Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Between materialism and idealism: Marx on “sensuous activity”

In the first Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx writes:

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of intuition [Anschauung], but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”

In the above excerpt from the first Thesis, Marx positions himself between materialism and idealism. From idealism (Kant and Hegel), Marx takes the idea that objective reality does not exist independently of man but is formed (constituted) by man’s subjective activity. On the other hand, he takes from Enlightenment materialism (De la Mettrie, Diderot, Darwin) the idea that man is part of nature and is as such passive, subject to the forces of nature. As a true dialectician, Marx fuses these two seemingly contradictory perspectives together, as thesis and antithesis in a dialectical synthesis. The result, the synthesis, is his conception of reality as praxis, as sensuous human activity, which forms a third between human activity and passivity (or in more Kantian terms: between autonomy and heteronomy). This, according to me, explains partly why Marx is still be relevant today. The dilemma between the egocentrism of modern autonomy and the allocentrism of post-modern heteronomy (with its neoconservative and fundamentalist tendencies) is one of the major intellectual and cultural problems of our times. Marx’s dialectic shows a way out.
                                                           Kant's tangle of experience
Kant and Marx on sensuous activity
The difficulty posed by this dilemma can be seen in what appears to be the contradictory, oxymoronic nature of Marx’s term “sensuous activity”. As sensory beings, after all, we are not active but passive, subject to external sensory impressions (caused by the thing-in-itself, in Kantian terms). Thus Kant speaks of sensation as “receptivity” as opposed to the autonomous activity of the mind which he calls “spontaneity”. For Kant, the way spontaneity and receptivity interlock to produce experience of objective reality was a major problem, which he could not solve in a satisfactory fashion (due to the dilemma mentioned above). What Marx announces in the first Thesis, then, is a solution to this problem – a solution that turns on the essential social and practical nature of human sensory experience. As a communist, Marx was of course especially interested in the social character of labor, the collaboration of different individuals, working on nature so as to satisfy human needs. Here, in social labor, lies the primary meaning of Marx’s term sensuous activity” – and hence the balance between activity and passivity. On the one hand, man is active in his labor: he transforms nature to satisfy his needs, he gives form to matter in accordance with his ideas, thus externalizing his abilities and needs in a product which henceforth functions as a mirror that confirms man’s being. In this way Marx approaches idealism: through his labor on nature man establishes his self-consciousness. On the other hand, however, this labor also testifies to man’s sensuous passivity: man must toil because his body needs food, clothing etc. In labor, man experiences fatigue and the resistance of matter. Moreover, the fact that man gains self-consciousness only through his externalisation in worked upon matter means that his self-consciousness is always decentered, dependent on some extenal object. In that sense, Marx’s focus on the necessity of labor already anticipates the postmodern critique of humanism in terms of the decenterment of the human essence.

Praxis as the interaction of subject and object
But, of course, Marx is neither a humanist idealist nor a postmodernist avant la lettre. For the point of his first Thesis on Feuerbach is exactly that the truth lies in the middle: between idealism and materialism, between humanism and postmodernism. That elusive middle is captured by Marx’s claim that the external object, on which humanity depends, is in turn dependent on the formative power of human activity. In other words: nature determines (causes, affects) man, who in turn determines (works upon) nature. Thus man is indirectly self-determining, mediated by nature. This reciprocal determination of man and nature is what Marx means by praxis". In the first Thesis, therefore, Marx reproaches traditional materialism for not seeing this fundamental importance of praxis, since it (materialism) sees man one-sidedly as subjected to nature and thus it forgets man’s active intervention in nature – a point repeated by Marx in the third Thesis, where he focuses on the consequences of materialism for social theory: “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing [by which men are changed, PS] forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.”

The esthetic aspect of human labor
The notion of praxis enables Marx to conceive of the interrelation between human subject and material object as a fundamental, ontological interaction, in which neither is primary and on which both are dependent. It is this ontological orientation that allows Marx in the first Thesis to refer to “the thing, reality” itself as praxis, as the realm of sensory activity in which man and nature determine each other reciprocally. Thus the relation between man and nature (subject and object) should, according to Marx, be understood as an internal relation, where the relata do not exist independently, in contrast to an external relation, where the relata influence each other alternately while actually remaining separate. This ontological significance can also be seen from Marx’s notion of “sensuous activity” if it is taken in the epistemological sense of sensory perception. One could say that this epistemological sense is integrated in the comprehensive social-practical sense of “sensuous activity” as the human collaboration in working upon nature. After all, in his labor man also senses himself and his encounter with the world: he sees his objects and tools, he experiences fatigue and the resistance of matter but also the pleasure of his activity and the beauty (or ugliness) of the worked upon object. This esthetic aspect of labor is important to Marx: truly human, ie unalienated labor is for him as much artistic activity as it is the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the unalienated product of labor is ultimately also a work of art. Thus aisthesis (Greek: sensory experience) forms an integral part of Marx’s notion of praxis.

