How do we know the world?

From perception to thought

From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature…

V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.

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Lenin: Is there objective truth? Part four

Pieter Claesz, ‘Still Life with Musical Instruments’, 1623. The painting illustrates the senses through musical instruments, a compass, a book, food and drink, a mirror, incense and an open perfume bottle. The tortoise may be an illustration of touch or an allusion to the opposite (the tortoise isolating in its shell).

Acceptance or rejection of the concept matter is a question of the confidence man places in the evidence of his sense-organs, a question of the source of our knowledge, a question which has been asked and debated from the very inception of philosophy, which may be disguised in a thousand different garbs by professorial clowns, but which can no more become antiquated than the question whether the source of human knowledge is sight and touch, hearing and smell. To regard our sensations as images of the external world, to recognise objective truth, to hold the materialist theory of knowledge—these are all one and the same thing. To illustrate this, I shall only quote from Feuerbach and from two textbooks of philosophy, in order that the reader may judge how elementary this question is.

“How banal,” wrote Feuerbach, “to deny that sensation is the evangel, the gospel (Verkündung) of an objective saviour.” (Feuerbach, Sämtliche Werke, X. Band, 1866, S. 194-95) A strange, a preposterous terminology, as you see, but a perfectly clear philosophical line: sensation reveals objective truth to man. “My sensation is subjective, but its foundation or cause (Grund) is objective” (S. 195). Compare this with the quotation given above where Feuerbach says that materialism starts from the sensuous world as an ultimate (ausgemachte) objective truth.

Sensationalism, we read in Franck’s dictionary of philosophy, (Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques [Dictionary of the Philosophical Sciences], Paris, 1875) is a doctrine which deduces all our ideas “from the experience of the senses, reducing knowledge to sensations”. There is subjective sensationalism (skepticism and Berkeleianism), moral sensationalism (Epicureanism),1 and objective sensationalism. “Objective sensationalism is materialism, for matter or bodies are, in the opinion of the materialists, the only objects that can affect our senses (atteindre nos sens).”

“If sensationalism,” says Schwegler in his history of philosophy, (Dr. Albert Schwegler, Geschichte der Philosophie im Umriss [History of Philosophy in Outline], 15-te Aufl., S. 194) “asserted that truth or being can be apprehended exclusively by means of the senses, one had only [Schwegler is speaking of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century in France] to formulate this proposition objectively and one had the thesis of materialism: only the sensuous exists; there is no other being than material being.”

These elementary truths, which have managed to find their way even into the textbooks, have been forgotten by our Machists.

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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Note

1. Skepticism: a philosophical trend that casts doubt on the possibility of knowing objective reality. It arose in ancient Greece as early as the 4th to 3rd centuries B. C. It was founded by Pyrrho and Aenesidemus and Sextus Empiricus were among its prominent exponents. The adherents of ancient skepticism drew agnostic conclusions from the premises of sensationalism. Making the subjectivity of sensation into an absolute, the skeptics insisted on the need to refrain from any definite judgments about things. They considered that man cannot go beyond his sensations and determine their truth.

During the period of the Renaissance, the French philosophers Michel Montaigne, Pierre Charron and Pierre Bayle made use of skepticism for combating medieval scholasticism and the Church.

In the eighteenth century skepticism was revived in the agnosticism of Hume and Kant, and an attempt to modernise ancient skepticism was made by Gottlieb Schulze (Aenesidemus). The arguments of skepticism were used by the Machists, neo-Kantians and other idealist philosophical schools from the middle of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Epicureanism: the doctrine of the ancient Greek materialist philosopher Epicurus of the 4th to 3rd centuries B. C. and his successors. The aim of philosophy, according to this doctrine, was man’s happiness, freeing him from suffering and enabling him to attain a state of bliss. It taught that philosophy was called upon to overcome obstacles to happiness: the fear of death due to ignorance of the laws of nature and giving rise therefore to belief in supernatural divine forces.

According to Epicurus, there are only atoms and the void in the universe, in which atoms move down under their own weight. Falling with the same velocity, the atoms swerve from their rectilinear movement, collide and concatenate, forming various bodies. Epicurus recognised the objective character of the properties of things and regarded the universe as infinite, governed by natural and not by divine laws. He denied the immortality and non-materiality of the soul, and maintained that it was a material body of fine parts distributed through the whole body structure. His theory of the material nature of the soul was closely  linked with his atheism, which negated gods’ interference in the affairs of nature and man.

As regards the theory of knowledge, Epicurus was a sensationalist. He supposed that very subtle images proceed from things and penetrate the human soul through the sense-organs. Conceptions of things are formed on the basis of the sense perceptions of the soul, in which memory preserves only the general features of images. Epicurus regarded sense-perceptions themselves as the criterion of truth, and he considered that the source of errors lay in the accidental character of individual sensations or in the overhasty formation of judgments. Epicurus gave a materialist, though rather naïve, interpretation of the fundamentals of the cognitive process.

The idealists, who distorted the teaching of this great materialist of ancient Greece, made more attacks on Epicureanism than on the other philosophical theories of antiquity.

In the definition of sensationalism quoted by Lenin, Franck rightly regards Epicureanism as a variety of it, but he draws an incorrect distinction between Epicureanism and objective materialist sensationalism. In his conspectus of the Lectures on the History of Philosophy by Hegel who did not understand Epicurus’ theory and distorted it, Lenin showed that Epicureanism was a form of ancient Greek materialism.

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One gave priority to matter, another to its product: on the (theoretical) absolute

Friedrich Engels in 1860

Friedrich Engels in 1860

‘It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of beings conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation; a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes. But however often, and however relentlessly, this cycle is completed in time and space; however many millions of suns and earths may arise and pass away; however long it may last before, in one solar system and only on one planet, the conditions for organic life develop; however innumerable the organic beings, too, that have to arise and to pass away before animals with a brain capable of thought are developed from their midst, and for a short span of time find conditions suitable for life, only to be exterminated later without mercy – we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.’

 Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 39

Michel de Montaigne n.d.

Michel de Montaigne n.d.

 ‘…if you should determine to try and grasp what Man’s being is, it would be exactly like trying to hold a fistful of water: the more tightly you squeeze anything the nature of which is always to flow, the more you will lose what you try to retain in your grasp. So, because all things are subject to pass from change to change, Reason is baffled if it looks for a substantial existence in them, since it cannot apprehend a single thing which subsists permanently, because everything is either coming into existence (and so not fully existing yet) or beginning to die before it is born.’ Plato said that bodies never have existence, though they certainly have birth, believing that Homer made Oceanus Father of the Gods and Thetis their Mother, to show that all things are in a state of never-ending inconstancy, change and flux…we must conclude that God alone IS: not according to any measure known to Time, but according to an unchanging and immortal eternity…’

 Michel de Montaigne, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, The Complete Essays, Trans., Ed., M.A.Screech, Penguin, London, 2003, 680-682

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Marx: Is there objective truth?

Albrecht Dürer, study of hands, chalk drawing on blue paper, n.d.

The question whether objective [gegenständliche] truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

Second thesis on Feuerbach, 1845

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Lenin: Is there objective truth? Part three

The prince thanking the Water sprite (artist: Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle), from The Princess Nobody: A Tale of Fairyland (1884) by Andrew Lang

The Machists love to declaim that they are philosophers who completely trust the evidence of our sense-organs, who regard the world as actually being what it seems to us to be, full of sounds, colours, etc., whereas to the materialists, they say, the world is dead, devoid of sound and colour, and in its reality different from what it seems to be, and so forth. Such declamations, for example, are indulged in by J. Petzoldt, both in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Pure Experience and in his World Problem from the Positivist Standpoint (Weltproblem von positivistischen Standpunkte aus), 1906. Petzoldt is parroted by Mr. Victor Chernov, who waxes enthusiastic over the “new” idea. But, in fact, the Machists are subjectivists and agnostics, for they do not sufficiently trust the evidence of our sense-organs and are inconsistent in their sensationalism. They do not recognise objective reality, independent of man, as the source of our sensations. They do not regard sensations as a true copy of this objective reality, thereby coming into direct conflict with natural science and throwing the door open for fideism. On the contrary, for the materialist the world is richer, livelier, more varied than it seems, for with each step in the development of science new aspects are discovered. For the materialist, our sensations are images of the sole and ultimate objective reality, ultimate not in the sense that it has already been cognised to the end, but in the sense that there is not and cannot be any other. This view irrevocably closes the door not only to every species of fideism, but also to that professorial scholasticism which, while not recognising an objective reality as the source of our sensations, “deduces” the concept of the objective by means of such artificial verbal constructions as universal significance, socially-organised, and so on and so forth, and which is unable, and frequently unwilling, to separate objective truth from belief in sprites and hobgoblins.

