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Marx's Doctoral Thesis on Two Greek Atomists and the Post-Kantian Interpretations

Author(s): Peter Fenves


Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1986), pp. 433-452
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS ON TWO GREEK ATOMISTS


AND THE POST-KANTIAN INTERPRETATIONS
BY PETERFENVES
Only one word is illegible in Karl Marx's letter to Ferdinand Lassalle
(1825-64), dated December 21, 1857. The missing word describes the
focus of Marx's doctoral dissertation (accepted by the University of Jena
in 1841) entitled Differenz der demokratischenund epikureischenNaturphilosophie ("Difference between Democrates's and Epicurus's Philosophy of Nature," 116 pages):
I have a great tendernessfor the latter philosopher[Heraclitus],and of the
ancientsI only preferAristotle more. The later philosophers-Epicurus(especiallythis one), Stoic, and Skeptic,I've made an objectof specialstudy, but
more out of... than philosophicalinterest.'
Whatever one wishes to insert in the blank would prove insufficient
because one word cannot summarize Marx's first encounter with Hegel
and with the entire Western philosophical traditions since the Eleatics.
Although the dissertation foreshadows Marx's later work most of all in
its many orientations, objectives, and methods of research, one central
aspect of the compilation of notebooks and manuscripts that span 183941 deserves particular attention: the dissertation in a site where two
opposing concepts of science are weighed against each other.2The battle
lines are drawn between Hegel's "science of logic," which executes dialectical contradiction, and Kant's notion of natural science, grounded
in a transcendental philosophy which avoids all contradictory moments.
That Marx's earliest work should include a confrontation between Kant
and Hegel, the two greatest German thinkers, should not be surprising:
in the famous letter of 1837 he informs his father that he must soon
choose between the two philosophers.3 Although it has scarcely been
'Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin, 1960-83), XXIX, 547. Hereafter, MEW (in my translation). The editors add politische, but it is only a conjecture. Cf. CorrespondenceK.
Marx-F. Lassalle, 1848-1864, trans. and ed. S. Dayan-Herzbrun (Paris, 1977), 149.
2 "Thesis"refers to the work Marx submitted to the
University of Jena, "Notebooks"
to the seven notebooks used in preparation, and "dissertation"to the combination of the
two. Quotations are from the dual language (Greek, German) MEW, Erginzungsband.
All translations are my own, but for convenience I include the page numbers from
Collected Works,trans. R. Dixon (Thesis), D. J. and S. R. Struik (Notebooks) (Moscow,
1976), I.
3 See Collected Works, I, 18. If, as he says, he began to "seek the idea in reality
itself," the dissertation is a long meditation on the consequences of such a search. For
a short discussion of the general alteration in the concept of Wissenschaftafter Hegel,
cf. Herbert Schnadelbach, Philosophyin Germany:1831-1933, trans. E. Matthews (Cambridge, 1984), 66-108.

433
Copyright 1986 by JOURNALOF THE HISTORYOF IDEAS, INC.

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434

PETER FENVES

perceived, the six notebooks written in preparationfor his Thesis and the
fragments of the Thesis itself constitute one of the first analyses of the
concept of science as it oscillates between Hegel's logic and Kant's critique
of metaphysics. The missing word in the letter to Lassalle-the key to
his Thesis-may be found in the drama Marx creates among the German
philosophers as they wear the masks of the ancient Greek atomists.
In the introduction to his Thesis Marx delineates two forms of scientific inquiry and identifies them with the two most important Greek
atomists. The outcome of the atomists' struggle will determine the function of contradiction and the nature of science. Democritus is presented
as a physicist who is concerned only with the empirical laws that govern
matter. Epicurus, on the other hand, denies necessity, accepts chance
when he introduces the atoms' swerve (clinamen), and in the most extreme
case actually denies disjunctive judgment; his refusal to respect the law
of noncontradiction demonstrates that he shows nothing but "contempt
for the positive sciences" (Thesis, 273; 41). Now Marx, far from simply
allowing Democritus the title of "scientist" by default, awards the title
to the one who presents contradiction rather than determination: "Epicurus objectifies the contradiction in the concept of the atom between
essence and existence. He thus gives us the science of atomism" (Thesis,
289; 58). The implication is clear. Science is not the investigation of
material conditions and the determination of specific laws which govern
matter; rather, it is Hegel's Wissenschaftder Logik, which presents the
most extreme contradiction in a category as it passes over into an opposite,
more concrete category. The struggle over the essence of science then
carries into Marx's subtle presentation of the atomists as a confrontation
between Germany's two greatest thinkers. Democritus occupies Kant's
place while Epicurus appears as a proto-Hegel:
Once againEpicurusstandsdirectlyopposedto Democritus.Chance,for him,
is an actualitywhichhas only the valueof possibility.Abstractpossibility,however,is the directantipodeof realpossibility.The latteris restrictedwithinsharp
limits [Grenze],as is the understanding[ Verstand];the formeris unbounded,
as is phantasy.Real possibilityseeks to explainthe necessityand realityof its
object;abstractpossibilityis not interestedin the objectwhichis explained,but
in the subjectwho explains.(Thesis,276; 44)
Abstract possibility, in the process of destroying all determination, reveals
the subject in its self-positing activity. Whereas real possibility is limited
to the objects of knowledge and thus to the synthesis of sensuous intuition
by the understanding, abstract possibility is concerned only with objects
of thought which, in principle, go beyond the limits (Grenze) of Democritus's researches and Kant's critiques. No sensual circumstances
condition thought. With scarcely any original sources Marx establishes
an opposition between the two atomists' theories of time in order to
present the difference between Kant's limited Erkenntnis and Hegel's

