The Missing Link

Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology

by Alfred Sohn-Rethel
Humanities Press, 216 pp., $10.25 (paper)

Modern thought tends to divide things into two worlds—a world of the empirical, the concrete, the particular, and a world of the abstract, the logical, the universal. Here lies the basis for the famous distinction between synthetic and analytical knowledge, the first covered with the fingerprints and grime of the material world, the second glowing with the radiance of disembodied thought. How these two worlds connect, which world dominates the other, how one can understand the opposing view, are among the deepest and most persistent of philosophical questions, questions that moved Kant to the formulation of his “synthetic apriori,” Hegel to the idea of a logos in which both thought and matter might find a common ground, and modern philosophy to the distinction between positive (testable) and metaphysical (nontestable) propositions.

The division of things into two worlds is not limited, however, to philosophy. Its consequences reach into social thought and beyond that into social life. Stemming from the difference between the base world of things and the empyrean realm of thought is the division between the “higher” learning and the “lower” crafts and skills, the rationale that elevates the priest above his flock, the justification for the privileges of the manager and the duties of the worker, and, not least, the gulf between the intellectual and the man in the street.

It is Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s extraordinary achievement in his short, often difficult Intellectual and Manual Labour to suggest a hitherto unsuspected connection between these two worlds. For Sohn-Rethel’s thesis is that the world of intellect—above all, of science and mathematics and abstraction in general—does not owe its origins to the exercise of pure thought. Rather, it finds its roots in a change in human awareness induced by the arrival of a crucial stage in meterial history. This is the stage when men learn to coordinate their labors by universal exchange mediated by money. In this new world of generalized exchange, men are forced to enact a kind of abstraction and thereby discover the possibilities of abstract thought through the experiences of social life. Just as Kafka’s prisoner in “The Penal Colony” finally learns the nature of his crime when the charge is written on his back by a machine, so men in exchange societies learn about the nature of abstraction when their own acts grind its meaning into their heads.

A student before World War I, Sohn-Rethel early became convinced that there existed a level of social and historical understanding within Marx of which Marx himself was only vaguely aware, if aware at all. The key lay in Marx’s long struggle to understand the nature of the word value, a word that referred to the mysterious property of exchangeability possessed by commodities. Sohn-Rethel saw that behind the question “What is value?” there lay another, perhaps still deeper question, namely, “How can an abstract concept, such as value, be connected with a physical entity such as a commodity?”

“It came upon me that in the inner-most core of the commodity…

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