Thursday, March 21, 2013

Goethe, Marx, Utopia

Rene Magritte, Applied Dialectics (1945)
I was reading Friedrich Engel's "Socialism: Utopian and Socialist" the other day, and I couldn't help sensing that some of the terminology reminded me of Goethe. The piece begins with a criticism of utopian thinkers, those men who believed that "pure reason and justice have not hitherto ruled the world" because these have not been properly understood. "The solution of social problems ... the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason." What these earlier utopists (Saint Simon, Fourier, Owen) failed to understand, despite their considerable merits, was that there existed a chain of necessity in historical development and that solutions to the "social problem" would not come with well-intentioned piecemeal changes. There were laws governing change, and, if the conditions on the ground were not correct, the class divisions would continue.

It is in the second section, when Engels begins to speak of Hegel and dialectics, that I discerned echoes of Goethe. Engels criticizes the metaphysician, for whom "a thing either exists or does not exist. ... Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis to one another." He goes on to say, of the metaphysical mode of thought, that it forgets the connection between individual things; in the contemplation of their existence, it forgets the beginning and the end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion." It was after reading the following paragraph that I wrote in the margin, "I can see why Marx was attracted to Goethe." Here is what Marx's partner wrote:

"Further, we find upon closer investigation that the two poles of an antithesis, positive and negative, e.g., are as inseparable as they are opposed, and that despite all their opposition they mutually interpenetrate."

I won't go on, but he is describing the principle of dialectics, of which nature is the proof. Nature works dialectically, not metaphysically.

Rene Magritte, In Praise of Dialectics (1937)
It was at this point that I turned to the Goethe-Handbuch, but there was no article on Marx. Online, however, I found article by Elmar Treptow (Z. f. philosoph. Forschung, vol. 34 [1980]), "Zu Marx' Aufhebung der Metamorphosenlehre Goethes." It opens with the claim that both Marxist scholarship and Goethe scholarship have overlooked the influence of Goethe's MM "Lehre" on Marxist thought, in particular for the Marxist understanding of society and its formation. Treptow proposes to show that Das Kapital is a MMLehre, appropriating Goethe's morphology in order to offer a critical demonstration of an incorrect, "alienated" social metamorphosis.

Characteristic of Goethe's morphology is an aversion to isolation of facts and "mere empirical treatment." As Treptow points out, Goethe applies metamorphoses to the "natural world," organic and inorganic. Variations and manifestations, from the simplest to the compounded, progress according to laws (though excluding a telos of final causes). The foundational law is "Gleichgewicht": nothing can be added to one part that is not subtracted from the other.

Goethe, as Treptow also points out, did not conceptualize human history in morphological terms (though Herder does refer to metamorphosis in his philosophy of the history of humanity). He posited no social "Grundform" that would correspond, e.g, to the "Urpflanze." And while Goethe does not mingle nature and art, art's productive "Formieren" stands in direct connection with nature's likewise productive "Formieren," namely, via "Bildungstrieb." And it is this that influenced Marx, according to Treptow, particularly the concept of "Formenwandel."

Looking back on his Strassburg days, Goethe wrote of his revulsion at the materialism of Holbach's La System de la natur. According to the Wikipedia entry on this work, "mind is identified with brain, there is no 'soul' without a living body, the world is governed by strict deterministic laws, free will is an illusion, there are no final causes, and whatever happens takes place because it inexorably must." But Marxism is materialism with a twist: it has a soul! It was from Hegel, not Goethe, that Marx and Engels drew their notion of "Geist" directing history. Otherwise, I can't see much difference from Holbach's materialism.

There are more echoes of Goethe in Engel's piece. Treptow also mentions that Marx writes of economic "Keimform" or "Zellenform," of the "sinnlichen ├╝bersinlichen Wertdings," and of the "Verwandlung" of goods into money and money into goods. Goethe's "structural-genetic" morphology, however, has its "Fundament" in real processes of nature; Marx's is genetic only in terms of logic, or dialectics.

Picture credit: 4 x Complementary


Anonymous said...

I think Goethe would agree that the objective and subjective do in fact interact directly and mutually determine one another. However, for Goethe and Schiller both, strict arbitration of the antagonism that exists between the faculties was required, not only to bridge the chasm between them, but just as importantly, to preserve the inalienable sovereignty with which they ruled in their respective spheres.

It is only in Aesthetic culture and works of fine art that the physical and rational dimensions ever intersect one another, and only there.

Marxist readings of the Society of the Tower in Meister have consistently revealed the impoverishment of that approach in their failure, time and time again, to make meaningful sense out of the novel's final volume. What is the extent of Goethe's utopianism? Aesthetic culture.

I don't think there's any question that the Uncle's estate is meant to represent what Schiller calls the Aesthetic State, which is completely distinct from both the Physical State and The Rational and Moral State, which never, in any other place besides the Aesthetic State, ever, interact with one another. And while throughout the 8th book Wilhelm is desperate to leave and to "loose himself again in the wide world", the book only finally comes to its conclusion when the limits of his activity are fully recognized and he reveals himself to Lothario.

The Society of The Tower is not a utopian in its conception, and doesn't exist in any knowable, directly causal relationship to objective, empirical experience. Outside of the Aesthetic State, it simply does not exist, but is a purely regulative idea. The "Fate/Chance Question" posed throughout the novel is given an explicit answer I think.

Anonymous said...

Also, I have to say, your blog has been a staple of my google search results for years. It seems to represent more or less the entirety of Goethe's presence in the world of social media and web 2.0 so I'm glad your back. I found myself here yet again tonight after a google search for The Collector and his Circle and it's always nice to see your site come up if for no other reason it reminds me I'm not the only one who has Goethe on the brain 24/7.