The Machists contemptuously shrug their shoulders at the “antiquated” views of the “dogmatists”, the materialists, who still cling to the concept matter, which supposedly has been refuted by “recent science” and “recent positivism.” We shall speak separately of the new theories of physics on the structure of matter. But it is absolutely unpardonable to confuse, as the Machists do, any particular theory of the structure of matter with the epistemological category, to confuse the problem of the new properties of new aspects of matter (electrons, for example) with the old problem of the theory of knowledge, with the problem of the sources of our knowledge, the existence of objective truth, etc. Mach “discovered the world-elements”: red, green, hard, soft, loud, long, etc. We ask, is a man given objective reality when he sees something red or feels something hard, etc., or not? This hoary philosophical query is confused by Mach. If you hold that it is not given, you, together with Mach, inevitably sink to subjectivism and agnosticism and deservedly fall into the embrace of the immanentists, i.e., the philosophical Menshikovs. If you hold that it is given, a philosophical concept is needed for this objective reality, and this concept has been worked out long, long ago. This concept is matter. Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them. Therefore, to say that such a concept can become “antiquated” is childish talk, a senseless repetition of the arguments of fashionable reactionary philosophy. Could the struggle between materialism and idealism, the struggle between the tendencies or lines of Plato and Democritus in philosophy, the struggle between religion and science, the denial of objective truth and its assertion, the struggle between the adherents of supersensible knowledge and its adversaries, have become antiquated during the two thousand years of the development of philosophy?

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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Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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Part three/to be continued…

Lenin: Is there objective truth? Part two

Statue of David Hume by Alexander Stoddart, 1995, bronze, in front of High Court Building, Edinburgh, Scotland

The question arises, does this denial of objective truth belong personally to Bogdanov, who refuses to own himself a Machist, or does it follow from the fundamental teachings of Mach and Avenarius? The latter is the only possible answer to the question. If only sensation exists in the world (Avenarius in 1876), if bodies are complexes of sensations (Mach, in the Analysis of Sensations), then we are obviously confronted with a philosophical subjectivism which inevitably leads to the denial of objective truth. And if sensations are called “elements” which in one connection give rise to the physical and in another to the psychical, this, as we have seen, only confuses but does not reject the fundamental point of departure of empirio-criticism. Avenarius and Mach recognise sensations as the source of our knowledge. Consequently, they adopt the standpoint of empiricism (all knowledge derives from experience) or sensationalism (all knowledge derives from sensations). But this standpoint gives rise to the difference between the fundamental philosophical trends, idealism and materialism and does not eliminate that difference, no matter in what “new” verbal garb (“elements”) the standpoint is clothed. Both the solipsist, that is, the subjective idealist, and the materialist may regard sensations as the source of our knowledge. Both Berkeley and Diderot started from Locke. The first premise of the theory of knowledge undoubtedly is that the sole source of our knowledge is sensation. Having recognised the first premise, Mach confuses the second important premise, i.e., regarding the objective reality that is given to man in his sensations, or that forms the source of man’s sensations. Starting from sensations, one may follow the line of subjectivism, which leads to solipsism (“bodies are complexes or combinations of sensations”), or the line of objectivism, which leads to materialism (sensations are images of objects, of the external world). For the first point of view, i.e., agnosticism, or, pushed a little further, subjective idealism, there can be no objective truth. For the second point of view, i.e., materialism, the recognition of objective truth is essential. This old philosophical question of the two trends, or rather, of the two possible deductions from the premises of empiricism and sensationalism, is not solved by Mach, it is not eliminated or overcome by him, but is muddled by verbal trickery with the word “element”, and the like. Bogdanov’s denial of objective truth is an inevitable consequence of Machism as a whole, and not a deviation from it.

