aristotle: metaphysics book XII (Λ), chapters 9-10

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

medieval manuscript of aristotles metaphysics

Aristotle / Metaphysics Book XII (Λ), Chapters 9-10[1]

Part of the job of reading Aristotle is reading and re-reading till one reaches only a satisfactory understanding of what is ultimately being said. We already know that that the Metaphysics have to do with the question of being, and that with the question of being begs the question of a primary being, which can be said to be the ultimate cause. This means that while we are reading only two short chapters, we are also jumping three-quarters of the way into the complexity of Aristotle’s inquiry about being and a primary mover that looks like God. With all this in mind, it is also difficult to ignore a few of the points Aristotle makes in chapters 6 and 7. For instance, there’s the idea that “actuality is prior to potentiality” (1072a, 10). This in itself is interesting since we typically assume that potentiality must precede the actual, so Aristotle’s claim becomes one where potential is contained within the actual. This is a profound thought indeed, one that anticipates Bergson’s ideas of the virtual, and so on. Another point, similar in its profundity, is brought about in chapter 7, where Aristotle names a “mover, which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality” (1072a, 25). Along with this mover, Aristotle also attributes thought, the good, the eternal, and a intricate way that it is necessary without being caused itself (1072b, 1-30). From here we move through chapters 9 and 10, where we find Aristotle trying to qualify what the nature of divine thought consists of. His opening up of the discussion starts with the tail end of chapter 8. Aristotle finds inspiration with the idea that the divine is not anthropomorphic and is better thought of as “the first substances to be gods” (1074b, 10). Aristotle continues with the idea that divine thought must be of a substance, it must also be “itself that thought thinks” (1074b, 34). This must mean that the kind of thought that the divine is, must contain thinking before thought thinks about things—the divine is thought (shades of Xenophanes’ divine). Aristotle also seems to discount the idea that this divine thought can be composite, since human thought is not necessarily composed of parts of thought. Divine thought must then be whole, and not a composite of thought units. In Chapter 10 Aristotle compares the good and the higher good (of the divine) to an army and the leader, respectively. This is a way of saying that the good depends on the higher good, and not the other way around. To suggest that order depends on the higher good suggests a telos to Aristotle’s divine, i.e.: order is informed by to good, to be what it is and what it will be. Another point Aristotle addresses has to do with the Pre-Socratic (probably Heraclitus) notion of contraries. Aristotle finds this view lacking in its lack of full explanatory evidence. There are other views Aristotle covers including Plato’s Forms, with a question of how real things (forms) actually participate with the Forms. Aristotle concludes later in the chapter that “the form and the thing are one” (1076a, 35). Characteristic of this move we find the Homeric quote at the end “the rule of the many is not good, let there be one ruler” (1076b, 5).

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, n.d., 1692-1700.


the origins of critique for marx

December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

marx mao sqaure

“There is no other road to truth and freedom except leading through the brook of fire [the Feuerbach]. Feuerbach is the purgatory of the present times.” – Karl Marx[1]

“Rationally interpreted, Hegel’s propositions would mean only this: The Family and civil society are parts of the state.” – Karl Marx[2]

The Origins of Critique for Marx

This essay aims to find Karl Marx’s origins of critique. There is no absolute answer to this inquiry, however, there must be a case to be made for Marx’s critique as having a strong connection to the dialectical reasoning based in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. I will start by examining the influence of Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity as it closely relates to Marx’s statements on critique itself in his early manuscripts of the 1840s. This analysis will then lead even further back to ask if the early sources of Marx’s critique are relatable to Hegel’s well-known chapter in the Phenomenology of Spirit of 1807, on “Lordship and Bondage,” (commonly known as the Master-Slave dialectic). From Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy, through Hegel’s dialectic, Marx went far beyond his predecessors. Nevertheless, his critique is best understood with them in mind.

A.) Feuerbach’s Critique of Christianity and the developments of Marx’s Critique.

Feuerbach’s influential The Essence of Christianity (1841) was published only a few years before Marx wrote “The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843),[3] (hereafter the “Critique Intro.”), when he was in his mid-twenties. Marx’s manuscript was published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (the German-French Yearbooks), Marx’s and Arnold Ruge’s[4] own short-lived publication.[5] This early manuscript demarcates a few of Marx’s key themes—the critique of capitalism, calling the proletariat to mobilize—all of this was quickly developing into a full-blown critique on capitalism, on through the later heights of Capital in 1867. Yet another central, but underlying, theme is the notion of critique itself.

In the opening sentence of the “Critique Intro.,” Marx decries, “for Germany, the criticism of religion has been largely completed; and the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”[6] Why is that?—how does a critique of religion constitute the “premise for all criticism”? For an answer to this question we have to take into account that Marx must be referring to Feuerbach’s earlier critique of Christianity. Marx, as a fellow Young Hegelian with Feuerbach, is taken to critique by way of Feuerbach’s critique of religion, “The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”[7] It is hard not to be seduced by many of Marx’s lines that demonstrate a critical break with mystifying religious ideology that distracts people. A religious attitude, for Marx, is one that permeates the very ways that we understand our relationship to the world and to others. Criticism becomes a way to examine the illusions that are separating people from their material conditions.

To contextualize this more, let us look to the workings of Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity. In his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach shows that the ideal of religious practice alienates people from themselves.[8] The ideals of Christianity—the perfection of God, the infinite, &c.—alienate humans from our true nature. Because religious life sets up an ideal world that is unattainable, we are alienated from what we can actually be, the fruit of our own consciousness. Feuerbach wanted to place religious belief and practice (theology) in the anthropological realm.[9] We are alienated from the infinite possibility of our own being if the infinite is thought of as existing apart from us, only to be attained after death. Human development coincides with the development of religion. For Feuerbach, religion is brought down to earth to be realized and placed as the cultural development of humankind.[10]

To a degree, Marx accepted Feuerbach’s critique, yet Marx felt that Feuerbach’s critique remained in a thoroughly Hegelian mindset that was unaware of how it too was alienating in its understanding of human being’s connections to their species-being (human-nature). If Marx was critical of Feuerbach’s conclusions, still, he didn’t abandon Feuerbach, nor did he ever really abandon key aspects of Hegel’s ideas. If Marx did not entirely reject Feuerbach’s critique of religion, he critiqued it while preserving key elements, such as Feuerbach’s position that people need to reawaken to their own intrinsic power instead of deifying that power in the mystifications of religion, along with the mystifications of philosophy.[11] Projecting their own power into the power of a deity weakened a person’s very real potential.[12] All of this sets up the idea that Marx critiqued, and was inspired by Feuerbach’s critique, yet it does not directly point to critique in general. Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity set Marx on the path of critique under the influence of the Hegel’s dialectic.

