Remarx: Marx’s Science and the “First Critique” of Hegel

Peter Amota. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 13, Issue 1. Spring 2001.

The difficulty of characterizing Marx’s conception of science is compounded by the complex and more general question of Marx’s relationship to Hegelian philosophy. The literature on Marx and science is vast, reflecting debates that emerged in the earliest days of Marxism. Importantly, “science” and “Marxism” are both terms which have been understood in various ways over the course of the last 150 years. Late twentieth-century philosophical debates about the nature and scope of science have been particularly vivid and far-reaching. The cold war exerted an important influence on these debates about Marx and within Marxism which has only recently been removed.

A general suspicion of science has been a noteworthy feature of Hegelian perspectives within Marxism. Alternatively, readers of Marx who embrace science have tended to minimize the scope of Hegel’s influence on the development of Marx’s science. In some cases, Hegel’s influence has been downplayed in the belief that his dialectical philosophy requires too much that is inimical to rigorous analytical—empirical science. As a result, discussions of Marx’s science have been dominated by the perception that a “trade-off’ of sorts between the empirical-analytical and Hegelian-dialectical aspects of Marxism is necessary if we are to make sense of it as a coherent theoretical perspective.

Marx is still today often regarded as a thinker who, in emerging from Hegelianism, steadily moved away from philosophy and toward economics and social science. That starker versions of this kind of position are wrong can be easily clarified by a careful reading of Marx’s texts. What may be more important but harder to demonstrate, however, is that assumptions that philosophy and social science should be rigidly separated raise a central question Marx can help us to answer. Marx, I believe, is not moving away from philosophy toward science in his critique of Hegel, but away from a sophisticated Hegelian idea of philosophical science toward a different, more successfully integrative version. He argues that science must be philosophical and philosophy must be scientific, but does so against Hegel, and in a way that was easy to overlook from the standpoint of most ideas about “philosophy” and “science” that were influential for the first one hundred years of Marxism.

Hegel’s broad philosophical critique of scientific knowledge was carried out from the general standpoint of subjectivity understood through a philosophy of consciousness (Hegel 1977). The kind of science Marx has in mind must relate to the world of human subjectivity in a fuller and more direct sense. Unearthing the rationality of the real for Hegel required a philosophical science capable of presenting historical facts in their proper relationship within the Totality. For Marx, there is a rationality to the real, but it is precisely in uncovering the logical development of events that science also discloses the explanations and levers of the irrational. Against but also because of Hegel, Marx’s progress toward a rigorous empirical adequacy would lead science directly toward its rational-critical, “value-laden” or as Marx would finally say, revolutionary implications. But it could only do this via a route Hegel had made possible.

On Hegel’s Explanatory Failure

Marx’s incomplete and unpolished manuscript, Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, was not published during his lifetime. Its significance has often been outshone by the shorter and better-known introduction Marx had prepared for the larger planned work, which he did see published. The longer, previously written manuscript involves sometimes rambling dissections and argumentative commentaries on paragraphs 261-313 from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

Over the course of the manuscript, Marx criticizes Hegel’s tendency to view empirical conflicts and processes as if they were derivative from logical contradictions and transitions. It has seemed to many readers that Marx is mainly concerned in such criticisms to contrast Hegel’s philosophical-rational account of the concept of the state with his own empirical account. Yet, the brunt of Marx’s attack is not so much aimed at Hegel’s ignorance or avoidance of the empirical as it is at the uncritical stance Hegel’s science takes toward what exists. Marx complains that what exists “is declared to be rational. However, [not] by virtue of its own reason, but because the empirical fact in its empirical existence has a meaning other than itself (Marx 1975a, 63). Empirical fact has a meaning and rationality for Marx that is its own. It is not that Hegel attributes a rationality to empirical events that is the primary problem, but that he does so in the wrong way.

It is not too little of sensuous reality that comes through in Hegel’s science upon Marx’s critical examination, but too much of that reality in a philosophically undigested form: Hegel’s way of taking up the observational data is Marx’s central concern. This suggests that the notes are significantly oriented toward a reformulation of basic methodological principles. A future social science would have to be able to examine and scrutinize the rationality claimed for existing social arrangements, rather than merely declare, assert, or apologize for it. Such a project would require more than a mere shift of attention toward the empirical to succeed.

For Marx, the empirical must be understood systematically and in terms of the functioning of a larger totality of processes, just as Hegel teaches: empirical fact has a rationality and a meaning beyond its appearance as given. The difficulty is not that Hegel understands the empirical to have such dimensions but, rather, that Hegel imposes his idea of the systematicity or logic of unfolding events from his own, broader metaphysical narrative of consciousness. But this suggests that Marx’s complaint has deeper roots.

