Meaning, memory and identity

the western marxists' hermeneutic subject

Richard Westerman

pp. 325-348

The concept of the subject is at the core of many social movements that attempt to empower disadvantaged groups by identifying a basic subjectivity underlying and uniting such groups. Though otherwise supportive of such movements, recent continental philosophers and social theorists such as Althusser, Derrida, and Butler have criticized such notions of subjectivity, arguing that they presuppose false and harmful ideas of unity and substantiality as the "true' essence of these groups. In this paper, I propose that one possibility for resolving this debate can be found in the work of Western Marxists such as Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. I argue that they ground an authentically subjective selfhood on the distinct meaningfulness of individual consciousness. Identifying phenomenological motifs in the way they describe consciousness, I suggest that they define meaning by the way different particular experiences recall or relate to one another. By interpreting the many possible meanings of experience, subjects are able to build up an image of themselves, while collective subjectivity can be grounded on the exegesis of shared experiences. Because such meaningfulness is genuinely sui generis, emerging within consciousness, action in accordance with such images counts as autonomous; at the same time, meaning is sufficiently fluid that there can never be one single correct interpretation of it. Ultimately, the Western Marxists suggest, it is in the constant formulation and reformulation of images of oneself through reinterpretation of one's experience that constitutes subjective selfhood.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/s11007-015-9331-7

Full citation:

Westerman, R. (2016). Meaning, memory and identity: the western marxists' hermeneutic subject. Continental Philosophy Review 49 (3), pp. 325-348.

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