According to Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, religion is a reflection of humankind’s own consciousness.[13] People can now (after reading Feuerbach) let go of the illusion that the power to transform themselves and their environments is in their hands and not in the hands of a deity. Marx famously wrote in 1843, in the “Critique, Intro.,” that religion is “the opium of the people.”[14] Two years earlier, Feuerbach also says something surprisingly similar to this in his Essence of Christianity, where he writes “religion is as bad as opium.”[15] The similarity of these quotes speaks to the affinity of their ideas at this time. For Feuerbach it is as simple as recognizing that the religious promise of an afterlife distracts people from their actual lives on earth, before they die. Religion anesthetizes actual life with the constant promise of a better life in heaven. The very real suffering of people becomes mystified away from understanding suffering’s real causes. The mystifications of Christianity need to be put aside in the name of getting to the real-world conditions of human suffering.[16] A strong opiate only manages and palliates the pain. Opium is not a treatment or a cure for the cause of the pain. Certain kinds of religious illusion create suffering in the name of alleviating pain. Christian dogma promises to help us with suffering but often fails to do so. I would be amiss to avoid mentioning that Feuerbach was not a dogmatic atheist either. In Frederick Engel’s Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (1886), Engels writes that “He [Feuerbach] by no means wishes to abolish religion: he wants to perfect it. Philosophy itself must be absorbed in religion.”[17]

Marx wants us to see that not only is this a critique of religious life—the incipient beginning of his critical method—he also wants us to see a reason to critique the actual material conditions that promulgate illusions in the first place. Critiquing material conditions and the social relationships that promulgate religious illusions is different than simply critiquing the mystifying illusions of Christianity. The conditions that have made it necessary to maintain Christianity (in Marx and Feuerbach’s time) are none other than the social, economic and political powers that exist in the day-to-day world. This means that to critique Christianity is to critique the structures that make it manifest, therefore, as Marx puts it, “the criticism of theology [is transformed into] the criticism of politics.”[18]

In a provocative letter to his friend Ruge, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” written around the same time as the “Contribution Intro.,” Marx reiterates this exact thought “just as religion is the catalogue of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is the catalogue of its practical struggles.”[19] Here, Marx brings in the distinction between the theoretical and the practical, so if the theoretical applies to religion and the practical applies to politics then, not only do we notice his early call to praxis, we see that philosophy remains in the theoretical.

In order to get to his critical work on the political economy of capitalism, Marx had to dialectically get past Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Nevertheless, according to the logic of dialectical reasoning,[20] Marx’s thought included Hegel and Feuerbach, even though he often tried to suggest the contrary.[21] The critique of philosophy and religion has to make way for the critique of political life. Marx was then concerned with finding the preconditions of the contradictions of the political state that lead us away from truth.[22] This distinction is no small step in Marx’s early development since it leads to significant points famously made in the “Theses on Feuerbach” from 1844. Although Feuerbach was recognized as critical of religion (by way of Hegel), Marx felt that Feuerbach didn’t go far enough. In thesis “V” Marx speaks of Feuerbach’s sensualist-materialism (i.e. the result of humankind’s break with Christianity) as not being materialist enough because Feuerbach did “not conceive sensuousness as practical, human activity.”[23]

Marx critique of Feuerbach stands as a departure from a strictly philosophical mindset into a practical means of critiquing unquestioned presuppositions that lead to contradictions of social and political life. Ideology and reality clash. The ideology of reason loses sight of its material conditions.[24] Critique is to be differentiated from dogma.[25] Marx did not appeal to a doctrinaire position that wishes to spell out its future vision of change at the expense of comprehending the realities that have become overlooked—we cannot face our problems till we know what they are in practice. Criticism needs to come to terms with real struggles. Our own consciousness needs to develop into a thoroughgoing understanding of what holds us back, not only in a theoretical and philosophical way but in a practical way. Recall the oft-quoted “XI” theses on Feurbach, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[26]

It shouldn’t be forgotten that this is still early Marx, while he is talking about a critique of politics and society, the critique is still focused on the Germany of his day—meaning a critique of the German status quo in the 1840s.[27] Getting into the contradictions of German history that have produced a status quo remains a point of contestation and a way toward critique that analyzes the sources of suffering in the Germany Marx had recently left behind.[28]

B.) Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic.

Ultimately, Hegel felt that the realization of freedom was made manifest through history as it progresses dialectically onward in the physical world.[29] Hegel’s renowned Phenomenology of Spirit was published in 1807. This brilliant work takes as its modest theme the development of human consciousness from nothingness and being, progressing from the “Lordship and Bondage,” and deeper into such abstract issues as “Absolute Knowing.” Richard Bernstein in his 1971 book Praxis & Action devotes a chapter to “Marx and the Hegelian Background.” In this chapter, Bernstein traces the origins of praxis in Marx, from Feuerbach and back to Hegel. Bernstein’s analysis sparked my idea to trace Marx’s origin of critique back to Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic.” Bernstein writes “it [Hegel’s master-slave dialectic] is a paradigm of what Hegel means by dialectic and it shows what Hegel means by Geist realizing itself through its own negation.”[30] It is this “realizing itself through its own negation” idea that must be at the root of what it means to critique, i.e. to recognize negation disclosed by critique to advance the progression of freedom.

For Hegel, consciousness finds certainty in the world. The desire for consciousness to know and comprehend things is confronted by that which is other to consciousness, i.e. everything else. In the effort to make this other known and comprehensible, consciousness has to sublate itself in order to become conscious and to become knowledgeable of something other than itself. Sublation is the critical phase in the dialectic, it is not a force unto itself, it immanent in the human desire toward reason. In the Phenomenology, Consciousness getting to know itself is reason getting to know itself and beyond each particular consciousness. This moving beyond any particular consciousness is what Hegel would call Geist (spirit, consciousness, and mind). Figuring out that the ways in which consciousness knows and understands the world has to do with how consciousness comes to know itself and the world. The way to know the world is a way to know consciousness itself, for Hegel. Again, none of this happens without dialectical logic, the progression of consciousness takes place as a way it works itself out into self-consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t just stay in a nascent state of consciousness. Consciousness must become self-consciousness to become fully actualized, and to become truly free. Bernstein succinctly writes that “it should be manifest that by ‘negativity’ Hegel means an active process.”[31] The negative, is essential to the dialectic. It thwarts, informs, and propels the progression of reason.[32] Every sublation contains the traces of previous stages of development as much as it contains further transformations. I propose that the motivations of Marx’s critique has its infancy in the negative drive of Hegel’s dialectic.

Bernstein reminds us that the dialectic is not stasis “The dialectic of Geist [spirit, consciousness, and mind] is essentially a dynamic and organic process.”[33] Dialectical progression is not static. It is a process that happens actively over time and over the course of human history. At its beginning stage, picture a protagonist (in this case, consciousness itself) in the struggle to achieve knowledge, comprehension, and self actualization. There will inevitably be struggles to face contradictory elements threatening to overcome the protagonist’s push forward. In the effort overpower the negative force, the protagonist must squarely take opposition as a fundamental key in the way she supersedes the negative foe. What is sublation and the aufheben? The aufheben is a special German term put to vigorous use by Hegel to simultaneously infer a lifting up and a taking down—an overcoming and an including. This inherently contradictory term actually relies on a negative contradiction to become something beyond the original premises combined.

