Marx’s Materialism and the Possibility of Science

Reid Kotlas, author of the Planomenology blog and my favorite new blog The Luxemburgist, provides today’s post on the relation between historical materialism and science.

Reid Kotlas, Marx’s Materialism and the Possibility of Science

Marx is famously conservative with his metaphysical commitments, owing to his nearly exclusive focus on the critique of political economy and the politics of the labor movement. Yet this might seem problematic when considering the one apparently metaphysical commitment he unabashedly undertakes: namely, commitment to materialism. He never ventures to justify this commitment in metaphysical terms, which becomes a problem once one appreciates the crucial role it occupies in his critical apparatus.

This allegedly uncritical attachment to materialism is at the root of some of the greatest controversies surrounding the legacy of Marxism. These include the accusations that Marx is guilty of reductive economism, historical determinism, and historical relativism.

Marx’s supposed reductive economism is most evident in his ‘base-superstructure’ model of social change, according to which consciousness is determined by mode of production of its material existence, and not the other way around. On this view, the economy, and specifically the sphere of production, is the most essential aspect of social existence, and all other aspects are inessential reflections determined according to it. This crude picture follows from a materialism which reduces all ideal phenomena to material phenomena, and which presupposes a very stark and under-justified discrimination of social realities according to these categories.

Historical determinism follows from this model. Like standard determinism, it is the position that physical causality is explanatorily sufficient to account for everything that exists, and that anything that appears autonomous is not really so. Historical determinism extends this to encompass human history, whose development proceeds according to laws independent of materially unaccountable phenomena like will or consciousness.

Historical relativism is not a position Marx is alleged to explicitly endorse, but an unintentional and adverse collateral result of his explicit positions. It is the position that all standards by which society evaluates and attributes significance to phenomena are only valid relative to their specific historical context, and that therefore undermines Marx’s two biggest concerns: a genuinely objective science, and a form of social organization whose superiority to others is not merely the prerogative of one social class, but the prerogative of humanity in general.

These accusations lose all merit if they are based on a misunderstanding of the sense of materialism advocated by Marx.* I will argue that materialism is not limited to a metaphysical position regarding the structure of the real, namely, that to be real is to be fundamentally composed of a univocal material substrate. It is alleged that Marx sought to restructure social science in terms of this position, such that the only aspects of social existence that can be regarded as real are those that can be described in thoroughly material terms. Yet I will argue that Marx advocated a very different sense of materialism, one that does not impinge on, and even requires, the relative autonomy of ‘immaterial’ aspects of social existence constitutive of the ideal realm. This sort of materialism will turn out to have significant implications for our understanding of science in general, and social science in particular, although not the implications we have been conditioned to expect.

To understand the sense in which Marx advocates materialism, it will be helpful to turn to The German Ideology, one of his most detailed meditations on the distinction between materialism and idealism.** Early on, Marx (writing with Engels) associates his ‘materialist method’ with empiricism, claiming that the only premises that are admissible are those that “can be verified in a purely empirical way.” Yet he quickly, perhaps too quickly, clarifies how his method differs from standard empiricism. To get a better sense of this distinction, it will help to allude to a discussion of the English and French origins of materialism in another text of the same period, also co-written with Engels, The Holy Family.

In a sub-section entitled “Critical Battle Against French Materialism”, Marx summarizes the two trends whose international circulation originally constituted materialism. The first is the sort of “mechanical materialism”, which in France was born out of Cartesian physics (and was ironically turned against Descartes’ own metaphysics), and in England was championed by Descartes’ opponent Thomas Hobbes, as a geometrical systematization of Francis Bacon’s conception of science. The second is not so much an opposing tendency as the former’s unrecognized foundation. While it also takes root in the work of Bacon, it takes seriously the question of the “sensuous foundations” of knowledge. Hobbes sought to undermine recourse to such foundations by arguing, in Marx’s words, that “if all human knowledge is furnished by the senses, then our concepts, notions, and ideas are but the phantoms of the real world, more or less divested of its sensual form”. Against this sort of reductivism about experience, which in France would lead to the absurdism of La Mettrie’s man-machine, Marx claims that John Locke rescues the epistemological basis of scientific materialism. He does so by connecting human knowledge to the practical terrain of experience in which it is produced, thereby defending Bacon’s insight that science “consists in subjecting the data furnished by the senses to a rational method of investigation.”

The Lockean tendency does not come to full fruition until it is exported to France, wherein the distinctively social character of this process of “subjecting” data to rational investigation is explicated. This was carried out first by Locke’s French translator Condillac, who drew the conclusion that not only “the art of creating ideas, but also the art of sensuous perception, are matters of experience and habit“, and that the “whole development of man therefore depends on education and external circumstances.” In short, the French development of this tendency led to the conclusion that the empiricism of scientific method cannot be understood in abstraction, as the experience of an individual with no social or historical context, but only as an experience and a consequent theoretical understanding that exemplify a whole process of socialization and validation.

At this point, the significance of The German Ideology‘s discussion of materialism in terms of method should be more evident. Materialism as the doctrine that the world is a causally-complete deterministic ‘mechanism’ is worth little if one cannot demonstrate how one knows this is the case. This demonstration is only possible by submitting our experience to “rational investigation”, a process that itself must be accountable in terms of the social basis of its validity, lest it rest on the unscientific ground of dogmatic presuppositions. Thus, materialism is not principally a metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) doctrine about the way things are, but a methodological commitment to a specific manner of counting claims about ‘the way things are’ as genuine knowledge. Methodological materialism does not presuppose metaphysical materialism, even if it may end up endorsing the latter down the line.

