‘Ernst Bloch’s Speculative Materialism: Ontology, Epistemology, Politics’ by Cat Moir reviewed by Jack Kellam

Reviewed by Jack Kellam

About the reviewer

Jack Kellam is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge researching contemporary utopian …

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For many Marxian scholars, encounters with Ernst Bloch can be impressionistic. He is a figure usually met in passing, whether as a contemporary and interlocutor of his more prominent contemporaries such as Lukacs and the Frankfurt School, or as part of broader discussions of ‘utopianism’, the subject with which he is most famously associated. Only very rarely, especially in English, is Bloch approached systematically. As a ‘serious’ philosopher, rather than a passionate but verbose advocate of all things ‘utopian’, even less so.

Focusing on his untranslated and often neglected Das Materialismusproblem [The Materialism Problem] (1972), in this recent edition to Brill’s Historical Materialism series, Cat Moir attempts to address Bloch’s relative neglect by developing an interpretation of him as a serious, consistent and significant philosopher within the Marxist tradition. Her central argument is that the perception of Bloch as a skilled and encyclopaedic chronicler of humanity’s utopian longing, who nevertheless relies upon an obscure, unsophisticated – and even ‘irrationalist’ – philosophical basis, is misplaced. If we read wider than his magnum opus, Das Prinzip Hoffnung [The Principle of Hope] (1954), a view of Bloch as the proponent of a distinctive ‘speculative materialist’ philosophy can be revealed, comprised of a clearly delineable ‘ontology’, ‘epistemology’ and ‘politics’ (as the book’s title suggests). 

Taking him seriously as a philosopher, we can install Bloch, at long last, not only to his proper place as an eloquent and sophisticated contributor to the ‘materialism’ debates within Marxist theory in the early twentieth century, but also recover significant intellectual resources towards prominent contemporary concerns that Bloch prefigures, most notably continental philosophy’s turn to ‘new materialism’ and ‘speculative realism’. While there are some existing attempts to place Bloch in dialogue with more current political and philosophical preoccupations – such as Žižek and Thompson’s edited volume, The Privatization of Hope (2013) – Moir’s monograph stands alone in also providing an extended and comprehensive exposition of the German’s philosophical ‘system’.

Although much of the exposition is focused on drawing out the resources of a single, relatively neglected text, the book manages to cover a great deal of ground in under 200 pages. Even though she sensibly leaves Bloch’s elaborate detailing of utopian phenomena in Das Prinzip Hoffnung largely to one side, Moir’s attempt to locate Bloch as an explicit – if unconventional – respondent to a number of classic philosophical problems with their basis in Kant’s critical turn, sees her cover the origins of such debates in German idealism, their reprise in nineteenth-century arguments between neo-Kantians and scientific materialists, and their translation into theoretical disputes between early twentieth century Marxists. We also get a sense of Bloch’s personal and intellectual biography, the political context and impact of his work, and its changing status within Marxist orthodoxy. The final chapter – ‘Relevance and Critique’ – goes on to draw out Bloch’s significance for several contemporary topics in continental philosophy and Marxist theory. Even then, there is still a brief appendix to close, which offers the reader a translation of a section from Bloch’s Das Materialismusproblem into English for the first time. 

While this might raise concerns that Moir has given herself far too much to do, the argument rarely feels rushed. Intellectual context and detail are not overlooked, and Moir’s skill in covering complex philosophical argumentation clearly and synoptically means the book assumes its scope convincingly. As such, although the first three chapters move fast to develop the structure of Bloch’s thought and its relation to a number of aforementioned philosophical debates, they ought still to be comprehensible to non-specialist readers familiar with key concepts and figures in philosophy and Marxist intellectual history. In truth, many sections of the book – possibly due to its origin in doctoral research – would function well as a clear introduction to the basic contours of German idealism and issues in post-Kantian epistemology. Before I turn to draw out and assess some of the book’s substantive arguments, Moir’s work therefore deserves praise for standing out amongst much contemporary writing on Bloch – and especially continental materialisms/realisms – in being so consistently readable and enjoyable.

