Heidegger and Marx on Interpreting and Changing the World

Marx' 11th Thesis on Feuerbach

I have been thinking a lot about ways to connect Heidegger’s Being and Time to Marxism recently, as an earlier German post of mine shows. Apart from his Letter on Humanism, no mention of Marx is found, except for in this interview on German television (subtitled in English):

Here Heidegger critiques the famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach, which reads: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” (German: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern.”) The very possibility of change presupposes the mental act of interpretation. Thus, supposedly, Marx’ ‘turn against philosophy’ is inconsistent. By interpreting, we change the world. Or, so Heidegger would like us to think.

I will meditate for a moment on the Theses on Feuerbach (German; English), to return to ask whether Heidegger’s critique is fair.

Marx’ goal in this very short text is to outline his critique of Feuerbach’s materialism and to state his own alternative. Ludwig Feuerbach was a critic of religion who explained Christianity as an outward projection of the human’s inward nature. He was a materialist inasmuch as he sought to explain otherworldly, religious phenomena as consequences of human nature, a world-immanent phenomenon. Marx critiques him for not going far enough: Feuerbach sees the causes of religion in psychological projection and fails to pay attention to the practical basis of beliefs. As Marx writes in the first thesis, “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.” Marx wants to draw attention to the primacy of praxis, both with regards to social organization and concerning belief systems. In the 8th thesis he states: “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”

So the first comment to make regarding Heidegger’s critique is that Marx’ 11th thesis is embedded in a philosophical discussion of the relationship between theory and practice. For Marx, the way humans understand themselves, their beliefs, their ideas about society, are often a result of a certain practice, rather than the other way around. It is the study of a certain practice which leads to a theory which can then be used to critique existing false beliefs. This is also exactly the structure of Marx’ Capital: it starts with a discussion of commodity exchange – fundamentally an analysis of a practice -, and then uses that theory to critique ideas about that practice which he demonstrates misunderstand it, but which can nevertheless be explained as results of it. The study of beliefs which are the results of actions and perpetuate that system of actions is called the critique of ideology, and those beliefs are sometimes referred to as false consciousness.

The 11th thesis, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” is thus formulated from the vantage point of the theses that a) practice sometimes grounds beliefs, and not the other way around, and b) that practice thus has priority as a determinant of reality. From that perspective, it is only natural to urge philosophers to also change the world. One needs to go from analysis of the world to a change of the structure of human practices, in order to change the way the world appears to us through practice.

It is thus odd that Heidegger critiques the 11th thesis as if Marx was using the words “to interpret” and “to change” in a commonsensical way. He slips the wrong assumption that practice can always only derive from theory right back into the argument, whereas Marx uses a much more dialectical terminology, as I have tried to sketch above.

Also, Heidegger’s critique is even more confusing because he himself, in Being and Time, lays out a theory of the human as being-in-the-world which claims that we, human beings, are always already ‘users of tools’ before we are thinkers of them. ‘Things’ approach us primarily as functional objects, as “relata,” ‘good for something,’ and theoretical analysis is only ever a possibility reliant on this fundamental presupposition. An important part of how Heidegger defines humans fundamentally as ‘worldly beings’ depends on his unique theory of things as pragmatical objects of use. It is only after this ontologically fundamental level that things can also appear as something mathematical, physical, metrical, etc. Also, Heidegger emphasizes that things become ‘visible’ at first when the functional context in which they are embedded becomes dysfunctional. For example, only when I try to use a broken hammer do I realize the larger context of objects it stands in. Originally, it is ‘absorbed’ into its context, and not an object of thought or knowledge for me. As he writes: “The phenomenal content of these ‘Relations’ and ‘Relata’ – the ‘in-order-to,’ the ‘for-the-sake-of,’ and the ‘with-which,’ of an involvement – is such that they resist any sort of mathematical functionalization; nor are they merely something thought, first posited in an ‘act of thinking.’”1

If our way of using tools – labour – is essentially more fundamental anthropologically or existentially, than the way we theorize them, does that not mean that, at times, our beliefs can indeed stem from our actions rather than the other way around? Our understanding of the world and of ourselves is conditioned upon a layer of pragmatical relations to things; pragmata for Heidegger, use value for Marx. I dare to say that they are both deeply this-worldly, immanent thinkers. But when Marx sees an unfolding scheme of different ways to organize the appearance of these practical objects in processes – through the analysis of capitalism, which completely uproots older structures of distribution and production of use value, Heidegger never analyzes the practical use of objects beyond the most archaic of forms, and has no theory which accounts for historical changes in the form of appearance of these objects. Rather surprisingly, the relation between the object and human is approached as static. The difference between these positions explains why Marx is eager to have philosophers interfere in the way labor is organized. The deeper layer of pragmatic object-object and object-human relations is not ontologically fixed and can in some way be changed by restructuring action. For Marx, this restructuring of action is exactly what can ontologically alter humanity.

Heidegger’s existential analysis in Being and Time also contains a section which can serve very well to explain the phenomenon of false beliefs. With regards to the sociality of the human, Heidegger claims that we, at most times, take over the ideas of others, and thus do as ‘one’ does. Dasein fails to actualize its own fundamental possibility when it follows ‘the one.’ “This Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of ‘the Others,’ in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more.”2 Inasmuch as false beliefs, like the ones critiqued by Feuerbach, are cultural, delivered to us by others, and uncritically adopted, they follow this pattern exactly. These ideas and ‘explanations’ serve to cover up our existential condition of being our own possibility. In a more Marxian register, one could say that false ideologies serve to prevent us from changing our way of acting in the world.

Although Heidegger’s analyses are phenomenologically very precise, he generally fails to theorize the fluidity of practice, and does not radicalize his object ontology the way Marx surprisingly does. It is exactly this dimension that Marx’ Theses on Feuerbach points at, and the philosophical groundwork which would legitimize such an effort can be found just as much in Marx’ as in Heidegger’s philosophy. Whether a conversation between the two is productive I hope to demonstrate in the near future.

1 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, HarperOne: 121-122.

2 Ibid., 164.

One thought on “Heidegger and Marx on Interpreting and Changing the World

  1. Pingback: Subject/Object Split | maestromejia

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