The formation of abstract ideas
While thought and ideas, like language, originate from labour, men likewise develop their thinking and their ideas in the course of the whole of their social activity.
Writing of the development of ideas or of human consciousness for the peculiarity of human consciousness is that man is conscious of things not only thorough perceptions but also through ideas Marx and Engels showed that man’s consciousness arises and develops “only from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Consciousness is therefore from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.”
Ideas are not the products of a pure intellectual process, nor are they mere automatic responses to stimuli reaching us from external objects. They are produced by human brains in the course of human social activity. They reflect the connections of men with one another and with the external world, the real conditions of men’s existence.
The first and most elementary ideas directly derive from immediate practical intercourse with other people and surrounding objects. They are formed by giving names to the common features of things recognizable in perception. From the start, as Marx has stressed, “the production of ideas” arises from “the material activity and material intercourse of men”. And out of this activity and material intercourse at its most elementary level is already formed a complex of elementary ideas of external objects, of the self and of other people of the kinds and properties of objects and their various connections with and uses for people.
In such ideas are more or less directly reflected the salient features of objects and human activities as we are immediately aware of them in perception. Such ideas constitute the basic, elementary equipment of human thought and communication. They are expressed in words denoting familiar objects, and properties and relations of objects, and everyday activities.
We all possess a rich equipment of such ideas. Our possession of them represents a considerable social achievement, but we take them quite for granted, use them all the time, and every child learns them at an early age. Such are our ideas of the things about us with which our normal affairs are concerned, such as men and women, tables, chairs, motor cars, trees, flower, dogs, etc; of sensible properties of things, such as red, blue, hard, soft, big, small and so on; and of actions and relations, such as running, walking, falling, above, below, etc, our own equipment of elementary ideas is obviously far greater than that of primitive man, precisely because we do many more things and concern ourselves with many more objects and relations. Nevertheless, the consciousness represented by such elementary ideas remains, “consciousness concerns the immediate connection with other persons and things”.
Learning how to think
A condition for the development of abstract ideas is the separation of mental from material labour. And it contains within itself contradictory potentialities. On the one hand, it permits the acquisition of profounder knowledge of the real connections of things and of the conditions of human existence than is contained in immediate perceptual consciousness. On the other hand, it permits the growth of all kinds of fantasies and illusions.
Consequently the whole process of the intellectual development of society presents contradictory aspects. On the one hand, there has been the undoubted growth of genuine knowledge, in other words, of true ideas, whose correspondence with reality has been verified, concerning nature, society and the relations of men with nature. On the other hand, there has been the growth and elaboration of illusory ideas. As society has developed, so men have developed in their minds illusions about themselves and the world they inhabit. Each epoch has added to the sum total of human knowledge. And at the same time, each epoch has produced its characteristic illusions, which circumscribed, penetrated and colored the entire intellectual production of that epoch.
It is here, then, that we find the root of the opposition and struggle of materialist and idealist tendencies which has run right through the whole development of thought.
The opposition of materialist and idealist tendencies is a fundamental opposition, arising from the very nature of thought itself, once it has developed to the level of abstract ideas. It arises with the separation of mental from material labour. When mental labour first begins to “emancipate itself from the world” as a theoretical activity, and to “become something other than existing practice,” then there immediately arise the two alternative paths of theory to strive to understand things in their own connections and to explain what happens in the material world from the material world itself, which is materialism; or to launch out into the realm of pure thought and represent the material, sensuous world as dependent on thought and the product of thought, which is idealism. In other words, to regard being as prior to thinking, or thinking a prior to being.