Lenin: Empirio-criticism and historical materialism – part eleven

Peering out of the windows of the International Space Station (ISS), astronaut Tracey Caldwell Dyson takes in the planet on which we were all born, and to which she would soon return.

Peering out of the windows of the International Space Station (ISS), astronaut Tracey Caldwell Dyson takes in the planet on which we were all born, and to which she would soon return.

*   *   *

Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach (continued)

Especially noteworthy in all this tragicomedy1 is the fact that Haeckel himself renounces materialism and rejects the appellation. What is more, far from rejecting religion altogether, he has invented his own religion (something like Bulgakov’s “atheistic faith” or Lunacharsky’s “religious atheism”), and on grounds of principle advocates a union of religion and science. What is the matter then? What “fatal misunderstanding” started the row?

The point is that Haeckel’s philosophical naïveté, his lack of definite partisan aims, his anxiety to respect the prevailing philistine prejudice against materialism, his personal conciliatory tendencies and proposals concerning religion, all this gave the greater salience to the general spirit of his book, the ineradicability of natural-scientific materialism and its irreconcilability with all official professorial philosophy and theology. Haeckel personally does not seek a rupture with the philistines, but what he expounds with such unshakeably naïve conviction is absolutely incompatible with any of the shades of prevailing philosophical idealism. All these shades, from the crudest reactionary theories of a Hartmann, to the positivism of Petzoldt, who fancies himself up-to-date, progressive and advanced, or the empirio-criticism of Mach – all are in accord that natural-scientific materialism is “metaphysics”, that the recognition of an objective reality underlying the theories and conclusions of science is sheer “naïve realism”, etc. And to this doctrine, “sacred” to all professorial philosophy and theology, every page of Haeckel gives a slap in the face. This scientist, who undoubtedly expressed the very firmly implanted, although ill-defined opinions, sentiments and tendencies of the over-whelming majority of the scientists at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, instantly, easily and simply revealed what professorial philosophy tried to conceal from the public and from itself, namely, the fact that there is a foundation, growing ever wider and firmer, which shatters all the efforts and strivings of the thousand and one little schools of philosophical idealism, positivism, realism, empirio-criticism and other confusionism. This foundation is natural-scientific materialism. The conviction of the “naïve realists” (in other words, of all humanity) that our sensations are images of an objectively real external world is the conviction of the mass of scientists, one that is steadily growing and gaining in strength.

The cause of the founders of new philosophical schools and of the inventors of new epistemological “isms” is forever and hopelessly lost. They may flounder about in their “original” petty systems; they may strive to engage the attention of a few admirers in the interesting controversy as to who was the first to exclaim, “Eh!” – the empirio-critical Bobchinsky, or the empirio-monistic Dobchinsky; they may even devote themselves to creating an extensive “special” literature, like the “immanentists”. But the course of development of natural science, despite its vacillations and hesitations, despite the unconscious character of the materialism of the natural scientists, despite yesterday’s infatuation with fashionable “physiological idealism” or today’s infatuation with fashionable “physical idealism”, is sweeping aside all the petty systems and artifices, again and again bringing to the forefront the “metaphysics” of natural-scientific materialism.


1. The tragic element was introduced by the attempt made on Haeckel’s life this spring (1908). After Haeckel had received a number of anonymous letters addressing him by such epithets as “dog”, “atheist”, “monkey”, and so forth, some true German soul threw a stone of no mean size through the window of Haeckel’s study in Jena. – Lenin

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 328-330


Part eleven/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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5 thoughts on “Lenin: Empirio-criticism and historical materialism – part eleven

  1. Hi, Phil. Belief systems and world view are of course, man made. And like architecture, we make or adopt one and place ourselves in, or act through them. I wish there was more recognition and consideration for the whole being by whom all our individual and collective diversities occur. A universal reference. Tach.


    • Hi Tach,

      I agree with Morawski who wrote that belief systems are delimited by interests. My focus for the last thirty two years has been on understanding and exposing how those limitations function in the philosophy of capitalist ideology and on going beyond them. This is why I have had so much difficulty with and rejection by time-serving academics – all the more so because of Australia’s authoritarian, anti-intellectual, shame-based and servile culture.

      In his Materialism and Empirio-criticism Lenin wrote of the brilliant development of materialism by Marx and Engels from mechanical to dialectical (significantly in response to scientific developments, a point lost on contemporary Western scientists whose work is increasingly stunted by capitalist ideology and its philosophical idealism), but I disagree with him when he wrote that in doing this, Marx and Engels brought the development of materialism to its culmination.

      Firstly, such a statement is un-dialectical (it is amazing that, in theorising ‘end-points’, some of the greatest dialecticians – Hegel, Marx and Lenin – could make such a basic error). Secondly, developments in brain science are more and more showing an appreciation of how the brain functions wholistically (I think this relates to your point, because they are just steps to go from the brain as a unit to the brain in a body and that body in a social world) and in the process better understanding what ‘reason’ is, its rich and dynamic nature – the same ‘reason’ philosophers not only believe they engage in (which Lenin superbly exposed and mocked in his Materialism and Empirio-criticism) but also, in its manifestation, utterly take for granted – exemplified by Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’.

