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György Lukács' Ontology and Its Foundation in The Development of Being

Social ontology is the area of knowledge that cares about the nature of the social world. It tries to answer questions regarding the construction and categorization of social entities such as class groups, gender, money, etc. and focuses not only on the distinctive features of these groups but also on the foundation or “building blocks” of the social world (Epstein, 2024). Additionally, it explores questions about the existence, properties, and relationships of social entities such as institutions, norms, and collective beliefs. By examining how social facts emerge and persist, social ontology aims at explaining the underlying principles that govern social reality and the ontological assumptions, i.e. assumptions about the existence and modes of existence, behind social theories and practices across disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics (Ibid). One of the most prominent philosophers to develop a theory of social ontology is György Lukács, who is also considered by many as one of the founder figures of critical theory, an in intellectual approach that critiques societal structures and power dynamics, and Western Marxism. Lukács expanded and reformulated some of the ideas developed by Karl Marx and, at a foundational level, G. W. F. Hegel. This article will explain one of the most relevant foundational aspects of Lukács’ social ontology, viz. the idea that social ontology is possible due to the historical progression of being that culminates in the social being. The main idea is that the social world, at least in the way that Lukács conceives it, emerges thanks to the evolution of beings that reach a level of consciousness and that can change the world, thus creating the social world, through the act of labor. The article is divided into three parts. The first deals with the concept of progression of being, the second with the notion of teleology, and the third with the concept of labor as an original phenomenon that gives origin to the social as such. 

The Abundant Earth (Rivera, 1926)
Figure 1: The Abundant Earth (Rivera, 1926)

Inorganic, Organic, and Social Being

One of the first things to consider when studying Lukács and his social ontology is taking a closer look at his borrowed notion of the development of being, derived from his readings on Marx and Hegel. Lukács’ philosophy and framework are meant to give a unified explanation of nature and reality. His deviation from the Hegelian idealist perspective leads him to deny a “hierarchical” ontological view in which the material world is preceded by a transcendental or spiritual sphere (Vellay, 2019). To give an explanation of reality means, for Lukács, to present an account of the world that acknowledges the differences found in the natural beings while including the “less natural” realm of the social. For this, he needed to introduce the three modes of being that need to be taken into account to elaborate on the general problems of the social being.  Thus, his enterprise of writing an ontology of the social being involves, as it has been implied, presenting the relationship between natural and social ontology (Ibid). Lukács materialist ontology is articulated around the central category of being while the notion of necessity, previously presented by Hegel in the context of a totality determined by logic, is abandoned. It is in this context that Lukács manages to turn his ontological foundations to Marxism aiming to show the operations of the social being while emphasizing the emergence of consciousness and, more specifically, individuality (Ibid). The dynamics of the relationship between nature and the social involves an explanation of the relationship between a natural world, dominated by causal connections, and the social world in which we see the emergence and primacy of a telos or end that defines actions and outcomes.

Hegel's emphasis on the objectivity of reality serves as a model for the ontological framework of Lukács, and it is divided into three main spheres: the inorganic realm, the organic realm, and the societal realm (Hegel, 1979). Although these domains exhibit discontinuities, they also exhibit essential continuities. The emergence of the organic realm from interactions within the inorganic realm, and subsequently the societal realm from both, illustrates this progression. Moving from one domain to another ontologically necessitates retaining the categories of the prior domain while simultaneously transcending it qualitatively (Ibid). The development from inorganic to organic nature gave origin to consciousness, a characteristic of organic beings that is the cornerstone of teleological positing in nature, as it will be presented in the next section. For now, it is important to keep in mind that interest-governed action is an essential aspect of social being and such characteristic is fundamental for expressing the relationship between the social being and the other types, the existence of individuality and intention acquires preponderant importance (Ontology 2, p. 16). What characterizes the social being is that the main aspects of this ontological level

is a product of the fact that every human social activity is necessarily the product of alternatives, and presupposes a choice or decision in relation to these. (Ontology 1, p. 45-46).

The following passage of Lukács helps clarify his view on the characteristics of the social being:

It is only in specifically human, social being, even if already at a very primitive stage, in labour and speech, that immediacy and mediations are both separate and combined, and appear as ontological reflection determinations. Here we are thus confronted with a categorical relationship that is characteristic of social being alone, even though, as we have seen, even a specifically social determination of this kind could not be present without having had its  ‘forerunners’ in nature. (Ontology 1, p. 90)

What remains to see, is the relevance of subjectivity, the development of consciousness, for the interaction between the social being and the world surrounding it. 

