Monday, July 20, 2015

human existence produces human consciousness

or, a gritty materialist view of our all too human consciousness

Typical stereotype of Marx's view of human consciousness:
“Marx was a materialist. He believed that nothing exists but matter. He had no interest in the spiritual aspects of humanity, and saw human consciousness as just a reflex of the material world. He was brutally dismissive of religion, and regarded morality simply as a question of the end justifying the means. Marxism drains humanity of all that is most precious about it, reducing us to inert lumps of material stuff determined by our environment. There is an obvious route from this dreary, soulless vision of humanity to the atrocities of Stalin and other disciples of Marx.”
- Eagleton, p. 128, goes onto refute this stereotype.
Something closer to the real Marx:
Human consciousness is developed or shaped through our bodily, material needs and very real desires (eg. food, shelter, companionship, sex, love, freedom from fear and violence). We are intelligent (sometimes), active, practical (makers and doers), grounded, self directed, unfinished beings. We are always becoming and never quite finished, until death.

Our social development requires both co-operation and struggle with other humans (there are often disagreements) and natural things to develop our productive capacity in order to overcome material scarcity. In the course of self development other humans and nature resist, as well as enable, our immediate goals. This creates self awareness and above all, awareness of others. In view of our drives we can't help but work together socially to transform the natural and human synthetic world to better meet our needs. “All for one and one for all” is a desirable goal even if we never attain it. At root our economic life represents a bridge between our biological needs and our social life.

Our bodies, our senses and our reasoning abilities are closely connected. There is no basis in reality for a separate development of our material beings and our ideas. Hence idealist philosophy, the approach that ideas come before or are more important than our practical life, is fundamentally wrong. We are not intelligent robots; we are embodied, mortal humans. Our bodies, meanings, values, purposes and intentions are all interconnected.

Over time, everything changes as humans evolve and society develops. We are strung out in time. Since our consciousness is corporeal or embodied then it lags behind the physical or material development of the world. Our consciousness is belated, there is a lag between practice and theory.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx ). Our ideas, concepts and consciousness are tightly interwoven with our material activity and language of real life which has developed from our life and death struggle to make nature serve our needs.

Life and death struggle. It follows therefore that there is a dark side, which has to be faced, a shadowy and not so secret underside to civilisation. At the root of our most lofty conceptions lie violence, lack, desire, appetite, scarcity and aggression, “the horror teeming under the stone of culture” (Theodor Adorno)

Humans, as active and practical beings, strive for the freedom to shape their own narrative. In creating civilisation we have turned Nature, albeit imperfectly, into an extension of ourselves. But for nearly all of us, our freedom is restricted by class society. We are wage labourers forced to work in order to put food on the table and pay off the mortgage.

Social being has the edge over consciousness. This is because the understanding that sticks arises from what we actually do. Tacit knowledge (experience, competence, deed, commitment) trumps explicit knowledge (book learning).

It follows that to change our consciousness we need to change our activity. Talk may well lead to action but talk alone is not enough. We swim in a world of social relations, of social class. “We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish” (Marshall McLuhan). Only by breaking the mould through self conscious practical activity can we make the transition from passive acceptance of social norms to active resistance. But what practical activity will do the job in a world dominated by bourgeois social relations? That is a hard question. If we grow up brainwashed in an alien system then how is it possible to find an effective way to rebel and overthrow that alien system?

Can our knowledge be objective? Yes and no. Our knowledge is historically and socially determined. Before Copernicus, in the minds of men and women, the Sun revolved around the Earth. According to nearly all reports from capitalist media, socialism has been tried and failed. Yet we have found successful, although far from perfect, ways to wrestle knowledge from nature and society. This is called science but the nature of the diversity of the sciences, including Marxism as a science, needs to be further clarified.

Marxists tend to be millenial optimists. Is this justified or whistling in the dark? “The future is bright, the road is tortuous”. Is that a boring cliche or a deep truth? The reality is that progress always happens more slowly than is hoped for by revolutionary radicals. In my view the world does progress but very slowly in real terms most of the time. We don't live long enough! In real life tragedy is often the norm. The Arab Spring was followed by the tragedy in Syria and elsewhere. As noted above, our (revolutionary) consciousness is belated.

Did Marx denounce moral thinking? What he denounced was historical inquiry which ignored material factors in favour of moral ones, the abstraction of moral values from their historical context and then pronouncing them as absolute moral judgements. We could call that approach utopian or moralising. A better approach to moral analysis is to investigate all aspects of a society – its facts and values, it's science and morality; the historical and social context. The error here would be to separate out morality from the total social analysis.

There is an extensive modern literature on the nature of human consciousness and theory of mind. Presumably, some of this would build positively on the broad outline provided by Marx. I would like to hear more about modern authors who have contributed to such an approach, that our consciousness is grounded in our bodily, material needs and our social desires.


Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right, Ch 6 (my essay is, in the main, but not entirely, a summary of this chapter)

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Preface)

Adorno, Theodor. Prisms (I haven't read Adorno but liked the quote)

1 comment:

Wendy Langer said...

Interesting article, nicely written :) Thanks Bill!