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Sunday, November 26, 2017


With the help of Professor Emeritus David Auerbach, I herewith offer a manageable and readable, albeit somewhat screwed up, version of the Wolff/Wolff exchange I have been struggling to provide.  Later today, I will post Richard Wolff's reply.  Profound apologies for the corruption of the text [but not for the thought -- that I stand by.]

11 June, 1977
Professor Richard Wolff
Nr. Antänino Calla ri
Mr. Bruce Robertt
Gentlemen (and revered colleagues):
have read your fine paper, nMarxian and Ricardian Economics: Fundamental Differencesn, with great interest and profit0 1 found lt enromously helpful to me, and in considerable sa measure persuasive as regards the signlficant differences between the theories of Ricarda and Marx. I am not convinced of the merits of the rather high-powered methodologicä assumptions (regarding 'two sciences,n etc) through which you express your conclusions, but that is an issue that can perhaps await exploration at a later date. In this commUnica-tion„ 1 should like to focus my attention on two specific, but very fundamental, points. With regard to the first, I believe that you have gone astrgy, philosophicälly; with regard to the second, I believe that you are absolutely correct, but that your case can be made stronger, in wa's that 1 shall euggest. 1 am couching these reflections in the form of a letter to you three, but 1 shall take the liberty of circulating them more widely to other members of our community with similar interests and concerns. I might say that availability of such a community is, for me, an experience unique in my intellectual and professional career, and a fringe benefit of incalculable value at nMass.
The two points to which 1 shall address myself are these: First, your use of the tem overdetermined,n which I believe to be confused in non-trivial ways; and Second, your diecussion of the fundamental Aifferences between Marx and the iieo-Ricardians (and Ricardo himself) on the matter of the relationship between circulation and production.
I. The eoncept of Overdetermination
I believe that you are using the term noverdeterminedn in a a way that deviates both from the meaning of Freud, who introduced lt into the literature, and also (perhapsg) fron the meaning of Althusser, who acknowledges his debt to Freud, and to whom you in turn acknowledge your debt. Now, ordinarily there is not much to be gained front terminological quibbles. Mäpy philosophers have taken the positicel of the Caterpiller in Alice in Wooderland, who, when he used a worde made it mean whatever he wished lt to mean. ftIstetly Plato appears to have begun this practice, and virtually every great philosopher since has followed suitu Nevertheless, I intend to quibble about the meaning of the tem, for this reason: I think Althusser, clearly or unclearly, was on to a very profound, very powerful, and highly problematical methodological insight when he deseribed social formations or phenomena as "overdeterminedon Your quite different use of the barm loses that power, profundity, and methodological novelty„ reducing the notion a to a rather familiar one that has long been known and used in the social sciences, particUlarly in functionalist sociology. lt is at least worth trying to recapture the original meaning, in order to sec whether there is somethim of philosophical value in lt worth preserving. (A simi1ar rate has been suffered by Durkheim's concept of anamie als well es by the notion of
elealogx ideology).
The notion of overdetermination is introduced by Freud Gas you note, with appropriate
references), in order to deal with certain problems in the Interpretation of dreams.
As a result of what Freud calls condensation and displacement in the ndream-work,n the
symbolism or meaning of dreams becomes highly compressed.                                                  it Through processes of association, certain symbols or elements of the dream may take on several quite discrete anc not haturally related meanings3 in addition, a certain meaning may turn up in several different elements of the dream. Although Freud on occasion offers some highly tentative physiological speeliiertions about the mechaniams of association (including, for example, the suggestion that thoughts running along spatially contiguous nerve-pathways may thereby
become associated together), he clearly concluded on the basis of his clinical observationa

