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Marx's Theory Of Human Nature

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Marx's theory of human nature: alienation

Marx's conception of human nature is most dramatically put forward in the excerpts from the Economic Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that I have assigned to you. But this work is very difficult and obscure. I have tried to select those passages that are most straightforward. But, as you will see, they are by no means very clear. Let me give you some guidelines for reading them.

These passages talk about four kinds of human alienation or estrangement: (1) from our product, (2) from our productive activity, (3) from our species being and (4) from other human beings. What I would like you to do in your first essay is to give a brief explication of three of these four types of alienation, all except (3), alienation from our species being. I will explain the third type of alienation here, which, I hope will, help you understand the other three types.

To be alienated or estranged is to be distanced, or in opposition, or somehow not in the proper relationship to something. In saying that we are alienated, Marx is claiming that we do not stand not in the proper to certain products, activities, people or features of our lives. And, for Marx, this means we are fundamentally dissatisfied and unhappy. For our basic ends or goals or wants include being in a proper relationship to these things.

All four phenomena from which we are alienated are related, in one way or another, to what Marx took to be the central feature of human life, our productive activity. Human beings are, for Marx, quintessentially beings who must be productive, who, that is, must interact with nature and other human beings to make things and effect changes in the world around us. By "species being," Marx means our essence as a species. Thus to be alienated from our species being is to be distanced from our fundamental nature as productive beings. Now how is this possible? How can we, or our lives, be in opposition to or not in the proper relationship to our very nature? To understand this, we must look a little more closely at what our nature or species being is.

Why is productive activity central to our nature? And what, precisely, does Marx mean by productive activity? For Marx, our productive activity has four essential features.

First, productive activity is necessary if human beings are to survive. We must be productive in some respect in order to live, unless we are so rich that we simply spend our time counting the proceeds of our investments. But doing this is (minimally) productive activity. And buying and eating food, clothing and other goods is, for Marx, partly productive. The necessity of productive activity in our lives is, of course, is not distinctive to human beings. It is a trait we share with animals.

Second, we are unlike animals in that we engage in "free, conscious" productive activity. Our productive activity is distinct from animals in a number of ways. First, we make our productive activity itself a product of our will. We can make choices about what and how to produce. Animals produce only when doing so is necessary to their survival. And they produce only in ways that are fixed by their nature. But human beings can produce many kinds of goods and in many different ways. As Marx puts it, "man is capable of producing according to the standards of every species and of applying to each object its inherent standard; hence, man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty." This is very important, because our capacity to choose how and what to produce enables us to choose what kind of individual and political and social life to live. The great diversity of forms of human life over time and space is made possible by our capacity to freely and consciously engage in productive activity.

Third, human productive activity is social in nature. This is true in a number of different respects. Much of what we produce is produced with other people either directly or indirectly. We produce with other people directly when we work with them to produce a particular good. We produce with other people indirectly when we use the products of their labor in producing goods ourselves. In addition, we produce what we do only because other people are willing to consume what we produce. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, "no production, no consumption; no consumption, no production."

Fourth, human beings find productive activity intrinsically satisfying. In part this is because productive activity allows us to develop and exercise our capacities, faculties, and abilities. Central to Marx's account of human nature is the notion that human beings are not slugs. We enjoy work that challenges and stimulates us to more effectively produce better products. And, when we can do work of this sort, we prefer work to rest. Indeed,


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