How do we go about discovering the nature of reality? If the answer was clear, philosophers wouldn't still be arguing about it. Still, I might say some things.

Scientists today generally take a "physicalist" or "materialist" view of reality - that there is an external reality that can be measured, described, and understood. In order to define external, we first have to define ourselves and the boundary beyond which is the other - most would say that’s our body. Though, it is clear that scientists often, if not always, miss the subjectivity biasing their work, as well as the subjectivity necessary for applying science positively to society, rendering science as applied, and science as an institution, at least partially subjective, if not entirely. It's best not to make totalizing statements, because we probably don't know for certain all we think we do because even the hardest scientific understanding of how the world really operates, physics for example, scientific explanations for things we measure, and measurement itself, are always changing.

Automation and computers have the capacity to eliminate all necessary work so that we can do more of the things we most enjoy - gardening, sports, cooking and eating, making and consuming art and music, sex, etc. That's what automation means! It's automatic, so we don't have to do much beyond setting it up and making sure it doesn't break. But, people fear automation because its high productivity is just used to enrich the people at the top while those at the bottom get laid off.

Science is advanced enough that the human species should be able to use its knowledge to rapidly make society and the world better for everyone. A better society would be one that more heavily prioritizes improving the quality of life, but we don't live in such a society. We live in a society that prioritizes money. I think that this money-centered society has created a culture of dishonesty, disconnection, division, discontentment, and hate. We focus on luxury, wealth, and status while failing to live in truly fulfilling ways, because we lack freedom to do so.

Philosophically, there are barriers to the thought that can create such a world. I’m all for collective action, tearing down this pathetic society, and erecting peace and prosperity, but not everyone thinks on these terms, and my compelling arguments alone won’t get us there, nor necessarily prepare me for it. The term overdetermination has been used by contemporary popular Marxian economists (squiggly mouth emoji) like Richard Wolff, to describe a theory of knowledge and reality. I’m only engaging with this philosophy because it’s reminiscent of widespread, shallowly-developed postmodernism, because I was taught it at UMass Amherst, and because Wolff is everywhere on youtube. Not to say that Wolff even believes in ‘his own theories’, but he’s a postmodernist who borrows from Althusser. Overdetermination is the idea that everything is composed of many parts which are continually interacting to form a united system. First used by Sigmund Freud to describe complex cause-effect relationships in dreams, it was taken up by Althusser and others to describe society. It basically means "complex interactions". Overdetermination is taken from the ‘Hegelian dialectic’ and its further development into a ‘materialist dialectic’ by Marx... and Engels. The dialectic acknowledges and stresses the nature of change - the unity of forces in motion, or parts in interaction composing a system. A circle has both an internal and external component, and humans have both a physical body and mental thoughts at the same time - the "mind-body dualism", things have appearances and a true reality beyond those appearances, cells are both individual cells and a part of the body at the same time, things have both quantity and quality, etc. These "contradictory" or opposing and seemingly exclusive things combine to compose the united system, shedding their exclusiveness, resolving the seeming incompatibility, changing as a result of these interactions.

Wolff’s overdetermination places a particular emphasis on impartiality regarding theory; it favors theories on the grounds of usefulness, not ‘truthfulness’ - calling truth and reality into question. This is possibly a fine enough approach, if it is indeed useful, which I doubt. I think it is much more useful to be internally consistent and evidence based, though it easily is not always. What is useful if not that which corresponds to the way things are, and subsequently the way things can be used? Well, usefulness does not necessarily increase proportionally to truthfulness - one could lie and be believed to get what they want, Hitler could capitalize on real suffering and real fears of jews in order to extend this truth into a lie about jews, and then profit from it, but in the end, it was Hitler who killed himself because he didn’t account for reality.

Wolff says that “The concept of overdetermination rejects all forms of essentialisms whether in or of theory”, that is, whether regarding the nature of reality or knowledge. Essentialism is the idea that something is a more significant cause than another, more essential to a system.