Maturation (Rivera, 1926-27)
Figure 2: Maturation (Rivera, 1926-27)


Philosophically understood, a teleological grasp of a phenomenon involves an explanation of the phenomenon itself by highlighting the function or end (telos) of the phenomenon itself. In the case of Lukács, along with his framework of the development of beings came his understanding of the concept of teleology.  In the case of Hegel, teleology is fundamental for understanding history and the role of individuals in it. How Hegel conceives teleology is closely linked to historical progress and human development through self-consciousness, as the telos of historical progress are subordinated to the structure of logic, thanks to which dialectical process takes place (Redding, 2020). Hegel sees teleology as divided into three moments: the position of the subjective purpose, the investigation of the means to accomplish such purpose, and the purpose achieved, with consequent preservation of the means used (Infranca et al., 2019, p. ). The philosopher describes teleology as “the subjective concept, but posited as referring in and for itself to the objectivity, as purpose.” (Science of Logic, 12.132) The increased awareness of mankind and the contraposition of ideas in the course of history are essential traits of Hegel’s teleological understanding of the world as they present the general dialectical structure that helps explain the present, future, and past as entangled elements leading to an ultimate resolution. 

Hegel’s views about the role of teleology in the development of human history and the history of the world are inherently linked to his views about the nature of the world and reality, i.e. teleology is an essential aspect of his ontology. This aspect of Hegelian philosophy is adopted and praised by Lukács as it grounds the essence of reality in a dialectical process as Hegel also recognizes the essential role of labor. Hegel sees labor as a crucial component within reality's teleological framework. Human labor, according to him, is not merely a mechanical function but an active force that shapes and modifies the environment toward specific aims or objectives. This labor process embodies purpose and direction, illustrating Hegel's belief in the teleological essence of human affairs. Thus, Hegel’s rejection of assessing history as individual teleological acts individuated by labor leads to a view about a broader evolution of human societies. Nevertheless, Hegel’s subordination of these dynamics to the concept of logic, a transcendental and idealist concept, does not fit Lukács' scheme about the workings of reality in his materialist interpretation. Thus, Lukács turns to concreteness by embracing the Marxist understanding of teleology, allowing him to present the telos of human advancement in the context of a broader Hegelian ontological foundation. This turn into a materialist interpretation of teleology must be understood in the context of the development of being, explained in the previous section. This framework on the advancement and development from inorganic to social beings gives Lukács an additional element to his ontological framework. In this context, the particularity of the social realm is that it is the locus for the proper understanding of the role of materialistic teleology in nature.  The reason for this is that the development from inorganic to organic nature gave origin to consciousness, a characteristic of organic beings that is the cornerstone of teleological positing in nature. Lukács, in his historical view of the development of being, emphasizes this point because it is here where we can see the dynamic interaction between the social and natural worlds in humans' original attempt at teleological guided action. The way in which teleological guided action, as it has been anticipated, closely relates to the act of labor, which by Marx and Lukács is understood as a “primary” or “original” dynamic that determines relevant aspects of human experience and condition of being. 

The Painter, The Sculptor and the Architect (Rivera, 1923-28)
Figure 3: The Painter, The Sculptor and the Architect (Rivera, 1923-28)


The whole foundation of the ontology in Lukács culminates with his understanding of the role of labor and its importance for the social being. For Lukács the relevance of labor is primary. In his work labor is indirectly referred to as the "original form," paralleling earlier terms such as "fundamental form" and "foundation." Despite the varied terminology, Lukács aims to present labor, after the ontological foundation already presented here, as a primary principle of human development, implying that through labor, individuals initiate a transformative process toward full humanity (Infranca et al. 2019).  The social being represents a complexity surpassing mere organic existence. Labor is presented in Lukács as a "model case" that serves as a foundational element from which various complexes like language and value arise. Language, for instance, originates from the need for communication during shared productive endeavors or, historically, within hunting expeditions. Similarly, value emerges through labor as individuals discern the utility of objects and their potential transformation into tools for labor (Ibid). 

