A Phenomenology of Dialectical Being in the World
Part Two: Theses on Conceptual Knowledge and Its Context
by Kathy Kundalini
1974



Introduction

In the first half of this paper, I outlined the methodology with which I approach questions of knowledge and perception: phenomenological dialectical materialism. I defined this approach as follows:

"Dialectical materialism is the concrete totalization of social-historical reality as a dynamic process; phenomenology is the tracing back of all mediations and objectifications to the human operations that constitute them. To the extent that these human operations are themselves historical, they occur in a context conditioned by the developments and sedimentations of the past and the present, which affect all human subjects in reality."
— Kathy Kundalini, "A Phenomenology of Dialectical Being: Part 1"

I then went on to elucidate this approach, distilling the dialectical nature of human reality and human perception. What I now wish to do is to outline the concrete totality in which human perception and knowledge occur. This is an immense task and can only be briefly sketched here. The questions I approach are:

Again my approach is Hegelian and Marxian. This approach consciously includes much that is not considered 'philosophical' in today's university. Consequently, what I outline here may not seem immediately relevant to the reader. However, if one stands back and thinks 'totalistically' and considers the implications of what I sketch (and this is only a sketch), the philosophical and practical relevance may become clearer. Dialectics insists on the concrete unity of the whole and on the historioal character of 'facts' of knowledge. As products of historical evolution, 'facts' are involved in continuous change. And, they are also in their objective structure products of a definitr historical epoch, which, for us, is capitalism. Empiricism, immediacy, bourgeois 'science' and philosophy rest on this structure of capitalism, and thus, on an alienated, reified structure without piercing to its core, to the essence. They uncritically aocept the nature of this existence without ever understanding its coming into existence and its passing away and transcendence. All this must be subjected to analysis.

The twofold character of my approach is the simultaneou.s recognition and transcendence of immediate appearances. This is dialectical methodology. And, my historical approach to understanding our existence begins with the fact that the relations of production of every society form the basis of the whole of that society and the various stages of the evolution of society can really only be discerned in the context of the total historical process, of their relation to human society as a whole.

Thesis 1

To comprehend 'knowledge' or 'thinking', and its relation to 'objects', one may start from the reality of sense data. Perception can be the beginning for our purposes here, and not immediately the concept derived from it. We do not begin with 'cerebral' existence, but rather with our feet planted on the real ground, in the real world. Sensuousness is our basis, but not mere 'contemplative' sensuousness, but active sensuousness. Our feet are able to walk, we are able to move. Perception is conceived as practical human sensuous activity. In place of inert contemplation, our approach will be grounded in the reality of human activity, already in the process of sensuous, immediate cognition. Sensuous activity is our beginning, our basis of knowledge. This is opposed to mere contemplative perception, which 'exists' only abstractly, does not exist in the real world. Our practical activities must be considered as a factor that defines our cognitive being.

Thesis 2

However, to understand the nature of sensuous perception, one must see it in the context of human-ness as a whole. Our point of departure in comprehending epistemological questions is the understanding of the relations between ourselves and our environment. We are products of the relations between our species and its objects of need. Our needs are the starting point for our species activity, our self-activity of creating ourselves as a species in this world.

The evolution of our perceptual capabilities is naturally a product of this activity, it forms the contours of our cognitive contact with things. The humanization of nature is a part of this social-historical process. The world of 'things' comes to exist for man as a totality of possible satisfaction of needs. As objects come to be part of our consciousness, this means, in practice, they are a part of our life and activity.

"Man is essentially a child of nature... the objects of his impulses exist outside him, independently, but these objects are necessary to him to allow him to bring his energies into operation and to affirm them, and are indispensable and significant. To say that man is a being that is corporeal, has natural strength, is alive, real, sentient, and objective means that real, material objects are the object of his being and of the expression of his life, or that he is capable of expressing his life only in relation to real material objects."

— Marx, Karl; "National Economy and Philosophy in Marx" in Early Writings; (Stuttgart: 1953); page 274

Thesis 3

The assimililation of the external world, which is biological, social, and human, occurs as an organization and appropriation of the raw material and worked-on material of nature and human society, in an effort to satisfy needs. Cognition, operating through the complex of perception and conceptualization, is a factor in this assimilation. As cognition comes into being through social-historical evolution, it occurs as part of this universal self-development, self-determination of the species as a whole. Consciousness is then born from practical need and activity, cognition is a tool developed to satisfy human needs. Thought is a function of human existence, a functional aspect of the practical behavior of the species. It is impossible for humans to conceive of themselves in independence from nature, or in independence from the manifestations of human transformation of nature. It is in this contact, and this social-historical transformation of nature through the 'universalizing' agent of nature — human sensuous activity — which gives birth to and develops our ability to comprehend.