      This is why I argue that mysticism (its perspective and methods) and its profound relationship with materialism must be thoroughly examined. Capitalist ideology, its philosophy and epistemology, are nothing but a mounting impediment to this, to our engagement with the world and our knowledge of it.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Phil. You allow reason to run free with “its rich and dynamic nature” !
        On neuroscience and the brain, the change in personality of recipients following heart transplants consistent with the donor suggests nervous tissue other than the brain has input into the make-up of our higher conditions. Wholism fails to be that which is more than the sum of its parts, but rather in being more whole merely approaches, as science and philosophy can but only get closer to reality. There is no functioning brain without a whole living body and no living body without a brain. Only in our mind can we think of things in parts and particular contexts, as of a brain’s function when we and our reality, including our thoughts on the subject, are a product of it. Mysticism, spirituality, intuition approaches this inclusion of self. The whole self is the whole who is more than the sum of his or her parts, and encompasses all that we are and may experience including our mystical processes.


      • Hi Tach, on the point of brains and bodies, I recall having seen a monkey’s head on a metal plate beneath which was nothing other than the tubing to convey the necessary fluids into the living head, which blinked and responded to stimuli. Youtube has a video of a dog’s head doing this. People can be born with a portion of a brain (anencephalic).

        My point regarding the brain (in a body, in a social world) was to argue for its functioning as a plastic unity – not only are the brain’s functions inter-dependent (e.g. the relation between our capacity to ‘reason’ and our emotions), they can be adaptable. Phil


  2. Thanks for reminding me of the body-less heads supported by tubes on you tube. It is first thing in the morning for me, and I’m stirred even before my cup of coffee.
    I would regard the head and the tubes as the whole body to those brains; no moving eyes to show nervous activity without the integrated anatomical connections. As to the conscious state and nature of that existence, it is in our minds that we contemplate it. Before such experimental extremes (useful to prove some points) we know that chemical (drugs, nutrients and gases) and physical (including posture, injury, disease, life styles and routines) extremes stress and test the brain’s plasticity to adopt; it copes by altering and reducing the field of our reality, till our part as identity, sense of separateness and ability to seemingly respond (whether the whole body does what we think we do or not) breaks down.
    Our relation with our whole is a tacit one to initiate and maintain; in our mind we are engaged in a cyclic, reflective and self-referential relation with our sense and notion of others and things that we seem separate from in our projected reality, both of the outside and in. Our attempts to determine our reality depends on this separation of us as mind’s identity from what we experience, yet both are a product of organic neuronal activity in reality from a whole living being. Our involvement as an identity is a conundrum. I consider our relation with the whole body, of whom it seems we are a separate part, as inclusive of this.
    To be or accept is our existential choice; to be understanding may perhaps be considered a social one. I think that of our mind’s identity we are seemingly “separate from” what we experience and self-contained, of our feeling or emotive identity we are or feel more “separated from” and reactive to what we experience, of our deeper being we are in the world (projected) where-by our inside and outside boundaries are set, of our again deeper gut instinct we are “grounded” in a sense of the world beyond our sense or boundaries of in and out, and intuitively we are intimately of the happening of our projected reality or nature. I regard our mystic, spiritual and shamanic realms and involvement beyond our deepest sense of being in the world, and as of other realms and presences. I mention them to remind all is ours in the sense of they are our experience, including our sense of others, separation and relation. Nothing is denied and beyond recognition, involvement and acceptance, projection allows us to regard and be in relation with the whole being who encompasses and creates, and is more than the sum of his or her parts.
    Beyond what we experience is where the various realms are placed in their, what I have termed, “projected actuality” in which we may be in relation with the whole self. Everything that is and happens in our reality, is because of the whole body. Our deepest being and reality becomes an integral part of a godly whole being in and of reality (who is more than the sum of his or her parts, including projected parts). I like to think it occurs in being presented as projected actuality in relation with the whole body through a process according to the happening of the whole body – it is what happens. Factors that facilitate this process are chemical (drugs, nutrients and gases), physical (including posture, injury, disease, life styles and routines) and our inner actions that we may involve ourselves in as a projected part.
    Belief systems and world views delimit but also determine our reality. It is the nature of the human condition to determine and reflect and in so doing is circular, and our piece a conundrum to reflecting and determining or self referencing. Beyond are more encompassing world views, and practices or processes to be involved in of to apply for ourselves, but in absolute terms all is experience that we can only go further beyond with projection than draws into concern the whole body in reality and who projects all that we may experience and be. Consider a complete whole being with integrated parts and our part in promoting that whole, while he or she is alive and Earth allows a decent life-style.


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