Lukács' ontology of social being posits that labor is the fundamental aspect of human existence, encompassing all its determinations. Labor stands as the cornerstone of human life, preceding and encompassing all other activities. Its primacy lies in the logical precedence of human life's production and reproduction. This foundational aspect of labor necessitates consideration of the intentionality inherent within it, and conversely, intentionality itself necessitates acknowledgment of this type of labor. In this context, labor is oriented towards the creation of use-values, objects that fulfill the necessities and desires of human beings. (Smetona, 2019) Moreover, labor, inherently purposive, underscores human interaction with nature, directing its aims towards external objects, thus instantiating teleology.

Entry Into The Mine (Rivera, 1923)
Figure 4: Entry Into The Mine (Rivera, 1923)

In the context of social ontology, labor appears as the primordial interaction that results as a consequence of the social but that, at the same time, defines the social. Different aspects of human life, for Lukács, arise as a result of the interactions of labor, one of them being normativity, which at times appears as problematic. Lukács appears to suggest that only labor can offer a comprehensible foundation for normative criteria stemming from natural processes, but the rationale behind labor generating a form of normativity inherently social remains unclear (Stahl, 2019). Lukács portrays labor as an individual activity, raising doubts about why labor-derived normativity necessitates social contexts or leads to socially shared norms. Nevertheless, the importance of labor in Lukács is foundational. Labor holds significant importance in Lukács' social ontology as it serves as the foundational element shaping human existence and social reality. In Lukács' framework, labor is not merely a means of production but rather the central activity through which individuals engage with and transform their environment. By laboring, individuals not only produce goods and services but also shape their own identities and social relations. Through labor, individuals interact with one another and with nature, creating social bonds and networks of cooperation. Labor thus becomes a site of socialization and collective meaning-making, where shared values and norms emerge.

Woman Grinding Maize (Rivera, 1924)
Figure 5: Woman Grinding Maize (Rivera, 1924)

Social ontology, as viewed through György Lukács' perspective, thoroughly explores the fundamental nature of the social world, aiming to reveal its intricacies and foundational elements. Lukács emphasizes labor as the cornerstone of human existence and social reality. Labor is not only a practical activity but also a social one, shaping identities, relations, and societal structures. Furthermore, labor serves as the nexus where teleology manifests, guiding human action and societal progression. Despite some ambiguities regarding the social preconditions of labor-derived normativity, Lukács underscores the foundational importance of labor in shaping human experience and societal dynamics. Through labor, individuals not only engage with their environment but also contribute to the construction of social reality, fostering collective meaning-making and cooperation. Thus, labor emerges as a central theme in Lukács' social ontology, shedding light on the complex interplay between human agency, social structures, and the broader fabric of society.

Bibliographical References

Epstein, Brian, "Social Ontology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2024 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <>.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1979). Phenomenology of Spirit. (A. V. Miller, Trans.). Oxford University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (2010) The Science of Logic. George di Giovanni (trans), New York: Cambridge University Press.

Infranca, A., & Vedda, M. (2019). "Chapter 1 Ontology and Labor in Lukács’ Late Thought". In Georg Lukács and the Possibility of Critical Social Ontology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Lukács, G. (1971a), Ontology of Social Being, Vol. 1: Hegel’s False and his Genuine Ontology, D. Fernbach (trans.), London: Merlin, 1978

Lukács, G. (1971b), Ontology of Social Being, Vol. 2: Marx’s Basic Ontological Principles, D. Fernbach (trans.), London: Merlin, 1978

Redding, P. (2020). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition). Retrieved from

Smetona, M. J. (2019). "Chapter 3 Lukács’ Ontology of Social Being and the Material Basis of Intentionality". In Georg Lukács and the Possibility of Critical Social Ontology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Stahl, T. (2019). "Chapter 12 Normativity and Totality: Lukács’ Contribution to a Critical Social Ontology". In Georg Lukács and the Possibility of Critical Social Ontology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Vellay, C. (2019). "Chapter 7 On the “Constitution of Human Society”: Lukács’ versus Searle’s Social Ontology". In Georg Lukács and the Possibility of Critical Social Ontology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Visual References



great. It offers valuable insights into the philosophical underpinnings of critical theory and incredibox Western Marxism, shedding light on the complexities of social reality and the processes that shape it.


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Vicente Rodriguez

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