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Marx and enactivism

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 21:13 authored by Paul Loader
Insofar as there is a link to be made between ‘German philosophy’ and enactivism this has typically been thought to be one which focuses on Heidegger, and perhaps more recently, Wittgenstein. However there is a case to be made that the work of Marx, and later Marxian thinkers, is just as relevant. The parallels between Marxian and enactivist thought are often striking. Moreover in some cases these affinities are not coincidental but are the result of traceable influences via Marxist intermediaries such as Merleau-Ponty, Vygotsky, Levins & Lewontin. Somewhat artificially, we might group areas of congruence between Marxian and enactivist thought under three broad headings Unification of the subject, Praxis and Dialectics. The first of these categories is concerned with those aspects of Marxian thought which focus explicitly on the unification of the subject with external nature, with his/her own activity and with his/her fellow subjects. The Marxian ‘whole man’ is an embodied agent embedded in a physical and social environment. He realizes/creates himself through practical activity, a process which is most often characterized in terms of reciprocal interaction between agent and environment, although it is sometimes also characterized along ‘extensionalist’ lines with nature becoming “the inorganic body of man.” The (notional) fragmentation of the agent arises from the imposition of certain conditions of production. In particular, the mental/manual division of labour gives rise to a disunified conception of the agent whereby thought and activity are considered in separation. The second of these categories is concerned with various Marxian theses concerning the relationship both between ideas and the world, and between thought and action. Marxian materialism grounds ideas in active material being. Considered in relation to questions of origination this means that ideas are “sublimates of their [human beings’] material life process.” Considered in relation to questions of temporal precedence – this means that Marxian thought rejects Heine’s account whereby “thought preceded action as lightning did thunder”, positing in its place the notion of ‘praxis’ as the “synthesis of thought and action.” Also relevant here are a number of other Marxian theses which form part of Marx’s ‘philosophy of practice’ specifically: that the world cannot be understood in separation from our active relationship to it, that having an adequate account of our active relationship to the world facilitates the dissolution of philosophical problems, and that in certain instances philosophical problems are resolved through practical activity itself. The third category is concerned with ‘dialectical’ elements of Marxian thought. These have their ultimate origin in Hegelian philosophy and are most explicitly articulated in the work of Engels. As well as an overarching interest in transcending dichotomies in favour of a “unity of opposites”, a dialectical approach shares with enactivism a holistic view of phenomena under investigation, emphasizing reciprocal causal relations and dynamic change over time.


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