In (1978) Alfred Sohn-Rethel argues that the ‘enigmatic cognitive faculties of civilized man’ have their roots in the act of commodity exchange. This is put forward as a counter to a Kantian theory of cognition which locates the conceptual prerequisites for sense making in an a priori transcendental subject. Sohn-Rethal agrees with Kant that “the principles of knowledge fundamental to the quantifying sciences cannot be traced to the sensorial capacity of experience” (p.38) but he thinks they can be traced to “the spatio-temporal reality of social being…as reflections of the abstraction enshrined in money” (p.203).
A number of different but related theses are incorporated into this claim.Of particular interest is that which characterizes the abstraction inherent in exchange (the source of “pure intellectual concepts”) as ‘real abstraction’. The ‘real abstraction’ of exchange, says Sohn-Rethel, is not be located in the minds of individual participants but in the actions they perform:
“In commodity exchange the action and consciousness of people go separate
ways. Only the action is abstract, the consciousness of the actors is not.
The abstractness of their actions is hidden to the people performing it.”
Here we find a version of abstraction perhaps at odds with certain cognitive scientific accounts (e.g. Clark & Grush, 1999) which link the origins of human cognition with the individual subject’s capacity to go ‘offline’ from immediate engagement with the world.
Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978), Intellectual and Manual Labour – A Critique of Epistemology, London, Macmillan.
Excerpts are available at: