David-Hillel Ruben on Materialism & Praxis

The second point I wish now to mention concerning the notion of essential independence is this. Sometimes, when one advances the idea that nature or natural things can exist independently of thought, or the human, the question is raised whether or not thought, or human praxis, isn't also part of nature. Do we deny that it is? And if thought isn't part of nature, to what sort of supernatural existence do we wish to consign it? Of course, we are not denying that the human, that thought or praxis, are also part of the natural order. When Marx says that thought essentially depends on nature, he is asserting that thought is part of the overall system of nature. We might put our point this way. What materialism asserts is that there could be, indeed that there was in fact, a system of nature long before it came to have a particular feature or part, thought or human existence, a part which it does now in fact have.

Karl Korsch seems, in his Marxism and Philosophy, to raise just this sort of accusation against what he calls 'vulgar socialism', those who 'separate' thought and being. He criticises any form of Marxism which attempts to 'draw a sharp line of division between consciousness and its object' and to 'treat consciousness as something given, something fundamentally contrasted to Being and Nature'. Korsch says that such views contain 'a primitive, predialectical and even pre‑transcendental conception of the relation between consciousness and being'. [27] But to what sort of 'sharp line of division' or 'fundamental contrast' are we committed? We are certainly not, pace Korsch, committed to the thesis that thought and nature are somehow ontologically different, that the difference between them is one of a Cartesian‑like irreducible ontological difference. Ontologically, thought too is a part of nature, and this is why we said that thought too is part of the overall system of nature. All any reflection theory need assume, against which Korsch argues, [28] is that the relation between particular thoughts and that which they are about is a contingent relation in both directions, but this certainly does not commit us to a 'sharp line of division' between thought and nature in some ontological sense. To think otherwise would be to conflate the epistemological requirement of two‑way contingency between a particular thought and its object with an ontological distinction between thought (in general) and nature. Indeed, if one makes an ontological distinction between thought and being, then each of the pair would have to be essentially independent of the other, as Descartes for example would claim. The essence of thought and being would be different. But Marx argues for a contingent relation in one direction, between being and thought, but an essential relation in the other. Thus, although the 'essence' of being does not include thought, the essence of 'thought' includes being. The distinction between them cannot be ontological—they cannot constitute two separate kinds of things, since thought is not essentially independent of being. Because, in classical philosophy, the criterion for something's being a thing is its logical independence of everything else, for us the essential dependence of mind or consciousness on nature prevents them from constituting an ontological duality. This is why the whole‑part metaphor seems to us more accurate, in the sense that parts cannot be what they are apart from the totality in which they are situated. Our epistemological distinction between thought and reality does not commit us, then, to an ontological dualism.

The third point I wish to raise concerns the meaning of 'can exist independently of’ or 'is in essential relation to'. I have said little about this except to say, in the chapter on Kant, that it is essential and not causal independence in which we are interested. There is obviously a causal relationship between nature and society, and the essential independence of nature claim never for a moment was intended to deny something so obvious as that. The independence of nature was, we said, its essential independence only, in the sense that it could exist even if society or thought or concept or knower or the human did not. Korsch speaks of 'the coincidence of consciousness and reality' [29] without giving any explanation of what he understands by that expression. If this means only that nature and thought, or reality and consciousness, mutually interact, effect one another, it is unobjectionable. If, on the other hand, it means that nature is not even essentially independent of consciousness, then we reject any such absurd conception.

Now, nothing could just exist indeterminately, with no specific properties or features whatever. Thus, what the essential independence of nature must claim is that the existence of nature and some of its properties are independent of praxis. I call such properties which, along with existence, are essentially independent of all that is human, natural properties. Many features in nature are introduced by men's activity, which transforms changes, refashions nature. To use Hegelian jargon, nature is not 'unmediated'. It comes to have cultivated cherry trees growing in places where they did not grow before, and that this is so is praxis‑dependent. But nature also has natural properties which are praxis‑independent. That water has a particular molecular structure, that an atom of gold has a certain subatomic structure, that there is a particular genetic code involved in biological reproduction, that light travels at particular speeds in certain particular circumstances, these are praxis‑independent facts about water, gold, organisms and light. Even some natural properties can sometimes be changed by praxis, but whether they can or cannot be subsequently altered, there are at least initially some natural properties of things which are independent of what man does. Of course, he must usually do something in order to learn that such things do have the natural properties they in fact possess, but that they have such natural properties is entirely unrelated to his doings. Marx, in the Grundrisse, marks the distinction between natural and praxis‑dependent properties by speaking of intrinsic and accidental form. He distinguishes wood having the form of a tree and having the form of a table in the following way:

