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Front. Philos.

China 2009, 4(3): 400–416
DOI 10.1007/s11466-009-0026-1


YU Wujin

Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social

© Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag 2009

Abstract For a long time, under the influence of traditional Western philosophy,
Orthodox interpreters have distorted Marx’s philosophy as the ontology of matter,
thereby concealing the essence of Marx’s philosophy, and eliminating the fundamental
difference between Marx’s philosophy and traditional philosophy. This paper
proposes that Marx’s philosophy is not the ontology of matter, but on the contrary, by
examining the ontology of matter, Marx put forward his own ontological theory, i.e., the
ontology of the praxis-relations of social production, by which Marx linked the realms
of phenomenon and essence, revealing the content and essence of his philosophy.

Keywords ontology of matter, concept of abstract matter, commodity fetishism,
ontology of the praxis-relations of social production

摘要 长期以来,深受传统西方哲学影响的正统的阐释者们把马克思哲学曲解为物

关键词 物质本体论,抽象物质观,商品拜教,实践—社会生产关系本体论

1 Introduction

Throughout the history of Western philosophy, philosophers have proposed a

Translated by Kong Hui from Zhexue yanjiu 哲学研究 (Philosophical Researches), 2008, (3):
YU Wujin ( )
Research Center for Contemporary Marxism Abroad, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433,

and in practice proposed the idea of “the material cause”. In his book Metaphysics. ontology of humanity. and what is the cause? It is surely not the substrate itself which causes itself to change. whether it is in a direct or indirect. we must clarify Marx’s perspective on the ontology of matter. although philosophers before him had already noticed that matter or material was the arche of the universe. ontology of will. the ontology of matter is the most common and influential one. Now to investigate this is to investigate the second type of cause: the source of motion. the ontology of the praxis-relations of social production. ontology of social relations. The so-called 1 As Nietzsche pointed out: “In the philosophy of Parmenide. ontology of praxis. ontology of nature. p. and hence laid the theoretical groundwork for the subsequent rise of ontology. namely. Aristotle cited the views of many earlier philosophers.Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 401 variety of different types of ontology.1 then we may argue that Aristotle made an equivalent contribution to the formation of “ontology of matter” and “ontology of form (reason)”. Of all these different forms of ontology. but something else is the cause of the change. theological ontology. In light of this. that neither wood nor bronze is responsible for changing itself. he established his own theory of ontology. nor bronze a statue. and especially how. ontology of existence. by renouncing the ontology of matter. they did not pursue what “the motive cause” is.g. and so forth. When it comes to interpreting Marx’s philosophy. out of which everything else had arisen from. ontology of social being. But as men proceeded in this way. because if it is really true that all generation and destruction is out of some one entity or even more than one. as we should say” (Aristotle 1933. and then concluded: “From this account it might be supposed that the only cause is of the kind called ‘material’. and as a result the interpretation. the research field it indicated — being qua being — already existed. the very circumstances of the case led them on and compelled them to seek further. e. As for Aristotle. which drives matter or material.. why does this happen. 22). ontology of reason. the theme of ontology forms the prelude” (See Nietzsche 1974 . I mean. 2 The history of the ontology of matter Although the concept of “ontology” did not come into being as a term until the 17th century in Western philosophy. p. If Parmenides first brought forward the concept of “Being”. wood does not make a bed. or obvious or covert way. such as ontology of the cosmos. ontology of emotion. this form of ontology still affects the thinking of interpreters. Aristotle also introduced the concept of “the formal cause” and “the finalcause” in another part of Metaphysics. ontology of matter. 126) .

