DIALECTICS: THE VIOLENCE OF ABSTRACTION 2 -Reply
EQDOMAIN.EQWQ.LROGERS at email.state.ut.us
Mon Apr 10 11:03:35 MDT 1995
This is great. I probably don't see all the implications because I
have little exposure to the "mind-wringing" Dumain mentions- just
enough to know that I'd rather avoid it.
Now, I've found another place where I enjoy and agree with Marx'
insight (even if I do take off from there in an unusual direction for
a Marxist) - one cannot separate spirit from matter. Yes! I include
in this the idea that one cannot "transcend" one's physical nature
and that "culture" did not magically "raise us above the beasts".
>>> Ralph Dumain <rdumain at igc.apc.org> 4/8/95, 01:38am >>>
SUMMARY & COMMENTARY BY R. DUMAIN -- PART 2
Sayer, Derek. THE VIOLENCE OF ABSTRACTION: THE ANALYTIC
FOUNDATIONS OF HISTORICAL MATERIALISM. Oxford; Cambridge, MA:
Basil Blackwell, 1989. (Ideas)
Chapter 4 ('Ideal superstructures') is a real eye-opener. Let's cut
to the chase:
"In my view, Marx's critique of idealism involves something quite
different from, and very much more radical than, this
straight-forward inversion of idealism's supposed order of
priorities, and the inversion metaphor is in important ways
misleading. What Marx does, in criticizing Hegel and his 'left'
followers .... 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 .... Marx's central criticism of idealist
history is that it is 'an imagined activity of imagined subjects'".
The whole point is that the products of consciousness are denied an
independent existence, and consciousness is the consciousness of real
subjects [p. 86].
"But it is equally important to realize that the other term in the
equation -- the 'material' -- is also and _ipso facto_ transformed.
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 material premise from which historical
materialism starts is not, abstractly, 'matter', as opposed to
'spirit' .... It is 'real individuals. their activity and the
material conditions under which they live' ... -- real individuals
who are amongst other things conscious, and act on the basis of their
Can I stress this argument enough? Please read it over and over
until you see its implications. All the wasted mental hand-wringing
(mind-wringing) over Marx's initial conceptualization of ideology,
being, and consciousness -- it is to weep.
Sayer goes on to marshal Marx's comments on Feuerbach and his work
18TH BRUMAIRE to drive home his argument.
"Marx is precisely unlike his materialist precursors, in his
inclusion, within what he understood as the realm of material life,
of those attributes of human beings -- the 'active side' -- which
were previously separated off under the illusory guise of the ideal.
Indeed, what he retained from the idealist tradition, whilst
resituating it in terms of the natural history of humanity rather
than the biography, was a conception of the internality of the
relation between what Spinoza called thought and extension.
The reason inversion is so inadequate a metaphor for this critique
should by now be evident. The metaphor suggests a simple reversal of
terms -- 'material' and 'ideal' -- which leaves their referents
intact." [p. 87-88]
Has the matter ever been stated more plainly? Think of how much ink
has been spilled over the question of Marx's materialism, citing
Marx's 'naturalism' that unites the truth of both materialism and
"Now it is notable (and usually goes totally unremarked in
commentary) that the structure of Marx's argument against the
historical primacy of (ostensibly) other elements of what is normally
taken to be the superstructure -- in particular, law and state -- is
identical with that of his critique of idealism. His denial of
superstructural primacy, just as with that of the primacy of 'the
ideal' more generally, rests on a prior denial of superstructural
_independence_ -- 'relative' or otherwise." [p.
If, with Cohen and 'traditional historical materialism', and with
'relative autonomy' theorists, we see the 'economic structure of
society' as exclusive of morality, law, religion, science, art,
politics, and the rest, then we have to conclude from these curt
propositions that Marx was indeed an economic determinist, and a
pretty vulgar one at that. This is implausible, given the
oft-remarked undeterministic character of any of his substantive
historical analyses .... His concern is to deny that law, religion,
politics and so on have a history in themselves, which is independent
of that of production and its social relations, He does not say
these are epiphenomenal, secondary, subordinate, or otherwise
marginal factors in history as such. The two claims are very
different." [p. 89]
Sayer further sees this very reification of concepts as a consequence
of social relations, particularly of the division of labor [p. 92].
Note that _The German Ideology_ is heavily cited in this chapter.
Also important for understanding the Hegel connection is
understanding (for which Sayer credits Patrick
Murray) Marx's reliance on Hegel's logic of essence [p. 93]
There is much more detail to this chapter, but what a fresh breeze.
Your Bhaskar can bite me and your anal-ytical philosophers can kiss
my anus, 'cause today Sayer is my only sunshine.
[end of part 2. I may write a part 3 on chapter 6.]
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