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New Left Review I/139, May-June 1983

Len Doyal and Roger Harris

The Practical Foundations of Human Understanding

This essay concerns the significance of ‘human sensuous activity’—what has become known variously as ‘praxis’ to many Marxists and ‘action’ to analytic and phenomenological philosophers. [*] We are very grateful to Lesley Doyal for her detailed editorial assistance. [1] See R. J. Bernstein, Praxis and Action, London 1972; especially parts I and IV in which he argues that Marxist and analytic philosophers discuss the same subject matter in this connection (without, of course, using quite the same concepts). Put grandly, our thesis is that it is from labour, and not from language or thought, that the category of meaning arises. That is to say that a logically necessary foundation for agreement in what people say and mean is to be found in what they do—interpreted in a broad and not specifically economic sense which we shall clarify. Most of this essay will not be concerned with the more common problematics of Marxism, but we would argue that the topic we are addressing is crucial to the philosophical coherence of Marxist theory. Our subject matter can be described from a Marxist perspective as the division of manual from mental labour. However, we shall be discussing this division in ontological rather than historical terms. We will argue that labour possesses the property of being intelligible, prior to the intelligibility of language and thought, and that this must be so in order that the structures of meaning contained in the latter can arise. The view that such structures of meaning are created on the foundation of human labour is not one that most Marxists would dispute. What is dubious, however, is the significance and coherence of this historical thesis if labour is construed, ontologically, as a secondary construct: an amalgam of the logically and ontologically prior categories of physical activity and mental or linguistic meaning, respectively. While some Marxists might also reject the construal of labour as a secondary construct, it is noteworthy that others would not, quoting in support of their view the contrast Marx makes between the activity of the spider or the bee and that of ‘even the worst architect . . . (who) . . . raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality’. [2] Capital Vol. 1. Lawrence and Wishart, London 1974, p. 174. By the choice of the example of the architect, Marx reveals the influence of the traditional belief that mental activity necessarily precedes manual labour—the view we wish to dispute. For an example of how the view of labour as a secondary construct might be rejected, see L. Kolakowski, ‘Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth’ in Toward a Marxist Humanism, New York 1969. For the converse see P. Walton and A. Gamble, From Alienation to Surplus Value, London 1972.

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