Marx’s Humanization

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Even after last week’s lengthy post about Freire, I still have quite a bit more I’d like to say about his most famous book.  I had originally wanted to write about his actual pedagogical method, which very few people discuss but which is fascinating. (Students look at pictures that have been purposely given “coded” themes which students are supposed to be able to tease out.) I would also like to write more about how self-consciously revolutionary the book is; Chapter 4 in particular seems to be explicitly written with the audience of political revolutionaries in mind.

While I’d still quite like to write about these topics in the future, after writing that last marathon post, I found myself so exhausted from such a long and in-depth study of Freire’s philosophic anchor points that I couldn’t bring myself to write any more.

But even after spending so much time pouring through Freire and trying to understand just the one key concept of “humanization” that I feel represents his deepest and most fundamental goal for humans, I still find myself unsatisfied that I completely understand it.  I always have a nagging feeling that I don’t fully understand enough context. This is not to excuse Freire, who as I wrote about last week does not seem to carefully or completely define his concept in the first place.  That in itself is something that I really think harms his case when it’s held up to real scrutiny.  I don’t expect John Hattie or Grant Wiggins to outline their specific political goals or their philosophical understanding of human nature – but they are not selling a radical revolutionary political program and making grand proclamations about why their program is in line with the true nature of humans.

While there may be more to Freire than I got from my second full reading of his book, I couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense that Freire’s ideal of humanization wasn’t exactly something radically new.  I’d read in a few places that Freire’s conception of ontology owed a debt to Marx, and it certainly seemed like Freire’s ideal of humanization – the ability of humans to use praxis to change their world – sounded a lot like what I knew about Marx’s understanding of the sanctity of work.

Now after a little bit of digging through my old college Marx reader, I think I am correct in saying that Freire’s obliquely expressed notion of human nature and essence as expressed in Pedagogy was strongly, strongly influenced by Marx.

Marx believes that human nature or essence can be deduced by what separates us from animals: that we not only create and produce and change our environments, but that we do so consciously and with forethought.  This I took to be what Freire called “praxis”; I don’t see the same word in my translations of Marx, but I take it to be the same thing.  Humans are conscious producers of their own subsistence, and modifiers of their own environment.  They undertake this work purposely.  He writes a famous passage in Capital:

“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act.”

Not only does Marx distinguish between the essential functions of animals and the higher, more consciously-directed functions of humans, but he also draws a distinction between human “functions” – eating, drinking, procreating, and such, all of which we have in common with animals – and human essence.  He writes of the more base functions listed above, “But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).  

This is an interesting way of separating man’s baser needs from his higher “essence.” Marx (and Freire, I think) seem to be arguing that what makes humans different from animals is what counts and what must be emphasized by the good society.  Both seem to believe this is a kind of ability to consciously create for their own purposes.  Here it strikes me that there is an important difference between human “essence” and human nature.  Human essence is a kind of higher element that humans possess – what makes them specifically human.  Human nature is a whole mixture of natural inclinations and tendencies – good and bad.  There is nothing wrong with trying to tease out what is uniquely essential about humans; Aristotle did this, and ultimately believed that it was thought or contemplation that is uniquely human.  I actually like Marx’s amendment of this formulation – thoughtful, conscious action.  That said, Aristotle did not simply conclude that a society should be built upon constructing a society that allows man to think all the time, whereas it does seem as though Marx attempted to do this – to construct a society based on allowing man to partake as deeply as possible in that which made him unique.  So did Freire in an oblique way, too.

In Marx’s case, the best I understand it, he believes that capitalism is alienating (Freire might have said “dehumanizing”) because it cuts off man from this natural need to do what makes him uniquely human – that is, to create freely for his own purposes.  Instead, his labor is control by others, not by himself.  Only under communism can man undertake his own work according to his own plans and design.

The other fascinating wrinkle that I see in Marx (and in Freire) is that he seems to imply that the good society is one that should be constructed in order to allow human nature (or essence) full license to operate, to fully flourish.  Man’s conscious, creative nature should be allowed full freedom and full expression, rather than being stunted by the confining capitalist system.  For Freire, society should actually *help* man become more human by allowing him the opportunity to engage in what makes him most human (praxis) while changing the world to make it more conducive to more praxis by others, as well.  In this sense, society helps make man not only more free, but more human, more fully in line with his historical “vocation” or calling – to “humanization.”

This is clearly a contrasting view of the goal of society when compared with many other historical thinkers.  I am thinking of Hobbes (who believed that human nature must be held in check by society, via the state), or the American founders, who believed that human nature must be checked through a series of governmental checks and balances.  

While I think ultimately that Freire’s conception of humanization is very, very similar to Marx’s concept of human nature or essence, there are some differences.  Marx’s seems more focused on a conception of humans as “homo faber” (human as toolmaker) – humans as creators, builders, planners, and designers.  Given her anti-communist proclivities, she’d be horrified at this idea, but I actually think here of Marx’s notion of the goal of human activity as being similar to Ayn Rand’s view of the ubermensch-as-creator: Howard Roark or John Galt – the heroic manipulators of the physical world who find ultimate meaning in productive (albeit largely individual) work.  Freire’s view seems somewhat related but somewhat different; he seems more focused on human-as-political-activist.  His focus does not seem as much on manipulating the physical world, or on producing one’s means of subsistence, or even on going off to a job every morning that one enjoys and which one believes contributes directly to one’s own interests, but on humans as changers of their political environment, as active influencers of the political conditions of their world.  There also seems to be a social element to it that I do not see in Marx, a belief that somehow dialogue is fundamental to being human, perhaps some recognition that humans are inherently social or at least relational.


I have two problems with Marx’s and Freire’s approaches.  First, I think it’s a bad idea to build a political system on an abstracted human “essence” rather than on a conception of human nature.  There is just so much more to human beings, fundamentally, than that we can manipulate our physical or political environment through a combination of action and reflection, and any society that does not reckon with who we really are has no chance of surviving for long, let alone flourishing.

I also don’t agree that the good society should be considered the one that attempts to allow our natural tendencies to flourish, or the one that actually cultivates our natural essence.  It seems to me that the good society should optimize that which comprises the *most desirable aspects* of our innate goals and objectives, but done in thoughtful consideration of the tradeoffs involved in doing so.  In my view, Aristotle and even Dewey are far richer on this question than Freire, who has little to say.  And while I think Marx’s ideas are tremendously interesting on this question, I still find his understanding of human nature to be too limited.

Ultimately, I do think there is a lot to Marx’s materialism, and it’s hard not to nod your head when he starts writing about the importance of material conditions.  At the same time, when I think about the intersection of materialism and the question of human nature, I find myself thinking of Steven Pinker’s book, which I wrote about some months back, The Blank Slate.  Much of the research cited in Pinker’s book on human nature would suggest that Marx was ultimately right: human nature itself can be changed by material conditions (which man himself acts on in turn).  It’s just that this process happens via a process Marx had never heard of: evolution.  Pinker explains that it is humans’ historical evolution that has trained us to react in certain patterned ways with certain typical responses developed over thousands of years of biological evolution.  So yes, our nature can change – it just takes millions and millions of years.

Until then, I consider both Marx’s conception of human as producer and worker, and Freire’s conception of humanization as Marxian praxis plus a kind of anti-oppression political activism to be far too narrow and arbitrary to build a society on.