Marx’s Concept of Activity
Activity or practice, for Marx, is the human social production, which he usually calls “labor” under capitalism. Activity is the process of externalization of human capacities, abilities, and powers. Thus, it is a process of objectification of human powers since it aims to produce objects. Through wage labor, we sell human powers to capitalists, and we deal with our activity as an object, specifically as a commodity. Thus, since human activity is an objectification of human powers, through wage labor, this activity becomes an objectification of the act of objectification. This essay will discuss Marx’s concept of activity as the main relation between humanity and the rest of the world. Then, we will examine this concept’s implications on skepticism.
Humanity and the World
“In truth, man is neither passively dependent upon nature, nor is he able to create his world from nothing. It is rather the case that through industry, productive activity, a dynamic relationship between man and nature is established in which both poles are transformed.”1placeholder In these words, Chris Arthur describes Marx’s conception of activity as a source of change, production, and reproduction of both humanity and the world. Pre-human history does not involve any such change in nature since animal activity does not change natural objects in the same way human activity does. The main difference between animal activity and human activity is that the latter is creative while the former is not. Animals do not create new objects nor new ways to act on objects, and most importantly they do not earn new capacities and skills. Animal powers are biologically fixed, while human powers have no such limitation. Thus, the history of humanity is the history of altering nature in a human way. The starting point of this human creativity is presented by Marx as being able to consciously imagine the endpoint or the product of the activity before it actually starts. “A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”2placeholder
On the one hand, humanity acts on nature, and thus changes natural objects and produces new objects. In his critique of Feuerbach in The German Ideology, Marx mentions that the cherry tree, like almost all fruit trees, is the product of commerce and cultivation3placeholder. Then, talking about nature that preceded human history, Marx writes that “it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral islands of recent origin)”4placeholder. Thus, human activity has altered almost everything we call a natural object. I am saying “almost” not only because of some Australian corner where human activity has not reached but also because we have natural objects, like the sun, which are only used as raw material for our activity without being acted on. But since such objects are used as raw material, they are considered to have an essential role in producing the humanized nature. It is enough to look at every tree and plant in our surroundings to know that without human activities, such as exchange and watering, we would not be looking at these trees and plants. Humanized nature is the nature that is altered due to human activities, which makes it a product of these activities. Besides, man-made objects, like tables and chairs, are products of human productive activities such as carpenting. Moreover, human activity produced objects like money, value, and capital, to be a part of our world.
On the other hand, due to productive activity, human capacities and powers are altered. When we produce new objects such as mobile phones, we earn new skills to deal with them such as using touch screen technology and the capacities needed to fix software issues. Moreover, Marx argues that the five senses and what he calls “mental senses” such as love and will, come to be “human senses” by virtue of acting on humanized nature5placeholder. When we produce new kinds of music and food, we are also changing our taste and hearing abilities to perceive these new objects, and we can experience new feelings. And these changes, according to Marx, make our senses different from animal senses.
Thus, humanity alters natural objects and produces new objects to form a humanized nature and a human world which affects human senses, capacities, and powers. In this process of social production, we have two poles, humanity and the rest of the world, which are both dialectically changed. This is the ontology of Marx; reality is all about humanity, the world, and their practical interaction, which is human productive activity. “Marx’s ontology comprises the complex totality man – activity – nature.”6placeholder Therefore, for Marx, the most important aspect of reality is its social aspect. Humanity is a social entity, production is a social activity, and the product of this production is a social world. When Marx points out that what underlies every tree is certain social activities, he means that a tree is a social object in the sense that it is a product of a social activity done in a social system.
Marx’s Critique of Hegel
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx’s critique of Hegel leads to a critique of epistemology which can be summarized in the following assertion: epistemology must have as an ontological starting point the relation between humanity and the rest of the world. This claim can also be found in Marx’s critique of Feuerbach in the Theses on Feuerbach written in 1845, the year after the Manuscripts were written. However, Marx’s critique of Hegel in the Manuscripts is sufficient to reach that assertion, and this is what we will discuss now.
“The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour,”7placeholder Marx asserts. The Hegelian dialectic that goes from The Phenomenology of Spirit to Logic is an activity of collective and social consciousness, which is the “mental labor” that Marx points to in this sentence. This dialectic goes from “sensuous-certainty,” the first chapter in The Phenomenology of Spirit, to the “Absolute Idea,” the last phase in Hegel’s Logic. But even the transition from Hegel’s Logic to The Philosophy of Nature is nothing more than a confirmation of this mental labor. “Nature is only the form of the Idea’s other-being,”8placeholder Marx explains Hegel’s transition from Logic to Nature. This means that Marx critiques Hegel for giving the primacy of what is reached by thought over what is ontological. For Marx, the primacy must be given to ontology.
In the first chapter of The Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel argues that we cannot know a particular object, we only can know a universal object. “What in truth has been experienced in all of sensuous-certainty is only what we have seen, namely, the this as a universal,”9placeholder Hegel claims. We only know this table or this chair as a universal table or chair since it is an object of consciousness. Thus, Hegel starts the dialectic by taking the object as an object of consciousness and ends it by confirming what the consciousness achieved. For Hegel, knowing is the activity of consciousness, and this epistemological activity has primacy over nature as an ontological entity. For consciousness, the external world is only an alienated world, which means that it was separated from consciousness. The Absolute Idea is the abolishment of this separation where consciousness knows itself as the alienated external world. Which is the whole point of Hegel being an idealist by taking the fundamental reality as the Idea rather than an ontological conception of nature.
