Sunday, December 09, 2007

A non boring article on Marxism--the Theses on Feuerbach in relation to non-Marxist thinking

Usually, the only thing that people know about the famous Theses is that the last one says that philosophers have only contemplated reality, but that the point is to change it. However, this slogan vastly misrepresents what the theses that lead up to it---eleven short to medium paragraphs--are actually about. And what they're about has to do with pure philosophy, and with Marx's particular interpretation of what 'materialism' in the philosophical sense means. It's interesting in its own right if you can unpack the statements, which are dense, and because it shows Marx foreshadowing William James and John Dewey and their idea of Pragmatism.

I'm going to outline just what Feuerbach, a fellow philosopher, said, then deal with the first two theses.

Feuerbach's basic idea in his book "The Essence of Christianity" was that religion is just a sort of myth that has the consequence of making people treat each other in particular ways according to the ethical system that it implies. Debates about abstract theological matters really translate out, in the long run, to unconscious debates on ethics as they play out in the world. Unconscious is key here, because people don't realize while they're debating these things that what they're really doing is talking about ethics, because for Feuerbach there is no God and no supernatural world and so he feels that they aren't actually interacting with some sort of transcendent being.

Marx starts out talking about Feuerbach for a couple of reasons: first, Feuerbach is a materialist in that he believes that there are material reasons for human behavior, observable reasons, including for people having religion. Religion is a different way of talking about ethics, that's where the impulse that people have for creating religions comes from. Ethics in the broadest sense too: what's the right way to live?

Second, Feuerbach comes out of the same broad philosophical tradition from early 19th century Germany that Marx does and so for reasons that go way beyond this article it's easier for Marx to constructively criticize Feuerbach's work than that of the French materialist philosophers of the 18th century.

Here's the first thesis:

"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 human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism--but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism 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 Christentums 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", of practical, activity."

Ok, so what does that mean? The key to it lies in Marx's contrast of materialism with idealism. The materialists look at the world and analyze it very well, but there are some aspects of it that they don't get at all. The idealists, with Hegel being the biggest one, tried to find out what the essence of a thing is, with the word "ideal" coming from Plato's philosophy where he believed that behind every type of thing was an ideal source. What makes one book different from another, for example, besides different words? There's different designs and sizes but there's something that they all share that allows you to look at this object and say 'Aha! That's a book!'. That something is what Plato would call the idea of the book, the book in its ideal form.

But the German idealists took the concept further, particularly Hegel. There's a famous allegory from Hegel that expresses what he thought pretty clearly: What is an Oak Tree? We have a category called "Oak Tree" that we know, but literally what makes an Oak Tree an Oak Tree? Sure, there are signs, like how leaves are shaped and what branches and bark look like, but aren't trees more than this? The tree you see is a certain age. Before it reached maturity it was more like a bush, before that it was a sapling, and before that an acorn. Going the other way the tree will eventually whither and die some day. Don't all these phases of life make up what the tree is, just like when you see a person you assume that they had a childhood, went through adolescence? Where is the essence of the person, then? Is it in how he or she is in the present moment? Hegel's answer to all of this is that the essence of the tree or of the person can only be abstracted from the whole of its existence. The essence of a tree has something to do with an acorn, something to do with a sapling, something to do with an intermediate state and something to do with a mature tree, but each of these on its own doesn't fully sum up what an Oak Tree is.

Hegel emphasizes that a key component of anything as it exists in reality is natural change and development, in fact he makes the analysis of change from one state to another central to his philosophy.

What Marx is saying in contrasting a materialist analysis which is essentially a scientific analysis of something with an idealistic attitude, is that materialist analysis can pinpoint how society exists at a particular moment, but that when it comes to explaining things like how societies change in general, why they change, and what's behind the change, the materialists aren't that perceptive. They, like Feuerbach, can point to cultural beliefs and social structures that exist at the same time, but they don't necessarily understand the links between the two.

Marx feels that Feuerbach is missing something by assuming that people can hold a belief system that unconsciously causes them to act in a certain way without figuring out the two are related. You have theoretical contemplation, like thinking about religious ideas, and then you have living your life, but the two don't really interact. Marx is saying that there's a sort of intermediate way of acting between the two, not just abstract thinking interrupted by thoughts like "I've got to get some milk today". He says that people approach life dynamically and consciously, and that the way that we do that is kind of similar to the idealist approach to what life is, in that they thought that life was a process, and that approaching life as something always in the process of change and development, change and development that we can participate in, fits with the way the world really is.

Which leads into the second thesis:

"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."

One of the things that he's saying is that knowledge, human thinking as he refers to it, and whether knowledge is true or not, depends on how well it understands this dynamic aspect of the world. The practical part has to do with the idea that practically speaking there are certain things that are useful for paying attention to and certain things that aren't. If you want to understand the world you need to zero in on the features that are useful in helping you understand things, the parts that are the most relevant, and for Marx finding the most relevant parts means grappling with the dynamic nature of the world as it really is.

It's only in Thesis III that he connects all of this to social change. The idea that what's really relevant is what's pragmatically true is what William James and John Dewey developed into a philosophy. The difference between their approach to truth and the idea that truth is a one to one correspondence between something and another thing, like "I am six feet tall" corresponding with a measurement that says that I am six feet tall, is that theoretically everything should have pragmatic significance in one way or another, but if you can literally find no way that something can be applied to the real world, no matter how insignificant it is, what's the point in calling it a true fact? It might be a nice idea, but it isn't true in the same way as something that you can find an application for is true, because we ourselves are members of the outside world, the world outside our minds. Our bodies obey its laws and most of what we think about has something to do with that world. Our concepts, many of them, come from the outside.

"The chair has eight trillion atoms" might be literally true, but in most cases it has little practical value, while the idea that the chair can support three hundred pounds of weight has practical significance. The numbers of atoms in a chair might have significance for a scientist studying these things, but his or her study is itself a pragmatic activity.

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