Thesis 4

The eye has become the human eye, just as its object has become an object that is social, human, derived from man and destined far man. In this way, the senses have become directly, in practice, theoreticians. Our senses are nothing but the senses of social-historical active humanization. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man's essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form — in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses, but also the so-called mental senses — the practical senses (will, love, etc.) — in a word human sense — the human nature of senses — come to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of its humanized nature. The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present. [See: Marx, Karl; Private Property and Communism]

Thesis 5

The act of creating objects "for us" is identical with the act of destroying objects "in themselves" — cognition is a tool which enables humans to master their circumstances of life. It is neither absolutely severed from things, nor is it a photographic plate that simply reproduces pictures and input it receives. Practical sensuous activity develops human consciousness as a select1ve factor that operates according to need and interest in constant action with the objects of the world, and as an instrument of control, reference, and verification of developing experience and knowledge, and also as a tool with which humans conceptualize in the world definite systems of theoretical and practical organization. Thus, the relation between concept amd object is not one of reflection or identity, but one of adequacy. Concepts are different occurrences than the reality they apprehend, and, necessarily, they are partial depictions. Concepts are historically developed human intelligence. Thus, concepts may become richer, and more intelligent, as objects are understood more thoroughly, in richer dialectical interrelations as human reality develops. But, nevertheless, an infinite number of possible 'partial' concepts could be created to describe the same object, as the object is determined by the totality of the relationships in which it exists and evolves. Until this totality is mastered, if such a project were feasible (in which case absolute knowledge is possible), the correspondence of concept and object will develop according to the criteria of fulfillment of the goal, the telos, for which the concept is devised. Grasping dialectics is the first major step for developing adequate concepts, and for setting off on the road toward the totality, and through dialectics the two projects, adequacy and totalization, ultimately become one.

Thesis 6

The relation of cognition to its object is then a product of the constant human referential context in which it occurs. Human purposes, responding to need, introduce into sensuous reality intelligible correlatives that we appropriate as knowledge. This intelligence develops historically as the product of humans laboring on the world and on themselves. Knowledge, then, is a product of the historical epoch in which it occurs. In its relation to its material, knowledge finds itself in the same situation as that of the human species vis-a-vis the world, it cannot conceptualize or create the world ex nihilo, it arises in particular circumstances, with a particular sum of productive and conceptual capabilities, as developed by the historically determined human powers at that stage of development. The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness is then directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of humans, the language of real life. As human knowledge is historical and social, it is then bound up with human productive development and the human social relations intertwined in this development. Thus, the history of conception is immediately related to our conception of history. Our comprehension of this relation depends on our ability to expound the real process of history and production, the production of human life, and to comprehend the social relations connected with this and created by this (society in its various stages) and to explain the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, and to trace their origin and growth. This process will yield many valuable insights. Besides unlocking the key to human development and knowledge it will also demonstrate the nature of social error, as error is a necessary by-product of growth. Each historical epoch has to share the illusions of that epoch — the mystifications, ideology, or inadequacy of their concepts. Further, this procedure will demonstrate that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. That is, the social class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. This expresses merely that the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expressions of the dominant material relationships, the dominent material relationships grasped as ideas, hence of the relationships which make one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance. Thus, it is possible to talk about all knowledge, including philosophy and science, as being class-determined. If concepts bear not absolutely necessary relations to objects, but rather social-historical contingent relations to objects, and if that relation is determined by certain teleogies inextricably connected with certain social-historical situations, as concepts are the result of certain modes of generalized social production, then to the extent that social historical relations are class determined, knowledge is class determined and is subject to the dialectics of human social struggle.