Overdetermination is used to describe and interpret what postmodern Marxians call the “social totality”. In Postmodern Marxian theory, the social totality functions similarly to the idea of reality, a term they obfuscate and misconstrue. The social totality is a composition of interacting parts, and it is claimed that no one part is any more or less of a determinant, an “essence”, than another, within this totality. This is the heart of the anti-essentialist theory of reality, society, and theory. “No individual or process can exist alone, for each must exist in interactive, constitutive relationships with that which it is not: its Hegelian "other," all the other processes in the socionatural totality… This rejection of independence among social and natural processes means that it is not possible to rank determinations in regard to their qualitative or quantitative importance. Put simply, one cannot affirm a notion of overdetermination and simultaneously hold onto some kind of last-instance economic or noneconomic determinism … there can be no independence of entities one from another” (New Departures in Economic Theory pg. 52, 53). If one is truly Hegelian, then nothing drives history and society more than anything else. Unfortunately Hegel would disagree. This is the extent of their reason; everything is connected, therefore, nothing is independent of anything else. So, everything is one thing, therefore there are no individual things to be ranked. They might as well just propose we give up learning because nothing specific can be learned about, everything is the same thing.

Each part is ‘equally necessary’ for the existence of the whole. This does hold, everything is one thing, and we cannot learn the truth. But, this is hardly useful, unless their aim is to avoid anything divisive or instrumental for anyone else in the real world, which would not be surprising. The whole ‘socio-natural totality’ can logically be described in those absolute terms, which really posits each part as unindividuated - not a part at all, not spatio-temporally relative, but as a self-contained whole. When conceiving of the whole in absolute terms, differences in space and time are ignored, and the relative parts cease to have a coherent definition and conceptualization. But it is necessary for us to differentiate between the relative and absolute, because we are not operating at the level of the absolute whole, at the level of the Spirit. To make use of this whole, from our individual perspective, we have to understand the interactions of the parts. We have to acknowledge that although the whole might exist, we are not it. Well, we might be, but we cannot access it so long as we are separate from it, human, reading and writing, thinking and acting in it.

An event a million light years away, although contingent on the rest of the universe’s existence from the big bang, is a relatively less direct determinant of our planet than are the formations on our end of the universe, like our sun. Supposedly light moves at a definite speed, so that limits what things have effects on our temporary lives. The concept of relative significance is needed to understand our society and how it works. Our life is indeed contingent on the sun. However, the process of societal change is more directly determined by factors within our society (technology, demographics, human history, psychology) than the relatively unchanging electromagnetic radiation. Because ‘cause’ refers to a change with time, we have to abide by time, and therefore abide by space. More rapidly changing phenomena can be linked to more rapidly changing determinants as more direct, because phenomena have certain quantitative features which can be measured: time, distance, force, etc. and which can be ranked according to those measurements, hence more or less. Causality is an experience of temporality and physical energy - changes which precede other changes can be physically linked to them and said to be their cause. The sun, beating relatively consistently upon us, or the continents, slowly shifting upon the molten rock in Earths' mantle, did not cause my eggs to fry more directly than the hot pan on my stove. To say that both are equal in the grand scheme of the universe would require me to explain the entire history of the universe just to say how my food was prepared. This is not useful whatsoever, nor is it accurate to our measurement of time and space, our experience of comparison of difference. How can we simultaneously reconcile difference and unity? By superseding them, of course - there is neither complete unity nor difference, there is partially both, which interact to create existence. Without particularity, unity would be homogenous and unchanging nothingness, but without unity, particularity would be alone forever, and so also nothing. So, we exist, particularly and universally, but so does nothing - because something implies nothing, and no true constancy, no permanence, implies no fixed being, and so no particular self or other to grasp - no thing. Confused? It probably doesn’t matter, and so am I.

It is said that “The general notion of knowledge as accuracy of representation ("mirroring nature") is rejected... [sharing] the "antifoundationalist" view of Rorty and others that philosophy can be understood as... each producing its respective knowledges and truths with none having any claim that it "accurately represents" the "external objective world" vis-a-vis the others” (Knowledge and Class pg. 18). No theory is more true than any other? Then, repeated trials, evidence, scrutiny, and logic are all misguided ideas mistakenly believing that they model objective reality any more than anything else!! Therefore, reality depends on what we think of it. It does, insofar as we act on the world! They then claim that no theory can be any more accurate than another, and that no theory touches the “essence” of reality or truth because neither exists. A theory can avoid touching the essence of reality while still being more aligned with it than another. Where, then, would the useful come from?

