Sunday, October 19, 2008

'Species-being', labour and nature

The text below was sent as an e-mail on Saturday morning, as some people are still having trouble accepting the blog invitations. I thought I'd post it here anyway:
Rita raised an excellent question on Thursday, as to what
'nature,' 'natural' and 'human nature' might mean for Marx. We spoke a
little about the sense in which he holds human nature to be historically
contextual, and John pointed out that this can be seen in his account of

As we said, 'species-being' is a term borrowed from Feuerbach's The
Essence of Christianity
and can be seen very clearly in one of Marx's early 1844 Manuscripts
entitled Estranged Labour
I thought it might be good to read that text alongside this week's
sections of Capital (assuming you want to do even more reading), as it
describes the sale of labour power whilst stressing the concept of
alienation. The text also opposes alienated labour undertaken for the
capitalist to a more 'natural' conception of human activity.

(N.B. The text is entitled 'estranged' labour rather than 'alienated'
labour as Marx employs two German words for alienation: 'Entäusserung' and
'Entfremdung'. Entausserung means externalisation, objectification, i.e.
selling property, my labour power, making my intentions manifest in real
activity. Entfremdung is more to do with subjective experience, i.e. two
people feeling alienated from one another ('estranged' in this
translation). Just googled this explanation by Chris Arthur, which looks
pretty good:

Anyway, back to 'species-being': as I understand it, the term can be
explained fairly quickly as follows. For Hegel, particular human
individuals were to recognise their unity with others through
comprehending the reason that underpins the universe; a little like
recognising God to be the truth and meaning of everything.

According to Feuerbach, this was too much like Christianity: for him,
partiular human beings were not to recognise their unity in some abstract,
fantastical, ideal universal posited above their real existence, but
rather in human beings themselves. Universality would be found in the
species of humanity, and philosophy would thus allow humanity to arrive at
a self-conscious awareness of its own 'species-being'.

Marx really likes this, but thinks it has drawbacks (see the famous Theses
on Feuerbach: These
drawbacks basically boil down to the claim that although Feuerbach had
succeeded in bringing philosophy down from the clouds, he still concieved
material reality in static, immobile terms (i.e. the human species as an
absolute rather than a historically contingent category). Reality is
subject to historical change, and - crucially - human beings are capable
of serving as the agents of change. The real nature of human beings is the
capacity to shape and consciously experience history, and it is in this
respect that Marx ends up with a notion of 'species-being' based around
formative activity. This can be seen fairly clearly in the essay on
Estranged Labour.

Anway, all of this can be summed up in the famous exhortation from the end
of the Theses on Feuerbach (also the inscription on Marx's grave in
Highgate Cemetary): "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in
various ways; the point is to change it." Philosophy thus becomes
political economy: rather than interpreting the world as it appears to us,
the task that Marx sets himnself is to figure out how our social relations
compose our world, and to thereby wrest control of human history from the

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