The Role of Concepts in Cognition
Marxist Monthly Vol. 2, No. 11, January 1990
The use of concepts in the process of cognition in materialist dialectics has been defined by Lenin as ‘human concepts which must likewise be hewn, treated, flexible, mobile, relative, mutually connected, united in opposites, in order to embrace the world.’ (p.146 Vol.38, Collected Works). This can only be achieved through the mediation of internal contradictions manifested as abstractions of a series of interconnected events. In the use of logic this is achieved starting from the simple or first negation arising from the identity of the source of sensation in the external world, through subsequent negation of the negations of the interconnection between the ‘old’ and the new.
Lenin compares this dialectical process to ‘a river and the drops in this river. The position of every drop, its relation to the others; its connection with the others; the direction of its movement; its speed, the line of the sum of the movement. Concepts, as registration of individual aspects of the movement, of individual drops, (= things), of individual “streams,” etc. There you have a peu prés [approximately] the picture of the world according to Hegel’s Logic, - of course minus God and the Absolute.’ In the side margin, Lenin notes that ‘the word “moment” is often used by Hegel in the sense of moment of connection, moment of concatenation’. (Page 147 Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol.38).
The Dialect of the Concept
Each of these moments (concepts) is contradictory in itself such as Identity which contains Difference; Finite which contains Infinite or Quantity, which contains Quality, Necessity which contains Chance and Cause which contains Effect. Such concepts, as Lenin explains, ‘are not immobile but, in and for them selves, by their nature, = transition’, (side margin p.225 Vol. 38). In relation to the living perception of such concepts, he concludes again on the side margin of the same page, ‘The first universal concept (also = the first encountered, universal concept.)’ He has in mind here the use of concepts negated from the external world which can be theoretically utilised to guide our revolutionary practice to change the external world.
Lenin then takes a quotation from Hegel which he regards as ‘very important for understanding dialectics’,’ (side margin p.226vol.38). Hegel writes: ‘But the Other is essentially not the empty negative or Nothing which is commonly taken as the result of dialectics, it is the Other of the first, the negative of the immediate: it is thus determined as mediated, - and altogether contains the determination of the first.’
‘The first is thus essentially contained and preserved in the Other.- To hold fast the positive in its negative, and the content of the presupposition in the result, is the most important part of rational cognition.’
Engels explains in Dialectics of Nature what Hegel implicitly meant many years before: ‘That from the outset, identity with itself requires difference from everything else … is self-evident.’ (p.215 Dialectics of Nature, 1970 edition) Further down on the same page, Engels insists that ‘The law of identity in the old metaphysical sense is the fundamental law of the old outlook: a = a. Each thing is equal to itself.’ Engels concludes with the following remark: ‘This law has been refuted by natural science bit by bit in each separate case, but theoretically it still prevails and is still put forward by the supporters of the old in opposition to the new: a thing cannot simultaneously be itself and something else. And yet the fact that true, concrete identity includes difference, change, has recently been shown in detail by natural science.’
Trotsky Refutes Formal Logic
Trotsky in his book, In Defence of Marxism, emphasises Engels’ characterisation of the proposition of a = a as metaphysical. In the section of his book titled The ABC of Materialist Dialectics he wrote: ‘The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality A is not equal to A. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens-they are quite different from each other … Thus the axiom A is equal to A signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, ‘that is, if it does not exist. [See further explanation below – Ed]
‘At first glance’, Trotsky continues, ‘it could seem that these subtleties are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom A is equal to A appears on the one hand to be the point of departure for all our knowledge, on the other hand, the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom A is equal to A with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in A are negligible for the task at hand then we can presume that A is equal to A … But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative.’ (p.63-64 In Defence of Marxism, New Park edition).
The Self-Relation Within a Concept
The simple negation of Identity into Difference through the abstract image of Sensation is a self-related dialectical process, in which the negation is a moment of material connection between the objective external world, existing independently outside the subject, and the subject’s consciousness. Lenin defines such a process as follows: ‘Dialectics consists in general in the negation of the first proposition, in its replacement by a second, (in the transition of the first into the second, in the demonstration [self-relation – our insertion] of the connection of the first with the second, etc.) The second can be made the predicate [the property – our insertion] of the first. For example, the finite is infinite, one is many, the individual is the universal … The first or immediate term is the notion in itself.’ (p.226 Vol .38). Lenin quotes here from Hegel, and then writes in the side margin of p.227 ‘in itself = potentially, not yet developed, not yet unfolded.’