Empiricism is the belief that all knowledge originates in experience, and Rationalism is the belief that all knowledge originates from reason, both claim to have identified the singular root cause of knowledge. In a relative sense, those are concepts with more direct influence on the process of discovering truth than other things. Positivism is an epistemology combining both empiricism and rationalism, and is more closely attuned to the scientific method. For me, it's clear that reason is experience - all reason is experienced, all reason comes from experience, and all experience has a reason. Experience is a process of reasoning insofar as we learn from and act according to experience.

Reproducing the external world in thought maybe be a perfect representation of the external world as interacting with a subject, but not all sets of interactions between subject and object are the same - some people have more experience of more the external world. Some experience is shaded by that which is useful, creating a false representation of the external, even though that thought is equally a representation of the interactions between that particular subject and objects.  

Some thoughts don't seem to be very reasonable - people make assumptions and judgments that turn out to be proven false by evidence or logic. But, those judgements probably helped them in the past, and came from some legitimate use of the assumption. At the very least, inaccurate views have a reason for existing. The separation between things doesn't allow for a complete and exact appropriation and replication of external objects, but only a partial one which is mixed with assumptions to create views that are often (always a little bit) inaccurate. Becoming more aligned with the external world happens through experiencing it, reasoning with logic, and arriving at something closer to true knowledge. 'Alignment' would pertain to a line, but 'connection' is a more abstract - we want to connect to the information about the world so that our thoughts to align with the way the world is. When we understand the world, we can better connect with the things we want. Our goal is to align our past experience of the external with our present internal representative understanding of it, and with our future through our agency. Hopefully one day this can be formalized and mathematized.

Descriptions of reality depend on and are relative to language, but objects do not change simply by saying something about them (besides the effect of the sound waves). Truth, as a claim with perfect correlation to reality, does not exist. However, there are relatively truer and less true claims according to their degree of correlation with reality. Some claims are contradicted by science, empirical data compared to expectations, and there are some claims that are supported by evidence and reason, although even these are only relatively more accurate and are not ever completely decisive. The thing about science is that it is always evolving, and any hypothesis can be overturned with new evidence. This is the essence of science and logic - learning from experience in a process of evolution. This evolution selects for what is the best fit to reality when we are able to isolate components of reality and test our hypotheses against measurements. Testing hypotheses with measurement is not always useful. In this way, postmodern epistemological relativism (pragmatism) almost works, but it is brought to an extreme skepticism that simply ceases to give any explanation of anything at all, and would result in absolute paralysis if taken seriously. What is most useful for understanding the world is obviously that which accurately describes reality. Even though lying may be more useful in a specific instance, lies are not truth, but the usefulness of them are.

Wolff's formulation of truth as "usefulness" cannot fully abandon the formulation of truth as corresponding to reality. The “social totality” is composed of real, measurable parts, interactions, changes, etc., even if reality cannot be 'objectively' appropriated. The “socionatural” reality has special attributes which we can describe, but reality does not?

Rorty declares ontology has been made obsolete by postmodern thought, yet his theories (but possibly misinterpreted) produce this: “There is not a reality that serves as the essence of all theory. The different realities conceived within the different theories are overdetermined. This means that these different conceptualizations of realities exist as products of the interaction of all the processes of the social totality” (Knowledge and Class pg.8). Is the social totality not an essential reality? So is reality created only in the minds of theorists, the essence of whom is the social totality? The argument misconstrues meanings in order to tiptoe around making any concrete claim. Certainly, not making any concrete claims is useful when trying to avoid “totalizing” epistemological, ontological, and social philosophies. I concede, maybe it is best not to claim that we have ultimate knowledge, only knowledge that works better than anything else -  but this is much more than saying "no theory in any more true than another."