Aristotle is more apt to stand behind “the material cause” and accept “the ontology of matter”. two contradictory theories — the ontology of matter (materialism) and the ontology of reason (idealism) were born. in “four-cause-theory”. He did not employ the term “the ontology of reason”. it once . Of course. a person makes a bed from wood for the purpose of resting on it. Philosophy in its own proper soil separates itself entirely from the philosophizing theology. and places it on quite another side… Descartes is a bold spirit who re-commenced the whole subject from the very beginning and constituted afresh the groundwork on which Philosophy is based. In other words. At first glance. On the one hand. Hegel acknowledged the construction of a philosophical structure from a rational foundation. In fact. it seems that modern Western philosophy is greatly interested in epistemology and methodology. the word “forget” here merely means “unconsciously neglect”. regarded as the first principle by Descartes. We may even argue that it was Descartes who initiated the two contradictory forms of ontology—the ontology of reason and the ontology of matter. especially with “the material cause” and “the formal cause”. as a rationalist. has given full expression to the fundamental position of rational thinking in the study of philosophy. “I think. and to which. As a matter of fact. Hegel wrote: “It is not until Descartes has arrived that we really enter upon a philosophy which is. properly speaking. and that self-consciousness is an essential moment in the truth. The etyma of “idealism” is idea. had already emerged. In Lectures on the History of Philosophy. The so-called “final cause” is the motivation of the person who transformed the state of matter or material by labour. while its counterpart is “the ontology of reason”. compared to his teacher Plato. from whom modern Western philosophy began. after a thousand years had passed. Descartes. independent. having completely forgotten ontology. Considering Descartes. for “the form” he called was also “the idea” as a product of “reason”. Needless to say. yet ontological thinking of such kind. a wooden bed is a particular form made from wood by the process of human labour. in accordance with its principle. For example. Aristotle considered “the material cause” and “the formal cause” to be the most important. therefore I am”. laid an ideological foundation for modern Western philosophy. what Aristotle expressed above established a basis not only for the ontology of matter. For example. he rarely employed ontological terms. the concept of “materialism” we use nowadays finds its roots in the concept of “material” (synonymous with the concept matter) as its etyma. based on reason. but his work still had achievements in this field.402 YU Wujin “formal cause” is the particular form generated by the labour process. both of which were at the core of Aristotle’s philosophy. and its counterpart is “the ontology of matter”. which knows that it comes forth from reason as independent. but also for the ontology of reason. Amongst “the four causes” mentioned above.

and that it is therefore capable of all the dispositions which we perceive can result from the movement of its parts.. depends on motion” (Descartes 1644. Descartes’ 2 Heidegger also believed:“ ‘I think’ is reason. this [imagining] alone cannot change matter in any way. he further developed the concept of the ontology of matter descended from Aristotle. in ourselves.” .Therefore. etc.. and that even if there were countless worlds in all. his recognition of two different kinds of properties of things. And therefore.. Nor can we discover. Examples abound illustrate his contribution to the development of the ontology of matter. basic action of reason. absolutely no principle which was not accepted by Aristotle and by all other philosophers of all periods: so that this Philosophy is not new. and so on. for this purpose. 217. his reflection on the relationship between time and space.Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 403 more returned” 2 (Hegel 1999. Moreover. p. I should also like it to be noted that I have here attempted to explain the entire nature of material things in such a way that I have used. matter is in a state of motion. all of which enrich the original version of the ontology of matter by Aristotle. True. all the variation of matter. as a dualist. He pointed out in his book The Principles of Philosophy: “From this it can also be easily inferred that the matter of the heaven does not differ from that of the earth. the idea of any other [kind of] matter. Descartes stated basic ideas concerning matter and motion: The world is made up of matter. 49–50). pp. What is purely abstracted from ‘I think’ is what is purely abstracted from reason itself. but the oldest and most commonplace of all” (Ibid. or all the diversity of its forms. For although our minds can imagine divisions [in that matter].. pp. In spite of his modest words. On the other hand. provided a thinking premise for the rise of the ontology of matter in modern philosophy. and thus consciously or unconsciously. Descartes also attached great importance to the physical world. Here. rather. it would be impossible for them not to all be of one and the same [kind of] matter. Descartes realized the source of his thought: “However. including his distinction between “thinking entity” and “substantial entity”. all the matter in the whole universe is of one and the same kind. there cannot be several worlds. but only one: because we clearly understand that this matter (the nature of which consists solely in the fact that it is an extended substance) now occupies absolutely all the conceivable spaces in which those other worlds would have to be. all the properties which we clearly perceive in it are reducible to the sole fact that it is divisible and its parts movable. since all matter is identified [as such] solely by the fact that it is extended. by combining his ideas with the new discovery of modern science. 220–221). and matter in motion can be perceived by people.. we cannot overemphasize Descartes’ role in laying a thinking foundation for the modern ontology of reason. 283). In this sense.

