Engels on Dialectics, Part Four: Identity

Abstract identity (a=a; and negatively, a cannot be simultaneously equal and unequal to a) is likewise inapplicable in organic nature. The plant, the animal, every cell is at every moment of its life identical with itself and yet becoming distinct from itself, by absorption and excretion of substances, by respiration, by cell formation and death of cells, by the process of circulation taking place, in short, by a sum of incessant molecular changes which make up life and the sum-total of whose results is evident to our eyes in the phases of life – embryonic life, youth, sexual maturity, process of reproduction, old age, death. The further physiology develops, the more important for it become (sic) these incessant, infinitely small changes, and hence the more important for it also the consideration of difference within identity, and the old abstract standpoint of formal identity, that an organic being is to be treated as something simply identical with itself, as something constant, becomes out of date. Nevertheless, the mode of thought based thereon, together with its categories, persists. But even in inorganic nature identity as such is in reality non-existent. Every body is continually exposed to mechanical, physical, and chemical influences, which are always changing it and modifying its identity. Abstract identity, with its opposition to difference, is in place only in mathematics – an abstract science which is concerned with creations of thought, even though they are reflections of reality – and even there it is continually being sublated. Hegel, Enzyklopädie, I, p. 235. The fact that identity contains difference within itself is expressed in every sentence, where the predicate is necessarily different from the subject; the lily is a plant, the rose is red. where, either in the subject or in the predicate there is something that is not covered by the predicate or the subject. Hegel, p. 231. That from the outset identity with itself requires difference from everything else as its complement, is self-evident.

Continual change, i.e., sublation of abstract identity with itself, is also found in so-called inorganic nature. Geology is its history. On the surface, mechanical changes (denudation, frost), chemical changes (weathering); internally, mechanical changes (pressure), heat (volcanic), chemical (water, acids, binding substances); on a large scale – upheavals, earthquakes, etc. The slate of today is fundamentally different from the ooze from which it is formed, the chalk from the loose microscopic shells that compose it, even more so limestone, which indeed according to some is of purely organic origin, and sandstone from the loose sea sand, which again is derived from disintegrated granite, etc., not to speak of coal.

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The law of identity in the old metaphysical sense is the fundamental law of the old outlook: a = a. Each thing is equal to itself. Everything was permanent, the solar system, stars, organisms. This law has been refuted by natural science bit by bit in each separate case, but theoretically it still prevails and is still put forward by the supporters of the old in opposition to the new: a thing cannot simultaneously be itself and something else. And yet the fact that true, concrete identity includes difference, change, has recently been shown in detail by natural science (see above).

Abstract identity, like all metaphysical categories, suffices for everyday use, where small dimensions or brief periods of time are in question; the limits within which it is usable differ in almost every case and are determined by the nature of the object; for a planetary system, where in ordinary astronomical calculation the ellipse can be taken as the basic form for practical purposes without error, they are much wider than for an insect that completes its metamorphosis in a few weeks. (Give other examples, e.g., alteration of species, which is reckoned in periods of thousands of years.) For natural science in its comprehensive role, however, even in each single branch, abstract identity is totally inadequate, and although on the whole it has now been abolished in practice, theoretically it still dominates people’s minds, and most natural scientists imagine that identity and difference are irreconcilable opposites, instead of one-sided poles which represent the truth only in their reciprocal action, in the inclusion of difference within identity.

Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 214-216


Part four/to be continued…

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