[OPE-L] Marx's doctoral dissertation--new edition

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Dec 01 2006 - 08:31:14 EST

A review from the marxistphilosophy group by Ralph Dumain.
Do you agree with his observations? / In solidarity, Jerry


THE FIRST WRITINGS OF KARL MARX, ed. Paul Schafer.  Brooklyn: Ig
Publishing, 2006.  223 pp.

I recently acquired a copy of this pocket-sized paperback.  I don't
know whether it's a fluke or a defect in the whole print run, but there
are several blank pages in my copy.

Note that Marx's work reprinted here comes almost wholly from vol. 1
of Marx Engels Collected Works (MECW), the only prior edition containing
all the extant material from Marx's dissertation.  If you don't have this
volume already and don't plan to buy it, you could consider this
paperback edition, assuming you can find a nondefective copy.  If you
already own MECW vol. 1, be advised that the only new material in the book
is the editor's introduction, translations of several letters, and the
select bibliography.

Marx's writings include:

Letter from Marx to his Father (Nov. 1837)

Marx's Doctoral Dissertation: Difference Between the Democritean and
Epicurean Philosophy of Nature

Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy (Selections)

Recommendatory Reference on the Dissertation of Karl Marx

Letters from Marx (1841)

Letters to Marx (1836-37)

This edition contains the all-important notes to chapter 4 (147-152),
sometimes published separately, but omitted from some other editions
of the dissertation.  You can also consult a different translation on my
web site:

Philosophy after Its Completion

Schafer has selected from the notebooks on Epicurean philosophy
extracts from notebooks 1, 2, 4, 6.  He includes nothing from notebook 7,
whereas I found at least one significant passage in it:

Marx's Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy (Extracts on Total
Philosophy, Praxis, Historiography)

In addition there is some business-related correspondence on Marx's
dissertation, and two letters from dad Heinrich scolding son Marx on
his irresponsibility.

Whether the editor's 60-page introduction justifies the purchase of
the book I couldn't tell you, but given the comparatively little analysis
of the youngest Marx, it might be worth your while.  I've never studied
the main body of the dissertation in adequate detail, so I'm not the best
judge.  I find Marx's Hegelian take on Democritus and Epicurus very
peculiar.  At the end of section 4 of the introduction, Schafer


Though the topic of Marx's doctoral dissertation may at first glance
seem obscure and its conclusions irrelevant to the ideas of even the so-
called "early Marx" of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts, it should now be clear
that this is far from the case. The substantive core of the dissertation--
what we have called its dialectical atomism--provides an original
demonstration of the immanent rationality of the natural world. It
demonstrates that atoms, the so-called building blocks of reality, are
properly understood not as a form of undifferentiated matter, but as a
negative self-relation that unfurls and realizes its substantive being i
n a dynamic series of atomic forms. The essential role of negation in the
determination of the atom's being is nicely illustrated by the Epicurean
conception of atomic motion. The swerving atom negates the simple linear
motion attributed to it by Democritus and his followers, thereby allowing
for the unpredictable collision and combination with other atoms that
gives rise to the natural world.

If this account is correct, then it follows that the fate of atoms is
determined not by some pre-ordained natural order or external agency,
but by the swerve that is an expression of their own being. For Marx this
idea was charged with significance, for it demonstrates that atoms embody
the kind of self-sufficiency that necessarily underlies human
consciousness and free will. Ultimately, as we know from his later
writings, Marx was not interested in atoms or the nature of consciousness
but in human action and the social forms that determine its context. Yet
by demonstrating the logical thread linking nature and consciousness, he
prepared the way for a naturalistic theory of human action. Moreover, in
considering the atom dialectically, that is, in the light of its inherent
negations (not the void, not the other atom, etc.), Marx set up a pattern
that he would follow for the rest of his life. Though he may have dropped
all interest in overtly philosophical topics like "being" and
"consciousness," he did not drop the manner of philosophy that attempts to
understand the truth of things by thinking through and resolving their
contradictions. In essence, the dialectical approach is just as
characteristic of the magnum opus Capital as it is of the doctoral

[endquote 54-5]

I don't find any of this very believable.  Schafer turns to the
aforementioned footnote on theory and practice.


In order to fully grasp this early conception of philosophical
praxis, it Will be necessary to draw forth some of the implications of
Marx's critical interpretation of the Epicurean philosophy of nature. The
dialectical analysis of the relation of matter and consciousness forms the
necessary background for comprehending the relation of man and nature, and
for understanding the proper role of human action in the world. With this
background in hand, we can turn to the details of Marx's newly-formed
reconciliation of theory and praxis.

As we have seen, Marx's analysis of the atom prepares the way for a
dialectical re-consideration of nature as a whole. It suggests that
the physical universe should be understood as the necessary manifestation
of the atom's inner logic, and, consequently, that the logical forms
characteristic of atomic being are present in some form in every kind
of being. Indeed, this dialectical atomism demonstrates that what is
implicit in our simplest conceptions of the atom becomes explicit by the
time our thoughts arrive at the highest reaches of nature. For example,
the abstract individuality of swerving atoms becomes concrete and
universal in the form of heavenly bodies whose motion establishes the
natural order of all bodies. But if we turn this grand formulation around,
we see that these meteors (as Epicurus calls them) are nothing more than
fully realized atoms.