The ontological ambiguity of sensory qualities
So what about the ontological interaction between subject and object that occurs in praxis? Does this also occur in the aisthesis of sensory perception? In fact, it does. This is exactly what Kant tried to explain when he focused on the interaction of receptivity and spontaneity in sensation, where a fusion takes place of subjective activity and passivity before the object. This fusion is shown in the ambiguous nature of sensory qualities such as color, sound, smell, taste, warmth and tactility. On the one hand, such “qualia” are inherently subjective because they exist only in a subject’s perceptual awareness of them. Thus Berkeley’s idealistic formula esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) surely applies to qualia, which is the reason why the philosophical tradition speaks of them as mere “secondary qualities” (as opposed to an object’s primary qualities, ie those that exist independently of the perceiving subject). Yet, on the other hand, qualia also have something undeniably objective about them, bound as they are to some external object whose properties they are (thus we say: the rose is red, the water is warm). Thus qualia are like a joint membrane between subject and object where they meet and enter into each other. William Desmond, the author of Being and the Between, is one of the very few philosophers who notice this strange ontological status of qualia between subjective and objective. He writes: “secondary qualities have an unyielding equivocity, since their ontological status is finally uncertain. For this status is distributed between “something” in the thing itself, its powers, and the relativity of that “something” to mind.” (Being and the Between, p.74)

Marx’s rehabilitation of the sensuous
The fact that this intermediate status of qualia is rarely observed, has everything to do with the traditional opposition between idealism and materialism precisely the opposition Marx wants to overcome in the first Thesis on Feuerbach. Because traditional materialism stresses one-sidedly the passivity of man with respect to nature, it can understand qualia only as secondary, ie as mere effects in consciousness caused by external objects. And because idealism, in contrast, stresses one-sidedly the (mental) activity of the human subject, it cannot understand qualia as coming from external objects. The result is that materialism and idealism, precisely because of their opposing positions (passivity vs. activity), come to a surprisingly unanimous opinion about the ontological status of sensory qualities: they are merely subjective and not objective. Thus the traditional contrast in philosophy between materialism and idealism has led to a systematic disregard of the true in-between status of sensory qualities. Marx was in a sense the first to rehabilitate that true status of the sensory by taking up a position between materialism and idealism. That seems to be one of the main reasons why Marx in the first Thesis on Feuerbach focuses specifically on sensation, that is, on “reality, sensuousness” which in traditional materialism “is conceived only in the form of the object or of intuition, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively”. Marx’s point is therefore not that man as part of nature is a sensuous being, rather his point is that reality as such is sensuous, i.e. praxis, the reciprocal determination of subject and object that takes place in sensation. For Marx, the sensuous is the medium (ie the middle, the “between”) in which subject and object man and nature meet and determine each other.


  1. Hey thanks for writing this found it really useful for understanding Marx

  2. Very helpful for the essay I am writing. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for this post, I found it VERY helpful

    1. Thank you. Glad I could be of service.

  4. Does this necessary interaction of subject and object mean that to call something 'real' is to say that the something must be 'real for' some 'conscious subject'? That is, 'realism' implies 'real for'? To talk of subject alone (outside of object) or object alone (outside of subject) would be meaningless?

  5. Above, you said "...objective reality does not exist independently of [hu]man[ity] but is formed (constituted) by [hu]man[ity]’s subjective activity."
    Thus, 'objective reality' must be contrasted with 'external reality' (which does exist independently of humanity). And so, 'objects' are actively created by humanity.
    This would make sense of Marx's notions about the unfolding of nature in history, and the inescapable interaction of humans and nature through history.

    1. Hi there, thanks for your comments. Your question about the interaction of subject and object is very interesting one. I think, however, we should distinguish two issues, namely, (a) what is Marx's position in this, and (b) what should be our own position if we accept the interdependency of subject and object. As regards (a), this is difficult, because Marx has never really elaborated on his Theses on Feuerbach. I gues Marx was so caught up in his political and economical work, he simply had no time to write about the fundamental issues of dialectical epistemology and ontology. Now with regard to (b), I think that if we accept the interdependency of subject and object the notion of external reality drops out, just like the notion of an independent subject. All there is, on this position, is the relation between mind and matter, or more abstractly: between subject and object. The basic motivation for such a position, in my view, has to do with our post-modern need to find a balance between autonomy and heteronomy. You can read more aboud this here: (scroll downwards to "Third position between autonomy and heteronomy"). For an elaborate ontology based on the interdependency of subject and object (or autonomy and heteronomy) you can check the great book by William Desmond, "Being and the Between".

