Manuscripts on Psychology [1]

Manuscripts on Psychology [1]

‘Consciousness is a quite original part of nature, possessing peculiarities and regularities that are completely absent in the remaining part of nature. Subjective dialectics must by virtue of this be a distinctive part of objective dialectics – with its own special forms and regularities.’ (p.102)

‘But by itself the method of psychoanalysis, taking as its point of departure “the autonomy” of psychological phenomena, in no way contradicts materialism. Quite the contrary, it is precisely dialectical materialism that prompts us to the idea that the psyche could not even be formed unless it played an autonomous, that is, within certain limits, an independent role in the life of the individual and the species.

All the same, we approach here some sort of critical point, a break in all the gradualness, a transition from quantity to quality : the psyche, arising from matter, is “freed” from the determinism of matter, so that it can independently—by its own laws—influence matter.’ (p.106)

Leon Trotsky

Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-1935. Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism


[1] Prehistory and History

The history of the human mind as a determinate phenomenon is its history as a human social phenomenon. But this likewise applies to the human brain itself which, as being the human brain, has, essentially, a,social history despite the elementary truth of its biological prehistory in other ancestral, determinate neurological structures. Likewise, insofar as the chemical elements, which are the basic building blocks of living tissue, have not always existed, their real history as determinate forms only begins when they actually come into being. The astrophysicists assert that, besides the simplest element (Hydrogen), the rest were actually created out of this simplest of elements and succeeding elements under extremely high temperatures and pressures as a result of physical processes taking place within stars. Without this process of their formation, they obviously could not exist but this process of their formation is not their history per se as determinate elements. It is, if we must employ a word, their prehistory; the prehistory of their formation or process by which they came into being.Their real history as self-subsistent determinate objects only begins once they have come into being. If this were not the case, then the historical evolution of the universe in its many discrete and succeeding forms could only be determined and mapped by reference to the endless series of steps and stages by means of which a determinate phenomenon has come into being. We would have to give the history of anything by tracing it back to the beginning of time itself and even “before” that if such a word has any meaning within such a physical paradigm.

In other words, everything has a prehistory which is not its history per se. Indeed its prehistory is the history of some other determinate formation or process which has given rise to it. For example, the development of stereoscopic vision in our ancestral primates is part of their history but part of our prehistory. Human history commences with this prehistory incorporated within it. This is why the history of the human mind is inseparable from the history of human society and does not fall outside this history. If it is located antecedently to this history then it is, of course, not the human mind per se but rather a part of a hominid phase in transition to it. That is, it is hominid but not necessarily human. The human hominid emerges from its antecedents which are only becoming human just as molecular chemistry emerges from the atomic but this does not make the existence of the separate, individual atomic elements into the history of molecular phenomena. Rather they remain distinctly atomic until they form molecules and only when this happens has the molecular arrived and thenceforth commences the history of the chemistry of the molecular.

Everything has an unlimited prehistory leading up to the start of its limited history which passes into the unlimited history of succeeding forms. Incidentally, this is why Evolutionary Psychology is a bogus science because it deploys the paradigms of Evolutionary Biology (which are applicable only to purely biological systems) in an attempt to explain human psychological phenomena whose origination and development can only be located within the history of humanity as a social being. For example, hunger, thirst, sex, etc, are human hunger, human thirst, human sex, human etc. We locate this prehistory as socially and humanly appropriated. It is not the ‘animal in the human’ (like the Babushka in the Russian doll) but rather part and parcel of being the human animal. The distinction may appear subtle but it is real and fundamental nevertheless. To assert that the human mind is ultimately the plaything of the laws of biological evolution is not only to apply such laws where they are inapplicable but it is also to deny the socio-historical origins and evolution of the human mind itself. This attempt to fuse ‘sociology’ with ‘biology’ can only result in a bogus ‘science’ which is no real science at all. Evolutionary Psychology is the latter-day Phrenology. And, like Phrenology, but unlike Physics, Chemistry and Biology, it will not endure because it is scientifically illegitimate.

[2] Preconditions in Learning Capacities of Ancestral Primates

The pre-conditions for the origination of the human mind were generated in the course of the natural origin and development of the modes of life of ancestral primates. Of course, the whole of previous natural development is a pre-condition for any existent phenomenon but we take certain pre-developments as assumed (e.g. the emergence of living forms out of the non-living, the molecular out of the chemical and the chemical out of the physical, etc) and move forward from the existence of the ancestral primates of human beings.