As I’ve said, when consciousness becomes self-consciousness, one thing is clear for Hegel, to become fully self-conscious, consciousness has to recognize other consciousnesses—i.e. other people. To become fully self-actualized humans we must recognize that others are conscious creatures like ourselves. We know ourselves better through our interactions with others. Hegel’s first line in §178, from the Phenomenology, on “Lordship and Bondage” reads “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.”[34] What Hegel is describing is inter-subjectivity[35] or the recognition that there are other people (other consciousnesses) that want and deserve to be recognized by other people—we are not fully self-conscious till we recognize the consciousness of others. Hegel’s progression of the Master-Slave dialectic starts when the master desires to become actualized, she desires to have self-consciousness, and because of this she desires to be successful. In this desire, the master takes on a slave to do the heavy-lifting for the master’s desire for success. Yet the slave, because he is owned by the master, does not have full self-consciousness. This is because he is regarded as only a means to the master’s ends. The master considers the slave a thing, therefore because the slave’s essential humanity is not getting recognized by the master, the master herself is not in full possession of her own self-consciousness. Add to this that the slave also considers himself a thing, therefore, he too is not in full possession of his self-consciousness.

The master then is only getting the work she needs done by negating the slave’s personhood. The slave is reduced to producing labor and things for the master that are (paradoxically) essential to relationship. This mode in the Master-Slave relationship is characterized by alienation. The slave is alienated from the objects produced since the objective of his work is not within his power to control under the reins of the master. Hegel writes “Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is (§195).”[36] Put another way, the slave produces the essential part of the relationship, labor and things. The master is unaware that the power of what the relationship is based on. It rests on the labor-worn shoulders of the slave. The driving force of the relationship is the labor made manifest by the slave. Not only is work a core connection between the master and slave, but the production of things is also a key component in the dynamic of consciousness for Hegel, since consciousness is itself primarily made conscious by way of its dialectical encounter with material existence—it is (consciousness’s) of the other made known by labor.

It is a pivotal realization for the slave when he realizes that he possesses the power to make the things the master relies on. The dynamic changes for the slave once he is in conscious acknowledgement of his own power. Keep in mind that when the slave confronted his work it was under the duress of the negative force embodied in the master. Hegel puts it better, “through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman [the slave] realizes that is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own (§119).”[37] None of this transformation of consciousness and transformation of the master-slave relationship would have the dynamic drive to move forward if it had not been for the negative (re: alienation) that threatened consciousness or the master and slave.[38] It is important to note here that Hegel does not mean that the negative in its own right is what is important, but how consciousness tries to overcome the essential alien negative working against it. The negative is a catalyst for change.[39] Change cannot happen without something working to negate it or without working to negate something alien to it.


C.) From Hegel to Feuerbach, the Influence of the Dialectic on Marx’s Critique.

The structure of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic cannot be overlooked as it relates to Marx. First, there is the analogy between the arrogant master and the brow-beaten slave for Hegel, to the bourgeois capitalist and the laboring proletariat for Marx. Then there is the importance given, for both thinkers, to the very way consciousness is made manifest in the material world. A person’s consciousness is constituted within their material conditions, within their social milieu.[40] The slave’s labor itself is a negation of the alienated stuff of material existence, for Hegel, as much as the slave is not fully realized because his personhood is negated by the master. This too is transferable to Marx, in that the capitalist uses the proletariat as a means to an end product. Because the proletariat is not in control of the means of production, the proletariat becomes alienated from the objects of production. It is only when the proletariat realizes their own power over the material world, beyond the ideology of the capitalist, where true freedom can be sought for. But it is only when the proletariat has the knowledge of their own power that they can utilize this power in the form of a critique (theory) against the capitalist status quo, so as to change the unequal contradictions through deliberate action (praxis). None of this would take place if there were no capitalism to awaken the proletariat to their own potential, (nor if Hegel hadn’t conceived of the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology). In other words, the proletariat has to include and deeply consider the material conditions of oppression by the bourgeoisie as a way to overcome those very conditions.[41] A practical solution cannot come to the fore without a critical negation to force it beyond its original dilemma.

Now let’s return to Feuerbach and Marx’s origins of critique as it is made evident in Marx’s manuscripts from the 1840s. In the one of the four “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx presents what he’s calling “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole.”[42] This text begins with Marx calling into question (critiquing) German philosophy’s relationship to Hegel’s dialectic,[43] especially criticizing the Young-Hegelians such as David Strauss and Bruno Bauer, who still remained “wholly within the confines of the Hegelian Logic.”[44] Marx turns to praising another Young-Hegelian, Feuerbach, namely Feuerbach’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic.[45] Marx lays down a three point list highlighting what Marx felt to be Feuerbach’s “great achievement,” Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic. Marx’s first point is related to Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, whereby the religion of Christianity was shown by Feuerbach to be a product of humankind and that it served to alienate people from their essence, their demystified human nature. In the second point, Marx praises Feuerbach for bringing about a “true materialism” and “real science.”[46] In other words, as a result of the critique of Christianity, Feuerbach wanted to re-establish humankind’s relationship with itself—away from its relationship with an abstract spiritual being. The third point is the most perplexing as Marx presents it, but it is probably the most important part (according to Marx) of Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel. Essentially, Hegel felt that at one time, in his speculative assessment, that religion was subordinate to philosophy. Then at another point in his career (Marx is likely referring to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), Hegel tried to reposition this claim with a “restoration of religion and theology,”[47] above philosophy. This means that in Hegel’s late career, when he was chair of philosophy in Berlin, and when he was writing the Philosophy of Right—he became an apologist for the Prussian State. This also meant that man became subordinate to the state.[48] Later, in this same manuscript, Marx writes what I’ve been waiting for, a tangible connection to critique itself and Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic.

“The Phenomenology is, therefore, an occult critique—still to itself obscure and mystifying criticism; but insomuch as it keeps steadily in view man’s estrangement [alienation], even though man appears only in the shape of mind, there lie concealed in it all the elements of criticism, […]”[49]

Now we see several threads coming together. One thread is highlighted by Bernstein, “according to Feuerbach, Hegelian philosophy is a “mystification” because it inverts the subject-predicate relation.”[50] Bernstein brings this in because of the problems with the way Hegel positions the individual person in relation to Geist. Which means that people, in Hegel’s state, are subordinate to not only Geist, but they are also related to religion in much the same way. People are predicates of the state, religion, and as a result, to Geist. This inversion is the basis for what Marx is keying into with Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel and Christianity (which, by the way, can be considered synonymous, i.e. Feuerbach’s critique of religion is also a critique of Hegel[51]).

Then there is the thread that represents Marx’s critique of Feuerbach from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” whereby Feuerbach’s critique was not reaching far enough. Marx’s critique centers on several issues at once. One main theme has to do with the issue of practice (praxis). In order for people to wake up to thier own power (after Feuerbach’s critique), enough to become aware of their own subjection by the political state, the bourgeois capitalist, religion, &c. they will have to get to work changing it. Philosophy doesn’t happen on its own accord, it must be put into action. People must wake up to their own subjugation in society. We are not just cogs in the machinery of society. We are people of that society. Society is a predicate of individuals—not the other way around.