According to Marx, Hegel’s method takes up empirical content, but distorts what it attempts to grasp of the world: “The fact which serves as the starting point is not seen as such, but as a mystical result. The [empirically] real becomes a mere phenomenon, but the Idea has no content over and above this phenomenon … In this paragraph we find set out the whole mystery of the Philosophy of Right and of Hegel’s philosophy in general” (Marx 1975a, 63). Marx can make this kind of complaint thanks to Hegel: it was Hegel who had urged that science move beyond the unphilosophical tendency he had discovered in Kantian critical science. Truly philosophical science had to transcend the boundaries and dichotomies of Kantian understanding (Verstand). Hegel’s beginning at this involved taking empirical fact as only the inadequate, naked posit of natural science—as the datum at the beginning of science rather than at its end. But for Hegel, this overcoming of understanding only furthered the process of consciousness’s own overcoming, which ultimately ushered in the Absolute, and it is consciously from this standpoint that Hegel writes. Such an ending of science immanent within its very beginning could only appear to occur under the broader assumption that history was indeed over, in some sense. The historical tasks of consciousness had essentially been completed in the coming to be of Being and the coming to be aware of Mind. That Marx rejects precisely this assumption should be no surprise to readers of Marx, but its timing and methodological ramifications may be inadequately recognized.

Marx does not take Hegel to task for attributing rationality to the real, but for the external, speculative rationality he does attribute to it. The critique of empirical reality has not been carried out sufficiently and, as a result, reality is left unexplained, unrationalized, ungrasped. The error is not that Hegel constructs a flimsy post facto rationale as a support for existing conditions, but rather that Hegel has insufficiently realized the program of philosophical science Marx believes to be within reach. It is not a “rationalization” for existing conditions that engenders what Marx will call Hegel’s “critical failure,” but a failure to explain the facts, finally, in a property scientific way: “Hegel’s logic is cogent if we accept the presuppositions of a constitutional state. But the fact that Hegel has analyzed the fundamental idea of these presuppositions does not mean that he has demonstrated their validity. It is in this confusion that the whole critical failure of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right can be discerned” (Marx 1975a, 95-6).

This critical failure follows from a broader explanatory failure to properly distinguish a kind of analytical reasoning from a kind of justificatory reasoning or judgment. That an analysis of the presuppositions of the concept of the state is not tantamount to a demonstration of their validity is not a new or controversial insight in itself. But to separate them requires us to reject a fundamental claim of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: that in the realization of the concept of the state, in fact the full development of Western liberal political institutions and freedom will have or already has been achieved. Hegel pointedly does not present his science of the state as a recommendation to history to bring about such a development but, rather, as a philosophical indication of a historical accomplishment he believes has essentially been made. The conservative political aspects of his account surely follow from this methodological stance.

But the charge of critical failure also suggests that Marx regards it as important that analytical and justificatory reasoning be properly distinguished and properly integrated in philosophical-scientific explanation. The charge of conflation makes sense only if some legitimate connection between the analytical and justificatory aspects of explanation were possible. Hegel had made a truly historical social science possible through the notion that empirical reality could be grasped as a kind of rational process with a logic of its own. This marked the central importance of Hegel’s advance from the limits of Kantian rationality.

Seeing Marx’s comments against this background allows us to consider how the explanatory failure of Hegel becomes a properly critical failure for Marx in an evaluative sense. Kantian science, according to its Hegelian critics (Marx included), forced reason to halt at the gates of what Kant regarded as dangerously misleading speculative and dialectical reasonings. The essentially analytical idea of rationality expressed by Kantian understanding was rejected by Hegel as restricting the rightful scope of reason. For Hegel, reason had to be freed to proceed speculatively and dialectically. In this way, philosophy would show how the real is rational-how the world that consciousness finds beneath its feet is a world it can genuinely make sense of only when consciousness has reached its Absolute, as Hegel believes it (he) has done.

For Marx, the social world is not rational and complete, and the speculative imperative is curtailed. Because the social world is riven with conflict and contradiction, it is the task of dialectical reason to account for and make sense of real conflict. Reason had to go beyond Kantian analytical limitations in order to do so. But the sign that it had successfully crossed that boundary was, finally, the extent to which science could conceptually grasp the irrationality of the present and not leave it behind unthematized, as Hegel seemed to do. Marx thus exposes the objective rationality (Vernunft) of Hegelian philosophical science as implicitly justificatory—that is, as overcoming the limitations of Kantian reason only to submerge the moment of reflection and judgement within analytical understanding. Analysis and justification are conflated in Philosophy of Right because Hegel’s methodology doesn’t allow room for the critique of present reality that should be required by Hegel’s overcoming the limits of Kantian understanding. For Marx, a science which survived this overcoming with its rationality intact would be an explicitly critical science in this sense.

