be useful to start with a few comments about the relationships expressed by the term structure. According to Hörz et al. (1980, 47), by structure we understand the totality of essential and nonessential, general and particular, necessary and contingent relations among the elements of a system in a definite interval of time.1 The term structure is generally used to denote the stable aspect of a system. The stability is always relative, determined by the time interval over which the system’s elements and relations show no significant qualitative change. [1]

The formulation of Hörz et al. is by no means exhaustive, as is the case with any statement about philosophical categories. For example, there is a hierarchical aspect implicit in every material structure, and the theoretical description of structures must also embrace this aspect. Analysis, however, must start at some level of organization and integration of a material system, so that we can include among “elements” the various hierarchically organized substructures. Then we can say that systems are characterized by the complex of elements and the relations among them. Thus, fundamental to the characterization of a system is the characterization of its elements and the relations among them. The elements and relations are examined first in terms appropriate to a given level. The connections to higher and lower levels of organization then also have to be examined to extract the fuller essence of the relations.

The need to examine the dialectical interconnections that unite elements and relations is readily seen when one tries to probe the content of fundamental concepts. In Newtonian mechanics, the principal elements to which the laws of motion refer are approximations of physical bodies; in particular, they are point masses (or mass points). This reduction of physical bodies to point masses was not postulated explicitly by Newton, but follows from his laws of motion. Newton’s first law (the law of inertia) did not allow for a body wobbling or twisting as it underwent inertial motion. Newton’s law of inertia postulates certain space and time relations for these bodies. Newton accepted the a priori existence of absolute space and time independently of these bodies or elements. We know today that these postulations about space and time are devoid of physical content. Nevertheless, Newton’s laws of motion were of great scientific importance and are still an adequate representation of the behavior of physical systems for a wide range of practical situations. Therefore the space and time of Newtonian mechanics must have had a physical content that had not been recognized by Newton. Since these laws involve the concepts of space and time, which cannot have an a priori meaning, the physical basis of these concepts is established by the manner in which they enter the laws and the way the laws appropriate the properties of the physical world. In other words, the nature of the elements of a system and the relations among them cannot at all be embraced independently of one another. When we say that “a” stands in some relation to “b” (symbolically aRb), we are introducing two “objects” – the elements and the relations—neither of which can arise as concepts independently, that is, without one another. Elements are distinct from relations; but the concept elements cannot arise without the existence of relations. The existence of elements is conditioned by the existence of relations and conversely. Elements and relations are therefore mutually exclusive and mutually conditioning. Hence they constitute a dialectical unity. This unity arises on both the logical and material levels. The deeper logical and material content of the elements and the relations is expressed through the laws that embrace them. The fundamental laws of the natural and social sciences bring out the material content of the elements and relations when the laws are associated structurally with material systems in nature and society.

Consider, for example, the physical property mass. In Newton’s laws, the magnitude of the mass is specified as the relationship between a force and the acceleration that results from the application of that force; but force, in turn, is that which causes a change in velocity. [2] Accelerated motion is thus placed in contrast with inertial (unaccelerated) motion, neither of which can be comprehended without the other, nor independently of the concepts of force and mass. Mass, therefore, enters Newtonian mechanics in the form of a dialectical unity of accelerated and unaccelerated motion as expressed in the first law (law of inertia) and the second law (force equals the product of mass and acceleration). Mass, force, uniform motion, and accelerated motion are thus found to be specialized categories of mechanics, and, as is the case with all philosophical categories, none of them can be defined independently of the other categories. As categories, these physical concepts and properties can only be understood through their mutually conditioned and mutually exclusive relationships to one another, which are disclosed in the process of investigation of the laws embracing them—and these laws not only embrace them, but arise together with them. In the case of mechanics, it was only after the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry by Lobachevsky and, independently of him, by Bolyai that it became apparent that Newton’s a priori notions of space and time had to be abandoned, and that, as Riemann’s work suggested, a physical basis for establishing an appropriate geometry is needed. Newtonian mechanics was a logically consistent theory because Newton, unknowingly, gave us the physical basis for a straight line: a straight line is the trajectory of a physical body produced by inertial motion (Marquit 1990b, 869). To the extent that Newtonian mechanics is an adequate approximation of physical reality, this criterion of straightness is also adequate. We have here an example of the deeply dialectical content of Newton’s laws, although Newton, despite his genius, was unable to recognize this content.