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

435

unlimited Wissen. Democritus's theory of time is clearly represented as


Kantian: "Time excluded from the world of essence is transferred into
the self-consciousness of the philosophizing subject but does not contact
the world itself" (Thesis, 295; 63). Epicurus, in contrast, does not exclude
time from the Ding an sich, and he anticipates the last part of Hegel's
Phenomenology of Spirit, where time becomes the "absolute form of
appearance" (Thesis, 295; 63), which is finally superseded by thought.
Epicurus considers Democritus's theory to be only one moment in the
development of the concept: he radicalizes the ideas of the earlier atomist
through his refusal to accept an entity that falls outside the philosopher's
grasp. According to Marx, Epicurus (proto-Hegel) cancels the limitations
that Democritus (Kant) proposed: "his method of investigation tends to
supersede [aufzuheben] all objective reality of nature" (Thesis, 277; 45).
In other words Epicurus prepares the groundwork for the absolute idealism through the demonstration that matter-the finite and the conditioned-is self-contradictory: the atom invariably leads to the
contradiction between existence and essence or, using Hegel's Eleatic
language to which Marx occasionally returns, the contradiction between
being and thought. In Democritus (Kant) thought is conditioned by
matter; in Epicurus (proto-Hegel) thought takes its first steps away from
its entanglement in material conditions and posits itself as the "totality."
A science which did not affirm the contradiction inherent in matter,
which did not accept Epicurus's contempt for the natural sciences, would
never attain the totality of being and thought: "true" science would then
be lost. Democritus's empirical investigation, which, like Kant's regulative Idea of reason aims at a totality that cannot be achieved, would
emerge as the only valid scientific endeavor. The stigma of endless research which Hegel branded "bad infinity" could not be overcome in a
self-superseding Wissenschaft.
Yet Marx did not begin his researcheswith the differentiationbetween
Epicurus's and Democritus's presentationsof atomism. The six notebooks
that form the background of his Thesis never mention Democritus's role
as the bearer of Kantianism and "bad" infinity. The earlier atomist enters
the Thesis as the confirmation of a hypothesis. By cataloguing the "micrological differences" that separate the two atomists (Thesis, 268; 36),
Marx insists that he can detect a momentous transformation in Greek
philosophy and society which culminates in the philosophies of selfconsciousness: the post-Aristotelian movements witnessed in the works
of the Stoics, Epicurus, and the Skeptics. We cannot understand Marx's
argument unless we recognize that Democritus appears in the Thesis in
order to indicate the vast historical changes which Greek society underwent between the times of the two atomists. As Marx states in the first
section of his Thesis, his real goal cannot be reached without an analysis
of the history of Greek civilization, and since he cannot explore history
in any depth (after all, he insists, it is only a dissertation), he will take

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436

PETER FENVES

a shortcut and simply demonstrate the differences between the two atomists; one can then infer the extent of historical development that
separates Epicurus from his predecessor. Fortunately, Marx's Notebooks
offer his actual exposition of the historical themes, and they attest to the
difficulty he faced in presenting a coherent history of Greek philosophy
and society. After examining the two historical scenarios which he elaborated, one might begin to question the motive for placing Democritus
at the center of the Thesis: the reason may have less to do with the lack
of space than with the inherent difficulty of presenting the history of a
society which is deduced from the concept of the atom.
Marx begins to analyze Epicurus's atomic theory by identifying various "contradictions"that surface in Epicurus's work. The opening premise, the premise which is never dropped in the course of the dissertation,
is that Epicurus is "the philosopher of representation" (der Philosoph
der Vorstellung), who reduces all real conditions to subjective representations (Notebook, 31; 410). Representation and atomism always occur
together because the consciousness of atomism betrays an "atomistic
consciousness" which is free only insofar as its freedom is merely imagined: "This freedom of representation is therefore but an assumed, immediate, imagined one, which in its true form is atomism" (Notebook,
38; 414). By fixing the "shape of consciousness" that posits atomism,
Marx is responding both to the Hegelian exigency and, more importantly,
to the conception of atomism as a proto-monadology. Ludwig Feuerbach
(1804-1872), following the lead of Hegel, had explored the relationship
between Epicurus and Leibniz in his Darstellung, Entwicklung und Kritik
der Leibniz'schenPhilosophie(1837).4 The resemblancebetween the Leibnizian monad and the Epicurean atom allows Marx to discover the
strength of atomism and then to uncover its concept amidst its various
expressions. He sees that the atom/monad, far from serving as an ex4 See Sdmmtliche Werke(Stuttgart, 1959), IV, 54-57. Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Siimmtliche
Werke, ed. H. Glockner (Stuttgart, 1959), XIX, 455-56 (hereafter Werke). Marx, as his
early notebooks attest, was fascinated by Leibniz's philosophy; see Marx-Engels Gesammtausgabe (Berlin, 1976), Ab. IV, Bd. I, 183-212, esp. 197-98. It may seem strange
to link Leibniz, who perhaps more than any other philosopher relied upon teleology (the
principle of sufficient reason), and Epicurus, who seems so strongly to deny teleological
explanations. But Marx, I think, adopts the formula "atom = monad," when he notices
that Epicurus at one point must introduce teleology (Notebook, 34; 412) and, more
importantly, when he notices that both philosophers confound sensation with understanding in order to preserve an autonomous agent. Marx is most interested in the
moments when Epicurus abandons any suggestion of a Leibnizian monadology in order
to foster a more perfect autonomy: (1) the abandonment of sufficient reason in the
clinamen and (2) the dismissal of non-contradictionin the Epicureantheory of the heavens.
Cf. Marx's final comments on Max Stirner's Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844): the
entire work, he affirms, is merely an application of Leibniz's principle of the indiscernability of individuals to human society (MEW, III, 428). Some of Marx's fury against
Stirner may be due to a belated self-recognition.

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

437

planatory principle in the investigation of empirical laws, necessitates the


annihilation of matter, of finitude, of the conditioned itself. Matter, to
use the fine phrase which Kant introduced in his critique of Leibniz, is
intellectualized and thereby loses its specific property of determinateness,
its extra-logical feature.5Epicurus disregards material conditions by raising subjectiverepresentations( Vorstellungen)above the demands of finite
existence: "What is lasting and great in Epicurus is that he gives no
preference to conditions over representations, and tries as little to save
them [the conditions]" (Notebook, 41; 415). It is clear that Marx is
referring to Leibniz's famous phrase "to save the phenomena or appearances."6 Both Epicurus's atomism and the monadology preserve appearances (Vorstellungen in its widest sense) through the reduction of
conditions; neither the monad nor the atomistic consciousness imputed
to Epicurus admit an objective world that conditions their representations.
But Marx must have sensed that Leibniz, because of the rigor of his
thought and not in spite of it, was forced to posit a God who harmonizes
all the monads, who synchronizes all the representations.Here is a problem to which Marx will be forced to return: does atomism, universally
recognized as atheistic, eventually demand the Leibnizian God? More
generally, does the "intellectualization"of phenomena, the central aspect
of the monadology not only for Kant but also for Marx, inevitably lead
to a revival of theology? Epicurus's abandonment of teleological explanations may yet entail the reintroduction of teleology.
A moment after insisting that Epicurus saves phenomena but not
their material conditions, Marx announces the stakes involved in his
presentation of history: "Epicurus stands higher than the Skeptics not
only because the conditions and representations are reduced to nothing,
but their perception, the thinking of them and the reasoning about their
existence, proceeding from something solid, is likewise only a possibility"
5 Kant called this extra-logical feature, the etwas mehr (something more) which
distinguished an object of thought from a real object. See The Critique of Pure Reason,
trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York, 1965), 276-96 (A, 260-87; B, 316-48). Cf. Della
Volpe's analysis of the relationship between Leibniz and Kant on the one hand, Hegel
and Marx on the other; Opera (Rome, 1973), IV, 281-319. Michel Serres, a scholar of
both Leibniz and Lucretius, recognizes that Marx's dissertation is more concerned with
the monadology and even more with the theodicy than with ancient materialism; see
Hermes, trans. J. Harai and D. Bell (Baltimore, 1982), 103.
6 See Leibniz's essay, "New System, and Explanation of the New System," in Philosophical Writings,trans. M. Morris and G. Parkinson (Totowa, N.J., 1973), 128. For
the history of this expression, see Pierre Duhem, To Save the Phenomena, trans. E.
Doland and C. Maschler (Chicago, 1969). Leibniz's essay, more than any other, allows
one to see the proximity between Marx's atom and the Leibnizian monad. Not only does
Leibniz clearly express his opposition to a purely inert atom but he also spells out the
consequences of the monad as "substantial form" which "must embrace some element
of form or activity in order to make a complete being" (116)-precisely Epicurus's
advance over Democritus.