The transition to human life presupposed fundamental pre-conditions in the mode of life of these ancestral primates. Firstly the use (on a regular basis) and the capacity to fashion simple tools for use in the acquisition of the physical needs of these primates was essential. Implicitly, this involved the acquisition of specific skills which could be transmitted (i.e. learnt) and refined in the course of their transmission and repeated use from one generation to the next. This learning of new skills and the development of novel forms of behaviour enabled these ancestral primate groups to gain an edge over competitors in the struggle to survive. This learning process equipped these primates to ‘cope’ – in a more adequate way – with the demands placed on them in their interaction with their natural conditions of life. The advanced learning capacities of ancestral primates and the transmission and refinement of acquired skills and behaviour resulting from these learning capacities were therefore essential, pre-constituted conditions necessary for the transition from animal primate to human.

This ‘culture’ of transmission of acquired skills gave such primates a distinct advantage in the struggle to survive, enhancing their chances of survival and augmenting adaptational capacities. The acquisition of these skills and their further elaboration and development into an ever-widening repertoire of skills and modes of behaviour was conditioned by the natural circumstances of the lives of these primates. The demands placed on animals by their conditions of life are the fundamental determinants which govern the necessity of animals to learn novel skills and forms of behaviour in order to counter and survive the impact of these conditions on their mode of life which is, indeed, organic to these conditions and vice versa.

In the course of developing new skills and forms of behaviour, ancestral primates must have engaged in a continuously changing relationship with their conditions of life in the course of which making adaptation an intensely active process. Changes in this relationship necessarily involved neurological developments in these primates and, as a consequence, an augmentation of learning capacities and mechanisms.

The supersedence of a given complex of natural conditions – within which and through relationship to which definite forms of behaviour and skills had been developed – would have necessitated the alteration, or even complete transformation, of previous modes of behaviour which were adequate for survival under previous conditions but had become, with the changes in conditions, inadequate for survival. Under threat of extinction new modes of behaviour and skills had to be developed in order to continue to survive. Therefore, whether an ancestral primate species survived or not (and evolved to a further stage of existence or into a different species) depended on whether or not it acquired and developed the necessary skills and behaviour (in the course of changing conditions) which provided it with the means of surviving the newly-posited conditions within which it found itself and struggled to maintain its mode of life.

It was the learning capacities of ancestral primates – the ability or inability to learn new skills – which gave them an advantage or disadvantage in the struggle for survival under changing conditions. The disadvantaged tended to perish whilst the advantaged or other distinct species ‘filled’ their niche, within and under the new conditions. This process would have been shifted into an accelerated mode in periods of catastrophic change. For example, consider the extinction of the dinosaurs and their eclipse by the mammals where catastrophic changes constituted the basis for this relatively rapid transition in the history of animal life.

In primate evolution – more specifically in those primates which immediately preceded the hominid line – the development of a wider repertoire of skills and complexity in their operation would have provided ancestral primates with an edge in the struggle to survive such catastrophes e.g. drought, floods, disease, etc. Here, it is not simply the emergence of biological variations and behavioural changes on which the law of natural selection acts that is fundamental but rather the capacity to actually learn new skills and forms of behaviour  which facilitate survival and propagation.

On the road of primate evolution towards the hominid line, the ‘best’ learners were inevitably the ‘best’ survivors so that survival and learning became linked. This learning necessarily precluded an overspecialisation. Rather it was the acquisition and development of generic skills which had to be established, cultivated and refined in order to survive in a range of different environments and conditions which were encountered on the path towards hominid evolution and beyond.

This general applicability of acquired skills in a wide range of situations and different conditions meant that the threat of extinction became lessened compared to those species that had overspecialised and thus were more vulnerable to rapid changes in their natural conditions of life. Therefore, it was not simply the ability to learn new skills – which in the evolution of ancestral primates facilitated survival – but to learn specific kinds of skills which, at the same time, had a general and enduring applicability under a wide range of conditions. These generic skills could be articulated and modified to counter demands placed on a species with alterations in their conditions of life and thus provide the necessary versatility requisite for survival.