The principle characteristic of this method is what sort of premises it will consider admissible. It rejects any premise according to which empirical findings are simply the exemplifications of deeper metaphysical categories; in the case of history, it refuses any approach that would submit real history to an a priori scheme determining what is significant and what is not. It also rejects vulgar empiricism, itself “still abstract”, according to which empirical findings are to be ‘taken at their word’. There is a deeper logic governing our experience of historical reality, but the nature of this logic is itself historical, emerging from and changing along with the reality it takes as its object. Historical materialism must be capable of accounting for the genesis of not only the categories by which we attribute significance to historical phenomena, but the experience of those phenomena. “[H]ere we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.” While Marx echoes his characterization of Hobbes as regarding ideas based on sensuous experience as “phantoms of the real world”, he denies that the phantasmaticity is tantamount to invalidity, instead maintaining that there is an essential connection between the phantom and its real basis — namely, that manner in which the phantom is produced.

The point is not to reduce what men think to what they are, because “what they think”, from basic experiential observations to more complex inferences derived therefrom, is the ground of genuine scientific knowledge. The point, rather, is to not take “what they think” for granted, and instead to explain how and why these thoughts are constituted. Taking this experience as his ground, Marx then proceeds to descend into the earth to observe the ‘subterranean’ structure of that ground, to see where the foundations are firm and where they are riven by faults or vulnerable to rapid erosion. It is a matter of understanding why they think what they think on the basis of the more fundamental practical level of what they do. Historical materialism “does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice”. Whereas idealists invert the relation between ideal reflections and their real basis, attempting to explain that latter on the basis of the former, empiricism misunderstands what the real basis consists in, confusing it with the abstract experience of individuals. For Marx, on the contrary, the latter is still too ideal, and the real basis is instead to be sought in the whole social-practical ensemble from which any given individual experience is born.

In this regard, Marx’s materialism is similar to the methodological pragmatism advocated by Robert Brandom (an approach Brandom identifies in both Kant and Hegel). For Brandom, writing in the context of semantic theory, a pragmatist order of explanation endeavors to explain the meaning of an expression on the basis of the manner in which it is used, or the practical framework within which it is meaningful. Yet for Marx, it is not enough to resort to the narrow range of “meaning-generative” practices to explain his object. One must go further, and explain how these practices themselves are possible, grounding them in the fundamental level of practices necessary for the sustenance and continuous reproduction of social existence. This is the ultimate insight of the “expanded pragmatism” that is Marx’s methodological materialism. As Engels succinctly put it in his eulogy for his partner:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” [Emphasis mine]

Marx, ultimately, does not seek to reduce the ideal or “ideological” sphere, including scientific knowledge, to a deterministic materiality, but rather seeks to account for the possibility of and constraints upon scientific knowledge on the basis of the fundamental practical structure of social existence.

Marx is concerned with understanding the practical basis of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as part of a general skepticism about the rational legitimation of authority. Yet far from skepticism sliding into pessimism about, or even outright denial of, the possibility of such legitimation, this skepticism is critical in the positive sense of striving to rescue rationality from the hegemony of false claimants. This is a straightforward extension of the Enlightenment project, and is moreover the point at which critical epistemology intersects with the social contract tradition of political philosophy. Yet it goes further in that it rejects the predominant tendency in both toward the methodogically presupposed primacy of the individual: in the former, in its grounding of epistemology in the cognitive capacities of individuals (or at its peak with Kant, in the necessary structure of individuated cognition itself); and the latter in grounding political legitimacy in either the moral inclinations or amoral passions of individuals.

At least in this regard, Marx is clearly the heir of Hegel, in that he wants to ground both sorts of individuality in the social structure of which they are parts. It is moreover on this basis that we can find in Marx the immanent standard of progress that staves off historical relativism and safeguards the possibility of both objective science and a rationally superior mode of production. By understanding the manner in which social relationships to the material reproduction process are the foundation of the practical application of standards like objectivity and rationality, and the manner in which inequitable economic relationships can translate into extrinsic constraints to or distortions of the applications of these standards, we arrive at the conclusion not that these standards are ultimately invalid or ungeneralizable, but that their consistent application is only possible on the basis of a genuinely egalitarian structure of economic relations. It is for this reason that Marx claims that the “second trend” of Franco-English materialism, a trend which he brings to fruition, “leads directly to socialism and communism.”

* This is not to say that metaphysical materialism necessarily entails positions of this type. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to establish as much, I think the methodological materialism advocated by Marx leads naturally toward a kind of metaphysical materialism, be it one that is not reductive about socially-valid phenomena.

** The German Ideology, while certainly immature in many respects when compared to his later writings, is wrongly maligned as representative of a position incompatible with those later writings. Whatever incompatibilities exist should be dealt with piecemeal; only the lazy scholar resorts to wholesale dismissal. My approach to the early writings is therefore to read them through the lens of their mature culmination in Capital.

1 thought on “Marx’s Materialism and the Possibility of Science

  1. Pingback: Marx’s Materialism and the Possibility of Science | The Luxemburgist

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