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Thursday, September 25, 2014


In this post, I shall expand somewhat on my remarks in the last few posts concerning the relationship between social reality and the language used to try to capture that reality.  For those who are interested in this subject, I strongly recommend reading Erich Auerbach's classic book, Mimesis, one of the greatest works of humanist scholarship ever written.  Through a nuanced analysis of passages selected from works of the Western literary tradition, ranging from the Odyssey and the Old and New Testaments to the Chanson de Roland and Decameron all the way to the novels of the nineteenth century, Auerbach shows us in elegant detail the relationship between the linguistic devices employed by a writer and the conception of social reality that he or she seeks to convey.  For example, if the author of the Chanson de Roland has available only bare parataxis [the stringing together of atomic sentences with the conjunction "and"] it is virtually impossible for him to convey a flexible, perspectival rendering of a social interaction.  But by the time Boccaccio is writing the Decameron, the Italian he has available to him allows him, in a single sentence, to capture a scene from several points of view at once, by the use of complex syntactic devices such as subordinate clauses, embedded parenthetical asides, and so forth.

Auerbach teaches us that an author must have linguistic tools adequate to the social complexity he or she seeks to represent.  One of his most striking paired textual contrasts is the recognition scene from The Odyssey [in which a disguised Odysseus, home from his wanderings, is recognized by his old maid because of a scar on his leg] and the passage from Genesis in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  [For an equally great but utterly different treatment of this famous passage, see Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.]  To the author of The Odyssey, social reality is completely on the surface, open to view, equanimous.  But to the author of Genesis, reality is complex, many-layered, with hidden depths and inaccessible heights, from which a God can speak directly and without intermediation to a man and command incomprehensible things.

With these few remarks as background, it is interesting to contrast the language of the great classical Political Economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo,  John Stuart Mill -- with that of Marx in Capital.  The language of Ricardo -- to choose the greatest of them -- is a serviceable, limpid prose, transparent, clear, easily penetrated by the mind.  Ricardo believes that the market presents us with puzzles, some of which he is able to solve -- most famously, the nature of land rent -- and some of which he is unable to solve -- notably the determination of price in cases in which the quantity of labor directly and indirectly required for production is not the same in all lines of production.  But the market does not present us with mysteries.  Those are reserved for the throne or the altar.  But by the nineteenth century, the cool breezes of Enlightenment Reason have dispelled the clouds of mystery in the church and the palace, leaving only the puzzles of the marketplace to be solved by careful analysis and observation.  Marx, in contrast, is convinced that the capitalist market is as mystified as ever the altar was;  indeed, more so, for the market's greatest victory is to present itself as unmystified while in fact utterly befuddling both participants in the market and those seeking to understand it.

Now Marx could have written Capital à l'anglaise, as it were.  This is demonstrated by the existence of a little pamphlet, Value, Price, and Profit which Marx actually wrote in English in the period when he was preparing Volume One to publication.  In that little work, his language is indistinguishable from that of Ricardo.  So Marx's decision to write Capital in a completely different sort of prose cannot be explained, as I put it in Moneybags, by the theory that he had contracted a nearly fatal case of Hegelism as a youth which left him linguistically crippled and hence unable to write like an Englishman.  My hypothesis in Moneybags, which makes perfect sense of his literary choices, is that he had a complex conception of social reality, the articulation of which required a discourse both ironic and filled with allusions to the literary, religious, and cultural legacy of Western Civilization.

But if that is what he thought, why not just say so?  Well, I have explained that also in Moneybags.  The answer, not at all simple, is that he understood himself to be embedded in the mystifications and ideological delusions of capitalism and hence needed a language that could at one and the same time express those mystifications and call them into question.  In that way, he could accurately render his own situation and that of all thoughtful, reflective, revolutionary men and women trapped in a capitalist economy and society.
How then can we liberate ourselves from these mystifications?  Not merely by writing about them, Marx thought.  For, as he reminded us in the famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Lionel Blais said...

In order to express the nature of capitalism in Capital, Marx had to use an ironic style, and Marx could write à l'anglaise as is evidenced by Value, Price, and Profit. It is a completely different matter to express the nature of capitalism à l'anglaise. Marx could write clearly, but he could not write clearly about unclear things. So, isn't VPP and its style beside the point?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, it is not beside the point, because there is an entire school of Marxists who think Marx wrote that way, not because of the complexity of capitalism, but simply because he was German. When they try to say a l'anmglaise what they think he was saying, they miss completely what he was doing.

enzo rossi said...

Interesting. I'd be curious to know your views on the analytic marxism movement then (Roemer, G.A. Cohen, etc.).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My answer is necessarily complicated. First of all, I think John Roemer's work is brilliant [even if he did criticize one of my publications.] He is a class act. I found Cohen's book Karl Marx's Theory of History interesting but curious. I thought its central argument was flawed, as I tried to point out in one of my publications. But the larger enterprise, which I understand as an effort to bring Marx within the ambit of analytic philosophy, I have great doubts about, because I think it does not capture his understanding of the mystifications of capitalist economy and society. However, in some deeper sense, my own efforts to articulate Marx's insights is an attempt to remain true to the conception of clarity that I learned at the feet of such analytic philosopehrs as Quine and Goodman. So in the large and complex world of Marxists, I suspect I fall more in their camp than, let us say, in the camp of the Hegelian Marxists.

But that is not really the way I think of it. I simply struggle to understand a text -- CAPITAL -- and then to render my understanding in language that is precisely adequate to that understanding. That is exactly the same thing I have done with Kant's FIRST CRITIQUE, Hume's TREATISE, Rawls' A THEORY OF JUSTICE, and other works.

Does that help?

enzo rossi said...

It does help, thanks!

But at the cost of coming across as extremely bone-headed in the typical analytic way, a further question comes to mind. When you write about Marx à l'anglaise, do you think you lose something in translation, as it were? For instance, when you say "It seems to me that this passage of Capital alludes to X, Y, Z", are you losing part of the meaning (reference) of the text? This could get us into the philosophy of language very quickly, and I don't particularly want to go there, but I take it you see where I'm coming from. When you explain Marx in plain English, do you think you end up being more "embedded in the mystifications and ideological delusions of capitalism" than Marx? If not, was Marx wrong to think that literary language was needed to dispel the mysteries of capitalism? Incidentally, I think the word he uses is 'Geheimnis', which (to my ear) covers both 'mystery' and 'secret', so it's not clear whether he thought those things could be explained simply once uncovered.

David Goldman said...

I was thinking about this while reading Dr. Seuss's The Lorax to my kids recently. In it the narrator tells the story of his expanding business empire (an empire which, readers know, has since collapsed in ecological disaster):

I, the Once-ler, felt sad

as I watched them all go.


business is business!

And business must grow

regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

It's clear (even to five-year-olds) (I hope) that the narrator doesn't endorse that sentiment any more.

Maybe not quite as incisive as Marx, but how many two-year-olds will sit still while you read them Capital?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Indeed, not all of us have John Stuart Mill as a child, thank God!