Even if Marx rarely spoke at length about morality, the best way to hint at a conclusion would be to say that a powerful implication of Marx’s critique is the betterment of humankind, not by the edifice of philosophy alone, but by the actions we take to reveal the contradictions that bind us to delusional ideologies that often parade as truth. This kind of critical sentiment is made evident early in Marx’s thought.[52] Critique is the aufheben of working life found in Marx’s voluminous and often extraordinary sentences. It is the pivotal moment in Hegel’s progression of consciousness, whereby consciousness works as its own protagonist toward self-realization in the form of a slave, Marx’s proletariat. The negative force by which an alienated consciousness develops the recognition of fellow consciousnesses, is thereby where we manifest communal freedom. Feuerbach’s aufheben becomes a reason to take humankind back to its own vital and infinite powers that it once projected on to a God. All of this takes action, none of it happens with continued inertia. We cannot become free by just thinking about freedom. We have to do as Marx encouraged. We have to be critical, and we have to mobilize with an understanding of what our critique reveals. Marx says it better, “I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”[53]

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Karl Marx quote found in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, trans. Zawar Hanfi, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co.

[2] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in The Marx-Engels Reader edited by Robert C. Tucker, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978, 16.

[3] It was written in 1843 and published in 1844.

[4] Arnold Ruge was yet another Young Hegelian, he and Feuerbach were its senior members (with others) along with the younger Marx and Engels (and others) coming on later. The group was formed shortly after the death Of Hegel in 1831 (reminding us that these early texts of Marx were written only a decade or so after Hegel’s death).

[5] Robert C. Tucker writes in the head-note to “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” that Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher came out in Paris in February, 1844, in the German language. Only one double issue of the journal was published.” From The Marx-Engels Reader, 12.

[6] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978, 53.

[7] Marx, “Contribution…,” 54.

[8] “Religion is the alienation of man from himself; for man sets up God as an antithesis to himself.” Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, E. Graham Waring and F.W. Strothmann eds., New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1957, 18.

[9] Part of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity” is titled appropriately: “The True or Anthropological Essence of Religion.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 7-49.

[10] In the “Introduction to the Essence of Christianity” Feuerbach writes, “The characteristic human mode of being, as distinct from that of the animal, is not only the basis, but also the object of religion.” Ludwig Feuerbach, The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, 98.

[11] In the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” Marx offers three itemized points on what be believed to be Feuerbach’s achievement. the first one is relevant here, “Feuerbach’s great achievement is: (1) The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thoughts and thinking expounded, and that it has therefore likewise to be condemned as another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man.” Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” from The Marx-Engels Reader, 107-108.

[12] Feuerbach writes in The Essence of Christianity, “It must be shown how the various attributes of God, compared to which man is imperfect, arise by objectification of diverse human powers.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 18.

[13] Feuerbach writes in the concluding chapter of The Essence of Christianity, “Religion is the first form of the self-consciousness of man. Holy, therefore, are all religions, for they have saved for posterity this first form of consciousness.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 65.

[14] Marx, “Contribution…,” 54.

[15] Feuerbach’s full quote reads: “At the same time the belief in a better life hereafter is an escape mechanism, which prevents men from going after a better life in a straight line. Religion is as bad as opium.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 47.

[16] Feuerbach writes in The Essence of Christianity, “Not even suffering and fear of suffering, inescapable from human nature, are alien to the incarnate God created by religious yearning.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 29.

[17] Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, New York, NY: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1941, 33.

[18] Marx, “Contribution…,” 54.

[19] Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” From The Marx-Engels Reader, 14.

[20] I will also elaborate on the details of how the dialectic works when I talk about Hegel’s “Master-Slave Dialectic.”

[21] In “From the Afterword to the Second German Edition” of Capital, Marx writes, “My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but its direct opposite. [&c.]”, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 301.

[22] Marx writes in “For a Ruthless Criticism…,” “Out of this conflict of the political state with itself, therefore, one can develop social truth,” 14.

[23] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 144.

[24] Marx writes in “For a Ruthless Criticism…,” “The state everywhere presupposes that reason has been realized,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 14.

[25] Marx writes in “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” I am therefore not in favor of setting up any dogmatic flag. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatics clarify to themselves the meaning of their own positions.” Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.

[26] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.

[27] 1843, the year the “Contribution, Intro.” was written, also was the year that Marx married Jenny von Westphalen and in November moved to Paris.

[28] Marx recently moved Paris at this time, due to thorny political problems he was having in Germany.

[29] In the “Addition” (lecture note/s made by one of Hegel’s students: Eduard Gans) for §4 of the “Introduction” to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right we find this quote “The freedom of the will can be best explained by reference to physical nature. For freedom is just as much a basic determination of the will as weight is a basic determination of bodies.” Then in a concluding the “Remark” to §5 we find the dialectical turn of freedom “Thus, whatever such freedom believes that it wills can in itself be no more than an abstract representation, and its actualization can only be the fury of destruction.” G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 35-38.

[30] Richard Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis & Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Action, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1971, 28.

[31] Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis and Action, 21.

[32] Immediately after this Bernstein quotes from Hegel’s Reason in History, “The very essence of spirit is action. It makes itself what it essentially is; it is its own product, its own work.” Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” Praxis and Action, 21.

[33] Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis and Action, 20.

[34] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A.V. Miller. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977, 111.

[35] Hegel’s emphasis on inter-subjectivity is probably due to J.G. Fichte’s influence.

[36] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 118.

[37] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 119.

[38] Hegel writes “for this [self-consciousness] reflection, the two moments of fear and service as such, as that of formative activity, are necessary, both at the same time being a universal mode (§196).” Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 119.

[39] In 1844 Marx writes that “The Outstanding thing in Hegel’s Phenomenology and its final outcome—that is, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle—is thus first that Hegel conceives of the self genesis of man as a process, conceives objectification as a loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation; that he thus grasps the essence of labor and comprehends objective man—true, because real man—as the outcome of man’s own labor.” Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” from The Marx-Engels Reader, 112.

[40] Recall Marx’s “VI” thesis from his “Theses on Feuerbach,” “Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality it is the ensemble of social relations.” Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.

[41] There is an amazing sentence, and as we know, Marx was prone to long amazing sentences, from the “Critique, Intro.,” that encapsulates this idea better than I can. “There must be formed a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only human status, a sphere which is not opposed to particular consequences but is totally opposed to the assumptions of the German political system; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, without therefore emancipating all these other spheres, which is, in short, a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat.” Marx, “Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 64.

[42] Marx, from The Marx-Engels Reader, 106-125.

[43] It is curious how Marx, in this essay, refers to Hegel’s dialectic, the word dialectic becomes a stand-in for the whole of Hegel’s philosophy.

[44] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 106.

[45] Marx writes, Feuerbach is the only one who has a serious, critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic and who has made genuine discoveries in this field.” Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 107.

[46] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” from The Marx-Engels Reader, 108.

[47] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 108.

[48] Hegel writes in one of the opening sections on “The State” in the Philosophy of Right, “…freedom enters into its highest right, just as the ultimate end possesses the highest right in relation to individuals, whose highest duty is to be members of the state” (§258). G.W.F. Hegel, “The State,” in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen W, Wood editor, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 275.

[49] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 111.

[50] Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis and Action, 39.

[51] I do not have room in this essay to explore how these precisely connect for Feuerbach’s critique.

