Friday, June 15, 2007

14/06/07 Reading Group

Summary of discussion in 14/06/07 Reading Group:
Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. I, 3.

This is an attempt to provide a sort of subjective overview. I’ve attributed ideas to members of the group only occasionally, and lots of comments have been either forgotten, half- or quarter-remembered or simply mangled in transition. With that in mind, please revise & extend as you all see fit. To commence:

We began by discussing the opening lines (104/105); Andrew suggested that these seem to indicate that reification possesses a twofold character, involving:

1) An ontological distortion
2) An epistemological failure

Bourgeois critics of science are cognisant of this second aspect of reification (and declaim the various disciplines for "having torn the real world into shreds and having lost its vision of the whole"), but fail to discern that the process is conditioned by an ontological distortion; that is, the 'reified consciousness' that places the epistemological blinkers on science in the first place. (cf. p.110, "but a radical change in outlook is not feasible on bourgeois soil").

The two questions that arose out of this were:
1. On what grounds can Lukács declare that he is able "to look from a vantage point outside" of the reified bourgeois consciousness?
2. To what extent, in Lukács' view, does the inability of reified science to "grasp its own concrete underlying reality" apply to the natural sciences?

1. Ideas raised in response mostly focused on the privileged standpoint accorded to the proletariat in Lukács' writings. This is dealt with in part III of the Reification chapter, appropriately titled The Standpoint of the Proletariat, so detailed discussion was deferred.

2. Andrew suggested the answer was "much less". Daniel suggested the answer was "more". As a referent we spoke of Adorno, & the passage below is the one the I kind of flubbed in the group:

"The system must be kept in harmony with nature; just as the facts are predicted from the system, so they must confirm it. Facts, however, belong to practice; they always characterise the individual's contact with nature as a social object: experience is always real action and suffering. In physics, of course, perception - by means of which a theory may be proved - is usually reduced to the electric sparks visible in the experimental apparatus. Its absence is as a rule without practical consequence, for it destroys no more than a theory - or possibly the career of the laboratory assistant setting up the experiment." (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 83)

One of the arguments here (made less dogmatically than as I recalled) is that the coherence of the system of formal laws is upheld at the expense of receptivity to the content of the occurrence; or, the "concrete" lab assistant goes before the abstract law. This elicited various responses, so I'll restrict myself to the last: while the passage is, prima facie, merely hyperbole, it's typically Adornian hyperbole insofar as it forcibly draws attention to the cost exacted on the concrete by abstract thought in the natural sciences. Lukács seems to believe this also (at least to some extent).

The question of how Lukács feels economic reification leads to other forms of reification was raised: the answer proposed was that the abstraction that produces the monetary form (& the varietous consequences of this) infinitely extends the potential for division of labour in other fields. This also a response to the critique that extremely complex divisions of labour have existed in even ancient societies, i.e. that the division of labour is by no means exclusive to capitalism.

Theory of Marginal Utility:

p.104: ‘It would be a mistake to suppose that certain analytical devices - such as we find in the ‘Theory of Marginal Utility’ - might show us a way out of this impasse.”

How does this sentence relate to what precedes it? Gordon suggested it was a matter of bad translation: I’ll come back to that in a second.

First, an attempt at summary of discussion of the ‘Theory of Marginal Utility’: Use value impinges on the abstract system in which crisis is incomprehensible. For example, butter that is produced and then goes unsold is not taken into account within the abstract systems of bourgeois economics. More money is created in correlation with the increased quantities of butter without necessarily being spent on dairy products at all. This new money instead will go in search of more surplus value, leading in time to an expansion of the capitalist system (expansion by dispossession). But suppression of use values (i.e. the ‘fallow’ butter), in favour of exchange values, leads to the circulation of fictitious capital & ultimately will precipitate a crisis that bourgeois economics cannot comprehend.

