Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form [Warenform und Denkform] part 1/10

[While the first two proper entries fell under the category of Stuff That’s So Very Important No One Even Thought Of Translating It, I’ve come across one or two people who publicly stated that they might eventually get around to publishing a translation of the text at hand. Two things to anyone involved in such endeavours: 1. First! 2. Since this translation is entirely unlicensed and unofficial, I can’t technically prevent anyone from commercially using it without giving me credit. But you’ll look like a lazy jerk, and people can tell.]
[Also, the next two weeks will be spent on travels, so don’t hold your breath on part 2.]

1. A societal origin of pure understanding?
It is one of the fundamental doctrines of Marxism that the forms of human thinking are determined by societal being and subject to historical developments. As long as such thinking forms are directed at the understanding of societal relations, this doctrine does not encounter much resistance. But it also claims to be true of such forms of thinking that inform the knowledge of natural objects, and it is here that the Marxian doctrine stands in stark contrast to all other conceptions. Most accounts converge on the notion that we possess an immediate apperception of natural phenomena, and this can be conceded with regard to the sensual perceptions, or rather, to the role that our senses play in the formation of our apperception, for we have those senses in common with animals. The whole conceptual part of our notion of objective reality, however, is the product of historical development and of societal origin (actually, upon closer inspection even the sensual component isn’t really separable from the conceptual one). Our concepts do not belong to the things, are not properties of them which leap over to us, or which we read out of the things. The conceptual apparatus which we apply to things, is rather a part of us, if we are to understand “us” in the historical and societal sense, not individually or naturally.
The difficulty which this view encounters with pure concepts of objects is partially to blame on the fact that these object-concepts are tied to the conscious elimination of society from our thinking; they are what is left when the societal dimension is completely abstracted from. To most thinkers, especially to the philosophers of the 17th and 18th century, this fact is evidence for the claim that the scientific concept form represents the human mind in its authentic and original shape; a typical outlook for a class whose rule depends on the division of intellectual labour from physical labour. Modern mathematical or “theoretical” science is indeed purely intellectual labour, intellectual labour at its purest, so to speak. Because of this, the philosophers of the bourgeoisie have always been eager to demonstrate once more that due to the nature of the human mind, this kind of knowledge was immediately accessible, forever and always. It is of secondary importance to the main thesis wether this possibility is construed in materialist or in idealist terms, such that either the forms of objects arrive in the human mind from the objects or that they are primarily rooted in the human mind, even though a sharper picture of bourgeois class domination can be developed on the grounds of the latter, kantian version. Ancient philosophy is not in different in the main aspect; it also was, particularly was a philosophy of ruling classes with a monopoly on the mind, a philosophy by intellectuals and for intellectuals.
Marxism is the first philosophy for the working class; and thus the first that can afford to allow the thought that the possibility of scientific knowledge of nature is not a primary capacity of the human mind, but rather an intricately mediated product of certain societal developments and that it emerges from the roots of certain types of class domination. Surely the possibility of theoretical object-knowledge is logically immediate, but this logical immediacy does not justify the conclusion that there is a genetic immediacy. Quite the contrary. The immediate logical possibility of such knowledge exists for a subject that performs intellectual labour as separated from physical labour, and this subject, the famous “knowing subject” of idealist epistemology, may well be itself a product of history. The absoluteness and timelessness that belong to its content can be the result of the self-extinction of society in the consciousness of the participants. In other words, the elimination of society from thought, which is characteristic for the theoretical knowledge of objects and has been hypostasized as the genetic origin of pure understanding, implicitly or explicitly, by all of philosophy up until now, may be satisfyingly explained as an effect caused by society itself.
This is the position taken in the paper at hand. It is the effort of liberating epistemological thought from the shackles and pitfalls of the idealist way of thinking, and bringing it up to level with the preconditions underlying Marxist economics. The key to this lies with the Marxian commodity analysis, which forms the theoretical foundation of these economic theories. The defended notion will be that the birth of the theoretical subject from the self-abstraction of society is an effect of the process of reification that has been overlooked until now. Therefore we shall begin with a consideration of the general significance of the Marxian commodity analysis.

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