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438

PETER FENVES

(Notebook, 41; 415). Epicurus clears the way for absolute idealism
through the cancellation of empirical conditions. According to Hegel's
reading of post-Aristotelian philosophy, the skeptics, through their various "tropes" and verbal tricks, prepare the way for true philosophy,
that is, for idealism, because they systematically undermine all conviction
in the actuality of the material world. The propaedeutic for a philosophy
that radically questions the universal validity of the senses and thus
prepares the way for the Aufhebung of matter in spirit remains a radical
skepticism.7Epicurus is here playing the same role for Marx. As empirical
science, insofar as it rests upon the postulate of objective conditions,
becomes an impediment, so Epicurus's atomism violates the very essence
of the empirical scientist's search for objective grounds. The clinamen
cancels the possibility of determinism, and not surprisingly it reveals the
very principle of atomism: "Only from the clinamen does the individual
motion emerge, the relation has its determination as the determination
of the self and no other" (Notebook, 42-44; 416). Now Marx can both
swerve away from Hegel's depiction of Epicurus as an empiricist or protophysicist and present the true, though implicit, concept of the atom: pure
being-for-self (Fiirsichsein), which realizes itself in the swerving from the
straight line. It is through this concept and its realization that Marx will
attempt to present the history of atomism. If he can succeed, if history
can be deduced from the concept, then the identity of being and thoughtthe dialectical synthesis which supersedes the nonteleological, empirical
sciences-stands confirmed. Marx's Thesis is, in the strictest sense of the
word, an experiment which tests the validity of Hegel's central philosophical claim.
Once Marx finishes writing out and commenting upon the major
Epicurean fragments compiled by Gassendi, he begins to infer the history
of Greek society. His guiding conviction is that the concept of the atom
(pure being-for-self) and its realization (the spontaneous swerving) provide an adequate set of theoretical formulations for the elaboration of
actual historical development. After a few preliminary formulations of
history which repeat many of the Young Hegelians' themes, Marx initiates
his particular study through the identification of the atom with man, but
not just any man, for the atom becomes the concept implicit in the
sophoi-the Greek sages.8 "If we study [the sophos] we shall find that
See the last section of the second volume of Vorlesungeniiber der Geschichte der
Philosophie (Werke, VIII, esp. 552-54), which reiterates the "Introduction" to the Phenomenologyof Spirit. Cf. also the young Hegel's attack upon Schulze in "Verhaltnis des
Skepticismus zur Philosophie" (Werke, I, 215-77). Two writers as diverse as Colletti and
Kaufmann agree upon the necessity of this skeptical moment in Hegel. See Marxism and
Hegel, trans. L. Garner (London, 1973), 68-85; Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation (South Bend, Ind., 1978), 63-73.
8 Hegel made the same identification in his introduction to the post-Aristotelians
(Werke, XVIII, 425). In general Marx's history contains nothing that could not be found
7

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

439

he belongs logically to the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus and that,


viewed from this standpoint too, the downfall of ancient philosophy is
presented with complete objectivity in Epicurus" (Notebook, 78; 432).
The passage from logic to history is now established: just as the
logical development of the atom leads to the clinamen and the breakdown
of the conditions, the determinateness, and ultimately the superseding of
matter, the historical development of the sophos culminates in a contradiction between matter and spirit. Matter is here conceived as the "initself' or "substantial life" of Greek society, while spirit is seen as the
manifestation of individualism within Greek cultural life and therefore
as the development of self-consciousness. "What appears theoretically in
the account given of matter appears practically in the definition of the
soul of Greek life, where the Greek spirit is substance" (Notebook, 7678; 432). Marx now attempts to show how pure being-for-self developed
out of society's intellectual substance. Beginning with the first sophoi,
who were merely the "substance become vocal" of the Greek people, he
passes from the Pythagoreans (who conceived of subjectivity only abstractly) to Anaxagoras. The latter's expulsion from the polis, along with
the Sophist's dialectic and Socrates's trial, present us with an inversion
(Umkehrung): "subjectivity ... establishes itself as the principle of philosophy" (Notebook, 82; 437). Marx now had to find a place for Plato.
Using Aristotle's Metaphysics as his sole guide, he adduces in Plato's
philosophy an absolute diremption between the ideal world and the real
one (spirit and substance),but, sensing that this diremption is contradicted
not only by numerous passages in Plato's work but also by his actual
political activities, Marx asserts a "contradiction [which] must objectify
itself to itself' (Notebook, 86; 440). But this same objectification (Vergegenstdnden) is, according to the preceding Notebook, the task of and
historicaljustification for Epicurus's philosophy (Notebook, 44; 416). The
circle is closed, but it is closed at the wrong stage. History recaptures
logic, but the philosopher's positions become confounded.
Marx cannot carry through his first attempt at an historical presentation. Instead of describing the passage from Plato to Aristotle by means
of the concept of the sophos, he suddenlyjumps to Lucretius's description
of Ionian philosophy, and then, in another non sequitur, he outlines
Epicurus's notion of time. Although he is of course only writing notes,
the fragmentationindicates that the concept of the sophosseems incapable
of explaining the complexities of Greek intellectual history, much less
the history of Greek civilization. Marx senses the breakdown, I suspect,
in Hegel, but his task, which is indeed enormous, is to weave a coherent presentation of
atomism as (1) a stage in the historical development of Greek civilization, (2) a phenomenological "form of consciousness" on the way to absolute knowing, and (3) a logical
category (Fursichsein). It is as if he had to condense Hegel's history, phenomenology,
and logic into a single compendium.