Thesis 7

When we observe modern society we see that in order to survive most people are obliged to sell their labor power. The uniting of any and all individual capacities with the means of production comes about only through the medium of exchange: wage-labor. This social relation is both historical and transitory, although it may appear to be a 'final form' to us. It developed in history at a particular time and became the dominant productive relation only as a result of a long evolution. Looked at in this way, it seems reasonable and accurate to say that it will soon pass into past-history as its historical role comes to an end. Alienated labor, 'value', and commodity fetishism are three aspects of the same social situation in modern capitalism — the condition of separation. Alienated labor (wage-labor) is creative energy (labor power) which is sold (exchanged for wages) to capital or to the state. This creative capacity is separated from the worker and embodied in commodities and capital, and circulated and accumulated as private property, or capital in the hands of the capitalists and the state. The labor which produces commodities becomes 'abstract', measured as a quantity of labor power (value), and alienated — separated from the conscious collective control of the real producers. The inherent power to shape and determine the conditions of our lives is separated from us. We become the prisoners of the powers of our own creation(s). In this situation, the analysis of consciousness and the relations of subjects and objects becomes complicated, because everything is not immediately as it appears. A spectacle of appearances dominates daily life — the illusion, commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism is the illusion of relations between people becoming relations between things. The world around us becomes the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived. As such, this world is the estrangement of human beings vis-a-vis their labor and products. The very powers which escape us through the workings of alienated labor return over us as an alien product, not as life in self-creation, but as a conglomeration of fragments, an incomprehensible thingness. Our deceived gaze constantly meets only things and their prices.

"With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men. Labor produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the worker as a commodity — and this in the same general proportion in which it produces commodities. This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces — labor's product — confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor's realization is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.... The worker is related to the product of his/her labor as to an alien object. For on this premise, it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which s/he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself — his inner world becomes, the less belongs to him as his own... it is the loss of his self."
— Karl Marx, from " Estranged Labor" in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Thesis 8

With generalized capitalist production, not only is there the exploitation of labor as a commodity producing force, but more importantly for our purposes here, there is the imposition of an alienated form of conceptualization, of a general code of rational abstraction in which capitalist rationalization of material production is the general dictator over social conceptions. Objects, the world, society, all fall under the signification assigned to them by capital accumulation. The essence of this commodity system is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and acquires a 'phantom' 'objectivity', an autonomy that seems so rational and all-embracing, but denies its fundamental nature — we, the living, producing ourselves. Thus, the world appears (and tends towards being) split and inverted. Objectively, a world of objects and relations between things comes into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market) which becomes the pseudo-subject of human life, while human life becomes a commodity and must go its way like any other commodity. With this generalized alienation, every unitary viewpoint of our total situation is lost, as well as all direct personal communication amongst the world's producers. The automatic expansion of the commodity relation equals world alienation — as that which grows with the economy moving for itself can only be the alienation which was at its origin. Reification, the domination of the commodity conceptual code, is the immediate reality of every person living in capitalist society.

Thesis 9

To summarize what we have developed thus far: from a beginning in the reality of sense data, we immediately grounded this data in human sensuous activity, which develops in the practical relations of human needs and the real world. We outlined that conceptualization is then a conscious product of historically-developing human species' activity, creation through praxis. We outlined, then, that conceptualization and knowledge is necessarily an historica1ly-evolving product, a part of the dialectic of human powers and their creation of the world which embraces them. Human knowledge must be related to the social productive forces and social relations with which it is intertwined in the structure of human society. We then outlined briefly the basic determinants of cur present society, and some of the implications which these determinants have for our conceptual 'habits'. The picture we have outlined is a bit complicated, and not too pretty with regard to our conceptualization, given our present social relations. The alienation/reification of our society is not just the trap for "the common man", but also for the philosopher and scientist. We live in a society of the commodity spectacle and its division of labor, and this social form has attained total occupation of social life. The code of the commodity is the only visible world. This domination is extended extensively and intensively, as social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities. All the alienated labor of society becomes the global total commodity as capitalism expands to make the planet its field. All individuals enmeshed in capital's division of labor become fragments of individuals, separated and serving the productive forces operating as an ensemble. We fragment into worker, sociologist, psychologist, scientist, philosopher, etc., all watching, 'criticizing', or elaborating fragmented particles of the total alien process. A denial of the human totality has taken charge of the human totality.

Thesis 10

The social-historical existence of human life must be taken into account if our understanding of conceptualization and empirical knowledge is to be complete. I have attempted here to outline some of the directions such an approach has to take. The sensible world is not something immediately given once-and-for-all, but it is the succession of separate generations, each of which exploits the materials and the productive forces handed down to it by all preceeding generations. If to comprehend what is is the task of philosophy, then human life as a totality in historical development and its corresponding social relations are the foundations of this totality. If every individual is a child of his/her own time, so philosophy, as understood in this manner, is its own time apprehended in thought. If our social-historical reality renders such a conceptualization nearly impossible, then philosophy must seek to transform these relations. The realization of philosophy requires its passage into historical practice.

"Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is, to change it." — Karl Marx, from Theses on Feuerbach, 1845



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