Engels in his Ludwig Feuerbach calls Hume and Kant philosophers “who question the possibility of any cognition, or at least of an exhaustive cognition, of the world”. Engels, therefore, lays stress on what is common both to Hume and Kant, and not on what divides them. Engels states further that “what is decisive in the refutation of this [Humean and Kantian] view has already been said by Hegel” (4th Germ. ed., pp. 15–16).1 In this connection it seems to me not uninteresting to note that Hegel, declaring materialism to be “a consistent system of empiricism,” wrote: “For empiricism the external (das Äusserliche) in general is the truth, and if then a supersensible too be admitted, nevertheless knowledge of it cannot occur (soll doch eine Erkenntnis desselben [d. h. des Uebersinnlichennicht stattfinden können) and one must keep exclusively to what belongs to perception (das der Wahrnehmung Angehörige). However, this principle in its realisation (Durchführung) produced what was subsequently termed materialism. This materialism regards matter, as such, as the truly objective (das wahrhaft Objektive).”(Hegel, Encyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse [Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline], Werke, VI. Band [1843], S. 83. Cf. S. 122).

All knowledge comes from experience, from sensation, from perception. That is true. But the question arises, does objective reality “belong to perception,” i.e., is it the source of perception? If you answer yes, you are a materialist. If you answer no, you are inconsistent and will inevitably arrive at subjectivism, or agnosticism, irrespective of whether you deny the knowability of the thing-in-itself, or the objectivity of time, space and causality (with Kant), or whether you do not even permit the thought of a thing-in-itself (with Hume). The inconsistency of your empiricism, of your philosophy of experience, will in that case lie in the fact that you deny the objective content of experience, the objective truth of knowledge through experience.

Those who hold to the line of Kant or Hume (Mach and Avenarius are among the latter, in so far as they are not pure Berkeleians) call us, the materialists, “metaphysicians” because we recognise objective reality which is given us in experience, because we recognise an objective source of our sensations independent of man. We materialists follow Engels in calling the Kantians and Humeans agnostics, because they deny objective reality as the source of our sensations. Agnostic is a Greek word: a in Greek means “no,” gnosis “knowledge.” The agnostic says: I do not know if there is an objective reality which is reflected, imaged by our sensations; I declare there is no way of knowing this (see the words of Engels above quoted setting forth the position of the agnostic). Hence the denial of objective truth by the agnostic, and the tolerance – the philistine, cowardly tolerance – of the dogmas regarding sprites, hobgoblins, Catholic saints, and the like. Mach and Avenarius, pretentiously advancing a “new” terminology, a supposedly “new” point of view, repeat, in fact, although in a confused and muddled way, the reply of the agnostic: on the one hand, bodies are complexes of sensations (pure subjectivism, pure Berkeleianism); on the other hand, if we re-christen our sensations “elements”, we may think of them as existing independently of our sense-organs!

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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Note

1. See F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Volume II, Moscow, 1958, p. 371).

Part two/to be continued…

On the importance of induction for knowledge

Ignaz Semmelweis, 1860

Ignaz Semmelweis worked as a doctor at the Vienna General Hospital between 1844 and 1848. He observed that a large proportion of the women in the First Maternity Division who were delivered of their babies contracted a serious and often fatal illness known as puerperal or childbed fever. In the adjacent Second Maternity Division of the same hospital, which accommodated almost as many women as the First, the death toll from childbed fever was much lower.

Semmelweis began his efforts to resolve the problem by considering various explanations that were current at the time; some of these he rejected as incompatible with well-established facts; others he subjected to specific tests.

One widely accepted view attributed puerperal fever to ‘epidemic influences’ spreading over districts. But Semmelweis questioned how such influences could have affected the First Division for years and not the Second. At the same time, there was hardly a case in the city of Vienna or in its surroundings. Semmelweis noted that women who had given birth in the street on their way to the hospital had a lower death rate than the average for the First Division.

Semmelweis noted that overcrowding could not have been the cause since it was a greater problem in the Second Division, partly because of the efforts of women to avoid the First Division. He also considered the diet and general care of the patients in the two Divisions and found there were no differences.

A commission found in 1846 that rough examination by the medical students was the cause, but Semmelweis rejected this view because the injuries resulting naturally from the birth process are much more extensive, and the examinations by the midwives in the Second Division, though done in much the same manner, didn’t have the same dangerous results. Even after the number of medical students was halved and their examinations of the women were reduced to a minimum, the mortality eventually rose to levels higher than before.

Psychological explanations were attempted (the visits of a priest to deliver the last sacraments to dying women was thought to have had a bad effect on the patients). Semmelweis tested this idea and found that the mortality in the First Division did not decrease. He altered the womens’ position of delivery for birth but again found no alteration in the mortality.