    2. Hiya Peter, thanks, too, for your response! I wondered if you were still monitoring your blog, but your earlier responses to other posters gave me hope!
      On Marx’s position, I agree with you that it’s perhaps impossible to say with any certainty. I should put my cards on the table here, though, and say that I regard myself as first and foremost as a Democratic Communist, and (a very close second) as a Marxist. I think that Marx’s works are valuable, but the last word must be with the contemporary proletariat, through democratic means (if we are ever able to build a widespread movement). So, as a worker in the 21st century, influenced by Marx, what are my thoughts?
      You said “I think that if we accept the interdependency of subject and object the notion of external reality drops out, just like the notion of an independent subject.” I’m not sure about this. Discussion about ‘subject and object’ is regarding an epistemological relationship, but clearly humans exist biologically outside of epistemology, and external reality must exist outside of ‘objective reality’, if that ‘objective reality’ is created by humans. So, if we’re discussing the creation of knowledge, your statement stands, but there must be both a ‘creator’ and ‘stuff to be worked on’ prior to any given process of producing knowledge. Thus, humans and external reality pre-exist the ‘interdependency of subject and object’ of ontology and epistemology.
      As I worker, I take this position because the external reality of capitalism preceded any attempt by workers to understand their ‘objective reality’, and I presume any attempt to disregard ‘the notion of external reality’ to be a political statement.
      Perhaps we could identify this problem (at least, a problem for a Communist), by you clarifying whether you accept the ‘external reality’, for all us humans on this planet, of capitalism?
      PS. My apologies if you think that these issues can be discussed outside of our political ideologies, because as a Communist, I don’t think that. I regard the production of knowledge as entirely a political issue. If that discussion is not to your taste, perhaps I could just ask you for some reading advice.

    3. Yes I'm still maintaining this blog, it's just that I was terribly busy last week... I consider myself as a Marxist communist as well, but not an unqualified one, I don't believe that Marx or Lenin or Trosky or whatever historical figure said all there was to say, I think Marxists in particular must retain a critical attitude towards their own tradition, in order not be criticized as dogmatic totalitarians. In particular I think communists must rethink their position vis-a-vis the free market. A centrally planned economy simply doesn't seem to be effective, we must allow certain free market processes to attain the optimal distribution of labor and goods. But, and this is crucial, we must realize that free market does not equal capitalism. That's the basic mistake of liberalism, which unfortunately Marxism has bought into. The point is that free market requires a level playing field among all its players, so as to guarantee equal chances for everybody. This means, in my view, that free market process must be embedded in a communist framework to guarantee that competition does not result in a cleft between 'winners' and 'losers', i.e. the communist framework must prevent capital accumulation which destroys the level playing field. This is what happens in capitalism, where the free market mechanism destroys itself. What Marxists should realise, therefore, is that capitalism is precisely not free market economy. Indeed, the free market (i.e. with level playing field) can only be obtained within a communist state that guarantees economic equality for everybody. So, in short, you could say I am a liberal communist of sorts.
      You also mentioned the idea that intellectual disucssion cannot stand apart from politics. I think one should be very careful about this, so as not to fall in serious and dangerous mistakes. First of all, I think we should make a distinction between what the Germans called "Genese" and "Geltung" (genesis and validity) -- that is to say: every idea has a subjective and social genesis, but the truth of the idea, its validity, stands apart from that genesis. In short, the question who utters a proposition, and why he utters it, is independent from the question whether the proposition is true. To take a trivial but also elementary example, take the truths of mathematics. Suppose Hitler and not Euclides proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers. Obviously Hitler was politically wrong. Does that affect the truth of his mathematical theorem? No. If you confuse this distinction between psychological-sociological genesis and objective validity, dangerous political consequences follow. First of all, it obstructs real dialogue among (political) dissenters. Secondly, it invites a dictatorial, totalitarian attitude. If you say "Truth is only to be found in the proletariat" you are on a slippery slope to tyranny, because the vanguard of the proletariat then becomes the sole medium of truth. But all people are finite and fallible, everyone can be mistaken, the vanguard too. You see what I mean?