[52] Here we find another one of Marx’s crazy sentences, “Up to now the philosophers had the solution of all riddles lying in their lectern, and the stupid uninitiated world had only to open its jaws to let the roast partridges of absolute science fly into its mouth” Marx, “For a Ruthless…,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.

[53] Marx, “For a Ruthless…,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.


Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

Bernstein, Richard. “Marx and the Hegelian Background.” In Praxis & Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Action. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1971, 11-83.

Engels, Frederick. Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. New York, NY: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1941.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Edited by E. Graham Waring and F.W. Strothmann. New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1957.

——. The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach. Translated by Zawar Hanfi. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1972.

Hegel, G.W.F.. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

——. Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A.V. Miller. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hook, Sidney. From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx. New York, NY: The Humanities Press, 1950.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Tucker, Robert, editor. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978.

commodities, value & fetishism

November 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

bourgeois capitalists

In the “Preface to the First German Edition” of Volume 1 of Capital, published in 1867, Karl Marx tells us that the opening sections of his book will be the most difficult to understand. In order to critique political economy of capitalism Marx felt it necessary to scrupulously analyze its manifestations, apart from the traditional approximations of his predecessors. Marx more accurately says that “…in bourgeois society the commodity-form of the product of labor—or value-form of the commodity—is the economic cell-form.”[1] That is to say, to have a thoroughgoing account of the political economy of capitalism, we must go to the cellular level, i.e. the commodity of bourgeois society. In this brief essay we will attempt to describe Marx’s concept of the commodity, including the forms and origins of value associated with it, as well as how it is said to be fetishized.

Commodities are an elemental form of capitalism, which is why Marx starts his analysis of capital with them. Human beings produce things. At the most basic level commodities are products of human labor that are exchanged with other people in a capitalist economy. Marx begins his examination of commodities with the kinds of value they come to represent in relationships of capitalist exchange. His first distinction is to show that a commodity has two different values contained within it. Most fundamental is use-value. Use-value is a direct and clear embodiment of a product’s value. Use-value is another way of thinking about a product’s inherent physical utility. Bread has the use-value of food. A coat has the use-value to clothe. The use-value of such products depends on what the object actually is and how it is consumed. Something of use-value does not have to be a commodity. I give you an orange. A mother provides useful things for her family. These value exchanges do not make the products into commodities, but commodities must be useful in some way. Also the use-value of an object has to do with its qualitative value. In this way, an object’s material qualities help define how it will be used and exchanged.

Marx then talks about value as exchange-value, which is not entirely reliant on the object’s use-value. This idea has more to do with how products are exchanged and the labor invested in them. Exchange-value is connected to what a product is exchanged for. Basically commodities are (or can be) exchanged for other things (including money). Within a capitalist economy any commodity has a quantitative equivalency that can be exchanged for other commodities—“1 quarter corn = x cwt. iron.”[2] If a product’s exchange-value is not exclusively reliant on its use-value, then what else (other than its exchangeability) does the product contain that imparts value? Marx reminds us that commodities are born from the hands of human labor. Products are a “congelation of homogeneous human labor.”[3] Commodities contain labor. Human labor imparts most of a product’s exchange-value over and above a product’s inherent utility (use-value).

Although a product’s exchange-value is dependant on the labor congealed within it, sheer labor is not the sole determining factor in the product’s value. There is what Marx terms: “socially necessary”[4] labor, this means that if someone takes a long time to produce something, it doesn’t entail that the object is automatically more valuable. Socially necessary labor is more of a socially mediated way of determining the particular value of products. In other words, there is an average socially determined rate by which the exchange-value of products is mediated. We won’t pay more for a commodity if the average price for a comparable commodity is much lower (no matter how many labor hours it took to produce it). Labor in this socially necessary way is quantified. It is measured against all other equivalent labor. Also, when labor is regarded in this generalized sense, without qualitatively comparing specific types of equivalent labor (e.g. tailoring versus weaving, &c.) it is considered by Marx to be “abstract labor.”[5]

Given that the socially necessary labor is relative to market conditions, a product’s exchange-value continues to be related to the difficulty or ease it took to produce it. If diamonds are considerably more difficult to procure then brewing a cup of tea, then diamonds are automatically more valuable, not necessarily only due to their use-value, but more due to the difficulties involved in their procurement. Abstract-labor then is closely locked to the socially-necessary exchange-value of commodities.

Marx, apparently, was the first to notice that labor also had a two-fold nature.[6] Labor has one side, a useful concrete aspect which is used to create useful things, and another side, the abstract side of labor, where most of a commodity’s exchange-value stems from (including surplus-value, a.k.a. profits). Marx may have also been the first to notice how profits manifest from abstract-labor.[7] But how does this happen? Profits are surplus-value. Labor is a very special type of commodity, since it creates value above wages earned. For example, in an average workday, the wages earned, say for the first four hours, is what the worker needs to live on, however the rest of the time the worker is producing surplus-labor that goes beyond what she’s paid for—that is to say the rest of the day is spent creating surplus-value for the bourgeois capitalist. The capitalist only pays an agreed upon wage, but the worker’s labor exceeds that predetermined value (surplus-labor). Hence, the capitalist is rewarded with an excess surplus-value as a result of the worker’s surplus-labor. Surplus labor is easily exploited (implementation of productivity quotas, longer hours, less pay, &c).[8]

Lastly, Marx was also keen to recognize the phenomenon of the “fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof.”[9] Like some forms of religious practice, objects are conferred with mystical properties that are not inherent in the objects. In a capitalist system commodities are also conferred with metaphysical properties that are socially and culturally instilled, “…the social character of men’s labor appears […] as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor…”[10] In short, we forget that the exchange power of commodities have to do with the base of human labor that created them—instead, we tend to focus more on commodities as relations among mere things (which also leads to reification, i.e. ‘thing-ification’). Things (commodities) become more important than the human work used to produce them. The importance of the phenomenon of fetishization leads us, in a capitalist society, to place more importance on quantities over qualities.[11]

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition, Volume One” of Capital, Robert C. Tucker ed. in The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co, Inc., 1978, 295.

[2] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 304.

[3] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 305.

[4] Marx, Capital, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 306.

[5] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 305.

[6] “I was the first to point out and to examine critically this two-fold nature of the labor contained in commodities.” Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 308.

[7] See Jonathan Wolff’s subchapter “The Economics of Capitalism,” in Why Read Marx Today? New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002, 66-81.

[8] See Chapter VII, “The Labor-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value” Marx from Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 344-361.

[9] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 319.

[10] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 320.

[11] See Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, I,” from History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971, 83-110.


Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Lukács, Georg. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, I.” From History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971, 83-110.

Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1978.