Feuerbach. Gao Qinghai claimed.. basic ontology does not appear to give a direct explanation of humans and the real world. as he rapidly concluded that there was something wrong with all theories on ontology merely because there were problems in some theories on ontology. while materialist philosophers. did all they could to reject Descartes' ontology of matter. The other school came from Cartesian physics. For instance. facing the world and facing the future. “In order to return to the real world. the only basis of being and of knowledge” (Mark 2000. La Mettrie. like mechanicalness. such as Diderot. the ontology of matter played. p. here is a counter-example to such view. Marx wrote: “Descartes in his physics endowed matter with self-creative power and conceived mechanical motion as the act of its life. Marx made a positive assessment of the historical role that Descartes’ theory of materialism. p. based on China’s reality. Obviously. For instance. and led directly to the French utopian socialist theory. He considered a possible consequence of the ontology of matter to be that of all types of ontology. and this is my conclusion” (Gao 1977. however. can we succeed in establishing a way of practical philosophical thinking. animals included. After Descartes. did their utmost to refute Descartes’ ontology of reason. Mr. matter is the only substance. “fundamental ontology” clarifies the premises for the study of humans and the real-world by an existential analysis of “Dasein”. like . some other interpreters. Advocated by Heidegger. Within his physics. which turned into a spiritual resource for the French natural sciences. Only when we get rid of it. without more ado. he fell into a fallacy of generalizing about ontology. characterized by mechanical materialism. while adopting his theory on the ontology of matter. At first sight. In his view. He furthermore adhered to the opinion that the study of ontology would result in the dehumanization of humans and the un-realizing of reality. Holbach. 151). assert that the field of ontology should be entirely discarded. such as Kant and Hegel. while endorsing his ontology of reason and exerting great effort to stimulate its theoretical development. idealist philosophers. as “a machine”. 3 Marx’s philosophy misinterpreted as the ontology of matter It is still considered moderate when orthodox interpreters replace “ontology” with “world view”. It had a significant impact on the educated class of French philosophers.e. it is necessary to get rid of the ontological way of thinking. He completely separated his physics from his metaphysics. 164). French materialism consisted of two different schools: one from the British empiricist philosopher John Locke. He even thought of nature itself. i.404 YU Wujin ontology of matter bears some negative features of his time.

which has been concealed by the daily state of Dasein as well as other beings. In Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy Volume 1. Marx’s philosophy is in complete accordance with modern philosophy” (Gao 1977. fundamental ontology tries to reveal “the meaning of Being”. N. In opposition to this arrangement. p. Marx never put . unlike positivistic sciences. Marx’s philosophy completely negates the theory of traditional speculative metaphysics. a large number of Western philosophers such as Heidegger. 49). p. Gould and others made further contributions to the study of ontology. which A.V. it does not mean that all ontological theories are ridiculous. In China. Thus it follows that Mr. In these two aspects. Hartmann. Though some ontological theories put forward by philosophers may be nonsense. as well as places the issue of the existence of human and liberation into the center. 250). Quinn. Unfortunately. Gao Qinghai’s view of “the necessity of eradicating the ontological way of thinking” is untenable. especially positivism. Jin Yuelin as well as New Consciousness-only by Mr. published in 1913. Following Husserl. As Heidegger says: “The task of ontology is to explain Being itself and to make the Being of entities stand out in full relief” (Heidegger 1962. I now hold it to be more correct. and the child shall not be dumped out with the washing water. Xiong Shili. it is impossible by any means to put aside ontology in philosophy. too. but neglected to see that it differed decisively from some trends. but in his interpretation of Marx’s philosophy. especially the thought of ontology as the soul of traditional philosophy. basic ontology simply aims to give a fundamental explanation of humans and real world issues. 68).Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 405 anthropology and sociology. there is On Dao by Mr. Meinong has brought more compactly under the title ‘Theory of the Object’ (Gegenstandstheorie). and when mentioning the work Logic Investigations clarified: “On historical grounds I had at that time not yet dared to make use of the alienating expression Ontology. In another word. p. He wrote in Aspiration for Philosophy: A Meditation on <Metaphysics>: “As a new starting point in philosophy. and therefore seems to dehumanize humans and irrealize reality. Lukacs. and I described their study as a fragment of an ‘a prior theory of objects as such’. that is. However. Since ontology is the basis and core of metaphysics. which lays the foundation for philosophy. to make the old expression Ontology current once again” (Husserl 1931. there has been a remarkable phenomenon. However. he noticed that Marx’s philosophy was similar to modern philosophical trends on the surface. a revival in the study of ontology in contemporary Western philosophy since the early 20th century. Sartre. in sympathy with the changed condition of the time. and thus radically changes the traditional characteristics and manner of philosophy. In fact. Even though positivists have proposed “the elimination of metaphysics”. Husserl used the concept of “ontology”. he rejected ontology not only in his study on general philosophy.