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440

PETER FENVES

and he tries to end the Notebook with a recapitulation that can find a
place for Aristotle: "the same form that saw the gods even in the burning
heat, the same which drank the poison cup, the same which as the God
of Aristotle, enjoys the greatest blessedness, theory" (Notebook, 90; 441).
The guiding thread of his analysis is lost, since in order to save his
conceptual Leitmotif he loses his most important theme: actual historical
development. All we find is "the same."
About a year later Marx attempted another extended derivation of
history from the "logic" of the atom. In the sixth Notebook the complicated business of passing from Anaxagoras to Aristotle is bypassed, and
the latter philosopher enters history as the one who embraces the universal
in the particular,who becomes the "total philosopher" and thus becomes,
to use Marx's strange expression, a "concretized" atom.9After Aristotle,
the "atom" who has become actual, philosophy falls into diremption,
swerving away from the straight line: "As in the history of philosophy
there are nodal points which raise philosophy in itself to concretion,
apprehend abstract principles in a totality, and thus swerve [abbrechen]
from rectilinear progress [i.e., the clinamen], so also there are moments
when philosophy must turns its eye to the external world, no longer
apprehend it but as a practical person weave, as it were, its intrigues
with the world.. ." (Notebook, 214; 491). The sophos who is actualized
leads to the clinamen both in the logic of Fiirsichsein and in the history
of Greek society. Marx thus, in the most derivative part of his dissertation,
follows Hegel, Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), and Karl Koppen (1808-1863)
in describing the post-Aristotelian philosophers who swerved from Hegel
as the precursorsof the Roman world.?1When Marx returns to the Greek
world, he translates the clinamen into the Hegelian term Umschlag (inversion, sudden transformation)and insists that through the study of the
particular Umschlag one can deduce what came before (Notebook, 218;
493). Yet he does not begin to present the history from the oldest sophos
to Epicurus and the Skeptics by means of the concept of the atom and
its realization in the clinamen. Rather, he turns once again to another
topic (Christianity and Plato) without having accomplished the "reasoning back." In Marx's Thesis proper Democritus appears as a substitute
for the actual presentation of Greek historical development. Marx only
needs to show the vast space hidden in the "micrological differences"
between the two atomists; and by accentuating the differences, he can
indicate without further demonstration that the developmentof the con9 The particular that embodies the universal is alternatively the "individual" or the
concretized (because particularized) atom.
10See Hegel's Vorlesungeniiber die Philosophie der Geschichte (Werke, XI, 406-09).
Hegel explains the reception of Epicureanism with great emphasis on the social and
economic issues of the Roman Republic in decline; he casts the decay which he once
attributed to Christianity in his early "theological" writings onto the post-Aristotelian
philosophers.

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

441

cept of the atom is in truth the self-development of the concept as it


embodies itself in the Greek world.11Not only did he indicate this selfdevelopment, he can use it as his implicit method.
So Marx's historical presentation of the atomists and the logical
presentation of their concept, not surprisingly, rest upon the dialectical
unity of being and thought. If Marx can sustain his historical and logical
presentations, if he can show the development of the concept is in truth
its own self-development, he will have vindicated Hegel's Wissenschaft.
But we must notice one strange aspect of the dissertation: Marx is reluctant to delineate the category which supersedes atomism's being-forself or to describe the "shape of consciousness" which overcomes the
atomist's limitations. He seems, in other words, uneasy about the unity
of being and thought in a speculative Aufhebung. In the "Preface" to his
Thesisthis uneasiness finds expression in the statement that Hegel misread
the post-Aristotelians because of "what he called the speculative par
excellence" (Thesis, 262; 30), and it seems as though he wished at all
cost to avoid the same misrecognition. For one key word is absent from
Marx's account of the logic of atom: he never mentions the possibility
of atomistic attraction, although it is only through attraction that Hegel
supersedes atomism and passes, in the Wissenschaftder Logik and the
Encyclopedia, from quality into quantity.12
To summarize Marx's presentation in the first chapter of his Thesis:
the atom is first of all a relation, since it first appears as a point in a
straight line; yet as pure being-for-self the atom is at the same time the
negation of all relation, an ideal abstracted from material connections.
The first determination is "objectified"by Epicurus in the straight line,
the second in the clinamen. Marx now structures his presentation around
the consequences of the abstraction from all relation. In fact the most
significant difference between Marx and Hegel in their respective explications of Fiirsichsein is one of emphasis: whereas Hegel concentrates
upon the supersession of pure being-for-self, Marx emphasizes the conl Marx's "micrological difference," while expressing an important truth, is much too
simple. He often misses the complexity of Democritus's work by stressing the distinction
between the two atomists. Cf. Cyril Bailey, "Karl Marx on Greek Atomism," Classical
Quarterly, 22 (1928), 205-06. Cf. also J. M. Gabaude, Le jeune Marx et le materialisme
antique (Toulouse, 1970), ch. 4. Marx decided to ignore Democritus's ethical fragments
and simply rely upon Aristotle's (not always reliable) description of the atomists' physical
theory (see MEW, III, 124). On Aristotle's reception of Democritus, see the intriguing
essay by Heinz Wismann, "Atomos Idea," Neue Heftefuir Philosophie, 15/16 (1979), 3452. But it is probably accurate to assert that Epicurus attempted to avoid Aristotle's
criticism of atomism (hence, the partial validity in ascribing an Umschlag).
12
See Science of Logic, 173-78: "In attraction ideality is realized.... Repulsion provides the material for attraction" (173). Cf. also J. M. Gabaude, Lejeune Marx, 137-41,
and Difference de la philosophie de la nature chez Democrite et Epicure, ed. and trans.
Jacques Ponnier (Bordeaux, 1970), 305.

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442

PETER FENVES

sequences of that category. The Epicurean contradiction does not lead


to a speculative Aufhebung; on the contrary, it leads to externality and
to pure materiality:
We now consider the consequencethat follows immediately from the declination

of the atom.... Its negationof all relationto somethingelse must be realized,


positivelyestablished.This can be done only if the beingto whichit relatesitself
is none other than itself hence equally an atom, and since it itself is directly

determined,manyatoms.So the repulsionof the atomsis thereforethe necessary


realization [Verwirklichung]of the lex atomi, as Lucretius calls the declination.
(Thesis, 283; 51)

