Hegel: cognition and the observer effect

It is a natural assumption that in philosophy, before we start to deal with its proper subject-matter, viz. the actual cognition of what truly is, one must first of all come to an understanding about cognition, which is regarded either as the instrument to get hold of the Absolute, or as the medium through which one discovers it. A certain uneasiness seems justified, partly because there are different types of cognition, and one of them might be more appropriate than another for the attainment of this goal, so that we could make a bad choice of means; and partly because cognition is a faculty of a definite kind and scope, and thus, without a more precise definition of its nature and limits, we might grasp clouds of error instead of the heaven of truth. This feeling of uneasiness is surely bound to be transformed into the conviction that the whole project of securing for consciousness through cognition what exists in itself is absurd, and that there is a boundary between cognition and the Absolute that completely separates them. For, if cognition is the instrument for getting hold of absolute being, it is obvious that the use of an instrument on a thing certainly does not let it be what it is for itself, but rather sets out to reshape and alter it. If, on the other hand, cognition is not an instrument of our activity but a more or less passive medium through which the light of truth reaches us, then again we do not receive the truth as it is in itself, but only as it exists through and in this medium. Either way we employ a means which immediately brings about the opposite of its own end; or rather, what is really absurd is that we should make use of a means at all.

It would seem, to be sure, that this evil could be remedied through an acquaintance with the way in which the instrument works; for this would enable us to eliminate from the representation of the Absolute which we have gained through it whatever is due to the instrument, and thus get the truth in its purity. But this ‘improvement’ would in fact only bring us back to where we were before. If we remove from a reshaped thing what the instrument has done to it, then the thing – here the Absolute – becomes for us exactly what it was before this [accordingly] superfluous effort. On the other hand, if the Absolute is supposed merely to be brought nearer to us through this instrument, without anything in it being altered, like a bird caught by a lime-twig, it would surely laugh our little ruse to scorn, if it were not with us, in and for itself, all along, and of its own volition. For a ruse is just what cognition would be in such a case, since it would, with its manifold exertions, be giving itself the air of doing something quite different from creating a merely immediate and therefore effortless relationship. Or, if by testing cognition, which we conceive of as a medium, we get to know the law of its refraction, it is again useless to subtract this from the end result. For it is not the refraction of the ray, but the ray itself whereby truth reaches us, that is cognition; and if this were removed, all that would be indicated would be a pure direction or a blank space.


G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 46-47

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Engels on ideology

Ideology is a process which is indeed accomplished consciously by the so-called thinker, but it is the wrong kind of consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to the thinker; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or illusory motive forces. Because it is a rational process he derives its form as well as its content from pure reasoning, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works exclusively with thought material, which he accepts without examination as something produced by reasoning, and does not investigate further for a more remote source independent of reason; indeed this is a matter of course to him, because, as all action is mediated by thought, it appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought.

The historical ideologist (historical is here simply a comprehensive term comprising political, juridical, philosophical, theological – in short, all the spheres belonging to society and not only to nature) thus possesses in every sphere of science material which has arisen independently out of the thought of previous generations and has gone through its own independent course of development in the brains of these successive generations. True, external facts belonging to one or another sphere may have exercised a co-determining influence on this development, but the tacit presupposition is that these facts themselves are also only the fruits of a process of thought, and so we still remain within that realm of mere thought, which apparently has successfully digested even the hardest facts.

It is above all this semblance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain that dazzles most people. If Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic religion, or Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or Rousseau with his republican Contrat social indirectly “overcomes’ the constitutional Montesquieu, this is a process which remains within theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes beyond the sphere of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and finality of capitalist production has been added to this, even the overcoming of the mercantilists by the physiocrats and Adam Smith is regarded as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere – in fact, if Richard Coeur-de-Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of getting mixed up in the crusades we should have been spared five hundred years of misery and stupidity.

Engels to Franz Mehring in Berlin; London, July 14, 1893, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 434-435

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Lenin: Is there objective truth?

 

Bogdanov declares: “As I understand it, Marxism contains a denial of the unconditional objectivity of any truth whatsoever, the denial of all eternal truths” (Empirio-Monism, Bk. III, pp. iv-v). What is meant by “unconditional objectivity”? “Truth for all eternity” is “objective truth in the absolute meaning of the word,” says Bogdanov in the same passage, and agrees to recognise “objective truth only within the limits of a given epoch”.

Two questions are obviously confused here: 1) Is there such a thing as objective truth, that is, can human ideas have a content that does not depend on a subject, that does not depend either on a human being, or on humanity? 2) If so, can human ideas, which give expression to objective truth, express it all at one time, as a whole, unconditionally, absolutely, or only approximately, relatively? This second question is a question of the relation of absolute truth to relative truth.

