The Rationalism of Georg Lukács (Political Philosophy and Public Purpose)

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In modernity, epic writing has no longer any distinct form that could express any particular relation between life and essence within a totality. Rather, the form of the novel is an attempt to deal with the absence of this relation 59; see Jameson The form which commodities acquire due to this fetishism i. This process has both an objective and a subjective dimension: objectively, the qualitative homogeneity and continuity of human work is destroyed when industrial work processes become rationalized in a way that is appropriate to understanding them as commodity exchanges.

It is a process which affects four dimensions of social relations: the socially created features of objects primarily their features as commodities , the relations between persons, their relations to themselves and, finally, the relations between individuals and society as a whole Stahl These properties become independent, quantifiable, non-relational features that must remain alien to any subjective meaning that one could attach to them.

Additionally, by losing grip of the qualitative dimensions of their social relations, people become atomized and isolated. The core of this argument is the claim that the dominance of the commodity form in the economic sphere must necessarily lead to the dominance of rational calculation and formal reason in society as a whole. Because a break with the organic unity and totality of human existence is a necessary precondition for this development, the commodity form must, over time, subject all social spheres to its rule.

This development leads into a contradictory situation both on the practical and the theoretical level: because the process of rationalization precludes the grasp of any kind of totality, it cannot ever succeed in making the whole of society subject to rational calculation for it necessarily must exclude all irrational, qualitative dimensions from such calculation. The same holds true for a formalist model of law, which cannot theoretically acknowledge the interdependence of its principles with their social content and therefore must treat this content as an extra-legal, irrational foundation a: — This dualism between subject and object—and in ethics, between norms and facts—haunts modern philosophy.

As Fichte and Hegel recognize, this problem arises only because modern thought takes the contemplative subject of reified self-world relations as its paradigm, ignoring the alternative of an active subject that is engaged in the production of the content. However, the conceptualization of practice from the standpoint of aesthetics obscures its historical dimension.

Initially, both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie face the same immediate reality of an alienated world. Bourgeois thought, however, endorses this facticity and sees every possible normative stance only as a subjective projection onto a world of immediate facts. In contrast, the proletariat is unable to remain within bourgeois ideology. In capitalism, the activity of workers is reduced to a completely quantifiable process. But, at the same time, workers cannot have any immediate self-consciousness of their work other than of a qualitatively determined activity.

However, the process of the proletariat becoming self-conscious does not only describe a theoretical insight. By realizing that it is the subject-object of history, the proletariat discovers itself to be the subject of the process of social reproduction see a: ; Jay f , not an object of contemplation. The proletarian situation does not necessarily entail an immediate consciousness of the totality. This consciousness remains only an objective possibility, always threatened by the seductions of the immediate consciousness. This makes the agency of the communist party a necessary condition for the revolution.

This ontology of pure processuality finally entails a normative conception of society that is critical towards all forms of institutional rationalization which are rejected as forms of alienation across the board. By many of those who were looking for a sophisticated Marxist philosophy, History and Class Consciousness was judged to be a supremely important book as for example by Karl Korsch and Ernst Bloch, see Bloch The party orthodoxy, however, was not quite so enamored.

In Germany and Hungary, party intellectuals such as Hermann Duncker and Laszlo Rudas disapproved of the book because of its idealist tendencies, culminating in its condemnation by Grigory Zinoviev in his opening address to the June World Congress of the Third International Arato and Breines This conception imports moments that are alien to a Marxist view of history into his theory even on a non-orthodox reading of Marx. He admits, however, that the notion of totality as the product of a collective subject, as he developed it in , needed to be modified in order to remedy these problems.

Instead, he tackled the philosophical foundations of these problems in the context of a new reading of the philosophical tradition, and especially of Hegel. His writings on Hegel, most prominently The Young Hegel and the relevant sections in the Ontology of Social Being , can be read as a defense of this commitment. Hegel, however, subordinates this objectivist ontology to logic in the course of the development of his system.

Hegel sees externalization that is, the fact that the objects of our labor and the institutions of society are independent of our consciousness not as a deficiency, but rather as a necessary stage in the development of self-consciousness. On this view, the externalization of the social is not problematic in itself. Rather, it is alienation the causes of which Marx uncovered that should be the object of the critique of reification see also Pitkin This distinction entails the possibility of a critique of reification that does not require a complete reappropriation of objective social forms by a collective subject.

This ontology is intended, at least outwardly, to be a faithful interpretation of the ontological implications of Marxism. All three levels are distinguished by a division between the genuine essence of entities and their appearance. While on all three levels, entities appear as fixed objects, their real essence is always that of interrelated, irreversible processes GW This entails that the basic form of all being is temporality and historicity GW By choosing one of the potential results of the employment of their natural and technological capacities as the correct one, individuals can create a distinction between successful and unsuccessful execution of their intended actions in labor.

Consequently, over time, the social becomes more and more determined by its own history, rather than by nature alone b: From these ontological commitments, it follows that the existence of the social totality depends on the intentionality which guides individual acts of labor and vice versa see Tertullian This understanding of institutions entails that politics, as a form of action directed towards the social totality as a whole, must treat this totality, on the one hand, as being dependent on natural and biological facts that limit its potential transformations and, on the other hand, as increasingly being determined by laws of its own GW The overcoming of alienation thus always demands—along with social changes—subjective transformation, i.