The relatively advanced capacities of superior toolusers and makers over other groups and the ability to transmit these skills to succeeding generations formed the embryonic complex out of which hominids could emerge and evolve towards the human line. The established use and fashioning of simple tools in early hominids contained, in potentio, the more advanced forms of hominid behaviour embracing co-operation, communication and thus, consequentially, the rise of language and consciousness itself. Accordingly, all these acquired skills and forms of behaviour – taken in their totality and interrelation – constituted the germ (seminal natural-historic ground) out of which human society could come into being and evolve as a new, distinct socio-historical form of development.

[3] Psyche Originates as the Identity of the Conscious and the Unconscious

With the transition to hominid relationships, the role and applicability of the laws of natural selection start to become progressively diminished. The hand becomes specialised as the organ of labour so that production later becomes the material basis of human life. As hominid evolution proceeded, the development of existing skills and the learning of new ones necessitated a greater degree of co-operation and communication. This, in its turn, necessitated the origination of language which constituted a primary condition for the rise of consciousness itself. i.e. the origination of the human mind proper as a totality. This basic principle is central to Engels’ thesis in his work The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

Toolmaking gave rise to incipient social relations between hominids which became, in themselves, intrinsically necessary for these primordial forms of material production. These relations had to be mediated by language and its internalised corollary in the form of nascent forms of consciousness. Accordingly, the production of tools and the development of the hominid relationships related to this production become increasingly subject to mediation by consciousness in the making.

In the course of the origination and development of hominids, the beginnings of the rise of conscious awareness (sapienisation) begins to engender its psychological opposite in the form of the unconscious i.e. the forms of awareness of the human mind as a totality begin to be posited in embryo. The learning mechanisms and modes of behaviour of ancestral hominoids are continuously passed from one generation to the next in forever developing forms. Eventually, the origination of consciousness and its positing as a determinate, specifically human, form of awareness results in a synthesis which incorporates a supersedence of the relationship between instinct and learning in the ancestral primate animal. This relationship between instinct and learning in the animal is superseded in the emergence and establishment of consciously thinking beings. This supersedence takes the form of the beginnings of a psyche which is the identity of the conscious and the unconscious. It is no longer the pre-hominid animal instinct and learning as such. This relation is superseded in the new relationships formed between the conscious and unconscious. This relation becomes intrinsic to the psychic life of the human. Its  pre-hominid, animal character – in the relationship between instinct and learning – is superseded into the higher conscious human form.

The origination of beings acquiring and developing the capacity to think consciously marks the rise of the human mind itself as a totality. This transforms (for it truly is a transformational process) the behavioural capacities of the ancestral hominoid primate – mediated by the relationship between instinct and simple, pre-conscious learning mechanisms – into the consciously, psychosocially mediated behaviour of human beings; into beings possessing and applying the capacity to consciously understand, reflect upon and transform in practice their natural conditions of life.

The simpler, non-conscious forms of awareness of the hominoid (ancestral animal primate) become transformed (sublated) into the social, conscious form of awareness of the human mind. The latter embraces conscious thought but, considered as a whole, the human mind is a qualitatively more complex, determinate phenomenon than conscious thought alone taken in and by itself. Conscious awareness is an intrinsic part of the human mind but the latter in its globality is not simply identical to conscious awareness itself. The human mind, as we have already indicated, possesses a prehistory which becomes sublatively incorporated into the human mind with the rise of consciousness in the transition from the animal to the human.

[4] Social Character of Consciousness

The rise of consciousness marks the rise of the human mind as a whole because the origination of conscious awareness completely transforms all the capacities and inner relationships of the pre-hominid, non-conscious forms of awareness. It raises these capacities, etc – in the course of superseding them – to the new, qualitative level in the psychosocial, conscious forms of awareness of human beings. In so doing, the human mind determinate has arrived.  Henceforth the…

forms of consciousness, even as they are determined by the conditions of life, constitute in themselves also a part of history. This does not consist only in the economic anatomy, but in all that combination which clothes and covers that anatomy even up to the multicoloured reflections of the imagination….there is no fact in history which is not preceded, accompanied and followed by determined forms of consciousness, whether it be superstitious or experimental, ingenuous or reflective, impulsive or self-controlled, fantastic or reasoning. (1)

The historical origination of conscious aware beings in the course of this transition from the pre-conscious animal to humanity marks the origination of the human mind as a psycho-historical totality. The labour process, according to Engels, constitutes the social material basis for the origination of consciousness and therefore mind as a totality. Implicit in this process is the need for communication and therefore language (practical language – speech) and thought. Marx writes that…

Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. Consciousness is at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate (Marx emphasis)sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self-conscious. At the same time it is consciousness of nature, which first confronts men as a completely alien, all powerful and unassailable force, with which men’s relations are purely animal and by which they are overawed like beasts; it is thus a purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion) precisely because nature is as yet hardly altered by history – on the other hand, it is man’s consciousness of the necessity of associating with individuals around him, the beginning of consciousness that he is living in society at all. This beginning is as animal as social life itself at this stage. It is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is distinguished from sheep only by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one.

