Aristotle’s Essentialist view

On the Relationship Between Aristotle’s and Marx’s Essentialist view of Human
An Exercise in Historiography  (How Does the Kitten Become a Cat?)

These notes are based on Scott Meikle’s Book, Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx

(Open Court Publishing Coy., Illinois, 1985).

Key Words

Essentialism: Theory of the essence of an entity or organism means the characteristics that make it the particular kind of thing it is; not to be understood on the basis of surface appearance alone, but also including its hidden contradictions.
Teleology: Theory of an organism’s development from immature, to mature and a declining form; how its characteristic behaviour or function (ergon) is to be explained in a law-like fashion (cf. laws of nature, e.g. gravity, etc.) Two further factors need to be considered:

(a) NECESSARY DEVELOPMENT = the organism should be able to reach its full potential or final goal (Telos); (b) the role of ACCIDENT in nature/history.

Telos: Firstly, the development of the organism is a contradictory process; i.e. dialectical. However an organism’s necessary development can be interrupted, denied altogether, by accidents.  Secondly, ‘A whole entity can be anything from an amoeba to a form of human society, or an astronomical system.’ (Meikle)

Historiography: The science of writing history.

The struggle between two opposing schools of thought in philosophy - essentialism and atomism.


Marx’s view that a new form of society is born in the womb of the old one is derived from the ‘Aristotelian tradition’. Anti-marxists argue about the wrongness of Marx’s materialist theory of history and the naturalness of market economy. This has a long  antecedence, dating back to the classical political economists, who were Marx’s starting point. What he found in Adam Smith, et al were the categories required for a materialist version of Hegel’s idealist theory of history. But he also found in the former an anti-Aristotelian, anti-organicist, ‘ungenetical’ form (as he later puts it in his Theories of Surplus Value), i.e. atomistic philosophy. Atomism ( = atomistic small-bits that combine and repel in a void) is the antithesis of Aristotle. Therefore Marx begins to reconstruct the categories of political economy on an Aristotelian and essentialist basis in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). He rehabilitates the Aristotelian tradition and at the same time links Aristotle’s theory of human nature with a materialist historiography.

From Aristotle to Hegel and Marx

Aristotle’s essentialism stands in opposition to atomism and individualism, or the idea that everything is reducible to its basic constituents, e.g. atoms or individual units which make up the whole. Whereas essentialism conceives of organic wholes. Despite its complexity of form, the whole cannot be reducible to the sum of its parts.

At the same time, we have to distinguish between essence and appearance. It is impossible to conceive of reality only in terms of appearance, without analysing the hidden elements beneath the surface of things, including their contradictory movement. Whereas the former may be verifiable by means of physical evidence, the latter cannot. It requires mediation of thought; it may become explicable by means of a logical proof. Yet it is only the hidden elements which can provide us with a complete understanding of reality.

Of course, Aristotle used the concept of essentialism only with regard to nature, not human society. So when he uses the word organism, he is referring to biological entities, not social entities. It is also the basis for scientific socialism’s understanding of the processes of the natural world (c.f. atomism).

It enables us to analyse a particular organism, including its development from its immature form towards maturity. The latter may be defined as the full realisation of its species potential. In his book, Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx (1985), Scott Meikle uses the analogy of the kitten which is expected to develop into a cat. But can adherents of Marx’s scientific socialism extend the notion of the organism to human society itself? Can we regard the human species as an organism, including the way in which it organises its relationship with the rest of nature, via different modes of production? This means that we must also bring history into the equation.

Classical Marxism holds to the theory that fundamentally Marx is an essentialist. It is the basis of all his thought. Therefore he constructs the notion of the evolution of human society. (N.B. Evolution itself proceeds by means of sudden, contradictory turns; the future dominant world species is already developing in the shadow of the existing one, e.g. mammals were already in existence during the age of the dinosaurs, prior to the latter’s extinction, sudden or otherwise. This is a dialectical view of nature.) Hence Marx theorises the evolution of human society, dialectically, based on a mode of production for the survival and development of the species: from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism and finally socialism, as the precursor of communism. Under communism man is able to realise his species potential. Such a development is the necessary condition for man to become fully human. That is his telos. But this is not guaranteed; it is not part of some divine plan.

In accordance with Aristotelian dialectics (continuity v. discontinuity, supersession), we have to distinguish between a potential for change, which is inherent within the organism’s essential nature, and the erroneous notion of inevitable outcomes.