No immanent law of reproduction maintains this form in the way in which the tree, for example, maintains its form as a tree (wood maintains itself in the specific form of the tree because this form is the form of the wood; while the form of the table is accidental for wood, and not the intrinsic form of its substance). [30]

Thus, some of nature's properties, the non‑natural ones, like that bit of wood having been worked up into a chair, are praxis‑dependent, or 'accidental' to the wood, as Marx says; others which Marx calls 'intrinsic' to the wood, will not be dependent on praxis. One cannot insist upon this too strongly, because Marxists have often assumed that if the essential independence of nature be admitted, one will encounter difficulty in explaining how human praxis can come to change nature. Just this appears to be Korsch's mistaken worry, for he asserts that 'those Marxist theoreticians for whom Marxism was no longer essentially a theory of social revolution could see no need for the dialectical conception of the coincidence of consciousness and reality'. For them, 'a critique of political economy could never have become the major component of a theory of social revolution'. [31] What Korsch apparently assumes is that the essential independence of nature and its natural properties from man leads to the incomprehension of change. But this is clearly an illusion. That some of the properties of things have not been introduced by human praxis does not imply that none have. Moreover, many of the natural properties of nature are themselves susceptible of being changed. Barren soil can become fruitful through irrigation, mountain roads can be built by cutting into the existing rock. So there really seems not the slightest difficulty whatever in giving the notion of change (and revolution) a place just because the 'coincidence' of nature and human activity is denied.

 Indeed, to understand precisely why the essential independence (of nature from praxis) claim is compatible with the idea that many of the features of reality are dependent on the formative, shaping activities of man is precisely to understand Marx's critique of Feuerbach. I do not propose to describe the shifts and changes in Marx's materialism, and in his attitude to Feuerbach, which there undoubtedly were, or to explain why, from being a hostile critic of a doctrine that he calls 'materialism' (in The Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right) and an exponent of naturalism and humanism (in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), Marx becomes an exponent of what he himself calls a materialist conception of history. But I do wish, however, to say something about the nature of Marx's criticisms of Feuerbach, especially in the famous eleven theses, the 'Theses on Feuerbach', which he wrote in 1845.

The themes of activity and contemplation in one way or another run through all eleven theses. The first is perhaps the fullest expression of Marx's point, and is worth reproducing in full:

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, nor 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. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in Das Wesen des Christenthums, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty‑judaical manifestation. Hence, he does not grasp the significance of 'revolutionary', or 'practical-critical' activity.

This thesis is compatible with my interpretation of Marx, and hence tends to confirm the ascription of materialism, the essential independence of nature from thought, to Marx. Marx says that hitherto reality was conceived by materialists only as the object, to be contemplated. Marx is critical of this not because it is untrue, but because it is only half of the truth. Indeed, it seems clear that in this thesis Marx sees himself as supplementing Feuerbach rather than emending or altering him. Marx says: '. . . Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought of objects . . .' There is no suggestion in this, or anywhere else in Marx's writings that I know of, that Marx rejected Feuerbach's idea of 'sensuous objects really distinct from the thought of objects'. Indeed, notwithstanding the directly contrary interpretation which they have often been given, the 'Theses' seem to me to provide further evidence of Marx's adherence to a version of philosophical materialism. What is the other half of the truth which Marx's materialism wants to preserve? That '. . . human activity itself as objective activity . . .' is activity which can transform, change the character of the natural realm. 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.' A materialism which recognises that there is a natural realm, with a given structure, essentially independent of human thought, a given structure which circumscribes and places limits on the ways in which men can transform objects, can introduce new properties or forms, is a materialism that can embrace both the moments of object and objective activity. Marx's stress on 'objective activity' itself reinforces what I have been claiming. What is objective activity, if not a human praxis that recognises the nature and constraints of an objectively given natural order, which seeks to impress new forms on such a natural order?

