While there has been a great deal of writing about Marx’s idea of the “general intellect” in circles of post-operaismo, little has been said about the anomalous nature of the concept. Appearing in the Grundrisse the concept appears to be completely orphaned, cut off from not only any connection with the rest of Marx’s thought, but with the history of philosophy in general. It is perhaps for this reason that the term appears in English in Marx’s writing, a foreign idea. The passage in which the term appears is as follows:
Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are the products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge objectified [vergegenständlichte Wissenskraft]. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it (Grundrisse pg. 706).
What sets the concept apart from the rest of Marx’s thought, as well as the history of philosophy altogether, is the idea of the productivity of social knowledge, of thought as something that is both incorporeal, residing in no one individual, and concrete, directly having effects. One could argue that this idea is not entirely without precursor in Marx, that Marx continually “flirted” with this problem, from ideology, to fetishism, and through the discussions of the divisions of mental and manual labor. Even so, the concept, and the problem it entails, is completely alien to western thought, which has tended to posit the intellect as always the intellect of an individual.
Thus it is interesting and surprising to see Giorgio Agamben invent a lineage for this concept. In the short essay “Form of Life,” Agamben writes the following:
We can communicate with others only through what in us—as much as in others—has remained potential, and any communication is first of all communication not of something in common but of communicability itself…That is why modern political philosophy does not begin with classical thought, which had made of contemplation, of the bios theoreticos, a separate and solitary activity…but rather only with Averroism, that is, with the thought of the one and only intellect common to all human beings, and crucially with Dante’s affirmation—in De Monarchia—of the inherence of the multitude to the very power of thought...(Means without Ends pg. 10).
Agamben completes this passage with an overt reference to the diffuse intellectuality of Marx’s general intellect. Now, Agamben’s interest in Averroes, and in Medieval Thought in general, dates back to at least to Stanzas (from 1977). Anyone who reads Agamben is accustomed to these jarring conjunctions, which put Aquinas next to Debord, Marx and Grandville, etc, but in this case the conjunction suggests a larger point of overlap. Agamben is referring to the problem of the active (or agent) intellect and potential (or material) intellect in Islamic discussions of Aristotle. The discussion has to do with Aristotle’s assertion in De Anima that the mind must have both a matter and an agent or cause. In the case of the mind it must be an entirely potential matter with no property of its own, since the mind must be able to think the intelligible nature of anything whatsoever. This problem gets a larger discussion after Aristotle than it does in Aristotle. In the various Islamic philosophers which have addressed this question, Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, both the matter and agent are understood to be something transindividual, even cosmological, a capacity for thought and an agent for thought that exceeds the confines of the individual mind. In fact the individual mind, the thoughts that an individual has at a given moment are only a small part of what one can potentially think, a philosopher is not always thinking philosophically, a poet poetically, etc, potential always exceeds the actual.
While Agamben’s interest in this seem to be primarily focused on rethinking the relation between potentiality and actuality, I am interested in this conjunction for three reasons. First, it underscores the “communism of thought,” the fact that both the matter of thought, language, concepts, and images, and the agent of thought, that which provokes thought, are never the products of a solitary mind, but collective products. Second, they have been so not just since the internet, but since humans began to think with conceps and words. (Which is not to say that there have not been changes with the role of thought in the productive process.) Finally, it offers an interesting way to “practice philosophy” after Marx; rather than search for a precursor to Marx’s concept, it takes a concept from Marx and tries to find a conceptual articulation that does justice to it. This is the same thing that is happening with some of the work on Spinoza. (Incidentally Spinoza’s thought of “common notions” could be used to expand the idea of the “general intellect.”)