there is a chapter devoted to this kind of ontology of matter in the book Principles of Dialectical Materialism edited by Xiao Qian. consciousness are the supreme product of matter organized in a particular way. This laid the foundation for the epoch-making theory of Marx’s philosophical revolution on “(general) materialism”. orthodox interpreters follow the path of modern philosophy starting with Descartes. p. time and space . For example. the ontology of matter. Matter is primary. is the starting point for correctly dealing with basic philosophical issues and to follow monistic materialism. On the other side. 54). retina. recognize the world as it really is. From the above statement we can summarize the main points of Marx’s ontology of matter: First. the significance of his epoch-making philosophical revolution is typified in the ontology. It is also a solid philosophical foundation from which we proceed towards reality and seek truth from facts. On the contrary. the world is unified in matter. for “the historical significance of Being” is the focus of the study of ontology? However. Sensation depends on the brain. Such are the views of materialism in general. substance exists outside of our consciousness in an independent way. 244).406 YU Wujin ontology aside. p.e. Sensation. Lenin explained Marx’s philosophy in the following words: "This is materialism: matter acting upon our sense-organs produces sensation. et al. fourth. orthodox interpreters furtively admit to their own interpretation of the ontology of matter.’ The ability to recognize the material unity of the world and faithfully take the world as it moves and develops in a certain time and space according to the laws within it. and of Marx and Engels in particular” (Lenin 1952. second. p. from the point of view of the history of Being it is certain that an elemental experience of what is world-historical speaks out in it” (Heidegger 1993. and change the world according to its laws” (Xiao 1981. thought. then what other than ontology could Marx’s philosophy be founded on. etc. which originated with Aristotle and was considerably advanced by Descartes and other modern philosophers. 48). on matter organized in a definite way. thus consciously or unconsciously forgetting ontology. One may readily conceive that if the theory of communism possesses a special place in “the historical significance of Being”. i. third. The chapter comes straight to the point in the very beginning: “Lenin said: ‘The basic premise of materialism is recognition of the external world. unfortunately. The existence of matter does not depend on sensation. as Heidegger said: “No matter which of the various positions one chooses to adopt toward the doctrines of communism and to their foundation.. planning to explain Marx’s philosophy from the perspective of epistemology and methodology. motion is the essential property of matter. In the academic circle in China. that is.. and simply interpreted the essence of Marx’s philosophy for the ontology of matter. nerves. and the acknowledgement that substance exists outside of our consciousness independently.