"In moments of crisis the qualitative experience of 'things' that lead their lives beyond the purview of economics as misunderstood and neglected 'things-in-themselves', as use-values, suddenly becomes the decisive factor. (Suddenly, that is, for reified, "rational" thought)." (105)
Translation problems: discussed was the Young Hegelian influence evident in both Lukacs's thought and phrasing. See the final sentence of p.104: "It is this that creates the impasse." The implication in the German is of the Hegelian 'bad limit'. A better translation might make clear that the final paragraph of p.104 is an attempt to critique bourgeois economics in Hegelian terms.

There is also an implied connection between reified social sciences and Kantian thought: it was suggested that the equation of "use-values" and things-in-themselves (p.105) is a confusion and gives the lie to the broader equation of Kantian ideas and bourgeois economics.

- We also questioned the idea that bourgeois economics view the material substratum as "immutable, eternal 'datum'": Lukács' utilisation of the Kantian distinction between phenomena\noumena in relation to reified social science seems questionable. Also, is there a rhetorical evocation of Hegel's 'bad infinity'?

- What will philosophy be? Marx's "scientific philosophy". See Nick's post below.

- Issues of translation: the use of "overall knowledge" instead of "social totality" (109) gives the impression that Lukács desires an epistemological unification, whereas in fact the desire is for an ontological unification. This has major consequences for the discussion of theory\praxis a few paragraphs on.

Question that arose:

- Does Lukács merely recapitulate the work of the German Idealists (Schiller to Fichte)?

- Does practice become prior to philosophy? Someone was cited who thought this, but I can't remember who. Lukács, it was agreed, seems to desire philosophy and practice to be identical; that is, the dialectical unification of subject and object. I think it was around this point that the Young Hegelians were mentioned as again, re: their opposition to Kant's claim that the 'thing in itself' cannot be known.

Kant: "if the subject... be removed, all of the relations of objects in space and time, nay, space and time themselves, would vanish." Which of course prevents a priori the subject comprehending the thing in itself.

Attention was drawn to Lukács' citation of Hegel on p. 139: "when the power of synthesis vanishes from this lives of men and when the antitheses have lost their vital relation and their power of interaction and gain independence, it is then that philosophy becomes a felt need." Gordon argued that 'felt need' is a poor translation, and better would be, 'a need of philosophy', which carries the mutual need (of praxis for philosophy, and vice versa) more clearly.

***** I should note here that I have no idea what I'm talking about, so correctives or further clarification might be required.*******

Also Gordon drew attention to Hegel’s "reality cannot hold out" to theory.

- p.110: "The reified world appears henceforth quite definitively - and in philosophy, under the spotlight of 'criticism' it is potentiated still further - as the only possible world, as the only conceptually accessible comprehensible world vouchsafed to us humans. Whether this gives rise to ecstasy, resignation or despair, whether we search for a path to “life” via irrational mystical experience, this will do absolutely nothing to modify the situation as it is in fact.”

- This passage seemed interesting: to what or whom does 'criticism' on the final page refer to? Bergson? The Vienna Circle? Neo-Kantians? Kant seems to be ruled out because the focus is on contemporaneous developments in philosophy (that is, to Lukács).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

EPM "One science" and Richard Gunn

Here's the "one science" passage from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

"We see how subjectivity and objectivity, spirituality and materiality, activity and suffering, lose their antithetical character, and – thus their existence as such antitheses only within the framework of society; we see how the resolution of the theoretical antitheses is only possible in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of man. Their resolution is therefore by no means merely a problem of understanding, but a real problem of life, which philosophy could not solve precisely because it conceived this problem as merely a theoretical one.

We see how the history of industry and the established objective existence of industry are the open book of man’s essential powers, the perceptibly existing human psychology. Hitherto this was not conceived in its connection with man’s essential being, but only in an external relation of utility, because, moving in the realm of estrangement, people could only think of man’s general mode of being – religion or history in its abstract – general character as politics, art, literature, etc. – as the reality of man’s essential powers and man’s species-activity. We have before us the objectified essential powers of man in the form of sensuous, alien, useful objects, in the form of estrangement, displayed in ordinary material industry (which can be conceived either as a part of that general movement, or that movement can be conceived as a particular part of industry, since all human activity hitherto has been labour – that is, industry – activity estranged from itself.)

