Chernyshevsky: the aesthetic relation of art to reality – part two

Vasily Perov, ‘Portrait of Fyodor M. Dostoevsky’, 1872, oil on canvas, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Vasily Perov, ‘Portrait of Fyodor M. Dostoevsky’, 1872, oil on canvas, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The author’s task was to investigate the question of the aesthetic relation of works of art to the phenomena of life, to test the correctness of the prevailing opinion that true beauty, which is regarded as the essential content of works of art, does not exist in objective reality, but is attained only by art. Inseparably connected with this question are the questions of the essence of beauty and the content of art. Investigation of the question of the essence of beauty has led the author to the conviction that beauty is life. After arriving at this conclusion it became necessary to investigate the concepts sublime and tragic, which according to the usual definition of beauty are elements of the latter, and we were forced to the conclusion that the sublime and the beautiful are not subsumed in art. This proved an important aid to the solution of the question of the content of art. But if beauty is life, the question of the aesthetic relation of beauty in art to beauty in reality solves itself. Having arrived at the conclusion that art cannot owe its origin to man’s dissatisfaction with beauty in reality, we had to ascertain what needs gave rise to art and to investigate ins true purpose. The following are the chief conclusions to which this investigation brought us:

  1. The definition of beauty as ‘the perfect manifestation of the general idea in the individual phenomenon’ does not stand criticism; it is too broad, for this is the definition of the formal striving of all human activity.
  2. The true definition of beauty is: ‘beauty is life.’ To man, a beautiful being is that being in which he sees life as he understands it; a beautiful object is an object that reminds him of life.
  3. This objective beauty, or beauty in essence, must be distinguished from perfection of form, which consists in the unity of the idea and the form, or in the object fully answering its purpose.
  4. The sublime does not affect man by awakening in him the idea of the absolute; it hardly ever awakens it.
  5. To man, the sublime is that which seems to be much bigger than the objects, or much more powerful than the phenomena, with which he compares it.
  6. The tragic has no essential connection with the idea of fate or necessity. In real life the  tragic is most often adventitious, it does not spring from the essence of preceding events. The form of necessity in which it is clothed by art springs from the ordinary principle of works of art: ‘the denouement must follow from the plot,’ or else is due to the artist’s misplaced surrender to the conception of fate.
  7. The tragic, according to the conception of recent European learning, is ‘the horrible in a man’s life.’
  8. The sublime (and its element, the tragic) is not a variety of the beautiful; the idea of the sublime and the idea of the beautiful are two entirely different things; between them there is neither inherent connection nor inherent contrast.
  9. Reality is not only more animated, but is also more perfect than imagination. The images of the imagination are only pale and nearly always unsuccessful imitations of reality.
  10. Beauty in objective reality is fully beautiful.
  11. Beauty in objective reality fully satisfies man.
  12. Art does not spring from man’s desire to make up for the flaws in beauty in reality.
  13. Works of art are inferior to beauty in reality not only because the impression created by reality is more vivid than that created by works of art: works of art are inferior to beauty (and also inferior to the sublime, the tragic and the ridiculous) in reality also from the aesthetic point of view.
  14. The sphere of art is not limited to the sphere of the beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the term, of beauty in its essence and not only in perfection of form; art reproduces everything that is of interest to man.
  15. Perfection of form (unity of the idea and the form) is not the characteristic feature of art in the aesthetic sense of the term (the fine arts). Beauty as the unity of the idea and the image, or as the perfect realisation of the idea, is the object of the striving of art in the broadest sense of the term, or of ‘accomplishment,’ the object of all man’s practical activities.
  16. The need that engenders art in the aesthetic sense of the term (the fine arts) is the same as that which is very clearly expressed in portrait painting. Portraits are not painted because the features of the living person do not satisfy us; they are painted in order to help us to remember the living person when he is not in front of our eyes and to give those who have not had occasion to see him some idea of what he is like. By its reproductions, art merely reminds us of what in life is of interest to us and strives to acquaint us to some degree with those interesting aspects of life which we have not had occasion to experience or see in reality.
  17. Reproduction of life is the general characteristic feature of art and constitutes its essence. Works of art often have another purpose, viz., to explain life; they often also have the purpose of pronouncing judgement on the phenomena of life.
Vasily Perov, ‘Self-portrait’, 1851, oil on canvas, Museum of Russian Art, Kiev