Bogdanov replies to the second question clearly, explicitly and definitely by rejecting even the slightest admission of absolute truth and by accusing Engels of eclecticism for making such an admission. Of this discovery of eclecticism in Engels by A. Bogdanov we shall speak separately later on. For the present we shall confine ourselves to the first question, which Bogdanov, without saying so explicitly, likewise answers in the negative – for although it is possible to deny the element of relativity (Editor’s note: this should read ‘the element of the absolute’) in one or another human idea without denying the existence of objective truth, it is impossible to deny absolute truth without denying the existence of objective truth.

“…The criterion of objective truth,” writes Bogdanov a little further on (p. ix), “in Beltov’s sense, does not exist; truth is an ideological form, an organising form of human experience.”

Neither “Beltov’s sense” – for it is a question of one of the fundamental philosophical problems and not of Beltov – nor the criterion of truth – which must be treated separately, without confounding it with the question of whether objective truth exists – has anything to do with the case here. Bogdanov’s negative answer to the latter question is clear: if truth is only an ideological form, then there can be no truth independent of the subject, of humanity, for neither Bogdanov nor we know any other ideology but human ideology. And Bogdanov’s negative answer emerges still more clearly from the second half of his statement: if truth is a form of human experience, then there can be no truth independent of humanity; there can be no objective truth.

Bogdanov’s denial of objective truth is agnosticism and subjectivism. The absurdity of this denial is evident even from the single example of a scientific truth quoted above. Natural science leaves no room for doubt that its assertion that the earth existed prior to man is a truth. This is entirely compatible with the materialist theory of knowledge: the existence of the thing reflected independent of the reflector (the independence of the external world from the mind) is the fundamental tenet of materialism. The  assertion made by science that the earth existed prior to man is an objective truth. This proposition of natural science is incompatible with the philosophy of the Machists and with their doctrine of truth: if truth is an organising form of human experience, then the assertion that the earth exists outside any human experience cannot be true.

But that is not all. If truth is only an organising form of human experience, then the teachings, say, of Catholicism are also true. For there is not the slightest doubt that Catholicism is an “organising form of human experience.” Bogdanov himself senses the crying falsity of his theory and it is extremely interesting to watch how he attempts to extricate himself from the swamp into which he has fallen.

“The basis of objectivity,” we read in Book I of Empirio-Monism, “must lie in the sphere of collective experience. We term those data of experience objective which have the same vital meaning for us and for other people, those data upon which not only we construct our activities without contradiction, but upon which, we are convinced, other people must also base themselves in order to avoid contradiction. The objective character of the physical world consists in the fact that it exists not for me personally, but for everybody (that is not true! It exists independently of “everybody”!), and has a definite meaning for everybody, the same, I am convinced, as for me. The objectivity of the physical series is its universal significance” (p. 25, Bogdanov’s italics). “The objectivity of the physical bodies we encounter in our experience is in the last analysis established by the mutual verification and co-ordination of the utterances of various people. In general, the physical world is socially-co-ordinated, socially-harmonised, in a word, socially-organised experience” (p. 36, Bogdanov’s italics).

We shall not repeat that this is a fundamentally untrue, idealist definition, that the physical world exists independently of humanity and of human experience, that the physical world existed at a time when no “sociality” and no “organisation” of human experience was possible, and so forth. We shall dwell now on an exposure of the Machist philosophy from another aspect, namely, that objectivity is so defined that religious doctrines, which undoubtedly possess a “universal significance”, and so forth, come under the definition. But listen to Bogdanov again: “We remind the reader once more that ‘objective’ experience is by no means the same as ‘social’ experience…. Social experience is far from being altogether socially organised and always contains various contradictions, so that certain of its parts do not agree with others. Sprites and hobgoblins may exist in the sphere of social experience of a given people or of a given group of people – for example, the peasantry; but they need not therefore be included under socially-organised or objective experience, for they do not harmonise with the rest of collective experience and do not fit in with its organising forms, for example, with the chain of causality”.

