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What does Marx mean by "social existence determines consciousness"?

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What Marx means by this is that it's man's place within society that ultimately determines how he thinks and not the other way round. In putting forward this argument, Marx is challenging the ideas of classical liberals, who held that the consciousness of self-determined men formed the basis of their subsequent social existence.

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This quote appears in Marx's 1859 work A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

What Marx means by this statement, which is central to his philosophical construct, is that economics, not abstract ideas, are the basis of how we perceive the world. Economics comes first. For Marx, economics means our way of surviving as human animals: how we get food, clothing, and shelter. We must have these items to survive. Therefore, they are inevitably the primary concerns that dictate how we organize society—and hence the way we think.

For example, our values are determined, Marx argues, by how we obtain the means of survival. If we are dependent on hunting to stay alive, we will form a consciousness—a group way of thought—that puts the highest moral value on the attributes of good hunters, such as physical strength. If we live in a capitalist society, we are not likely to place physical strength in the highest regard (though we might value it) but to valorize such attributes as those that make a Bill Gates or Elon Musk: intelligence and pragmatism. As is parodied in The Simpsons, a person in our society can be physically weak and still command respect if he owns a profitable nuclear power plant, because money is the route to physical survival in our culture.

From this economic basis, Marx argues that our consciousness is formed by our social class, and our class is determined by how we earn a living (survive physically). How we think and what our values are are determined not by some abstract ideal, but by the need for survival. For example, the Ancient Greeks didn't just sit down and decide in a vacuum to valorize warrior heroes—they valorized those people because of their role in generating wealth.

Class consciousness inevitably causes class conflict, as each class fights for its share of society's resources. This leads, as well, to the upper classes distorting people's consciousness (called mystification, as in creating a mist, or false consciousness) in order to justify holding on to disproportionate wealth. For this reason, the working class in the nineteenth century, Marx said, had been deceived into thinking that capital (money itself) was the basis of wealth, but would soon realize it was their labor power, at which point they would rise up and take power.

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When Marx refers to consciousness, he's referring to social consciousness, which is the consciousness of a specific class in a given society. For Marx, this consciousness arises out of the interaction between the individual members of a class and the society in which they live. In the final analysis, man's class consciousness is ultimately determined by his social existence within society.

What Marx is trying to get at here is the notion that man is very much the creation of the society in which he lives. In arguing this, he is challenging the somewhat atomistic theories of the relationship between man and society put forward by classical liberal thinkers.

For the most part, they tended to operate on the assumption that men were self-determined creatures who got together to form society. In other words, they believed that the consciousness of men determined their social existence.

In contrast, Marx argues that how people think is determined by their place in society. For instance, the bourgeoisie (those who own the means of production) doesn't think the same as the proletariat, or working class, and vice versa. In both cases, consciousness is inescapably social rather than individual.

Contrary to what classical liberals might like us to believe, there is no consciousness to speak of and no conscious thought outside of society. Society shapes consciousness, the way we think, not the other way around.

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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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