Labour is not only consumed but also at the same time fixed, converted from the form of activity into the form of the object; materialised; as a modification of the object, it modifies its own form and changes from activity to being. The end of the process is the product. [32]

This is only the materialism for which we have been arguing throughout. I think that Plekhanov was right to have suggested that 'If Marx began to elaborate his materialist explanation of history, by criticising Hegel's philosophy of Right, he could do so only because Feuerbach had completed his criticism of Hegel's speculative philosophy.' [33] That is, Marx took Feuerbach's rejection of Hegelian philosophical idealism as given, and was more concerned to build on what Feuerbach had already done, more concerned with doing what Feuerbach had not himself done—to add to Feuerbach's materialism those insights about activity which all materialism previously to Marx had (as Marx claimed) omitted. But to do that was in no way to compromise those real insights of Feuerbach about the existence of nature independently of thought. Marx adds the insight that those natural objects, whose existence is not essentially related to what is human, become, or can become, mediated by human activity. In such cases the forms that such objects assume are related to what is human. To say, 'the existence of natural objects essentially independent of praxis' is not to imply that such objects must, somehow, always remain untouched by human minds and hands. Even when they are so touched their existence is still not essentially dependent on their being so touched. We do not bring the natural world into being, as if we were so many gods. It is in the spirit of this interpretation that we can understand many of Marx's remarks. For example, Marx says in the Introduction to The Grundrisse,

The concrete subject remains outside the intellect and independent of it, that is, so long as the intellect adopts a purely speculative, purely theoretical attitude. [34]

As long as man does nothing to the natural order it is only an order which stands in essential independence of him. None of its properties are yet praxis‑dependent. When man adopts a practical attitude to the world, when he does something, the world comes to have shapes, forms which are not independent of 'the intellect', even if the natural world remains itself essentially independent of him.

It is obvious, then, what I think we should say about the charge of incompatibility between historical and philosophical materialism. All turns on what one means by 'philosophical materialism'. But if we do not mean any sort of reductive materialism, in which the whole of the social realm is reducible in principle to matter in motion, then I cannot see that any question of incompatibility could arise. Philosophical materialism asserts the real existence of nature essentially independent of human activity. It certainly need not deny that, in any social­historical accounts, 'the premisses from which we begin are . . . the real individuals, their activity, and the material conditions under which they live . . .' We can refer to the ways in which the natural order constrains and limits men's activity, and this is licensed by Marx's inclusion of 'the material conditions under which they live'. But we would have to do far more than that to produce a 'materialism' incompatible with Marx's historical method. If, in some reductive spirit, we were to replace 'the real individuals' and 'their activity' with other premisses concerning the physical composition of the matter which composes them, and then try to infer all of their individual and historical doings from those replacement premisses, much as Hobbes imagined we might be able to do, then that reductive materialism would be incompatible with Marx's historical materialism, which insists that we begin with real individuals in any historical account. It is, however, no such reductive materialism which we are espousing and once this is understood, I think the charge of incompatibility between historical and philosophical materialism, as I understand that latter doctrine, will lose whatever plausibility it may once have had.

Marx's position seems so clearly enunciated, and so obviously true, the reader may wonder why I have taken so much care, and gone to such lengths, to set it out. What I have said so far may seem so evident as to be uncontroversial. Amazingly, this is not so. I will look at three of Marx's interpreters, Georg Lukacs, Alfred Schmidt and Leszek Kolakowski, and show how they misinterpret Marx, or say things which suggest a misunderstanding of precisely this point. Many other interpretations could have been chosen, with equal justification, to make exactly the same point. I think the explanation for this is a failure on the part of these interpreters to free their thought entirely from idealist modes of thinking. However much they would reject the ascription, all I think remain to some degree trapped within an idealist framework, either in the actual content of their ideas, or in the terminology they use, into the straightjacket of which their ideas are then pushed.

It is especially worth noting Lukacs' evasions on the problem of Marx's materialism, for he was certainly one of the ablest and most sensitive interpreters of Marx's thought. Critical discussions of Lukacs have often alluded to idealist tendencies within his History and Class Consciousness, and such discussion has dealt with Lukacs' conception of praxis in particular in some detail. Lukacs himself says in the 1967 Preface to the English edition, 'that History and Class Consciousness was based on mistaken assumptions'. [35] We can see, I think, that these mistaken assumptions are more basic than his conception of praxis; indeed, these mistaken assumptions are concerned with the very nature of Marx's ontology and epistemology.

Lukacs, as is well known, set out to discuss the various forms that reification assumes in a society whose dominant mode of production is commodity production. The first part of 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat' discusses the philosophical history of the antinomies of bourgeois thought. Lukacs' discussion centres around the same group of problems that we have been discussing—how to reconcile thought and object, form and content, system and fact—for these are, for him, the antinomies of bourgeois thought, intellectual expressions of reification.