Berkeley worried that atheism would be attached to such abstract “matter”. and are therefore inclined. the motion of matter follows its own laws. “an empty name”. Descartes and other traditional philosophers. Yet the question that mainly counts is whether Xiao Qian understood and interpreted Marx’s concept of matter correctly in the framework of the ontology of matter. it does not mean Marx did not conceive of the concept of matter. some of it being . By “the concept of abstract matter”. The British philosopher Berkeley noticed this. As we all know. and fifth. yet the prejudice is riveted so deeply in our thoughts. there is nothing unreasonable in Berkeley’s concept of matter. or occasion. Hegel also expressed a similar idea: “an invalid pedant was told by the doctor to eat fruit. notions which are imprinted on our minds. the reason entirely ceasing. and without any reluctance at all. if it represents all concrete things. the traditional ontology of matter is marked by the concept of abstract matter. because Marx discussed the issue of matter. For. In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. he certainly had a concept of matter. either by sense or reflex. or what do we perceive. and he had cherries. Of course. which we apply to I know not what abstracted and indefinite notions of being. matter with no characteristics is merely “an abstract notion”. before him. and “nothingness”. from whence may be inferred the existence of an inert. one might expect the mind should naturally. what is there on our part. p. but he pedantically refused to eat anything because no part of what was offered him was fruit. In his introduction to Lectures on the History of Philosophy. quit the belief of what was solely grounded thereon. plums and grapes. the question remains: is there such a view of ontology of matter in Marx’s philosophy. The concept of “matter”. Berkeley wrote: “But though it be allowed by the materialists themselves that Matter was thought of only for the sake of supporting accidents. that we can scarce tell how to part with it. unperceived occasion?” (Berkeley 1963. 73) In Berkeley’s view. The statements here on the ontology of matter are more complete and abundant than relevant statements made by Aristotle. as orthodox interpreters have all voiced in unison? Or have they imposed it on Marx’s philosophy? Even if it can be affirmed that there is no ontology of matter in Marx’s philosophy. since the thing itself is indefensible. apart from his somewhat cramped religious sense. amongst all the ideas. He even advocated expelling the concept of “matter” from people’s thought in order to find real knowledge. thoughtless. However. However. though without any show of reason. sensations.Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 407 are the ways in which moving matters exist. at least to retain the name. and. at least so far as I can see. though his idea that “matter is nothing” is still denounced by many people. As a matter of fact. we mean a concept of “matter” that is generally spoken of without taking into account the social activity of humans or historical background. is merely an abstract symbol and a philosophical category.

It may be easily conceived that from Hegel’s concept of "fruit". as distinct from definite existing kinds of matter. is not anything sensuously existing. motion as such” (Marx 1987. Obviously. the “fruit” that the pedant wants to eat is as empty a name as the concept of “matter”. metal.B. sheep.. there are no "fruits" without a specific form. we may prove the far more universal concept of "matter" is merely an illusion. we can see that orthodox interpreters began their interpretation of Marx’s philosophy by following issues in modern Western philosophy. In other words. etc. represented by the theories of Aristotle and Descartes. As a result. When natural science directs its efforts to seeking out uniform matter as such. Aristotle had already taught us that matter or material was merely a thing in a potential sense. However. We leave out of account the quantitative differences of things in lumping them together as corporeally existing things under the concept matter. and talking about “nothing”. In fact. Engels had actually proposed a similar idea to Berkeley’s saying of “matter is nothing”. and the rest plums or grapes” (Hegel 1999. and entirely obscures the essence of Marx’s philosophy. stone. In fact. dogs. Deeply influenced by Hegel. From the above. or the mammal as such instead of cats. pp. Engels expressed a similar idea in Dialectics of Nature: “N. plums. grapes. “Fruit” in itself does not exist. Matter as such is a pure creation of thought and an abstraction. to reducing qualitative differences to merely quantitative differences in combining identical smallest particles. pears. saying that matter is “a pure creation of thought and an abstraction”. etc. but is represented by the concrete form of cherries. some orthodox interpreters even advocate discarding the concept and the ontological way of thinking. 18). and only through its concrete form could it become a reality. Hence matter as such. With the impact of the positivist trends. it is doing the same thing as demanding to see fruit as such instead of cherries. modern Western philosophy overwhelms Marx’s philosophy. gas as such. apples. p.408 YU Wujin cherries. There is essentially no difference between talking vaguely and generally about matter detached from any specific condition or form. and try to make this the foundation for and center of Marx’s philosophy. Thus. 533–534). it is sufficient to distinguish abstract general matter from concrete individual things. chemical compound as such. They secretly borrow the ontology of matter from traditional philosophy. 4 Marx’s sublimation of the ontology of matter All those who have deeply studied Marx’s works as well as his thoughts have . Engels’ attempt to distinguish “matter as such” from “definite existing piece of matter” still causes theoretical confusion. needless to say. the ontology of matter is revived in Marx’s philosophy by the interpretation of these orthodox interpreters.