The turning away from the other-as-self constitutes, for Marx as well as
for Hegel, the repulsion of pure being-for-self.Marx illustrates his analysis
by replacing "atom" with "man" and, more surprisingly, with "myself."
Repulsion then corresponds to two moments of human (or spiritual)
interaction. On the one hand "man first ceases to be a product of nature"
and assumes the form of "abstract individuality" (Thesis, 284; 52); on
the other hand repulsion returns the atom (man) to materiality, for "when
I comport myself to myself as to an immediate-other,my comportmentis
a material one. It is the highest externality which can be thought" (Thesis,
284; 52). Thus, the detour through "the other" heralds the return of
matter, not the supersession of existence and the appearance of essence.
Attraction never arrives, the speculative reconciliation (Vers6hnung) cannot be found. A material object-dependent and conditioned existencereturns once again.
Marx's reluctance to invoke attraction, his concentration on the consequences of atomism rather than on its overcoming, and his refusal to
supersede the concept of the atom may indicate that he, possibly unwittingly, is responding to Adolf Trendelenburg'sLogische Untersuchungen
(1840), the first major confrontation with Hegel's "dialectical logic."
Trendelenburg's work may be read, in many ways, as Aristotle's reply
to Hegel because of its insistence upon the individuality of judgment and
upon the presence of content in logical judgments independent of logic
itself. What is of particular importance for Marx's Thesis is the example
Trendelenburg chooses to illustrate the abuses logic suffers in Hegel's
hands: he attacks the being-for-self section of Hegel's Encyclopedia (par.
96) in precisely the section developed to the philosophy of atomism.
Hegel's presentation,he asserts, depends upon a serious misunderstanding
in which "logical negation is transferredinto real opposition."13Attrac13

Adolf Trendelenburg, Logische Untersuchungen(3rd ed.; Leipzig, 1870), 50. According to Bruno Bauer, Marx considered writing a Hegelian critique of it (see MarxEngels Gesammtausgabe,Abt. 3, Bd. I, Text, 354 and 361). He also copied large portions
of Trendelenburg's edition of Aristotle's De Anima (and at times corrected the Berlin
professor's Greek). Cf. Mario Rossi, La Scuola hegeliana e il giovane Marx (Rome, 1963),
56-63 and 284-88; also Lucio Colletti, Tramonto dell'ideologia (Bari, 1980), 104-15.

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

tion, moreover, is precisely the type of dialectical operation that "secretly


makes concrete intuition the vehicle [for abstract thought]" (48); and the
Negation der Negation, where "the something finds itself again in the
other" (49), exploits the ambiguity in the word negation-as a logical
concept and as a real operation-which is again hidden in the speculative
Aufhebung. By refusing to invoke attraction among atoms at any point,
Marx may be indicating an uneasiness about Hegel's logic which was
suggested by Trendelenburg'scritique. Epicurus, one might say, is not a
proto-Hegel; rather, Hegel is a German Epicurus, who confounds real
objects with objects of thought and who, as Kant would say, intellectualizes phenomena. Even in the place where attraction would seem most
fitting, Marx demurs. He adds to the manuscript of the Thesis: "Hence
we find also more concrete forms of repulsion applied by Epicurus. In
the political domain there is the contract, in the social domain friendship,
which is praised as the highest good" (Thesis, 285; 53). No attraction,
no inherent unity appears either in the contrat social or even in friendship.14So when Marx affirms that Epicurus was "the first to grasp the
essence of repulsion ...

whereas Democritus

only knew its material

existence" (Thesis, 285; 53), he is saying not that Epicurus purified the
atom of its material aspect but quite the opposite. Because the later
atomist conceived of the atom as self-consciousness and thus abstracted
from material conditions, he explicated what was merely implicit in
Democritus: the concept of the atom always leads to materiality and the
highest possible externality. The contradiction between essence and existence, between thought and being, cannot be overcome in the negation
of the negation, "the speculative par excellence."
In his first Notebook Marx played with a number of contradictions
he found in Epicurus's writings, but for his Thesis he settled upon one
pervasive contradiction that dominates Epicurus's mature atomism. By
For an accurate assessment of the problem of logical versus real contradiction, see Michael
Wolff, Der Bergriff des Widerpruchs-EineStudie zur Dialektik Kants und Hegels. (Konigstein, 1981). Just a short time later, Kierkegaard invoked Trendelenburg'scritique as
a demonstration of Hegel's inability to reduce "existence" to logic; see Concluding Unscientific Postscript,trans. D. F. Swanson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton, 1941), 99-100.
Trendelenburg'swork was the principal source for almost all the attacks that were directed
against Hegel's logic throughout the nineteenth century; see, for example, Paul Barth,
Die GeschichtsphilosophieHegel's und der Hegelianer bis auf Marx und Hartmann
(Leipzig, 1890), 6-15; this volume, incidentally, was the first analysis of Marx's philosophy
from a German academic, and it attracted the attention of the young economist Conrad
Schmidt (1865-1932), as his letters to Engels show; and Eduard Bernstein, under the
influence of Schmidt, disseminated many of Barth's conclusions in his various proposals
for the revision of Marxism.
14 Marx's characterization of the social contract as
repulsion matches his rather onesided treatment of it in "Zur Judenfrage" and the Grundrisse,but it is difficult to see
how friendship is an example of repulsion.

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444

PETER FENVES

confounding matter and spirit, Epicurus intellectualized phenomena. The


result of this intellectualization is the contradiction between essence and
existence, form and content, being and thought. Marx's analysis then
parallels the section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason entitled "Amphiboly of Reflective Judgment" because Kant's description of Leibniz's
"confounding" (Verwechslung) and Marx's critique of Epicurus's contradiction share the same diagnosis: in the monadology and in atomism
objects of thought seem to fill up the phenomenal world. Epicurus's step
beyond Democritus is this Verwechslung.Marx affirms that Epicurus
posits the atom as both stoicheion, the material element of nature, and
as archai, the logical principles of thought (Thesis, 290; 60).15By failing
to invoke attraction, by distancing himself from the speculative, and most
of all by drawing out the consequences of intellectualized phenomena,
Marx was reconstructing Kant's critique of rational metaphysics and
thereby preparing the way for a significant confrontation with Hegel.
The confounding of concepts with objects reaches its pinnacle when
the atom-pure being-for-self-receives material qualities. Yet the atom
is an atom only when it has qualities, when it is determined by an other.
Epicurus added weight to Democritus's list of qualities, according to
Marx, and thus demonstrated most explicitly how concepts (which have
no mass) are exchanged for material objects: "the individuality of matter... lies outside ofmatter" (Thesis, 289; 57). Externality and materiality
returnedto haunt the "science of atomism."16The Verwechslungregisters
a profound problem: once the abstraction from matter is accomplished,
matter returns to undermine the abstractor. And there is no better illustration of this return of matter than death. Lucretius's mors immortalis
is the final humiliation imposed upon the atomist. Marx now reveals the
price Epicurus paid for his confounding:
The contradictionbetweenexistenceand essence, between matter and form,
which lies in the conceptof the atom, is positedwithinthe atom itself when it
is endowedwith qualities.Throughthe qualitythe atomis alienated[entfremdet]
from its concept,but at the same time perfectedin its construction.It is from
the repulsionand the ensuingconglomerationof the qualifiedatoms that the
world of appearanceemerges.(Thesis,293; 60)
15

Marx draws attention to Leibniz's monads when considering the quality of shape
(Thesis, 288-89; 56-57). He probably has Kant in mind when he formulated the contradiction as a (Kantian sounding) antinomy: "if it is considered an antinomy that bodies
perceptible merely through reason (Vernunft) are given spatial qualities, so is it a greater
antinomy that spatial qualities themselves can only be perceived through the understanding [Verstand]" (Thesis, 291; 59-60). It is difficult to deny that Kant in the guise of
Democritus is the object of this comment, even if it shows a certain unfamiliarity with
the role Kant assigns to the understanding in perception.
16 Once
again Marx refuses to invoke attraction even when Hegel (in explicit confrontation with Kant's "analogies of experience") sees weight/gravitation as the negation
of the negation (repulsion); see Science of Logic, 178-84.