For Lukacs the inability of classical philosophy to accomplish this reconciliation is to be traced to its uncomprisingly theoretical, contemplative stance toward such problems. 'Classical philosophy did, it is true, take all the antinomies of its life‑basis to the furthest extreme it was capable of in thought [my emphasis]; it conferred on them the highest possible intellectual expression. But even for this philosophy they remained unsolved and insoluble'. [36] Lukacs characterises the central antinomy of bourgeois thought in several ways: thought and object, subject and object, form and content or matter, system and fact. For Lukacs, these antinomies are the by‑product of a contemplative, wholly theoretical attitude, and it is for that reason that they remained unsoluble for classical philosophy. It was left for Marx, and the 'philosophy'of praxis that is itself a praxis, to transcend these dualities, these antinomies: '. . . it is not enough that the attempt should be made to transcend the contemplative attitude. When the question is formulated more concretely it turns out that the essence of praxis consists in annulling that indifference of form towards content that we found in the problem of the thing‑in‑itself.' [37] ‘. . . we can now understand the connection between the two attitudes and see how, with the aid of the principle of praxis the attempt could be made to resolve the antinomies of contemplation.' [38]

Much of what Lukacs says in the essay seems eminently right. But agreement with some of the things Lukacs says about some of the antinomies certainly need not commit us to agreeing with what he says about all the antinomies. Lukacs' stress on totality, as against the atomicity or facticity of an empiricist approach, his description of reality as process and tendency rather than a world of rigid and frozen objects (although why a reflection theory should find the view of reality as process uncongenial is never explained: 'But if there are no things, what is "reflected" in thought?' (p. 200) The right answer to this rhetorical question should be: process and tendency!), all of this is certainly to be welcomed by any Marxist.

Similarly valuable is much of what Lukacs says about the subject‑object antinomy. Lukacs often makes clear that he is restricting his discussion to the social world and that, therefore, the objects he is discussing are social objects, or cultural objects as we have called them. 'Thus man has become the measure of all (societal) things.' [39] In the social world, Lukacs is certainly right, there is no rigid separation of subject and object. The social world is, by definition, the world of social objects or cultural objects, as I have earlier called them. If we limit, for whatever reasons, our philosophical ken to them, then it follows immediately that the antinomy of subject and object has been overcome, for cultural objects are just those objects which, as the result of human labour, or of praxis, bear the indellible stamp of subject. Without the subject there could be no cultural or social objects, no social world whatever. All of this is an important legacy of Marx about which Lukacs reminded Marxists following the intellectually (and politically) dark night of the Second International.

But it is also clear from the structure of the article itself that in 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Prolitariat', Lukacs takes himself to be answering, or dissolving, the same problem with which classical German philosophy had struggled, the relationship between thought and object, where 'object' is not necessarily confined to social objects, human creations. In the concluding pages of the essay, Lukacs returns then to the antinomy as expressed not between subject and social object but as expressed between thought and object, as it was in classical philosophy. 'Hence only by overcoming the‑theoretical‑duality of philosophy and special discipline, of methodology and factual knowledge can the way be found by which to annul the duality of thought and existence'. [40] Or again, 'Thus thought and existence are not identical in the sense that they "correspond" to each other, or "reflect" each other . . . (all expressions that conceal a rigid duality). Their identity is that they are aspects of one and the same real historical and dialectical process.’ [41]

If Lukacs means to annul the dualism not just of thought and social existence, but of thought and object or existence tout court, then his position is straightforwardly idealist. That such a position is not Marx's, and hence could not possibly constitute a legitimate interpretation of Marx, we have already seen. It is true that within the realm of social objects, in society, thought or subject and existence are not independent, for there could be no social objects without subjects, and no subjects without thought (for part of what being a subject is involves being an individual who can think, plan, decide, etc, etc.). But from that it does not follow that there could be no objects whatever without subjects, or without thought, a position which is a denial of Marx's materialism as I understand it. If what Lukacs is doing is only annulling the dualism of thought and social existence, that seems trivially easy even at the theoretical level, let along the practical level.

