Alfred Sohn-Rethel: Commodity Form and Thinking Form [5/10]

5. Philosophy and Commodity Production

The latter conceptions arise for the first time in Greek antiquity, in the Ionian philosophy of nature in the sixth century, in philosophy in the proper sense, in Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides, to name only the first, around 500. From a purely historical point of view, their development thus coincides with an epoch of accelerated development of trade in the Aegean and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, a growing trade of goods within the Greek Poleis, the emergence of a merchant class, and the increasing use of slave labour. In the 7th century, the first coinage was made in Lydia, and the rapid expansion of the new institution can serve as an indicator of the intensification of the exchange of goods. The dramatic consequences of these developments for the anachronistic order of Greek society have been depicted in a classical manner in On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. For Frederick Engels, they mark the transition to the developmental stage of “civilization”:

“The stage of commodity production with which civilization begins is distinguished economically by the introduction of (1) metal money, and with it money capital, interest and usury; (2) merchants, as the class of intermediaries between the producers; (3) private ownership of land, and the mortgage system; (4) slave labour as the dominant form of production.”[1]

The conclusions drawn by Engels in this work from the production of commodities “in their full growth” to the development of the family, law, classes and the state have recently been taken a step further by George Thomson. This scholar has also brought the origin of philosophy into a causal connection with the growth of commodity production. The result of his research on this point is expressed in general terms in the following sentences (at the end of the chapter on Parmenides):

“In Capital, Marx gave the first scientific analysis of those mysterious things called commodities. A commodity is a material object, but it only becomes a commodity by virtue of its social relation to other commodities. Its existence qua commodity is a purely abstract reality. It is at the same time, as we have seen, the hall‑mark of civilisation, which we have defined as the stage at which commodity production ‘comes to its full growth’. Hence, civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the ‘false consciousness’ generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this ‘false consciousness’ gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature. The Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of ‘substance’, may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.
In order to establish this conclusion, it would be necessary to discuss systematically some fundamental problems of modern as well as ancient philosophy; and that cannot be attempted here. That is why I have described it as provisional.[2]

The exact opposite applies to this paper. The historical analysis should not be the focus here. On the contrary, we shall attempt to conceive of that systematic analysis by which we could succeed in establishing the historical estimate as a convincing inner truth. This goal requires no more, but certainly no less than a formal deduction of the characteristic main concepts of metaphysical thinking from the commodity abstraction. Such concepts are the concept of substance, strict causality, abstract space and abstract time, etc. In other words, the forms associated with the “pure understanding” in modern philosophy, which also have been, in the same or related form, the categorial forms of metaphysical thinking in antiquity. A prerequisite for a classification of the required type is an advanced analysis of the commodity abstraction.


[1] TN: From this translation.
[2] TN: Thomson, The First Philosophers. Not a re-translation of Sohn-Rethel’s own translation, but the original text.

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