Against teleological historical materialism

Inquiry 25 (4):451 – 469 (1982)
Marx may be taken to hold that productive forces (e.g. the steam engine) explain productive relations (e.g. capitalism) more than the other way on, and that productive relations explain superstructures (e.g. the legal system) more than the other way on. There are no satisfactory standard causal understandings of these claims about explanatory primacy. That is, no standard causal understanding saves Marx from the traditional objection that relations very greatly affect forces, and superstructures very greatly affect relations. One satisfactorily articulated attempt to save Marx has been the attempt to understand the claims teleologically. Three such understandings can be distinguished, but they do not work. The first fails since it attempts to explain events by way of abstract objects. The second fails since it attempts to explain a thing by means of that thing. The third fails for a related reason. Each understanding also fails for another reason as fundamental. So?called teleological explanations are in fact claims that standard causal explanations exist, which relevant explanations conflict with the ruling idea of Marx's philosophy, that history is somehow independent of men's consciousness and wills. There may be no evidence that Marx himself intended historical materialism to be understood teleologically. There may be evidence against
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DOI 10.1080/00201748208601980
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Jon Elster (1986). Ulysses and the Sirens. Philosophy and Public Affairs 15 (1):82-95.

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