Sometimes, to be sure, one feels that behind Lukacs' idealist verbiage, his real intentions are not idealist. If 'overcoming the rigid duality of thought and existence' means merely 'that they are aspects of one and the same real historical process', and if that simply means that, in the course of history, natural objects, all objects, can in principle become mediated by man, then perhaps what Lukacs is saying is beyond objection, although even here we would have to explain carefully 'in principle', for there are certainly distant parts of the universe which, on one sense of 'in principle', can never be mediated by man. But still, if this were all Lukacs is saying, we could withdraw our objections to it. All we should then like to point out is that the husk of idealist jargon of 'mediation', 'overcoming duality', etc., would have remained long after the kernel of idealist philosophy, which gives life to those expressions and phrases, would have been discarded. Their continued retention could only be misleading, for it tends to obfuscate rather than elucidate what is being said.

Given that Lukacs' position is idealist, or perhaps more fairly, has intimations of a very deep‑rooted idealism in it, it will come as no surprise to find that he rejects any sort of reflection theory. Lukacs is absolutely correct in believing that 'In the theory of "reflection" we find the theoretical embodiment of the duality of thought and existence consciousness and reality . . .' and, once having rejected the essential independence of object from thought, he then consistently rejects the epistemological theory which supports and underpins it. Again, Lukacs says that distinguishing between thought and object 'raises the problem of whether thought corresponds to the object'. [42] Finally, 'as long as thought and existence persist in their old, rigid opposition, as long as their own structure and the structure of their interconnections remain unchanged, then the view that thought is a product of the brain and hence such a mythology . . .’ [43] Lukacs is right, then, to connect up materialism, the essential independence of some objects from thought, with a reflection theory, and consistent then to say things which tend to suggest the rejection of both. Our criticism of Lukacs, then, is that if we take his idealist jargon seriously, his view is not Marx's view, nor could it be, for what he has produced is an idealist ontology, and theory of knowledge, and that the idealism that has often been attributed to the essay then goes much deeper than even the category of praxis. It goes to the very basic ontology which informs the whole essay.


27  Korsch, Karl, Marxism and Philosophy, New Left Books, London, 1972, pp. 108‑109.

28  Ibid, footnote on p. 109­.

29  Ibid, pp. 77‑78, where Korsch adds that such a coincidence must 'characterise every dialectic . . .'

30  Marx, Karl, The Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicolaus, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middx., 1973, p. 360.

31  Korsch, Karl, op. cit., p. 78.

32  Marx, Karl, The Grundrisse, p. 300.

33  Plekhanov, G. V., Fundamental Problems of Marxism, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1969 p. 31 and ff.

34  Marx, Karl, Introduction to the Grundrisse, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 207.

35  Lukacs, Georg, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, London, 1971. Preface to the New Edition.

36  Ibid, p. 148.

37  Ibid, pp. 125‑126.

38  Ibid, p. 126.

39  Ibid, p. 185.

40  Ibid, p. 203.

41  Ibid, p. 204.

42  Ibid, p. 200.

43  Ibid, p. 202.

*     *     *     *     *

It is often maintained that an explicitly or implicitly pragmatist orientation is to he found in many of Marx's writings and even in some pages of Lenin. According to this point of view, the realism ascribed to Lenin represents nothing more than a dogmatic residue inherited from Engels . . .

We of course have no intention of denying that Lenin often makes reference to practice as the criterion for distinguishing what is true and what is false. The crux of the matter, however, is whether practice is taken simply as a confirmation of the objectivity of certain 'relative truths', or whether the use of practice as a criterion is taken to be a denial of the existence of any purely theoretical source of truth. [31]

Geymonat distinguishes, then, between the view that practice is a criterion of truth, a way of telling the true from the false (or the meaningful from the meaningless), and the view that practice is a definition of truth (or meaningfulness), only the latter of which is pragmatism. Geymonat argues that only the former, but not the latter, can be attributed to Lenin, and his conclusion should be extended to deny the attribution of pragmatism to Marx as well. There are remarks in Marx's writings which suggest that the former view, that practice is a criterion of distinguishing between the true and the false, which Geymonat ascribes to Lenin, was Marx's position too. The second of Marx's 'Theses on Feuerbach' claims that 'in practice, man must prove the truth . . .' But whether or not these remarks justify the ascription of this position to Marx, by itself this would seem to fall far short of making the notion of practice central to one's philosophy. Surely the centrality of praxis means something more than this.