A psychology for which this book, the part of history existing in the most perceptible and accessible form, remains a closed book, cannot become a genuine, comprehensive and real science. What indeed are we to think of a science which airily abstracts from this large part of human labour and which fails to feel its own incompleteness, while such a wealth of human endeavour, unfolded before it, means nothing more to it than, perhaps, what can be expressed in one word – “need”, “vulgar need”?

The natural sciences have developed an enormous activity and have accumulated an ever-growing mass of material. Philosophy, however, has remained just as alien to them as they remain to philosophy. Their momentary unity was only a chimerical illusion. The will was there, but the power was lacking. Historiography itself pays regard to natural science only occasionally, as a factor of enlightenment, utility, and of some special great discoveries. But natural science has invaded and transformed human life all the more practically through the medium of industry; and has prepared human emancipation, although its immediate effect had to be the furthering of the dehumanisation of man. Industry is the actual, historical relationship of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man. If, therefore, industry is conceived as the exoteric revelation of man’s essential powers, we also gain an understanding of the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man. In consequence, natural science will lose its abstractly material – or rather, its idealistic – tendency, and will become the basis of human science, as it has already become – albeit in an estranged form – the basis of actual human life, and to assume one basis for life and a different basis for science is as a matter of course a lie. The nature which develops in human history – the genesis of human society – is man’s real nature; hence nature as it develops through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature.

Sense-perception (see Feuerbach) must be the basis of all science. Only when it proceeds from sense-perception in the two-fold form of sensuous consciousness and sensuous need – is it true science. All history is the history of preparing and developing “man” to become the object of sensuous consciousness, and turning the requirements of “man as man” into his needs. History itself is a real part of natural history of nature developing into man. Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.

Man is the immediate object of natural science; for immediate, sensuous nature for man is, immediately, human sensuousness (the expressions are identical) – presented immediately in the form of the other man sensuously present for him. Indeed, his own sense-perception first exists as human sensuousness for himself through the other man. But nature is the immediate object of the science of man: the first – object of man – man – is nature, sensuousness; and the particular human sensuous essential powers can only find their self-understanding in the science of the natural world in general, just as they can find their objective realisation only in natural objects. The element of thought itself – the element of thought’s living expression – language – is of a sensuous nature. The social reality of nature, and human natural science, or the natural science of man, are identical terms."


Notice that, contra Lukács, for Marx "nature as it develops through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature" - no 1st and 2nd nature distinction here, or the distinction is one within human nature.

The Richard Gunn articles where he argues against a theory/meta-theory distinction in Marxian theoretical practice are:

Gunn, R. (1987a), ‘Marxism and Philosophy’, Capital & Class 37.

Gunn, R., "Marxism, Metatheory and Critique",

Gunn, R. (1992), `Against Historical Materialism: Marxism as First-Order Discourse', in W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn, K Psychopedis (eds) Open Marxism, Vol. II, Theory and Practice, (London: Pluto) pp. 1-45.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Meaning and etymology of reification

Merriam-Webster, the OED and Wikipedia agree that reification is "regarding (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing" or "mental conversion of a person or abstract concept into a thing" or "treating an abstraction as if it represented a concrete, real event or physical entity", so it is a mental misrepresentation.

The OED adds a second specifically Marxist meaning:

"Also, depersonalization, esp. such as Marx thought was due to capitalist industrialization in which the worker is considered as the quantifiable labour factor in production or as a commodity."

