Hooked on pictures

Marxism and Science
October 4, 1996

In his previous book, Karl Marx and the Philosophy of Praxis, Gavin Kitching began a Wittgensteinian "deconstruction" of Marx's reified "picture" of social ontology which dominates "historical materialism". Marxism and Science continues and deepens that mode of analysis, utilising Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to clarify the logic of theoretical practice in Marxism and critical social science.

Kitching attacks both the epistemological legitimacy, and the political effectiveness of scientific authority exuded by various influential schools of Marxism and social theory, including Althusserian Marxism, analytical Marxism, Roy Bhaskar's "transcendental realism", and Habermasian "critical theory".

Kitching identifies two deeply rooted "pictures" which are responsible for beguiling the intelligence of Marxist theorists. The first picture portrays science as an epistemically privileged perspective which is able to penetrate the "veil" of commonsense "appearances", revealing the underlying structure of reality in itself. The second picture readily coalesces with the first and is even more pervasive: it is that of language as a device for connecting thought with external reality by providing "names" for (abstract and concrete) "objects".

Marxists' enthralment to this "picture" of science, and their un-reflexive use of language in theory construction and promulgation, results in a positivistic obsession with representational accuracy. Kitching argues that this methodology rapidly degenerates into arbitrary scholasticism where theory becomes an end in itself, thereby reneging on the moral-critical promise of emancipatory social science.

The most distinctive and innovative feature of Kitching's book is the way he introduces Wittgensteinian "therapy" into social theoretical practice. One way of escaping the hold of thought-restricting epistemic "pictures" is to reflect on the activity, or praxis, involved in producing representations. Adopting this stance, Kitching shows how the "language-games" of "knowing", "representing", "criticising", "persuading" and "convincing" are all practices engaged in by particular people, in certain contexts, in the service of some purpose.

However, this book is not just an exercise in "negative dialectics"; Kitching takes care to distinguish his position from "postmodern" linguistic philosophies. After his analysis of the pragmatics of Marxist theory he proceeds to develop his alternative to "scientific" objectivism: "Marxism as a point of view", and its implications for contemporary political practice.

Instead of looking to science for intellectual justification, Kitching believes that critical theorists could enhance their practice by familiarising themselves with the literary techniques and linguistic skills of "novelists, playwrights and journalists". After all, the point of a critical theory is surely to help facilitate the creation of a better social system and not merely (re)description of the existing features of the current one.

In addition to its social scientific interest, Kitching's book is the first sustained attempt to demonstrate a social and political application for Wittgenstein's method. Previously, assessments of Wittgenstein's significance for social science have not gone beyond theoretical appropriation and assimilation of his ideas. But Kitching shows how Wittgenstein's method can be used to "demystify", and one hopes improve, Marxist theoretical practice.

Nigel Pleasants is research fellow, Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

Marxism and Science: Analysis of an Obsession

Author - Gavin Kitching
ISBN - 0 1 01026 6 and 010 4
Publisher - Pennsylvania State University Press
Price - £31.50 and £14.50
Pages - 258

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