‘The Dialectics of Inquiry across the Historical Social Sciences’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

The Dialectics of Inquiry across the Historical Social Sciences

Routledge, New York and London, 2014. 307pp., £80 / $140 hb
ISBN 9780415717632

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


David Baronov’s study is a work of comprehensive originality – incisive, imaginative and flawed in equal measure. It is a vastly ambitious project. It aims to take four discrete phenomenon – the Jena chair, the New York City draft riots, the Yí River Flood, and the event of aids in Mozambique – to develop from each in turn a series of methodological categories which provide the necessary conditions and premises by which each has been called into existence. In so doing, Baronov endeavours to create his own conceptual network of being – the categories of which can be applied (in theory) to any human/historical event or entity – in order to elucidate the basis of its necessity.

His study opens with the intriguing consideration of the Jena chair. The Jena chair was a product made in Germany during the 1970s and eventually sold in the US. Baronov begins with an analysis of its physical immediacy – ‘some type of wood with a certain density and varied textures … shape … and interlinking parts’ (18). Such materiality is embodied in the life-span of the chair, from the moment of production to its demise – thus we have our first ontological category, that of ‘material content’. But the physical matter which we immediately encounter barely scratches the surface of being. The chair also possesses a metaphysical aspect; it ‘necessarily implies a specific community of individuals who share a common social interpretation’ (19) of what it is. This Baronov labels its ‘symbolic-cultural content’ – a content which is realised when the chair has its ‘symbolic cultural’ purpose satisfied – i.e., someone deigns to sit on it. But once again, this is not the whole story. There is yet another ontological layer to be revealed. The chair was also created in order to realise its price as an exchange value. This Baronov terms its ‘socio-political content’.

And so the Jena chair is structured by a three-fold ontology – it is the bearer of a material content, a symbolic-cultural one, and a socio-political one also. Baronov is keen to point out these ‘multiple embedded ontological spheres … enter into reciprocally conditioning relationships’. (40) As the perspective widens, Baranov observes that the three ‘ontological spheres’ are also the expressions and manifestations of corresponding historical ages. The material content of the Jena Chair corresponds with the age of plastics, its symbolic-cultural content with the age of modern functionalist design, and finally its social-political content with the age of Fordist mass production. The age of plastics was necessary in order for the specific material content of the Jena chair (a product of the 1970s) to be substantiated, likewise the age of modern functionalist design means that its form is mediated by the prevailing social and cultural interpretations of how a chair should function in terms of design; while finally the social-political content can only be made manifest in the age of Fordist mass production.

But this too is not the end of the story. Each separate age is mediated by a broader era. In the case of the age of plastics, its genesis lies in the era of industrial chemical engineering more generally. The age of modern functionalist design is premised on the era of specialised commodity production. The age of Fordist mass production marks a period in the wider era of factory based commodity production. As Baronov progressively expands his ontological categories, the reader is compelled to experience the Jena chair in a radically different light. It goes from a seemingly obvious something – an object which we recognise instantaneously – to divulging a host of metaphysical secrets which are bound up within it. The simple event of sitting on the chair, for instance, substantiates its symbolic-cultural content which in turn manifests the era of modern functionalist design, and this, in turn, throws into relief the era of specialised commodity production.

Baronov, it seems to me, is particularly good on this point – a point which is by nature profoundly counter-intuitive. To common-sense it would seem as though we are dealing with a straight-forward temporal linear progression by which each and every era flows into its corresponding age and those ages are manifested by the events which constitute the existence of the particular object – in this case the Jena chair. The ages and eras appear at first glance to be discrete and separate entities. The era of specialised commodity production is something quite different from the age of modern functionalist design. We could, Baronov suggests, imagine an era of specialised commodity production in which functionalist design did not emerge as an aesthetic standard, for a different form of design might have developed in its stead. And yet, with the manifestation of the Jena chair as an event, such different ages and eras are fused into a necessary interrelation by the very fact that they are substantiated in the Jena chair. Thus, argues Baronov, we are not simply dealing with a mechanical progression which moves from the past to the future; rather the necessary connection between age and era and era and age is only fully established from the purview of the future – and the moment in which the Jena chair comes into being:

