Notes on Alfred Sohn-Rethel

Intellectual and Manual labour. A critique of Epistemology

Erik Empson

The book is concerned to develop an understanding and a critique of epistemology through the parallel analysis to Marx’s critique of political economy.Sohn Rethel seeks to argue that there is a formal identity between bourgeois epistemology and the social form of exchange in that both involve an abstraction. If he can prove this, he believes he can show that in the abstraction of exchange we can see something like the transcendental subject. By doing this Rethel hopes to show that it is in the historical separation of exchange and use (making much of Marx's distinction between the two in the opening pages of Das Kapital) that grounds the possibility of abstract thought - both in ancient Greek and modern societies. As the origin of the social synthesis, commodity exchanging society conditions the possiblity of all of its thought forms. Exchange is abstract and social in a manner that is contrasted explicitly with the private experience of use. Like Marx, it is this abstract quality secondary social nature of the commodity relation that concerns our author.

Rethel seeks to link the categories of pure reason with the exchange abstract which is increasingly taking the form of a purely mathematical characterisation despite its historical and social origins. Part of this is due to the fact that commodity production pushes exchange to empty time and endless space. There is no real significant temporality to the principles of exchange.(56)

Primary and secondary nature of commodity

‘Erste Natur’ – physical body of the commodity, concrete, material

‘zweite Natur’ – social and abstract, commodities qua object of exchange, man made and synthetic. (p 57)

‘primary nature is created by human labour, second nature is ruled by relations of property.’

(must not forget that the first nature is synthetic too – i.e. still transformed and made by socialised productive and synthetic activity of men.) This distinction is typical and based on Marx’s critique of political economy; it relates to the separation between use value and exchange value and the respective concrete and abstract labour that goes into their production (the two-fold character of labour in Das Kapital).

Hegel and Kant

Describes the whole as the social synthesis (p 4-5). Reads Kantian a priori as something that needs to be shown to exist but as formed socially. I.e. we do inherit prior conceptions of how reality is and how to process it, but these are given by society itself, rather than an inherent property of mind. (p 8). This is a kind of sociology of epistemology where commodity and exchange and the development of coinage, allow for “conceptual reasoning in terms of abstract universals” that culminates philosophically in Aristotle in a line from Thales (circa 600 BC I think?) This inaugurates “full intellectual independence from manual labour”. (pp 60)

Hegel does not really elaborate further than Kant, and can logic the principle of the dialectic because he sidesteps the Kantian problem of epistemology. True, Hegel inaugurates the dialectic, but his own understanding of it is an attempt to work through the contradictions of a presupposition that only appears as a necessity of truth, that makes mind identical with being. With Hegel speculative idealist thinking has reached its apex but it does not go substantially beyond the Kantian problematic. Rethel thinks that both Smith and Kant are better representatives of Bourgoeis thought, being spokesman of political economy and epistemology in their pure normalcy. Rethel compares Kant’s critique of pure reason and Adam Smith’s wealth of nations, as both being attempts to understand systems in their pure and unproblematic form – whereas Hegel’s science of logic (and logic of everything) and Ricardo’s project are allready attempts to understand the contradictions of systems. Stuff on ‘real abstractions’ here that is quite good. I.e. abstraction is not purely a conceptual activity of mind but has a real basis in societies that exchange commodities.

The secondary nature of socially synthetic exchange activity is in total separation from nature. The social interconnections between the private spheres of production, consumption and reproduction now exist in and through commodity exchange. This is rightly pointed to as purely social forms of interconnection, though it must be said, I am not sure if Rethel would agree, that as a total social activity it is still in relation to nature, as man still works with and inside nature. (60-61)

“What defines the character of intellectual labour in its full-fledged division from all manual labour is the use of non-empirical form-abstractions which may be represented by nothing other than non-empirical, ‘pure’ concepts.” (pp 66). The basis for this is the real abstraction of commodity exchange. This is a basic and correct I believe materialist point (real abstraction of exchange cuts out empirical content (67). (Look at how this might be seen in Spinozist terms?)

Commodity exchange as abstract follows normative rules, such as non spatio-temporal element and commodity not changing its form, thus it is postulated rather than factual. Yet reasoning that it allows follows own normative logic that is the dialectic. These properties of abstraction seen to relate to nature not to money – coined money being the economic reality that allows for the abstraction to take form – it is the ‘functional intermediary of the social synthesis’ (pp70)

Here, my supposition that commodity exchange as the social nexus that unites diverse private spheres is a way of getting out of a labour ontology, or a knowledge of nature gained through manual work seems confirmed on (pp73. + pp 75)

Separation of intellectual labour in this way, allows Rethel to argue that basic categories of abstract thinking can apply to nature too, though their a priori character is social in origin.

“The basic categories of intellectual labour…are replicas of the elements of the real abstraction” (76). This is quite dodgy for why would intellectual labour be then able to apprehend nature, if their categorisation is social. Are natural laws the same as social ones in a vulgar Marxian\ Engelsian formulation of a positivism? Continues much in the same vein. Development of mathematics and increasingly abstract ways of thinking from Egyptian rope stretching to Greek geometry and later medieval and Renaissance developments in science.

- yes but we have increasingly understood nature in a ‘scientific’ way by increased socialisation of labour and its operative divisions. Natural science is only possible as a social form.

Sohn-Rethel insists that the rise of automation in dev of manufacturing ‘presents itself as a feature of technology. But it does not spring from technology but arises from the capitalist production relations and is inherent in the capital control over production.’ (pp 121) And further; “The postulate of automatism as a condition for the capital control over production is even more vital than its economic profitability – it is fundamental to capitalism from the outset.”!!!(122)

So: “The stages in the development of capitalism can be seen as so many steps in the pursuit of that postulate, and it is from this angle that we can understand the historical necessity of modern science as well as the peculiarity of its logical and methodological formation.” (122)

Capitalist could not handle the workers having the knowledge that makes production work. Descartes and Hobbes functionalism of self operating mechanisms, is ideological materialism that accompanies this manufacturing epoch (123).

So, and this addresses the social nature of scientific knowledge and where its structure comes from; “…the rise of modern science is not only outwardly coincident but inherently connected with the rise of modern capitalism.”

Galileo’s principle of inertia said to derive from the exchange abstraction! Seems a bit deterministic (this is what I thought while reading it)

“…it derives from the pattern of motion contained in the real abstraction of commodity exchange. This motion has the reality in time and space of the commodity movements in the market, and thus of the circulation of money and of capital. The pattern is absolutely abstract, in the sense of bearing no shred of perceptible qualities, and was defined as: abstract linear movement through abstract, empty, continuous and homogeneous space and time of abstract substances which thereby suffer no material change, the movement being amenable to no other than mathematical treatment. Although continually occurring in our economic life the movement in this description is not perceivable to our private minds. When it does indeed strike our minds it is in a pure conceptual form whose source is no longer recognisable; nor is the mechanism to which it owes its abstractness.” (128)

Then quotes Marx’s positivist analogies: After-word to Second ed of Capital and First preface; social movement as natural history independent of human will and determining it. (129)

This explains some of the Kantian allusions in Sohn-Rethel? Arguably fails to appreciate the manifold social mediations that give science a relative degree of autonomy, as developing, non-economically determined standards of criteria for evaluation of natural world. But then again Sohn – Rethel argues; “It is the exact truth of exact science that it is knowledge of nature in commodity form” (pp 132)

The rise of the social power of capital is based on outgrowing of the direct producer – (relate this to Bauman, Andre Gorz, ). (pp 130) How does this changing composition of producer change social form. Negri?

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