The OED gives the following examples of usage:

1846 GROTE Greece (1851) I. 467 note, Boiocalus would have had some trouble to make his tribe comprehend the re-ification of the god Hêlios. 1854 Fraser's Mag. XLIX. 74 A process of what may be called reification, or the conscious conversion of what had hitherto been regarded as living beings into impersonal substances. 1882 J. B. STALLO Concepts & Th. Mod. Physics 269 The existence, or possibility, of transcendental space is another flagrant instance of the reification of concepts. 1937 T. PARSONS Struct. Soc. Action xiii. 476 Positivistic empiricism has been predominantly a matter of the ‘reification’ of theoretical systems. 1941 H. MARCUSE Reason & Revol. II. i. 279 Marx's early writings are the first explicit statement of the process of reification (Verdinglichung) through which capitalist society makes all personal relations between men take the form of objective relations between things. 1954 H. J. EYSENCK Psychol. Politics viii. 262 Freud's reification of mental mechanisms is a literary rather than a scientific device. 1962 MACQUARRIE & ROBINSON tr. Heidegger's Being & Time I. i. 72 The Thinghood itself which such reification implies must have its ontological origin demonstrated. 1971 J. J. SHAPIRO tr. Habermas's Toward Rational Soc. iii. 39 The active assault upon culture is based on the same reification as the fetishism of those students who believe that by occupying university classrooms they are taking possession of science as a productive force. 1976 G. THERBORN Sci., Class & Soc. i. 26 The ugly consequences, in Friedrich's view, result from a ‘reification’ of the current epistemological stance of science. 1979 E. H. GOMBRICH Sense of Order v. 143 To see the [wavy] line as water, mountains or, perhaps, a fluttering ribbon might be described as ‘reification’, to see it as a living serpent as ‘animation’. (reference)

So in English its predates its use as a translation of Marx's Verdinglichung, which seems to originate with Marcuse.

Wikipedia has a separate page on reification in Marxism: here. It says the word was coined by Destutt de Tracey, but I am sure this is erroneous: it was 'ideology' that he coined. The rest of the page seems even more confused, but it does have a bibliography.

Friday, June 8, 2007


It would be useful to have a general post concerning the content of Thursday's discussion and where the group is with the reading, since I would like to follow along from afar as much as possible.

Having finished section two, one of the most striking assertions of Lukacs is regarding the undialectical nature of Hegel's absolute spirit in the end of the Phenomenology. Lukacs' argument here seems related to his comments in the 1967 preface regarding the human quality of objectification. The delineation of objectification from alienation (xxiv) leads Lukacs into an explicitly humanist position stating that (1) objectification is human, and (2) alienation is the deformation of the human. For Lukacs Hegel's conclusion to the Phenomenology is irrational (147). Absolute spirit appears as a leap necesitated by the unconcrete or (over) determining nature of World Spirit. Which leads us into the next section.

Regardless of whether World Spirit is an adequate concept to Hegel's meaning or not (I think it is), does Lukacs' critique of the final turn of the Phenomenology as being "mythical" and leaving history in its attempt to wholly enter it adequately represent what Hegel is doing? Furthermore this attempt to fully enter history seems to be intimately related to the problem of objectification, in that the end of history is for Hegel the culmination of a journey through alienation and the concept coming into its own, etc. Does Marx's distinction beteen alienation and objectification allow him to conceive of the end of history in a distinct and more concrete form than that of Hegel's? If objectification partly defines the human, and communism is somehow the realisation of human nature, the supercession of specifically capitalist alienation would not be an end to objectivity as such, i.e. history. Lukacs trajectory here seems essential to the problem of history in Western Marxism generally. But is his reading of Hegel (after Marx) adequate to the Phenomenology itself? Or does Hegel (as when he speaks of work) see absolute spirit as exhibiting the human not as "achieved", but by definition as "fleeting"?

Lukacs relates the error of not distinguishing alienation form objectification (a distinction which I am suggesting might be there implicitly in his critique of absolute spirit) to the "success enjoyed by History and Class Consciousness". (xxiv) I am tempted to read this success in relation to Lukacs identification of his own messianic tendency and that of the ultra-left in general. By this I mean that the drive to superceed objectification (and history) is by its very nature messianic, and so Lukacs states that his argument in H & C C had great appeal because of this. Neverthless, at least in his conclusion to the second part of the essay I am tempted to read his argument the other way around (from how he read it in 1967).