Of course it is very gratifying that Bogdanov himself “does not include” social experience in regard to sprites and hobgoblins under objective experience. But this well-meant amendment in the spirit of anti-fideism by no means corrects the fundamental error of Bogdanov’s whole position. Bogdanov’s definition of objectivity and of the physical world completely falls to the ground, since the religious doctrine has “universal significance” to a greater degree than the scientific doctrine; the greater part of mankind cling to the former doctrine to this day. Catholicism has been “socially organised, harmonised and co-ordinated” by centuries of development; it “fits in” with the “chain of causality” in the most indisputable manner; for religions did not originate without cause, it is not by accident that they retain their hold over the masses under modern conditions, and it is quite “in the order of things” that professors of philosophy should adapt themselves to them. If this undoubtedly universally significant and undoubtedly highly-organised religious social experience does “not harmonise” with the “experience” of science, it is because there is a radical and fundamental difference between the two, which Bogdanov obliterated when he rejected objective truth. And however much Bogdanov tries to “correct” himself by saying that fideism, or clericalism, does not harmonise with science, the undeniable fact remains that Bogdanov’s denial of objective truth completely “harmonises” with fideism. Contemporary fideism does not at all reject science; all it rejects is the “exaggerated claims” of science, to wit, its claim to objective truth. If objective truth exists (as the materialists think), if natural science, reflecting the outer world in human “experience”, is alone capable of giving us objective truth, then all fideism is absolutely refuted. But if there is no objective truth, if truth (including scientific truth) is only an organising form of human experience, then this in itself is an admission of the fundamental premise of clericalism, the door is thrown open for it, and a place is cleared for the “organising forms” of religious experience.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 107-115

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Part one/to be continued…

Lenin – “matter has disappeared”: part two

Every particle exhibits the properties of both particles and waves.

But dialectical materialism insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another, that from our point of view is apparently irreconcilable with it, and so forth. However bizarre from the standpoint of “common sense” the transformation of imponderable ether into ponderable matter and vice versa may appear, however “strange” may seem the absence of any other kind of mass in the electron save electromagnetic mass, however extraordinary may be the fact that the mechanical laws of motion are confined only to a single sphere of natural phenomena and are subordinated to the more profound laws of electromagnetic phenomena, and so forth – all  this is but another corroboration of dialectical materialism. It is mainly because the physicists did not know dialectics that the new physics strayed into idealism. They combated metaphysical (in Engels’ and not the positivist, i.e., Humean, sense of the word) materialism and its one-sided “mechanism”, and in so doing threw out the baby with the bath-water. Denying the immutability of the elements and of the properties of matter known hitherto, they ended by denying matter, i.e., the objective reality of the physical world. Denying the absolute character of some of the most important and basic laws, they ended by denying all objective law in nature and by declaring that a law of nature is a mere convention, “a limitation of expectation”, “a logical necessity”, and so forth. Insisting on the approximate and relative character of our knowledge, they ended by denying the object independent of the mind, reflected approximately-correctly and relatively-truthfully by the mind. And so on, and so forth, without end.

The opinions expressed by Bogdanov in 1899 regarding “the immutable essence of things”, the opinions of Valentinov and Yushkevich regarding “substance”, and so forth – are similar fruits of ignorance of dialectics. From Engels’ point of view, the only immutability is the reflection by the human mind (when there is a human mind) of an external world existing and developing independently of the mind. No other “immutability”, no other “essence”, no other “absolute substance”, in the sense in which these concepts were depicted by the empty professorial philosophy, exist for Marx and Engels. The “essence” of things, or “substance”, is also relative; it expresses only the degree of profundity of man’s knowledge of objects; and while yesterday the profundity of this knowledge did not go beyond the atom, and today does not go beyond the electron and ether, dialectical materialism insists on the temporary, relative, approximate character of all these milestones in the knowledge of nature gained by the progressing science of man. The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite, but it infinitely exists. And it is this sole categorical, this sole unconditional recognition of nature’s existence outside the mind and perception of man that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism.

…the new physics wavers unconsciously and instinctively between dialectical materialism, which remains unknown to the bourgeois scientists, and “phenomenalism”, with its inevitable subjectivist (and, subsequently, directly fideist) deductions.

…it is nevertheless beyond question that mechanics was a copy of real motions of moderate velocity, while the new physics is a copy of real motions of enormous velocity. The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism. When Rey says that among modern physicists there “is a reaction against the conceptualist [Machist] and energeticist school”, and when he includes the physicists of the electron theory among the representatives of this reaction, we could desire no better corroboration of the fact that the struggle is essentially between the materialist and the idealist tendencies. But we must not forget that, apart from the general prejudices against materialism common to all educated philistines, the most outstanding theoreticians are handicapped by a complete ignorance of dialectics.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 240-246

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Text, with minor errors, at:
https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/five2.htm#v14pp72h-258

These words foretell the passing of capitalism with the certainty of my own death

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M16 and the Eagle Nebula

Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction do they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity. …when the difference of reality is taken into account, it develops from difference into opposition, and from this into contradiction, so that in the end the sum total of all realities simply becomes absolute contradiction within itself.


G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, p. 442

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Engels on dialectics: in conclusion

 

Our theory is a theory of evolution, not a dogma to be learnt by heart and to be repeated mechanically.

