Bertell Ollman Interview: Dialectics, Abstraction, Internal Relations

This is an hour-long interview with dialectical scholar and Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman. Ollman is a professor of politics at New York University and author of “Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method” and “Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society”. Both books are great reads (and available for free download at the above links), very accessible, and quite helpful in getting one’s head wrapped around the dialectical method. Fans of left trivia might also recognize Ollman as the creator of the board game “Class Struggle”.

The topic of Abstraction (also the topic of my next video in the Law of Value series) is an easy one for Ollman to talk about as he has devoted a lot of his intellectual activity to an understanding of what it means to make abstractions. I barely had to ask him any questions over the course of the interview in which he explains many of the key concepts in his book Dance of the Dialectic.


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7 Responses to Bertell Ollman Interview: Dialectics, Abstraction, Internal Relations

  1. MrEverpresent says:

    Interesting. I enjoyed dance of the dialectic.

  2. ...... says:

    Do you own a version of that “Class Struggle” game? i would love a proper scan of the board and the rulebook..

  3. Unfortunately, the alleged ‘process of abstraction’ (which even to this day remains shrouded in mystery) would destroy knowledge. Here is why: given any two randomly selected abstractors, it would surely be impossible for Abstractor A to decide whether or not he/she possessed the same general idea of anything as Abstractor B. This isn’t just because no one has access to the thoughts of anyone else, but because it has yet to be established that A and B (or, indeed, anyone else) share the same idea of “same”. And how might that be determined for goodness sake?

    They would have to possess this concept before they possessed it!

    An appeal to the existence of a public language would be to no avail here, for even on that basis no one would be able to tell whether Abstractor A meant the same as Abstractor B by his or her use of words (or ‘concepts’ like “Substance”, “Being”, and “Nothing”, or even “man”). And definitions can’t help here, since they also contain ‘abstractions’ which are subject to the very same problems. For how could Abstractor A know what Abstractor B meant by any of the abstract terms he/she uses without access to her/his mind? Abstractor B can’t point to anything which is the meaning of a single abstraction he or she might be trying to define, so he/she can’t use an ostensive definition (i.e., definition by pointing) to help Abstractor A understand what he/she means. Other sorts of definition must, it seems, use general words, too. If so, the same ‘difficulties’ will confront these general terms, and those definitions, too. Moreover, no particular, or no singular term, can give the meaning of any abstraction or abstract term under scrutiny.

    If this is so, no one could share his or her knowledge of anything with anyone, which would, of course, mean there was no such thing as objective/inter-subjective knowledge.

    But we can go further: as we have seen, abstractionism can provide no secure or ‘objective’ foundation for knowledge. But worse still, it threatens subjectivity, too. That’s because Abstractor A would have no way of knowing if the fresh deliverances of today’s abstractions were the same as, or were different from the those arrived at only yesterday. Memory would be of little help here, for it too is subject to the same insurmountable problems we saw above — since memory would also have to use/have access to these alleged ‘abstractions’. Indeed, how, for example would A know if he/she meant the same today as yesterday even about the word “same”? And if that word is in doubt, then it can hardly provide a secure basis for remembering the ‘same’ abstractions from earlier.

    Of course, none of this is surprising since this ‘process’ was invented by Ancient Greek Idealists and mystics.

    [This isn’t to call into question the use of general terms in ordinary language — nor that language itself — merely the theoretical employment ‘abstraction’ in philosophy.]

    The other things Professor Ollman says — in the interview and in his books — are no less misguided, but I think I have said enough here to show that as Marxists, we’d be unwise to continue to import ideas, jargon and concepts from card carrying mystics and defenders of class society (like Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus and Hegel).

    However, for anyone interested I have subjected Professor Ollman’s comments about ‘abstraction’ to lengthy criticism and refutation, here:

    I will be doing the same for his take on ‘internal relations’ in a future essay.


    • Wez says:

      You seem to see the ‘individual’ as a source of ideas (abstractions) that are incomprehensible to anyone else. But language and ideas are social constructs with their roots in their cultural context. Global capitalism is giving us all the same cultural context and hence, language (abstractions) are becoming universal. Socialists using dialectical methodology can unmask this universal propaganda to reveal the contradictory reality that lies beneath them. Any activist can tell you how universal political ideas have become and the same conversations are being had all over the world.

  4. MrEverpresent says:

    Would you say that Marx is a dialectician?

    • If you’re asking me, my answer would be that he was a classical dialectician (in the Aristotelian/Kantian sense), but not a Hegelian dialectician, upside down or the ‘right way up’. Although he did ‘coquette’ with Hegelian jargon “here and there”, when there was in fact no need to do so. We have more than enough words in ordinary language (if augmented with the vocabulary of historical materialism, science and mathematics) to cope with every conceivable change in nature and society, and in limitless detail.

      I have explained more here:–11

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