His work remains: Frankfurt philosopher Alfred Schmidt was a pioneer of thinking about the "natural basis of every conceivable society."
Schmidt was a pioneer of thinking about the "natural basis of every conceivable society" Photo: dpa
Alfred Schmidt (1931-2012) was a philosophy professor in Frankfurt/Main from 1972 to 1999 – succeeding Jurgen Habermas in Max Horkheimer’s former chair. Schmidt received his doctorate from Adorno and Horkheimer in 1960 with a thesis on the "Concept of Nature in Marx’s Teaching." Quite atypical is the long-term career of his dissertation.
The academic journeyman’s piece was translated into 18 (!) languages and is still available in German in its 5th edition. Anyone who was interested in Marx and studied philosophy at European and American universities between 1966 and the turn of the millennium could not avoid Schmidt’s "Natur-Buch". Its total circulation, including various pirated editions in the 1970s, is not known.
The dissemination of the dissertation, which significantly influenced the reception of Marx in the FRG, is probably only surpassed by Johannes Agnoli’s "Transformation of Democracy" (1968), and gives the lie to Adorno’s accurate judgment in the preface to the first edition, which belittles Schmidt’s merits: "The work is a contribution to the philosophical interpretation of Marx." No, it is much more – it opened eyes to a view of Marx’s work that is not nailed down by "Marxist-Leninist" phrases and dogmas.
In this respect, it is very commendable that Michael Jeske and Bernard Gorlich are publishing an anthology of seven of Schmidt’s lesser-known essays and lectures from 1970 to 1993, as well as a 1995 conversation between Schmidt and Bernard Gorlich.
Alfred Schmidt: "Marx as Philosopher." Ed. by Jeske/Gorlich. Afterword by Helmut Reinicke. Zu Klampen Verlag, 204 pages, 22 euros.
Schmidt’s preoccupation with Marx always pursued the goal of presenting Marx’s materialism as a conception that was free of crude epistemological theories of depiction or reflection in the sense of a literally understood theory according to which being determines consciousness. Philosophically, this theory persists at the level of the calumny, "Man is what he eats."
Idea and Matter
Marx does not assume a subjectless matter and an object- or The concept of materialism is not based on a worldless concept of the subject, but on the "metabolism of human beings and nature" (Marx) and the historically determined forms of social practice of the "generic being" human being, i.e., the complex interplay of work, interaction, and language. Schmidt speaks in this context already in the 1970s of a "qualitatively new materialism." As a connoisseur of the history of materialism since antiquity, he repeatedly drew attention to Marx’s materialism in his dissertation, in his Feuerbach book, and in essays and lectures.
Guided by Hegel’s view of the philosophical significance of labor in history, Karl Marx bid farewell to the quasi-static materialism of the 18th century and placed pulsating social praxis – the process of the mutual mediation of idea and matter, spirit and nature – at the center of his philosophy.
Only Marx thus arrived at a "conception of human reality as activity" (Alfred Schmidt), that is, as social practice in history and shaped by it – neither by "ideas" nor by natural or atomic-molecular substrates or a human nature, however imagined, as old materialists and newer Social Darwinists thought and think until the recent present. Schmidt also set himself apart from the historical-philosophical-speculative-fueled evocation of the "non-identical" that was and is common in Adorno-affine epigonal small-master prose.
Shoals of Theory
In his essay on the "epistemological concept of political economy" (1968), Schmidt showed the dual character of Marx’s critique of real political-economic conditions and of the theoretical self-understanding of the theoreticians of classical economics, or of how the contradictions in social-economic reality reproduce themselves dialectically as shoals of theory. Thus, the philosopher Alfred Schmidt, who was born in Berlin in 1931 and died in Frankfurt in 2012, always vigorously resisted the attribution of theoretical impositions and political brutalities of "real existing socialism" to Marxian theory.
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Such attributions are based on transparent political calculations or on the reinterpretation of critically meant categories into affirmative ones, as "the anti-fantasy, nothing-but-scientific socialism" (Schmidt) itself praised, in order to conceal the fact that neither the orientation towards "scientificity" nor the overthrow of "property relations" lead to even halfway acceptable conditions in terms of human rights, economics, and for Schmidt especially important: ecologically.
Schmidt was a pioneer of thinking about the "natural basis of every conceivable society", which, however, does not mean that he speculated about "world riddles" (Ernst Haeckel) or "world formulas" (Stephen Hawking).