September 15, 2002

· Sociology

Chris Bertram writes:

One of the commonest myths about Karl Marx is that he said that there was no such thing as human nature, a myth believed not only by Marx’s enemies but also by his followers. It was ably exploded some years ago by Norman Geras in his Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (a book, as I remember that contained a sentence beginning, “Just as no fish could be Mozart….”).

I’ll be teaching Marx in my undergraduate social theory class this week. (For the benefit of angry conservatives, I’m tempted to add “And that’s all I ever teach! Muahaha!” But seeing as Mark Kleiman just said, very nicely, that my blog has “a high ratio of careful thought to ideological special pleading”, I’d better not. Besides, it isn’t true.) I’m surprised that this idea is a widely believed myth in need of debunking. How can you understand, say, Marx’s theory of alienation without seeing that he has a clear concept of human nature? Alienation means being separated from one’s “species-being“—- being unable, that is, to achieve self-realization through fulfilling, meaningful work in a social context. For Marx, the ability—- indeed, the need—- to self-consciously work in this way is what separates humans from animals. In other words, it’s what defines our nature.

Incidentally, if you really want to know why it’s important that a fish could not be Mozart (i.e., why it’s important that an essential property of Mozart was that he was a human being), I’d recommend you read Laurie’s paper on Essentialism.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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