A Marxist Historiography - derived from Aristotelian philosophy

(This, of course, is based on dialectical materialism, not idealism) 7 Points:

1. Aristotle in his Politics, introduces the method of looking for the general in the particular, for the underlying essence and the forms through which it develops, culminating in the point or telos of each form. In Chapter 2,  we see an essentialist theory of the origin of the state (see pp 508-509, tutor’s handout). In passing he says that the state exists by nature and that nature itself is its end; ‘the coming into existence of any object, that is what we call its nature - of man for instance, or a horse’, etc. The aim of its end is ‘perfection’. Hence in Nicomacheon Ethics, Book I, Ch. 13 (pp 374 -5) Aristotle outlines the condition for human happiness, which is that man must fulfil his ergon, the function of his soul, in accordance with the rational principle; the irrational or the ‘desiring element’ must be persuaded by reason to serve the rational, presently demonstrated in music, e.g. by the lute player.

2. Meikle notes that In NE, 5,5, Aristotle ‘shows clearly the penetrative power of essentialist categories and method, ...among other things it brought him closer to an understanding of money than any author until the 19th century.’ In his own way, he identifies the growth and origin of circuits C-C, C-M-C, M-C-M and M-M, culminating in a new form of circulation of goods and the appearance of money. According to the Aristotelian scholar, Sir David Ross, for each form, Aristotle speaks about its ‘necessary development from its previous form’. Therefore each form may be considered to have its own object, high point or telos. But the aim of the third circuit, M-C-M, is different, because it is concerned only with the getting of money, and that only by that method can we have an exchange of goods... ‘Money is the beginning and end of this exchange’; ‘there is no end to the limit it seeks’; the end it seeks is wealth...the mere acquisition of money. ‘All of this, and a good deal more, is quoted by Marx in Capital’.. Thus he found good reason to ‘go back to the great investigator who was the first to analyse the value form, like so many other forms of thought, society and nature. I mean Aristotle.’

3. Aristotle presents the view that society is a natural growth, albeit along dialectical lines. But this view is contradicted by the atomist-analytical view of society, viz., that the latter is merely ‘an aggregation of individuals who ‘choose’ to live together rather than alone. This is the conception that underlies all modern contractualarian theorists of the bourgeois epoch from Hobbes onwards.’ Therefore what we see is the translation of Aristotle’s essentialism into its opposite, atomism. Whereas the essential strand of contractualarian thinking (= some kind of agreement between the rulers and the ruled) about the origin and nature of the state was not a creation of the modern world. It can be seen in the work of the ancients, e.g.  Plato’s Republic. In Plato’s time, the commonplace view was that the basis of the state was one of co-operation among individuals; which in turn is the way to the more efficient supply of physical goods, ‘ and the like’. Therefore the telos of human association (or the state) is ‘the higher provision of the good life’, the means to the realisation of ‘the potentialities inherent in the essence of man’.
(Meikle) However, for Aristotle, of course, this also meant an unequal ‘association formed by men with these two, women and slaves’. (Politics, ch. 2)

4. Scientific History: In his Poetics, Aristotle appears to privilege poetry over history, because poetry ‘speaks rather of the general, history...of the particular. But as Meikle says, this does not mean that Aristotle believed a scientific history was impossible; rather that historians had not yet thought of it. Like poetry, such a history would not speak of the particular; but of the generality in the particular. ‘The general is honoured because it reveals the cause.’ To know the cause, we must look for the general in the line of necessity, which is ‘possible only in relation to an identifiable whole, in whose development or movement according to its nature (ergon) the  necessity lies’.

5. Hegel’s philosophy of history is informed by Aristotle’s categories. In his conception of the historical process, he comes close to that of Marx. So he left Marx little more to do than the task of adjustment on Hegel’s work in order to arrive at his own theory.
In his Philosophy of History, Hegel’s adopts 3 Aristotelian positions :
(a) Chance is not the basis of phenomena. (b) ‘A principle, a law, is something implicit, which is not completely real (actual)...not yet in reality...a possibility.’ (c) The phenomena of history arise from the whole organism or essence, which undergoes transformation of form, and has an end or telos. The telos of world history for Hegel is ‘freedom of the spirit’ or the ‘actualisation of freedom’, which is the ‘final purpose of the world. Necessity = the line of development in which man’s nature realises that potential. Hegel’s view of history is ‘the union of freedom and necessity’, in which reason achieves its apogee. On the one hand, we have the inner (unconscious) development of the spirit; on the other, it ends with the freedom contained in men’s conscious volitions; albeit in relation to what is necessary, such as the satisfaction of human needs, man’s response to natural change, etc.

On this basis, like the natural organism, world history passes through stages. But as in nature, accidents can happen which frustrate the organism’s completion; an accident frustrates the realisation of potentials. (Cf. the metaphor of the kitten which is run over as it crosses the road.. Therefore it is unable to realise its potential to grow into a mature cat, the latter being its telos or final goal.)