This particular Jena Chair did not come to be as a necessary result of these linking Ages. Rather, the Ages come to comprise a network of determinate relationships because the Jena Chair came to be … [T]he Jena Chair creates the conditions for its own realisation … that is, the Jena possesses the autonomous determination to make manifest the Ages that are the temporal realms potentializing the Events that constitute the Jena Chair as an ontological whole. (46)

Baronov’s description of the paradoxical way in which a future event can be seen to determine the relations of a set of phenomena which criss-cross the metaphysical terrain of the past also has a Hegelian resonance. In his Logic, in the chapter on immediate reflection (illusory being), the maestro describes the moment in which essence ‘presupposes itself and the sublating of this presupposition is essence itself … what is thus found only comes to be through being left behind’ (Hegel 1969, 402). It seems to me that the same rationale applies to the ages and eras in Baronov’s own ontological schema – that is to say, the eras and the ages only fully come to be ‘through being left behind’ – through being posited by a future event/s The event of the Jena chair, then, posits its own presuppositions. Again one receives the sense of the complexity and, I would even say, the wonder of the web of metaphysical features and interrelationships which come to constitute something as at first sight as banal as a chair.

In the case of the draft riots –riots which took place in the 1860s, in the midst of the American Civil war, and which were about disaffected lumpen elements in the white lower classes reacting against both conscription to the Union war effort and its anti-slavery implications – once again Baronov notes the almost topsy-turvy interplay between future and past. The draft riots are structured by the same set of ontological categories as the Jena chair – event, age and era. But in a similar fashion the eras and ages do not always bear a necessary relation to one another. It is possible to imagine the era of African subjugation (whose symbolic cultural content is embodied during the riots in and through attacks on African Americans) without deriving the necessity of the age of Early Urban formalization (the riots took place in New York – where some of the attacks were launched against city’s recently developed infrastructure). And yet, observes Baronov:

The concrete and finite expressions of the material, symbolic-cultural, and social-political content constituting the Draft Riots as an ontological whole are able to bring disparate Eras across centuries into relationship with one another and to give determinate form and substance to the relationships between the Eras … Hence the ontological content constituting the Draft Riots is able to posit the actual conditions under which they come to be – a most impressive feat of autonomous determination (114)

Though extensive, wide-ranging, and often profound, The Dialectics of Inquiry is also fundamentally flawed. This is because, contrary to the title, Baronov’s method is, at its heart, phenomenological in the Husserlian tradition rather than dialectical in the Hegelian/Marxist one. It involves ‘bracketing out’ all epiphenomena in order to reach the most immediate and abstract category (something which has an obvious affinity with the Cartesian approach and, to some degree, the Hegelian one). Once this ‘material content’ has been derived, however, Baranov then looks for the categories which provide its metaphysical preconditions, selecting the ones which appear to consciousness as most salient and essential. That we are dealing with a phenomenological unfurling is apparent from the fact that each appearance/moment/category is not bound by necessity to some deeper underlying process which it manifests as its appearance; rather there is nothing other than the series of phenomenological moments which appear, and which consciousness then seizes upon, but which lack any necessary basis. So, for example, the material content of the Jena chair is underwritten by the age of plastics, but one could have just as easily posited the age of metals, for the Jena chair is made from metal as well. One could, in fact, theorise an almost infinite number of alternative ages, but the question as to why one (age of plastics) is to be privileged over others is given no real answer –nor can it be, for the issue is not pivoted on a deeper historical process, but rather adjudicated from the (often perceptive) sensibilities, intuitions and conceptualisations of the author in isolation. Indeed, there is no real justification for the three-fold schema: era, age event. It would be equally easy, and equally arbitrary to add another category to the mix; to posit epoch, era, age and event, for instance.

