[OPE-L:2280] Re: : value-form theories

From: Michael J Williams (michael@williamsmj.screaming.net)
Date: Sun Jan 23 2000 - 14:08:21 EST

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----- Original Message -----
From: Fred B. Moseley <fmoseley@mtholyoke.edu>
To: Michael J Williams <mike.williams@dmu.ac.uk>
Cc: <ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu>
Sent: Sunday, January 23, 2000 2:31 PM
Subject: [OPE-L:2277] value-form theories

> Thus, the "core of the problem" is that the reduction of heterogeneous
> labor to homogenous, abstract labor (independently of prices) is a
> Michael, what is wrong with a "merely cognitive" abstraction?

In itself, nothing, all forms of scientific enquiry deploy them all the time
(de facto, even those radical kinds of behaviourism that aspire to eschew

> Why is this a problem?

It isn't, in general. For the specific problem with 'abstract embodied
labour' see below.

> Are cognitive abstractions inadmissible in economic theories?

No, of course not.

They are an epistemological tool. The question then is, what, if any,
ontological commitment do they carry with them: (Putatively) none (varieties
of instrumentalism)? Abstract entities in some Platonic heaven? Intransitive
explanatory objects (critical realism)? Some empirical object certain
properties of which are simply ignored? The unknowable in-itself Kantian
object? Or what?
> If so, then WHY are cognitive abstractions inadmissible?

They are not inadmissible (more 'unmissable' one might say!) - see above

> Because they are NOT OBSERVABLE directly as such
> (e.g. in units of abstract labor)?

This is not a problem for VFT. On the contrary, systematic dialectical
presentation provides, imo, the best method of organising abstractions and
their ontological import in order to explain the empirical - i.e. to grasp
it as the concrete.

> Is this the same as your earlier objection that "abstract embodied

This is now a 'when did you stop beating your dog?' question. The problem
with 'abstract embodied labour' is that it pays no attention to its own
ontological commitment.

> Or, as it is expressed in VFS (pp. 97-98 and 103),
> that "abstract embodied labor" is "NOT OPERATIONAL"?

No, here we are saying that since it is not actual, it cannot 'do' anything.
(Apart from anything else, that pre-empts the notion that we can know this
particular abstraction by its effects. Since it doesn't exist, it cannot
have effects.)

> Are you saying that only observable entities can be included in
> economic theories?

No, No and no. Consequently much of your characterisation of VFT as
radically at odds with Marx's method, falls.

>As I have said before, such extreme positivism
> seems very strange coming from a Hegelian perspective. (But I don't know,
> maybe not. Did Hegel rule out unobservable entities? What did Hegel mean
> by "essence and appearance"?)

Fred, you are wrestling manfully with a straw person of your own
> I would argue that Marx held the opposite view (i.e. that scientific
> theory may involve the postulation of unobservable entities) and that
> Marx's concept of abstract labor is indeed such an unobservable entity.
> The unobservable entity of abstract labor is used to explain the
> observable phenomena of surplus-value, etc. This is what Marx meant by
> "essence and appearance."

Abstract labour in VFT is congruent with all these aspects of Marx's method.
We may have a slightly different take on 'essence and appearance': abstract
labour has a systemic rather than some kind of 'underlying' existence. This,
imo, is an important innovation of VFT.
> Theory is not just defining accounting identities among observable
> phenomena.


>Theory sometimes involves the postulation of unobservable
> entities in order to explain observable phenomena. This is why Marx said
> that understanding capitalism is so difficult and that "scientific truth
> is always paradox, if judged by everyday experience, which catches only
> the delusive appearance of things." (Wages, Price and Profit).

> So Michael, why is such a postulate of unobservable entities prohibited in
> economic theory?

It is not - at least not by VFT.

>if not,
> then please explain more what you meant by "cognitive abstractions" and
> why this is a problem.

See above - they pose methodological problems, but they are not in
themselves a problem.

The claim of VFT (which I see as an interpretation, refinement and
development of Marx) is that abstract labour is created and reproduced by
actual on-going processes under capitalism, grounded in a system of
universal markets. That is, it is an actual social abstraction, not merely a
cognitive abstraction (aside: against which VFT has nothing in general). So,
the embodied versus (real) abstract labour debate is an ontological issue
not (merely) an epistemological one.

To be more precise here, imo, the ontology/epistemology distinction is
itself 'merely' a cognitive one (and in principle, none the worse for
that!). Reality, certainly social reality, is the irreducible unity of being
and consciousness. Nevertheless, as demonstrated in my little argument here,
the epistemology/ontology distinction is (I hope you'll agree!) indeed
cognitively useful in moving the debate forward.
> I think maybe this is the
> "core of the problem."

With all due respect, I would guess that you will find it difficult to have
an empathetic understanding of VFT unless and until you step outside the
parameters of conventional methodological debate (just for a visit!). Of
course, you may well gain an empathetic understanding - and still disagree.
But that would, imo, be progress.
The first step on your journey would be to take on board that VFT has no
objection in principle to cognitive abstraction, positing unobservables or
any of that. Rather it takes the view that abstract labour is something
other than merely a cognitive abstraction.

Thank you for you patience.

Comradely greetings,
Dr Michael Williams
Economics and Social Sciences
De Montfort University
Milton Keynes
fax: 0870 133 1147
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