Praxis and Human Essence --from Fellini

fellini at fellini at
Wed Apr 12 15:32:58 MDT 1995

Hello all,

I would like to make some comments about different discussions
going on in the list now. But my message will consist in two parts.

First, sorry Lisa, I was not able to answer to your question
about the relations between 'interests' and preferences, but it
appears that it was not necesarry to intervene with the discussion,
for the comments by Howie Chodos and others are quite
interesting, and I have nothing to add them at this point.  I
believe it is a good starting point to think about the importance
of false consciousness, and, as you said, the notion of human
nature in Marx, and its difference from the Neoclassical
conception. So, I would like to have few comments about the
notion of human nature, (or 'essential human nature', or the
human 'essence', whatever).

My starting point is the same with Richard's:

>>>>I'm not a very good theoretician ... I'm always accused of
being too much the  Generalist ... but ... praxis is directed
action, rooted in theoretical principles. This may be a good
solid starting point for understanding interests and action.
Anything else mires us in a psychological swampland.

   Regards, Richard
   rspear at <<<<<

Neither am I, but I agree with him on that the idea of praxis is
a solid starting point. In my understanding of praxis, the
concept refers to all kinds of activities; but it must be
understood as referring to the free, universal, and self-creative
activity through which man creates (transforms) his world and
himself (I am just using the word "man" as the "agent", following
the tradition). In other words, while human intentionality is a
necessary condition for praxis, man can be regarded as a being of
praxis; he can only exist in praxis [Gajo Petrovic, "Praxis," in
T. Bottomore (ed.), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Basil
Blackwell, 1991, p. 435.]

It seems to me that praxis refers to "consciousness", not only in
the sense of a "state of mind", but also in the sense of an "act"; or
to put it other way, praxis is also a theory for thinking (as in
the claim "Consciousness can never be anything other than
conscious existence"-- German Ideology)

In this regard, I have recently read a very interesting article
by Joseph Margolis [" The Novelty of Marx's Theory of Praxis,"
Journal for The Theory of Social Behaviour, Vol. 19, No. 4
(December 1989), pp. 367-410.]  According to Margolis,

     ...what is genuinely radical about the theory lies with
     Marx's refusal to segregate facultatively, as one might
     say, thinking and acting. Marx opposed the entire
     classical picture of an essential, essentially
     unchanging, fit between the autonomous rational and
     cognitive powers of human agents and a discernible
     independent world confronted through the contingencies
     of human history. _Thinking itself is a history_.
     (Margolis 1989: 368)

And for him praxis as

     a theory of thinking is a theory of what, inseparably
     within the process of human action, may be abstracted
     regarding the formation and saliency of concepts,
     interests, use and play of concepts and interests in
     the determinate episodes of producing and reproducing
     life and the conditions of life. Correspondingly, there
     is for Marx no way of analyzing human action without
     attending to the processes by which the historicized
     formation and transformation of thinking affect and are
     intrinsically embodied in the diachronic forms of
     manifest action. Ultimately there is no division
     between a theory of thinking and a theory of action:
     human action is interested and purposive, and thinking
     is the reflexive element of distinctly human action.
     (pp. 368-69)

I think such a conception can be found, in Marx, especially in
the German Ideology and Marx's theses on Feuerbach, and of course
in 1844 Manuscripts. For example in Theses Marx argues:

* "The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of
Feuerbach included) 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.

Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the _active_ side was
developed abstractly by idealism -- which, of course, does not
know real, sensuous activity as such." (TH. 1)

* Thruth is a practical problem (in TH 2)

* "circumstances are changed by men and that it is
essential to educate the educator himself." (TH 3)

* "the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single
individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real
essence, is consequently compelled:

     1.  To abstract from the historical process and to fix the
         religious sentiment as something by itself and to
         presuppose an abstract -- isolated -- human individual.

      2.  Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as
          "genus", as an internal, dumb generality which
          naturally unites the many
          individuals."  (TH 6)

* "All social life is essentially practical.  All mysteries which
lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human
practice and in the comprehension of this practice."  (TH 8)

In such a conception of praxis, human "essence" just refers to a
set of social relationships (without forgetting individuality).
And therefore, there is no a single, unchanging human
essence, as the Neoclassical/RCT accepts.

Again, in the _Critique of Hegel's doctrine of the State_, Marx,
when he criticizes Hegel's conclusion about the monarch as being
the embodiment of the Idea, argues:

     Hegel's purpose is to narrate the life-history of
     abstract substance, of the Idea, and in such a history
     human activity etc. necessarily appears as the activity
     and product of something other than itself; he
     therefore represents the essence of man as an imaginary
     detail instead of allowing it to function in terms of
     its _real human_ existence.

Therefore, our premise must be to begin with the real human
existence, rather than to seek a single unchanging conception of
human essence. (In _German Ideology_, Marx and Engels argue that
" the first premise of all human eexistence, and hence history"
is that " man must be able to live in order to be able to 'make
history'"; I take it as a necessary premise for historical materialism)

These quations can be extended easily. In this regard, I think
there is a remarkable continuity and consistency between "early"
Marx and the "mature" Marx of Capital; for example, I think, in
Ch. 7 of _Capital_ the notion of the "labor process" is nothing
but a reformulation of the idea of praxis in early Marx.

But if we agree that praxis is the necessary starting point, I
think we are led to some interesting conclusions. These
conclusions will be in the second part of the message.



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