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What does Marx mean "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence...

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mimizzz | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 6, 2009 at 5:18 AM via web

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What does Marx mean "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 6, 2009 at 6:46 AM (Answer #1)

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As with all philosophers, the definition of human consciousness is of critical importance to Marx.  Consciousness is how a human being defines themselves.  Marx borrows from his teacher, Hegel, who argued that consciousness is a constant process called the dialectic between oppositions (thesis and antithesis).  For Marx, this process is an economic one, between those with money and power and those deprived of it.  This economic determinism defines history, struggle, and human consciousness.

For Marx, individual consciousness is something that cannot be divorced from one's class or social- economic group.  Marx claims that all of history can be seen as a class struggle predicated on owning wealth.  As a result, the consciousness of men (people) is actually the consciousness of their social grouping.  Where a person is in the social- economic distinction defines how they see themselves, their nature of consciousness of self.  A person who is born in the lowest of classes, according to Marx, will experience a consciousness that is closer to those of similar class distinction to them, as opposed to someone of a different, presumably higher, class.  Thus, it is not an individualized and isolated consciousness of men that determines their existence and sense of self, but a social existence based on socio- economic reality that defines their consciousness, or sense of self.  For Marx, history is an unfolding of this dialectic between those groups that have wealth and those who don't.

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epostenmin | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted May 10, 2010 at 3:06 AM (Answer #2)

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said in a different way:
it is not what we think that decides our reality. It is rather our reality that decides what we are capable of thinking.

marx tries to say: you can't wish yourself out of your reality. this is a comment on religion and other forms of philosophical idealism. idealism claims something is wrong with how you are thinking. let's say a mullah/priest could says you have to believe in mohammed or jesus in order to improve your situation. marx disagrees with this. marx is encourageing to do something about your situation - instead of wishing it was different. if you want ice-cream - get the freaking ice-cream, instead of thinking or praying about it.


econdly he claims that our perceived reality sets the boundaries for what we are able to think. have you ever thought about why aliens in movies always are a mashup of things here on earth? in "men in black" some aliens were giant cockroaches. they are always mashups of things seen on earth. same with star wars and everything, really. try to imagine something you have never seen before in any form. hard, right?

the use of "determine", should not be read as a determinism, which is a process on rails. (for more: check out dialectical materialism).

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