In 1847 a fatal accident suffered by a colleague – a cut on a finger from a scalpel used in an autopsy, resulting in the same symptoms he had observed in the victims of puerperal fever – gave Semmelweis the clue he needed. He realised that ‘cadaveric matter’, introduced by the scalpel, had caused the doctor’s illness and death. He realised that the doctors and students had been the carriers of the infection, moving directly to the wards after performing autopsies, having only superficially washed their hands.

Semmelweis again tested his idea by reasoning that if he were correct, his instruction that all medical students should wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before making an examination, could prevent the fever. The mortality from the fever immediately began to decrease.

In further support of his hypothesis, Semmelweis noted that it accounted for the fact that the mortality in the Second Division was consistently so much lower: the midwives there did not engage in anatomical dissection. The hypothesis also explained the lower mortality among the ‘street births’: these women were rarely examined after admission. Again, the hypothesis accounted for the fact that the victims of the fever among the newborn babies were all among those whose mothers had contracted the disease during labor, when the infection could be transmitted to the baby before birth.

Semmelweis broadened his hypothesis by first sterilising his hands, then examining a woman suffering from cervical cancer, and then proceeding to examine a number of other women in the same room after only routine washing. Nearly all of them died of puerperal fever. He concluded that the fever can be also caused by ‘putrid matter derived from living organisms’.

Logical deduction usually moves from the general to the particular and requires that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true and that to accept the premises and to deny the conclusion is to contradict oneself. It depends on a priori reasoning. Its aim is to produce certain truth.

Induction (the general method of science) usually moves from the particular to the general (from the observed to the unobserved, from the past to the future or from partial experience to claims about general experience). Even if the premises are true, the conclusion might be false, and there is no contradiction in accepting the premises and denying the conclusion. It is based on a posteriori reasoning and is the method by which a general law or principle is inferred from observed particular instances. The problem with inductive argument is that the conclusion is not guaranteed truth (the Absolute Truth beloved of metaphysicians), even though all one’s observations may all be correct.

In order to find the cause of the fever, Semmelweis collected data, analysed it and formed and tested various hypotheses on that basis. These hypotheses were thought up to account for observed facts. Further, they gave no deductively conclusive evidence, but only more or less strong confirmation for their applicability. Semmelweis did not restrict his study to events at his hospital but to better understand these events, took into consideration births before the mothers arrived at the hospital and the incidence of puerperal fever outside the hospital. Because he proceeded inductively, Semmelweis was able to retain, reshape or discard premises in the light of incorrect conclusions. Even when he had identified the cause of the fever’s spread in the hospital, and did a further testing of his hypothesis using ‘putrid matter derived from living organisms’, not all of the women subjected to it died.

In cognition, induction and deduction are not self-sufficient methods, but are closely interconnected and interdependent.

C. Hempel. “Scientific Inquiry: Invention and Test” in Philosophy of Natural Science, Prentice-Hall, 1966

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As Lenin wrote:

‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature…’

V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.

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Dialectics at work

From Tony Stephens ‘Conquerors today, vanquished tomorrow’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 05-06.01.02

The American empire of today may be, at least in part, an empire of the mind. It is also an empire of corporate, Coca-Cola hegemony, of CNN, Sex and the City TV culture. It may be a virtual empire, but it’s nonetheless an empire. And many argue that Australia is part of it.

It is hard to imagine the American empire falling but fall it will, unless it defies all of history’s precedents. Morris Berman says in a new book, The Twilight of American Culture: “There is simply no exception to the rule that all civilisations eventually fall apart, and we are not going to beat the odds, or outflank the historical record.”

Berman, an American cultural historian and social critic, says his country’s “comparisons with Rome are quite startling: the late empire saw extremes of rich and poor, and the disappearance of the middle class, the costs of bureaucracy and defence pushed it towards bankruptcy; literacy and Greek learning melted away into a kind of New Age thinking…”.

Berman’s book, published in the United States before September 11, has not been released in Australia. The book argues that factors within American society will bring about its disintegration. Berman has returned recently to the subject, writing in The Guardian that the events of September 11 provided another parallel with the Roman Empire – the factor of external barbarism.

The Goths began pressing against the border of the Roman Empire from the late third century and scored a decisive victory at Adrianople in AD 378. Siege and potential invasion became facts of Roman life after 378. Alaric, the Visigoth leader, invaded Italy in 401 and captured Rome in 410. The Vandals sacked the city in 455 and barbarian mercenaries made the Germanic chieftain Odoacer king of the western empire in 476.

