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Life the Universe and the meaning of everything*

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Marxian materialism is, however, distinct from vulgar or bourgeois materialism because it rejects the very separation between the 'idea' and the material. What is novel in the Marxist formulation of materialism is that 'matter' itself is conceived dialectically. Marx's critique of idealism involves something quite different from, and very much more radical than, a straightforward inversion of idealism's supposed order of priorities, and the inversion metaphor is in important ways misleading.

This  following article  comes  from a blog  entitled  A general theory of rubbish


According to the popular view found in standard accounts, the post Kantian period is to be defined in terms of the classical triumvirate of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. These figures can all be treated under the rubric of one phenomenon called 'German Idealism'. Kant himself must be understood as, together with the Enlightenment, presenting a unified front for the universal primacy of critical reason, against dogmatic authority. Kant was not a 'German Idealist' because his critical philosophy is primarily a form of critical rationality of a mainstream Enlightenment and non-absolutist kind with a relatively modest systemacity in its philosophical components. As opposed to this 'modest' approach, German idealism can be understood as a truly 'speculative' endeavour, i.e. a complete and certain system.

It's important to know from the start that the contrast drawn here does not have much at all to do with modern presumptions surrounding the concept or term 'idealism': indeed, it goes in a direction that is contrary to these presumptions. The fact is that all these German figures had not the slightest thought of denying, transcendentally or even in an empiricist way, the reality of the 'public' world. They were rather very much concerned with affirming this world and the fact that there is only this world, a natural world of matter, not of spirits or dualism. Their self-ascribed term 'idealism' designates not what we would call skepticism or anti-realism but rather their radically optimistic, rationalist, and objective view about the shape of this world and our capacity to know it.Their most basic belief is that we can tell with certainty that there is an 'ideal' underlying pattern to the way that all nature, culture, and history have developed and that it is accessible. But not only that; it is for philosophers not only to discover this pattern but also to expound it in a new manner that rests on nothing more complex than the mere 'idea' of self-consciousness -- demonstrating it in a way that should convince even the hardened skeptic. The idealists' many treatises on the 'vocation of the scholar' and the 'need for philosophy' are meant literally to ground the 'vocation of mankind', for they take their philosophical knowledge to be something that has to be brought to the public, as the necessary stimulus, protector, and completion of the Enlightenment itself. They present a thoroughly optimistic monism.

If all this sounds abstract and far-fetched, simply imagine the unwavering conviction of the modern scientific zealot who thinks of the world as having arrived at its basic destiny by the 18th century, so that essentially all that remains is to root out irrationality, superstition and supernaturalism by means of proper ('natural') scientific education. This form of bourgeois materialism proclaims that the obliteration of superstition and the expansion of knowledge and the productive forces is achieved by an active elite and passive lower class as part of the division of labour. This attitude, however, is structurally isomorphic to German Idealism with the difference being that the Germans thought that the crucial motor for our time was no longer natural science as such --- which they very much respected but did not regard as most fundamental --- but rather 'philosophical science' (it's also worth remembering that unlike today, philosophy then was seen, in its method, as more like 'normal science' than art). Hegel is precisely for this reason the greatest idealist philosopher of all time precisely because he wasn't just an idealist. He tried to do justice to the innovations of modern science and to incorporate the insights of skepticism and empiricism but also privileges highly the role of philosophy itself.

Marx is something different. Most people take off from a famous quote from the 1844 Manuscripts, where Marx argues for a viewpoint beyond both idealism and materialism, a 'fully developed naturalism'. From this one sentence quoted out of context some people leave go of their senses, wrongly concluding that Marx was no materialist after all. Marx was interested in incorporating the insights of German idealism and going beyond the limitations of bourgeois materialism. His naturalism is still materialism, but it's a more evolved kind and there is something else; Marx implicitly redefines the dynamic relationship between idealism and materialism.

Marx, of course, held a materialist view of consciousness. For him, ‘life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’. In the words of the 1859 Preface, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’. The problem, however, is what exactly Marx meant by such claims. A common interpretation, epitomized in the works of Plekhanov or the younger Lenin, is to read Marx as inverting the primacy of the ‘ideal’ -- consciousness, thought, ideas — over the ‘material’ world (allegedly) asserted in German idealism. Where Hegel held that the ideal determined the material, Marx argued the contrary. In a famous formulation, he supposedly found the Hegelian dialectic standing on its head’, and turned it ‘right side up again’. Marx was thus like his materialist philosophical precursors in that, in Lenin'’s words, he ‘takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought, sensations, as secondary’.

Marxian materialism is, however, distinct from vulgar or bourgeois materialism because it rejects the very separation between the 'idea' and the material. What is novel in the Marxist formulation of materialism is that 'matter' itself is conceived dialectically. Marx'’s critique of idealism involves something quite different from, and very much more radical than, a straightforward inversion of idealism’s supposed order of priorities, and the inversion metaphor is in important ways misleading.

