Lukacs' Later Ontology

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  • S&S Quarterly, Inc.Guilford Press

    Lukcs' Later OntologyAuthor(s): Paul BrowneSource: Science & Society, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 193-218Published by: Guilford PressStable URL: .Accessed: 22/11/2013 06:46

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  • Science & Society, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer 1990, 193-218


    Lukcs' Later Ontology



    THE EARLY 1930S ONWARDS, Georg Lukcs gradually began working out a new dialectical ontology, at the heart of which was the concept of labor (Lukcs, 1967,

    1983). l Unable for political reasons before 1956 to develop this historical materialist ontology in a fully explicit and systematic fashion, Lukcs only undertook the task in the 1960s in The Specificity of the Aesthetic and the Ontology of Social Being. The idea of Marxism as a self-mediating, self-critical vision of the world, rooted in a dialectical ontology of social being, represented the instrument and program of Lukcs' endeavors in later life.

    Lukcs' early writings have justifiably received enormous attention from scholars in recent years, to the extent that his "road to Marx" has become a well-worn path. In contrast, his final philosophical work, the 1700-page Ontology of Social Being, re- mains almost completely unknown. Although written in the 1960s, the original German edition was not published in full until 1986. However the full edition has been available for a number of years in translation, and three key chapters have been available in English for some ten years.2 Despite this, what had been intended

    1 I would like to thank Michelle Weinroth, Chris Arthur, Douglas Moggach and Bill Livant for their help and encouragement in my work on dialectical ontology.

    2 The original German edition of the Ontology was not published in full until the mid-1980s (Lukcs, 1984; 1986). However, Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book were published as separate volumes by Luchterhand in the early 1970s: Hegels falsche und echte Ontologie (1971), Die ontologischen Grundprinzipien von Marx (1972), Die Arbeit (1973). These three chapters were subsequently published by Merlin Press of London in an English translation by David Fernbach (Lukcs, 1978a, 1978b, 1980). These are the only parts of the Ontology to have appeared in English so far. The complete edition of the Ontology has been translated into other languages, such as Italian and Hungarian: Per l'ontologia dell'essere sociale, Roma: Editori Riuniti, I, 1976, II, 1977; A trsadalmi Ut ontolgijrl, I: T'rtneti fejezetek, II: Szistematikus fejezetek, III: Prolegomena, Budapest: Magvet, 1976.


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    as Lukcs' final synthesis of historical materialism remains virtual- ly unread and unnoticed, nearly 20 years after his death.3 The aim of this article is to initiate discussion of the book, by outlining its purpose, its central category of labor, and some of its theoreti- cal and political implications.

    Like Karel Kosik's contemporary book, The Dialectics of the Concrete, the Ontology is above all a reflection on the conditions, structure and differentiation of human activity, and on the rela- tion between value and history. Its essential concern is the possibility of human emancipation after the discrediting of the dogmatic Marxisms of the Second International, the Comintern and the Cominform years. Lukcs' commitment is to a radical democratization of social life, to a vision of a society free of exploitation or domination.

    The current historical epoch is marked by the complementary trends of ecological disaster and reification of social relations and processes (characterized by the coexistence of narrow fields of scientific rationalization and the backdrop of an everyday life dominated by superstition - e.g., the magical belief in the om- nipotence of technology). In this context the defetishizing, enlightening mission of Lukcs' Ontology becomes clear. Three points in particular deserve mention here:

    (i) in a so-called post-industrial age in which language and information have supposedly supplanted labor and production, the Ontology establishes, by categorial analysis, the ontological primacy of labor within social being;

    (ii) in a time of unprecedented ecological deterioration, the Ontology places nature firmly on the agenda of historical materi- alism;

    (iii) in a period suffering from the hangover induced by the

    3 The Ontology has been virtually, but not totally ignored. A number of publications dealing with it in one way or another are available in English (Boella, 1985; Browne, 1987; Heller, 1983; HFMV, 1983; Jos, 1983; Prev, 1988; Varga, 1985). However, none of these texts attempts to provide the reader with a synoptic view of dialectical ontology as a project. With the exception of Preve, all these commentators tend to approach Lukcs' work with a very specific polemical or conceptual issue in mind and fail to address his thought in its own terms. For attempts to do this, one must turn to secondary literature in other languages (see Franco, 1986; Preve, 1986; Tertulian, 1980, 1984). But it is surely indispensable to establish what Lukcs was attempting to do before condemning the Ontology's alleged political implications as some have done (Boella, 1985; HFMV, 1983). The primary aim of this article is to draw attention to a very rich, worthwhile and unfairly neglected work by one of the greatest of Marxist philosophers.

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    orgiastic celebration of the "death of the subject," the Ontology soberly clarifies the constitution, attributes and limits of subjectiv- ity, teleology and freedom.

    One can sum up the guiding spirit of the Ontology in Lukcs' slogan: return to Marx! (Heller, 1983, 189). In a sense the book is no more than a commentary on several key passages in Marx's writings: the critique of Hegel in the 1844 Manuscripts; the chap- ter on the labor process in Capital, Volume I; the 1857 "Introduc- tion to the Critique of Political Economy"; etc. But the Ontology also offers something new and quite different. Lukcs' return to Marx is, in true dialectical fashion, a move forward into a new stage in the development of historical materialism. Lukcs draws out the implications of Marx's statements in the light of Nicolai Hartmann's insight into the need for an ontological elucidation of the complexity of reality. This enables Lukcs to make great strides in clarifying the categorial structure of being. The crucial idea is that being is complex, historical and highly differentiated: inorganic, organic and social being all have different categorial structures. Social being itself is a complex of complexes, which emerges historically from organic being, just as the latter emerged historically from inorganic being. Social being is a totality (but never an identity) made up of differently constituted, highly differentiated, historically emergent and changing spheres of hu- man activity. The basic units of social being are themselves com- plex: individual humans as biological entities are subject to laws of inorganic and organic as well as social being; and the basic struc- ture of social practice also displays a complex dialectic of catego- ries which never achieve a final identity.

    The term "ontology" is an awkward one, given its metaphysi- cal antecedents which aim at elucidating fundamental, universal categories of Being beyond history, and thus beyond the basic qualitative difference between nature and society (for a critique of attempts to construe Marxism as an ontology understood in that sense, see Schmidt, 1971, and Moggach, 1981). Lukcs uses ontol- ogy in a rather different sense, as implying a particular attitude towards reality, consisting of the discovery of "the forms of being that new movements of the complex produce" (Pinkus, 1975, 21). As such, ontology is concerned with the actually existing con- ditions of concrete reality, rather than the possibilities and princi- ples of cognition of reality, and seeks to transcend this level of

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    immediate concreteness by elucidating the various different forms of being which converge in it. Ontology implies a historical understanding of its object, a reconstruction of complexes in their real development, rather than some logical deduction of catego- ries. At the same time it never forgets the irreducible complexity of being: ontology can never uncover some individual element from which all others are derived historically. Lukcs is thus far removed here from the metaphysics of the Subject, the Origins and the End which haunts the imaginations of post-structu