“America, too, now has barbarians at the gates,” Berman says. He sees other similarities – even in one photograph of the shell of the World Trade Centre resembling pictures of the Roman Colosseum. He says the Romans had no understanding of their attackers or their values.

“Similarly, America views Islamic terrorism as completely irrational; there is no understanding of the political context of this activity, a context of American military attack on, or crippling economic sanctions against, a host of Arab nations – with unilateral support for Israel constituting the central, running sore.”

Instead, the enemy is characterised as ‘jealous of our way of life’, ‘hateful of freedom’ and so on. Hence President Bush, no less than the Islamic terrorists, uses the language of religious war: we are on a ‘crusade’; the military operation was initially called ‘Infinite Justice’; and the enemy is ‘evil itself’.

“Along with this is the belief that the Pax Romana/Americana is the only ‘reasonable’ way to live. In the American case, we have a military and economic empire that views the world as one big happy market, and believes that everybody needs to come on board. We – global corporate consumerism – are the future, ‘progress’. If the ‘barbarians’ fail to share this vision, they are ‘medieval’; if they resist, ‘evil’.”

Berman says his book is “for oddballs, for men and women who experience themselves as expatriates within their own country. It is a guidebook of sorts, to the 21st century and beyond”.

Guide Berman seems to rely to some extent on Oswald Spengler, a gloomy prophet who wrote The Decline of the West after World War I. He develops Spengler’s view that every civilisation has its twilight period.

Berman lists four factors present when a civilisation collapses: accelerating social and economic inequality; declining returns on investments in organisational solutions to socio-economic problems; rapidly falling levels of literacy and critical understanding; the emptying out of culture, a kind of spiritual death.

On the dumbing down of America, he quotes a Time magazine poll showing that nearly 70 per cent believed in the existence of angels, another poll revealing that 50 per cent believed in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on Earth, and a US Department of Education survey in 1995 saying that 60 per cent of students had no idea how the US came into existence. Berman says that the US ranks 49th out of 158 United Nations countries on a literacy table. About 60 per cent of adults have never read a book of any kind.

Berman can be glib, with a broad-brush approach leading to sweeping statements based on limited evidence. He also heavily qualifies his theory, sometimes tortuously, regarding a descent into barbarism as “certainly possible, and may even occur to some degree toward the end of the 21st century, perhaps for a short period of time; but the general outlook, it seems to me, is one of slow, rather than sudden, disintegration, for this country seems to be very good at crisis management”.

He says that the dissolution of corporate hegemony is at least 40 years away. What’s more, it might not be a collapse but more of a transformation, even if the United States is a cultural shambles,” an empire wilderness”. If the 20th century was the American century, the 21st would still be the Americanised century.

Then there might be the dawn of a new American culture. This could happen provided the good bits are saved, like the good bits of the Roman Empire were saved during the Dark Ages to re-emerge in the Renaissance.

Berman goes on: “The phrase ‘twilight of American culture’ implies an eventual dawn, and at some point we are going to emerge from our contemporary twilight and future darkness, if only because no historical configuration is the end of history.”

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“All that comes into being deserves to perish”

200 million suns: M60-UCD1, the densest galaxy in the nearby universe

200 million suns: M60-UCD1, the densest galaxy in the nearby universe

This much is certain: there was a time when the matter of our island universe had transformed into heat such an amount of motion – of what kind we do not yet know – that there could be developed from it the solar systems appertaining to (according to Mädler) at least twenty million stars, the gradual extinction of which is likewise certain. How did this transformation take place? We know just as little as Father Secchi knows whether the future caput mortuum of our solar system will once again be converted into the raw material of new solar systems. But here either we must have recourse to a creator, or we are forced to the conclusion that the incandescent raw material for the solar systems of our universe was produced in a natural way by transformations of motion which are by nature inherent in moving matter, and the conditions for which, therefore, must also be reproduced by matter, even if only after millions and millions of years and more or less by chance, but with the necessity that is also inherent in chance.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 37-38

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Time: matter in motion

Hourglass

NGC6302_ButterflyNebula_NASA1024

NGC 6302: The Butterfly Nebula

EtaCarinae_HubbleSchmidt_960

Doomed Star Eta Carinae

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