The name Karl Marx conjures up a philosophical medley of isms: socialism, capitalism, communism, Hegelianism, materialism, idealism. All these isms surround Marx with a multitude of preconceived notions, notions that can sometimes get in the way of understanding what he meant to say. So in effort to sift through the various conceptions and connotations attached to him, I read some of his essays in The Marx-Engels Reader. Two particular passages from his essay “The German Ideology: Part I” mobilized the metaphysical regions of my mind.
The first passage reads, “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.” With this, Marx says that traditional German thinking takes its cue from lofty, overarching thought processes and applies them to the experience on earth, whereas Marx looks directly at the earth experience to derive lofty, overarching theories about life. Marx breaks from the German Hegelian philosophical tradition of using vague general theories to explain human behavior. He believes that sociological and philosophical truths are found by examining human behavior first and then drawing conclusions about it.
The second passage reads, “The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.” Here, Marx claims that the thoughts and ideas created by human imagination are subject to the interaction between how a person produces their material livelihood and the cognitive processes resulting from trying to make sense out of that livelihood. This, according to Marx, can be proved by observing identifiable human action and then connecting it to human thought. Together, these passages reject Hegelianism and other Enlightenment philosophies which emphasize the importance of rational thought as the foremost, supreme determining force of a person’s being. He reverses the Descartes idea of “I think therefore I am” to “I am therefore I think.” Marx argues that the totality of a person flows from their material production, i.e. a farmer is formed by farming, not by a consciousness outside his existence.
Almost every, if not every, major historical figure has a legacy strung together by truths and untruths and this is no different for Karl Marx. Reverberating from his time to our time, his words have been contemplated and understood by some, warped and skewed by others. Studying a radical revolutionary figure like Marx presents the challenge of having to disassociate from cultural hearsays and historical assumptions. Nonetheless, looking at his actual text helps to find that unfiltered part of the mind where words are at least on some level allowed to speak for themselves.