It seems clear that in terms of the debate about rationality at least, the dominant traditions in Western social scientific thinking all ended up agreeing with Kant. Present-day social scientific analysis places tasks it regards as philosophical like justification and critical judgment aside as unscientific. But this is just the extent to which analytically oriented social science threatens to become ideological according to Marx, in that it remains silent on the broader questions about the rationality of present conditions. From the point of view of a developing Marxism, to take on the larger critical dimensions suggested by Hegel’s notion of science it would be necessary to determine where Hegel’s approach had failed before moving toward a positive articulation of what a new philosophical science would look like.

Certainly, if the social world is regarded as rational and complete, then the work of reason only remains to show how this is the case. Analysis would be tantamount to justification in a fully rational and real present. In such a scenario, the work of analytical and justificatory reason would be conflated de facto. As Marx makes clear throughout these notes, he believes the social world cannot be regarded as rational and complete for scientific inquiry. In such a world, the analytical and justificatory moments of philosophical science would be marked by the tension and conflict of the rest of the social world. Science would either have to recognize and respond to that conflict, or remain in a kind of denial with regard to its present, justifying by ignoring and declaring normal conflicts it is carefully trained to observe. To the extent that critique emerged, it would tend to be considered “philosophical and unscientific” in thematizing the need for a rational-critical interrogation of present conflicts and irrationalities. In a world of strife the analytical moment needs to be supplemented by a justificatory moment but, in such a world, this becomes a moment of critical—philosophical interrogation. This is the moment of rational-critical possibility for Marx, since it is a critical interrogation of present conditions that he regards as the only possible outcome of any rational attempt to assess, evaluate, or justify iffational conditions. The moment of justification conflated by Hegel is thus the critical moment for Marx, or the moment of the possibility of rational critique, and the link between analysis and critique in Marx’s science.

This can be seen throughout the notes, where the explanatory failure embedded within Hegel’s method reverberates in a widening gap between the empirical and the logical. The empirical tends to be “described … As appearance, as phenomenon,” because Hegel understands it on the basis of the false distinction between the conceptuality of social institutions (their “esoteric” aspect), and the “exoteric” aspects of history, or their particularity and existential reality. Exoteric processes “are not as such deemed to be rational [by Hegel, except] in the sense that … they nevertheless acquire the meaning of a determination of the Idea, of its result or product … The content is relegated to the exoteric side. The interest of the esoteric is always directed towards the rediscovery of the history of the logical concept in the state. [But] the actual development takes place in the exoteric sphere” (Marx 1975a, 61-2). The esoteric and exoteric levels of discourse about history refer to types of progression or movement Hegel distinguishes: a conceptual—logical progression on the one hand, and an existential—particular movement on the other, Hegel conflates these in that he attributes development in the exoteric sphere to the logic of the esoteric, and this amounts to a denial that there actually is a logic or rationality to the subject matter of science or the content of history itself.

Hegel’s dialectic is finally this esoteric movement of logical and conceptual contradictions dressed up to resemble and stand in for empirical reality and conflict. This is why the transitions of Hegel’s dialectic are progressions which occur only “in the way [social content] is regarded or talked about” (Marx 1975a, 62). Conflicts appear to Hegel with an “acquired” meaning which refers to a conceptual narrative based on a specious dichotomy. Ironically, the logic Hegel imposes on the empirical is that rationality taken away from empirical content in the distinction between the exoteric and esoteric aspects of history. Hegel thus ir-rationalizes historical and empirical content.

[Hegel] does not develop his thought from the object, but instead, the object is constructed according to a system of thought perfected in the abstract sphere of logic … The task of philosophy is not to understand how thought can be embodied in political determinations but to dissolve the existing political determinations into abstract ideas … Thought is not guided by the nature of the state; the state is guided by a pre-existing system of thought … What should be a starting-point becomes a mystical result and what should be a rational result becomes a mystical starting-point. (Marx 1975a, 69, 73-5, 99-100)

Empirical content is rendered relatively un-intelligible by Hegel, rather than being brushed aside and ignored. Because empirical content ends up being obscured by or subsumed within the conceptual transitions of the dialectic, Hegel seems to propose an ultra-rationalization of the world: an imposition of more rationality than is there rather than a removal. This would especially appear to be so from the perspective of Hegel’s Kantian and positivist antagonists. But because Marx believes the rationality of Hegel’s “mystical” entities ultimately derives from the world of real content itself and not from somewhere else, his own complaints seem to make more sense if regarded as holding that the rationality of the empirical has been drowned out in Hegel’s account by its own reflected light-eclipsed by the philosophical shadow it casts.

