[Latin: literally, “that which follows after”.] The opposite of a priori. An a posteriori statement is one which can only be known to be true or false on the basis of experience. Thus, in reality, all of human knowledge is a posteriori in the strictest sense, though in a looser sense some types of analytic knowledge (i.e., that which is derived from other knowledge, especially from the meaning of terms, and in logic or mathematics) are often considered to be a priori rather than a posteriori.
[Latin: literally, “that which precedes”.] The opposite of a posteriori. A statement which can (it is claimed) be known to be true or false prior to (or independently of) any experience.
Of course no statements can even be understood at all by new-born infants; it requires considerable experience before even simple statements can be understood, let alone be formulated or be reasonably judged as true or false. So, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as any genuine a priori knowledge. Even innate behavior, such as the urge to suckle by infants, is not “knowledge” in the propositional sense. (Infants do not “know” that it is good or important to suckle; this is merely something which evolution has led them to do.)
However, there is a looser sense of the term a priori, meaning something which can be determined or known by extrapolating from existing knowledge without the necessity for further experience or investigation of the world. Sometimes this is described as “reasoning from self-evident propositions”, though that can be terribly misleading. The most persuasive examples of this sort of thing are in logic and mathematics where it is, for instance, quite possible to derive some new mathematical knowledge (such as a previously unknown theorem) merely through thinking about the abstract logical relationships of already known mathematical entities, such as numbers or geometrical figures. Of course this would not be possible if our previous experience in the world had not led us to create abstractions like numbers and lines and triangles.
Another sort of thing that can loosely be called a priori knowledge, is due to recognizing shared elements of meanings of words. Thus we know that all bachelors (in the usual context) are unmarried men simply from the definition of the word, and not from any investigation conducted among all the bachelors of the world. But here again, this implies we have enough previous experience in society to have correctly learned the meaning of the word ‘bachelor’. [See ANALYTIC STATEMENT]
Idealist philosophers, however, have often argued that—besides these sorts of commonplaces—there is another, much more important, kind of a priori knowledge. One of the worst offenders in this area was Kant, who claimed that all knowledge of the world gained through sensory perception (experience) was unreliable and contraposed it to a priori “authentic knowledge” such as of forms of sensibility (space and time) and reason (cause, necessity, etc.). In actuality, our concepts of space, time, cause, necessity, and other such abstractions are every bit as much derived from human experience in the world as is any bit of everyday knowledge; the process is simply larger, longer and more complex.
Because idealist philosophers have tried to promote this sort of invalid extention and interpretation of the term a priori, for materialists it has come to be a warning flag that idealist nonsense is on the way! Neither of the terms a priori or a posteriori is commonly used by materialists except when criticizing bourgeois ideologists.
[Criticizing Dühring:] “This is only giving a new twist to the old favorite ideological method, also known as the a priori method, which consists in ascertaining the properties of an object, by logical deduction from the concept of the object, instead of from the object itself. First the concept of the object is fabricated from the object; then the spit is turned around, and the object is measured by its reflection, the concept. The object is then to conform to the concept, not the concept to the object.” —Engels, Anti-Dühring (1878), MECW 25:89.
ABOLISHING PHYSICAL CURRENCY (MONEY)
The goal, more and more desired by the capitalist ruling class in each country, of eliminating every physical form of currency, and to have all money take the form of digital bank accounts. All financial transactions would then take the form of digital monetary transfers from one bank account to another. There are many reasons why the ruling class would like to achieve this goal: 1) It would eliminate much of the black market; 2) It would make it much more difficult to escape government taxes on income; 3) It would make it much easier for the government to spy on every single financial transaction; 4) It would make criminal activity much more difficult.