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

445

Matter is the exteriorization of the concept, so here, as in the final pages


of Hegel's logic, "this absolute form has now been degraded to absolute
matter, to the formless substrate of the phenomenal world" (Thesis, 293;
62). Matter now appears as a check, a failure that threatens the integrity
and the identity of the monad or the atomized thinker. The fatal consequence of this failure is that Epicurus finds himself faced with matter
the moment he succeeds in suppressing it. It lays a trap for him, and in
the final triumph of atomistic consciousness matter returns as death:
Abstractindividualityis freedomfrom determinedexistence[Dasein],not freedom in determinedexistence.It cannotshinein the light of existence[Lichtdes
Daseins].This is an elementin which this individualloses its characterand
becomesmaterial.Thus,the atomdoesnot enterinto the daylightof appearance,
or it sinks down to the materialbasis when it does enter it.... The death of
naturehas becomeimmortalsubstance;and Lucretiuscorrectlyexclaims:Mortalem vitammors... immortalisademit.(Thesis,294; 62)
The most extreme consequence of atomism turns out to be immortal
death, for it appears whenever the monad, abstract individuality which
denies objective conditions, closes its windows, proclaiming its independence from all others.
The materiality that is suppressed, moreover, returns in a form that
is unrecognizable to the atomistic thinker. The final section of the Thesis
exposes the misrecognition which is the condition for the possibility of
both atomism and atomistic individuality, of both the monad and the
thought of the monad. Epicurus, to put it briefly, refused to see his own
reflection in the heavenly bodies, which are, Marx affirms in the Thesis's
final section, die wirkliche gewordeneAtome, the atoms which have become actual. The meteors-heavenly bodies in the widest sense-mark
the limit of Epicurus's consciousness. But the exploration of this limit
remains highly problematic for Marx. Caught between the pressure of
his theory of historical development within Greek society and the demands of his logical development of Fiirsichsein, he begins to produce a
series of distortions of both.
Marx, first of all, distinguishes Epicurus from the entire tradition of
Greek speculation on the heavens. Aristotle, as the last great representative of this tradition, still thinks of the meteors in terms of substance
(Thesis, 298; 67). But in order to preserve ataraxia Epicurus insists that
the meteors do not afford any simple or univocal explanation (Thesis,
300; 68). Once the heavenly bodies cease being regulated by the gods,
they are not, as in Newtonian physics, incorporated into a universal
schema of non-teleological, causal explanations; rather, they mark for
the Epicureanatomist the very limit of any investigation into the structure
of matter. Democritus's limit on possible experience is inverted: possible
experience becomes the principle barrier to the unfettered thinker.
So the desire to preserve ataraxia at all costs induces the atomist to

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446

PETER FENVES

find various contradictory explanations for the same event, a step which
ultimately leads, as Marx shows, to the destruction of the unity and
determinatenessof matter: "The multitude of explanations should at the
same time supersede [aufheben] the unity of the object" (Thesis, 301; 69).
Aristotle's explanation of the meteors still harbored notions that could
be dangerous to the monad's identity, so it must be discarded. Epicurus
struggled against reason itself: "he fights the eternal law and reason in
the heavenly system" (Thesis, 302; 70). Like his arch-enemy Plutarch,
whom Marx considers an atomistic philosopher because of his adherence
to atomized individuality after death (Notebook, 118; 454),17 Epicurus

abandoned Verstandand annihilated matter, when he found himself confronted with another real entity. That the two antagonists, Plutarch and
Epicurus, should mirror each other, the former invoking superstition,
the latter leaving a residue of superstition in his theory of the meteors,
should not be surprising, since both desired above all the maintenance
of personal identity. The consequence of maintaining the identity of the
subject is the annihilation of the identity of the object: atomism, therefore,
cannot be universalized, because once it perfects itself, nature falls into
mere arbitrariness,devoid of all determining laws. Marx now sounds the
monad's knell:
The atom is matterin the form of independence,of individuality,as it were,
of weight.But the heavenlybodiesarethe supremerealization
the representative
of weight.In them all antinomiesbetweenmatterand form, conceptand existence,whichconstitutethe developmentof the atom are solved[gelist];in them
are actualized.... Theheavenlybodiesare thereall the requireddeterminations
In
themmatterhas receivedindividualityin itself.
the
atoms
become
actual.
fore
(Thesis,302; 70)
The heavenly bodies, under the traditional (Aristotelian) interpretation,
are Epicurean atoms, but the atomist refuses to accept it. Marx identifies
the last and most telling clinamen: Epicurus swerves from his own theory
precisely when it is confirmed in the meteors. He literally does not see
the truth (in the Hegelian sense) of his concept: "Here Epicurus must
therefore have glimpsed the highest existence of his principle.... But
when he comes upon the reality of his nature . . ., then his one and only
desire is to pull it down into earthly transience. He turns vehemently
against those who worship an independent nature containing in itself the
quality of individuality. This is his greatest contradiction" (Thesis, 30203; 70-71).
17

Marx presents his first analysis of social classes when he classifies Plutarch as the
member of the "third class," that is, as an atomistic philosopher who is unaware of his
own principle. Insofar as he is a "philistine" (a word Marx and Engels later use as a
synonym for "bourgeois"), Plutarch needs the recognition of other philistines; thus,
externality and materiality impinge on his very being, making it impossible for him to
apprehend true universality (Notebook, 120-22; 455-57).