In political economy, Marx unraveled the mystery of the exchange value of a commodity. Here we have a case in which dialectical thinking was consciously applied in research and the clarity that resulted from this consciously dialectical approach is so remarkable that Marx’s Capital is still regarded as contemporary, and not simply historical, scientific literature. According to the law of value discovered by Marx, the exchange value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary labor time embodied in its production. Marx pointed out that while a commodity is a product of the concrete labor of its producer, this concrete labor “ranks as, and is directly identified with, undifferentiated human labour,” and it therefore ranks as identical to any other sort of labor.
Consequently, although, like all other commodity-producing labour it is the labour of private individuals, yet at the same time, it ranks as labour directly social in character.... [T]he labour of private individuals takes the form of its opposite, labour directly social in form. (Marx 1996, 69)
The exchange value of a commodity finds its quantitative expression through the law of value. Its qualitative side finds expression both through the law of value and through its dialectical opposite, use value, without which no object can be a commodity. A commodity is produced because it can be exchanged. It is exchanged for other commodities because of its use value. In Marx’s words: “use value becomes the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite exchange value” (1996, 66). At this stage of his exposition, Marx had not yet come to the discussion of the relationship between price and value. Actually it is not value, but price that is the phenomenal expression of exchange value. While price can be measured directly – by direct observation in the marketplace—exchange value, which, in general, is different from price, cannot be measured directly. What is being said here is in sharp contrast with various empiricist views asserting that fundamental properties are first established by observation (for example, in the form of operational definitions denoting the procedures by which the observation is to be carried out) and that the laws describing the relationships among these properties are then established by further observation and theoretical deduction.

At the basis of the usual logical structure of a hypothetico-deductive system is the postulation of the existence of elements and categories of relations among them. These are the fundamental notions or concepts of the system. The elements and relations are then combined in more specific form as axioms (or laws) from which the theorems are derived. When we are dealing with objectively existing material systems, or generalizations of them, the elements, relations, and axioms are not the result of arbitrary mental activity, but are reflections of the material characteristics of the system. Although in the logical structure of the system, the elements, relations, and the axioms embracing them form a hierarchy in that order, ontologically and epistemologically they are mutually conditioning, as our examples have shown, and therefore they arise together, as if lifting themselves together by a common bootstrap, rather than arising one after the other. Moreover, as we pass from one level to another, elements can go over into their dialectical opposites—that is, into relations—just as relations can pass over into elements (Uemov 1963, ch. 4). For example, in physics the field concept was introduced to describe a relationship between an object and the space in which it is located. Thus an electric field represents the force on a charged particle at a given spatial position. On another level, the field acquires all the attributes of physical matter: mass, momentum, relative localization, and so on—that is, it becomes a physical object.

The recognition that categories become transformed into their opposites as we go from one structural level to another is essential for the recognition of the hierarchical structure of systems. The role played by the economic basis of society in Marx’s basic law of social development cannot be understood without this recognition. Thus the level of development of the forces of production is the essential content of the stage of development of a given socioeconomic formation. The relations of production represent the form in which this content is put to work. This form, however, becomes the content in relation to the superstructure, the latter being the form in which the relations of production are maintained relatively stable as the productive forces develop. Marx used the term economic basis of society to distinguish the different categorical role of the relations of production in relation to the superstructure from their role in relation to the forces of production.

With this brief discussion about the role of dialectical processes in the emergence of fundamental concepts associated with a system (or its reflection in theory), I can now proceed to questions related to stability and development. In particular, I shall consider the role of contradictions in the moments of motion, stability, growth, and transformation of a system. At first glance, it might seem that stability should precede motion in this discussion. It can be argued, however, that stability is subsumed under the concept of law-governed change (motion), just as rest in Newtonian mechanics is subsumed under the concept of uniform motion (constant velocity). Therefore stability and motion are not properly a set of objectively occurring dialectical opposites when we are dealing with the overall process of development. On the other hand, at a particular stage in the development of the system, stability and change do confront each other as opposites and their interpenetration must be examined dialectically.
Go read the whole article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By the way, Adventures-in-Dialectics has just published a new book on dialectics, called "A Dialectical "Theory of Everything" -- Meta-Genealogies of the Universe and of Its Sub-Universes". See