A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: Marxism

Marx on the Cultural Formation of the Senses

Selection from Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism” (1844). Text copied from Marxists.org.

In this section, Marx describes both the objective and subjective aspects of sensation. In particular, he points to the significant role played by society in shaping sensory experience. Sensing is a learned  behavior, just like capitalism is a learned mode of exchange. I have bolded text for emphasis.

“It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc.

We have seen that man does not lose himself in his object only when the object becomes for him a human object or objective man. This is possible only when the object becomes for him a social object, he himself for himself a social being, just as society becomes a being for him in this object.

On the one hand, therefore, it is only when the objective world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of man’s essential powers – human reality, and for that reason the reality of his own essential powers – that all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects which confirm and realize his individuality, become his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object. The manner in which they become his depends on the nature of the objects and on the nature of the essential power corresponding to it; for it is precisely the determinate nature of this relationship which shapes the particular, real mode of affirmation. To the eye an object comes to be other than it is to the ear, and the object of the eye is another object than the object of the ear. The specific character of each essential power is precisely its specific essence, and therefore also the specific mode of its objectification, of its objectively actual, living being. Thus man is affirmed in the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with all his senses.

On the other hand, let us look at this in its subjective aspect. Just as only music awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear – is [no] object for it, because my object can only be the confirmation of one of my essential powers – it can therefore only exist for me insofar as my essential power exists for itself as a subjective capacity; because the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my sense goes (has only a meaning for a sense corresponding to that object) – for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.

Just as through the movement of private property, of its wealth as well as its poverty – of its material and spiritual wealth and poverty – the budding society finds at hand all the material for this development, so established society produces the rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses – as its enduring reality.”


For another version of the text, see: http://faculty.washington.edu/cbehler/teaching/coursenotes/Texts/Marx,EconPhilMan.html

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from “Prison Notebooks”

Antonio Gramsci, Section III.1 from The Prison Notebooks, “The Study of Philosophy.”

Everyone is a philosopher. By this Gramsci does not mean that everyone has the social role of the professional philosopher, but rather that philosophy happens in the practices of everyday social life like language, folklore, and “common sense.” Philosophy cannot be the preserve of a few experts, but must be a concrete, collective activity. The professional philosopher must always remain engaged with people’s “common sense” convictions—building on them, critiquing them, and working with them to spark a socialist revolution from the bottom up. This does not mean capitulating to common sense when it is wrong, but it means that philosophy’s criticism needs to remain embedded in concrete social relations and everyday life.

Common sense: generally accepted ideas. Good sense: “a conception of the world with an ethic that conforms to its structure” (660).

Philosophy must be politically engaged: “Since all action is political,” he writes, “can one not say that the real philosophy of each man is contained in its entirety in his political action?” (631-632).

Religion is more than just the opiate. For Gramsci, religion offers a prime example of how ideas can embed themselves in practical action and create a socialist common sense that spans between professionals (clergy/philosophers) and non-professionals (laity/the masses): “religion has been and continues to be a ‘necessity,’ a necessary form taken by the will of the popular masses and a specific way of rationalizing the world and real life, which provided the general framework for real practical activity” (647). According to Gramsci, religion offers stability and community to “the masses.” Marxism needs to become a little more like religion, providing a way of thinking about real life and offering a framework for practical action. He defines religion as “a conception of the world which has become a norm of life” (657-658). Marxism, a conception of the world, needs to become more like religion.

There is no such thing as human nature. Gramsci describes the human as an “ensemble of social relations” (680).

Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)

Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845). Online version.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach offers eleven short critiques of Feuerbach’s dialectical materialism. In the dialectical philosophies of Feuerbach and Hegel, he argues, “materialism” appears usually as inert objects or as (objects of) contemplation. For them, real human activity happens in the mind—the material serves as mind’s dialectical opposite. But for Marx, all human activity (including subjectivity and thought) must be theorized as practical, material, and social. Even “religious sentiments” are social products according to Marx; more still, the “abstract individual” who holds “religious sentiments” emerges only under particular material and social conditions (#7). Thus, Marx rejects the idealists’ claim that the essence of human subjectivity resides in the individual mind. He insists that any theory of human society must be aware of the material conditions under which such particular notions of subjectivity emerged: “the human essence. . . . is the ensemble of social relations,” not an “abstraction inherent in each single individual” (#6).

Marx demands that theory must engage in revolutionary political activity. In the most famous thesis (#11), he writes, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real point is to change it.” This is no vague inspirational quote about “changing your world” by being a nice person or liking the right cause on Facebook. For Marx, change happens at the level of social structures and the material conditions that structure the way people think, experience, and live in the world.

-Review by A.T. Coates

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