that no useful generalizations could be made about the specific paterns of associatione. A patient might, for exmnple, associate "leaving treatment" with the "leaves of a book", because at the moment when he was leafing through the book he was worrying about whether to leave treatment. In the dream, leaves falling from a tree might come to stand for both the activity of leafing through the book (which, perhaps$ was a gift from someone whom he missed) and the prospeot of leaving treatment. Another patient might associate the leaves of a book with taking a leave of absence a from his Job, something he very much wanted to do. And so on. In the dreams of these patients$ the visual Image of the leaves of a tree might be aa a symbol with several distinct significant meaningso
To say that such a symbol, or the entire dream, is overdetermined is precisely to say that the symbol has two or several complete, adequate$ satisfactäry explanations$ each of
mhich is        itself sufficiant      by whatever criteria of adequacy of explanation one is
employing -- to account for the content of the dream or the symbol. The symbol is thus
$ in a euite natural sense of the word, nover-determinedom That is, lt is determined several times over. One can give g complete expjdcation of the dream in terms of one of its meanings$ so that nothing is left out, no loose ende are left hanging. The% one can go back and give a quite different and equally correct explanation of the same dream
Let us very clearly differentiate this remarkable notion of Freudts from two quite familiar notions that play a major rola in social scientifächxplanations in sociology, economics$ and other disciplines. The first is multiple causation (or$ to use your terms, multiple effectivity); the second is reciprocL caelality$ or reciprocity. To say that an event is multiply causej,or determined by a multiplicity of causes, is simply to say that not one but a number of events$ phenomena, etc. must be invoked in order to provide a complete explanation of it. Or, sometimes lt is to say that
phenomena or events from a number of different social spheres must be invoked, such as political causes, economis causes, cultural causes$ pgychological causes, institutional causes$ etc. The key point Imre is that an explanation in terms of Only one of these factors will be inadequate, incomplete, and hence damand some enlargement or supplement before lt can be explained. For example, an historian attempting to explain the particular course of the l'rench hevolution might feel the need to invoke facts of the special and particular history of the French peasantry„ in addition to economic facts common to the French and other economies, in order to account for the details of (or even the broad outlines of) that courseg
To say that there is reciprocal causality, or reciprocity$ between two events or phenomena is simple to say that each influences or acts on the other, and also perhaps that each then reacts on the other in response to the action of that othero
Just as multiple causality is invoked in order to rebut the claims of single-factor explanations in the social sciences$ so reciprocity is invoked to counter thß claims of single-direction explanations. Notoriously„ the simple-minded ubase-superstructure" model customarily (and, of course, incorrectly) imputed to Marx is both a single-factor and a single-direction mode of explanation. Modern functionalist sociology, and also modern economics, decisävely reject both single-factor and single-direction explanatory models. That is not peculiar to Marx, and lt certainly is not peculiar to Aithusser's reading of Marx. Max Weber, and following hlm Talcott Parsons$ offer explanations replete with multiple causality and reciprocity.
Perhaps the most familiar explanatory model totally embodying both multiple causality and reciprocity is the original Newtonian mechanics. Each mass in the universe$ through the gravitational attraction that lt exerts$ has an effect an each other muss in the universe. Thus$ the behavior (ive., motion) of a mass is multiply determined (by the effects on it of every other mass) and that behavior stands in reciprocal interaction with the behavior of each other mass. Note, by the way$ the enormoue power of Newtonts claimi