    4. Hello again , Peter. Your point about it being a mistake for Marxists to regard either Marx, [Engels], Lenin, Trotsky or any other ‘theorist’ as the final authority, is a core principle of any Democratic Communism. Further, as you say, the need to retain a ‘critical attitude’, not just to their ‘own tradition’, but to everything (Marx’s omnibus dubitandum, ‘doubt everything’) is central to Democratic Communism. If Communism isn’t democratic, then it can’t be Communism, which is the democratic control of the world economy. The final authority for any human decision must be humanity as a whole, not an individual, not a small elite group, and certainly not ‘matter’. This ‘critical and democratic attitude’ must be at the heart of any Communist thinking and practice. Which orienting preamble leads me to your next statement, about ‘the free market’.
      You stated that you ‘consider myself as a Marxist communist’, but I can’t see how this can be reconciled with any talk whatsoever about ‘the free market’. Communism means the end of the myth of ‘free’ [sic] markets, the abolition of money, and the democratising of social productive property. All aspects of human interaction will become social, as opposed to individual. Perhaps your American background has informed your opinions about ‘communism’, but I, as a non-American, don’t recognise the myths of ‘individualism’, ‘free choice; ‘free market’ or ‘private property’. Further, your mention of ‘centrally planned economy’ is at odds with my understanding of ‘workers democratically planning production, distribution and consumption’, which removes the need for markets, money and any mystifying talk of ‘individualism’. I’m sure that you’ve also heard of the concept of the ‘social individual’, which can only be realised for all on this planet by the democratic decision-making of all humanity. Perhaps summed up by the old slogan, ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. No ‘individuals’ keeping hold of what society produces collectively, there!
      Also, you said, “You also mentioned the idea that intellectual disucssion cannot stand apart from politics. I think one should be very careful about this, so as not to fall in serious and dangerous mistakes.”
      To me, I’d simply say any ‘intellectual discussion’ is a product of society (again, here, downplaying notions of ‘individualism’), and thus is necessarily political. Where are the ‘intellectuals’ who are outside of society and its politics? I’m sure you’ve read Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, and can see his point about dividing society into two, those ‘inside’ society and those ‘outside’ society (necessarily, your ‘intellectuals discussing apart from politics’). No, for Communists, all ‘intellectual discussion’ is both social and political, and must be subject to the widest criticism and democratic accountability. So, once again, I don’t recognise what you are claiming about being a ‘Marxist communist’ as related to democratic society. In fact, what you’re claiming (‘free markets’, communism as ‘central planning’, ‘intellectual discussion outside of politics’, even a Leninist ‘vanguard’!) seems to me, as on outsider, as typical American ‘bourgeois individualism’, which regards ‘Democratic Communism’ as so much of a horror that it must be maligned from the outset! You seem to simply transfer Stalin to Marx. No offence meant!

  6. [part two, previous post too long]
    The real key here is that my pre-existing ideological positions on democracy within the economy therefore inform my stances about ontology and epistemology, which is really what attracted me to your very interesting blog. I, too, had come to the conclusion that Marx was not a ‘materialist’ (in the Engelsian sense), but an ‘idealist-materialist’, in the sense that you seem to have also realised. But we will discuss at cross-purposes unless we clarify both of our ideological bases, prior to moving to discussion of Marx and his theories, and our contemporary understanding of Marx’s ideas (including being critical of his mistakes, not least his terribly unclear texts).
    I suppose we can skip this preamble, though, as long as you bear in mind what Democratic Communism is (and what it isn’t: vanguards, markets, central plans, etc.), but I’d prefer to expose both of our ideologies, first, as I think those ideologies inform our respective views on the content of your blog. Someone who starts from the ‘individual’ will have quite different views of ontology and epistemology from someone who starts from ‘society’, not least whether the ‘subject’ is an ‘individual’ (a free thinker) or a ‘social-individual’ (a mouthpiece for their society).

  7. how adding 'sensuous' to the 'human activity' changes the meaning of latter?

    how to differentiate b/w 'human activity' per se and 'sensuous human activity'?

  8. In addition to that, how 'man making sense of knowing the reality through praxis' is different from the traditional epistemology i.e., empiricism ?

    1. Hi Shahab. In the Thesis on Feuerbach Marx is positioning himself in relation to the traditional dichotomy between empiricism and materialism on the one hand, and rationalism and idealism on the other. The materialist position stressed the passivity of human subjectivity, its being dependent on the environment, on sensory affection, on eductation, on the material circumstances in which one finds oneself. The idealist position stressed the activity of the subject, its freedom and ability to determine the material world. Marx argues that we should choose a middle position between these extremes, so that we should see how a synthesis of activity and passivity is possible. Basically this is Marx's notion of praxis: man determines himself (= is free) by determining the material circumstances by which he is determined. It is to capture this synthesis of activity and passivity that Marx speaks of "sensuous activity" because "sensuous" refers to the passivity of our sensory affection. Hope this clarifies it.