Wolff, Jonathan. Why Read Marx Today? New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

paine / kant

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment


Roxy Paine: Checkpoint, 2014 / Maple, aluminum, fluorescent light bulbs, and acrylic prismatic light diffusers / 14 ‘ h x 26′ – 11″ w x 18’ – 7 1/2″ d

The American artist Roxy Paine (1966- ) exhibited the diorama Checkpoint at the Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York, NY, September-October 2014) Checkpoint was shown with other sculptural works in Paine’s first solo show with the gallery titled Denuded Lens. Checkpoint represents a life-sized airport security room carved and fabricated in maple wood. The perspective of the diorama is set on a single point. This single point perspective distorts the trompe l’oeil effect depending on the viewer’s position in the room (an 80’ room is compressed into an 18’ deep diorama).[1]

Paine’s monochrome Checkpoint represents a space overlooked in the anxiety of hyper regulated air-travel security. We normally do not think of such a space as aesthetical—or even beautiful. Yet, the scrupulous (computer aided) attention to detail begs to be noticed. Much in the same way, we do not normally think about the complexities of a judgment of taste, as much as Kant did in the 3rd Critique (Critique of the Power of Judgment). Kant’s 1st Critique (Critique of Pure Reason) alluded to a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, whereby his transcendental idealism changed the philosophical perspective from empirical skepticism and rational dogmatism. The beauty of philosophy has to do with a focus on that which seems insignificant and mundane, while at the same time exposing what is significant and profound.

The extreme and laborious work involved to create Checkpoint stands as a salient quality of the aesthetic experience. Part of the way we appreciate Paine’s diorama is closely attributable to the way we reify work itself. We admire the hours it took to fabricate the piece. Work itself becomes aestheticized. I will argue that Kant’s philosophical efforts are aestheticized in a similar way. Kant’s perilous intellectual heights come close the extremes of work found in a finely crafted artwork. Aestheticized work aspires toward universal agreement about its ability to please. Such work becomes normative. It creates, as much as it wants to be a regulative principle exemplified by its own high standard. Nonetheless, sheer labor cannot serve as a logical concept to create beauty. Yes, we admire hard work, while we also know that some things become overworked.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790-6), commonly referred to as the “Third Critique,” deals with aesthetics and teleology. Kant says that the power of judgment “is the faculty for thinking of the particular as contained under the universal” (5:179).[1] Given the notorious complexity of the text, we cannot get into numerous details, such as the differences between “determining” and “reflective” judgments, other than to point out that aesthetic and teleological judgments are considered “reflective.”

An aesthetic judgment, for Kant, is based on a feeling of pleasure or displeasure. He names four types of aesthetic judgments: (a) a judgment of the agreeable (b) a judgment of the good,[2] (c) a judgment of taste (&/or) the beautiful, and (d) a judgment of the sublime. A judgment of the beautiful is to be distinguished from primary cognitive judgments.

First Moment (§§1-5): A judgment of beauty is essentially based on a feeling of pleasure. Yet, the pleasure felt has to be disinterested, i.e. it is not to be confused with lust, or covetous desire. A judgment of the beautiful is to be distinguished from cognitive judgments because it is based on a feeling, whereas a judgment of the agreeable is that which “gratifies”[3] (empirical things such as comfort, food, drink, &c.).

Second Moment (§§6-9): Judgments of beauty claim “universality” or “universal validity.” We have the notion that when we claim something is beautiful, everyone else ought to share the same feeing about the object in question. Yet, universality is not conceptual. A judgment of beauty is not based on logical concepts. We cannot prove an aesthetic judgment. A judgment of beauty has “subjective universal validity” (5:215). It is subjective because it is based on a feeling and it aspires to be universal. A judgment of taste must be an agreeable “free play” of the understanding and the imagination (5:218).

Third Moment (§§10-17): Beauty is seen as a special kind of non-teleological “purposiveness.” It is purposeful without conceptual or perfectible utility. A judgment of taste is aloof from emotion or charm (5:223). There is a connection with the a priori in a judgment of a moral/practical good. A moral connection is not exactly the same with an assessment of (non-conceptual) beauty, but judgments of beauty and the sublime are related to moral freedom.

Fourth Moment (§§18-22): Judgments of beauty lean more toward subjective necessity. Still, we know that everyone will not agree with our judgments of taste, but we feel they ought to (re: judgments of taste are normative). The aspiration of universality can be thought of as sensus communis (common sense) (5:238). Although a judgment of taste is subjective, it presupposes agreement. The drive for universal agreement normalizes its subjective claims. Taste yearns for regulative principles.

[1] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 66.

[2] Note: an aesthetic judgment is not an agreeable judgment or a judgment of the good, although there are intrinsic connections between them all.

[3] Kant, Immanuel, “Analytic of the Beautiful,” Philosophy of Art, 274.

[1] …see the press release for the show:

john dewey / art as experience

September 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

john dewey art as experience

In the first and second chapters of his 1934 book Art as Experience, “The Live Creature” and “Having an Experience,” the American philosopher John Dewey begins to lay down his aesthetic theory with a primary emphasis on experience. Dewey wastes no time cutting to what he sees as a central problem with aesthetic theory. Common misconceptions hold that aesthetics and artworks are distinctly separate, and that art and daily experience are held apart. This binary way of approaching the activities and practices of art needs to be avoided to make an appeal for the primacy of experience. The aim of this paper will be to explicate Dewey’s implicit claim that letting go of the binary distinction of art as separate from everyday experience, will allow for a more invigorating approach to aesthetics that benefits our understanding of art, aesthetics, and experience. Detailing these benefits takes us through a few of Dewey’s arguments that make room for a view of art that speaks to the quality of appreciation, rather than seeking a staid text-book definition of art’s value and meaning. We will conclude with an assessment of the strength of Dewey’s position with a nod to the art making process itself.

What are Dewey’s reasons offered for art’s power to change people? (A-α) Dewey’s aesthetics begins with the way that we as living creatures experience the world. When artworks are set in a museum or gallery space, they are isolated from the day to day lives of viewers. In this way, an artwork becomes cut off from its origins, its functions, and from the ways in which it was created. Refined institutional isolation creates an unnecessary distance from the artwork and its audience. Dewey’s stated task, then, is to “…restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and everyday events…”[1] We must be careful to note that Dewey is not suggesting that art needs to be taken out of museums, or that his is a overt critique of institutions. Instead, his position is simply to look at the ways in which we can let a museum, or gallery setting, get in our way of experiencing and understanding the artworks.

It is surprising, if not radical, that instead of choosing to talk about art objects, Dewey emphasizes the experiences behind the objects, as well as the way we experience the artworks themselves. Art must be seen as a way that humans interact with the world. For Dewey, focus on the experiential takes art from being a simple object, to being a complex of interactions in the world from which it was created. We intuitively know that life, creativity, innovation, and discovery are distilled into artistic expressions, yet we need someone like Dewey to remind us of this.

Incredibly, art and the experience of it (aesthetics), take on a central place within Dewey’s total philosophy. “Dewey opts to select aesthetic experience as his primary instance of meaning…”[2] As mentioned above, there is a long standing tradition of demarcating, and partitioning off, of artistic objects into the rarified space of museums and gallery spaces. All of this begs the question (A-β) what in people is affected, and how, in Dewey’s embrace of experience? Dewey wishes to obviate the everyday demarcation of art as aloof, cold and distant, to stake a claim for the primary importance of experience. Not only does Dewey’s idea promise to bridge the gap between art and an experience, but also, by implication, he offers a means by which to put us back into contact with the ways in which experience contextualizes and enriches life, only if we are keen enough to take notice of art’s dynamic presence aesthetically. Taking aesthetics out of the stringent realm of contemplation into the world of lived experience, allows for experience to speak for itself. Dewey’s refreshing insistence on finding equilibrium, harmony and rhythm of experience’s confrontation with tension, speaks to the inherently imaginative course of artistic practice. Hence, we are put in a position to appreciate the quality of the ways in which we encounter, not only art, but life itself.

