Solution to Isolation: Marx, Cavell, and Descartes
Human beings are social in nature, depending upon one another in order to truly thrive. Modern life, however, seems to work against the conditions needed for humanity’s success, forcing members of society into alienation while under the illusion of a flourishing, collaborative social system. When it comes to ideological concepts and derived meaning, such things are social at their core, and are heavily impacted by the parameters of the society from which they come to fruition: such ideas have informed the queries of philosophers and political theorists both in the post-Enlightenment past and in the in the near-present.
According to Stanley Cavell in Must We Mean What We Say?, part of this alienation is due to the establishment of general normatives within language that are used in modern life. Modern conversation has slowly devolved into going through the motions––words spoken without care for their implications. All too often, subjects are treated too objectively with little acknowledgement of context or history––the latter of which, Cavell claims, may encompass “one’s own past, to what is past, or what has passed, within oneself” (Cavell XIX). Reliance on concepts evoked by words has taken away from consideration for their true aim or purpose. While Karl Marx also takes issue with the apparent alienation present in modern life, Marx identifies the source to be rooted in the nature of production relations. These relations define the economic structure of a society, and from this foundation a political structure is developed. During the 19th century, the distinction between the working class and the exploiters of the working class became apparent, a change marked by industrialization-fueled capitalism. The worker’s position became akin to a cog in a wheel, their mechanistic role furthering alienation to exist beyond classes, extending to the individual self. In utilizing physical labor to create commodities to be consumed by the capitalist society, workers’ bodies became commodities as well, their physical being and skills turned into objects to be traded for some nominal wage.
Karl Marx int he Communist Manifesto establishes a base-superstructure distinction to make evident the idea that government and laws aren’t natural occurrences, but simply manifestations of the social realities dominated by class interests. Reforms from the base are essential to making impactful change within the superstructure, which is why economic (base) and political (superstructure) revolution go hand in hand to combat the alienation that is a consequence of stratified social classes. Marx’s base-superstructure model extends beyond economic and political practices to individual beings themselves.“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx 160) Leveling class disparities would have a direct impact on individuals’ societal place within the external world. It is the external environment that acts as the base that dictates the superstructure that is their awareness and the way in which they perceive things.
By establishing conditions of the external world integral to one’s mental state of affairs, Marx introduces a clear contradiction to traditional Cartesian individualist thought. In the Sixth Meditation of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes establishes that he has a “clear and distinct idea” of himself which he cannot doubt, while his physical being is something that might “possibly” exist. Based on these premises, he concludes the mind to have sovereignty over the external world, existing in a manner “entirely and absolutely distinct from [the] body.” (Descartes 1-27) Both Cavell and Marx would argue that there is no such thing as sovereignty of the mind, for things that subsist within the mind––thoughts, values, opinions––are intangible concepts that are established by the nature of social order and structures. Talking is necessary for learning, and learning is “essential to an understanding of what science”––or any subject––“is” (Cavell XVIII). Marx describes language as “practical consciousness” (Marx 173), its presence confirming the mind to be a “social product.” (Marx 174)
Descartes does make some acknowledgement of the use of language in the development of his work, but he expresses concern about the imposition of words and how he is “almost deceived by the terms of ordinary language.” However, Cavell also addresses issues surrounding “complexities of the assertions” (Cavell 12) contrived from vocabulary, specifically that of the vocabulary which is used in modern philosophy, being estranged from meaning. While Descartes uses the linguistic discrepancies to question and nearly reject the validity of language and divert all focus to internal processes, Cavell proposes more social interaction by way of conversation as the remedy. The conversation in question, however, is far more reflective and in depth than the imitative language utilized by most individuals in the everyday. It requires knowing the implicatures of a dialogue and the hidden meanings of words beyond their literal sense. “Intimate understanding is understanding which is implicit,” (Cavell 12) which requires more effort and cognizance than understanding that is simply derived from the surface level. Through integrating this intensity and intimacy into the speaking of a language, people are able to establish relations between one another. In doing so, people not only mitigate the sense of alienation that is so prevalent in modern life, but also develop better understandings of the nature of ideas and ethics, as well as the roles they play in everyday life. By participating in discussion, people are able to collaboratively work towards solid definitions for conceptually controversial topics that are both “familiar and foreign” (Cavell XIX), like knowledge, morality, or justice. For Cavell, the answer of what the true essence of what these themes are does not come from an established place of heightened enlightenment, but rather from the depths of the ordinary, in which seemingly trivial things are elevated, afforded attention and importance in an effort to develop a meaningful understanding of the everyday.
Marx takes a different approach to solving the issue of alienation in modern life, but the source of the solution is similar––impactful change must start with the common man, not from those in a position of any particular economic or political power. A communist revolution to overthrow the existing capitalist system brought about by the proletariat working class would drastically modify the economic base upon which the superstructure of political and social systems depend on. All people would be brought together under by communist organization, no longer even allowing alienation to exist as a viable plight, communism turning all “existing conditions into conditions of unity.” (Marx 189) However, an externality of camaraderie to this extent between all members of society is that every individual is “[stripped] of their natural character,” reduced solely to the “individual as a person,” apart from anything “accidental” or irrelevant to the self, in order to “[subjugate] them to the power of individuals united.” (Marx 189) In gaining a stable place and sense of belonging in the world, one loses all sense of self that is not fundamentally human. Such markers of identity are considered by Marx to be non-essential to human flourishing, inhibiting remnants of impact on the individual left by the external world. By getting rid of them, people are liberated to interact only with the true essences of their selves in the purest form.
While Marx’s solution to figuring out modern life involves subduing animal spirits in order to achieve unity, Cavell seeks to take advantage of it, utilizing unique personal experiences as a means of opening the mind to perceive and comprehend things that are beyond those which exist innately within one’s independent consciousness. There can be no empathy without difference and no decisive growth of understanding without a sense of self beyond the “essential”, collective thought opening the possibility of turning into a breeding ground for complacency. Cavell makes explicit calls to action, not for political or economic remedy, but rather social convention, because his aim is not to systematically change the state of the external world, but merely to bring “the truth of this world” to light (Cavell XXV). Solidarity is to be achieved through disagreement, and intimacy gained by coming to terms with all the contradictions that breed disparity in everyday life. In the development of Marx’s ideas of communist revolution, there is clear knowledge of the historical precedents set by economic conditions and relations of production. However, Marx’s perspective establishes history as a mere series changes in the state of “material collisions” as opposed to a dynamic social narrative, a point of view that further heightens his distinction between essential and extraneous parts of the individual (Marx 189). As a result, communism in itself focuses too intently on what he determines to be the base, simply reducing everything to economics. Within the communist system there seems to be no place for broad cultural history or history that provides consideration for the self.
When plagued with all the harms involved in an improper, imbalanced communist society, the equality and camaraderie promised by communism can be an appealing solution to the isolation present in modern life. However, there are always questions of practicality and feasibility involved when looking towards revolution as the answer. As opposed to bringing about, as Marx puts it, “the end of history” (Marx 189), we should be intent on doing as Cavell suggests and make history, focusing more on the social implicatures existent all around us. It seems more impactful and emotionally substantial to find meaning in one’s present situation than it is to demand a new situation altogether.
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Human beings are social in nature, depending upon one another in order to truly thrive. Modern life, however, seems to work against the conditions needed for humanity’s success, forcing members […]