From: (davie maclean)

Ethics & Epistemology

Date: Mon, 20 Jul 1998


This is one for the discussion group. There are a couple of points that relate to epistemology, especially the last paragraph. They are another version of previous points I have made citing Feyerabend etc. I want to get this particular point nailed down tight, and I'd like to find out if we agree on it or not, I'm still not sure, so come back at me if its not clear what I'm driving at. What I'm saying is - epistemology is ethical, not because 'objective' knowledge is arbitrary, but because the kind of knowledge a society has is a reflection of the kind of society it is. Objects will always fall down not up, but the concept gravity only emerges at a certain historical point within a certain context, one that is directly related to the rise of capitalism and the decline of the Scholastic world view. Newton's conception of gravity is one that can quite easily be analysed in relation to the social conditions of his day, as they were reflected in philosophy, as I've mentioned referring to Lukacs' 'limited rationality'. Newtonian science and capitalist production can therefore be connected in a certain ethical manner.

Looking at your first point, 'to transcend knowledge and subordinate it...('integrate' might be a better word) this sounds very close to Feyerabend. There seems to be two aspects to the question. One is the same point that I make below about externalisation, about recognising ourselves in nature through creative activity, and the other is to trace the connection between trends in epistemology and society in general for all the period knowledge has not been 'transcended or subordinated'. On this account, all epistemology would indeed be bourgeois, including Marx's, as you say.

Have I got it right now ? Is this your project. If so, it sounds pretty good to me.



Here are some thoughts on freedom and necessity. I think you'll find them clearer. They follow Marx's conception but also incorporate the kinds of ideas that have surfaced during the 20th century - like 'instrumental rationality', the domination of technology and so on.

I'd be interested in your comments. Some parts may needed developing, but its a start anyway.


The problem of freedom and its relationship to necessity has troubled me for some time. Since the late 19th century Marxism has attempted to reinforce its argument for the socialist transformation of society by appealing to 'historical necessity'. This kind of an appeal has lost much of its credibility in recent times and is one of the reasons why Marxism has become out of favour.

The idea that 'freedom is the recognition of necessity' appears in Engels' Anti-Duhring. This formulation comes from Hegel, where it plays a particular, and essential role in Hegel's system. Engels' revival of Hegel's definition was taken up by Plekhanov and Kautsky, and continues to have a place in the arguments of Trotskyist groups today.

But is this definition consistent with Marx's own ideas. ? I think not, at least not in the sense it is normally understood.

In Hegel's system, both freedom and necessity are defined in such a manner that their reconcilation through the universal idea is logically unavoidable. Freedom involves the recognition in consciousness of necessity in its entirety. Mind, as self-conscious nature, is reconciled with natural necessity by transforming the contingent in-itself into the rational for-itself through conscious thought. Nature is rational because reason is none other than nature conscious of itself. The opposition between the two is overcome in the Mind.

The problem with Hegel's conception lies in the fact that it is completely passive. It leaves no room for human practice beyond the exercise of the mind. It is a philosophy of reconciliation with the world as it is, leaving no room for its transformation.

Hegel's philosophy is carried over into social relations. Freedom (as self-consciousness) is what constitutes the individual human being. However this freedom is not arbitrary. In exercising purely subjective judgements the citizen is merely expressing their particularity and not freedom. Genuine freedom involves the submission before the universal, embodied in the laws of the state that apply equally to all free citizens, because it is only as an individual example of this universal freedom that the human being is defined as free. The individual is free only as a law-abiding citizen.

Hegel's system is logically watertight.

Hegel's conception is based on the idea of externalisation (Entausserung). This idea is taken over by Marx and plays a vital role in his own understanding of humanity. For Hegel it is through externalisation that the Mind realises itself, by making determinations about the world beyond consciousness and so coming to appreciation of the fact that what the Mind itself is is in fact Nature made self-conscious. Through a dialectical movement, first opposing nature to itself and then overcoming this opposition by transforming the in-itself into the for-itself, in bringing nature to consciousness the Mind brings its own nature to consciousness, it becomes self-conscious - it realises itself as consciousness.

Conscious Mind does nothing with nature, it simply reconciles itself to it through the conscious understanding of natural necessity. In this way it realises its freedom.

For Marx this reconciliation is completely unacceptable, it leaves humanity in chains. In his eyes externalisation involves not thought, but practice. Marx's conception is one based on activity, rather than passivity.