[endquote 59]

More on the atom.  Then:


We are now in a better position to comment on the relation of man and
nature expressed in Marx's doctoral dissertation. We can say with
confidence that Marx did not consider nature and self-conscious
reason to be distinct from each other, but rather to be dialectically
related. The divine--what Hegel calls the Idea--is not beyond nature, but
is embodied in it; nor is it beyond human consciousness, for human
consciousness is itself ideal. The logical form of consciousness,
therefore, is the form of nature. Ultimately, even the highest sphere of
nature, the heavens themselves, must have the same structure as
self-conscious reason, a point which becomes clear in the final chapter of
the dissertation where Marx considers the Epicurean theory of meteors.

This is not to say, however, that human being can be reduced to
natural being, or vice versa. Though they share the form of self-conscious
reason and, as such, are dialectically linked, man and nature are not
identical, for their unity is charged with negation. Nonetheless, there is
an undeniable parallel between what Lucretius calls lex atomi, the law
of the atom, and lex hominis, the law of the human; both are defined as
self-relating, material being. To extrapolate, we may say that to be
fully human means not only to exist, to have immediate, material being, but
also to be conscious of one's existence. Thus, to exist as a genuinely
free individual involves some minimal recognition of one's material
determination. Yet implied in such recognition is both an acceptance
of one's natural immediacy, and a rejection of the limits imposed by the
burden of such immediacy. To be self-consciously human is to be both
for and against nature. In this sense, the individual human being is like
the atom: it becomes actual only when it frees itself from relative
determination and relates itself to itself. Marx puts it as
follows: "Thus man ceases to be a product of nature only when the other
being to which he relates himself is not a different existence but is
itself an individualm human being, even if it is not yet spirit [Geist]."
In other words, in order for humanity to realize the truth of its inner
being, it must free itself from determination by external, relative being
(as in the declination of the atom), and realize itself as its own proper
object (as in the repulsion of the atom). At a very basic level then--what
Marx will call abstract individuality--human beings realize the concept of
their being and become free only when their relative being and the raw
instincts associated with "the power of desire and of mere nature" have
been crushed. Only when such dependence on mere nature has been negated
and transcended do human beings arrive on the doorstep of
self-consciousness, for it is only then that they are freed to determine
themselves in relation to other human beings. Though such
self-consciousness is still abstract--it lacks qualitative and historical
determination--it nonetheless contains the seed of full spiritual

Recognition of the negativity implied in the relation of man to
nature is the first step toward a new conception of the activity of
philosophy because it redefines the concept of human autonomy. According
to the initial position of the youthful Marx, it is impossible to fully
understand what it means to be human without grasping the dialectical
relation of man to nature. In its most basic sense, this means that to
exist as a free individual is to recognize both one's material
determination in and through nature, and one's formal determination
against nature. To be human, in other words, is both to be natural,
possessing immediate, material being, and to break away from such material
determination in the act of free, self-conscious determination. This
second, explicitly negative moment is of special interest, for it is here
that we see the origins of Marx's conception of human praxis as a form of
activity directed against the external world. In order to realize itself
concretely, human self-consciousness must be active in the creation of a
world where free interaction between individuals is possible. just as the
atom attains to self-sufficiency only when it declines from the straight
line and repels others from itself, human consciousness must be active and
critically present in the world in order to gain autonomy and, thereby, to
experience genuine freedom.

[endquote 62-5]

If you understand this, please explain it to me.  Schafer concludes
his commentary with an analysis of the relation of philosophy and praxis
in aforementioned famous footnote.

At 01:11 PM 7/27/2006 -0400, Ralph Dumain wrote:
>ed. Paul Schafer
>Paperback: 200 pages Publisher: Ig Publishing (July 1, 2006)
>English ISBN: 0977197220
>The First Writings of Karl Marx is the only single volume English
>edition of Marx's earliest work, his doctoral dissertation. This
>includes the rarely published full text of Marx's dissertation,
>accompanied by a handful of his letters from the same period (1837-
>and selections from the philosophical notebooks he prepared in
advance of
>the dissertation. These materials comprise the earliest period of
>intellectual life, and offer a detailed portrait of the genesis of
>philosophical worldview. Despite their youthfulness, these writings
>lit with ambition, and contain the seeds of Marx's mature system of
>historical materialism.
>I'll be interested in seeing this new edition when it comes out.  In
>it has been published in English before.  But . . . . one must
beware that
>sections are missing in some cases.  Hopefully this new publication
>correct the problem.  The only complete English edition is the Marx
>Collected Works, vol. 1.  There is also ACTIVITY IN MARX'S
>(Norman Livergood)--I think I'm remembering this right--but it omits
>crucial footnotes.  (Some of Marx's original text is lost, and so
>are footnotes without corresponding main text.)  The Marxists
>Archive did not do a thorough job of  inputting Marx's works, hence
>finds omissions there too.  So hopefully this new edition will fill
the void.

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