The way in which practice is central to Marxism is that it makes the social practice of men its central object of study. Marxism is literally the study of praxis, because praxis is its object. 'The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism . . . is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object . . . but not as human sensuous activity, not practice'. Human sensuous activity is the object of Marxism. The study of such activity, of human labour, and especially (but not only) the 'concrete' study of it as it is shaped and formed within specific modes of production, is its main concern. We said earlier that philosophy differed from the special sciences in being not a priori but rather more abstract. Moreover, we said that the object of philosophy, its field of study, was the sciences and their results, for which philosophy served as a 'general summing‑up'. Human praxis, and the material conditions in which it ' occurs, is the object of Marxism; Marxism is the object of study of Marxist philosophy. The purpose of a Marxist philosophy is to 'sum up' the general results of the study of man and his material environment, and it is this purpose which explains the abstract character that Marxist philosophy, like any philosophy, is bound to assume. Marxist philosophy makes the study of praxis its object of study.

There is, then, room for an abstract Marxist philosophy of praxis and scientific studies of particular concrete forms of praxis. From this perspective, I think we can argue that there is nothing intrinsically ideological or non‑scientific about studying praxis from an abstract point of view, so long as it is tempered and formed by the results of concrete study. There is nothing intrinsically ideological or 'unscientific' about Marx's early philosophical writings, simply because they are philosophical. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, for example, Marx is not doing science but philosophy, and there is nothing ipso facto wrong in that. Philosophy may not be science, since it is rather a 'general summing-up' of science, but the fact that it is strictly non‑science does not make it unscientific. Indeed, we argued earlier that materialism, which is a philosophy and not strictly a science, was itself a 'scientific' philosophy, in the sense of being a philosophy which was continuous with the sciences and 'summed up' the methodology and outlook of the sciences. The interesting question about the philosophy of Marx's 'early' works can only be whether or not such studies are rooted in the scientific studies of concrete forms of praxis. If there were to be any epistemological 'break' in Marx's work, it could only be that Marx leaves off doing a priori philosophy for a posteriori philosophy. [32]

It is true that Marxist philosophy makes practice central in another way. In addition to the study of practice being its (abstract) object, it is a practical philosophy, a philosophy of action as well as a philosophy about action. 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.' But the aspect on which I wish to focus here is the way that Marxist philosophy makes practice central in the sense t hat it studies practice, rather than in the sense in which it is itself a practice.

Which philosophies can and which cannot study practice? Marx makes it clear that there is a sense in which Hegelian idealism also can study activity, for he says in the first thesis concerning Feuerbach that 'the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism.' Marx, however, goes on to criticise this study of activity by idealism, since it was a study developed 'only abstractly since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such [my emphasis]'. Hegel's study of activity was only abstract, unrooted in concrete elaborations of activity. Thus, the activity Hegelian idealism studied could never be the social activity of men, but only the activity of Man as such. The underpinning for such an abstract study could never come from 'below' but only from 'above'—the activity of Man could only be underpinned by a study of the activity of Absolute Spirit, Idea, or whatever. 'To begin with, they [the followers of Hegel] extracted pure unfalsified Hegelian categories such as "substance" and “self‑consciousness", later they desecrated these categories with more secular names such as "species" "the Unique", "Man", etc.' [33]

Marx makes it clear that 'the chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism . . .' is that it could study objects but not practice at all, whether concretely or abstractly. This, let us suppose, was true of Feuerbach. But why does Marx extend these remarks to all 'hitherto existing' forms of materialism? Why should this be a plausible criticism of non‑Marxist materialism in general?

It is clear that Marx uses 'materialism' very widely. It may be that my interpretation will not cover all those theories which Marx labels 'materialist' in that well‑known section of The Holy Family entitled 'Critical Battle Against French Materialism'. But I think that, when Marx criticises 'all hitherto existing' materialist doctrines, he is thinking primarily of reductive materialism. He cites Gassendi, Hobbes, Bacon, Holbach, La Mettrie, as well as others, and he does seem to have principally in mind those forms of materialism which would deny the irreducibility of human activity. The world and everything in it is, at bottom, matter in motion, and then human activity can be reduced to, understood as, a particular sort of motion of a special sort of matter.

But why then couldn't reductive materialism take human practice as its object of study? There is no reason why one should require that the object of study be an irreducible object. Suppose, as a reductive materialist would insist, human practice could be reduced to matter in motion. Thus, suppose 'I made a chair' could be reduced to a set of statements about the physical motion of certain bits of matter. Can't reductive materialism still derivately study human practice? Sometimes reduction is confused with elimination. The reductive materialist does not eliminate human practice, but only shows that it can be reduced to, understood as, a form of matter in motion. Human practice is not eliminated, but only seen to be a derivative phenomenon. Reductionist analyses explicate, rather than extrude what is analysed from the world. Why should Marx, or anyone who wishes to study human practice, object to this?

