The problem of scientific abstraction in Marx

by Antonio Calonego

[versione in italiano]

In his Theories of value, 1973, when explaining the salient features of Marx's thought, M. Dobb stresses its building process regarded as a part of a larger cultural debate and as an intellectual work of an individual mind, still in search of its way to the categories of the system. There are two interpretational approach we can make use of, when we have to give an explanation of a system: we can investigate into what relations stand between the concepts of the system or we can go into the workshop and follow, step by step, the labour by which the system is produced. In the first case, as we try to draw the map of the thought, we presuppose the determinate existence and the empirical environment the thought belongs to; in the second one, we focus on this same existence and take it as a standpoint of our research. Since Dobb opts for the latter, there must be a reason for him to prefer one route instead of the other, a reason that his discourse reveals and that can be shown emphasizing the goals it achieves: it sheds light on the starting moves of Marx’s theories; definitely takes him out of that special enclosure, where Marxist tradition has often secured him, and returns him to the real world. The logical and epistemological status of Marx’s work, in Dobb’s Theories, appears not to be substantially different from that of the other authors, whose ideas the book explains. If drawing up a theory means bringing into relation what to the ordinary consciousness may seem but unrelated things, the basic step will consist in establishing the conceptual coordinates, by which these relations can be detected, brought out and compared. We need conceptual coordinates to understand the similarities or differences of what we take under exam, which couldn’t even be noted otherwise. Consider - to resort to a short example in order to clarify what we are trying to illustrate – these two quite different situations: (a) Abraham was a son of Terah and Terah was a descendent of Sem (Genesis, 11, 27) ; (b) 11 is the immediate successor of 10 and 10 is more than 3. They are picked out of contexts which appear to have nothing to do with each other and belong to separated fields of our culture. Nonetheless, a logician would observe that the pair “immediate successor of” and “son of”, just like the other pair “more than” and “descendent of”, identify relations having the same formal proprieties; that when I conclude: (a)’ therefore Abraham was a descendent of Sem; (b)’ therefore 11 is more than 3, I give rise to inferences which are two different instances of the same formal structure. Of course, the logician can do so because of his adhering to a formal point of view, whose background consists in the fundamental choice of regarding the objects he is interested into as forms rather than contents.  But the moral of the story is that we’ll have to fix a tertium if we want to compare things. We have to make a fundamental choice and select some aspect under which all the objects of the field we are inquiring into, can be considered as analogous.


Marx focuses on the question of appropriation in history and it is from this point of view that he sees the analogy between the past and his present time; between the social and economic forms of XIX century society and the other precedent forms of class society. Appropriation has to be meant, here, as exploitation, i.e.  the acquisition of part of what production yields by those who have never played any active and productive role in it. The notion of exploitation, Dobb says, has to be taken as a factual description of social and economic relationships, and it is similar to Marc Bloch’s characterisation of feudalism as the system in which landlords “live on the work of other men”. It is on the base of this notion, via the above analogy,  that Marx can view history as a succession of modes of production, whose different periods have in the appropriation/exploitation their distinctive feature, and can assign, therefore, to his own research the task of investigating into the political, military, juridical and economic means, by which the appropriation is established. There are situations in which appropriation is enforced by law or military power and situations in which appropriation is a matter of a fact as it happens in the specific capitalistic form of exploitation. In the economic theory, Marx is going to draw up, the existence of exploitation is taken for granted; it is not an issue the theory is expected to provide evidence for. What the theory is expected, Dobb says, is working out a theoretical question which arises when this idea concerning the presence of exploitation meets the analyses coming from the existing economic literature: is the existence of exploitation in capitalistic society compatible with the “law of value” ? How can it take place in the realm of competition and “invisible hand”, where things are exchanged at their “natural values” ?