This finally points towards the ethical dimension of the Ontology. Compared with History and Class Consciousness , the normative ideal of the Ontology points to a radically different conception of political action. In the Ontology , it is not the self-realization of the collective subject-object in history that is the defining moment of revolutionary politics, but rather the gradual realization of the universal nature of humans in their interaction with society and nature. Like science and ethics, art breaks with the immediacy of our everyday practical engagements that dominates the more common forms of reflection GW , Second, while science is always conceptually mediated, art breaks with the immediacy of everyday life in favor of a new immediacy of experience GW , , For this reason, such works of art allow us to comprehend the universal aspects of our existence and to consciously participate in the collective life of humanity GW — Even though they represent objective reality, works of art are, in virtue of this mode of reflection, subject-dependent because their character is constituted by their capacity to evoke a subjective reaction: i.

This reaction is not only one of passive acknowledgment; it also actively transforms the subject by facilitating a consciousness of that very universal nature. Thus, in the work of art, subjectivity and objectivity are mutually constitutive for each other. The most important concept binding these premises together is the idea of mimesis. Through the mimetic imitation of natural processes, humans acquire the ability to represent the salient aspects of the world in a closed and totalizing manner, and they gradually learn to separate such imitations from the necessity of immediate reaction.

In contrast to magic which does not separate reflection and objective causation, mimesis in art is consciously taken as a reflection and evokes the aesthetic effect in its audience specifically in virtue of this feature GW In other words, while both art and science overcome the superstition of magic, only art can retain the mimetic dimension of representation.

First, he had endorsed an optimism concerning the capacity of the proletariat to constitute such a totality in society through a revolutionary overcoming of reification; later on, this optimism was modified to encompass the ever increasing human capacities to become self-conscious of their universal character through a reflection of the existing social totality in the totality of the work of art.

The most accessible collection is the incomplete German edition of his works:. English translations are cited where available. If no translation is available, Gesammelte Werke are cited. In the remaining cases, the original publication is cited. Sources are listed by original publication date.

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Biographical Notes 2. Early Aesthetic Writings 2. History and Class Consciousness 3. Bostock trans. Kadarkay ed. Livingstone ed. Livingstone trans. Leslie trans.

Table of Contents

Sziklai ed. Leitch ed. Fernbach trans. Jameson ed. Arato, A. Aronowitz, S. Thompson ed. Bernstein, J. Bewes, T. Bloch, E. Brecht, B. Braunstein, D. Butler, J. Sanders, and K. Terezakis eds. Brunkhorst, H. Chari, A. Congdon, L. Dannemann, R. Deutscher, I. Heller, G. Hence the indignant bullying of a manager, the callousness of a bureaucrat, or the sadism of a prison guard.

Thus, the tension between use value and exchange value, or between quality and quantity, runs through society and our individual experience of it. This tension creates crises and incongruities, both at the level of society and in the everyday experience of the individual. Financial crisis is the clearest example of this. Billions of transactions, while individually rational, combine to produce deeply irrational patterns and structural tensions. Investment can flood into one sector, with little planning or oversight, leading to speculation, inflation, and over-supply.

When these tensions become too much for an economy to bear, it enters into recession; a crisis of over-production. An eviction — or even the struggle of the working poor, to make ends meet in a race where the odds are constantly stacked against us — are examples of this. This means that we confront society with a contemplative attitude, regarding it as natural and unchangeable.

Reification conceals the fact that capitalism and social relations have been built and, therefore, can be un-built. What it describes is a condition of powerlessness. One may be powerless in a frantic fashion or in a resigned fashion. Nor does the contemplative stance imply that one become — like Patrick Bateman — the personification of formal rationality.

Take the example of a Silicon Valley tech bro. Obsessed on the one hand, with A.

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  6. These people have no actual power to alter the laws of society. But they do have the power to alter themselves in order to more hyperactively conform with social laws, and thus improve their position. A glut of rationalism gives way to its opposite, to irrationalism. For oppressed people, the experience of these contradictions is different. For an executive or an established professional, the contemplative stance — divided between adaptive activity and resignation — may be relatively comfortable or even a source of power and wealth.

    However, for a worker, reduction to the status of an object is inhuman. For a single mother, the struggle to adapt to the laws of a sexist society can be a crushing weight. Instead, it is historically constructed. This insight creates possibilities for resistance. The critique of reification reveals that capitalism is not a system of natural laws, but is in fact a historically contingent expression of the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. If not natural, capitalism was made: what has been made can be unmade. The unmaking of capitalism, however, requires two things: firstly, a subject capable of re-making the world and secondly, a subject whose position allows it to know the world that it is re-making.

    He did so for two reasons.

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    7. The proletariat — like no other class — is in a position to shut everything down. Shutting everything down requires motivation. Of course, there are many ways to reduce someone to an object. A slave is made an object by a brutally coercive social system. Women are objectified by sexism. Prisoners are treated as objects to be managed and controlled. What is different with the proletariat is that workers are agents in their objectification.