I think Marx's objection could be phrased in the following way. What are the criteria for a successful reduction? It is generally recognised that truth‑value equivalence between reducing and reduced statements must hold; statements about human practice would be true if and only if the replacing sentences about matter in motion were. But another, somewhat vaguer requirements is often mentioned: 'We fix on the particular functions of the unclear expression . . . and then devise a substitute, clear and couched in terms to our liking, that fills those functions. Beyond those conditions of partial agreement, dictated by our interests and purposes', preservation of other features or functions is not necessary. [34] Thus, we demand not only sameness of truth‑value between reducing and reduced statements, but also that we can and do use the reducing statement for the, same essential purposes as we used the reduced one. We can perhaps bring out this requirement with an example. Suppose we try to reduce moral statements to descriptive statements, as for example any form of naturalism would attempt. It is not sufficient for reduction that truth‑value, equivalence be established. We should also be able to use the descriptive, reducing statements to commend certain courses of action, a function which moral statements clearly perform. Whether these functions do carry over, or can be carried over, is a matter of empirical fact. It does, as a matter of fact, seem to be the case that we can commend action to people by saying, naturalistically, that such action will make people happy, or create opportunities for human development, or whatever naturalistic 'replacement' for moral statements we may prefer. Indeed, given the bad reputation morality and moral words have earned, it is arguably easier to commend with the replacement than with the original moral assertions. This, I think, is an important step in arguing that the alleged fact‑value dichotomy can be bridged by naturalistic reductions, since such reductions can preserve the essential functions of moral discourse by transferring them to naturalistic discourse. That this transfer of functions is possible is a fact. Thus, whether or not reductions are acceptable or successful is very much an a posteriori affair.

We can understand Marx as saying that this transfer of function is not, in fact, accomplished in the case of reduction of human practice to matter in motion. We cannot do, or get done, with the reducing talk all that we could do, or get done, with the reduced talk. In the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx describes two different attitudes, the theoretical and the practical. His claim is that studying objects and studying human praxis gives rise to these two different attitudes. Because Feuerbach does not make human practice the object of his study 'he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty‑Judaical form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of "revolutionary", of "practical‑critical" activity.'

Let us, for the sake of argument, grant Marx his factual claims. Suppose, as a matter of psychological fact, that the study of objects (matter, for instance) tended to give rise to a contemplative attitude, which tended to translate itself generally into political attitudes of passivity and quiescence. Suppose, on the other hand, that the study of human practice was far less likely to do so, that more commonly such a study gave rise to a practical, 'revolutionary', attitude which lead people to try to change, transform, their material environment. Would this not by itself be a considerable argument against the possible success of any such reduction? If the attitudes one adopted were, as a matter of fact, unbridgeably different toward activity and things, action and matter, this could explain why Marx does not allow a reductive materialism to be a philosophy of (derived) practice. No such reduction would be acceptable, since sameness of essential attitudes would fail. If this were so, one could see the point of saying that only a non‑reductive materialism could be a philosophy of praxis, and hence to see what was the inadequacy in 'all hitherto existing' versions of materialism. Their 'reductions' could not have explained or analysed activity, but in the end only gotten rid of it altogether by replacing it with something about which we have very different attitudes. Their reductions could not be successful, because any such reduction to 'matter-in-­motion' terms could not be a reduction of practical human activity at all. Only a non‑reductive materialism can constitute a study of praxis, whether it be an abstract philosophical study of praxis in general, or a special scientific study of particular, concrete forms of praxis.

5. It is not uncommon for Marxists to mark this stress on human activity which we have just been describing by speaking of a dialectic of activity and nature, or of praxis and the natural world, in order to underline the requirement that a theory of knowledge must be able to account for activity and change as well as the objectivity of a natural order as it is given to us. In this sense, an adequate theory of knowledge, which recognises the reciprocal relations which hold between nature and praxis, must be dialectical. Man does not just learn mechanically about natural (and social) reality; he can change them too.

This too is not a novel point. But I think that this dialectic of praxis and nature must be understood in a special way, which permits them not to constitute a dialectic of 'equals'. This raises for us the question of just what a dialectical relation is, and it is to answering that question that I now turn as a way of explaining how and why praxis and nature cannot be a dialectic of 'equals', as indeed many other pairs cannot be either.

