H*lp and the Preface

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Sun Apr 9 18:30:56 MDT 1995


To judge by the recurrence of the theme, people on this list are worried
by the specter of "hard determinism"--the thought that all our actions are
fully determined (probabilistically or no) by causes which we do not
affect (say, which started before we were born) and which which cannot
change, and in a way that undermines any claim we might to be moral agents
responsible for our actions. I doubt whether teasing Marx's language will
offer a great deal of insight into this question. I suspect that Marx
works with the same set of intuitions as the rest of us, that we are
constrained in various ways, but not utterly, at least not in ways
that make us mere machines. Thus, "Men [and women' make their own history,
but not just as they please."

However, saying that Marx holds this position, as it is manifest that he
does, does nor show that it is coherent or intelligible. I am sorry to
report that several thousand years of philosophical thinking about the
issue have created metaphysical tangles without much clarity. When
discussing freedom, Rousseau explicitly disavowed thinking about the
metaphysical issues--an approach which anyone who has wrestled with them
can sympathize with. Unfortunately Chris Burford's attempt is not progress:

>
> I think we humans have three common experiences of causal
> association:
>
> 1) when a decision is made and an act follows
>
> 2) mechanically, when a lever moves and a tap opens with perfect
> reliability
>
> 3) the momentum of the interacting processes of the natural
> world, (including the self-orgnising processes of the subset of
> living things)
>
>
> I think that Marx and Engels were describing both the
> particularity and the general momentum of the third type of
> sequential phenomena and I think this is completely consistent
> with modern scientific paradigms influenced by dynamical systems
> theories.
>
> I dislike the mechanistic paradigm of science which I think has
> tortured Marx this century and so many other branches of human
> understanding.

The problem is that interacting processes in the natural world are fully
determined, although in many cases by probabilistic laws. Just because
there are complicated and sensitive to initial conditions does not mean
that they involve anything like _agency_, the first sense that Chris
mentions. Unpredictability doesn't help either. Agents are often
predictable. Lack of predictability is not what makes us agents. And being
dismissive about "the mechanistic paradigm of science," whatever that is,
doesn't help.

I suspect that Marx would dismiss this worry as a "merely scholastic
question," and say that we can just help ourselves to a notion of agency
something like that found in our commonsense conception of action. We have
to acknowledge that it's constrained by circumstances, and we can describe
what these are. At the social level the constraints are never so tight as
to determine a single outcome, so at the level of abstraction at which
Marxists think, the problem doesn't arise. That's what I'd think he'd say.
Whether this is satisfactory, of course, depends in part on whether it is
true and whether the commonsense notion of agency is coherent.

AT a deeper level Marx has interesting things to say about freedom as
self-determination, making our aims our own. If we want to look at Marx's
specific contribution to the free will debate, we might do better to look
at those passages, e.g., the section in the Grundrisse where Marx says
that "the overcoming of obstacles is a liberating activity, and that,
further, the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely
external natural urges and become posited as aims which the individual
himself posits--hence as self-realization, objectification of the subject,
hence as real freedom, whose action is precisely labor" (Nicolaus trans,
p. 611). That is, look at the freedom side rather than the determination
side. I think here Marx might have something helpful to say, if, as the
quoted passage indicates (and it's not quite right as a translation--I
could discuss this), something less than clear.

But we can take it as read that someone as committed to freedom as a
central value as Marx is does not hold a deterministic theory of action or
picture of history. He may be wrong, however, not to do so. I suppose the
only reason to dwell on this is that ant-Marxists and post-Marxists like
to characterize Marx in implausibly rigidly deterministic terms, unless we
are worried about the metaphysics of freedom. The issue interests me, so
if someone wants to talk about the freedom as self-determination passages
in Marx, I'd be happy to join in. Not that I have a theory myself.

--Justin Schwartz







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