Marx knows that Hegel does not intend philosophical science to be an inquiry or interrogation of the rationality of the state, so such criticism is directed at the underlying principles of his methodology rather than its application in the concrete case. The irrationalization and eclipse of the world that occurs in Hegelian science reflects the specious dichotomy of esoteric and exoteric histories, but this is in turn identified by Marx with Hegel’s failure to clearly distinguish and integrate the analytical and justificatory dimensions of science. But Hegel had had to conflate the justificatory and analytical moments of rationality if he did not want to return to a basically Kantian idea of the rationality of science.

Exoteric history is that which would be left to a merely analytical science, were any such science possible. The esoteric aspect of history contains the dimensions that belong to its status as a succession of events bearing the traces of human knowledge, will, creation, and affect, and of its development and direction. In short, Hegel’s esoteric history bears all the traces of a rationality that could be philosophically recovered by the justificatory-critical moment. That Hegel endorses while Kant tends to deny the rationality of just these dimensions and traces (at least as the manifestations of “Mind” or “Spirit” in history) matters less than the point Marx seems to be making here: that Hegel’s methodology cannot move beyond Kantian dichotomies he intended to transcend by uniting the real and rational. Hegel conceptualizes empirical content as unmediated to the extent that he separates two types or aspects of history. If he endorses this relatively unmediated notion of content, it returns him to a Kantian idea of rationality. But Hegel cannot philosophically accept this notion, so he conflates the explanatory and critical dimensions of justification which other premises of his system suggest should be distinguished and integrated.

It is thus the case, as Marx never tires of pointing out, that the reality of social life and institutions appears submerged in Hegelian formulations mutely, in an ungrasped, uncomprehended form, because the full dimensions of social science are not articulated by Hegel but collapsed.

In the modern state, as in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the conscious, true reality of the universal interest is merely formal, in other words, only what is formal constitutes the real, universal interest. Hegel should not be blamed for describing the essence of the modern state as it is, but for identifying what is with the essence of the state. That the rational is the real is contradicted by the irrational really which at every point shows itself to be the opposite of what it asserts, and to assert the opposite of what it is. (Marx 1975a, 127)

In other words, if Hegel describes a reality in which the conflicting particular interests of the family and civil society are resolved formally in the universality of the state, this is finally just because Hegel’s society is one in which the universal interest is a merely formal esoteric resolution. But Hegel’s method cannot find the logic or development that belongs to empirical reality, and so expose this formal success which is the mark of an empirical failure, because real historical content which does not accord with Hegel’s “mystical starting point” is to be identified with its exoteric and irrational aspects and left out of the picture.

This is why, as Marx says, the “irrational reality” of the state “contradicts” the Hegelian principle that “the real is the rational.” Marx knows that Hegel does not claim simply that “what exists is real and is therefore rational,” or that “only rational things exist,” so to deny these would not contradict Hegel’s meaning. Obviously it requires more than merely pointing out that “something irrational exists” to undermine Hegel’s claim, for which the “real” or “actual” is that which has undergone the development of its concept through a historically visible process of negation, resulting in the coincidence of its essence with its existence (following Knox, in Hegel 1971, 302 n. 27). Reading these comments in the context of the notes as a whole, Marx suggests that although formally Hegel’s concept of the state does describe the resolution of particular and universal interests, all one needs to do is to observe the divergence between this conceptually resolved essence and the logic of state practices and one will see their contradiction: The state appears as an irrational reality if conceived in terms of a rationality that belongs to it as a result of empirically real processes, properly understood, and this cannot be seen from the formal standpoint of the rationality of its concept or essence alone. From the standpoint of the broader critique of Hegel’s notion of science, this suggests that for Marx the real-irrational can be known scientifically, rationally recovered, and criticized. Indeed, if Marx believes any science can explain the kind of irrational existent he wants to thematize, he must restate or reinterpret the Hegelian equation of real and rational, not merely contradict or negate it.

A science which might make something like this possible would have to be analytical and critical, which is what Marx suggests by calling it comprehensive.

[A] truly philosophical criticism of the present constitution does not content itself with showing that it contains [formal, logical] contradictions: it explains them, comprehends their genesis, their necessity. It grasps their particular significance. This act of comprehension does not however consist, as Hegel thinks, in discovering the determinations of the concepts of logic at every point; it consists in the discovery of the particular logic of the particular object.

