Reply to Nestor: history, dialectics, research, action (was: Comment on sexuality)
bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Jul 26 14:24:15 MDT 2003
I agree with you, Jurriaan, in that "human" and "natural" are
_relative_ distinctions. Only that Marx _never_ blurred the fact that
there were, so to say, "axiological levels" within the dialectics of
self-deploying matter. One of the ways in which these levels can be
grasped is, among others, the existence of a "human-&-natural" realm
of material reality, and a different, somehow "lower" level, that one
would term the "unhuman-&-natural" level. The basic difference
between both IMHO residing in that the "human-&-
natural" realm of organisation of matter, human societies, provides
the medium and tool for matter -metaphorically- to attempt to
"understand itself" as well as the relations that link matter and
energy in the general environment of Universe.
Yes, Christopher Caudwell made a similar point, but it is not clear
that the natural level is "lower" than the human level, one could just as
well say that they are just different levels. "Understand self" presumably
to change the situation in a way appropriate to achieving human
purposes and generate more freedom, behavioural flexibility, a lomger
life, and so on.
Marx turned Hegel's dialectics "upside down" but did not reject it:
the repeated operation of Aufhebung actually allowed for the creation
of _new realms_ of material reality (in Hegel, of individual
consciousness), each one of a higher level than the one it was
produced by, mainly because it was able to "understand", thus
control, the "lower" level.
But there may not be any ontological hierarchy in the sense of the
medieval "great chain of being". That hierarchy may only exist in the
mind, being defined according to a set of or scale of human values.
Thus, there is no mechanicist counterposition between matter and
spirit, natural and human. What we have is a dialectically developing
contradiction within matter that eventually generates the human world
as (dialectically) against non-human world. This is, at least, my
profane's reading of Marx on these issues.
Yes, that is I think basically correct, except that the contradiction within
matter evolves into a contradiction within the social world. George Novack
does an amusing sketch about this in his little book "Understanding
As to Marx's quotes from the _German Ideology"_, I must tell you,
Jurriaan, that I have been lucky enough to read Engels's _Feuerbach_
before M&E's _German Ideology_. In the _Introduction_, Engels tells
us what did M&E believe of the "old manuscript that we gladly left to
the criticism of mice" (at the same time, he raises the _Theses on
Feuerbach_ to the level of the "first formulation of the new
doctrine", or words to that effect).
But what hinges on this ?
The _German Ideology_ displays the first stage (or moment) in the
development of dialectical materialism, but only the _first_ moment,
which consists in the proposition of a consequent materialist
understanding of history in antithesis against the consequent
idealism of the Left Hegelians. The _German Ideology_, thus, doesn't
IMHO reflect anything but a good version of _historical_ materialism
(which I find very useful, BTW, against every idealist misconception
of history): the idea that facts in the realm of "spirit" have no
immanence, are not self-explanatory, cannot be understood without
their material roots.
Well I don't even think Marx necessarily rules that out, spiritual matters
might have an immanence, however,
his criticism is aimed at the way the philosophers he targets go about
gaining knowledge, and the claims that
they make for this knowledge.
Since what we are debating here is _dialectical_ materialism, I am
not very sure that your own quotation of the _German Ideology_ is
very useful in our debate, nor to understand this that I am painfully
trying to explore in my own very limited way.
I thought it was useful because Marx says that the human-inhuman distinction
does change through history and is therefore historically relative, but at
the same time, these changes are not random but determinateand explicable in
terms of contradictions within material and social reality.
What we are debating, if I am not wrong, is the concrete,
dialectical, way in which "human" and "natural" contradict each other
within a capitalist social formation (more pointedly, in the most
intimate contradictions of human beings belonging to such a
formation). The idea that every expression of this contradiction,
even spiritual expressions, is "natural" is common to both your
approach, Jurriaan, and that of yours truly, so that I don't see any
need to resort at this point to the old volume that miraculously
escaped M&E's objective will (which was, in the end, to provide for
rodents' metabolic needs).
I am not sure this is the topic, I was talking about sexuality, and you
offer a more general theoretical framework. The question to ask is, does
this contradiction between "human" and "natural" exist only in my head, does
it exist in my relationship with the external world, or does it exist in
mind-independent reality ?