Vasily Perov, ‘Self-portrait’, 1851, oil on canvas, Museum of Russian Art, Kiev

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N.G. Chernyshevsky, ‘The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality’, MA thesis, 1855, in Selected Philosophical Essays, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, 379-381

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Chernyshevsky: the aesthetic relation of art to reality

Orion Nebula: The Hubble View

Orion Nebula: The Hubble View

Defence of reality as against fantasy, the endeavour to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality – such is the essence of this essay. But does not what the author says degrade art? Yes, if showing that art stands lower than real life in the artistic perfection of its works means degrading art. But protesting against panegyrics does not mean disparagement. Science does not claim to stand higher than reality, but it has nothing to be ashamed of in that. Art, too, must not claim to stand higher than reality; that would not be degrading for it. Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality and then to use its explanation for the benefit of man. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is to compensate man in case of absence of opportunity to enjoy the full aesthetic pleasure afforded by reality by, as far as possible, reproducing this precious reality, and by explaining it for the benefit of man.

Let art be content with its lofty, splendid mission of being a substitute for reality in case of its absence, and of being a textbook of life for man.

Reality stands higher than dreams, and essential purpose stands higher than fantastic claims.

M42: Inside the Orion Nebula

M42: Inside the Orion Nebula

The Northern Lights, Hverir Geothermal Area, Myvatn, Iceland

The Northern Lights, Hverir Geothermal Area, Myvatn, Iceland

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N.G. Chernyshevsky, ‘The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality’, MA thesis, 1855, in Selected Philosophical Essays, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, 379

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Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part five

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“Matter has disappeared” (continued)

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, 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.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 240-241

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Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part four

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Murnau, Dorfstrasse (Street in Murnau, A Village Street)’, 1908, oil on cardboard, later mounted on wood panel, Merzbacher collection, Switzerland ‘This discovery struck me with terrific impact, comparable to that of the end of the world. In the twinkling of an eye, the mighty arches of science lay shattered before me. All things became flimsy, with no strength or certainty. I would hardly have been surprised if the stones had risen in the air and disappeared. To me, science had been destroyed.’ Kandinsky in response to Rutherford’s ‘disintegration’ of the atom, which was instrumental in his move to abstraction.

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Murnau, Dorfstrasse (Street in Murnau, A Village Street)’, 1908, oil on cardboard, later mounted on wood panel, Merzbacher collection, Switzerland
‘This discovery struck me with terrific impact, comparable to that of the end of the world. In the twinkling of an eye, the mighty arches of science lay shattered before me. All things became flimsy, with no strength or certainty. I would hardly have been surprised if the stones had risen in the air and disappeared. To me, science had been destroyed.’ Kandinsky in response to Rutherford’s ‘disintegration’ of the atom, which was instrumental in his move to abstraction.

“Matter has disappeared”

Such, literally, is the expression that may be encountered in the descriptions given by modern physicists of recent discoveries. For instance, L. Houllevigue, in his book The Evolution of the Sciences, entitles his chapter on the new theories of matter: “Does Matter Exist?” He says: “The atom dematerialises…matter disappears.” To see how easily fundamental philosophical conclusions are drawn from this by the Machists, let us take Valentinov. He writes: “The statement that the scientific explanation of the world can find a firm foundation ‘only in materialism’ is nothing but a fiction, and what is more, an absurd fiction” (p. 67). He quotes as a destroyer of this absurd fiction Augusto Righi, the well-known Italian physicist, who says that the electron theory “is not so much a theory of electricity as of matter; the new system simply puts electricity in the place of matter”. (Augusto Righi, Die moderne Theorie der physikalischen Erscheinungen, [The Modern Theory of Physical Phenomena], Leipzig, 1905, S. 131. There is a Russian translation.) Having quoted these words (p. 64), Mr. Valentinov exclaims:

“Why does Righi permit himself to commit this offence against sacred matter? Is it perhaps because he is a solipsist, an idealist, a bourgeois criticist, an empirio-monist, or even someone worse?”

