Sunday, July 27, 2014

Précis: Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach"

Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" challenges a competing version of materialist philosophy on the basis that it is both flawed and ineffective. In particular, the argument is directed toward Feuerbach's conceptions of human beings and society. According to the critiques in this text, Feuerbach's view of society is one that separates human social reality from material reality, and characterizes both humans and society as a static objects. Society is a thing with a definite nature, rather than a dynamic set of circumstances that both shapes human beings and is actively shaped by them. For Marx, such conceptions both incorrectly perceive the world and human society, and preclude the possibility of action to make a better world than the one we already have.
The text consists of eleven somewhat self-contained but interconnected ideas. This organization seems meant to clearly outline the logic behind the argument, and the clearly outlined structure helps to convey the attempt at an appearance of scientificity behind Marx's philosophical project. The connections interlinking each step of the argument however are not always explicit, and it seems the reader is meant to do the work of recognizing these connections on his/her own.
The primary critique is that "the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively." Viewing the world as an "object" rather than an activity restricts philosophical inquiry into our world to mere description of the nature of things, rather than granting human beings a role in its creation. While versions of materialism allow for people to be shaped by the circumstances of the world, they don't allow for the world to be shaped by people. For Marx, people are changed by their circumstances, but people also actively change the circumstances of the world. He suggests the use of "revolutionary practice," the "coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing," or, in other words, the intentional engagement of people in the world to change the social circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Another important critique of Feuerbach's brand of materialism is directed toward his view of the essence of humanity, which Marx calls a "dumb generality." The human essence is seen as those characteristics that can be located in all humans, which is "dumb" because it is incapable of really saying anything. For instance, the "religious sentiment" is conceived as one inherent feature of a human being, and such inherently human features constitute the essence of humanity. The obvious falsehood of a natural "religious sentiment" of all humans aside, this way of talking about human nature is akin to saying the essential nature of humans is that we all have skin and hair. What does this way of thinking actually accomplish? It does not enable the kind of critical project that Marx would like to engage in. Instead, conceiving of humans in this way leads to other flawed conceptions, like "civil society," which imagines society as a definite thing that occurs when you put a bunch of definite "single individuals" together. If single individuals and civil society are definite things with definite natures, we ask questions like "What is society?" rather than questions like "What possibilities exist for changing it?" Instead of "civil society," Marx suggests we should conceive of human life as "social humanity" which is something more like a collectively made world than a definite object that can be ideally described.
The real essence of humanity for Marx is "the ensemble of the social relations." The human essence is not a set of isolable characteristics located in each human individual, but the big picture produced by the view of a collectivity of all humans living in a shared world. Since this world is changeable, there is no static human essence. And a feature such as the "religious sentiment" is not an inherent characteristic of humans, but is itself a "social product," produced by this "ensemble of social relations." Feuerbach gets lost chasing the nature of humans as a set of shared characteristics and misses that the characteristics he locates are not natural, but produced.
Ultimately, Marx's critique is directed at the nature of this brand of philosophy as a whole: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." For Marx, Feuerbach's kind of philosophy is a purely descriptive project, which both fails to actually describe anything, and fails to enable action. Revolutionary practice is an active, prescriptive project, which asks not "What is the essential nature of the world?" but "How can we make a world that we want to have?" The previous kind of philosophical project, in its insistence on accurate description of a definite, fixed nature of reality, excludes the possibility of such prescriptive or world-making projects. And it is through this revolutionary practice that one can come to find truths that actually help us work toward something, rather than studying the society-thing as if we are gazing into a fish tank:

"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth -- i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."

Marx rejects that purely philosophical questions about whether human ideas represent objective reality are useful questions, the truth or falsehood of a human idea can be demonstrated through real-world practice. An idea is true if you can prove it through demonstration. This also shows the scientificity of Marx's thinking, if we take the essence of science to be something like the attempt to find conceptions that work through active, critical experimentation. But perhaps it goes beyond this kind of scientific inquiry, in suggesting also that we can make our ideas true by making the world in the image of our ideas? If we can prove the truth through practice, and the point of this practice is not to merely interpret the world, but to change it, then we can make the world that we desire into the true world.