"The tendency [for creative revolts against perceived inhumanity
to be commercially exploited] existed before", you write, Jurriaan.
And this is exactly what I am trying to point to. What I try to stress,
is that the tendency was (and is) _built into capitalism_, particularly in
the general phenomenon of alienation (Entausserung) through
_widespread and generalized commoditisation of individual selves_
under the conditions of advanced capitalism (1).
Yes, but now I am looking for a strategy to overcome that, knowing
full well that markets cannot be done away with quickly and totally.
I object this research agenda [of comapring civilisations],
because I find it mechanicist and
undialectical. The dialectical method tries to superate the
classical antinomies of rationalism, which your paragraph above IMHO
displays adamantly. Dialecticians start by assuming that
(a) it is _impossible_ to understand that which is historical from
"outside" or from "beyond". This is not a Marxist problem, but a
rationalist or empiricist (that is an atomistic) problem. Since the
whole set of social relations within a capitalist formation
(particularly so within an advanced capitalist formation) tends to
generate an atomistic consciousness, I don't find it outrageous that
you have so naturally drifted towards this particular conclusion,
I am not making any particular gnosological claim, I am just saying that
in practice it is difficult, it is difficult to do this, because in order to
correctly contextualise the meanings of practices within a social
totality separate and different from your own, you need to do a lot
of work, a lot of "translation", and as anyone knows, in translation
there is an irreducible loss of original meaning. It is all very well
if e.g. you have a text and know the language in which it is written,
but if you don't know the language, well then the translation process
gets more difficult.
But this is quite an old problem, a problem that was detected by the
philosophers of tragedy (that is of the unmediated, unsolved
contradiction) such as Pascal, Kant. And the task of overcoming this
problem was was the task of the philosophers of the mediated,
historically solved contradiction, that is the philosophers of
dialectics: Hegel and Marx. IMHO, in the realm of that which is
historical, dialectical thinking is the only way to circumvent the -
in the end, false- opposition between "value" and "fact".
Yes, I basically agree, nobody ever observed a fact flying around the
room, this requires a prior valuation of significance, and the question
arises, what gives rise to this valuation of significance to that we note
the "fact" that something is flying through the room.
The fact is that we cannot set ourselves "outside" history, we can't
thus separate both aspects of reality (values and facts), because
when we are trying to understand the human world (unlike, say, the
world of outer space, thus astronomy), we are _at the same time a
part_ of that world. Any choice of "common characteristics" will,
from the very onset of the research, contain values which cannot (and
_should not_) be sanitized. We thus cannot "find some common
characteristics which make the comparison possible", because these
"common characteristics" will always be "formal" and "abstract".
I agree, as Marx says, one cannot squat outside society, and even an
astronaut is still connected with, and within a social framework. But this
is not the point, the point is, that some values enable objective
to be reached, others don't, and then the question arises, "which values are
they ?". Transhistorical categories are not necessarily formal and abstract,
because they still apply to a finite period of time, in fact, I understand
dialectics to be saying that all categories are time-bound and thus
historical relative in some sense ("everything is transient" in some sense).
This principle does not apply to formal logic, where we abstract from time
in order to reason with symbols and operators whose meaning remains
If we want to broach the issue at all, it is in "the whole-parts
dialectics", not in the terrain of formal comparison, that we can
find a path ahead. This path ahead, however, will not be established
on the slimy ground of (b) 'the point of view of an unchanging
"human anthropological core" which defines what human nature',
either, as you suggest and immediately (which is a mild way to
put it) 'find difficult to do'. There is no "unchanging human
anthropological core" for a dialectical point of view.
Well, there may be, for all practical purposes. In practical life,
you must assume that human beings will all respond and behave
in definite sorts of ways, because of the fact that they are human
beings. Hence Marx talks about "species-being" (Gattungswesen)
and "species activity" to denote humanised activities. If there
is no anthropological core which is at least durable, then it
becomes difficult to understand processes such as dehumanisation,
humanisation and alienation/detachment of human characteristics.
