Marx’s Critique of Hegel pt II (and alienation, substance, and human nature)

In continuation of March Marxism, today I want to pursue further Marx’s critique of Hegel, and his theories on the substance of reality and human nature. Rather than skipping over Hegel per the last entry’s endeavors, I want to go into further detail of his views, with the hopes that this will benefit the understanding of Marx’s critique. It will be argued that Marx’s position on labor as the process of overcoming man’s alienation from his own abilities follows from his postulation that the substance of reality is material. As Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Idealist philosophy is convincing, it will be concluded that we should accept Marx’s theory that the human nature of man is to labor.

G.W.F. Hegel devises an epistemological model that he posits is able to gain true knowledge of the objects of experience through a dialectical process. Beginning from the thought that truth can only be known in a system, Hegel describes consciousness as a system in the way that it interacts with objects of experience in a process. As such, truth can be revealed by working out the process by which consciousness interacts with the objects of experience.

Hegel establishes a model of consciousness as being routed in the subject and the object. From this he notes that in the initial stages of consciousness the human being does not have an idea of itself as consciousness because it does not distinguish the objects of experience from itself and this leads Hegel to argue that this shows that in the initial stage of consciousness man does not separate himself from the objects of experience. This leads Hegel to posit the initial simple unity of subject and object as being broken by the development of consciousness to self-consciousness. By this Hegel is arguing that at first there is consciousness without self awareness because that stage of consciousness does not distinguish itself from other objects. This can be seen when Hegel explicates,

The living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself. This Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity, and is for this very reason the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its antithesis. Only this self-restoring sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself – not an original or immediate unity as such – is the True (Phenomenology of Spirit, 10).

Self-consciousness is manifest in the stage when consciousness negates the objects of experience as other than consciousness. Yet as there is an initial simple unity of subject and object, Hegel considers this stage of self-consciousness one in which the subject is alienated from itself. It is at this stage of alienation from itself that consciousness meets epistemological problems of how it knows truths about the objects of experience. Hegel postulates that consciousness will avoid these problems when it develops further and comes to negate the negation of the objects of experience as part of consciousness. In this way consciousness will return to the initial simple unity of consciousness and the objects of consciousness through negating the object and then negating its negation of the object out of mediation on consciousness’ alienation from itself. The truth revealed in this dialectical model is that the objects of consciousness are naught but consciousness such that the substance of the objects of experience is consciousness.

Marx’s Critique: Overview
Karl Marx challenges Hegel’s conclusion that the substance of reality is consciousness and posits instead that the ultimate substance is material. Marx appropriates Hegel’s thought on alienation by observing man’s alienation from his powers and abilities due to those powers’ dependence on external objects. Nevertheless, Marx holds that through labor man overcomes his alienation from his own powers by coming to understand he is an object like the objects of experience. This leads Marx to posit that it is man’s human nature to labor in order to overcome this alienation from his own powers and objectivity.

Against Abstraction and Idealism
Marx initiates his critique of Hegel by positing that Hegel makes the error of abstracting man’s ability to reason from man and establishing it as a formal and logical system (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 174). Marx argues that in doing so Hegel is only able to draw abstract conclusions about consciousness and this is how he is led to the conclusion that the substance of reality is consciousness. What is confirmed by the abstraction of reason from man is not that substance is subject but that consciousness is an abstract process that abstracts. Marx explicates this point in noting that, “what is posited, instead of confirming itself, is but confirmation of the act of positing which for a moment but only for a moment, fixes its energy as the product, and seems to give it the character of an independent, real substance” (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 180). As such, using consciousness to think about itself as Hegel does will lead to the erroneous conclusion that consciousness can be abstracted from man.

This premise is essential for the conclusion that the substance of reality is consciousness, but Marx holds that it can be effectively disproven as it requires that all the qualities and attributes of man must belong to consciousness, rather than consciousness being one of many attributes of man. For Marx, consciousness is not the only quality of man’s nature and he notes Hegel’s commitment to the thought that consciousness is the bearer of the qualities of human nature. Marx articulates the absurdity of such a thought when noting, “self-consciousness is rather a quality of human nature, of the human eye, etc.; it is not human nature that is a quality of self-consciousness” (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 178). In that Hegel falsely concludes that the substance of reality is consciousness because he wrongly abstracts consciousness from man, Marx concludes that the substance of reality is material because man is a material object and consciousness should not be abstracted from him in order to conduct philosophy.

