NoUP / Rehearsal
SOHN-RETHEL IN REHEARSAL
from the Editors (I : MMXXIII)
Alfred Sohn-Rethel once proposed a radical extension of Marx’s most famous slogan of historical materialism—“it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Sohn-Rethel said that conceptual thought itself was forged in the material world; specifically, that the introduction of coined money in Ancient Greek city-states provided the material conditions out of which abstract philosophical thinking emerged ...
¶ Anybody who carries coins in his pocket and understands their functions bears in mind, whether or not he is aware of it, ideas which, no matter how hazily, reflect the postulates of exchange abstraction. To go about his marketing activities of buying and selling and to take advantage of the power of money no clearer awareness is required. But to reflect upon the ideas involved, to become conscious of them, to formulate them, to take stock of them and to work out their interrelations, to probe into their uses and their implications, to recognise their antithetic contrast to the world of the senses and yet their intrinsic reference to it, et cetera—this does not follow automatically from the use of coined money, it constitutes a clearly definable conditioned potentiality inherent in a monetary economy.
The social upheavals and class struggles ensuing from the development of this economy in the various city-states of ancient Greece created under the existing historical conditions the necessary incentives for tackling these tasks. To work out their solutions occupied the long line of philosophers from Thales to Aristotle throughout three hundred years of astounding intellectual effort. What came into existence here is the capacity of conceptual reasoning in terms of abstract universals, a capacity which established full intellectual independence from manual labor.
Sohn-Rethel’s book was out of print for a long time. He admitted that he seems crazy for this formidable claim that there is an exact, identifable historical event which caused the emergence of conceptual thought in the human brain. How could one begin to identify the historical moment in which this seismic transformation in social relations and human cognition too effect, when the world of experience suddenly ceased to be the guarantor of truth, and the power of abstract thought entered consciousness? Declining to provide something at once so precise and so concrete, Sohn-Rethel offers instead what he called a simulation ...
¶ Let us therefore take the question of the material of the coins which a money-owner carries in his pockets on the way to the market. We have said that such a person must carry ideas in his mind which ‘reflect the postulates of the exchange abstraction,’ whether he be conscious of this or not, and we pointed to the material that his coins are made of as an example. How should one describe this material? It may consist of one of the shiny stainless metals normally used for coinage—and our money owner might, if he behaved like every other one, identify it with one of these, until he becomes aware that it could as well be any of the others—gold, silver, bronze, nickel or what have you. And if he accepted a promissory note it could even be paper. But we have already seen that none of these choices which nature has to offer or which man can make is really true to the description of the material of which money should be made. Why else should the bank issuing money pledge itself to make up for wear and tear? All existing materials, all things and creatures of this world are perishable, transient, deceptive in appearance, corruptible, subject to the effects of time and any other of the deprecatory qualifications which Plato, for one, arrays against them before he speaks of the unblemished, everlasting, self-identical and pure entities which he honors with the title ‘ideas.’ But are, then, the coins in the pocket of our money-owner mere ideas? At this frightening thought he grabs all the coins he can find in his pocket and ponders. ‘These are things,’ he utters, 'and they are things not only for me but for anyone to whom I offer them in payment for the commodities he has to sell. And they have the same reality for every member of this Athenian polis of mine; this universal social reality is in the nature of money, whatever Antiphon or any other Sophist may say about reality attaching only to my perceptions and not to things beyond them. My coins are as real as my body and as the meat they buy for me to feed on, as real therefore as the body of everyone else. Immaterial money, “ideal money,” thought-coins—what absurdity! No coin could be money with out being materially real.’
Thus he reaches the reassuring conclusion that the material of which his money is made is real stuff, as real as any other stuff existing in time and space. And yet, at the same time it is totally different. For it is unchangeable under the effects of time as not only Plato might glory about but the very treasury of our State tells us when issuing our drachma. But how can matter not subjected to time be existing in time? Not in the whole of nature and not in the bounds of sense-perception can such matter be found. How does our money-owner in his exceptional zeal know about it if this matter cannot be seen or felt and even touched? He knows it by thought and nothing else but thought. Never in his life has thought of this obstinate kind come his way, thought of something real and yet detached from all and every sense-quality by which reality is real to us. Being freed from sense-quality his coin-material is indestructible. ‘How is it different then,’ he argues, ‘from the reality that Plato terms ideas? But brother Plato is wrong in pushing this reality out of our commercial world and gazing at it in the skies only because of its indestructibility. On the contrary, this stable, unchanging, abstractly uniform material of which my coins are made is right here in my pocket.’ So he looks at it again and what he holds in his hand is a piece of silver, silver from the mines of Laurion and none of that Platonic stuff which has room for existence only in his pure, abstract thought and for which he knows no definition and no name.
After having got stuck like Socrates on the way to his symposium he now hurries with renewed intent to the agora, the market-place, where he planned his purchases. Arriving there at last he is, however, struck again, for not far from the butcher's stand he sees Plato sitting on the parapet in person in philosophical converse with Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus and other friends. Should he accept his coins as being simple silver, go to the butcher and buy his meat with them, or should he pursue the question of the indestructible, abstract and purely ideal stuff he knows his coins should really be made of, and ask Plato to put him wise on the question? This, of course, would engage him in purely intellectual pursuits and who knows when he would ever return to the economic necessities of life?
Well, we can leave our experimental money-owner at the parting of the ways whose incompatible alternative would make him split in two. But he served to demonstrate by his simulations that the alternative itself is no invention but a true duality inherent in the nature of commodity exchange and growing out of the real abstraction when it becomes discernible through its reification in coinage. So long as we move in the sphere of commodity exchange and on the level of market activities coins are pieces of metal. This metal is an object of use-value estranged from its use by serving as the generally recognised equivalent of all other commodities and in its value representing quantitative parcels of social labor in the abstract. But underlying this monetary service of the coins is the general ‘commodity abstraction,’ as Marx calls it, which allows for, and indeed enforces the formation of non-empirical concepts of pure thought when this abstraction becomes mentally identified in its given spatio-temporal reality. But this is an activity absolutely at variance with the basic economic use of the coinage and its links are irrecognisable.
Which is, in short, the reason why no one before Sohn-Rethel was able to register that this remarkable development in cognitive capability had such a precise material causation.
See Alfred Sohn-Rethel,
Intellectual and Manual Labor:
A Critique of Epistemology (1978)
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