TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Lukács and the Dialectic of Labor

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J. F. Dorahy looks at Georg Lukács’s “The Dialectic of Labor: Beyond Causality and Teleology,” from Telos 6 (Fall 1970).

Georg Lukács’s essay “The Dialectic of Labor” belongs to the last period of his life and was composed in the context of the so-called “renaissance of Marxism”: a movement, beginning in the mid-1950s, within several of the Eastern Bloc nations—most notably Hungary, Poland, and the former Yugoslavia—that sought to re-energize the humanistic dimensions of Marxism suppressed by the enforcement of orthodoxy. Lukács’s substantive contribution to the “renaissance of Marxism” took the form of two enormous projects: a Marxist ontology (Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftichen Seins) and a systematic aesthetics (Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen). Although Lukács’s relationship to “dialectical and historical materialism” remains complex, “The Dialectic of Labor” stands as a reflection of this humanistic tendency inasmuch as it, by way of an ontological elucidation of the “philosophy of praxis,” emphasizes the functional role of subjectivity as a constitutive moment in the social-historical process.

Lukács’s argument here crystallizes into two interconnected motifs: the antimony of teleological and causal ontologies; and the formal structure of labor itself. Concerning the former, Lukács finds its genesis in the philosophical and theological positioning of teleology as an objective, or “cosmological,” category. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Hegel, no less than innumerable theologians, and “everyday” thinkers, have understood natural, historical, and spiritual reality from a teleological perspective. “Objective teleology” has the property, Lukács argues, of imbuing reality with meaning by virtue of its origin in the projected intention of a more or less “conscious initiator.” Here one might think of the Hegelian “world spirit” or the Judeo-Christian God. Unlike a causal sequence, a teleological project by definition remains within the purview of its creator. Here one finds the existential basis of the teleological impulse; that is, the definitively human question “why?” finds, within a teleological worldview, a ready made answer:

In considering teleology as an objective, ontological category, we must emphasize religious thought. While causality is a self-based principle of self-movement which maintains this character even if a causal chain begins with a conscious act, teleological is essentially a projected category: every teleological process maintains a goal-orientation through a goal-orientated consciousness. . . . The teleological apprehension of nature does not refer only to its purposefulness or its orientation toward a goal. It also means that its existence and both its partial and total movement as a process must have a conscious initiator. (163)

By positing teleology in objective terms, thinkers such as Aristotle and Hegel instantiate an inevitable conflict between the teleological and causal methods of explanation. Lukács goes on to argue that it is only with Marx, and his identification of labor as the sole domain of material teleology, that the antimony between teleology and causality is resolved. Despite being strongly influenced by the philosophical systems of Aristotle and Hegel, Lukács is quite critical of both thinkers in this regard: Aristotle and Hegel understand the labor process as teleological, however, the teleology of labor, for these thinkers, is but one moment within a homogeneous teleological worldview. Thus, Lukács argues, Aristotle and Hegel, by understanding labor as a particular manifestation of a universal teleology, fail to comprehend the specificity of the structure of human labor. Marx’s insight was not simply to have “discovered” the teleological character of labor, but rather, lies in his fundamental reduction of teleological processes to instances of human activity. Otherwise stated, it was Marx, Lukács insists, who first recognized the ontological novelty of labor:

Marx’s rigorous and exactly defined relegation of teleology to labor (to social praxis) eliminating it from all other forms of being, does not limit its scope. On the contrary, its significance grows through the insight that social being, the highest level of being known to us, is originally constituted through this actual teleological force active within it. It emerges from organic life, the level upon which it is based, by developing into a new and independent form of being. We can rationally speak of social being only if we comprehend that its genesis, its becoming distinct from its basis and the emergence of its reliance upon labor, is a function of the continuous realization of teleological projects. (165–66)

Marx’s grounding of teleology in human activity is highly significant. For, as Lukács argues, this recognition enables the reconciliation of causality and teleology. Marx’s insight also reveals that it is on the basis of the dialectical unity of teleology and causality, which is constitutive of the process of “labor,” that human society emerges. Lukács elaborates this thesis by adumbrating the formal structure of labor. Before canvassing Lukács’s analysis of the structure of labor, it is important to draw attention to a specific feature of Lukács’s approach. Lukács treats labor as a formal category of social ontology. This means that he does not, primarily, make reference to a substantive productive process, as does Aristotle with the distinction between techné and praxis—making and doing. Rather, Lukács is intent on illuminating the formal structure of human activity as such. It is worth noting that Lukács’s assimilation of all determinate types of human activity within the formal category of “labor” became the focus of much critical attention in the decades following his death, not the least from his former student and close colleague Agnes Heller. One of the key elements of Heller’s critique of Lukács’s ontology, which she categorizes as a version of the “paradigm of work,” is precisely its inability to articulate the Aristotelian distinction above.

The formal structure of labor, as conceived by Lukács, encompasses three moments: the positing of a goal; the “exploration” and the selection of means; and the realized object. The structures of social being are raised through labor on the basis of what Lukács understands as the dialectical interaction of teleology and causality. According to the model presented above, the “labor” process begins with a conception or design that is to be realized. It is with this moment, with the antecedent positing of the completed project, that, according to the later Marx, human practice raises itself above all other merely “natural” productive processes. However, and this is a point later addressed by Heller, whereas the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts stressed the freedom inherent in this antecedent act, the understanding expressed in Capital established a determinate relationship between the antecedent act of conception and the recognition of the available means. Whether or not this amounts to an explicit position of technological determinism one need not here conclude. The important point to note is that in the “exploration” and recognition of the available means the productive agent enjoins the causality of objective (natural) phenomena with the subjective (social) need in a homogeneous teleological project. In this manner, the product or end of the “labor” process represents a qualitatively novel object, a social object; an outcome that emerges only, according to Lukács’s analysis, on the basis of the dialectical interaction between “consciousness” and “being,” “theory” and “practice,” teleology and causation. Lukács concludes that, by virtue of the formal structure of labor, an emancipatory potential is woven into the very fabric of social being:

In labor, with the projection of the goal and its means, through a self-guided act, i.e., through a teleological projection, consciousness sets out to surpass the mere adaptation to the environment (to the latter belong also those animal activities which however unintentionally, objectively change nature) by effecting changes in nature which could not originate in nature. When realization becomes a transforming and innovating principle of nature, in contributing impulse and direction consciousness can no longer exist as an epiphenomenon. (174)

The ontology of social being finds its genetic center in processes of human activity—labor—in the broad sense applied by Lukács. Labor, as has been demonstrated, is constituted by its dialectical fusion of teleology and causation. “The Dialectic of Labor,” however, should not be reduced to a theoretical argument concerning the metaphysics of teleology: Lukács’s intent is deeply practical. As such, his argument—and herein one finds the emancipatory kernel of his thesis—is directed towards the de-fetishization of the social structure: social processes, according to Lukács, are neither the blind, immutable, and impersonal forces that are found in nature, nor are they the empirical manifestations of Geist. Rather, the ontology of social being is grounded in the conscious and purposive positing of goals by actually existing human beings. Human history consists, therefore, in the practical realization of these goals through labor. Seen in this light, it is clear why Lukács felt he had to ground his ethics in a social ontology; lamentably the former was a task he, despite his many years, was never able to undertake.

Read the full version of Georg Lukács’s “The Dialectic of Labor: Beyond Causality and Teleology” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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