      We will ourselves to go to work. Thus, even in our deepest objectification, we preserve a remainder of subjective freedom. This provides the precondition — but not the full conditions — for class consciousness. He was well aware that full class consciousness i. The proof of a theory such as this can only be found in practice. Rather, he addressed himself to the Communist movement of Europe, and in particular, to its intellectual leadership. This choice was clearly related to his experience of defeat.

      The Rationalism of Georg Lukacs

      Like many in his generation, he believed that communist theory needed to become more flexible and concrete in order to lead the kind of political revolution that could de-reify society. He saw the Communist Party as the main agent of this task. It would serve as the incarnation of the proletarian will and its intellectual leadership.

      It is crucial, then, to note the difference between imputed and actual class consciousness. Suppose that the entire proletariat became aware of its own interests, both in liberating itself and as opposed to the interests of capital. Such a proletariat would possess class consciousness. From this act of imputation it is possible, then, to outline socialist theory. Yet such a hypothesis draws attention to the gap between imputed consciousness and actuality.

      After all, the bulk of the proletariat are under the sway of markedly non-socialist ideas. This should not mean that we drop the idea of imputed consciousness. For example, a political commentator may suggest that the leadership of say, the Republican Party is acting out of alignment with the interests of the people they represent. The same is true when socialists impute class consciousness to the proletariat.

      Yet to mistake what we think the proletariat should think with what the proletariat does think, will think, or must think is a serious mistake. To compress the distance between imputed consciousness and actual consciousness is a danger. Rather, imputed class consciousness should be seen as a hypothesis. This hypothesis must submit itself to the test of practice.

      Practically speaking, if a socialist party is capable of leading a struggle — say, a strike or an electoral campaign — to meaningful victory, then we may say that they have successfully mediated between imputed and actual class consciousness in a particular action. Such an action is dependent on firstly, the party possessing a vision and a strategy, and secondly, this strategy being accepted by the mass of people.

      More often than not, strategy must be modified by engagement with practice: thus, there is a dialogue between leadership and led, or, in the more theoretical parlance, between imputed and actual class consciousness. In a successful struggle, a theoretical hypothesis about the power of the proletariat interacts with and informs a practical action. The result is praxis.

      In one workplace or one theater of battle, this may result in limited victories. This is an inherently political question. Moreover, it is one in which no imperious central committee may dictate the line of march: to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, the relationship between the party and class must be one in which no one commands and no one obeys. Rather, it is a dialogue in which interests are articulated and perspectives are shared.

      After all, the twentieth century was replete with attempts to repeat the Bolshevik Revolution, often by building a party on the Leninist model. In no example did this succeed. Similarly, the political issues that confront the socialist movement are different today. There is no longer a colonial question to speak of. The peasantry has almost entirely disappeared as a class. Almost everyone can read.

      We have a world of information ready at hand. Significantly, this was a reading of Leninism that emphasized democracy. This approach may well be of interest today, as new generations of socialists reject orthodox Stalinist and Trotskyist readings of Lenin. If we take his argument seriously, a political program must be formed in its own historical conjuncture: to copy a political program transforms it into a reified abstraction.

      This is also what differentiated him from his contemporaries. This remains his most important gift.

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      Thought itself is just as divided and contradictory as reality. These contradictions come in many forms. For example, the contradictions that structure both production and society recur in thought without us realizing. In politics, for instance, different theories compete to explain how the system works. Liberals have faith in the essential rationality of institutions and propose that under ideal speech conditions, we will all come to agreement. On the other hand, conservatives are at home with violent force, power, and irrational traditions.

      While conservatives may correctly grasp the role of these factors in producing politics as it is now, their radical realism simply reifies the world. So once more, capitalism is naturalized along with irrationalism and inhumanity. Such ideologies and contradictions are not just mistaken views. They are inherent in the structures that govern society.

      Thus, they impact socialist practice. He argued that both of these poles reveal infatuation with the law — although the latter does so covertly. The point of a Marxist critique of the law, then, is to free socialists intellectually so that they may orient strategically with clear eyes.

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      In short, it is necessary to be able to both adhere to the law and break it when necessary; the key question is what must be done next. Let me put it like this: whenever someone becomes a socialist, they encounter a rich and detailed intellectual tradition, with many competing views, methods, political arguments, and so forth. Inevitably, we make choices: we decide what makes sense to us, based on our reading, our conversations, and our experience.

      So, we become a part of a living debate, but also, part of a tradition. This tradition is richly theoretical. Yet it is quite common that this theory remains relatively un-interrogated. Because of this it is very easy to use theory uncritically. After all, our choices say, to join one party over another or to read this theorist rather than that seem free, but in reality, they are conditioned by a thousand circumstantial factors that we can only be partially conscious of.

      There is no way out of this. Yet if we would like not to be pushed around by history and our circumstances, we need to find a way to gain an overview. We need to find a standpoint from which to reflect on what we know and the political choices we make. Witness the abstraction and obtuseness of theoretical dogmatists, both within the Left and outside of it.