Thursday, May 18, 2017

Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas - summary

Mary Douglas's "Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo" explores the cultural notion of dirt and its symbolic meanings. She follows Durkheim in defining dirt as that which is out of its place (ketchup in fine in the bottle or on the plate, but not on my shirt). What Douglas does is to tie this distinction to the distinction between the scared and the profane (a long held interest of structuralist anthropology). Uncleanliness, she holds, is a cultural matter determined by actual and  symbolic power structures. 

"Purity and Danger" is an inquiry into different notions of dirt in different cultures, demonstrating the contingent and socially determined nature of what's clean and what's not. For example, Douglas studies the Jewish Kosher laws, arguing that they separate the easy categorized and thus understood from the threatening undetermined (Douglas later retracted this understanding of Jewish laws, see Douglas's "Purity and Danger" and Power Structures).


Douglas further argues (especially in chapter 2 of the book) is that, unlike previous notions in anthropology, the distinction between the scared and the profane did not disappear in modern times but rather manifested itself in other 'secular' terms of clean and unclean and our perception of what constitutes contamination. Douglas also holds that these notions bear an analogous form of the specific social order of a group. What makes for "dirt" is that which is considered anomalous and transgressive of normal bounds. This makes the symbolyic meanings of contamination socially dependant and thus relative.  

Here you can find summaries of the first two chapters of Mary Douglas's "Purity and Danger:
Chapter 1: Ritual Uncleanness

"Purity and Danger" was inspired by the work of Emile Durkheim such as Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the Sacred and the Profane or "The Genesis of the Notion of the Totemic Principle or Mana" and was itself inspiration for works such as "Powers of Horror" by psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva. 

Suggested reading:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Karl Marx: Summary of Ideas and Theory

Karl Marx is one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of modern times. Though receiving some terrible PR from the (misguided) attempts to implement Marx's ideas, his philosophy is not only powerful and inspiring but also relevant to our times. Marx is typically portrayed as an economic thinker but he is actually a thinker of time, history and nature of human progress and his ideas touch on the very essence of human nature. His ideas about communism were not something to be implemented but rather something that has to eventually happen since history orders so. Marx's analysis of the way society function on the role terms such as class conflict, ideology and alienation within it are still relevant when we come to understand contemporary societies (largely due to the fact that capitalism, despite Marx's prophecy, is also still contemporary).

Marx's theory and ideas are extended and elaborated. Here are a few summaries to help you understand some of his most important texts, such as The German Ideology and the famous Communist Manifesto alongside some summaries that explain important ideas in Marx's theory.  

Summaries of Marx's writings and ideas:

A Short Summary of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels

The Communist Manifesto is a short document composed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 in an attempt to popularize and clarify in practical means the philosophy of communism (such as that presented in Marx's "The German Ideology"). The Manifesto is written with a lot a pathos and large parts of it relate to the politics of the 19th century, but it is also a very clear and refined articulation of the basic ideas of Marxism.  

The Manifesto opens chapter 1 with the proclamation that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". This the approach known as dialectical materialism which holds that history is driven through the division of society into competing parts and their fight over the means of production. The Manifesto moves from describing feudalism to discussing capitalism as a mode in which the bourgeois exploit the proletariat.

Chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto discusses the relationship of communists to the proletariat, arguing that it is the true representation of their interests. This part is aimed at clarifying the intention of communism to abolish private property and hired work which are the basic principles of the capitalist system. This part also includes some practical demands such as free public education, progressive tax, abolishing of inheritance and more. One important point here to note is the relation to the nation state which for Marx is closely tied to capitalism and therefore need to go away with it.

The last section of the Communist Manifesto (chapters 3 and 4) discuss the communists' relationship with other opposition movements and parties of the time, setting it apart from socialism. The important thing about these parts of the text is the assertion the communism is not about making the system better but about changing it altogether and overthrowing capitalism in order to usher in the new era of a classless society.  

Here you can find an extended and detailed chapter summary of the Communist Manifesto 

Summaries of Marx's writings and ideas:

Communist Manifesto: detailed summary by chapter

The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and published in 1848, sets forth in a popular manner the main ideas and goals of the communist party and ideology. The Manifesto is divided into four chapters outlining the basic philosophical premise of dialectical materialism and class conflict and the forces driving history (chapter 1). It then continues to analyze capitalist mode of production and its final destiny of being turned over and replaced by communism (chapter 2). The last parts of the manifesto (chapters 3 and 4) set the political orientation of communism.