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

447

Marx, however, finds it difficult to express how the philosopher can


both see and not see his own principle. The only clue he possesses emerges
in Epicurus's change in style: "Epicurus felt [fiihlt] that his earlier categories collapsed here, that the method of his theorizing became different.
And it is the deepest knowledge of his system, the most pervasive consequence, that he felt this and expressed it consciously" (Thesis, 303; 71).
What Epicurus expresses is not the knowledge (whose depth may indicate
a buried body) but the change in method, in style; hence, he only felt it
(subjective affection). But how can Marx read this change in method?
What is his relation to atomism that allows him to see what Epicurus
missed?18If Marx has indeed avoided the "speculative par excellence,"
he would have no access to the higher, more concrete category beyond
Fiirsichsein. Nor does Marx have any other theoretically controllable
concept such as ideology or even the unconscious which might allow
him access to Epicurus's limits.
At one moment, Marx presents the meteors as the solution to the
confounding that constitutes atomism: "The abstract form, which in the
shape of matter, fought against abstract matter, was this self-consciousness
itself. But now, when matter has reconciled itself and has become independent, individual self-consciousness emerges from its pupal stage
[Verpuppung],proclaims itself the true principle and opposes [befeindet]
the nature which has become independent" (Thesis, 303; 71).19 Now
everything depends upon the ambiguity of the word befeinden: on the
one hand it refers to Epicurus's change in method, which heralds along
with the Skeptics' tropes the annihilation of the finite and the passage
into idealism; on the other hand it refers to praxis, or the active mediation
between the spiritual and natural worlds. At this point Marx's historical
program demands ambiguity, because he must do the impossible-present
Epicurus's philosophy as a step away from Aristotle, a step towards
praxis. The sedentary philosopher must turn into his opposite-the world
traveller Democritus. Forgetting the pressure of his presentation, Marx
then indicates that Epicurus cannot, because of his individualism,proceed
towards a more complete and concrete philosophy; but the individual,
as the particularized universal, is precisely what Epicurus, in contrast to
Aristotle, misses. His atom may, as Marx occasionally affirms, express
"abstract individuality," but then his fault would be abstraction-precisely the most telling charge Marx brings against Democritus, who, like
In a letter to Lassalle dated May 31, 1857, Marx indicates that he discovered that
Epicurus's system is "only an sich" and not "consciously systematic" (MEW, XXIX,
561). This discovery, I suspect, allowed him to recognize the tendentiousness of his
exposition of Greek historical development.
19The notion of a pupal stage reappears in Marx's later writing: "The physical form
of the linen counts as the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis stage, [allgemeine
gesellschaftliche Verpuppung],of all human labour" (Capital, trans. B. Fawkes [New
York, 1977], I, 159; MEW, XXIII, 81).
18

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448

PETER FENVES

all empirical scientists (according to the Hegelian notion of science),


concerns himself only with abstract determinations of lifeless matter.
Marx's argument, one suspects, is beginning to untangle.
The historical program also demands that the contradiction between
being and thought be resolved through the conscious reconciliation of
the contradictory moments. Just as Marx reminded Plutarch that atomism cannot be universalized (Notebook, 123; 457), so he declares from a
speculative idealist's "for us" that only universality which has assumed
particularity can present the infinite resolution: "Matter, having received
into itself individuality, form, as is the case with the heavenly bodies,
has ceased to be abstract individuality.... Indeed, the anxiety and dissolution [Aufl6sung]of the abstract individuality is precisely the universal" (Thesis, 303; 71-72). Concrete individuality, universality which is at
the same time particularity:these are the formulas for the Aufhebung of
atomism; but, and this is the central point, they are also the formulas
for Hegelian Geist, because only in the Idea of Geist can the contradiction
be solved, being and thought become one. Marx's momentary stance
beyond atomism allows him to read the limits of Epicurus's system, but
it also forces him to participate in the very "confounding" that informs
its principle. Marx finds himself in complicity with the annihilation of
matter, whether speculatively or, in the atomist's case, simply in reaction
to the loss of personal integrity. Thus we find at the end of the Thesis
a strange phrase that indicates the final judgment on the essence of
scientific inquiry:
is positedas an absoluteprinciple,
[I]f the abstractindividualself-consciousness
then, indeed,all true and real scienceis superseded[aufgehoben]inasmuchas
individualitydoes not rule withinthe natureof the thingsthemselves.But then
too [allein ... auch] everythingcollapsesthat is transcendentallyrelated to
human consciousnessand thus belongs to the imaginingintellect [Verstand].
(Thesis,304; 72-73)
What this Aufhebung der Wissenschaftmeans, whether "science" refers
to the science of Democritus (Kant) or to the "science of logic," are
unanswerablequestions. In fact Marx has only indicated in a very abstruse
way what has dominated the entire final section: Epicurus can only tear
down the transcendent, become the Greek Aukliirer, by leaving a trace
of that rip in his theory of the heavenly bodies. The desire to overcome
the positive sciences in Epicurus and the justification of religious mystification in Plutarch are, in truth, the same phenomenon: Epicurus is a
mirror reflection of his opponent, he struggles only against himself.
In the most famous part of the Thesis, his note which announces the
task of "actualizing philosophy," Marx attempts to deduce the history
of the post-Hegelian divisions in philosophy and society and thus once
again indicates the pressure his historical program exerts on his presentation of atomistic contradiction. Using the popular analogy between

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

449

Hegel and Aristotle, he returnsto the notion of the clinamen, the deviation
or Umschlag, which allows one to "reason back towards the immanent
determination and the universal historical character of a philosophy"
(Thesis, 326; 85. Cf. Notebook, 219; 493). We can now see the effects of
the ambiguity in the word befeinden. Marx can compare the post-Aristotelians with the post-Hegelians because Epicurus's struggle with matter
resembles the Young Hegelians' struggle to liberate "the world from unphilosophy" (Thesis, 328; 86). According to the requirement of Marx's
history, in both cases the "total philosophy" which embraced both being
and thought becomes, during the course of its development, a totally
abstract philosophy-purely in thought-and so a total diremption of
being from thought takes place; the two Hegelian schools are two opposing responses to that diremption (as, Marx would probably say, the
Epicureans and the Stoics responded to Aristotle). The "liberal" party
(the Young Hegelians) measures reality by the demands of thought, while
the conservative party (the Old Hegelians) measures thought by the
demands of reality: "The second side knows that the lack [Mangel] is
immanent in philosophy, while the first understands it as a lack of the
world which has to be made philosophical" (Thesis, 330; 86). The solution
demands die Verwircklichungder Philosophiejust as the contradiction of
atomism demanded the "realization" of the atom. But Marx cannot yet
express what this realization would entail. He did not, as he will later,
distinguish between the intellectualization of phenomena and the practical
projection of the human world onto nature. It is the similarity between
the intellectualization and the humanization of phenomena that makes
not only Epicurus's but also Hegel's step so attractive. Whereas the first
is only a projection in thought, the second is a projection both in thought
(through final causation) and in reality (through efficient and material
causation). So it is little wonder that Marx takes over Bruno Bauer's
suggestion and insists that praxis must now be theoretical because the
notion of a praxis which is not the affirmation and demonstration of the
intelligibility of phenomena would be meaningless. Just as the Verwechslung holds Epicurus captive and then also Hegel, it prevents Marx from
conceiving of history as anything other than the development of thought
as it externalizes itself in nature. Thus, Marx deduces the breakup of the
Hegelian school: historical development, in other words, is merely the
development of the concept in its self-exteriorization.
Atomism's contradiction, we must remember, is always between existence and essence, matter and form, being and thought. But in the
Thesis Marx cannot decide whether there is a contradiction in the concept
of the atom as a universal explanation for all phenomena or whether the
contradiction resided in the atom itself, that is, in matter. Two years
later, in the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophyof Right," Marx abandoned
the latter notion and along with it the attempt to deduce real history
from the development of a logical category. Possibly in response to his

