right here waiting for you

I wish we had, after all, had the opportunity to read Marx’s dissertation because I’d like to have a sense of his objections to sophistry; solely on the basis of the “German Ideology,” however, I would have assumed Marx to approach sophistry with grudging approval at best and nothing worse than a critical skepticism—as opposed to the outright dismissal and vitriol JP assures us Marx directed toward the sophists

Consider the way Marx describes language’s social functions: “Language is as old as consciousness.  It is practical consciousness which exists also for other men and hence exists for me personally as well.  Language, like consciousness, only arises from the need and necessity of relationships with other men” (421).  In some ways, this sounds very like the sophistic insistence on rhetoric as a tool for social management; Marx and the sophists so far at least agree on one simple fact: that language binds society together and that language use (which I here equate with rhetoric in its broadest sense) is fundamentally about the relationships between individuals—that is, rhetoric is essential for maintaining social order (see Protagoras’s telling of the myth of Prometheus in the Protagoras).  In fact, Marx goes the sophists one better and insists that without these relationships, individuals qua individuals wouldn’t exist: “… the consecutive series of interrelated individuals can be conceived as a single individual which accomplishes the mystery of generating itself.  It is clear here that individuals certainly generate one another, physically and mentally” (430).  For Marx, then, only by realizing the binds between individuals—both material and immaterial—can social classes be constituted as a collective agent; that is, for the communist program to be put in to place, the individuals within a given class order must be drawn together both through material circumstance and through rhetorical suasion.</

What distinguishes Marx from the sophist most notably, though, is Marx’s rejection of some of the bolder sophistic claims that reality and materiality are but linguistic trompes l’oeil.  Indeed,  Marx’s (perhaps inadvertent) insistence on the value of material and linguistic bonds notwithstanding, his conviction remains that language and language use are derived from the reality of material conditions: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness is directly interwoven with the material activity and the material relationships of men; it is the language of actual life.  Conceiving, thinking, and the intellectual relationships of men appear here as the direct result of their material behavior” (414).  Here, Marx insists that not only are linguistic bonds inseparable from material relationships, but that linguistic behavior is a direct product of material conditions; in other words, language and its uses directly reflect the lived material experiences of those who employ it.  Sophistic theories of language (as poorly articulated as they are), view language as essential for social order but otherwise suggest that language originates, as in Protagoras’s myth, outside the realm of human materiality.  For Marx, this would have been anathema, and as later Marxists theorists might have, just the sort of mythic false consciousness that naturalizes the use of power in language in order to conceal its ideological function.


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