The postmodernists posit knowledge as meaning, and truth as usefulness. Their theory is self-admittedly no more accurate than any other, “Marxian theory is not relativist in the limited sense of merely standing in front of a plurality of theories and insisting that no objective truth can ever arbitrate among them. It rather seeks to specify the social constitution of that plurality, of the predominance of certain theories within it (including the theory of absolute truth) and of their social consequences” (Knowledge and Class pg. 36). How could anyone specify the constitution and consequences of the predominance of a theory without making a claim about the truth of reality? Exposing the (real) mechanics behind social processes is in contradiction with positing equality with the opposition. If their aim is simply to convince people of the usefulness of a certain theory or way of life, it is also unclear how helpful the rejection of truth and reality will be.

Marxism does not claim that the essence of society (all of society) can be explained by one process within it. Therefore, there is no need for postmodernists to reject essentialism as described by Marx, only to better understand it. What is real is the primacy of productive forces on the development of the general form of society. We can discover which parts of society have the most or least effect on other processes, and what the relative-essence of society, or rather of the general form and the development of the general form of society, is and has been.

The significant shifts in the structure of society can be explained by certain fundamental forces. These fundamental shifts do not predominantly arise from the environment and its effects, even though society is contingent upon them, because nature has been relatively constant through major changes in social existence; the changes have not correlated with changes in societal structure. Neither do these shifts arise predominantly from changes in religion or ideology, which are secondary and subsequent conditions of primary changes in the material life in society. Theories can be thought of and distributed to whomever, but theories only become relatively influential when they conform and enable certain real processes - when they are useful. These could be very wrong and incorrect ideas, and still useful, because they conform with real processes. False ideas represent the interactions between subject and object, but do NOT represent the external objective world apart from the subject, which does exist relatively. Thoughts of a subject describe the subjects thoughts and therefore the subject, but not necessary the object, as those things are indeed relatively separate. That is not to say that ideas don't then influence the external world.

The driver of basic societal change pertains to the reproduction of life, the production of necessities and wealth. The forces of production, the technology and relations of production, create the concrete existence of life in society to which ideology; politics; culture; etc., the general social structures, must necessarily conform. The reproduction of life, and therefore of society, is the basis which guides the form of society. Thought is much more malleable than technological methods, and therefore changes according to physical processes in life. Technology does change from thoughts, and follows from thought, but the general form of society still doesn't change from thoughts about these technologies, only from the real implementation of technologies and the changes in social interaction dependent on them. Of course, it's hard to slice neatly, but human thought is conditioned by its objects.



Timothy Fay

Intermediate Political Economy, Econ 205

Tyler Hansen

Essentialism in Marxian Overdetermination

The term overdetermination is used by professors Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick, the Marxian economists under scrutiny, to denote a phenomenological and epistemological philosophy in their contemporary work in political economy. These Marxians distinguish themselves from Marxists and other Marxians, so Marxian theory will exclusively refer to the theory of Wolff and Resnick in this paper. Generally, overdetermination can be described as the notion that everything is composed of many parts which are continually interacting to form a unity. It began as a simple descriptive term of complex cause-effect relationships in dreams but was extended to the study of society. The concept was taken by Louis Althusser from the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud for application to Marxist political economy. Overdetermination was not a term used by Karl Marx but is viewed by Wolff and Resnick as a parallel to the Hegelian dialectic and its further development into dialectical materialism by Marx. Related to Marx’s dialectical materialism is his theory of historical materialism, regarding the development of human society. The Marxian pair use Overdetermination to address both.