He does not sey that some masses are multiply determined, or that some masses are in reciprocal interaction with oneanother. He sgys that all masses are multiply determined, and that every event in the universe affects every other event, however remote. There are really only four ways one could sustain such a universal claimi Either by appeal to some theological revelation; or by appeal to some a priori metaphysical principle (such es that invoked in the opening section of Kant's Inauzural Dissertation of 1770); or by appeal to an opistemological principle„ such es the transcendental unity of
apperception (sec Kant, giritique of Pure Reasoha "Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding"); or by appeal to a m'e-ii;dhogical principle of the formation of theories. In any case, lt is illegitimate to move from the indisputable observation that events frequently are multiply determined or in reciprocal interaction to the conclusion that every event is affeeted by every other event„ or that all events are in reciprocal
interaction              or, more precisely, it is illegitimate to make that move without an explicit and powerful argument adequate to so far-reaching a conclusion.
Let us return to Freud. If overdetermination means a multiplicity of complete and adequate explanations for a given symbol or dream, threß . questions immediately force themselves forward and demand answers. First, how do we know when there is more than one explanation, when, that is, the dream is indeed overdetermined? Second, how do we know which of the endlessly varied and many possible explanations for a dream or symbol are the correct one? and Ihird„ how do we know when we have found all of the correct explanations of the dream, and thus have exhausted its significance? Freud gives the same answer to all three of these questions, and lt is so important that I shall dwel1 on lt for SOMB time. lt is, indeed„ the key to all of Freud's thought.
£Jriefly, the answer is that the analyst is guided by the patient's associations to the dream. As you know, the analyst asks the patient to associate freely to the dream. In this way, the unconscious content that underlies the dream is slowly revealed. In effecti the patient follows back along the pathways of aseociation by which the mind constructed the dream. In generäl, Freud thought, dreams are triggered by sensory memories of events from the preceding twenty-four hours. These memories are interpreted, compressed, distortedj displaced, etc etc by the mind, in the course of which long-repressed wishes and fantasies find a safe or "acceptable" expression in disguised, symbolic form. Dramas, like sleps of the tongue and symptoms, are generally unimportant in themselves, but they are indis-pensable doorways inte the unconscious.
eecause of the purely adventitious„ or accidentale and entirely individual character cd
associations, lt is impossible either for all patients in general or even for one patient in particular to compile a dictionary, a lexicon, of dream symbols. A snake msy stand for a phallus in one dream, and for a man named King (e "king snake") whom one doesn't like in another dream. The approach to the unconscious is thus necessarily dynamic rather than
static. lt proceeds by way of the actual associations of the patient, rather than by an a priori deduction of the possible meaning of a symbol. Through the process of association, one ascertains that a symbol is overdetermined, what the precise set of overlaid meanings ai are that have become attached to it„ and when the unpacking of the meaning is finished and the symbol has been exhausted. Without this dynamic process of association, the notion of overdetermination would be vacuous. There woeld be no reason to suppose that a symbol was overdetermined, to way of knowing whether an explanation of the symbol was correct, and no way to determine whether one had identified all the meanings of the symbol er not.
There are two points to be noted about Freud's theory of overdetermination of dream embolisms First, there is no place here for what we have called reciprocal causality. There is, of course, multiple causality (assuming, for the moment, that we can treat meanings or reasons as causes -- more of that in a moment). Bat the dream does not in its turn react back on the repressed content, er at least not so far es Freud knew. Social theorists in general, and you in particular„ wish to make streng claims for recipeocal causality (or effectivity), and to that extent, therefore, you deviate from freud's

notion. Second, Freud speake, most of the time, noteof a multiplicity of causes or of an overdetermination of ar causes but of overdetermined meaning. Symbols in a dream have eognitive meaning„ they refer, they have what philosophers call intensionality. One explains a dream by identifying the repressed wishes that find expression through it. As Richard Walheim makes beautifully clear in the opening chapter of his inealuable book,Sigmund Freud -Vreudis original formulation of the notion of the unconscious, fron which all the rest of his work flows, deponds precisely on the distinction between physical causes and meanings or intensional, referring, thoughts. (The point, you will recall, was that patients suffering from hysterical paralysis exhibited limbs that were paralyzed over a physical extent that did not correspond to aey natural neurological„
anatomical unit„ but did correspond to what the patient   typically a waman -- in an unscientific way thought was such a unit. So she might have a paralyzed "leg," when the neurologists knew that the portion of her body paralyzed did not correspond to a portion controlled by a single major nerve, etc etc.)
Baving said all this, let ue now tuen to the sphere of social phenomena, and ask how and why someone might wish to Import the notion of overdetermination into it. I suggest the following possible explanation. As detailed historical studies begin to pile up, and in partictilar es the results and insights of anthropology begin to filter into the study of western Uuropean histöry, the following sort of problem is lieble to crop up. Someone does an exhaustive study of, let us say, a series of wildcat strikes and other outbreaks of labor militancy, in which it is quite persuasively shown that the behavior of the workers is fully explained by appeal to their objective economic interests (perhaps dialectically related to the development of their awareness of those interests). Then another historian plows the same soll, and produces a study showing that the behavior of the workers is explainable in terms of certain traditions of peasant and worker behavior, going back hundreds of years„ and reinforced by certain local religious traditions. Yet a third historian, drawing on diaries, lettere, and other such materials, produces a psychological explanation of the very same behavior.
Thera are at least four different things we might want to say about such a state of affairs. First, we might say that the economic interetts are the real causes of the workers' behavior, and that everything else is merely epiphenamenon, reflection, expressionj or effect of those economic interests. This, I take it, is the r5tulgar marxistu
position. Althusser rejects it, and so did Marx. So too does evelcone else with any brains. Second, we might wish to say that the behavior of the workers was multiply determined by economic„ traditionalj religious, cultural, pgychological, and other factors. This is the position most historians automatically take. You seem to take it from time to time in your paper. The trouble with this position, in the present case, is that by hypothesis in our imaginary example, each historian has provided a comolete explanation of the phenomena yunder investigation. Of course, if each had offered only a partial explanation, if each had left same significant features of the events unaccounted for, then we could infer that each explanation needed fleshing out or supplementing by other explanations, and that would lead naturally to a multi-causal account. Now, there are some historians (and same philosophers of science and of history),who would dery that the sort of situation I have imagined could ever really Occur. There couldn't be two or more complete explanatione of the same set of events. Perhaps so. But 1 am pursuing for the moment the thought that there might at least seem to be, and that we might therefore need an especially complex methodological move to deal with that odd fact. Third, we might wish to seer that in faet there was not merely a multiplicity of causes of the observed events, but a reciprocity  of causelity, so that none of the factors could be identified as independent variable and none es dependent variable. The religious belief s, we might argue, wer p both caused by and were causes of the economic interests of the workers, etc etc etce ihis too is a fairly standard notion among historians and social scientists. Indeed, I should think that it is„ today„ the dominant view0 lau cluarly espouse it in your paper, along with the notion of multiple causation.