However, somewhat surprisingly, instead of any of these considerations, it is now actually the current world capitalist overproduction crisis that is the primary impulse leading governments to seriously consider eliminating all physical currency. The world economic crisis has been getting worse, and we have now reached the stage of serious stagnation—a period of in-and-out of recession, with only short and shallow “recoveries” in between them. Corporations are only very slowly expanding production, because their existing factories and machines are already more than capable of producing all the products that people can afford to buy. So capitalist governments are trying to think of methods of forcing corporations to invest, and those with any money to buy more products. A favorite scheme at present is to try to enforce negative interest rates so that individuals and companies will want to spend more of their money rather than have it sit idle in their bank accounts where it will be eroded away by negative interest deductions. However, forcing negative interest rates means that more and more people and more and more companies will simply withdraw their money from banks and keep it as safe as they can on their own. But if governments can abolish physical currency, there will be nothing that people can withdraw. If they transfer their money from one bank account to another, then the negative interest rates will get them there.
Consequently there is this growing “necessity” for the capitalist class to abolish physical money, and they would love to do it very soon. However, they know that there will be a huge uproar by the people when they try to do this. For this reason they are trying to think of ways of gradually implementing the new “all digital” system. Governments are of course promoting digital payment systems, and they will do this much more strongly in the future. Another step in the direction they want to go is to first abolish the larger currency denominations. The head of the European Central Bank has recently proposed eliminating the €500 note (using the excuse that these notes are popular with criminals). And in the U.S. in February 2016, Larry Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury, called for the $100 bill to be withdrawn from circulation (for the same disingenuous reasons). It is no doubt only a matter of time until physical currency no longer exists at all.
See entries below and: HYPOCRISY [News Report]
ABORTION — Frequency Of
“About one in five pregnancies throughout the world ended in abortion in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics have been compiled, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That’s 43.8 million abortions. Abortion rates are higher in parts of the world where it is banned or heavily restricted than where it’s legal.” —From a Los Angeles Times report, quoted in This Week magazine, Feb. 3, 2012, p. 14. [This is referring to purposeful abortions, not spontaneous abortions or miscarriages.]
ABORTION — Morality Of
See also: HOMUNCULUS [W.H.Calvin quote]
“By weight the human body is composed of 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10%
hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1.2% phosphorus, and smaller amounts of other
Suppose we bring all the appropriate elements, in their proper proportions, together
in a container. Is this then the equivalent of a human being? Are we obligated to treat
this mixture of elements in the same moral way we should treat human beings? Of course
not! Even if there were a scientific way of transforming that pile of chemicals into an
actual human being, until that is actually done this is not yet a human being
and we have no moral obligations whatsoever toward the mixture of elements. The basic
principle here is this: What is only potentially a human being is not
actually a human being, and should not be treated as if it were a human
“In the same way, a human ovum and sperm, when brought together and nurished under the proper conditions (in the womb of the mother), have the potential to become a human being. This combination has the potential to change over time from what is not a human being into what is a human being. There is no precise dividing line as to when this happens, but it is most commonly considered to be at the moment of birth, or else at the point where the fetus is viable (i.e., is capable of living outside the body of the mother). In any case the early fetus is not actually a human being yet, and we have no moral obligation to treat it as if it were.
“Thus if a woman so chooses to have an abortion, for any reason, that is her right. There may be medical reasons to do so, or economic reasons, or it may just be because the woman does not wish to have a child (or another child). A woman has the human right to control her own body, and there is no valid moral argument which changes this.” —S.H.
ABORTION — Spontaneous
Spontaneous abortions, or “miscarriages”, are quite common in human beings and in other animals, and when they occur at a very early stage in the development of the fetus, are most often not even recognized as having happened at all. One respected biologist states that “Apparently 40% of [human] pregnancies end in what is known as ‘early occult miscarriage’.” [Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (2015), p. 267. Lane explains that these spontaneous abortions happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy; that the woman was probably unware that she was even pregnant; and that ‘occult’ just means “hidden”, or not clinically recognized. —Ed.]