For both Marx and Hegel human beings realise their essence through recognising themselves in the world beyond. For Hegel this takes place in the realm of the Mind, of thought, and is essentially an act of contemplation. For Marx however, it is through activity, through interaction with the external world outside themselves that human beings realise their own nature. This involves not only work, production, that is the moulding of nature to human design, but also social interaction where people recognise in each other their own selves.

Marx's conception of humanity is therefore of active, creative beings. Freedom is not arbitrary, it is only realised to the extent that human beings succeed in realising their projects, whether this means successfully producing in real, natural objects in line with the original content of their imagination, or else in the recognition from other members of society they receive for their efforts or their behaviour in general, recognition that comes about because others see in these their own natures expressed as well.

Marx's critique of capitalism rests on this conception of human beings as creative creatures who realise themselves through externalisation. Because under capitalism the means of production, needed for human interaction with nature, are alienated from the producers, these producers are unable to express their real natures by taking part in the free activity of social labour, and instead must work in whatever capacity they can simply in order to subsist. Human beings become alienated from themselves, and social interaction likewise takes on an alien form.

Engels without doubt held to Marx's active, creative idea of the reconciliation between humans and nature, of freedom as the recognition of necessity in this practical, rather than contemplative sense. To the extent that necessity confronted human beings as something external or contingent, this was to be overcome through practice, whether social or productive, and not by submission as Hegel had advocated.

Unfortunately, the 'Marxist' tradition within the Second International was to revive Hegel's notion. The practice of the International was to submit to 'historical necessity' - 'scientific' laws that determined the movement of society - which would of their own accord pave the way for socialism. This was the opposite of Marx's approach, who argued that the fact that social relations could be analysed scientifically, as governed by laws that acted independently of humanity, was itself precisely the state of affairs that needed to be overcome through socialist revolution.

The attitude of the Second International also lent itself to another departure from Marx's conception. It led to the 'productivism' of both the Socialist and Communist Parties throughout the 20th century. Recognition of necessity meant the uncovering from within nature of an ever greater capacity to produce wealth. The test of all knowledge, and the progress of society was defined by the 'growth of the productive forces'. The critique of capitalism now shifted to the inherent contradictions within the system that hampered this growth. By the time of the Five Year Plans, this had been transformed into the idea that the superiority of socialism would be demonstrated in 'the language of steel and concrete', when the USSR overtook the West in its industrial output.

In this way, Marx's idea of externalisation was completely lost. The real test of the Soviet Union as a new and better society lay not in the growth of production, but the extent to which Soviet citizens could recognise themselves in the new social relations that arose after the October revolution. To some extent they were able to do this, even under Stalin, as the enthusiasm displayed during the First Five Year Plan and in the construction of huge projects like Magnitogorsk, showed. However the nature of the Stalinist dictatorship soon made genuinely non-alienated labour impossible.

During the 20th century, philosophy and social theory has been dominated by the critique of technology, as the promise of Francis Bacon's 'New Atlantis', the utopia founded on the application of scientific knowledge, has failed to deliver. The rise in material wealth, at least in the developed world, has contrasted sharply with the poverty of human relations. Unfortunately, in recent years Marxism has come to be identified with the 'productivism' of capitalism itself, and has not been seen to offer attractive alternative to the existing order.

In order to restore Marx's ideas to their proper place, it is vital that this identification is overcome. Freedom as the recognition of necessity needs to be understood in its active, creative sense. This does not, however, involve the destruction of nature through the rampant use of ever more powerful technologies, but rather that human beings succeed in interacting with nature in such a manner that they are able both, to recognise themselves in it as natural beings, and to do so in the context of social relations of production in which too they can recognise themselves.

This means that the test of productive activity is not its ability to exploit nature more and more intensely, with less and less human effort required, but rather becomes a social and ethical test, in terms of the social relations it generates and the degree to which it preserves nature for future generations to also realise themselves creatively in.

In other words, there is no external necessity to which we have to submit. There are simply the conditions under which we can externalise and so realise our own nature. If this is Marx's sense, then unlike in Hegel's system there is no absolute truth towards which we are approaching with ever greater degrees of accuracy, another notion taken up within the Marxist tradition. Instead the nature of the truth we are seeking itself changes constantly, because it is embedded historically in the social, cultural and ethical relations of human beings themselves. This means the necessity we have to recognise is our own, as natural and social beings, through our own creative activity.