Archive for the 'history and class consciousness' Category


Rational systems and the contemplative stance

We have already noted that Lukacs writes,

As labour is progressively rationalised and mechanised his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative. The contemplative stance [is] adopted towards a … a perfectly closed system (HCC)

Now we are in a position to unpack this claim. Lukacs believed that capitalism causes people to seek to understand the world more and more rationally, i.e. through an increasingly rational system. However, because increasing rationality implies increased closure (c.f. (RATIONAL->CLOSED)), the result is a (perhaps real, perhaps perceived) inability to act freely upon the contents of the system.

That seems to be roughly Lukacs’ argument. There are complications in the logic, however. Clearly, if the acting subject is exogenous to the system, and the system is closed, then the contents of the system are impervious to the subject’s actions. But what if the subject is endogenous to the system? In that case, what is important, it seems, is not the closure but the rationality of the system, because in this case the subject’s actions must be deducible from the system’s axioms, and hence not independently caused by the subject.

I may well be wrong about this, but after my first reading of HCC, I gather that Lukacs accepts all this and casts the tension here in terms of the following class difference: the bourgeoisie characteristically rationalize the world, but leave their own subjectivity out of it, and hence understand the world as a partial system closed to them. The proletariat, however, exist in the same rationalized world but consider the world through a total system that permits them action within it, but only as a class and only in a way prescribed by the rationality the system (in this case, the historical dialectic), or else not at all.

There seems to be a useful conceptual distinction here for which, as far as I know, there are no preexisting terms. So I will make some up:

(DFN-AUTOLOGICAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) An autological system is a system whose contents includes its subject.
(DFN-HETEROLOGICAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A heterological system is a system whose contents do not include its subject.

What do I mean when I talk about a system’s subject? Recall that a system is a set of beliefs and valuations. For now, let’s say that a system’s subject is the person who has those beliefs and valuations. I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in these definitions as given, but I would like to move on for now and get back to them later.

Given these preliminary definitions, I think we can argue the following:

(CSTANCE-RAT-HET) One must take the contemplative stance towards systems that are both fully rational and heterological.

Why? Because:

  1. Suppose a system S is both fully rational and heterological.
  2. S is closed. (by (RATIONAL->CLOSED))
  3. The contents of S do not depend on any variables exogenous to S (by 2 and (DFN-CLOSED-SYSTEM-v.1.0))
  4. The subject of S is not included in the contents of S (by (DFN-HETEROLOGICAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0))
  5. The subject of S is exogenous to S (by an unformalized definition of “exogenous”)
  6. The contents of S does not depend on the the subject of S.
  7. The subject of S must take the contemplative stance towards S if the contents of S do not depend on the subject of S.

I realize that I haven’t yet provided a definition of the contemplative stance here. I’m not sure it’s possible to do so given my current understanding of the term; I’ll try to use it in a way that’s consistent and provide a definition, perhaps revisiting this argument, later.


Kinds of Systems, part 2

What is novel about modern rationalism is its increasingly insistent claim that it has discovered the principle which connects up all phenomena which in nature and society are found to confront mankind. Compared with this, every previous type of rationalism is no more than a partial system. (HCC, The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought)

Lukacs distinguishes between other kinds of systems in addition to the (ir)rational. The idea of “total” and “partial” systems also plays an important role in his analysis. I think the following tentative definitions reflect his use of the terms fairly well:

(DFN-TOTAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A total system is a system that connects up all phenomena.

(DFN-PARTIAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A partial system is a system that is not a total system, in the sense of (DFN-TOTAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0).

We have also discussed before, without adding a definition to our list, the concept of a closed system. We can try to sketch this out here:

(DFN-CLOSED-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A closed system is a system whose content does not depend on any variables exogenous to it.


Kinds of systems, part 1

For rationalism has existed at widely different times and in the most diverse forms, in the sense of a formal system whose unity derives from its orientation towards that aspect of the phenomena that can be grasped by the understanding, that is created by the understanding and hence also subject to the control, the predictions and the calculations of the understanding. But there are fundamental distinctions to be made, depending on the material on which this rationalism is brought to bear and on the role assigned to it in the comprehensive system of human knowledge and human objectives. (HCC, The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought)

A central concept of Lukacs’ that we have already seen here is the concept of the system. Although in my estimation Lukacs uses the term “system” somewhat inconsistently, I think that its most general sense in HCC (and the one I intend to stick to in this blog) is captured by the following definition:

(DFN-SYSTEM) A system is a set of beliefs and valuations.

Much more so than systems generally, Lukacs is interested in the systems posited by “rationalism”–by which he means a position he attributes to Kant and the bourgeoisie that insists, for class-based economic motivations, that the world be predictable and calculable. I hope to get into this topic in more detail later, but for now I would like to provide the following tentative definition that I believe is true to Lukacs’ use of the term “rational system.”

(DFN-RATIONAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A system is a rational system to the extent that its contents are deducible from its axioms.

I have attached a version number to this definition because I expect we will have to revise it in the future.

Other kinds of systems–partial systems, total systems, closed systems, open systems–are discussed by Lukacs. Definitions of these terms will be provided in the next post.


The contemplative stance

After the last disappointing encounter with Debord, it is clear to me that I won’t make any progress on him without referring back to earlier Marxist literature that he presupposes a familiarity with. Thankfully, I have some familiarity with Georg LukacsHistory and Class Consciousness (HCC) in which Lukacs expounds upon many of the same concepts that Debord employs.

For example, take this earlier question raised by TSOTS 1:2

(TSOTS-1:2-B-?) “Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.” What does this mean?

There are a number of parts of Debord’s sentence to unpack here. But I am confident that to get his full meaning, you’ve got to consider that “contemplation” is an important word in the Western Marxist lexicon, as it indicates an important idea in Lukacs’ highly influential critique of capitalism. For example, early in HCC Lukacs writes:

As labour is progressively rationalised and mechanised his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative. The contemplative stance adopted towards a process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of man’s consciousness and impervious to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space. (Georg Lukacs, HCC)

There’s a lot to this paragraph, but the part I want to focus on is the idea of the contemplative stance. The contemplative stance is the attitude one must adopt towards a part of reality–a system–which is closed to one’s input. In HCC, Lukacs claims that the bourgeois class in capitalist society tries to make and think about the world as a system closed in this way (more on this later, I hope), and as a result finds itself incapable of action. Debord’s use of “contemplation” is, it seems, the same as Lukacs’ usage.