Socio-Economic Inquiry

This essay, ostensibly investigating the historical philosophy of Karl Marx, is comprised of three sections. In the first part, a comparison of Marx and his inspirational guide Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is developed, relating similarities and differences of philosophical position. The second part describes an imaginary Italian Renaissance painting, which subsequently is critiqued from the viewpoints of Immanuel Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Finally, the last part is an examination of historical dialectic progression. It may be productive to approach Hegelian and Marxist positions as mutual rather than exclusive polemics, for the poles of opposition always define each other.

Both Hegel and Marx are philosophers coming from the Germanic intellectual tradition. As such, they reflect on profound questions that have no definitive answers, yet each devised systems that claim to provide authoritative comprehensive solutions. They both postulate history as a dynamic movement towards an optimistic goal, analyzed in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis categories. Both endorse the concept of a detrimental alienation condition, a process whereby people are foreign to the environment in which they function. They also agree that by eliminating this alienation, humans can ultimately achieve individual freedom. Nevertheless, they each sanction many philosophical differences, with the final goal of the historical dialectic and thus the terms of the oppositional conflict prominent. Hegel presents the evolution of consciousness; with the goal of absolute and total self-knowledge attainment realized in the geist (mind/spirit) and thereby freedom realized. For Hegel, the main dialectical opposites are subject vs. object and mind vs. nature. Marx presents the evolution of materialism, with the goal of communism; an equal (classless) society developed in terms of modes and means of production and thereby freedom realized. For Marx, the main dialectical opposites are labor vs. capital, lack of property vs. property, and the proletariat class vs. the bourgeois class.

These philosophers also disagree ontologically. Hegel posits humans as spiritual beings (thoughts dominate), while for Marx humans are materialistic beings (subsistence requirements dominate).

Their views on the source of alienation are also very dissimilar. For Hegel the subject is alienated from the object. Through their mental dialectic activity, that is incomplete until attaining the absolute, people create a confrontational condition. Understanding reality is an exercise in self-understanding, and it requires a merger of the estranged self (subject) with existence (object). As long as the human exists in nature without complete unity, the geist is alienated from itself. For Marx, the worker is alienated from the means of production. This alienation of abstract work is only overcome by obtaining a proper relationship to materialism, or in other words, by obtaining a proper mode of production.

Significant divergence surrounds the concept of truth. For Hegel truth resides in the human absolute, and is available in totality at the end of history, the actualization of freedom’s self-consciousness. For Marx there is no eternal truth; truth rather depends on the means and modes of production. The means of production are always in development and occasionally cause a transformation in the mode. Aspiring to an unattainable utopian condition is a worthy goal. It implies continuous development and improvement. For Marx this development exists in the practice of doing (praxis), while for Hegel development exists as a mental image (ideal). In short, these positions represent productive forces vs. spiritualization. Here is a description of an imaginary Italian Renaissance religious painting titled Christ Cross.

An idealized emaciated human representation, viciously attached to a horizontal crossbar, appears as a desirable circumstance. Apparently, brutal agony is virtuous as surrender/sacrifice offers redemption.

Upon description, a hypothetic critique of this make-believe Italian Renaissance painting is presented from the viewpoints of Kant, Hegel, and Marx. As such, the critiques will focus on each philosopher’s conception of art and religion, as theoretically expected.

Religion is an authoritarian means by which humans are provided a philosophical explanation of existence. This includes the belief that all-powerful supramundane deities determine destiny. Certain religions promote one supreme deity, while others embrace an assortment of multiple deities.

Kantian critique of Christ Cross

Kant finds this painting uninteresting and irrelevant. Although he recognizes that judgments of taste can be formulated about art, he considers art as anti-historical. He is not concerned with what art does, because a judgment of taste is purposiveness, without an end. A work of art expresses or exhibits an aesthetic idea only in giving sensible form to a rational idea. A symbolic representation of sacrifice desirability stretches rationality. Kant limits object knowledge to possible experience and conception of metaphysics (including theology) as matters of rational faith. Kant’s version of morality consists of overall, utter selflessness. An action is moral only if performed without desire (disinterest), executed out of a sense of duty deriving no spiritual or material profit. A benefit obliterates any moral value. Sacrifice executed for reward is corrupt. Kant claims the role of aesthetic ideas is to mediate between rational ideas and sensibility/imagination, as we must “be able to look upon fine art as nature,” (136) in that it must seem free and genuine.

Hegelian critique of Christ Cross

Hegel thinks that this painting is extremely restrictive in its usefulness. He considers art as a means for furthering advancement toward the absolute. Painting in material/physical form limits this progress, as the absolute resides in pure geist. Thus, art in reference to the religious or divine is extremely inadequate, because the content already exists for itself in imagination and sensuous perception, exterior to art. “Again, the mode of appearance of the shapes produced by art may be called a deception in comparison with philosophic thought, with religious or moral principles.” (Hegel 11) The divine lies outside representational modes of manifestation for consciousness, and makes its appearance in sensuous reality. Furthermore, Hegel believes people should freely think for themselves, independent from authoritarian religion to provide claims or laws specifying how to perceive, reflect, and operate.

