Language is a Socially Transitive Verb: Completing Marx’s Removal of Idealism and Metaphysics

In The German Ideology, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the Theses on Feuerbach and elsewhere, Marx sought to remove metaphysics, idealism and ideology from his analyses and make his analyses concrete, material, practical, and historical.  While this was successful in many ways, there are vestiges and gaps in what he said at the time, and later.  This is the segment of his writings that has led to disputes over whether he had a rupture or discontinuity in his thinking between the early Marx and the later Marx, or whether his thoughts were continuous (Balibar, 2017, Afterword).

His basic argument was that all metaphysical terms are illusory and should be replaced by descriptions of material social relations, especially the social relations involved in resource production and distribution.  This, then, prefigured his extensive analyses in Das Capital and elsewhere.  The main reason this looks like a rupture in his thinking is that many of the terms in the earlier works are hardly ever discussed again in his works.  This not only includes idealism and metaphysics, but also terms like consciousness, thinking, and language, terms which now are supposed to be in the realm of psychology.

One view of the ‘rupture’ is that he had solved the issues of these terms and did not need to address them again; another is that he became preoccupied with the more important task of analysing the social and economic conditions of capitalism.  I wish to pursue another idea here that there were complexities which Marx did not know how to fix and so he wisely moved on rather than continuing with philosophy and other abstractions.  However, these have not been solved by anyone since then so they remain points of contention.

I wish to suggest below some ways we can resolve these and move on, like Marx did with economics, to the more detailed social, economic and cultural analyses of human ‘psychology’.  This comes through working with contextualisms, behaviour analysis and others (see reference list at end for more), so we can view language, thought and ‘consciousness’ in material terms which I think would satisfy Marx’s early writings.

My particular concern is that I believe Marx did not have a solution as to how ‘consciousness’ or ‘thinking’ were actually material social relationships.  These appear somewhat awkwardly in his later works and in Marxist writings, since consciousness and thinking appear in most western philosophy and psychology since the Greeks as idealistic and essentialistic concepts which do not have an observable material basis.  Just repeating that ‘they are based in real social relations’ does not help much, especially when replaced by psychologies that are still based on unobservable, hypothetical ‘inner’ events.  The following applies a way of thinking about ‘thinking’ and ‘consciousness’ to make it observable and material.

I will walk you through some points:

  1. Individual humans have material relationships with inanimate objects and also with other people, through the consequences or outcomes of those events changing the context in some way. We can open doors for ourselves to get through and we can open the door for an elderly person; the two actions are different because the events change the world in different ways as consequences (one gets us outside, the other helps our relationship in many different ways with the elderly person). This is material, and the material effects or consequences of our actions then guide or channel our future actions.

Humans also learn language, and, in fact, overlearn language, but this is simply another special case of having relationships with other people through outcomes or consequences changing the world (which we learn through years of learning).  Cats do not teach us the word ‘cat’, people do.  The responses or outcomes we get to the word ‘cat’ can only be material effects or changes arising from other people who have learned in the same way.  Our saying ‘cat’ gets no material effects or consequences from a cat.

In this way, our uses of language are material events because they only have real, material effects—but they only do this from another person who has learned that language also.  If we have those conditions, then language is merely another way of doing things in this world which has consequences that alter the world a bit.  This is why I emphasize that language is a socially transitive verb, not an abstract noun.

  1. We hugely overlearn our uses of language so that whatever events happens in our lives, some talking (or thinking) is usually the first and foremost response, and we usually have multiple different verbal responses because we have learned to respond for different audiences. That is, the first thing we now do in life is talk about what is happening.

The outcomes of language use are social responses, remember, so they relate to the material social situations we are experiencing in life.  For example, with ‘contradictory social relationships’ we can have contradictory ways of talking.  But they are really conflicting responses and not actually contradictions, since when separately in front of the different audiences we can say the different things and there is no conflict.  But they are conflicting if both audiences (or both situations of life events) are present simultaneously so both change their outcomes.

(Coincidentally, this is also a new way of envisaging dialectical contradictions as contextualism; there are no contradictions in the material world, just conflicting outcomes from language use with different audiences; we resolve ‘contradictions’ by changing our material social worlds; I will write Mao about this another day 🙂 )

  1. I can open a door for someone even when no one is there and I do not want to go out. As mentioned, this is different from opening a door for yourself to get through, but we learn the response so well we can do it when no one else is there. It does require a special context for it to occur, however (we do not go around all day opening doors).