There was only literal difference. In “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”. For him. therefore. thus by “the human essence of nature” or “the natural essence of man” mentioned here. and therefore of natural science. while as abstract concepts. 143). albeit in an estranged form” (Marx 1976. and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations. It is. p. such a study would run into “its abstractly material or rather. If. ”matter”. After his thought matured. there were essentially no differences between them. “material” and “natural” are interchangeable concepts. It is in this aspect. Marx reveals that industry. Marx was a determined critic of “the concept of abstract matter”. as long as concepts such as “soul”. along with its history. abstract materialism is the abstract spiritualism of matter” (Marx 1956. Here. In consequence. is uncritical. of Das Kapital. is “the actual. Every history of religion even. p. 355). especially the history of industry.. to man. Marx wrote a few lines which readers pay little attention to but are of great importance: “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature. were generally discussed. and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. that fails to take account of this material basis. even though in an estranged form. hence nature as it develops through industry. Marx believes that if philosophers study matter or nature in isolation. Some people might raise the following question: Both Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 were written in Marx’s youth. Marx had pointed out as early as 1843 in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Abstract spiritualism is abstract materialism. and thereby was also a critic of the ontology of matter. while omitting human activities. historical relationship of nature. 142–143). Marx advocated investigating matter or nature via the medium of human activities.Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 409 discovered that since his youth. its idealistic tendency”. its idealistic — tendency. especially the history of industry. did he also critique “the concept of abstract matter”? Our reply is yes. ”spiritualism”. industry is conceived as the exoteric revelation of man’s essential powers. In a note in Volume 1. the process of production by which he sustains his life. as it has already become the basis of actual human life. historical relationship” in which humans have contact with matter or nature. pp. Marx found: “Industry is the actual. Chapter 13. is true anthropological nature” (Ibid. Marx tells us that we must not leave out human activities. otherwise we would miss the real physical world or nature. It is well known that in the orthodox interpretation. they were completely the same. we also gain an understanding of the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man. and will become the basis of human science. in reality. ”materialism”. much easier to . in the study of matter or nature. Marx stressed: “The nature which develops in human history — the genesis of human society — is man’s real nature. natural science will lose its abstractly material — or rather.

the basic form of practice is productive labour by which people seek the material means for living. However. As long as they do not adhere to the concept of abstract matter. were it interrupted only for a year. That is because human history is different from that of nature. conversely. . and practice. The latter method is the only materialistic. putting aside specific historical and social conditions. In Marx’s view. are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen. are all marked by people’s consciousness. It is well known that according to Marx. what Xiao Qian and others discussed is not Marx’s concept of matter. From these words. this production. but this is unrealistic. 406–407). Marx said: “So much is this activity. laying aside human activities and historical processes. and therefore the only scientific one. Actually. Marx himself was a firm critic of the concept of abstract matter. whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality” (Marx 1915. materialism of this kind is the traditional ontology of matter. including people's consciousness so as to study things in isolation. and in particular. p. “nature” or “Being” in general. When talking about productive labour. pp. Superficially. will. as it means erasing all relationships with people. 139). this unceasing sensuous labour and creation. for it is through practice that human beings deal with nature and the physical world. people can see that things around them. to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestial forms of those relations. it is important to uncover “man’s mode of dealing with Nature” and clarifying “the history of formation of the basis of a specific social organization” through the study of the historical process of technology or technique. the foundation of the whole sensuous world as it now exists that. and was always opposed to discussing concepts like “matter”. as concrete states and real forms of matter. it can be inferred that Marx was resolutely opposed to “the abstract materialism of natural science.410 YU Wujin discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion. a materialism that excludes history and its process. it is typical of the concept of abstract matter. so as to create their own lives and their own history. which is satisfied with talking about the concept of “matter” or “nature” abstractly. Therefore. hasn’t the marble’s existence been changed according to people’s consciousness and will to make it change? As Marx said: “In practice I can relate myself to a thing humanly only if the thing relates itself humanly to the human being” (Marx 1976. All of these indicate that Marx’s philosophy always criticized the ontology of matter. For example. when they emphasize the independent existence of things outside of our consciousness. that is. talking about things while excluding the human consciousness. a materialism that excludes history and its process”. than. they claim pure materialism. when a craftsman makes a sculpture of Plato out of marble. it is. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science.