An ultra-abstract notion at the center of many idealist philosophical systems, which corresponds to the central role of “God” in ordinary (i.e., less intellectualized) forms of religion. Like God, the Absolute (which, like ‘God’, is almost always capitalized out of respect, it seems!) is said to be the eternal, infinite, unconditional, perfect, unchanging subject which has no dependence on anything else, and on which everything else supposedly depends. Sometimes it is said that the Absolute “contains within itself” all other things, or that all other things exist because of, or are created out of, the Absolute. Clearly all this silliness is merely an attempt to talk about God in a very abstract (and hence supposedly more intellectually respectable) way, which results in a term which is extremely vague at best, if not downright mysterious and incoherent.
In Fichte’s idealist philosophy the Absolute is equated with the “ego”; in Hegel it is the “world reason” or the “absolute spirit”; in Schopenhauer it is the “will”; and in Bergson it is “duration”. Dialectical materialism views all such idealist concepts of the “Absolute” as absolute nonsense.
A term used in bourgeois discussions of music theory to describe music which is supposedly free of external references, ideas or associations. Instrumental music, without lyrics and without any other explicit associations to ideas, human institutions, interests and the like, is thus categorized as “absolute music”. However, the fact that neither the composer nor any lyricist gave any explicit and definite guidelines to the sort of ideas and associations that the music should give rise to does not mean that the music does not nevertheless give rise to various definite ideas and such in the minds of its listeners. Moreover, most types or styles of instrumental music have conventional ideas and references associated with them because of their historical development or milieu.
In classical European music, where the term is most common, forms such as fugues, sonatas and symphonies are often considered to be “absolute music” (unless they have reference “programmes” associated with them). The opposite of “absolute music” is considered in bourgeois circles to be “programme music”, where there are explicit lyrics or other definite guidelines to the listener as to what ideas or moods the various parts of the music should give rise to.
Marxists have usually argued that in reality there is no such thing as “absolute music” in the bourgeois sense, and that all music has various kinds of human, social, and class associations, whether it has explicit lyrics and listening guidelines or not. See for example the articles: “Has Absolute Music No Class Character?”, by Chao Hua, and “Criticize the Revisionist Viewpoint in Music”, by Chu Lan, both in Peking Review, #9, March 1, 1974; and also “A Discussion on Western Music”, in China Reconstructs magazine, July 1974, pp. 37-39, online at: http://www.bannedthought.net/China/Magazines/ChinaReconstructs/1974/CR1974-07.pdf
ABSOLUTE SURPLUS VALUE
See: SURPLUS VALUE—Absolute and Relative
Rule usually by just one person such as king, or sometimes by a few people (such as a ruling council), which is completely unrestricted and unconstrained by any other political force (such as laws or a parliament). The Russian Tsarist regime was one notorious example of absolutism. Absolutism has historically often been defended with the doctrine of the “divine right of kings”—that God has supposedly chosen to put the king on the throne as the absolute ruler.
Revolutionary Marxism views all class rule as a class dictatorship, or in other words as rule which is in the final analysis unrestricted by any laws or other constraints. However, some forms of the state (unlike absolutism) may spread this class-dictatorial power more widely. In a parliamentary bourgeois democracy, for example, it may be the parliament itself which exercises dictatorial power when necessary in order to maintain the rule of the capitalist class.
The act or process of dealing with (or explicating) the characteristics, features or nature of something in a general theoretical way and separately from (or in addition to) particular examples and instances. One illustration: Different people and objects have different weights on the surface of the Earth, but the concept of “weight” is itself an abstraction from all the different forces of attraction between various objects and the Earth. While we learn this abstract concept from more concrete instances, the abstraction itself is then employed as we talk about various specific instances. (I.e., there is a dialectical interrelationship here.) This in turn often allows us to further deepen our conceptions. The existence of the abstract concept of “weight”, for example, was a factor that allowed us to come up with the even more abstract concept of “mass”, which is now one of the foundation concepts in physics.