[Marginal note by Marx: We see here immediately: this natural religion or this particular attitude to nature is determined by the form of society and vice versa. Here, as everywhere, the identity of nature and man also appears in such a way that the restricted attitude of men to nature determines their restricted relation to one another, and their restricted relation to one another determines men’s restricted relation to nature]

Marx continues….

This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population. With these there develops the division of labour, which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act, then the division of labour which develops spontaneously or “naturally” by virtue of natural pre-disposition (e.g. physical strength), needs, accidents, etc, etc. Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears.

[Marginal note by Marx: The first form of ideologists, priests, is co-incident]

From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of  “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, morality, etc. (2)

[all emphasis in these passages, indicated by underlining, is by Marx)

The insight and profundity of Marx’s analysis must be noted here, written, as it was, at least thirteen years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and twenty-five years before his Descent of Man.

Humanity’s consciousness of ‘living in society’ is itself a reflection of humanity’s association in order to survive in the struggle against Nature and to harness it to meet human needs. This awareness of ‘living in society’ is negatively expressed in humanity’s conception of the ‘otherness’ of Nature which ‘confronts men as a completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable force’.

This ‘otherness’ of Nature takes different forms throughout the history of human consciousness. Does the actual distinction between Humanity and Nature (and therefore the reflection of this distinction in the human mind) become superseded (sublated) in the development of post-class society? Accordingly, does the human conception of ‘living in society’ or the ‘otherness’ of Nature therefore disappear as a reflection of the supersedence of the distinction between humanity and Nature? With the resolution of this dialectic, does not humanity’s alienation in and from Nature and thus from self and other humans truly come to an end? The conceptions of Man and Nature or Man or Nature would disappear with the transcendence of this ‘otherness’ of Nature to Man?

Beyond this historically-determined relation of humanity against Nature – which reflects nothing other than the socio-historically conditioned subservience of humanity to Nature and therefore humanity’s impotence in the face of Nature – lies the ‘true realm of freedom’ in which humanity neither distinguishes itself from Nature nor distinguishes Nature from itself. Therein exists neither “humanity” nor “Nature” as such with the transcendence of this relationship of alienation but only the oneness of humankind immersed indissolubly in Nature in which the ‘otherness’ of Nature is not distinguished from the ‘otherness’ of humanity. The humanisation of Nature becomes simultaneously the naturalisation of humanity (Marx, Paris Manuscripts of 1844). This real unity, this real historically-evolved synthesis beyond ‘otherness’, is manifest in the transcendence of the conceptual-psychic alienation of Man from Nature.

[5]  ‘Plasticity’ of Human Brain

The brain of ancestral primates becomes materially transformed, becoming further evolved to a new, more complex, stages of development in the course of human evolution under the direct influence of the material and social relations of the labour process. The human brain is, therefore, a structure which comes into being in the course of that transitional period of development between the natural mode of life of ancestral primates and the social mode of life of humankind.

This may appear trite or even tautological but it must not be forgotten that the human brain is only human as such when human beings have actually come into being and the historical development of human society actually commences. We cannot speak of the human brain or human mind whilst it is still in the process of coming into being. It is something other than human whilst it is still caught in that process of its genesis.

The human brain does not emerge and become a fixed structure but rather continues to develop materially and its processes become more refined, attenuated and better adapted to orientate and guide human social behaviour. The ‘plasticity’ of the brain’s processes does not end once humanity has emerged from its animal ancestry but necessarily continues at a conscious stage with the socio-historical development of humanity. The brain in evolution is only a product of natural selection in so far as it is the non-human brain. It becomes, as a totality, with the advent of human life, a social product. The human brain is not only larger than that of contemporary pongids but is qualitatively more complex.These differences arise in the hominid transitional period and are further developed in the course of human social development. The human brain is thus the outcome of this prehistory, this period of extensive development but its development as the human brain per se only begins once it has come to be as a determinately human structure. This means that its further development is not merely influenced by biological processes as in its pre-human stages but now develops under the direct influence of socio-historical conditions and processes which are themselves continuously changing.