So I can accept that some human characteristics are relatively
permanent and may be taken as a given. This is important for
socialist politics, because we want to argue that a socialist
society is possible to achieve, because the nature of human
beings is such that they can achieve it, and that it would allow
them to develop their humanity better. (This is covered in
Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature, Verso)
For such a point of view, that "core" is at most the _changing
expression of a permanently evolving contradiction_ between the
individual existences of separate (2) members of a collective entity
("humankind") permanently tending to reorganize the whole of the
material world ("humankind" included) in order to better satisfying
those needs... which change in the very process of their
This may be true, but we can recognise change only against some
constant. For example, I wear a watch. The watch has a clockface
with numbers. The hands of the clockface rotate, the numbers stay
constant. In this way, I am able to tell the time. If both the numbers
and the hands on the clockface rotate, I do not know what time it
is anymore, I know nothing. In order to engage in stimulus
discrimination or stimulus generalisation, a living organism needs
a constant against which it can identify and recognise change or
variation. The only thing which dialectics adds here, is to say
that the "constant", whatever it is, is also time-bound and not
eternal, that the constant is only relatively constant, but ultimately
it is also transient.
Again, the only way to avoid wreckage is a dialectic, whole-part,
research agenda. In fact, both ideas (that we can find some formal
starting point and that we can find a common, unchanging, core of
"humanity") are expressions of the IMHO un-dialectical separation of
"value" and "fact" in things human.
That whole-part research agenda sounds sexy, but what does it mean ?
I suspect the contradiction is different: it is between active and passive
aspects of the subject itself, the contradiction between object and
subject conceived alternately actively and passively, and the conradiction
between passive and active aspects within the object itself.
However, you yourself, Jurriaan, understand that both approaches are
at least quite difficult ("But I find that difficult to do"), so that
we can safely discard them, all the above being simply a statement of
faith by yours truly.
No, I said it is practically difficult to generalise about a completely
civilisation or mode of production, a lot of work, which raises a lot
of epistemic problems.
However, you go on, Jurriaan, and state that for "Marx, the basis for
that comparison is the modalities of human labour and its
exploitation, as a relatively constant factor in human
history" which I agree with albeit I would only add that this
"comparison" is not predicated on (distinct, separate) abstract
"modalities" but on the whole of human history as mediated by
contradictions between the "modalities" and their own development in
the task of ensuring individual existence to the members of each
social whole thus organized.
But now you agree with me, because you accept that for Marx
there are some constants, albeit relative constants, which allow us
to specify patterns of determination, regularities, that allow for
social science to get off the ground. I am just saying, that even if
you have that, the task is still difficult in parctice. I might say,
now that I have read Marx, now I understand History. But I
don't, it is still a lot of work to understand it.
In this sense, I find it hard to follow your usage of the preposition
"but" in the following: "but what we are talking about here among
other things, is human meaning, the meanings attached by people to
the social and natural world." Meaning is not an abstract thing.
Meaning is a component of human
action. And it is the existence of "meaning" that divides, so to
say, the human from the natural. As Marx somewhere in Capital, I,
states, the worst beehive built by a human being is "superior" to the
most admirable beehive built by a bee in the fact that the "human
beehive" existed in the worker's mind before it was materialized.
But if you are dialectical, you realise that the distinction between
planned, premeditated activity and instinctual, sensorimotor activity
may be jolly difficult to draw. Meaning is both abstract and specific,
we need both. For example, I talk about prostitution and then you
get very abstract and talk about history, humanity, nature and so
forth seeking to place the issue in a broader frame of reference.
When Marx distinguishes humans from bees and identifies
conscious, deliberately purposive activity as a species characteristic
of human beings, he is again identifying an enduring human
characteristic. Of course, monkeys also have this characteristic
to some extent, but, I suppose Marx would say, this is not a
defining characteristic for the species activity of a monkey.
I don't think that this distinction should be taken in a crassly
materialistic sense (that is, humans draw blueprints). What we have
is something much deeper. The human-made beehive implies the (at
least potential) consciousness that there is a contradiction to be
solved between the metabolic needs of human beings and the
opportunities that "raw Nature" offers these beings to fulfill them.