Materialism and Human Nature
Thus, Marx holds that the substance of reality is material, such that man is a material object that interacts with other objects. Marx offers support for his claim that man must be understood as an object by positing that man interacts with other things as ‘objects’ because as an object himself he is limited to understanding them in this way.  His explication of this thought is straight-forward when he propounds, “[man] creates or establishes only objects, because he is established by objects- because at bottom he is nature […] his objective product only confirms his objective activity, establishing his activity as the activity of an objective, natural being” (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 180-181). Thus, because man is an object it his human nature to experience things as objects.

Marx takes this point further by positing that in order for man to know himself he must do so by laboring with objects that are external to him. In this way man is dependent on external objects to know what powers and sensibilities lie within him (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 181). This leads Marx to posit that man at first feels alienated from himself because of his dependence on these external objects. Yet it is through the process of labor in working with these objects that man comes to know his powers through them and then sees these objects as objects like himself. As such, man comes to understand himself as an object and overcomes his alienation from external objects through the process of laboring with external objects. Sean Sayers puts this point quite clearly when observing that Marx is positing that, “by objectifying ourselves in our products, we come to recognize our powers and capacities as real and objective. Thus we develop a consciousness of ourselves. Second, by humanizing the world, we cease to feel that we are confronted by a foreign and hostile world” (“Creative Activity and Alienation in Hegel and Marx”, 111).  Thus, as it is through labor that man locates his powers in external objects, it is through labor that man understands himself and his world. For this reason, Marx posits that labor is the “species-being” or human nature of man.

Moreover it seems quite evident that given the way that Marx uncovers that the substance of reality is material human nature could be nothing other than labor. While it might be thought that Marx could argue that the substance of reality is material and that a process other than labor was the species-being of man, this seems untenable given how Marx reasons that materialism is true and idealism false. Recall that Marx posits that idealism is false because it requires that the attributes and qualities of man belong to consciousness. Marx correctly takes it as evident that consciousness is an attribute of man such that man is a natural and material being that possesses consciousness. In order for man to know and understand himself as having consciousness he must know that he is an object and an object with certain powers than depend on interactions with other objects. As man interacts with these objects through his labor it follows that man must labor in order to know himself. Insofar as man cannot avoid coming to know himself as he cannot avoid interacting with other objects it seems true that if we understand these interactions with objects as labor then man can never avoid knowing himself through labor. This seems to be an astute characterization of human nature and as it follows from the fact that man is an object, we must conclude that Marx’s view of human nature is connected with his thesis that the substance of reality is material.

Alienation, alright, but to what end? Marx or Hegel
There is a striking similarity between Hegel and Marx which here will be made explicit. Both philosophers posit that man comes to understand himself through a process of overcoming their alienation from an object. For Hegel this process is the negating of the negation that objects are naught but consciousness while for Marx this process is the overcoming of man’s alienation from his own powers due to their dependence on external objects. Put more precisely, in Hegel’s model man overcomes the negation of the objects of experience that have become alienated from him and finds that they are naught but his own consciousness, such that the substance of reality is consciousness. By contrast, in Marx’s model man accepts that his powers as man are dependent on other external objects such that those material objects are real, thereby confirming that the substance of reality is material. Thus, both philosophers use models involving the overcoming of alienation to support their positions on what the substance of reality is.

Yet the question remains as to which model is more credible: Hegel’s or Marx’s. It is the position of this author that Marx’s model is more acceptable as his criticism of Hegel’s philosophy is convincing. Indeed Marx is correct to posit that Hegel abstracts consciousness from man in order to make consciousness the substance of reality. I agree with Marx that this is an error as it entails that consciousness possesses the qualities of humanity rather than the more plausible explanation that humanity possesses the quality of consciousness. It seems absurd to accept Hegel’s metaphysical conclusion when it is built from a premise that contradicts what we know from experience.

As we have seen that Marx’s position on human nature follows from his articulation of materialism, we ought to accept Marx’s thoughts on human nature as his materialist theory is seemingly true, or is at least superior to Hegel’s idealism. This should not be seen as a drawback to accepting the strength of Marx’s argument against Hegel’s idealism; Marx’s theory of human nature as labor is an optimistic view that nevertheless warrants consideration for its practicality.


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