Sydney said...

Thanks for your post! I found your explanation of Marx’s project and his famous “the point is to change it” quotation as working toward not the question of "What is the essential nature of the world?" but rather "How can we make a world that we want to have?" to be particularly helpful to my understanding of the text.

Every time I read Marx I get uncomfortable about how he places so much weight on purposive human activity (this is seen even more so in “Idealism and Materialism,” in which he repeatedly makes mention of the “definite” labor of “real, active men”). His privileging of certain forms of human agency always irks me, as does his reliance on empiricism, and yet the beauty of his world-making project (which you articulated so nicely) is what brings me back. Do you or anyone else feel these tensions in the text and, if so, how you deal with them?

J Seagull said...

Thanks for your kind words, Sydney. I understand the tension you are pointing at, but I think maybe it has something to do with using words in different ways, as lame as that sounds. For example, in the text you're mentioning, the word "definite" is being used in a very different way from how I am using it, and I'll even admit that might not have been the best word for me to choose. When Marx says something like: "they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will." I think he's basically just saying, you can't grow 20 tons of wheat on one acre of land, and no one can singlehandedly build a house in a day. The physical world has finite limitations. And the possible kinds of social relations that can be built up from a finite material basis will itself be limited in the way it appears or emerges. I remember he was talking about the nature of Feudalism and other social forms. And I think he just means that, using the Feudalism example, that material circumstances influenced what that ended up looking like, though maybe he gets too specific sometimes and seems to say that feudalism would have definitely looked exactly the way it did, no matter what, because of the specific material circumstances. But I haven't looked at this text since a couple of weeks ago when we read that so I could be talking complete bullshit here.

Anyway..... When I was using the word "definite" to describe the flawed way that Feuerbach looks at people (and by the way I've never read Feuerbach, I'm only doing my best to interpret what Marx says Feuerbach's claims are), I just meant something like, he sees people as having a certain set of unchanging characteristics that can be identified and then used as the basis for other questions, something like that. Whereas when Marx talks about "definite" labor, or "definite" material limits, he is saying that at some moment or in some situation there exist specific conditions from which something else emerges. I hope that makes sense!

Since I'm a rhetorician AND a scientist, I often feel myself pulled in different directions by many of these texts. I'm still working on making my empiricist-brain and my other-brain get along with each other. But I don't think there is a conflict between saying, on the one hand, that specific material conditions can produce specific results, and on the other hand, there are plenty of other things we can talk about that aren't necessarily about that.

J Seagull said...

Oh and just because the back of my mind won't stop thinking about this.....

So, when Feuerbach identifies something like "religious sentiment" as a fundamental human trait, he is taking that as the starting point for further ideas or inquiry, and Marx is saying, no, the fact of religious sentiment among humans is a social product, not an inherent trait of humans, and furthermore there are two different types of flaws happening in the same idea. On the one hand, seeing religious sentiment as a naturally occurring trait of humans is incorrect, and on the other hand, the project of identifying the essence of humanity in terms of the set of shared traits common to all humans is a pointless project that doesn't have anything to offer us in terms of tools to make a better world.

Sydney Rock said...

Thanks for your comments! They're causing me to take more time with Marx--in the past I've read him as kind of essentialist (when he writes of the division of labor within the family, for example, he seems to naturalize certain forms of gendered labor), but I think your comments speak to the ways that he often resists essentialism through an understanding of history. Thus, when he writes that "the nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production," he seems to offer up a different, non-essentialist conception of nature that sees is at dynamic and socially and historically produced. This is starting to complicate the text for me in an interesting way!

J Seagull said...

Yeah, I've also remembered reading bits of Marx that totally made me go WTF too, but at the same time I do think he is more nuanced and clever than he is sometimes given credit for. We should talk more about this at some point!