The human built beehive, among others and centrally, implies a
general idea of the Whole, of the fact that honey is a part of human
life, that it solves some particular human (thus social) need, and
consciously subjects all the beehive building operations to the
necessities of the whole. Beehive construction by a non-honey
producing animal thus, shows that this animal has been able to
generate its own symbolic representation of a whole which includes
I don't dispute this, I like this idea of a honey solving a need a lot,
but what epistemic claim are you making here, exactly ?
>From this point of view, what follows does not make much
sense (at least for me): Our real ability to transcend the meanings
of our own civilisation are limited, even in anthropological science,
if it is genuinely
inspired by the desire for humanisation. Our historical consciousness
is simply not that great, and the possibilities for reinterpreting
the past anew are virtually endless."
That the possibilities for reinterpreting the past anew are
virtually endless' is the _starting point_, not the _terminus_, of
What I am saying is, if you want, say, to understand the emergence
of the first political states in human societies, as Lawrence Krader does,
and you look at the historical evidence, you interpret it and so on, then
how much do you know about it anyway, even with very comprehensive
research ? What are you able to understand, what is the real limit ?
Suppose that you accept the premiss, "the possibilities for reinterpreting
the past anew are virtually endless' is the starting point",then what
from this ? Well, what follows is that since the interpretations are
(1) we must discover a determinate pattern in these interpretations, (2)
we must find an interpretation which can explain all the other
(3) this new interpretation must be related to some practical purpose we
have in the world ourselves, (4) we must also recognise the historical
relativity of our own new interpretation. But what specifically would make
this insight "dialectical" ?
I would also add that a materialist dialectics
firmly plants itself in the ground firmly consolidated by historical
materialism in, among others, _German Ideology_, to deny that these
possiblilities are "endless", because the limits are set by the
finitude of the "modes of material relationship between human
societies and nature, and thus between groups of human beings (in
class societies, classes) within those societies".
This is a good point, it is that objective circumstances such as
the mode of producing and reproducing material life sets limits
on semantic variation, a lot of interpretations are ruled out, and
we can say definitely that some interpretations just do not make
sense at all using truth criteria of correspondence and
coherence. But now what ? Because we still have, within those
limits, an enormous array of possible interpretations. I think
that Marx's answer here is, that we try to reconstitute the
subjectmatter we are dealing with as a rationally-understood
whole, a totality, in which all its parts are systematically
related in a determinate way and all explained. But even so,
if we have formed this totality in thought, there is no epistemic
guarantee that it is the only, or the only correct interpretation,
we can only judge it on the basis of its explanatory power
and its utility in changing the world for the better in practice.
[As to the evaluation of prostitution, etc., I will firmly stick to
my already stated greater concern with very concrete and dramatic
situations in Argentina, which I am sure you will all understand, so
that I will not reply to Jurriaan's reply, namely to his attractive
but IMHO not yet quite well substantiated case for a criticism of
capitalism and bourgeois "goodwill" through a criticism of
Well, if there is an increase in prostitution within your country, then
this might be an extremely good source of criticism of the economic
and social policies of your country. I am not endorsing or condeming
prostitution in general here (although Marx's argument is that it is
ultimately contrary to humanisation) but suggesting that others do,
and that in view of this fact, the growth of prostitution might make
a powerful argument against economic inhumanity. As I have said,
more market=more whoring=more social inequality, other things
(1) Or, if you prefer, "late" capitalism as Mandel wrote: I don't
share the criticisms that this definition aroused, because this
"temporal" definition can also be understood in the sense that we
speak of "late" Roman Empire, "late" Middle Ages, etc., that is in
the sense of a formation where all and every sign of decay and final
disruption are present but which have not nurtured the subjective
elements which will kill it and replace it with something new
The fallacy in this concept might be, that although the subjective
elements exist in abundance, the theory and method with which we
operate, does not allow us to grasp this correctly, and consequently
does not allow us to utilise those subjective elements, and because of
this failure, the decay and disruption persists and grows.
(2) in the sense that my own methabolic, instinctive, etc. needs,
cannot be satisfied by another human being
Some can, some cannot, and maybe they can sometimes, not
other times. This would be a dialectical way of looking at that
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