The sociality of humanity in the making transforms the neurological functions of the animal primate brain into those of the human brain, raising them to a qualitatively more complex stage of development. The transformation of the hominoid brain into the human brain is therefore a product of society in the making which is identical to humanity in the making. A complete development and transformation of the cerebral region of the primate brain takes place. The size and inner complexity of the brain as a whole changes so that all the other brain functions become modified as a result of this cerebral development which is a product of the transition taking place between ancestral animal primates and consciously thinking humans.

[6] Socio-Historical Process and Evolution of Mind

Labour and the hand not only develop in their reciprocal relation. The evolution of the labour process is the intrinsic, material, social basis for the origination and development of human social relations. These relations, once established, in themselves, constitute an essential presupposition for the further onward development of this labour process which – in its development – is continuously transforming and raising these relations to new stages of historical development. The origination and evolution of this complex of relations simultaneously involves the development, refinement and attenuation of the sense organs whose functioning becomes increasingly mediated by conscious awareness.

These hominid transitional forms, in altering their conditions of life through the emerging and evolving labour process in the course of the development of their interaction with Nature, propel themselves forward along the hominid line towards human social relations proper. The transitional hominid species transform themselves into succeeding forms along the hominid line in the course of their active relationship with their natural surroundings. In so doing they begin to approach the social mode of life of humanity proper whose relationships become mediated by a fully established forms of conscious awareness.

The relationship between social relations and mind becomes established (i.e. the transition to the establishment of this relationship is completed and its determinate existence is posited as a relatively stable relation out of the transitional period of transformation) with the completion of this hominid transitional period. Once established, the conceptual content of the human mind becomes subject to change and transformation on the basis of the evolution of the socio-historical process. Henceforth, the human mind develops historically in its intrinsic relationship to the history of human society so that each only subsists in its relation to the other.

The human mind therefore evolves as an intrinsic, organic, mediating part of the whole socio-historical process. The historical development of the mind – in its conceptual content, relations, structure, functions, inner complexity, etc – therefore necessarily reflects the history of human society. However, at the same time, in its inner, self-reflective character and dynamic it sublates and incorporates both the social and the biological within itself, incorporating them into a new psychological synthesis in the course of its psychohistorical formation and development.

The human mind therefore arises as a negation of the simple, pre-conscious animal awareness and is posited as a distinctly new form of awareness. This form of awareness therefore arises as a specifically human form in which ‘man in the making’ is becoming aware of being aware in the course of the hominisation process i.e. the hominisation process engenders a self-conscious being which is capable of reflection.

[7] Labour-Cooperation-Language-Consciousness

The labour process has formed the ground on which language and consciousness have originated and developed historically. Herein lies the social unity of the labour process, language and consciousness. The production of tools and their use in the labour process as a whole has enabled human beings to transform their conditions of life. Co-operation was – from that point in hominid existence where toolmaking commenced systematically – intrinsic to this process. Hominids, in constantly changing their mode of existence – by means of the production and use of tools – changed themselves so that they evolved  progressively more towards the human line of development in the course of the hominisation process. With the establishment of human society proper, the onward development of the labour process means that…

Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field, etc, but the producers change too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language. (3)

The human labour process necessarily involves social co-operation. This co-operation must involve the co-ordination of activity by means of language which, accordingly, must, sooner or later, have asserted itself as a necessity in the origination of the labour process. Language emerges because human beings must communicate with each other and speech – even in an emergent or rudimentary form – implies thought (consciousness or its beginnings). Speech is externalised thought and thought is internalised language. Practice (activity) necessarily gives rise to word and concept. In the beginning was the deed. Word and concept mediate each other’s development and constitute a unity of opposites in the historical development of the human mind. This ‘unity’ simultaneously mediates and is mediated by the totality of human social activities: practice-language-thought constitute a dialectical unity of distinct aspects of human social development.

Labour, therefore, as a co-operative social process, is intrinsic to the whole historical process. Humanity, by constantly altering and moulding Nature to its own needs, by harnessing and applying its developing knowledge of Nature, by being an active part of Nature, is always changing its relationship to Nature and thereby changing itself….

