Theory and Practice: History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx
The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism
The owl of Minerva spreads its wings when the shades of dusk are falling. Hegel’s celebrated aphorism has often been invoked to characterize the difference between his own contemplative bent and the activism of his rebellious disciples. Philosophy (it was said) was indeed backward-looking by its very nature. Hegel had been right to emphasize this truth, but wrong to suggest that contemplation of the past was the only mode of thought proper to rational comprehension of the world. History, after all, was still going on, and its understanding could not be put off until the time had once more come to sum up the achievements of a bygone epoch. It was possible to theorize about the future, as well as about the past. More than that: the future could be shaped by conscious action guided by experience. Hegel had severed theory from practice, thought from action, reason from revolution. The task was to re-unite them. “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in different ways. What matters is to transform it.”
Today the Promethean revolt of the Hegelian Left has in its turn become a chapter in the history of that process which Hegel sought to analyze, and which his more radical pupils tried to shape. The world has indeed been transformed, not least by those of Marx’s followers who took to heart the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach: stop interpreting the world and start changing it. But the transformation, although partly conscious and occasionally guided by true insight into the material needs of the human species, has created new and unforeseen problems to which neither classical liberalism nor classical Marxism offers a solution. Moreover, the ancient fatality has not really been shaken off: what is actually happening (the technological unification of the planet) occurs not under intelligent direction, but blindly, catastrophically, through wars, revolutions, and the turmoil of conflicting passions: national, social, racial. The half-hidden logic of the process has to be inferred from an accumulation of seemingly pointless disasters. Its human agents—not merely individuals, but entire nations—are sacrificed to aims they had not consciously willed. The “Cunning of Reason” reasserts itself. Hegel takes his revenge upon the empiricists who consigned his teachings to the dustbin of history. Science is powerless to control the instrumentarium of death it has let loose upon the world. Statecraft sinks to the level of manipulation. Alternatively, it pursues senseless or utopian aims, then stands appalled at the result. None of this would have surprised the thinker for whom world history was a “slaughterhouse.”
PROFESSOR LOBKOWICZ has devoted a huge volume (the first part, it appears, of an even larger work) to the study of Marx’s Hegelian origins, and to the notion of “revolutionary practice” generally. His book would be important for its theme alone. What makes it an intellectual event is the light it sheds (at times a trifle obliquely) upon the radical discontinuity of classical and modern thought. This History of a Concept from Aristotle to …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.