File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1999/bhaskar.9907, message 27

Date: Wed, 21 Jul 1999 13:42:46 -0400
Subject: Re: BHA: Misleading Marx translations

So when Marx discusses his dialectic he means it is ontological not epistemological, no ?

Charles Brown

>>> Hans Ehrbar <> 07/21/99 12:30PM >>>

It is a bigger job than I thought to document the
introduction of the epistemic fallacy into Marx's text by
the translations.  There is an abundance of examples,
but the difficulty lies in explaining this error in
such a way that it can be understood.

The first example is the second paragraph in Chapter 1 of
Capital.  I will only discuss this one example here.  I will
bring this paragraph first in German, then in my own
translation, and then I will try to argue why the
Moore-Aveling translation is wrong.

German original:

Die Ware ist zunaechst ein aeusserer Gegenstand, ein Ding,
das durch seine Eigenschaften menschliche Beduerfnisse
irgendeiner Art befriedigt.  Die Natur dieser Beduerfnisse,
ob sie z.B. dem Magen oder der Phantasie entspringen,
aendert nichts an der Sache.  Es handelt sich hier auch
nicht darum, wie die Sache das menschliche Beduerfnis
befriedigt, ob unmittelbar als Lebensmittel, d.h. als
Gegenstand des Genusses, oder auf einem Umweg, als

My translation:

The first thing that must be said about the commodity is
that it is an exterior object, a thing, which by its
properties satisfies human wants of one sort or another.
The nature of such wants, whether they arise, for instance,
from the stomach or from imagination, makes no difference.
Nor does it matter here how the object satisfies these human
wants, whether directly as means of consumption, or
indirectly as means of production.

My comments:

In the Moore/Aveling translation, this last sentence begins
with ``Neither are we here concerned to know how'' instead
of ``Nor does it matter here.''  This reference to ``our
concerns to know'' is out of place here.  Here is an attempt
to explain why:

Marx is about to show that commodities have certain social
powers.  Although they are inanimate things they harness
human activity.  Their usefulness for human life acts like a
lense which focuses the diffuse activities of those human
individuals who deal with them.  The fact that everybody
treats them in the same manner leads to an inversion between
subject and object: the commodities are no longer the
objects of individual actions, but the actions of the
individuals handling the commodities become the effects of
the social power located in the commodity itself.  This
process has been called ``real abstraction'' or
``emergence,'' and the enumeration of the factors on which
this emergent power depends and those one which it does not
depend is called a ``real definition.''

The fact that the commodity's ability to focus human
activity is the same whether the commodity satisfies the
needs of the stomach or the needs of human imagination,
whether it satisfies them directly as means of consumption
or indirectly as means of production, is relevant
information about the type of societies in which commodity
production can become generalized.  This is a statement
about the real world, not a the announcement of what Marx
concerns himself here in this passage.  In other words, Marx
meant it as an ontological statement, whereas the
translation converted it into an epistemological statement.
This transposition of ontological into epistemological facts
is called the ``epistemic fallacy.''  It is a form of
irrealism, since it shifts all the activity into the head
and does not see the activity in the world.  Fowkes's
translation has it right this time, but similar errors
appears many times in both translations.

If I find the time, I will work on other examples, but maybe
I should better spend my time on DPF again.

Hans E.

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