This remark, which seems to Mr. Valentinov to annihilate the materialists by its sarcasm, only discloses his virgin innocence on the subject of philosophical materialism. Mr. Valentinov has absolutely failed to understand the real connection between philosophical idealism and the “disappearance of matter”. That “disappearance of matter” of which he speaks, in imitation of the modern physicists, has no relation to the epistemological distinction between materialism and idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 239-240

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Composition VII’, 1913, oil on canvas, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Composition VII’, 1913, oil on canvas, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part three

Ernest Rutherford at McGill University, 1905

Ernest Rutherford at McGill University, 1905

The Crisis in Modern Physics (continued)

Poincaré does not develop these deductions consistently, nor is he essentially interested in the philosophical aspect of the question. It is dealt with in detail by the French writer on philosophical problems, Abel Rey, in his book The Physical Theory of the Modern Physicists (La théorie  de la physique chez les physiciens contemporains, Paris, F. Alcan, 1907). True, the author himself is a positivist, i.e., a muddlehead and a semi-Machist, but in this case this is even a certain advantage, for he cannot be suspected of a desire to “slander” our Machists’ idol. Rey cannot be trusted when it comes to giving an exact philosophical definition of concepts and of materialism in particular, for Rey too is a professor, and as such is imbued with an utter contempt for the materialists (and distinguishes himself by utter ignorance of the epistemology of materialism). It goes without saying that a Marx or an Engels is absolutely non-existent for such “men of science”. But Rey summarises carefully and in general conscientiously the extremely abundant literature on the subject, not only French, but English and German as well (Ostwald and Mach in particular), so that we shall have frequent recourse to his work.

The attention of philosophers in general, says the author, and also of those who, for one reason or another, wish to criticise science in general, has now been particularly attracted towards physics. “In discussing the limits and value of physical knowledge, it is in effect the legitimacy of positive science, the possibility of knowing the object, that is criticised” (pp. i-ii). From the “crisis in modern physics” people hasten to draw sceptical conclusions (p. 14). Now, what is the essence of this crisis? During the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century the physicists agreed among themselves on everything essential. They believed in a purely mechanical explanation of nature: they assumed that physics is nothing but a more complicated mechanics, namely, a molecular mechanics. They differed only as to the methods used in reducing physics to mechanics and as to the details of the mechanism…. At present the spectacle presented by the physico-chemical sciences seems completely changed. Extreme disagreement has replaced general unanimity, and no longer does it only concern details, but leading and fundamental ideas. While it would be an exaggeration to say that each scientist has his own peculiar tendencies, it must nevertheless be noted that science, and especially physics, has, like art, its numerous schools, the conclusions of which often differ from, and sometimes are directly opposed and hostile to one another….

“From this one may judge the significance and scope of what has been called the crisis in modern physics.”

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 234-235

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Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part two

Every particle exhibits the properties of both particles and waves.

Every particle exhibits the properties of both particles and waves.

The Crisis in Modern Physics

In his book Value of Science (Valeur de la science), the famous French physicist Henri Poincaré says that there are “signs of a serious crisis” in physics, and he devotes a special chapter to this crisis (Chap. VIII, cf. p. 171). The crisis is not confined to the fact that “radium, the great revolutionary”, is undermining the principle of the conservation of energy. “All the other principles are equally endangered” (180). For instance, Lavoisier’s principle, or the principle of the conservation of mass, has been undermined by the electron theory of matter. According to this theory atoms are composed of very minute particles called electrons, which are charged with positive or negative electricity and “are immersed in a medium which we call the ether”. The experiments of physicists provide data for calculating the velocity of the electrons and their mass (or the relation of their mass to their electric charge). The velocity proves to be comparable with the velocity of light (300,000 kilometres per second), attaining, for instance, one-third of the latter. Under such circumstances the twofold mass of the electron has to be taken into account, corresponding to the necessity of overcoming the inertia, firstly, of the electron itself and, secondly, of the ether. The former mass will be the real or mechanical mass of the electron, the latter the “electrodynamic mass which represents the inertia of the ether”. And it turns out that the former mass is equal to zero. The entire mass of the electrons, or, at least, of the negative electrons, proves to be totally and exclusively electrodynamic in its origin. Mass disappears. The foundations of mechanics are undermined. Newton’s principle, the equality of action and reaction, is undermined, and so on.