Natural science, like philosophy, has hitherto entirely neglected the influence of men’s activity on their thought; both know only nature on the one hand and thought on the other. But it is precisely the alteration of nature by men not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased. The naturalistic conception of history…… as if nature exclusively reacts on man, and natural conditions everywhere exclusively determined his historical development is therefore one-sided and forgets that man also reacts on nature, changing it and creating new conditions of existence for himself. (4)

The development of human knowledge becomes, directly or indirectly, bound up with the the evolution of the labour process itself and this implies the intrinsic connection of the evolution of human knowledge with production itself. Production, social relations and consciousness constitute a unity in which each conditions each other in their mutual interrelationships in the socio-historical process. The needs of production and the social anatomy of human relations become closely bound up with the evolution of scientific thought. Thus Engels writes, in relation to scientific thought and practice, that….

From the very beginning the origin and development of the sciences has been determined by production (5)

“Determined” is perhaps rather too positivistic and “deterministic” a word but undoubtedly the needs of production and the evolution of the sciences are not separable from each other.

The human acquisition of the means of subsistence through the labour process is mediated by a historically-relative and historically-conditioned understanding of Nature. In the earliest societies this understanding is, of course, very primitive. With the emergence of the natural sciences, roughly corresponding to the rise and development of capitalist society, this understanding becomes more complex with the discovery of natural laws which can be applied in the processes of production. The onset of this period of capitalist development marks a tremendous step forward for humanity in its struggle to wrest its needs from Nature. Human knowledge of natural processes becomes a necessary pre-requisite for production itself. So much so that today production would be unthinkable without the science that underpins its technology.

[8] Mind and Society

The human mind, at any given point in its historical evolution, is the outcome of the entire history of natural and social development which is superseded (sublated) into the character of the prevailing social relations. Its conceptual content only reflects the character of the dominant social relations in so far as these relations are the outcome of the entire history of natural and social development, containing this entire history superseded and incorporated within them. Accordingly, the human mind contains superseded and expressed within itself the entire wealth of this history. Of course, the actual history of any determinate formation only commences when it is actually posited as such. The history of capitalism does not begin with the Carthaginians despite the fact that they were merchant traders (merchant capital) or with the Jews in medieval societies despite the fact that they lived by money-lending (money capital, usury). It begins proper in the first part of the sixteenth century when capital has entered agricultural production and started to dominate production as a whole.  However, that in itself can never be a denial of the truth that it or any other social formation is also the outcome of a long period of prehistory despite the fact that it only emerges as a determinately distinct and new formation at the termination of this period of development. The legacy of history remains but now within the conditions and context of the new formation. It is the distinctly new relations and characteristics which now constitute its content and determine its subsequent development. Human thinking is impossible without the neurology which is the products of millions of years of animal evolution but what fundamentally determines its character as animated by conceptual content is not this neuronal system but rather social relations, social being and the process of human learning and reflection taking place within this context.

Thus, in so far as human thinking is a product of the living brain it is, in that sense, a product of Nature. But the human brain, never mind thinking, in so far as it is human, is itself a social product and, in this sense, we cannot refer to thinking as a product of Nature. The dominating, conditioning paradigm is social relations and social being since even the organ we call the human brain is only a human organ in so far as it is the creation of socially-relating humanity, i.e humanity as a social being. The human brain is not merely a more sophisticated version of the brain of the ancestral ape as Evolutionary Psychology maintains. Rather it is a qualitatively distinct and different organ altogether which has come into being under the influence of processes which such animal primate ancestors could not possibly have experienced. The human brain itself has developed materially (anatomical and physiological plasticity) in the course of the historical development of human society over many thousands of years and will continue to do so as long as human beings exists at all. However, in that it is the conceptual content that constitutes the ‘substance’ of thought, of the thinking process, it is society that forms the ontological basis and overarching paradigm and conditionality for the origination and development of this conceptual content….

socio-historical shifts not only introduce new content into the mental world of human beings; they also create new forms of activity and new structures of cognitive functioning. They advance human consciousness to new levels. (6)

This conceptual content varies according to time and place. Thus Marx, in his famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, writes that….

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.  The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness (7)


(1)  Labriola, A.  Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History. (London/New York, Monthly Review Press, 1966)  p. 113

(2)  Marx, K. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5. (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1976)  pp.44-45

(3)  Marx. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993) p.494. Notebook V.

(4)  Engels. Dialectics of Nature.  Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) p.511.

(5)  Ibid. p. 465.

(6)  Luria, A.R. Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1976) p.163.

(7)  Marx. Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p.181


Shaun May

August 2018