Based on this. Traditional materialism. In Letter on Humanism. 41). As thus. so that every one can freely and fully develop through political revolution and social revolution. through the process of productive labour. “all beings appear to be material for labour. the commodity.” In fact. and so on. Heidegger had keen insight into the essence of Marx’s materialism and his concept of matter. as a great successor and critic of the Western humanist tradition. 243). Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity” (Marx 1915. p. from the perspective of the history of production under capitalism. he came straight to the point: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. tools. But Marx did not waste time on abstract matter. but Marx’s materialism studies all concrete states of matter that could be encountered in production and labour from the special perspective of productive labour. p. there is a radical difference between Marx’s materialism and traditional materialism. Marx does not express any interest in the abstract matter discussed by orthodox interpreters. namely. More discerning eyes can see that Marx studied the various states or elements of matter such as raw materials. In Heidegger’s opinion. That is what Heidegger meant when he said. were missing” (Marx 1998. namely. Marx not only discussed the concrete state of matter in production under capitalism — . the abstract matter expressed in the ontology of matter that transcends all historical periods changes into a concrete state of matter in a specific period of time — the age of capitalism. Indeed. p. how commodity comes into being. as a “social thing”. the ultimate goal of Marx is not to study these things. nay his own existence. but to change the extant world as it is and liberate all mankind. the waste of production. that is. as well as from the cheap refutations that are supposed to counter it. its unit being a single commodity. and his real concern lies in the concrete states of matter under capitalism. products (goods). and how currency as a “general equivalent” leads to the emergence of capital and its unrestricted expansion. merely discusses abstract matter. presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’.Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 411 Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world. the ontology of matter. Orthodox interpreters always speak of such empty words as “the world’s unity consists in matter”. natural forces of labor. but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty. The essence of materialism does not consist in the assertion that everything is simply matter but rather in a metaphysical determination according to which every being appears as material of labor” (Heidegger 1993. In Das Kapital Volume 1. he emphasized strengthening dialogue with Marx’s materialism: “For such dialogue it is certainly also necessary to free oneself from naive notions about materialism. equipment. In fact. 46). In contrast to orthodox interpreters. Marx more clearly restated the above statement.

Patently. that is. as the foregoing analysis has already shown. the worship of commodities (things). This is the revolutionary significance of Marx’s concept of matter. as well as empty words like “the world is united in matter. so soon as they are produced as commodities. especially of a commodity like gold products.. The sole purpose of Marx’s devotion to critiquing commodity fetishism is to expose the real relationship between humans from the illusory relationship among things in the capitalist mode of production. we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. only when the product is also a commodity. the existence of the things quâ commodities. that assumes. but brought to light the essence of the phenomenon of “commodity fetishism”: “There. This kind of worship of commodities (things). According to Marx. Marx establishes his theory of historical materialism by criticizing the concept of abstract matter contained in the traditional ontology of matter. the fantastic form of a relation between things. and commodity fetishism covers up the following truth. in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them” (Ibid. and thus change this relationship through revolution. In order. and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. 83). is not actually caused by the natural properties of the commodity (gold). and in traditional production products are mainly produced for the needs of producers. Gold is gold. There it is a definite social relation between men. to find an analogy. have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefore. misinterpreting Marx’s concept of matter as abstract matter in accordance with the ontology of matter. and distorts it into high handed academic words and empty scholastic talk (see Yu 1995). This theory instructs us to not talk about matter in . in their eyes.” completely emasculates the revolutionary significance of Marx’s philosophy. and are apt to believe that the price of gold products is high due to the physical properties of the material itself. can the phenomenon of commodity fetishism be widespread. and only in a certain historical condition and social relationship can it become a commodity with a high price. In a word. according to Marx. people generally worship goods made from gold. That is to say. p. there is a fundamental difference between the two modes of production. is commodity fetishism.412 YU Wujin commodity. but the social properties. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life. For example. and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. the phenomenon of commodity fetishism is bound to develop with the production of commodities in a capitalist society because in the capitalist mode of production all products are produced for the market. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour. Therefore. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin. therefore. and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