Friedrich Engels to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky in New York; London, January 27, 1887, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 378

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Lenin – “matter has disappeared”: part one

 

Materialism and idealism differ in their answers to the question of the source of our knowledge and of the relation of knowledge (and of the “mental” in general) to the physical world; while the question of the structure of matter, of atoms and electrons, is a question that concerns only this “physical world”. When the physicists say “matter disappears” they mean that hitherto science reduced its investigations of the physical world to three ultimate concepts: matter, electricity and ether; now only the two latter remain. For it has become possible to reduce matter to electricity; the atom can be explained as resembling an infinitely small solar system, within which negative electrons move around a positive electron with a definite (and, as we have seen, enormously large) velocity. It is consequently possible to reduce the physical world from scores of elements to two or three elements (inasmuch as positive and negative electrons constitute “two essentially distinct kinds of matter”, as the physicist Pellat says – Rey, op. cit., pp. 294-95). Hence, natural science leads to the “unity of matter” (ibid.) – such is the real meaning of the statement about the disappearance of matter, its replacement by electricity, etc., which is leading so many people astray. “Matter disappears” means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are likewise disappearing which formerly seemed absolute, immutable, and primary (impenetrability, inertia, mass,1 etc.) and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind.

The error of Machism in general, as of the Machist new physics, is that it ignores this basis of philosophical materialism and the distinction between metaphysical materialism and dialectical materialism. The recognition of immutable elements, “of the immutable essence of things”, and so forth, is not materialism, but metaphysical, i.e., anti-dialectical, materialism. That is why J. Dietzgen emphasised that the “subject-matter of science is endless”, that not only the infinite, but the “smallest atom” is immeasurable, unknowable to the end, inexhaustible, “for nature in all her parts has no beginning and no end” (Kleinere philosophische Schriften, S. 229-30). That is why Engels gave the example of the discovery of alizarin in coal tar and criticised mechanical materialism. In order to present the question in the only correct way, that is, from the dialectical materialist standpoint, we ask: Do electrons, ether and so on exist as objective realities outside the human mind or not? The scientists will also have to answer this question unhesitatingly; and they do invariably answer it in the affirmative, just as they unhesitatingly recognise that nature existed prior to man and prior to organic matter. Thus, the question is decided in favour of materialism, for the concept matter, as we already stated, epistemologically implies nothing but objective reality existing independently of the human mind and reflected by it.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 240-246

Part one/to be continued…

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Note

1. This refers apparently to mechanical mass, which classical physics regarded as an eternal and unchanging property of matter.

Text, with minor errors, at:
https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/five2.htm#v14pp72h-258

Engels on dialectics, part six: science and philosophy

 

Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought, and for thought they need thought determinations. But they take these categories unreflectingly from the common consciousness of so-called educated persons, which is dominated by the relics of long obsolete philosophies, or from the little bit of philosophy compulsorily listened to at the University (which is not only fragmentary, but also a medley of views of people belonging to the most varied and usually the worst schools), or from uncritical and unsystematic reading of philosophical writings of all kinds. Hence they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves to precisely the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies.

*      *      *

Natural scientists may adopt whatever attitude they please, they are still under the domination of philosophy. It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad, fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.

‘Physics, beware of metaphysics’, is quite right, but in a different sense.

Natural scientists allow philosophy to prolong an illusory existence by making shift with the dregs of the old metaphysics. Only when natural and historical science has become imbued with dialectics will all the philosophical rubbish – other than the pure theory of thought – be superfluous, disappearing in positive science.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 209-210

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Hegel on contradiction: part three

 

the negative relation to self (is) the innermost source of all activity, of all animate and spiritual self-movement, the dialectical soul that everything true possesses and through which alone it is true; for on this subjectivity alone rests the sublating of the opposition between Notion and reality, and the unity that is truth. The second negative, the negative of the negative…is this sublating of the contradiction, but just as little as the contradiction is it an act of external reflection, but rather the innermost, most objective moment of life and spirit, through which a subject, a person, a free being, exists.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, pp. 835-836

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Part three/to be continued…

Lenin on matter: part six

 

The fundamental characteristic of materialism is that it starts from the objectivity of science, from the recognition of objective reality reflected by science, whereas idealism needs “detours” in order, in one way or another, to “deduce” objectivity from mind, consciousness, the “psychical”.

Sensation is an image of matter in motion. Save through sensations, we can know nothing either of the forms of matter or of the forms of motion; sensations are evoked by the action of matter in motion upon our sense-organs. That is how science views it.

“Matter disappears”, only equations remain. At a new stage of development and apparently in a new manner, we get the old Kantian idea: reason prescribes laws to nature.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 275, 282, 288