There are several major distinctions between overdetermination and Marx’s thought and writing, although Wolff and Resnick seem not to emphasize this in their works. Overdetermnation places an unusual emphasis on impartiality regarding theory; it favors theory on the grounds of usefulness, not truthfulness. From this philosophically relativist stance follows the claim which will be the focus of the following examination: “The concept of overdetermination rejects all forms of essentialisms whether in or of theory”, that is, whether ontological or epistemological, respectively. Overdetermination is truly a bundle of internal contradictions, some of which are apparent and some of which require a bit more scrutiny to uncover. Overdeterminism is used by the Marxians to describe and interpret what they call the “social totality”. In Marxian theory, the social totality functions similarly to the idea of reality, a term they obfuscate. The overdetermination of Marxian theory is applied to ontology, the philosophy of being, just as Hegel used the dialectic. Similarly to Hegel, the Marxians see the “social totality” as a composition of interacting parts. They use this fact to deduce the idea that no one part is any more or less of a determinant, an “essence”, than another. This is the heart of their anti-essentialist ontology, regarding natural phenomena, that they use to explain society. As the Marxian theory goes, “No individual or process can exist alone, for each must exist in interactive, constitutive relationships with that which it is not: its Hegelian "other," all the other processes in the socionatural totality… This rejection of independence among social and natural processes means that it is not possible to rank determinations in regard to their qualitative or quantitative importance. Put simply, one cannot affirm a notion of overdetermination and simultaneously hold onto some kind of last-instance economic or noneconomic determinism … there can be no independence of entities one from another” (New Departures in Economic Theory pg. 52, 53). That is just about the extent of their reasoning; everything is connected; therefore, nothing is independent of anything else. That amounts to this: everything is one, therefore there are no individual things to be ranked. They might as well just say that we don’t exist because everything is, according to overdetermination, the same thing. Fair enough, but that gets us nowhere in terms of understanding why things are as they are. Each part is “equally” necessary for the existence of the whole, but this is not an inaccurate description of the measurable reality of the whole, or of any parts. The whole, the socio-natural totality, can logically be described in those absolute terms, which really posit each part as unindividuated - not a part at all, not spatio-temporally bounded, but the same as everything else. When conceiving of the whole in an absolute sense, differences in space and time are ignored, and the relative parts cease to have a coherent definition and conceptualization. What is useful for us to do then, is to differentiate between the relative and absolute, as only parts of the absolute can be described. For instance, processes on one end of the universe, although contingent on the rest of the universe’s existence from the big bang, are relatively less direct determinants of our planet than are the formations on our end of the universe, like the sun. The concept of relative significance and relative descriptions also is needed to understand our society and how it works, contrary to Rorty, Wolff, and Resnick. Our life is indeed contingent on the sun. However, the process of societal change is more directly determined by factors within our society (technology, demographics, psychology) than the relatively unchanging electromagnetic radiation. More rapidly changing phenomena can be linked to more rapidly changing determinants as more direct, because phenomena with spatio-temporal boundaries have certain quantitative features which can be measured: time, distance, force, etc. and which can be ranked according to those measurements. When referring to parts of the whole as relatively independent, we assume just that; we must acknowledge the relative differences of effects. The Marxians fail to distinguish between the absolute and relative, or what they should know from Hegel as the universal and particular. They place real, concrete processes only in the abstract, while at the same time conflating the universal truth with the particular processes of approximating it.

Of theory, or regarding theory itself, overdetermination rejects what it views as essentialism. A counterpart to Marxian ontology, Marxian epistemology outlines what constitutes knowledge. Essentialist claims about the key determinants of knowledge are misguided, according to overdeterminism, because there is no inter-theoretical truth at all. This philosophical relativism refutes other theories’ claims of truth as representing or approximating objective reality, and in doing so refutes objective reality. “The general notion of knowledge as accuracy of representation ("mirroring nature") is rejected... We even share the "antifoundationalist" view of Rorty and others that philosophy can be understood as... each producing its respective knowledges and truths with none having any claim that it "accurately represents" the "external objective world" vis-a-vis the others” (Knowledge and Class pg. 18) Rorty, a postmodern philosopher, is their main inspiration for their formulation of Marxian overdeterminism. They denigrate scientific thought to mere misguided philosophy, and present a view of reality not as objective, but rather precisely subjective. They use this to claim that no theory can be any more accurate than another, and that no theory touches the “essence” of reality or truth because there is neither.

They consistently draw on two other epistemological standpoints to illustrate their disagreement with essentialism regarding truth. Empiricism - the belief that all knowledge originates in experience, and Rationalism - the belief that all knowledge originates from reason, both claim to have identified the singular root cause of knowledge. In a relative sense, those are concepts with more direct influence on the process of discovering truth than other things. Positivism, which the Marxian duo also refute, is an epistemology combining both empiricism and rationalism, and is more closely attuned to the scientific method. It posits truth originating from both empirical and logical undertakings. Empirical sense data alone, qualitative or quantitative, is meaningless for lack of context and description. The Marxian duo fall into Rorty’s deceptive fixation on linguistics as rendering truth relative. Of course, descriptions of reality depend on and are relative to language, but reality itself is unchanged by what language says about it. Truth, as the ideal description of a claim with perfect correlation to reality, does not exist. However, there are relatively truer and less true claims according to their degree of correlation with reality. There are some claims that are not backed up or are even contradicted by science - by empirical study and connection of that data with existing understanding - and there are some claims that are supported by evidence and reason, although even these are only relatively more accurate, and are not ever completely decisive. In this way, postmodern epistemological relativism almost seems to make sense, but it is brought to an extreme that simply ceases to give any explanation of anything at all, and would therefore result in absolute nihilism and paralysis if taken seriously.

