Friday, April 17, 2009

The First Writings of Karl Marx

The First Writings of Karl Marx, edited by Paul M. Schafer
2006, 217 pp.

This sleek, slender volume collects together Marx’s doctoral dissertation from 1841, “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” its extant appendices and fragments, as well as the surviving extracts from Marx’s notebooks on Epicurus, a few incidental letters related to Marx getting his degree, and several long letters between Marx and his father Heinrich. The whole affair is capped by an earnest 70-page introduction by the editor which thoroughly explains and summarizes everything that is to follow, but which also provides some useful context and background information. Professor Schafer spends a lot of time assuring us that despite the boring and pedantic title and obscure subject matter, Marx’s dissertation really is quite interesting. He is half correct.

Democritus was a pre-Socratic philosopher and polymath known for his travels, erudition, experience, and expertise on all subjects. He was (possibly) the first to conceive of the idea of the atom: a physically indivisible piece of matter (or rather, an infinite number of them) constantly in motion in the void. How he came up with this, I would love to know, but it seems to be lost to history. Epicurus came along much later with quite a similar theory, though with one critical distinction: for Democritus, the atomic hypothesis was one of mechanical determinism. He viewed atoms as obeying predictable laws in predictable ways, and reasoned that their interaction determines the physical world. Epicurus, though, postulated that the atom has a “swerve” away from a straight line, which introduced an element of randomness, opening up the possibility for freedom and non-determinist relations in the natural world. This conflict is the subject of Marx’s thesis.

Marx takes the side of Epicurus, but for annoying reasons. He first points out that Epicurus was happy and preached happiness and contentment, while Democritus was never satisfied, despite his wide travels and fame, and follows the line of reasoning that a philosophy can be judged by the sort of happiness it brings its adherents, rather than its objective validity. There are lengthy passages in which he applies Hegelian machinery to Epicurus’ thought, and at times it is desperate stuff. He dodges the prime mover problem without a shred of elegance: “the atom is the cause of everything, hence without cause itself.” Plainly this does not follow. He begins to praise Epicurus for what sounds like a defect: “He therefore determines all properties in such a way that they contradict themselves” which is apparently what the properties of the atom demand, because for Epicurus, atoms are the completion of the natural science of self-consciousness. He scoffs at Democritus, for whom atoms “are only an objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole.” Pages and pages are spent discussing the (flimsy) justification for Epicurus’ “swerve.”

Once he explains the opposing theories and why Epicurus’ inconsistencies are in fact virtues, Marx looks for a larger example to solidify the point and hits on meteors. The apparently rather hard-headed Democritus seems to have concluded that meteors (and other celestial bodies) are just made of atoms like everything else and that no further conclusions can be drawn. Epicurus, though, (or at least Marx’s Hegelian reading of him) concludes that meteors are atoms given mass, which allows them to achieve “independence” and “reflect on themselves, confronting themselves in their own shape.” In meteors, apparently matter has a relation to itself, through which it realizes itself and develops. Or something. Worse yet, Epicurus concludes that “since eternity of the heavenly bodies would disturb the ataraxy of self-consciousness, it is a necessary, a stringent consequence that they are not eternal.” So the idea of eternal meteors would make Epicurus sad, therefore, they must not be eternal. Brilliant! Why did the man who only five years later would savage Bruno Bauer on the fine points of Hegel find this argument persuasive?

All of this is not to say that the book is uninteresting. The introduction to the dissertation and the surviving notes which led to the lost fourth chapter are fascinating, since in them Marx lays out for the first time his view of philosophy as a critical tool to compare material reality with the Ideal and therefore to instigate radical change. His allegiance to Epicurus seems to be caused entirely by his desire to prove that material reality is not determinist, but that there is room for the will and for improvement, and that this recognition can lead to satisfaction. At the same time, he expresses his recognition that philosophy is fundamentally inadequate, and also that the world to be philosophized is likewise inadequate. The bearded prophet of the British Museum Reading Room is quite present in these pages, just still in the dewy grip of his youthful romanticism before his years in exile, in poverty, in struggle, in hunger, and the deaths of his children made him a trifle more militant.

It is difficult to fault Marx very much for the peculiarities of his argument. If any one theme shows through in this book, it is just how astounding the advance of science has been over the past 150 years. John Dalton had developed a primitive theory of the atom in 1808, but it is unlikely that Marx, a law and philosophy student, would have read it. No meaningful analysis of atomic particles took place until Niels Bohr in 1913, eight years after Einstein had worked out the special and general theories of relativity and had developed a mathematical analysis of the motion of atoms. Of course Marx had peculiar ideas about meteors and astrophysics: in 1840, such things were still in the realm of "natural philosophy." That realm has essentially ceased to exist, as vast swathes of its territory have been conquered and pacified by the relentless march of science. And of course, despite the flaws in his and Epicurus’ reasoning, they turned out to be mainly correct: atoms do move, do include an element of randomness, and celestial bodies are not infinite and eternal. Democritus, however, was the more scientific of the two, with his emphasis on skepticism and careful empirical investigation. He had the form right but not the content, while Marx and Epicurus had it the other way around.

The dedicated reader who manages to hack his way through the frantic metaphors in Marx’s long letter to his father will be rewarded with an early demonstration of Marx’s erudition. At 22, having already consumed the whole of Hegel’s thought, he was translating Roman law into German, comparing esoteric principles found in the private letters of Greek philosophers, and considering the legal systems of seventeenth-century jurists. His thesis, though, seems well within the capacity of the readers of this blog, save (of course) for the language issue. It must be acknowledged that the reader comes away frustrated, with the sense that Marx has not solved the really interesting problems of the first mover, of determinism, or of free will, though perhaps knowing what we do of his later writings, it is too easy to expect too much from Herr Marx on his first try.

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