6. Marx’s task is to ‘set Hegel on his feet’: He seeks to transform Hegel’s ideas, inspired by Aristotelian idealism into those of his own, i.e. Aristotelian materialism, without losing what Hegel had gained. So for Marx the concrete-sensuous world is the real starting point of history. Therefore human social labour is the basis of all socio-historical forms: economic, political, cultural, etc. These forms cohere into social organisms. Each form develops out of necessity, in accordance with its own nature, along a line which is determined by its form - unless its is obstructed by something external to itself. The development of humanity’s fundamental essence, via the historical process, successive modes of production, which prepare the way for the next, whose telos is communism (a society of ‘freely associated producers’, able to plan the future of humanity rationally, albeit in harmony with the rest of nature). Communism is the telos of the development of human beings, because it is part of their natural species being.

How is this to be achieved? The answer, of course, is the proletariat: It is the class which develops out of the capitalist mode of production (i..e. within the womb of the existing society). But it differs from all other exploited classes in history, because it is ‘a class...which has radical chains, a class in civil society which is not of civil society, a class..., because its sufferings are universal..., which is a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity.’ (See Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846).

However, in order to achieve the latter, i.e. usher in the new socialist society (precursor of communism), even if the conditions are ripe for the necessary transformation of society into this final epoch in human history (the beginning of real, unfettered history), the revolutionary class must first become conscious of its task.  As Marx says, it is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence. It is their social existence which determines their consciousness.  On the other hand, he also wrote that man makes his own history, but not under conditions of his own choosing. The attainment of necessary/adequate consciousness cannot be measured with the ‘accuracy of physical science’. This is because accidents are possible, which derail the development of the social organism. Therefore the  ‘final cause’ is  not guaranteed.

Man makes his own history, albeit with or without consciousness. The next stage in the development of human society depends on man’s ability to develop  the necessary - adequate - consciousness required for a social revolution that will usher in a new socialist society, which is transitional to communism. But the achievement of  adequate consciousness are initially impeded by the material conditions man has created already, which constitute the basis of man’s ‘mind-forged manacles’.

In his EPM, Marx discusses the following contradictions: Under capitalism ( a new form of private ownership, based on capital, not ownership of land), he identifies the following impediments to the achievement of adequate consciousness: alienated labour; commodity fetishism; division of labour. Apropos the latter (arguably the most important), on the basis of instrumental reason (cf. Enlightenment reason, which looks forward to the establishment of a new social order based on reason and natural law), for the sake of the ‘accumulation of capitals’ (N.B. which makes man a means to an end, not an end in itself), the capitalist imposes a new - hierarchal - division of labour. This separates practical from intellectual labour; and within the latter, there is also a further division: the fragmentation of knowledge into specialisms.

Somehow (which Marx never really explains) these impediments (the ‘big four’) must be overcome or sublated. But the social revolution, whose moment had come in 1914, was derailed and then betrayed by Social Democracy and Stalinism.

Therefore we must now add another - fifth - impediment to adequate consciousness: This is actually threefold process: Given the rise of a universal commodity form and its global market, this involves: (a) the rise of  mass consumerism, (b) along with  entertainment or the ‘culture industry’ (as Adorno calls it), (c) whose conduit is the advertising industry. Therefore the 20th century ended, not with a successful social revolution, but ‘late capitalism’, characterised  as the  societe  de consommation, the mass media society, the society of the spectacle, which is facilitated by  technology - and its ongoing innovation - as the means to deliver it (assembly line/film/TV/internet/iphone). As before, the masses and their ‘mind-forged manacles’ are tired and stultified by alienated labour, wage labour, which is a ‘one-sided, machine-like type of labour’, as well as commodity fetishism (the need for money in order to live). But now the masses can be distracted by new ‘needs’, sensuous-concrete objects; i.e. the manufacture of ‘calculated artefacts’; which are also affordable, given the fact that they are mass produced in a standardised way; consumer products, on the one hand, and a monocultural form of mass entertainment, on the other. (The latter is based on sensuous imagery, e.g. gratuitous violence, pornography, degrading trivia, etc.) Thus the old fetishism of religion is reforged in a secular form: commodity fetishism, the need for money, which now includes new (un)necessary wants.
Today, these  five impediments are embodied in the discontented, emptied-out individual (cf. Adorno’s subjectless subject). Modern man is uncomfortable with his alienated state, but nevertheless he sees capitalism as the only alternative. It is the natural order of things! But can he really have faith in the ability of the capitalist class, his own leaders, bourgeois democracy, etc. to solve the great problems, which are of their own making, and which threaten the future of humanity: viz. over-production, the growing gap between rich and poor, destruction of the environment (via deforestation, pollution, etc); global warming, for which man may have some responsibility (or is entirely responsible, according to some).