Such criticism returns to the real content of its presuppositions and analyzes their particular logic, progression, or dynamic. The prospect here is for a science carrying forward the possibility Hegel had opened of accounting for social change systematically and as a development. For Marx, this would depend on comprehending the irrationality of functioning empirical, social-historical institutions and circumstances, and conceiving them systematically. For this to be possible, science would need to integrate both the causal-systematic dimensions accessible through analytical scientific reasoning and the inferential and evaluative forms of rationality through which the human dimensions of the subjectivity of social processes can be recognized and kept in view.

In this way, the subjectivity Hegel had attributed to Mind would be restored to humans as the “true agents” of social processes, arrangements, and institutions. The reversal of Hegel’s notion of the relationship between civil society and the state results from these philosophical and scientific improvements on Hegel’s philosophical science.

The Idea is subjectivized [by Hegel] and the real relationship of the family and civil society to the state is conceived as their inner, imaginary activity. The family and civil society are preconditions of the state; they are its true agents; but in speculative philosophy it is the reverse. When the Idea is subjectivized the real subjects-civil society, the family, “circumstances, caprice, etc.”-are all transformed into unreal, objective moments of the Idea referring to different things. (Marx 1975a, 62)

Hegel is committed to overcoming the limitations of critical philosophy, but is unable to show the rationality of the real; to “regard the universal as the real essence of the finite real, i.e. of what exists and is determined, or to regard real existent things as the true subject of the infinite” (Marx 1975a, 80). Hegel cannot grasp empirical social arrangements and institutions as expressions of human subjectivity in their contributions to the creation of culture and human society; of really existing ‘mind.’ This follows from the fact that in conceiving the empirical world as irrational and rendering it philosophically unintelligible, the human aspects of social history are forced to become merely passive reflections of the progress of Mind.

Thus, for Marx, another link from Hegel’s explanatory failure to his own emerging social scientific perspective returns to and emphasizes the historical-subjective dimensions of social institutions and processes, as opposed to their structural dimensions. Subjectivity plays an irreducible role in a view of history as fundamentally involved with our social and political choices and the struggles in which they are reflected. These, Marx says, must remain the focus of social science as the real “preconditions” of its subject matter. In this sense, anything short of what Marx calls “comprehensive” criticism is not enough for social science to avoid lapsing into ideology, or dogmatism, or some kind of critical failure. The “particular logic of the particular object” would require the analysis and examination of how the concrete social processes created and suffered by the “true agents” of social history occur under particular historical social relations, and would necessarily involve rational-critical reflection upon and judgment about the broader human rationality of those conditions.


The critical failure of the Philosophy of Right reflects Hegel’s methodological predisposition to accept and legitimize social reality. But, this predisposition is clearly identified by Marx with Hegel’s inability to explain social processes: it is a charge that Hegel is unscientific. Marx argues that Hegelian philosophical science suppresses the real-irrational and only lends an ultimately circular kind of support to Hegel’s broader philosophical assumptions that absolute knowing and human freedom have been accomplished and are expressed in his own present. For Marx, Hegel’s philosophical science undermines itself and weakens its sense for the world in failing to thematize the irrational or negative moment as part of the logic or development of empirical circumstances themselves.

Hegel certainly knew that the clue to the rationality of the real was the moment of its negativity, or its irrationality. The progress of reason could only be discovered as the legacy of the process of negation, contradiction, and overcoming disclosed from the standpoint of the Totality. Marx tries to recover the presence of the irrational in real, sensuous, incomplete history, whose clue can be provided in the disclosure of the rationality of the “finite real” by science. The problem then with Hegel’s social science is not that it imposes a logic or narrative of reason upon empirical events, but, rather, that it cannot thematize the irrationality of history in empirical terms, because it fails to really grasp its rationality. The unresolved dichotomies and distinctions Marx points out in Hegel’s account reflect the empirical conflicts and divisions of Hegel’s present, but remain untouched and untransformed by his conceptual narrative and resolution. For Marx, science must grasp the logic of such conflicts and divisions themselves, conceived historically and causally in terms of a systematic process of development.

For Marx, then, against Hegel, it is not the moment of reason at the end of history in which freedom is grasped as a reality adequate to its concept. Rather, it is in the more immediate prospect of a rational grasp of irrational historical conditions that humanity comes closer to the place where it can choose because of what it knows, and where it knows it must choose. Science thus has great significance for Marx as he frames the critique of Hegel: that in knowing what can be known we may act deliberately against the irrational that science helps us to identify, and enter upon the possibility of making the world more rational than it is after a conscious and deliberate plan.