So in the same way, I can have the conversations and talking I normally have with other people even when they are not there, and we can even hear them talk when they are not there.  This is a key point, and a difficult one.  Difficult because this is what constitutes thinking and consciousness, and doing these conversations without anyone there is still a material, social relation, it has not become something inner, idealistic, or metaphysical.

But through western history at least, such conversing-when-no-one-is-here has been considered non-material and metaphysically different to talking in front of someone.  And moreover, we do not argue that opening a door when no one is there is non-material or metaphysical; we only argue this when we act as if conversing or listening to conversation and no one is there.  Such material events have usually been conveniently placed ‘in the head or mind’, although this make no real sense.

And this is the basis of idealisms, the cogito, cognitive processing models more recently, and all the mind, soul and psyche notions.  It is also the material basis in social relationships for what is called consciousness.  With what we call thinking or consciousness, we are ‘doing’ conversations but without the other people being present, and this is not taking place ‘inside’ us but arises from our history of social relations in a material way, since these social relations have shaped these absent conversations by their consequences, not by some ‘inner determinant’.  They have been shaped and overlearned through material consequences from our social relationships.

Thinking and consciousness therefore become concrete and social, as material conversations with no one there.  They are also potentially observable, because I just need to observe your current contexts very, very carefully to know what conversations you are likely to be having—whether or not anyone is there.  In practice this would be difficult, but the point is that if I were to know your detailed material contexts, I would know what you are thinking.  I do not need to go ‘inside your head’.

5. With this view, we can see better how talking and thinking are purely social, and this includes all types of talking and thinking, including what is called consciousness, ideology, cognition, etc. So talking and thinking have a material basis and that is in the consequences of our social relations, just as Marx understood but did not explore. The training and shaping of language use between peoples over many years of our lives is the concrete material basis for this, not a mind or consciousness acting as an agent or subject.

6. So I have argued that, as Marx suggested but without details, the material basis for our thinking and ‘consciousness’ lies in our social relations, but he was vague as to how to work this through. When someone reports thinking or talking, we must observe and analyse where this language use has been shaped, what audiences were involved, and what this language use was doing in their world (the outcomes or consequences which alter the world in some way).


So language is a socially transitive verb. We need to think of and research language as ‘doing something which has social outcomes which alter the world’. The parts taught as grammar and syntax are about how we can get language to work better, more quickly and smoother (like how easy it is to open a door, or does it get stuck regularly), and pragmatics and discourse analysis are about what we do with language once we have spent many years learning (like what we then do with our smoothly operating doors).  What do we do to people with language is the real question?

All the different ‘forms’ of language are delineated because they are doing slightly different things to people, with different outcomes for our worlds (poetry, prose, ideology, science talk and writing, comedy, joking, gossip, shaming, bad-mouthing, conversation, suggestions, song, argument, rhetoric, cognitive therapy, hypnosis, shaman ritual, drama, advertising, political oratory, magic spells). All this really means is that they have different social consequences which alter the world so we behave differently in future.



The following are some authors who were trying to get material versions of language, thought and consciousness.  The first list you can find by searching Google.  Many of these authors try and find the material basis by trying to find a material basis to ‘the subject’, that is, the ‘person’ doing the talking.  Obviously, this is misguided.

Bentley, 1935, 1941/1975; Burke, 1966; Cicourel, 1973; Freire, 2014; Gee, 1992; Harré, 1976; Kantor, 1981; Mead, 1934; C. Wright Mills, 1940; Potter, 2006; Sartwell, 2000; Searle, 1995; Skinner, 1957; te Molder & Potter, 2005; Wertsch, 1985.

Hekman, S. (2010). The material of knowledge: Feminist disclosures. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Balibar, E. (2017). The philosophy of Marx. London: Verso.

Sartwell, C. (2000). End of story: Toward an annihilation of language and history.
New York: State University of New York Press.

Silverman, D., & Torode, B. (1980). The material word: Some theories of language and its limits. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Coward, R., Ellis, J. (1977). Language and materialism: Developments in semiology ad the theory of the subject. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Althusser, L. On ideology. London: Verso.

Godlier, M. (2011). The mental and the material: Thought, economy and society. London: Verso.




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