7. To reiterate an earlier point, re necessity v. accident: As in nature, accidents can/do happen which frustrate the organism’s development (such as the kitten, etc.) But how does my concept of accident fit into human history, i.e. one which is such magnitude as to frustrate humanity’s realisation of its potential or its telos as a ‘species being’? Answer: It is humanity’s failure to seize the historical opportunity to establish  the new socialist, communist society, for which the necessary conditions of its existence already exist. On the one hand, the 20th century is characterised as ‘the epoch of wars and revolutions’; on the other, it is marred by the fact that the revolution started at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and with the wrong dramatise personnae: 1917 not 1914; Russia not Germany; German Social Democracy not the Bolsheviks. As they say, the rest is history, for the time being at least. In terms of a marxist historiography, this is the accident of accidents!


We have yet to recover from the ‘midnight of the century’ (as Victor Serge so aptly described it); that is the period (1939-45) when the world was divided between two opposing repressive collectivities: On the one hand, we had the Stalinist regime, which supposedly based itself on a rational end (socialism/communism/ a classless society/the ‘realm of freedom’); albeit it relied on irrational means (slave labour/arbitrary and brutal repression of millions of human beings). On the other, there was Hitler’s regime, which based itself on an irrational end (Fascism/the Thousand Year Reich/the master race/genocide); albeit this was based on the rational working of capital and its market (‘production for production’s sake’/wage labour and profit = the misuse of instrumental reason).

The poisonous legacy of this terrible Stalinist past continues to blight the present. Even the intelligentsia is lost inside a fog of its own making. For the foreseeable future, humanity has rejected the ideas of socialism, let alone communism. Meanwhile in the epoch of imperialism (the highest stage of capitalism), which now takes the form of multi-national corporations, given its insoluble contradictions - and the exhaustion of its mediating factors  - colonialism, racism, imperialist wars, etc. - the system has now entered the epoch of its own decline. It’s causes and symptoms are as follows:

The domination of parasitic finance capital over productive capital;  this allows for short-term profits, which benefit only a tiny minority (the so-called 1%); because capital is no longer able to sustain long-term investment, including research and development to create real innovation (e.g. in computer technology, robot labour, a drive to increase productivity, etc.). This in turn, is a consequence of disproportionality or an imbalance between production/consumption. An increase in the productive forces also means more training and jobs, higher pay for workers. (But this could easily lead to inflationary spiral, a rise in militant labour, more strikes, etc; i.e. another decade which led to the Evenements of 1968, which  the capitalists would like to avoid, obviously!). Hence it’s political elites have no alternative to their current austerity ‘strategy’, which is  its own end; except that this does nothing to restore the ‘accumulation of capitals’, i.e. sustainable growth, which is the basis of capitalism as we know it. Therefore the law of value itself is beginning to be undermined through  measures such as ‘quantitative easing’, which are imposed periodically by international/state banks; i.e. the injection of electronic capital, as a means to sustain a minimum standard of life in the short term, etc. At the same time, we have an unprecedented rise in inequality; a burgeoning refugee crisis; the rape of the environment and pollution of the planet; along with an endless  ‘war on terror’, but this merely feeds death cults and a terrorist response, which can strike anywhere at any time.. Finally, at the level of philosophy and social movements, we have the  ‘logics of disintegration’; aka post-structuralism = ideas based on scepticism and eclecticism; accompanied by the  rise of ‘identity politics’ (from feminism to gay rights and now ‘trans’ people; who come into increasing conflict with each another = the ‘logics of disintegration’ (Cf. grand narratives, such as marxism.)

On the one hand, we have the fragmentation of division of labour; on the other, we have the relentless atomisation of society under the commodity form (in both the practical and theoretical sense). But all of this is happening at the expense of a conscious class struggle on a collective basis. Thus taken altogether, we have the causes and   symptoms of capitalist decay as a system or entity. It is beginning to transition into something else, but what, we may well ask? (A society like Blade Runner is my own tentative answer!)

Today therefore - contra the charge of inevitabilism of  which Marx  is often accused - his dictum:  ‘either socialism or barbarism’, has begun to assume a deeper, darker meaning. This then, is how we should understand Marx’s essentialist, materialist, view of human nature, including a marxist historiography; which is inspired by a Aristotelian approach to philosophy, within which he derived such concepts as the telos of all things, including man, who has yet to fulfil himself (in the generic sense) as a ‘species being’.

Thus, given all of the above, one may ask, can the kitten still become a cat?

Revised, May 2016