It is strange that Marxists use the concept of dialectics, or dialectical relations, so often, and yet have spent so little time in explaining what is meant when speaking in that way. Furthermore, in those few instances in which some have dealt with the problem of dialectics, in the end they have been content with old slogans to cover over, rather than solve, real problems.

An essential strand in the notion of a dialectical relation is that the relation is reciprocal, or two‑way. If two events (occurrences, states of affairs, or processes), a and b, are reciprocally interconnected, then a stands in the relation of cause to b, and b stands in the relation of cause to a. This is not the only strand in the complex notion of a dialectical relation. I do not offer causal reciprocity as an adequate explication of all that is meant by calling a relation 'dialectical'. Perhaps it is not even the most important constituent of that idea. It does not capture the ideas of necessary opposition or real contradiction, which are essential ingredients of the idea of dialectics. However, reciprocity does represent, I think, one of the features of that relation which is often in the minds of those who speak of dialectical relations. Engels, for example, in The Dialectics of Nature, calls dialectics 'the science of interconnections', and this vision of the reciprocal inter‑connectedness of things is an oft repeated theme in any discussion of dialectics. Again, in Anti‑Dühring, Engels says:

We find that cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good in their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa [my emphasis]. [35]

The stress that one finds on reciprocity, or action and reaction, in Hegel as well as in Marx and Engels, is derived from what they all seemed to have considered an unduly asymmetric conception of causality which needed supplementation. The Humeian account of causality, for example, portrays causal relations (between particular events or states of affairs) as unidirectional, with the causal 'arrow' moving in a single direction only. If a and b refer to particular events, or whatever, then if a causes b, b cannot also cause a. This asymmetry is insured by the Humeian temporal requirement that a cause must precede its effect. If a causes b, then on the Humeian account a must temporally precede b. But b cannot then cause a, since nothing can temporally precede itself. So, on this account of causality, if a causes b (where 'a' and 'b' refer to particulars), then we can infer that b does not stand in the relation of cause to a. Causality is not, on this account, a reciprocal or dialectical relation.


31  Geymonat, Ludovico, 'Neopositivist Methodology and Dialectical Materialism,' Science and Society, Summer, 1973, pp. 178‑194.

32  I do not assert that there was a break even in this sense. The Manuscripts are called 'Economic and Philosophical', and it seems clear that the philosophical aspects themselves arise from the economic studies Marx was then pursuing. Whatever weaknesses in the philosophy there are may arise from weakness in the parallel economic study from which they arise. But this would mean that there was no methodological break, but only (which is not very surprising) that the economic studies of the latter Marx are more developed and sophisticated than those of the earlier Marx!

33  Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology, p. 29.

34  Quine, W. V. O., Word and Object, pp. 258‑259.

35  Engels, Frederick, Anti‑Dühring, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, p. 32. See also in Dialectics of Nature, International Publishers, New York, 1973, pp. 170‑171: 'causality—The first thing that strikes us in considering matter in motion is the interconnection of the individual motions of separate bodies, their being determined by one another.’

Notes: The first excerpt comes from chapter 3—Marx and Materialism. Ruben seeks to dispel denials of Marx's materialism pervasive in Western / Hegelian Marxism, usually justified on the basis of Marx's youthful writings. Following the critique of Lukacs are detailed critiques of Alfred Schmidt and Leszek Kolakowski. The second excerpt comes from chapter 4—Towards a Marxist Theory of Knowledge. Ruben seeks an adequate theory of knowledge—which is not to be found in empiricism—eschewing justificationism and foundationalism. Inter alia, he rejects Roy Bhaskar's transcendental arguments, as well as any identification of the Marxian notion of praxis with pragmatism. Following this excerpt is a detailed analysis of Hegel's notion of causality. Reciprocal causality is by itself not an adequate notion, for causality is asymmetrical, and nature takes precedence over praxis (pp. 122-123). Ruben rejects Bertell Ollman's theory of internal relations. He then addresses the issues of essence-appearance and unobservables-observables, again criticizes Bhaskar, and addresses Hilary Putnam's realism. See also my review. (RD)

SOURCE: Ruben, David-Hillel. Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge, new and rev. ed. (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979), pp. 75-83, 93, 114-119, 141-142.

Review of David-Hillel Ruben, Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge
by Ralph Dumain

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