We are faced, says Poincaré, with the “ruins” of the old principles of physics, “a general debacle of principles”. It is true, he remarks, that all the mentioned departures from principles refer to infinitesimal magnitudes; it is possible that we are still ignorant of other infinitesimals counteracting the undermining of the old principles. Moreover, radium is very rare. But at any rate we have reached a “period of doubt”. We have already seen what epistemological deductions the author draws from this “period of doubt”: “it is not nature which imposes on [or dictates to] us the concepts of space and time, but we who impose them on nature”; “whatever is not thought, is pure nothing”. These deductions are idealist deductions. The break-down of the most fundamental principles shows (such is Poincaré’s trend of thought) that these principles are not copies, photographs of nature, not images of something external in relation to man’s consciousness, but products of his consciousness. Poincaré does not develop these deductions consistently, nor is he essentially interested in the philosophical aspect of the question.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 233-234

dualjoke

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Part two/to be continued…

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Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism

The 'indivisible' atom. 'With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, (materialism) has to change its form' (Engels)

The ‘indivisible’ atom. ‘With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, (materialism) has to change its form’ (Engels)

Engels says explicitly that “with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science [“not to speak of the history of mankind”], materialism has to change its form” (Ludwig Feuerbach, German edition, p. 19). Hence, a revision of the “form” of Engels’ materialism, a revision of his natural-philosophical propositions is not only not “revisionism”, in the accepted meaning of the term, but, on the contrary, is an essential requirement of Marxism. We criticise the Machists not for making such a revision, but for their purely revisionist trick of betraying the essence of materialism under the guise of criticising its form and of adopting the fundamental propositions of reactionary bourgeois philosophy without making the slightest attempt to deal directly, frankly and definitely with assertions of Engels’ which are unquestionably of extreme importance for the given question, as, for example, his assertion that “…motion without matter is unthinkable” (Anti-Dühring, p. 50).

It goes without saying that in examining the connection between one of the schools of modern physicists and the rebirth of philosophical idealism, it is far from being our intention to deal with specific physical theories. What interests us exclusively is the epistemological conclusions that follow from certain definite propositions and generally known discoveries. These epistemological conclusions are of themselves so insistent that many physicists are already almost reaching them. What is more, there are already various trends among the physicists, and definite schools are beginning to be formed on this basis. Our object, therefore, will be confined to explaining clearly the essence of the difference between these various trends and the relation in which they stand to the fundamental lines of philosophy.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 232-233

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Lenin: the philosophical idealists – part eleven

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

In this quotation Lenin again discusses the development of materialist philosophy by Marx and Engels.

Two Kinds of Criticism of Dühring (continued)

Marx and Engels, as well as J. Dietzgen, entered the philosophical arena at a time when materialism reigned among the advanced intellectuals in general, and in working-class circles in particular. It is therefore quite natural that they should have devoted their attention not to a repetition of old ideas but to a serious theoretical development of materialism, its application to history, in other words, to the completion of the edifice of materialist philosophy up to its summit. It is quite natural that in the sphere of epistemology they confined themselves to correcting Feuerbach’s errors, to ridiculing the banalities of the materialist Dühring, to criticising the errors of Büchner (see J. Dietzgen), to emphasising what these most widely known and popular writers among the workers particularly lacked, namely, dialectics. Marx, Engels and J. Dietzgen did not worry about the elementary truths of materialism, which had been cried by the hucksters in dozens of books, but devoted all their attention to ensuring that these elementary truths should not be vulgarised, should not be over-simplified, should not lead to stagnation of thought (“materialism below, idealism above”), to forgetfulness of the valuable fruit of the idealist systems, Hegelian dialectics – that pearl which those farmyard cocks, the Büchners, the Dührings and Co. (as well as Leclair, Mach, Avenarius and so forth), could not pick out from the dung-heap of absolute idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 224

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Lenin: the philosophical idealists – part ten

Turner and Turning Lathe, the Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, 1772

Turner and Turning Lathe, the Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, 1772