Why develop and use abstractions? In order to more deeply understand the world around us and to more easily discuss it. We often hear people complain about or object to abstractions and abstract thinking, but this is actually a very naïve viewpoint. It is true of course that abstractions themselves need to be explained to a considerable degree through the use of concrete examples. But on the other hand, coming to understand those abstractions then helps us more deeply understand even the concrete examples. Using abstraction it is possible to think more directly about general properties and attributes, while without abstraction our thoughts would be limited to particular instances, and often be confused by irrelevant aspects of the object or situation which apply only to that one special case. With abstraction our knowledge is deepened, and made more profound. Those who in effect reject the need to come to understand abstract ideas will never truly and deeply understand the world around them.
Abstraction is important in all areas, but it is especially important in mathematics. Indeed, mathematics might even be defined as the study of the relationships between certain types of abstract objects with regard to size, shape, and so forth. (See: MATHEMATICAL OBJECT.)
In politics and practical affairs abstract principles or generalizations do not prove or dictate how all new specific phenomena should be comprehended, but such principles do provide guidance and often very helpful suggestions about how to comprehend and deal with new concrete cases and situations.
See also: IDEALISM—Origin Of, REFLECTION THEORY, REIFICATION, UNIVERSALS (vs. PARTICULARS)
“In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both.” —Marx, Capital, Preface to the First German Edition: International ed., p. 8; Penguin ed., p. 90.
“Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract—provided it is correct (NB [nota bene: note well!]) ... —does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, of a law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely. From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice,—such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.” —Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic” (1914), LCW 38:171.
“The flexibility of human cognition relies profoundly on our ability to move up or down the ladder of abstraction, for the simple reason that sometimes it is crucial to make fine distinctions but other times it is crucial to ignore differences and blur things together in order to find commonalities. For instance, while one is dining, one will take care to distinguish between one’s own glass and that of one’s neighbor, but afterwards, when one is placing them in the dishwasher, that distinction will be irrelevant.” —Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (2013), pp. 30-31.
ABSTRACTION — Excessive
As the entry above discusses, abstraction is a very important and necessary part of human thinking, and it is very off base to oppose all abstraction and to always insist on more concrete discussions. Nevertheless, it is also possible to become too abstract, or to abstract away the very issue which most centrally needs to be focused on.
For example, one might be discussing the problem of global warming and climate change which is already having a very negative impact on humanity and which (because of past and present actions) will undoubtedly become much worse in the future. Many conservatives and reactionaries dismiss the problem entirely, and even deny that it actually occurring (despite the overwhelming evidence). But liberals, and the more “rational” part of the ruling class, also approach the issue totally incorrectly. They start by proclaiming that human beings are the cause of the problem. Well, yes, of course. But this is too abstract of a viewpoint to be of any practical use. (What are we supposed to do about it? Get rid of human beings?!) It is far more important and useful to focus on just which human beings are at fault. And, lo and behold, it turns out that it is the ruling capitalist class, and their corporations and governments, and their decisions, which are responsible for 99% of the problem of global warming. Recognizing this, now we have in sight an actual solution to the problems of global warming—namely, to overthrow the damned capitalist ruling class! It is still a very difficult thing to do, but at least there is now a clear answer to the problem.
What this all comes down to in more general terms is that we should try to keep the discussion focused at the level of abstraction appropriate for dealing with the actual principal contradiction at issue. And, when dealing with social problems in all the most important cases in class society, this means keeping the focus on the interests of specific social classes and the conflict in the interests between those classes. This is why Marx, Engels and all Marxists since their time, talk so much about classes. As history has demonstrated over and over, an analysis pitched at the level of class interests and class struggle is key to understanding and resolving virtually all the major social issues in class society.
See: MUMIA ABU-JAMAL
Dictionary Home Page and Letter Index
MASSLINE.ORG Home Page