Marxian critique of Christ Cross

Although Marx sees art as a materialistic form of labor, which is potentially in harmony with the productive desires of the artist, he is disdainful of this particular painting. This contempt chiefly derives from his pessimistic views on religion, which he considers a form of ideology; how we imagine our relationship to the material separate from actuality.

Marx is an atheist. He has no regard or use for religion of any kind. He considers religion a manifestation of the human mind’s inability to deal with the unfathomable. He further posits religion as a contrivance wielded by the ruling class to generate artificial optimism in the working class. Thus, the first requirement for human salvation is the eradication of religion. “But communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.” (Marx 26)

Our relationship to the world is material based on historical change that will involve sacrifice. For communism to succeed, the desires of the individual are subordinate to the needs of the community. In this sense, each individual must sacrifice for the greater good. Marxism envisages an expected future when such sacrifice will end all disparity and everything will be marvelous.

Dialectical relationship between Philosophies

Philosophers function and are influenced by the cultural and societal periods operative during their active lives. As philosophy evolves, it must both build on past philosophies and challenge/critique earlier philosophies. Kant operated in the Enlightenment, during which reason and science were considered unlimited, forever improving. Hegel operated in Romanticism, during which rationality and science were considered limited and associated advances were thought to construct tyrannical, conformist societies. Marx operated in Industrialism, a social organization in which extensive industries dominate under the capitalist mode of production. The temporal dialectic as history progressed through these periods shaped philosophic transformation.

Separation of object and subjectHistorical dialecticAbsolute unity of geist
Absolute unity of geistMaterial dialecticClassless freedom

Kant ----to----} Hegel

Kant argues that experience derives knowledge from the mental faculties of consciousness and its capacity for representation. As the mind understands space and time ‘a priori,’ it is able to represent particulars that emanate from space and time. Such particulars Kant designates as intuitions. To gain knowledge through experience, consciousness must apply concepts with intuitions as they are given. Nevertheless, beyond mental sensations or ideas, Kant claims that other things also exist. These things he calls noumena, or things-in-themselves, completely unknowable to humans.

Hegel argues that consciousness is logically progressive and is in itself a phenomenon. Thus, Hegel postulates that since consciousness can examine itself, it can become self-aware. What is rational is real, constantly being reevaluated and transformed dialectically to arbitrate experience. The question of what properties a thing might have independent of the mind is thus incoherent. Hegel further postulates dialectical development of a universal geist. This geist progresses through history from its first appearance as individual minds, conscious but neither self-conscious nor free, to the free and fully self-conscious absolute. Everything real is ultimately an expression of the absolute.

Hegel ----to----} Marx

Marx shifts the historical dialectical away from Hegel’s realm of ideas and mental activity, to the physical and material world of economic change. For Marx, the relationship of humans with their material world and to each other is supreme. Art allows us to examine this material condition of existence. The end of Marx’s historical dialectic would be an abolishment of class antagonisms. This involves elimination of private property and the subsequent communal control of the means of production.

Marx considers capitalism as a condition of alienation. We are alienated from the product of wage labor, as the products of wage labor are only valuable to the private property owners. Therefore, the producers do not own the products, which are thus abstract. When alienated from production processes, labor is not self-actualizing. The mind should be the product of labor, not capital. We should start with the material and work our way up to the mind for labor to be fulfilling. Goal oriented labor defines the human species; we are alienated from the essence of labor as a human ideal. We need to invest ourselves in the products we make, but capitalism strips this investment away. Alienated from each other, we are reduced to mere means, like objects in the world. Capitalism only maintains ruling class interests, exploiting all others.

Marx distinguishes between the mode and the means of production. Mode is the economic system and within each of these modes, limited resources lead to conflict and war. Scarcity results in unfulfilled desire for some portion of the population. To date, four major modes have evolved; hunter-gatherer, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Means are the technologies supporting economics, the way consumable goods are produced. Means include skills, tools, and methods. The modes structure the means.


That these philosophers have particular and specific flaws in their respective systems of knowledge is apparent but irrelevant to their significance. The power of philosophy is in its examination of fundamental ideas concerning the unknown and unknowable. Through such explorations, the relationship between the knower and an object of understanding expands. The broader the idea foundation, the richer is the potential.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans James Creed Meredith. Revised & Edited by Nicholas Walker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Hegel, Georg W. F, Bernard Bosanquet, and M J. Inwood. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Jones G. Stedman, and Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

socio-economic inquiry
"socio-economic inquiry" wilson hurst 2013