Two Kinds of Criticism of Dühring

In this quotation, Lenin argues for the development of materialist theory

Engels says very clearly that Büchner and Co. “by no means overcame the limitations of their teachers”, i.e., the materialists of the eighteenth century, that they had not made a single step forward. And it is for this, and this alone, that Engels took Büchner and Co. to task; not for their materialism, as the ignoramuses think, but because they did not advance materialism, because “they did not in the least make it their business to develop the theory [of materialism] any further”. It was for this alone that Engels took Büchner and Co. to task. And thereupon point by point Engels enumerates three fundamental “limitations” (Beschränktheit) of the French materialists of the eighteenth century, from which Marx and Engels had emancipated themselves, but from which Büchner and Co. were unable to emancipate themselves. The first limitation was that the views of the old materialists were “mechanical”, in the sense that they believed in “the exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processes of a chemical and organic nature” (S. 19). We shall see in the next chapter that failure to understand these words of Engels’ caused certain people to succumb to idealism through the new physics. Engels does not reject mechanical materialism for the faults attributed to it by physicists of the “recent” idealist (alias Machist) trend. The second limitation was the metaphysical character of the views of the old materialists, meaning the “anti-dialectical character of their philosophy”. This limitation is fully shared with Büchner and Co. by our Machists, who, as we have seen, entirely failed to understand Engels’ application of dialectics to epistemology (for example, absolute and relative truth). The third limitation was the preservation of idealism “up above”, in the realm of the social sciences, a non-understanding of historical materialism.

Having enumerated these three “limitations” and explained them with exhaustive clarity (S. 19-21), Engels then and there adds that they (Büchner and Co.) did not emerge “from these limits” (über diese Schranken).

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 221-222

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Lenin: the philosophical idealists – part nine

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo, ‘Creation of Adam’, Sistine Chapel

 A.Bogdanov’s “Empirio-monism” (continued)

A philosophy which teaches that physical nature itself is a product, is a philosophy of clericalism pure and simple. And its character is in no wise altered by the fact that Bogdanov himself emphatically repudiates all religion. Dühring was also an atheist; he even proposed to prohibit religion in his “socialitarian” order. Nevertheless, Engels was absolutely right in pointing out that Dühring’s “system” could not be made to hang together without religion. The same is true of Bogdanov, with the essential difference that the quoted passage is not a chance inconsistency but the very essence of his “empirio-monism” and of all his “substitution”. If nature is a product, it is obvious that it can be a product only of something that is greater, richer, broader, mightier than nature, of something that exists; for in order to “produce” nature, it must exist independently of nature. That means that something exists outside nature, something which moreover produces nature. In plain language this is called God. The idealist philosophers have always sought to change this latter name, to make it more abstract, more vague and at the same time (for the sake of plausibility) to bring it nearer to the “psychical”, as an “immediate complex”, as the immediately given which requires no proof. Absolute Idea, Universal Spirit, World Will, “general substitution” of the psychical for the physical, are different formulations of one and the same idea. Every man knows, and science investigates, idea, mind, will, the psychical, as a function of the normally operating human brain. To divorce this function from matter organised in a definite way, to convert this function into a universal, general abstraction, to “substitute” this abstraction for the whole of physical nature, this is the raving of philosophical idealism and a mockery of science.

Materialism says that the “socially-organised experience of living beings” is a product of physical nature, a result of a long development of the latter, of development from a state of physical nature when no society, organisation, experience, or living beings existed or could have existed. Idealism says that physical nature is a product of this experience of living beings, and in saying this, idealism is equating (if not subordinating) nature to God. For God is undoubtedly a product of the socially-organised experience of living beings. No matter from what angle you look at it, Bogdanov’s philosophy contains nothing but a reactionary muddle.

Bogdanov thinks that to speak of the social organisation of experience is “cognitive socialism” (Bk. III, p. xxxiv). This is insane twaddle. If socialism is thus regarded, the Jesuits are ardent adherents of “cognitive socialism”, for the starting-point of their epistemology is divinity as “socially-organised experience”. And there can be no doubt that Catholicism is a socially-organised experience; only, it reflects not objective truth (which Bogdanov denies, but which science reflects), but the exploitation of the ignorance of the masses by definite social classes.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 210-11

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Part nine/to be continued…

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