But what kind experience is worth taking notice of?—is it just any experience? Although, all of life is composed of a continuous stream experiential comings and goings, Dewey chooses to emphasize what he calls a “consummatory” [3] experience, whereby a given activity is seen as whole, rather than fragmented parts that consist of interruptions, or even ambivalence. Emphasis is given to a complete event that holds together without a distracted falling apart, e.g. writing an essay, carving a sculpture, printing a complicated broadsheet, enjoying a concert, &c. Generally speaking, we tend to call these events an experience, instead of just experiencing them. This subtle point is what Dewey wishes us to notice as aesthetical, and again this has to do with the quality of the experiential.

Here, we could ask about (A-γ) the benefits and detriments of art for the larger common good, found in Dewey’s aesthetics. Dewey writes of taking notice of experience with a recognition that life is full of deeply felt connections with our environment, made evident in our earnest (and aesthetic) efforts to overcome resistance, “Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.”[4] When the past is made to reawaken the resonant possibility of the present moment, the future is no longer a mundane continuation of the past—art takes us to these epiphanies. Past, present, and future coalesce into a recognized whole. Attuned experience shows us that the past harmonizes with the future in the present moment. A way of moving forward that favors the possibility of what can be, rather than what should be, reawakens our minds to an affirmation of life. Such experiences lead us to commune with the artistic and the aesthetics of life as exemplary examples.

Detriment would have to be found in the negative outcome of the above ideas, for example, when we continue to reinforce the status-quo of art as a vaunted intellectual practice. Experience too, is obscured by the contemporary infatuation with multi-tasking. Doing too many things at once quickly reduces experience to hastily drawn out conclusions with distracted imprecise attention. This is what Dewey calls “anesthetic,” when we take shallow and cursory notice of events and conclusions, “things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift.”[5] So much of life is fettered away in this anesthetic mode, including art appreciation. Often, if the art doesn’t offer up its message fast enough, we lose patience. Sometimes art’s rewards are measured in years, instead of summoning instantaneous results.

Now we ask (A-δ) which (benefit or detriment) is greater? The positive benefits of claiming a place in aesthetics and art, by way of primary experience, sheds light on all three of these components. Recall that Dewey wanted, not only to invigorate an investigation into the ways experience informs art-making, he also wanted to blur the delineation between art and aesthetics. According to Dewey, the artistic and everyday experience contains patterns of doing and undergoing.[6] For instance, it takes a patient intelligence to know that the intense effort of carving wood requires a mainstay of tenacious strength to overcome the boundaries of hardness, combined with maintaining the sharpness of one’s tools, to create a desired sculptural effect. As much as the artist has to undergo the painstaking control of a particular medium to find expression in the inanimate resistance of base matter, so too must the philosopher (writing about aesthetics) find the right words, methods, and strategies to appreciate creative accomplishments. Founding art intermixed with aesthetics on the grounds of experience by no means excludes the acts of appreciation and perception it takes to observe these qualities in tandem, as they are all working in rhythmic synchronicity with each other.

With all of this said, the reader could still be left wondering about art itself. What is art composed of for Dewey? The short answer is probably surmised in the book’s literal title Art as Experience, i.e. art is to be reevaluated as an experience. Drawing this out a bit more, Dewey also brings in many concrete links via all of the above mentioned points, but a salient feature of art stands out as having to do with the relations of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, “…art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience and experience.”[7]

As an artist, I wholeheartedly agree with Dewey’s position, and here are a few of the reasons why. The doing and undergoing of the art making process sounds much simpler than it actually is, but we needn’t fault Dewey for putting it into simple words. Afterall, doing really is about making, it is about the process that lies beyond words. An artist has a multitude of ideas, but the proof of those ideas is only made possible by enacting those ideas into a physical creation, never mind the planning that has to take place to get to work in the first place. The artist has to source his materials while taking into account their cost, and whether or not they are in his budget, so even this little detail of affordability is part of the experience of the project. The idea will then have to be modified if the artist cannot afford to put the idea into actuality, then, and only then, will the artist have to undergo the process of making, fabricating, creating his idea. This undergoing does not promise a successful outcome. The creative energy he puts forth depends on any number of factors that determine the artwork’s overall effect—time, patience, endurance, intelligence, &c., all play a part. This is just the beginning. The artist will then have to market and promote the work before it even gets to be seen by a wider audience, if it even makes it to that stage. And even then, there is no guarantee that it will be received with any acclaim. Dewey’s aesthetics enables these seemingly insignificant elements to be a part of the whole aesthetic experience, i.e. the aesthetics of getting art from the drawing board to the gallery to be considered by an audience becomes a viable way to understand art. An appeal to experience itself is a fantastic way into any art. We just have to be willing to let experience speak for itself. The strength of Dewey’s argument resides in its ability to apply to the wide range of creative expressions, not only as finished products, but also as a way to become more creative with our aesthetic appreciation.

There are the conditions art must undergo, and if we are to take Dewey’s philosophy seriously, we’ll become attune to the qualities and nuances of key aspects that might remain unnoticed, or ignored. Yes, there are an infinite amount of qualities to be noticed about art, and the art making experience, yet if we are intent on adhering to exhausted old fashioned modes of thinking, we cannot move to alternative connections and unthought-of concepts. Dewey’s philosophy allows for a new range of aesthetic experiences, no longer confined to worn-out questions of beauty and tradition. When the struggle of the past is made to be harmonious by the present wisdom of life’s potential, then the future becomes luminous. Art offers us the strength to transform. John Dewey’s experiential aesthetics brings us closer to this brilliant potentiality.

aurelio madrid

[1] Dewey, John, Art As Experience, New York: NY: Perigree, 2005, p. 2.

[2] Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling, Albany, NY: State University of New York press, 1987, p. 186.

[3] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 37.

[4] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 16.

[5] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 41.

[6] Dewey, Art as Experience, pp. 45-7.

[7] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 50.


Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: Horizons of Feeling. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York, NY: Perigree, 2005.

Hildebrand, David. Dewey: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2008.

marx & alienation

August 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

textile factory 1900

Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of practice.

—Karl Marx “Theses on Feuerbach” (Thesis VIII)

For a better understanding of what Karl Marx meant by the term alienation we will examine three of his early texts from the 1840s, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843-44); the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” (hereafter the “1844 Manuscripts”); and the posthumously published “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845, published by Frederic Engels in 1888).[1] We will briefly examine how Feuerbach’s critique brings Marx to his analysis of alienation. Then, using Marx’s descriptions, from his “1844 Manuscripts”, alienation will be further investigated in order to identify key moments of estrangement in the working life of laborers. Final consideration will be given to Marx’s VIIth thesis on Feuerbach, and its relation to alienation within the dynamic role of praxis.

In Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” there are opening references to Feuerbach’s critique of religion, whereby Feuerbach arrived at the realization that “man makes religion; religion does not make man.”[2] This idea propelled Marx toward his own critique of religion (Christianity) which places man in an alienated relationship with a spiritual ideal that can never be fully actualized.