According to Hegel, knowing is the activity of consciousness that externalizes the subject’s essence in the alienated object. Thus, Marx takes this externalization concretely to be held by the concrete social human being who is not reduced to his consciousness. For Marx, Hegel abstracts human activity by reducing it to the activity of consciousness. What is concrete in the world is only a manifestation of what is abstract for Hegel, which reduces humanity, nature, and activity respectively to a social subject of knowledge, an object of knowledge, and an activity of knowing. “Man is equated with self. The self, however, is only the abstractly conceived man-man created by abstraction.”10placeholder This is Marx’s explanation of Hegel’s conception of the human being, which is in line with the conceptions of activity and nature. Therefore, Marx refuses the starting point of Hegel’s dialectic to be an abstraction from reality. The epistemological relation between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge must be grounded on the ontological relation between humanity and the rest of the world.
The Problem of Skepticism
One of the most important epistemological problems in the history of philosophy is to be skeptical about the existence of the world, or how to surpass skepticism. The subject can be skeptical about her or his own existence as well as the existence of the objects of the world. Marx thinks that when we ask about the existence of humanity and the world, the problem lies in the question itself. “When you ask about the creation of nature and man, you are abstracting, in so doing, from man and nature. You postulate them as non-existent, and yet you want me to prove them to you as existing.”11placeholder From this comment, we can see that for Marx, skepticism is itself an abstraction or a result of abstraction. This is the same abstraction done by Hegel. The whole point is that when we do not abstract humanity, activity, and the world from their reality, we will have to conclude that skepticism is unjustified. And this is what we will discuss now.
On the one hand, knowing the object is a process that does not begin with perceiving it. Rather, this process begins within the production of the object. Let’s take the example of a table; knowing a table is not limited to perception but encompasses knowing it as a product of social production. This means that the table cannot be isolated from its social practical aspect. On the other hand, the subject of knowledge must not be isolated from humanity as a whole. The subject of knowledge is the social concrete human being and not an individual consciousness that perceives the object.
If we abstract the subject and the object from their social concrete reality, skepticism could be convincing. However, Marx’s point is that the abstraction itself is not justified. When we start from the fact that humanity produces tables to use and exchange them, then the question of whether a perceiver does believe in the existence of a table is irrelevant. Tables exist as objects produced through human activity to have a certain use, and thus tables are socially defined and used. The subject is a part of the society that produces and uses tables and thus their existence and quiddity are coming from a common ground between the subject and the object of knowledge. In other words, the human being cannot doubt the existence of his own production. And this is only possible because of the social ontological aspect of the subject, the object of knowledge, and their practical relation. Before perceiving a table or thinking of it, we must consider how the table is produced. The table exists because it is a product or a commodity, and thus its existence does not depend on being perceived by a subject after it becomes a finalized product. The perception of the carpenter while producing the table must also be considered, and it must be considered as a part of the whole process of producing tables.
Moreover, if producers can doubt their existence as human beings, products cannot. Doubting our own existence is unjustified since we are products of the same activity that produces the world. We are subjects but we are also objects in the sense that we are objective beings who are reproduced through the process of human activity. “A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being,”12placeholder Marx argues. Humanity and the world are constituted of objective beings in the sense that they have external beings. The main relation between objective beings is the practical relation of human productive activity. Thus, as objective beings who are reproduced through the process of production, our existence as human beings does not depend on the perception of our bodies or on the trust in the fact that we are thinking, such as in Descartes’ famous argument “I am thinking, therefore I exist”13placeholder. Our existence does not depend on how we think or perceive, but on the fact that we are objective beings related to the world and each other through activity.
In conclusion, activity, as a source of production and reproduction for both humanity and the world, is the ontological ground on which we must build the epistemological relation between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. Humanity produces and reproduces itself and the world through activity; therefore, the subject and the object are both products of this activity. Thus, when the subject abstracts herself or himself from this ontology by limiting the existence of a product to perception, then skepticism is not justified since it is based on an act of abstraction from reality. Doubting the truth of our acts of perceiving or thinking is not sufficient to be skeptical about the existence of the world and its objects because the subject who doubts already exists as a product of social production. According to Marx, an epistemological discussion must be held within the ontology that starts from the existence of the world, humanity, and activity.
Arthur, Chris. Dialectics of Labour: Marx and His Relation to Hegel. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1986.
Descartes, René, John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit. vol. 55, edited and translated by Terry P. Pinkard. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology: Including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Marx, Karl, Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by Davis McLellan. Second ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Chris Arthur, Dialectics of Labour: Marx and His Relation to Hegel, (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1986), 11.
Karl Marx, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by Davis McLellan, Second ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 493.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998), 45.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998), 46.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 96.
Chris Arthur, Dialectics of Labour: Marx and His Relation to Hegel, (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1986), 20.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 131.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 146.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit, vol. 55, edited and translated by Terry P. Pinkard, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 69.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 132.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 100.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 135.
Descartes, René, John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 36.