Marx wrote: “In the analysis of economic forms. especially the social movement of capitalism. To be brief. In the introduction to the first edition of Das Kapital. But the law of human society. p. Marx does not discuss matter in an abstract and static way. p. he starts from human actions. that is. the essence of which is the “ontology of praxis-relations of social production”. invisible and intangible objects like economics. Marx even claims to be a “practical materialist” (Marx 1998.Marx’s ontology of the praxis-relations of social production 413 an abstract way without reference to historical conditions. social relations. The force of abstraction must replace both” (Marx 1915. Volume 1. especially the act of existence. to discuss the commodity. p. a view held by Gramsci and the former Yugoslavian “school of practice”. 44). productive labour. Because of this. for objects such as “economic form” are invisible and intangible. 5 Marx’s philosophy as the ontology of praxis-relations of social production Now that Marx has thoroughly critiqued the ontology of matter as well as its concept of abstract matter. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice” (Marx 2000. neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. And when it comes to discussing things. which is completely different from traditional materialism (ontology of matter) with abstract matter as its starting point. as traditional materialist philosophers do. In fact. Marx’s philosophy has often been interpreted as the “ontology of praxis”. 12). However. and cannot be grasped by our sensual experience. cannot be grasped at a level of the sensual experience. Matter is always in a concrete state — things. then what is Marx’s philosophy? We argue that Marx’s philosophy is the philosophy of historical materialism. and history . As previously mentioned. and reveal the real relationships between people which have been concealed by the phenomenon of commodity fetishism (which only sees the relationships between things). “The force of abstraction” Marx mentioned here is a pretersensual faculty of reason. Marx pointed out: “All social life is essentially practical. Marx’s philosophy takes specific and sensual activities as the starting point. moreover. namely. As a matter of fact. especially under the condition of capitalism. social being. 173). It is important to discuss matter within the context of a certain historical condition. it is through the sublimation of the ontology of matter that this unique ontology is expressed. it does not suffice to take Marx’s philosophy as the “ontology of praxis” because it is a sensual activity that can be perceived and experienced by people. All this indicates that practice plays a fundamental and central part in Marx’s philosophy.

and can only be a relation of production” (Ibid. Marx criticized abstract matter for merely viewing capital as “a thing”. it is necessary to grasp that which is invisible and intangible. 438). p. As for Marx’s philosophy. Thus. Marx’s exploration into the relationship of social production is also the result of the sublimation of the abstract matter contained in the ontology of matter. although the concept of practice plays a fundamental and central role. p. According to Marx’s point of view. studying the relationship of social production goes beyond the traditional ontology of matter. 81). not as a relationship” (Marx 1986. in particular. 21).. Through the above study. does production. of all the social relationships that connect humans. when interpreting Marx’s philosophy as “ontology of relations of social production”. we should combine the phenomenon related to sensual experience and the essence related to presensual sense. thus ignoring the field of essence related to pretersensual reason. and interpret Marx’s philosophy as the “ontology of praxis-relation of social production”. Conversely. they enter into definite connections and relations with one another. In Wage Labour and Capital. and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature. productive labour. p. “It (refers to capital: noted by translator) is thus evidently a relation. In his view. Marx made the point: “In order to produce. if people try to truly understand sensual activity. In order to fully understand and elucidate Marx’s philosophy.414 YU Wujin cannot be explained or verified by sensual activity. Marx’s philosophy is usually regarded as the “ontology of relations of social production”. they focus on the phenomenon of sensual experience. and confusing Marx’s philosophy with Hegel’s speculative philosophy. rather than the thing itself. essence related to reason is emphasized. . In this sense. It is the universal light with which all the other colors are tinged and are modified through its peculiarity. take place” (Marx 1980. we can conclude: When people interpret Marx’s philosophy as the “ontology of praxis”. 189). For example. which is concealed by things. and commented: “Capital is conceived of as a thing. It is a special ether which determines the specific gravity of everything that appears in it” (Marx 1998. while neglecting Marx’s examination of phenomenon related to real life and the practice of sensual activity. p. Clearly. This causes them to confuse Marx’s philosophy with Feuerbach’s. On the contrary. when examining capital as the central phenomenon of modern society. Thus it can be seen. it is the pretersensual relationship of social production that makes productive labour possible. social production is the most fundamental one: “Under all forms of society there is a certain industry which predominates over all the rest and whose condition therefore determines the rank and influence of all the rest. It reveals the importance of the social relationships between people. it does not displace Marx’s thinking on the field of pretersensual essence.

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