The failure to draw upon a deeper historical movement, an ontology of labour in which categories emerge organically in the course of its immanent development, means that the ontological categories Baronov deploys have no concrete basis in historical necessity, and are thus liable to lose their integrity and cohesion, collapsing in on one another. Take, for instance, the Jena chair. Baronov describes its symbolic-cultural content as emanating from ‘a specific community of individuals who share a common social interpretation of what our object is’. (19) Its social-political content goes beyond its symbolic-cultural content – that is to say it goes beyond ‘social interpretation’ – for it lies in the fact that the Jena chair appears as a commodity which has an objective exchange value that can be realised through market sale; a determination which is affected at the level of social practise; and furthermore, one which is premised on the historical shift where – in the course of its increasing socialisation – labour achieves an abstract form as the labour time which is embodied in commodities as a value quantum.

Later, in the chapter on the Yí River Flood, however, Baronov deduces – as part and parcel of the symbolic-political content – the way in which ‘social interpretation’ in the form of ‘trained experts’ (151) is deployed in order to estimate and facilitate the compensation for those who have experienced property damage or loss. But any such estimation would be derived from the commercial value of the properties in question, the deeds for the mortgages etc., i.e., their exchange value as commodities; or to say the same, the symbolic-cultural content simply collapses into socio-political content once it is scrutinized in any detail.

The boundaries between the symbolic-cultural and socio-political are eroded elsewhere too. In the chapter on the Draft riots the symbolic-cultural content is characterised, in part, by the attacks on African-Americans, while the socio-political content is – also in part – characterised by attacks on the state infrastructure. Once more, the socio-political content is distinguished from the symbolic-cultural content in as much as the former is not simply about ‘social interpretation’ – the notions of race which precipitate racist attacks (symbolic-cultural) – but moreover constitutes a fundamental ‘attack on the legitimacy of the local political authorities’ (99) by acts of sabotage perpetrated against the being of the state. And yet the attacks on the black population at this period cannot simply be described as symbolic-cultural – for they are, in a certain way, more profoundly socio-political in as much as they are orientated toward the hegemonic preservation of a mode of production (slavery) which, at the time, was facilitated across an international multi-state network.

But because slavery is not conceived as according to a historical ontology of labour – or to say the same thing, it is not analysed in its aspect as a mode of production but merely articulated as a period of time –the processes which provide both for its historical genesis and its demise remain, of necessity, undisclosed. They are instead replaced by a series of phenomenological appearances which are only ever able to identify the more superficial expressions of the deeper underlying trend. So, Baronov argues that the Draft riots are part of ‘the age of abolition in the Americas’: as the pressure to end slavery accumulated, the backward and reactionary elements clinging to it fought back furiously. But in articulating the age of abolition in the Americas, Baronov has only managed to describe what took place – he has failed to show why it did so. He postulates the era of the modern nation state which, in part, creates ‘a compelling case for peoplehood that unites the population’ (102) – and this, in turn, makes it easier for the exclusion and subjugation of other populations/groups, thus – in his view – underpinning the possibility of modern slavery. But this again begs the question; for it leaves us none the wiser as to why the nation state in its modern form has come into being at this precise juncture in the first place.

A Marxist analysis of the development of modes of production and classes locates the historical necessity in which all such phenomenal manifestations can be grounded. The modern nation state when referred to the Marxist ontology of labour is premised on the development of the capitalist mode of production. Early capitalist development both helps create it, in order to suppress and sweep away the forms of feudal power, and is also premised on it, in as much as the infrastructure it secures is key to a market based economy where there is generalised commodity production. In the same vein, the end of slavery is not to be explained in reference to an ‘age of abolition’; on the contrary ‘the age of abolition’ must be explained by the more fundamental historical emergence and development of capitalist social relations. In fact the American Civil War presupposed precisely this: a conflict between modes of production; a burgeoning industrial capitalism with its basis in free labour and a rural slave economy.

In summary, Baronov’s book is worthy work of philosophy whose shortcomings are as interesting as its strengths; a valuable, thoughtful, though flawed contribution to the study of ontology.

22 April 2015


  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1969 Hegel’s Science of Logic (London: George Allen & Unwin)

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