Unsurprisingly, The Marxian duo  only partially commit to their abandonment of truth and reality, and go on to discuss the nature of the “social totality” as being composed of real, measurable parts, interactions, change, etc. They declare that reality is not objective, but that the “socionatural” reality has special attributes which they can describe. Their anti-essentialist epistemology becomes relativism and the rejection of truth itself, but directly conflicts with their anti-essentialist ontology of the totality of phenomena.

Rorty declares ontology made obsolete by postmodern thought, but the Marxians do not follow through in such a manner. They write, “There is not a reality that serves as the essence of all theory. The different realities conceived within the different theories are overdetermined. This means that these different conceptualizations of realities exist as products of the interaction of all the processes of the social totality” (Knowledge and Class pg.8). In other words, reality is created only in the minds of theorists, the essence of whom is the social totality. Their argument falls into one of misconstruing meanings in order to tiptoe around making any concrete claim. There is a certain historical element of postmodernism which is necessary for understanding it but which will not be touched upon here. It is the history of the prevalence of relativism and the condemnation of “totalizing” epistemological, ontological, and social philosophies.

The Marxians posit knowledge as meaning, and truth as usefulness. Their theory is self-admittedly no more accurate than any other, and it is hard to see why it would be any more useful. “Marxian theory is not relativist in the limited sense of merely standing in front of a plurality of theories and insisting that no objective truth can ever arbitrate among them. It rather seeks to specify the social constitution of that plurality, of the predominance of certain theories within it (including the theory of absolute truth) and of their social consequences” (Knowledge and Class pg. 36). If their aim is to expose the mechanics behind social institutions and processes, it is unclear why they would pose an equality among all theories. If their aim is simply to convince people of the usefulness of a certain theory or way of life, it is also unclear how helpful the rejection of reality will be.

Contradiction is integral in the process of change and therefore of reality according to both Marx and the Marxians. But, contradictions of thought within a theory are always in need of resolution. Contradiction is real only when resolved. Marxian theory has many contradictions. The Marxian conception of reality goes against Marx and Engels in their exposition of the material reality underlying society. Material reality means both objective, discoverable, describable, scientific fact, as in Marx’s dialectical materialism, and also the specific, objective conditions of society regarding material life, as in Marx’s historical materialism. Marxism does not claim that the essence of society, or that all of society, can be explained by one process within it. Therefore, there is no need for the Marxians to reject essentialism as described by Marx, only to better understand it.

What Marxists emphasize is the primacy of productive forces on the development of the general appearance of society, as Marx did. When speaking of society or of any process, we have to single out parts which are bigger or smaller and have more or less of an effect on other processes. In doing so we can indeed discover what the relative-essence of society, or rather of the general form and development of society, is and has been. Marxism does not claim to describe every aspect of society, but rather the significant, fundamental shifts in the operation of hitherto society. These fundamental shifts do not predominantly arise from the environment and its effects, even though society is contingent upon them, because nature has been relatively constant through major changes in social existence; the changes have not correlated with changes in societal structure. Neither do these shifts arise predominantly from changes in religion or ideology, which are secondary and subsequent conditions of primary changes in the material life in society. Theories can be thought of and distributed to whomever, but theories only become relatively influential when they conform with certain real processes.

The driver of basic societal change pertains to the reproduction of life, the production of necessities and wealth. The forces of production, the technology and relations of production, create the concrete existence of life in society to which ideology; politics; culture; etc., the general social structures, must necessarily conform. The reproduction of life, and therefore of society, is the basis which guides the form of society.