Before Marx, alienation as a philosophical concept was dealt with in Hegel’s description of the way self-consciousness becomes self-alienated in order to become socialized, and ultimately, how self-consciousness knows itself (re: the absolute knowing of self-consciousness and Geist).[3] Marx’s critical contribution, thanks to Feuerbach’s critique of religion and Hegel, was to emphasize that man’s labor is the origin of culture and society, instead of the other way around, whereby man is subordinate to the state and religion as it was according to Hegel. In order to critique capitalism, we need to comprehend such mystifications. Man is not a predicate of society, society is made by man. Marx’s aim was to critique Hegelian, Feuerbachian, religious, societal, and economic mystifications. This meant critiquing how things are in actuality, according to Marx and Engel’s incessant erudition, instead of appealing to traditional philosophical abstractions.

In Marx’s “1844 Manuscripts,” the first section “Estranged Labor” reveals an in-depth description of the phenomenon of alienation as it relates to the political economy of his day—otherwise known as economics. Marx writes that capitalism carries with it the integral components of private property, and the profits of capital. Both of these elements require a division of labor whereby the workers become a mere commodity of the capitalist’s mode of production. The property owners (capitalists), by way of competing for profits, consolidate, and form monopolies. Society is taken to the level of property owners competing with each other for bigger profits, and workers who have little to no property, who form the base of capital. Marx identifies the way in which this model of capitalism is usually explained in veiled terms that favor the capitalist’s viewpoint at the expense, and ignorance, of the laborer’s perspective. Hence, “the worker becomes an even cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates.”[4]

A worker, entrenched in a capitalist circumstance, is encouraged to be productive, while his life becomes evermore devalued. Capitalist production not only produces commodities in the form of objects, but the laborer’s work also becomes a commodity, therefore, the worker is a dispensable commodity. Marx shows that the product’s value stems from the labor produced by human beings. The products, in-and-of-themselves, become alien, distant, and necessarily objectified from the hands that produced them. Yet, objectification itself should not be mistaken for alienation, since objectification is a necessary part of making things for human beings. The phenomena of alienation comes about because the products and the worker’s labor’s are no longer his own. Production and its products are not controlled by the worker after the products leaves his hands. Alienation becomes more trenchant as the worker’s human-nature is detached from the private property born from his labor.

There are four modes of alienation identified by Marx, and each mode is not mutually exclusive of the others. Alienation is an “avaricious”[5] byproduct of capitalism’s competition and it represents a detachment, or alienation/estrangement, from (a) the product: whereby the product is objectified from the worker, but the product is not his own, since the product is produced as a basic means to earn wages; (b) the process: whereby the labor required to produce the commodity is not his own, the process is also an objectification from the man’s will, his base labor is a means to earn wages and to create private property; (c) his species being or human-nature: Marx, after Hegel, recognized that man’s way of being, and interacting in society, is primarily defined by products of his labor, however this essential interaction of man’s environment/ nature is cut off by the capitalist, since the capitalist’s abstract interaction with nature is more important, the capitalist uses (and exploits) the laborer’s human-nature as his base means of production; (d) other people: as a direct result of becoming alienated the relationship of the capitalist and the laborer becomes an abstract market relation. “Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over man.”[6]

Lastly, when we turn to Marx’s VIIth Thesis on Feuerbach[7], quoted above, we are immediately reminded of the theme of praxis (re: practice). Praxis has roots in Hegel as well as ancient philosophy. Marx felt that in order to understand the effects of alienation we have to understand the practices of capitalism. “The medium through which estrangement takes place is itself practical.”[8] This suggests that to address the symptoms we have to know, and therefore, critique the causes of the alienation as it is made manifest in the working world. With the advent of new practices, new problems, and their accompanying concepts emerge.[9] If we don’t actively expose the causes of the multiple problems surrounding the capitalist practices that enable and foster alienation, we cannot overcome the resulting suffering and careless oversight of existing conditions. For Marx understanding alienation makes way for revolution.

Aurelio Madrid

[1] All three texts are from: Robert C. Tucker, ed, The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1972, 1978.

[2] Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 53.

[3] See G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, (1807).

[4] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 71.

[5] “The only wheels which political economy sets in motion are avarice and the war amongst the avaricious—competition.” Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 71.

[6] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 78.

[7] Recall that Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” was written in 1844-5, i.e. within close proximity to the “1844 Manuscripts.”

[8] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 78.

[9] Paraphrase of Dr. Chad Kautzer, Marx and Marxism lecture, September 10th, 2014


Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 1995.

Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background” in Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1972,1978.

“the objects one finds”

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment


The following poem is by Brian Dickson from his recent book of poetry: Maybe This is How Tides Work

“The Objects One Finds”

The objects one finds

to envelope a body’s wish:

bolt from the trestle,

Alabama license plate,

scalp ripped from a baseball,

hide hanging by a thrill.

Liter of 7-Up with twine fastened

for a fishing pole in the ravine.

Catfish bate the shore, limitless.

in their mud-glint

Traces of stay, stay,

trailing the twine.

[Aurelio’s remarks] Visiting a new place suddenly brings about the innocent desire to find things. These things might be purchased, or these objects will be sought for amidst the scattered afterlife of commerce. A landscape offers rejected things. These offerings are often of questionable souvenir quality. Still, a day’s meandering search brings moments to be recalled later within a few lines on the clean page. Although trash is regularly overlooked, appreciating its broken edges evokes the memory of that place—where the semi-natural water met the edges of a ravine. Travelling must then mean taking our seeking body from the familiar over to the yet-to-be-found.

And, although trash is mistakenly forgettable, it again is an emblem of where it came from. Trash had a onetime use that is easily let go of. A careful poet attends to these connections and negations. Alabama is not just another state, it is the south. The license plate identifies itself, as much as it emphasizes where it is now, perhaps not too far from where it was thrown. Fallen in there with a bit of torn baseball showing its leather in the water becoming considerably less functional than what it was. How many games was it batted through? How many runs did it make over the fence? The water’s constant flow soaks away this human potential.

A transparent liter bottle repurposed into a clever tool to catch fish elevates itself above the useless. The bottle was already trash before it became an inventive means to catch fish. If we could only turn most castoffs into things that are used longer than the time it takes to drink warm 7-Up. We are infrequently innovative when we have a plastic bottle, string and a hook. We want to be able to see this as ingenuity beyond wastefulness. The dirty twine around the bright green bottle stays sun-bleached, the bottle takes in opaque water, and we take in a subtle mode of living in the south. Seeing this dense water, we aggressively wish to be respectful of the irrepressible catfish that live amidst the wet detritus (human and natural).

Dirt mixed in with water makes muddy this place that’s probably unsuitable for a memorial. Yet we’ve found a tangible link here at the water’s edge. The persistence of the water’s current pulls pieces of what will not stay, and the land’s edge keeps pieces of what cannot go away. We stay there with this poem in mind for another minute, then leave, all the while knowing that the objects, waste, trash, mud, water, fish, plants, and the past linger weeks longer, staying with the redolent brown-green of a place not marked by maps. There too was a humid southern landscape full of objects, and once-having-been-there.

…& thank you again Brian,