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450

PETER FENVES

reluctance to invoke attraction as the sich aufhebende moment, he draws


out the consequences of speculative attraction: the lack of mediation in
matter "appears to be in opposition to the principle: les extremes se
touchent. The North and South pole attract each other; the female and
male sex also attract each other.... On the other hand, each extreme is
its other extreme. Abstract spiritualism is abstract materialism; abstract
materialism is the abstract spiritualism of matter."20Atomism, therefore,
no longer carries all the various meanings that burdened the dissertation.
By a stroke that is thoroughly Aristotelian, he refuses to assert that all
words have a single sense in the diversity of their various uses: the atom
is spoken of in many ways. Thus the turn towards atomism as a social
and political phenomenon does not automatically entail a physical theory,
a philosophy of history, and the Aufhebung of science through the elimination of disjunctive judgment:
Returningto the prevalentidea Hegel says:"Thisatomisticand abstractpoint
of view vanishesat the stage of the family"etc. etc. ... This point of view is
undeniablyabstract,butit is the abstractionof the politicalstateas Hegelhimself
develops it. It is atomistic too, but the atomism of society itself.... This atomism

into which civil societyis drivenby its politicalact resultsnecessarilyfrom the


the communalbeing [kommunisfact that the commonwealth[Gemeinwesen],
is [reducedto] civil society
individual
exists
tische Wesen],within which the
separatedfrom the state, or in otherwords,the politicalstate is an abstraction
of civil society.(Critique,283; 79)
Atomism, in the 1843 critique of Hegel, is once again the effect of a
contradiction, but-and this is all important-the contradiction is no
longer a "confounding"of being and thought, no longer the Verwechslung
of concepts with real objects. Rather, the contradiction arises from the
historical separation of civil society from the political state. Atomism
thus appears in the Philosophy of Right simply because Hegel's logical
development cannot cancel it: "This atomistic point of view, although
[it] already vanishes in the family, and perhaps (??) also in civil society,
recurs in the political state precisely because the political state is an
abstraction of the family and civil society. But the reverse is also true"
(Critique,283; 79-80). The return of atomism is not the return of matter,
since matter never left; abstraction from the conditioned is merely "mysticism." Now one can be quite exact in determining Marx's transition
from the philosophy of nature to the philosophy of politics: the resolution
of the contradiction of atomism demands the speculative Aufhebung of
matter and hence the dismissal of any science which attempts to investigate its general laws, whereas the resolution of the contradiction between
20Critique of Hegel's "Philosophyof Right," trans. J. O'Malley (Cambridge, 1970),

89; the German is in MEW, I, 293 (hereafter Critique). Cf. Lucio Colletti, Intervista
Politico-filosofica(Bari, 1975), 70-71.

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MARX'S DOCTORAL THESIS

451

civil society and the political state demands the determination of its
historical conditions and the active participation in the cancellation of
those very conditions.
Marx retains one central and decisive feature of the dissertation. Just
as he praised Epicurus for raising the contradiction of atomism to its
highest expression, he welcomes the most extreme development of the
new contradiction under consideration (between the state and civil society), and he finds its highest development in the representative constitution: "It is the unconcealed contradiction" (Critique, 279; 76). As in
the Thesis, moreover, the resolution of the contradiction demands a
universal which is at the same time particular.21Marx now proposes a
"true democracy" which is the universal in the particular and the form
endowed with content (Critique, 231-32; 30-31); but as Marx indicates
in a thoroughly Hegelian manner, the resolution of the contradiction is
not simply a goal to be reached but the sich aufhebende moment itself.
The particularized universal cannot simply be a project but must also be
already present, already at work. Will it be surprising that Marx's first
announcement of the resolution repeats the paths that led to the final
section of the Thesis?There is one difference: the "contradiction" which
must be resolved is no longer between being and thought, so the universal
can assume particularity without the embarrassmentof leaving a residue
of the gods in the annihilation of matter and the supersession of human
Verstand.
Although one should not underestimate the intricacies of Marx's "A
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: An Introduction,"22we might locate its center in the theme that first appeared
in the famous note to the Thesis:the breakup of the Hegelian school and
the "actualization of philosophy" that it entails. But the repetition of the
footnote would be in vain, if Marx had not altered the contradiction
under consideration and thus shifted the site of the conflict. His swerve
towards the social world and his concentration upon the contradiction
between German philosophy (thought) and the level of German material
wealth (being) indicate that he conceived of the intellectualization of
phenomena as the human, sensuous projection of needs and demands
upon the material world. The lack (Mangel) diagnosed in the dissertation
no longer appears as a lack in general but as an historically conditioned
and hence very specific lack: "Germany as the deficiency [Mangel] of
the political present constituted as an individual system" (Intro, 387-88;
139). Now Marx insists that the representation of universality by a particular class ignites a partial, merely political revolution which expresses
21 The

ancient gods in the meteors are the figures for this particularized universal
(Thesis, 304; 72, and Notebook, 123; 457).
22
1 am using Professor O'Malley's translation and the MEW edition (Bd. I) (hereafter
Intro).

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452

PETER FENVES

the contradiction but which cannot resolve it. For the effective resolution
of the contradiction, representation (both political and dramatic) is not
enough. Returning to the theme of his first Notebook, Marx indicates
that representation is itself merely the most acute symptom of fragmentation and hence of the atomism and atomization which must itself be
resolved. Although the proletariat is first mentioned only as a participant
in one of the many fragmented struggles within Germany (Intro, 389;
141), it appears later not only as a particular group but also as a class
which is universal: the particularized universal whose immanent movement is the resolution of the contradiction between the state and civil
society. But Marx does not say that this concrete universal, this universal
which has taken on form, resolves the contradiction. Rather, he says that
it dissolves the contradiction: "This dissolution [Auflosung]of a society
existing as a particular class is the proletariat" (Intro, 390; 142). The
path of the dissertation leads to another dissolution, but a dissolution
that does not supersede the natural sciences in Hegel's Science of Logic.
Whether this dissolution can be formulatedwithout recourse to a Hegelian
notion of science is a consideration which Marx defers to later writings
and a problem which he bequeaths to the movements that formed around
his work.23
The Johns Hopkins University.

would like to thank Professors Schlomo Avineri and George A. Kelly for their
23I
assistance and their patience in reading earlier drafts of this paper.

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