The economists Marx criticises concentrate their attention on the sphere of circulation, where, they claim, everything is regulated by free contractual relationships and it is the same competition to guarantee that the subjects involved in transactions are equivalents. According to the “law of value” goods are exchanged at their “value” (proportionately to labour). But exploitation entails the idea that there must be something of non-equivalent somewhere in the economic life of society. As it is known, Marx assumes the “law of value”. Therefore, if exploitation exists, it won’t be located in the same zone where circulation is. Having embraced this perspective, Marx is led to take the next step: he analyses exploitation going into what happens during the process of production and posits the existence of a determinate exploitation or surplus value rate, prior to the exchange values formation (pricing formation ) and not derived by it. The problem now arises how this exploitation rate can be formulated without any reference to the exchange process. Following Ricardo, Marx could have developed the concept, by means of a single commodity, corn, as a ratio not depending on changes in prices. He attains a similar result by expressing the exploitation rate in terms of labour, as a ratio between the actually employed labour and the labour corresponding to wages given in advance by capitalists. There must be, therefore, a difference between the meaning of the word “labour”, when it stands for what can be bought and sold on the market, and  the meaning of the word “labour”, when it denotes the actually employed labour. Once the notion of exploitation rate is defined, the source of surplus value is also revealed and the problem to conciliate exploitation with the “law of value” can be given an answer. The solution, it is known, consists in the qualitative difference between labour power and labour, which holds the central place in Marx’s theory. The capitalist pays wages which are determined by the exchange value of the labour power. This exchange value is, in turn, determined by the socially necessary labour time required to `produce' the worker, that is, the labour inputs required to rear, feed, clothe and educate him. However, in return the capitalist receives the worker’s labour (the labourer's use value ). That the value of labour is greater than the value paid in exchange for labourer’s services, is the crucial principle of capitalistic system, which couldn’t reproduce itself if it didn’t maintain such a difference. But to maintain the difference it needs the existence of a historical and institutional ground, that is, it needs the existence of a proletariat having no land, no property at all and entirely dependent, for subsistence, on selling their labour power in exchange for a wage. The notions of exploitation rate, labour power and labour, surplus value constitute the conceptual framework of Marx’s theory.

But a new problem now arises, that is, a problem coming from Marx’s making use of the conceptual pair phenomenal form/essence to stress the contrast between the view resulting from his theory about capitalistic society and that of the economists. Since the economists take up the sphere of circulation as their standpoint, they end up sticking to what is but the phenomenal form of an essence which remains beyond the reach of their understanding. After the century and more that has elapsed since Marx’s death, it is to be observed that this metaphor of “going beyond” has been very potent but dramatically misleading. It has led to think that there was a logical weakness in the work of the economists, whose rational procedures were insufficient to account for the complexity of the object they were studying. On the contrary, the superiority of Marx’s theory would be caused by his resorting to some special kind of abstraction, which allowed him to pass the surface of experience and go into the hidden depths, where the true essence is supposed to be. As an attempt to give an explanation for what distinguishes Marx from the economists, this is too strong a story - though a grain of truth can be detected in it. It is true, in fact, that when the motives and the aims of Marx’s work are considered, the contrast appear to be important and deep. Marx intended to draw up a synoptic view of the development of the whole system of human society. His economics was only a part, though a fundamental part, of his all-embracing conceptions, which concerned the unhappiness of man in mass society not less than the way it produces goods and services. But he also thought that any inquiring into the ideas and the culture of a given historical epoch should be backed by a scientific analysis into the empirical forms of its determinate existence. As we have seen, in his Theories, Dobb explains this last point. Marx’s conception of scientific abstraction is not substantially different from that of the other authors of the Theories.




M. Dobb, Theories of value and distribution since Adam Smith – Ideology and economic theory, Cambridge 1973.

K. Marx, Teorie sul plusvalore, Roma 1973.

S. Koerner, Sistemi di riferimento categoriali, Feltrinelli.

F. Gil, Strategie conoscitive nella ricerca scientifica, in Scienza e Tecnica ’76, Milano.

L. Laudan, I modelli nella storia della scienza,  in Scienza e Tecnica ’76, Milano.

L. Geymonat, Storia della scienza e filosofia, in Scienza e Tecnica ’76, Milano.



Dialegesthai – Philosophical themes