Finally, someone (for example, Althusser) might wish to sasesomething quite
distinct from these first three positions, something powerful„ paradoxical, and striking.
Snmeone might wish to say that this historical event (and, by extension, all other
historical events) is overdetermined     not determined, not multiply determined, not
reciprocally determined, but overdetermined. How could this be? Clearly„ natural events
cannot be overdetermined. But historical uvents are not natural events, and society is
not nature, not even second nature. If society can be understood as a structure of
meanings, not of objects, and if we can make senee of the vexing notion that society
is a structure of meanings which are not to be identified with the thoughts in the minds of
anY sPeeific individuäls (without sinking into the Durkheimian mistake of positing a
group mind1), then perhaps we can elaborate a notion of social overdetermination
analogous to Freudts notion of the overdetermination of dreamso
Now, I am not certain that this approach will stand up. But lt seems to me highly suggestive and original, and 1 would hazard a guess that lt is what Althusser has in mind. Two points, before I close this part of my remarks. Firste Althusser is well known for rejecting the usubjectivon approach to the study of society. Pretty clearly, whatever his reasons for taking that line (his fight with Sartre, who knows --), he is never going to succeed in defending the notion of overdetermination withaut same serious . acknowledgement of the idea that society is a system of meanings, not a set of objects. Second, we saw that Freud leaned on the method of free association as a key to the overdetermination of dreams. What, in the study of s1ciety„ takes the place of free association in psychoanalysis? In whet way do we discover that a social situation is overdeterminede what the actual (as opposed to possible) multiplicity of determinations are, and when we have exhausted the unpacking of a social situation into its component determinations?
lt may be„ after 011e that by overdeterminede you really mean nothing more than multiply and reciprocally determined If so, there is nothing more to be said. But if lt is indeed soe then you must recognize that your methodologicälposition is thus far indistinguishable from that of countless functionalist sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientistse and also from that of standard econamic theory. After all, any system that can be characterised by a set of simultaneous equations is correctly describable as both multiply and reciprocally causally interrelated.
II. Production, Circulation, and the Neo-Ricardians
The preponderance of your remarks are devoted to the diffetences between Marx and Ricardo (and the neo-Raicardians), with particular emphasis on the different analyses of th( relationship of circulation to production. I think you are coreect, both about the difference between Marx and Ricardo and about the difference between Marx and the neo-Ricardians. What is more‚ I think you are right to insist that this is a central difference. Without accepting your methodologically powerful and unsupported invocation of the idea of ntwo sciences,u I will simply agree that this is a big enough difference to constitute a decisive differenceo
Howevere as I read the papere lt seemed to ne that you never went beyond observing and documenting the difference. You never presented an argument designed to show that the Ricardian and neo-Ricardian theories„ by Slighting circalation in the way they do, produce thereby an inferior theory. Now, don't start in with uframeworke and all the met of that/ Don 't give up the fight so easily1 I think one can offer powerful arguments to show that the Ricardian and neo-Ricardian theories are deficient$ not merely different, precisely by virtue of their failure to take the proper account of the rale or circalo-tion. Lot me sketch one such argument very briefly (you will immediately notice at this