Lenin continues to quote from Hegel: ‘and therefore is the negative only in itself, the dialectical moment with it therefore consists in this, that the distinction which it implicitly contains is posited in it. The second term, on the other hand, is itself the determinate entity, the distinction or relation; hence with it the dialectical moment consists in the positing of the unity which is contained in it’
Lenin re-writes Hegel as follows: ‘In relation to the simple and original, “first”, positive assertions, propositions, etc., [negatives in themselves – our insertion] the “dialectical moment”, i.e., scientific consideration, demands the demonstration of difference [Identity of the external source of sensation negated into difference – our Insertion], connection [self-related concept-our insertion], transition [Identity into difference –our insertion]. Without that the simple positive assertion is incomplete, lifeless, dead. In relation to the “second”, negative proposition, the “dialectical moment” demands the demonstration of “unity”, i.e. of the connection of negative and positive, the presence of this positive in the negative. From assertion to negation – from negation to “unity”, with the asserted’.[From identity of the external source of sensation which causes an abstract image in sensation containing the Difference within the Identity of its external source – our Insertion]. Without this dialectics becomes empty negation, a game or scepsis.’
It should be clear at this point that those who base the development of theory on the method of materialist dialectics can only do so if they show ‘scientific consideration’ towards the application of the method itself.
The negation process which originates simultaneously with the Identity of the source of sensation in the external world is objective. Such objectivity carries with it not just the dialectical negation of concepts, but bourgeois ideology as well. Without a scientific analytical method, which is based on such a synthesis, the dangers of bourgeois ideology can creep in during the course of teaching materialist dialectics as a world scientific outlook. The student who sets out to absorb such a scientific method will unconsciously tend to convert his method into ready-made word-forms lavishly provided in the bourgeois schools in which he or she has been educated. To establish the scientific element in materialist dialectics requires constant analysis which eliminates this danger. Otherwise dialectically negated concepts tend to get swallowed up in the categories of bourgeois ideology.
Lenin quotes from Hegel to reveal what he describes as the kernel of dialectics [our emphasis]. ‘It is the simple point of negative self-relation, the internal source of all activity, vital and spiritual self-movement [our emphasis], the dialectical soul which all truth has in it, and through which it alone is truth; for the transcendence of the opposition between the Notion and Reality, and that unity which is the truth, rests upon this subjectivity alone. – The second negative, the negative of the negative, which we have reached, is this transcendence of the contradiction, but is no more the activity of an external reflection than the contradiction is’ … Lenin notes in the margin ‘the criterion of truth (the unity of concept and reality)’ [our emphasis, p.229 Vol.38]. This is the most subjective moment in which the impulse for the negation of the negation rests with a living human being.
Lenin comments on this paragraph from Hegel as follows: ‘Important here is: 1) the characterisation of dialectics: self-movement, the source of activity, the movement of life and spirit; the coincidence of the concepts of the subject, (man), with reality. 2) objectivism to the highest degree (der objektiviste Moment)’, [the most objective moment].
This is why Lenin emphasises in the margin the ‘kernel of dialectics’ and the ‘criterion of truth as the ‘unity of the concept and reality’. Earlier, in Vol.38 p.95, Lenin insisted that ‘logical forms’ (such as ‘concepts’ – our insertion) ‘are dead forms - for they are not regarded as an “organic unity” [concept and reality – our insertion), as their living concrete unity.’
Hegel was very clear when he wrote that the ‘old formal logic’, A = A, is exactly like a child’s game making pictures out of jigsaw pieces (in Verachtung gekommen [which has fallen into disrepute]). ‘For method is consciousness of the form taken by the inner spontaneous movement of its content .’ (p.96, Vol.38). Lenin continues to quote Hegel approvingly: ‘The given sphere of phenomena is moved forward by the content itself of this sphere, the dialectic, which it, (this content), has in itself (i.e. the dialectic of its own movement).’ (p.97, Vol.38). In thought there must be an inner necessary connection of all the parts and transition of some parts into others. Lenin re-emphasises that: ‘What Hegel demands is a logic, the forms of which would be gehaltvolle Formen, [forms with content], forms of living, real content, inseparably connected with the content.” (p.92, Vol.38). The in-itself of the content of the concept is the driving force which moves it forward to negate its own negation.
Lenin draws the decisive political conclusion from his efforts to stand Hegel on his materialist feet, when he notes that; ‘Logic is the science not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development “of all material, natural and spiritual things”, i.e. of the development of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition, the sum-total, the conclusion of the history of knowledge of the world.’ Dialectical negation of the in itself of concepts emerges in categories which, as Lenin defines on page 93 of Vol.38, ‘are stages of distinguishing, i.e. of cognising the world, focal points in the web, which assist in cognising and mastering it,’ since they are based upon the in itself of concepts, the contents of categories are constantly changing.
From Concepts to Categories
Trotsky, in his In Defence of Marxism deals with sugar as both a concept and a category: ‘in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar – a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true-all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself ‘at any given moment’. Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this ‘axiom’, it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should one really conceive the word “moment”? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that “moment” to inevitably changes. Or is the moment a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence.’ (p.64 In Defence of Marxism New Park edition.)
Polemicising against what he called the ‘asses ears of idealism’ which show in Hegel’s exposition of dialectics, Lenin defined time as a form of being of objective reality. ( p. 228 Vol. 38). Sugar is a concept when used as a sweetener and becomes a category when in general use.