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Ontology And The Nature Of Theory: The Marxian Vs The Neoclassical

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“Ontology is the study of the nature and structure of being, of the nature of what exists and in this particular case, of the nature of social reality.”

Tony Lawson, 2003

Human nature is an abstract reality that cannot be quantified nor analysed from a classical or Newtonian understanding. But is society a natural phenomenon governed by natural laws? Or is society the interrelation of historical, cultural and institutional coincidences? Are there any universal laws that connect all human beings?

These questions formulate the main clash between the Neoclassical-Marxian consciousnesses and appear to be difficult to answer. When one approaches these fields of thought from an ontological perspective, the aim is to determine what differentiates one from the other altering their nature of existence.

The Ontology Of The Marxian Theory

Marxian theory approaches the human nature from a teleological perspective. It perceives the human being as the only one that performs intentional, pre-determined actions. Georg Lukacs, the founder of “Western Marxism,” insists on viewing human action from a teleological perspective:

“It is only in the activity of humans that, as will be shown, consciousness becomes the directive, central, moment of a process really teleological, in which the result of action is mentally anticipated and then executed in practice.”

At the core of Marx’s ontology stands “labour” surrounded by an atmosphere of material reproduction of his existence called “Economy”. Marx’s aim was to find universal properties that govern labour and not specific properties such as wages or slavery. His ontology categorises labour as the hierarchical superiority of a human being. Nevertheless, Lukacs describes this centrality of labour in a more definitive manner in which he states:

“… The principle of ontological priority must be clearly distinguished from the epistemological and moral, etc. value judgments that beset every idealist or vulgar materialist systemic hierarchy. If we ascribe one category ontologically superior over the others, we simply mean that one of them can exist without the other, without the opposite being the case. This holds for the central thesis of all materialism that being has ontological priority over consciousness.”

Lukacs’ understanding of Marx work does not mean that labour has hierarchal superiority over other forms of being. But on the contrary, labour has ontological priority because it is the source of material reproduction of the human beings and without them, there is no action possible. It is important to remember that Marx’s view on the centrality of labour is built on the idea of historical materialism in which throughout history labour was the dominant productive force in economies before Marx.

Economy And Society According To Marxian Theory

Marx emphasised a strong relation between economy and society in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Accordingly, the human being as a member of society in not driven by his selfish desires, but on the contrary, people cooperate and exchange interests. This cooperation is reflected as a social relation and is materialised in the value of a commodity. Marx himself stated:

“…The totality of these relations constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.”

What differentiates Marxism from other schools of thought, especially the Neo-Classical School, is its subjective approach to human nature. Marx calls this approach Historical Materialism or Dialectical Materialism. He views the nature of the thing as organic interrelated historical consequences that shape current relations and make people dependent on each other. Unlike the objectivity of the Classical or Newtonian theory originated from Isaac Newton and adapted by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx considers human actions a connection between subjectivity and objectivity.

In other words, the problem with the Newtonian actualisation is the act of mathematisation and idealisation of the social being by treating it as a natural science. Unsurprisingly, this act of idealisation assumes a homogeneous reality attempting to address social phenomena in practical terms. To go back to labour, M. Duayer and J. Medeiros connect practice to the objective in a very ontological pattern:

“…Practice is always immediately directed towards a determined concrete objective. For this reason, it presupposes knowledge of the true constitution of objects, relations, and structures, etc. that are means to the posited purpose. It follows from this that practice is intimately related to knowledge. Hence practice, particularly labour, can be conceived as the source of the theoretical activity of men.”

This view indicates a major divergence from the Neo-Classical theory by claiming that one cannot treat human reality according to methodological individualism. However, social reality is conceived as the totality of labour, symbols, cooperation and culture.

Marx goes far in criticising capitalism for distorting social reality. He realised that the social elite is shaping the general consciousness of society:

“…The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force.”

The Ontology Of The Neo-Classical Theory

Mathematical formalism stands at the core of the neoclassical theory. Human beings, however, do not share characteristics with physics. Neo-Classical economics neglected the role of the historicity of institutions, cultures and symbols in shaping the natural order of things. The non-material approach was replaced by a more scientific approach that conceives rationality as the dominant factor in shaping the social and economic order.

German philosopher Carnap believes that any non-positivist approach to building a value judgment is nonsense. In his work The Unity of Science, Carnap states:

“… Statements belonging to Metaphysics, regulative Ethics, and Epistemology have this defect, are in fact unverifiable and, therefore, unscientific. In the Viennese Circle, we are accustomed to describing such statements as nonsense.”

The roots of Neo-Classical economics originates from Adam Smith who is the father of economic idealisation. The admiration of physics in Smith’s work is clearly manifested in his masterpiece Wealth of Nations in which he focuses on certain vocabularies like gravity and equilibrium. For instance, Smith (1776) speaks about prices saying they are “…gravitating towards the natural price.”

When one talks about physics and Newton, one is talking about mechanics and natural order. Homo economics tends to apply the science of mechanics on human beings’ decisions and subsequently, judge the outcome of their choices as logical and realistic as the outcome of a machine. Also, ceteris paribus, the ultimate weakness of the Neo-Classical theory isolates the human being from his superstructure (culture, religion, society) just for the sake of proving their fundamental beliefs in rationality and methodological individualism.

Methodologically, the consciousness of neoclassical theory is placed in the category of empirical epistemology. From this microscope, a small independent unit of a whole called “labour” is viewed, of whose action is driven by an innate rational behaviour, and where the power relations does not rise from the relationship between capital and labour but the innate characteristics of human beings.

Marxism Vs Fundamentalism Of Neoclassical Theory

At the core of this article stands the major difference between Marxism and Neo-Classical theories – methodological individualism versus methodological collectivism, although some Marxists might disagree with this terminology. Freedom, rationality, and utility are not in the natural state of humanity. However, people are a result of the interrelation of all coincidences that took place before they came to being.

To analyse human nature in an economic context, one should not omit any of the two “eyes” that one uses to view the world – quality and quantity. In this context, no one could explain the relationship between quantity and quality better than Marx and Engels. They say:

“… In physics, every change is a passing of quantity into quality, as a result of a quantitative change of some form of movement either inherent in a body or imparted to it. For example, the temperature of the water has at first no effect on its liquid state; but as the temperature of liquid water rises or falls, a moment arrives when this state of cohesion changes and the water is converted in one case into steam and in the other into ice. What is known as the constants of physics are in most cases nothing but designations for the nodal points at which a quantitative increase or decrease of movement causes a qualitative change in the state of the given body, and at which, consequently, quantity is transformed into quality.”


Fundamentalism in Neo-Classical Theory has a different understanding of the social order. Social order is not the result of social relations. However, it results from economic relations. Methodological individualism in its relation to social order begins with self-interested individuals seeking commitment to themselves rather than commiting to society as a whole.

In short, social order is a result of long-term voluntary contracts made by rational individuals who have pre-calculated their interests. But this view of what social order is attracts the reader to certain dialectical questions.

But this view of what social order is attracts the reader to certain dialectical questions. Is the individual independent from his culture? Does language shape the collective behaviour? Is there a common denominator that combines individual preferences? And finally, if the assumption of methodological individualism is true, why does a neoclassical capitalist economy need commodity advertisement?

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