point that I get in way over my headl MY apoIogies.)
In the familiar, standard physical quantities model (to use Steedmants jirerm for lt), we are presented with a system of n equations in ne2 unknowns, namely the n
prices, the wage rate$ and the profit rate. One of the n prices is arbitrarily chosen as numeraire, or standard of value, and set equal to unity. The system then has one degree of freedom, and wo can study the inverse relationship betwoen the wage rate and the profit rate. This, I take it, is what ''Jrafia does.
Now, the attention has been focussed on the so-called transformation problem$ which turne out, when cast in the proper mathematical form, to have a relatively straight-forward solution. (Needless to say, I did not find it easy er straightforward„ but I feol 1 must maintain the standards and conventions of this new field into which I have wandered$ and people like Pasinetti.$ Steedman$ Morishima, et ei. seem to consider the theory of eigenvalues and eigenvectors to be about on a par$ conceptually, with baby talk.) But to me$ the real heayy freight rests on that barely noted preliminary move whereby one of the n prices is arbitrarily chosen as numeraire and set equal to unity. Po proceed in that way is, in effect, to say that there is De real money in the system under analysis. Thera is an accounting system, but no one of the commodities over separates itself off from the others„ becomes functionally divorced from whatever use-value it might originally have had (as gold and silver did), and thereby becomes$ in the full senso of the term, money..
lt seems to me that in Capital, and even more clearly in the first three or four hundred pages of the Grundrisse, Marx is insisting that the emergence of money, and subsequently the tran$formation of money into capital, is ne trivial er merely formal and stipulative occurrence. The emergence of money capital requires enormous histeeical changes$ of couree, to which are conjoined major psychological and conceptuäl changes. But in addition (theee boing merely in the category of background), the emergence of money requires esse_nt any a fully-developed sphere of circaation$ without which there coüld be no capital0 ence$ apy formal model of a capitalist economy that treats the sphere of circulation as a mere accounting-world„ a place of relative prices and hence merely of highly complex bat-tor, mußt be inadequato to the reality of capitalism.
If I am correct, then a neo-Ricardian model would be e1rong, not just "in a different frameworkn or na different science." How would it be wrong? Weil, it would certainly fall to explain the emergence or money capital as such; it would presumably be unable to give a coherent account of realization crises; it would be unable to explain why problems of accumulation in different sectors of the economy would lead to unequäl development; and lt would simply have nothing to say about such phenamena as the fetishlsm of commodities. What is more, the neo-Ricardian model seems more approprlate to a planned  economy than to an actually functioning capitalist economy. Its claim to serve as a model for a capitalist economy would thus constitute an implicit assertion that a planned economy is simply a more perfect, more rational form of a capitalist economy, a claim that seems manifestly false and also rather heavily laden with powervful political implications.
Finally„ let me simply report that I could not follow your mathematics in the last several pages. lt seemed to am, although I was unable to determine whether I was correcte that a dimensional analysis of the equations on page 66 would reveal that the terms on the left hand side are of different dimensions, or units, from the terms on the right handaide.
Well, it should be obvious that your paper stimulated nie to considerable response$ whether fruitful or not I leave it to you to decide. Many thanks for letting me read it.
All the best,
Robert Paul Wolff


TAT said...

Professor Wolff,

I'm a long-time reader of your blog, but this is my first time commenting. I work in a field of the humanities that takes Althusser quite seriously, and even though I have read quite a lot of Marx (not to mention your books on the subject), I have always struggled with Althusserian terminology. At any rate, reading this exchange in addition to your other comments on overdetermination has been very instructive.

All this is to say that, in a fit of procrastination (I'm a grad student working on a dissertation) I copied and cleaned up the text of this exchange as much as I could in a word document for my own reference. If no one else has done so yet, I would be happy to send it along to you by email and you could post the cleaned-up version (alternatively I could try copying them here in the comments, but I'm not sure if would be too hard to read in that format).

Thanks for sharing this exchange!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Far be it from me to encourage procrastination, but that sounds wonderful. Send it to me at and I will post it. Now, get back to work on the dissertation! :)