In his 1960 review of Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, when Habermas labelled Bloch as a ‘speculative materialist’, his intent was thoroughly pejorative. Developing an array of criticisms that have set the tone for many later dismissals of Bloch, Habermas – now famous for his own deeply Kantian reconstruction of critical theory – accused Bloch of being a ‘Marxist Schelling’. The essence of his dismissal is that “Bloch’s philosophy was ‘pre-critical’, it had ‘skipped Kant’, returning to the ‘threshold of high speculation’” in German idealism (3). ‘We are a little tired today’, he patronisingly remarked, ‘of breaking out into free nature’ (2). This reading of Bloch, sometimes shared by critics and sympathisers alike, takes him to rely on a naïve and out-dated philosophy of unmediated access to ‘the real’, that in turn generates a totalitarian spectre in his politics (often evidenced by his unwavering commitment to the USSR during Stalinism’s worst excesses). A pre-critical, naïve realism in philosophy facilitates, the thought is, an uncritical faith in the Soviet ‘concrete utopia’. Bloch, in a way, gets read as an eccentric vulgar Marxist. 

Against such assessments, Moir offers a sustained (if not entirely uncritical) defence of Bloch. We should, she contends, follow Habermas’ suggestion, and read him as a ‘speculative materialist’ (7). But through closer engagement with Das Materialismusproblem – written during the 1930s, but not published until 1972, and therefore well after Habermas’ piece – we can come to see ‘speculative materialism’ as a defensible, attractive even, philosophical position. Moir’s first chapter therefore largely focuses on setting up the historical and intellectual development of the aforementioned ‘materialism problem’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as neo-Kantians, mechanical materialists and then Marxists alike grappled with ‘how minds, with their qualities of experience and freedom of intentionality, can arise in a world that science tells us is governed by deterministic laws’ (28). Developing this intellectual context, Moir suggests, helps us see Bloch’s work as consistently concerned with similar central philosophical problems of ‘matter’ – such as how to explain human consciousness and agency from a materialist perspective – and also how they came to take on political significance in the early Soviet Union.

With this in place, over the following two chapters that form the core of the book, Moir develops the foundations of Bloch’ speculative materialism, looking to address many of the aforementioned misrepresentations of his philosophy. Constructing this argument requires Moir to take an extended foray into quite abstract areas of philosophical interpretation, often in more detail than can be easily summarised here. Her efforts focus first on showing how Bloch’s ‘utopian’ ontology can claim a legitimate – if heterodox – place within the Marxist tradition. If Bloch’s is a speculative materialism, it is also a dialectical materialism: both in the sense of seeing ‘matter’ as necessarily ‘logical’, and in its connotation of an underlying teleology within nature. Bloch’s ontology is distinct, though, from both conventional Hegelian and Marxist understandings of the above insofar as his speculative materialism also insists upon ‘ontological incompleteness: the material world is utopian in that it is literally not yet “there” or complete’ (58). This distances Bloch from Hegelian notions of ultimate self-identity, but also severs ties with cruder Marxist understandings of historical materialist teleology. For Bloch, ‘ontological incompleteness’ generates forward-reaching desire within consciousness, but the persistence of ‘real possibility’ undercuts its direction towards any necessary end. His ontology, for Moir, therefore contains ‘teleology without a telos’ (70). Though unconventional, Bloch explicitly saw his work as a serious attempt to provide a philosophical response to the still unanswered ‘materialism problem’ within Marxism which, through the imposition of orthodoxy, had been surrendered by the Comintern ‘to “the most undialectical” of fates, “namely solidification”’ (46).

If Chapter Two establishes Bloch’s ontology as serious, reasoned, and meaningfully ‘Marxist’, then Chapter Three challenges the reputation of Bloch’s turn to ‘speculation’ (in the Kantian sense of going ‘beyond’ the bounds of reason) as little more than a move towards naïve, ‘pre-critical’ epistemology. The crux of Moir’s argument seems to be that – despite the latter’s definite influence – Bloch is never simply a ‘Marxist Schelling’, and is equally indebted to Hegel. From the Prussian, he takes a ‘conceptual realism about universals, which allowed [Bloch] to view the bold claims he made about the nature of matter and the possibility of utopia as speculative without being irrational’ (80). Moir also consistently tries to make explicit the more unexpected continued influence of Kant on the supposedly ‘pre-critical’ Bloch. 

