In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra, a man who had become a hermit walks out of the mountains, to deliver a message: God is dead, everyone celebrate, your lives are now yours to control. While what Zarathustra says is true, the entire premise of his realization is not. Namely, the idea that the hermit will find some timeless interpretation of humanity, and be able to come back and change the world. Ideas are built socially, and only socially created ideas will change the world. Humanity has a history of creating these timeless “man-in-a-vacuum” stories, but in actuality our ideas and world our constructed dialectically. We shape our spaces and our spaces shape us.
Dialectics as opposed to dichotomies, examine ideas as intermingling to create new ideas. The famous Hegelian dialectic (although Hegel never used these terms), is Thesis-> Antithesis -> Synthesis. The thesis is the original idea, then an antithesis opposes that idea, and the synthesis is the new creation (like the middle of the venn diagram). More colloquially, think Greasers -> Hippies -> 1970’s Punk. The greasers were highly conformist and socially aware, and met their opposites in the anti-war anti-government hippy movement of the 1960’s. While punk rockers were socially aware, but picked up a lot of the stylistic choices of the greasers. Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.
Ideas are created out of the world we live in. They are based both around our biology, and also our culture (see ‘The Real You‘ for how this looks on a micro level). Karl Marx has a great understanding of the importance of ideas. Now before you go out grabbing a capitalist pitchfork, I would like to point out, that Karl Marx had a lot of great ideas that were not necessarily related to capitalism, particularly, his understanding that the world and ideas form interelatedly. To begin, we have to start with Hegel, and then move to Marx.
W.H.F Hegel (1770-1831) is probably one of the most important and annoying philosophers to understand, but his conception of dialectics is interesting. Hegel is religious and an idealist, so he conceives that the we are all God, trying to actualize ourselves as God. Using the model we discussed earlier, Hegel believes that we are ‘Spirit’ trying to actualize ourselves as ‘Absolute Spirit’ or a complete epochal merger with God. The thing that gets in our way of actualizing this Absolute Spirit is the material world. History then becomes a story of our Spirit (Thesis) trying to actualize itself against the material world (Antithesis) and then through that process, becoming closer to truly ascending into Absolute Spirit (Synthesis).
Ludwig Von Feuerbach (1804-1872), likes Hegel’s conception of an ever progressing selfhood, but is not a huge fan of the whole ‘God’ concept Hegel’s conception of reality dictates. If as an atheist you just read the last passage and rolled your eyes, you felt Feuerbach (and also Marx’s) anguish, the feeling that there is a great idea here, but there is just somewhat wrong. Feuerbach pointed out the flaw of Hegel’s philosophy rested in what he calls ‘upward conflationism’, the idea that ideas exist over the material world. He proposed that we ‘flip Hegel right side up’ , namely by flipping the terms, in order to salvage dialectics, but get rid of the God complex. Feuerbach instead insists that our thesis is the material world, our antithesis is religion, and that our ultimate synthesis is man actualizing himself. Unlike Hegel, Feuerbach puts the precedence in the material world, and this is where Marx will argue that this is a flawed interpretation of the world.
Marx sees Feuerbach’s argument, and loves it. He loves it so much, he wrote his “Theses on Feuerbach” to show his admiration. The theses are where the line “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” comes from. Marx likes Feuerbach, but he argues that Feuerbach is making the same mistake that Hegel did, just in a different form. Marx argues that Feuerbach’s conception lacks practicality, and is dehistorized, or what he calls ‘downward conflationism’. Instead of appealing to the idea, he appeals to the material world, as having supremacy. Marx argues that this is the wrong way to understand that journey. Instead we need to look at the interrelationship of ideas and things. Namely, that the world is shaped by ideas, and ideas are shaped by the world! For Marx the idea is that humans will overcome their religious tendencies from an old era, and find their empowerment in each other.
This is why, our understanding of the world cannot come from a great leader that lives outside of the world and comes back to save us (sorry Jesus). Our answers for things will always be found in our social world. Our social world does not exist in the same way that our physical world does. While the physical world is large and indifferent, our social world makes up a fraction of it (pale blue dot anyone), and does have meaning. Humans are meaning creators, we created god to understand the world, and when that stopped being useful, we used science to fill that existential dread. There are no absolute truths in the social world, things are always contextual and being rediscovered and recreated. This does not mean I am ignoring the large body of work that cognitive science and psychology have done. Our social world is most definitely determined by our biology. Unlike our biology though, our social world sometimes creates things that are not in the best interest of individual human flourishing. We live in these social worlds and our ideas come out of those specific social circumstances. This is part one, laying down the ideas. Part two will be on more specific examples.