"Hegel saw objective history as the successive manifestation of a world spirit. Marx placed the objective movement in the process of production. Hegel had been driven to see the perpetual quest for universality as necessarily confined to the process of knowledge. Marx reversed this and rooted the quest for universality in the need for the free and full development of all the inherent and acquired characteristics of the individual in productive and intellectual labour. Hegel had made the motive force of history the work of a few gifted individuals in whom was concentrated the social movement. Marx propounded the view that it was only when the ideas seized hold of the masses that the process of history moved. Hegel dreaded the revolt of the modern mass. Marx made the modern proletarian revolution the motive force of modern history."
What Marx does, in criticizing Hegel and his ‘left’ followers — Stirner, Bauer, and the rest — is first and foremost to deny the very existence of the ‘ideal’ as a separable entity. The ‘cunning of reason’, the ‘spirit of the age’, Hegel’s Weltgeist, the Young Hegelians’ ‘self-consciousness’, and so on, cannot for Marx be the subjects of history for the simple reason that they do not exist. They are reifications: philosophers’ fictions, abstractions made flesh, speculative constructions. Idealist history is 'an imagined activity of imagined subjects' --- Marx's materialism then, is the negation of a myth.

Marx even gives us a handy cut-out-and-keep-guide to understanding the way that consciousness is separated away from real living individuals and transformed into an independently acting concretized subject in its own right by the idealists.

"The whole trick of proving the hegemony of the spirit in history... is thus confined to the following three efforts.

No. 1. One must separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as empirical individuals, from these actual rulers, and thus recognize the rule of ideas or illusions in history.

No. 2. One must bring an order into this rule of ideas, prove a mystical connection among the successive ruling ideas, which is managed by understanding them as "acts of self- determination on the part of the concept"...

"No. 3. To remove the mystical appearance of this "self-determining concept" it is changed into a person -- "Self-Consciousness" -- or, to appear thoroughly materialistic, into a series of persons, who represent the "concept" in history, into the "thinkers", the "philosophers," the ideologists, who again are understood as the manufacturers of history."

With such ‘conjuring tricks’, consciousness ceases to be an attribute of real individuals, and is instead transformed into an independently-acting historical subject in its own right, the ‘spirit of the age’, or whatever. The concept is mistakenly concretized as an entity. In Marx’'s words, ‘first of all, an abstraction is made from a fact; then it is declared that the fact is based upon the abstraction’.

Marx’s denial of the determining role of the ideal in history, then, is based on a prior denial of the very existence of the ideal as a separable entity. Consciousness is precisely not a thing in itself, and the fundamental error of the idealists is to treat it as such, to attribute to ‘conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness . . . an independent existence’. Where for idealism ‘the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual’, Marx'’s starting-point is ‘the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness’... Consciousness is ‘my relationship to my surroundings’ ‘can never be anything else than conscious existence’. These passages all come from The German Ideology. But nearly 30 years later, in that same text in which Marx speaks of setting the Hegelian dialectic ‘right side up again’, his criticism is exactly the same, and not one he rejected later after some mythical "epistemological break", -- that the ideal subject of Hegel’s historiography is a purely fictitious one: "the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought", so that when Marx writes that we must ‘discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell,’ the ‘rational kernel’ is the dialectic itself, while the ‘mystical shell’ is speculative philosophy. The only subjects of history, he insists, are ‘real, living individuals’ themselves, and as James makes clear...
"without the dialectic of Hegel, the idealism of Hegel could not be destroyed. But the dialectic of Hegel could be retained and expanded only by the concept of the creative activity of the masses".
The way forward for idealists is to point out the errors of thought of 'bad thinkers' (just as our modern liberal takes issue with the US electorate for voting the 'wrong' way), and at the same time, these 'postivists' recognize that thought is limited, yet for them there are no areas set aside to which thought is not to be applied. This opinion of the liberal positivists is itself in fact a contradiction. That we do not know everything does not mean at all that what we do know is the nonessential and what we do not know, the essential. Since one’s view of the world is determined by ones position in a system of production relations, then thought alone cannot change that reality.Transendence of 'false consciousness' (i.e. if there is a 'truth' then it follows that some forms of consciousness are false) or 'bad thinking' is in this sense going to mean an active move towards a mode of consciousness that is (or can be) true and which is action that brings one’s projects and beliefs into harmony with the world (what a materialist would term praxis). In this way praxis is activity that removes the necessity for false consciousness. At a time of revolutionary praxis this activity strips away false consciousness and reveals the participants true social nature.

If consciousness ceases to be regarded as ‘a living individual’, but instead is recognized as an attribute or predicate of ‘real living individuals’ themselves, then the material existence of these individuals can no longer be conceptualized in ways which exclude their consciousness. The reason inversion is so inadequate a metaphor for this critique should by now be evident. What Marx actually does is to challenge the terms material and ideal themselves. He denies the validity of the distinction of material and ideal, as previously drawn, — (including by vulgar materialists) — in the first place, and it is the presumed separability of the two which forms the specific target of his attack. Material and ideal can be separated, for the social world, only at the cost of paying no heed to both.

*Not literal meaning alert.

Created by keza
Last modified 2004-12-02 07:25 PM

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