This unlikely combination means that although ‘thought’ and ‘being’, pace Hegel are, for Bloch, definitively connected through consciousness’s basis in the ‘radical incompleteness’, or ‘Not-Yet’ of matter, they are never, following Kant, ‘simply identical’ (88). In short, Bloch shares a Hegelian frustration with Kantian antinomies of reason, inheriting the basic conviction ‘that speculative thinking is not only unavoidable, but… in fact rational’ (87). However, he criticises taking speculative reason’s necessity as a warrant for Hegelian panlogicism. ‘The tension’, Moir quotes from Bloch, ‘between the general concepts in thought and particularities in being and its beings… [was] not settled in Hegel’s genetic-historical process’ (87). Speculative reason’s positing of a necessary connection between thought and being does not imply their unity, and therefore cannot underwrite absolute knowledge. Bloch’s ontological insistence on ‘real-possibility’, and of matter’s necessary non-identity, leads him to claim that absolute knowledge is an impossibility (96). Though not a straightforwardly Kantian argument, Bloch himself nevertheless saw such resistance to Hegelian panlogicism as a critical, Kantian inheritance. We must, he wrote, let Kant ‘burn through Hegel’ (89).

The following chapter then looks to defend Bloch from a Heidegger-like accusation that, on account of his failure to criticise or even acknowledge Stalinism’s worst excesses during their height, his philosophy itself ought to be regarded with totalitarian suspicion. Moir, without defending Bloch’s grave missteps, notes both his changes in political outlook throughout a long lifetime (which saw him virulently criticised, and eventually ostracised from ‘the East’), and also makes the more fundamental claim that accusations of ‘totalitarianism’ face the challenge that ‘the foundations of Bloch’s speculative materialism were laid down well before the Soviet Union came into being’ (13).

The final substantive section of the book then considers how ‘contemporary materialist thinkers’ have dealt with certain philosophical problems of knowledge, agency and nature in ways that ‘often resonate with Bloch’s concerns’ (131). In each, Moir finds ways that Bloch mirrors, but also frequently challenges, the terms of recent reformulations of materialism – whether by offering a more political conception of ontological ‘hope’ than Meillassoux (139) or challenging the models of nature-society interaction in both Foster and Moore (154-7). Unfortunately, the brevity of the final chapter means that in each section Moir’s argument concludes just as Bloch’s significance has begun being clarified. In an ambitious book, this is commendably the only section that feels ‘rushed’, and one that offers much promise as a basis for future research nonetheless.

Overall, readers from a range of background and interests will find much in this broad, varied and eminently readable study of an underappreciated thinker likely to become a first port of call for much future philosophical engagement with Bloch.

5 August 2020

References

  • Bloch, Ernst. 1954 Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
  • Bloch, Ernst. 1985 Das Prinzip Hoffnung Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
  • Thompson, Peter and Žižek, Slavoj (eds.) 2013 The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia Durham: Duke University Press

One comment

  1. Thank you for your excellent review of Prof. Moir’s book! I am eager to get my hands on a copy.

    A couple of points for discussion:

    While you don’t make the “totalitarian” accusation a centerpiece of the essay, I still think it is important to provide some dialogue. Generally, I am confused why scholars of the left are always forced to provide a sop to the still-lingering miasma of anti-communism? It seems obvious that we can affirm that Bloch, like many, many twentieth-century figures had a fraught relationship with the Soviet Union without contorting ourselves into “accounting” for the his stances. They were frankly not all that indefensible, especially by the standards of the time.

    Additionally, compared to some figures (the American communist intellectuals Max Eastman and Sidney Hook were so disgusted by the Moscow Trials that they became ardent reactionaries, the latter cheering on the slaughter represented by the US war in SE Asia), Bloch’s “grave missteps” are perhaps even more acceptable. Would we have preferred Bloch take the neoconservative route out of left politics–an ideology that, arguably, is just as responsible for the deaths of millions in the present century?

    In an essay published before this text, Moir makes the observation that Bloch’s absolute defense of academic freedom (by as early as the 1950s) and condemnation of the Soviet intervention in Hungary had made him a persona non-grata in the former GDR. He was accused of revisionism by Walter Ulbricht himself. This forced him to emigrate to the Federal Republic.

    So, I think we should fully accept the Heidegger comparison, not because it is accurate, but because upon inspection, Bloch’s stances on “Stalinism” (widely constructed) are on an order of magnitude braver than Heidegger’s full-throated endorsement and embrace of National Socialism. We ought to make the comparison to prove just how inaccurate it is.

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