Here is a detailed summary of all of the chapters of the Communist Manifesto:

The Communist Manifesto - Chapter 3 and 4 Summary: Socialist and Communist Literature

(See summaries of chapter 1 and chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto)

Chapter 3 of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels tries to define communism not thorough it capitalist opposition (chapter 1 and mainly chapter 2 did that) but rather as distinguished from the closer socialist movement. The basic point is that socialism, unlike communism, is essentially counter-revolutionary since they just want progressive change that will only serve to perpetuate capitalism and its exploitative practices. What Marx and Engels are after in their Communist Manifesto and not a bandage but rather a deep and total change of the very structure of society the mode of production. The point and goal for communism is the root, the core, and that means to turn the table completely as bring down the whole system instead of just trying to improve on it. This sets communism apart from other socialist movements that might be preaching a seemingly similar gospel and demanding similar demands. Chapter 3 of the Manifesto also claims that while socialism in fact serves the interests of the bourgeois, it is communism that is really tuned in to the needs of the actual working class and that it is the instrument to bring about the end of the conflict between bourgeois and proletariat (see chapter 2 of the Manifesto)

Chapter 4 is the last short chapter closing the Communist Manifesto. Titled "Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Opposition Parties" it discusses the relationship between the communist party and other parties and movements and Europe of the time. The rule of thumb is that the party supports anyone who wants to overthrow the existing ruling order, preferably by force.  

 The Communist Manifesto ends with the famous call: "Workers of the world - unite!"

The Communist Manifesto - Chapter 2 Summary: Proletarians and Communists

(Before you read this summary make sure you read the summary of chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto)

Chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto discusses the relationship between the communists and the proletariat. The initial argument presented in the beginning of the chapter is the communists are the purest representation of the proletariat. The communists, argue Marx and Engels, differ from other parties in that they tap into the material course of history and represent in their ideas not some made up ideology (Marx is highly suspicions of ideology) but rather the manifestation of the working of historical direction and its inevitable, rather than just desires, direction.

An important distinction made by Marx and Engels in chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto is that communism is an international movement rather than national (hence "Workers of the world - unite!). For Marx (and others) capitalism is closely associated with the nation state and the abolition of the former will also include the abolition of the latter.

Chapter 2, picking up from the chapter 1, analyzes capitalism as dependent on private property (see Marx on the structure of capitalism society). The core goal of communism is therefore set at canceling private property, thus bringing about a classless society. Marx and Engels also discuss hired labor and show it exploitative nature, connecting it as well to capitalism and its eventual demise. They even go as far as calling for the abolition of the family since it is also a mechanism of exploitation and a means to capitalism's ends.

The purpose of communism as presented in the chapter to create a society without any divisions, not social, not national and not even between parents and children. Since these goals are highly ambitious Marx and Engels conclude part 2 of the Communist Manifesto with a list of short term means and actions that can serve to move history in the right direction.   

The Communist Manifesto - Chapter 1 Summary: Bourgeois and Proletarian

Chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels sets forth the theoretical paradigm of dialectical materialism, the thought the history progresses through class struggle over the means of production (see also Marx's materialist theory of history). The Manifesto proclaims and demonstrates that societies were always divided into ruling and ruled classes. After an historical account of the feudalist system of production the text moves on to discuss capitalism and the relationship between the Bourgeois and proletariat. The chapter analyses the way the bourgeois came to rule over the means of production and exploit the proletarian and how capitalism came to be the dominant mode of production.  Marx and Engels argue that capitalism relies on the accumulation of capital in private hands through the concept of hired labor that allows for the exploitation of workers. Marx and Engels confess in their Communist Manifesto that this mode of class division brought about the greatest period of growth in human history but it is not everlasting and will come to its historic end.

The important function of chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto is that the stage is set for the next historical revolution, the next stage of the dialectics. Marx and Engels hold that the Proletariat will eventually overthrow the bourgeois and lead European society into the next phase of history which will also be the last one since it would be a classless society in which there is not conflict. Despite being a Manifesto, a call for action of sorts, Marx and Engels do not intend that their analysis be understood a something which should happen but rather as something that will inevitably happen since that is the direction in which the mechanisms of history are directed at: communism. This is why the famous opening of the Communist  Manifesto reads: "A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism", and although all the old powers join hands in fending it off, they will not succeed. 

An Extended Summary of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (chapter 2chapters 3 and 4)

More summaries of Marx's writings and ideas: