Engels on dialectics, part two: either/or, both this and that

Pupils of children’s communes taking part in a mass spectacle in Palace Square, Petrograd, 1918

Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature. Attraction and repulsion. Polarity begins with magnetism, it is exhibited in one and the same body; in the case of electricity it distributes itself over two or more bodies which become oppositely charged. All chemical processes reduce themselves to processes of chemical attraction and repulsion. Finally, in organic life the formation of the cell nucleus is likewise to be regarded as a polarisation of the living protein material, and from the simple cell onwards the theory of evolution demonstrates how each advance up to the most complicated plant on the one side, and up to man on the other, is effected by the continual conflict between heredity and adaptation. In this connection it becomes evident how little applicable to such forms of evolution are categories like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. One can conceive of heredity as the positive, conservative side, adaptation as the negative side that continually destroys what has been inherited, but one can just as well take adaptation as the creative, active, positive activity, and heredity as the resisting, passive, negative activity. But just as in history progress makes its appearance as the negation of the existing state of things, so here also – on purely practical grounds – adaptation is better conceived as negative activity. In history, motion through opposites is most markedly exhibited in all critical epochs of the foremost peoples. At such moments a people has only the choice between the two horns of a dilemma: ‘either-or!’ and indeed the question is always put in a way quite different from that in which the philistines, who dabble in politics in every age, would have liked it put. Even the liberal German philistine of 1848 found himself in 1849 suddenly, unexpectedly, and against his will confronted by the question: a return to the old reaction in an intensified form, or continuance of the revolution up to the republic, perhaps even the one and indivisible republic with a socialist background. He did not spend long in reflection and helped to create the Manteuffel reaction as the flower of German liberalism. Similarly, in 1851, the French bourgeois when faced with the dilemma which he certainly did not expect: a caricature of the empire, pretorian rule, and the exploitation of France by a gang of scoundrels, or a social-democratic republic – and he bowed down before the gang of scoundrels so as to be able, under their protection, to go on exploiting the workers.

*  *  *

Hard and fast lines are incompatible with the theory of evolution. Even the border-line between vertebrates and invertebrates is now no longer rigid, just as little is that between fishes and amphibians, while that between birds and reptiles dwindles more and more every day. Between Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx only a few intermediate links are wanting, and birds’ beaks with teeth crop up in both hemispheres. ‘Either-or’ becomes more and more inadequate. Among lower animals the concept of the individual cannot be established at all sharply. Not only as to whether a particular animal is an individual or a colony, but also where in development one individual ceases and the other begins (nurses).

For a stage in the outlook on nature where all differences become merged in intermediate steps, and all opposites pass into one another through intermediate links, the old metaphysical method of thought no longer suffices. Dialectics, which likewise knows no hard and fast lines, no unconditional, universally valid ‘either-or’ and which bridges the fixed metaphysical differences, and besides ‘either-or’ recognises also in the right place ‘both this – and that’ and reconciles the opposites, is the sole method of thought appropriate in the highest degree to this stage. Of course, for everyday use, for the small change of science, the metaphysical categories retain their validity.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 211-213

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Part two/to be continued…

Engels on dialectics

(The general nature of dialectics to be developed as the science of inter-connections, in contrast to metaphysics.)

It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself. And indeed they can be reduced in the main to three:

The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;

The law of the interpenetration of opposites;

The law of the negation of the negation.

All three are developed by Hegel in his idealist fashion as mere laws of thought: the first, in the first part of his Logic, in the Doctrine of Being; the second fills the whole of the second and by far the most important part of his Logic, The Doctrine of Essence; finally the third figures as the fundamental law for the construction of the whole system. The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them. This is the source of the whole forced and often outrageous treatment; the universe, willy-nilly, has to conform to a system of thought which itself is only the product of a definite stage of evolution of human  thought. If we turn the thing round, then everything becomes simple, and the dialectical laws that look so extremely mysterious in idealist philosophy at once become simple and clear as noonday.

Moreover, anyone who is even only slightly acquainted with Hegel will be aware that in hundreds of passages Hegel is capable of giving the most striking individual illustrations of the dialectical laws from nature and history.

We are not concerned here with writing a handbook of dialectics, but only with showing that the dialectical laws are real laws of development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science. …

1. The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. For our purpose, we can express this by saying that in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or quantitative subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy).

All qualitative differences in nature rest on differences of chemical composition or on different quantities or forms of motion (energy) or, as is almost always the case, on both. Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion, i.e., without quantitative alteration of the body concerned. In this form, therefore, Hegel’s mysterious principle appears not only quite rational but even rather obvious.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 62-63

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Part one/to be continued…

“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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Engels on materialism: part 6 – the universe is a process

The second specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development. This was in accordance with the level of the natural science of that time, and with the metaphysical, that is, anti-dialectical manner of philosophising connected with it. Nature, so much was known, was in eternal motion. But according to the ideas of that time, this motion turned, also eternally, in a circle and therefore never moved from the spot; it produced the same results over and over again. This conception was at that time inevitable. The Kantian theory of the origin of the Solar System (that the Sun and planets originated from incandescent rotating nebulous masses) had been put forward but recently and was still regarded merely as a curiosity. The history of the development of the Earth, geology, was still totally unknown, and the conception that the animate natural beings of today are the result of a long sequence of development from the simple to the complex could not at that time scientifically be put forward at all. The unhistorical view of nature was therefore inevitable. We have the less reason to reproach the philosophers of the 18th century on this account since the same thing is found in Hegel. According to him, nature, as a mere “alienation” of the idea, is incapable of development in time — capable only of extending its manifoldness in space, so that it displays simultaneously and alongside of one another all the stages of development comprised in it, and is condemned to an eternal repetition of the same processes. This absurdity of a development in space, but outside of time — the fundamental condition of all development — Hegel imposes upon nature just at the very time when geology, embryology, the physiology of plants and animals, and organic chemistry were being built up, and when everywhere on the basis of these new sciences brilliant foreshadowings of the later theory of evolution were appearing (for instance, Goethe and Lamarck). But the system demanded it; hence the method, for the sake of the system, had to become untrue to itself.

Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886

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Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Engels on Dialectics, Part Five: Causality

bullet_leaving_barrel

The first thing that strikes us in considering matter in motion is the inter-connection of the individual motions of separate bodies, their being determined by one another. But not only do we find that a particular motion is followed by another, we find also that we can evoke a particular motion by setting up the conditions in which it takes place in nature, that we can even produce motions which do not occur at all in nature (industry), at least not in this way, and that we can give these motions a predetermined direction and extent. In this way, by the activity of human beings, the idea of causality becomes established, the idea that one motion is the cause of another. True, the regular sequence of certain natural phenomena can by itself give rise to the idea of causality: the heat and light that come with the sun; but this affords no proof, and to that extent Hume’s scepticism was correct in saying that a regular post hoc can never establish a propter hoc. But the activity of human beings forms the test of causality. If we bring the sun’s rays to a focus by means of a concave mirror and make them act like the rays of an ordinary fire, we thereby prove that heat comes from  the sun. If we bring together in a rifle the priming, the explosive charge, and the bullet and then fire it, we count upon the effect known in advance from previous experience, because we can follow in all its details the whole process of ignition, combustion, explosion by the sudden conversion into gas and pressure of the gas on the bullet. And here the sceptic cannot even say that because of previous experience it does not follow that it will be the same next time. For, as a matter of fact, it does sometimes happen that it is not the same, that the priming or the gunpowder fails to work, that the barrel bursts, etc. But it is precisely this which proves causality instead of refuting it, because we can find out the cause of each such deviation from the rule by appropriate investigation: chemical decomposition of the priming, dampness, etc., of the gunpowder, defect in the barrel, etc., etc., so that here the test of causality is so to say a double one.

Natural science, like philosophy, has hitherto entirely neglected the influence of men’s activity on their thought; both know only nature on the one hand and thought on the other. But it is precisely the alteration of nature by men, not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased. The naturalistic conception of history, as found, for instance, to a greater or lesser extent in Draper and other scientists, as if nature exclusively reacts on man, and natural conditions everywhere exclusively determined his historical development, is therefore one-sided and forgets that man also reacts on nature, changing it and creating new conditions of existence for himself. There is devilishly little left of ‘nature’ as it was in Germany at the time when the Germanic peoples immigrated into it. The earth’s surface, climate, vegetation, fauna, and  the human beings themselves have infinitely changed, and all this owing to human activity, while the changes of nature in Germany which have occurred in this period of time without human interference are incalculably small.

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Reciprocal action is the first thing that we encounter when we consider matter in motion as a whole from the standpoint of modern natural science. We see a series of forms of motion, mechanical motion, heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical union and decomposition, transitions of states of aggregation, organic life, all of which, if at present we still make an exception of organic life, pass into one another, mutually determine one another, are in one place cause and in another effect, the sum-total of the motion in all its changing forms remaining the same (Spinoza: substance is causa sui strikingly expresses the reciprocal action). Mechanical motion becomes transformed into heat, electricity, magnetism, light, etc., and vice versa. Thus natural science confirms what Hegel has said (where?), that reciprocal action is the true causa finalis of things. We cannot go back further than to knowledge of this reciprocal action, for the very reason that there is nothing behind to know. If we know the forms of motion of matter (for which it is true there is still very much lacking, in view of the short time that natural science has existed), then we know matter itself, and therewith our knowledge is complete. (Grove’s whole misunderstanding about causality rests on the fact that he does not succeed in arriving at the category of reciprocal action; he has the thing, but not the abstract thought, and hence the confusion – pp. 10-14.) Only from this universal reciprocal action do we arrive at the real causal relation. In order to understand the separate phenomena, we have to tear them out of the general inter-connection and consider them in isolation, and then the changing motions appear, one as cause and the other as effect.

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For one who denies causality every natural law is a hypothesis, among others also the chemical analysis of heavenly bodies by means of the prismatic spectrum. What shallowness of thought to remain at such a viewpoint!

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 230-232

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Part five/to be continued…

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Engels on the exaltation of man

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

So much is certain: comparative physiology gives one a withering contempt for the idealistic exaltation of man over the other animals. At every step one is forced to recognise the most complete uniformity of structure with the rest of the mammals, and in its main features this uniformity extends to all vertebrates and even – in a less distinct way – to insects, crustaceans, tapeworms, etc. The Hegelian business of the qualitative leap in the quantitative series is also very fine here. Finally, among the lowest infusoria one reaches the primitive form, the simple, independently existing cell, which in turn is not to be distinguished by anything perceptible from the lowest plants (fungi consisting of single cells – the fungi of the potato and the vine diseases, etc.) or from the germs of the higher stages of development up to the human ovum and spermatozoon inclusive, and which also looks just like the independent cells within the living body (blood corpuscles, the cells of the epidermis and mucous membranes, the secretion cells of the glands, kidneys, etc.)…


Engels to Marx in London, Manchester, July 14, 1858, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 102

Tardigrade or water bear (Macrobiotus sapiens) in moss. Colour enhanced scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a water bear in its active state. Water bears are tiny invertebrates that live in aquatic and semi-aquatic habitats such as lichen and damp moss. They require water to obtain oxygen by gas exchange. In dry conditions, they can enter a cryptobiotic state of desiccation, known as a tun, to survive. In this state, water bears can survive for up to a decade. This species was found in moss samples from Croatia. It feeds on plant and animal cells. Water bears are found throughout the world, including regions of extreme temperature, such as hot springs, and extreme pressure, such as deep underwater. They can also survive high levels of radiation and the vacuum of space. Magnification: x250 when printed 10cm wide.

Tardigrade or water bear (Macrobiotus sapiens) in moss

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Imagine

W5: Pillars of Star Creation. Double-click to enlarge. ...Are we thinking Dante?

W5: Pillars of Star Creation. Double-click to enlarge. …Are we thinking Dante?

Gustave Doré’s 1855 illustration for The Divine Comedy: ‘Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean’.

Gustave Doré’s 1855 illustration for The Divine Comedy: ‘Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean’.

‘How is that Power present to the universe?

…Conceive it as a power of an ever-fresh infinity, a principle unfailing, inexhaustible, at no point giving out, brimming over with its own vitality. If you look to some definite spot and seek to fasten on some definite thing, you will not find it. The contrary is your only way; you cannot pass on to where it is not; you will never halt at a dwindling point where it fails at last and can no longer give; you will always be able to move with it – better, to be in its entirety – and so seek no further; denying it, you have strayed away to something of another order and you fall; looking elsewhere you do not see what stand there before you.’

Plotinus, The Enneads, Third ed. Abridged, Trans. Stephen MacKenna. Penguin, London, 1991, VI.5.12

Imagine if someone inverted this philosophy, giving it a material basis – a basis in the objective world.

Marx did this. He stood it on its feet.

In doing so, he took this theory of knowledge to its most developed stage.

Now it must be taken further.

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The world is a dynamic unity of opposites 1

Milky Way Galaxy Doomed: Collision with Andromeda Pending

Milky Way Galaxy Doomed: Collision with Andromeda Pending

‘Instead of speaking by the maxim of Excluded Middle (which is the maxim of abstract understanding) we should rather say: Everything is opposite. Neither in heaven nor in earth, neither in the world of mind nor of nature, is there anywhere such an abstract ‘either-or’ as the understanding maintains. Whatever exists is concrete, with difference and opposition in itself. …Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world…’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, Trans., William Wallace, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975, 174

Galaxy NGC 7714 After Collision

Galaxy NGC 7714 After Collision

‘…if you consider [the matter] carefully: rest is oneness which enfolds motion, and motion is rest ordered serially. Hence, motion is the unfolding of rest. In like manner, the present, or the now, enfolds time. The past was the present, and the future will become the present. Therefore, nothing except an ordered present is found in time. Hence, the past and the future are the unfolding of the present. The present is the enfolding of all present times; and the present times are the unfolding, serially, of the present; and in the present times only the present is found. Therefore, the present is one enfolding of all times. Indeed, the present is oneness. In like manner, identity is the enfolding of difference; equality [the enfolding] of inequality; and simplicity [the enfolding] of divisions, or distinctions.

Therefore, there is one enfolding of all things. The enfolding of substance, the enfolding of quality or of quantity, and so on, are not distinct enfoldings. For there is only one Maximum, with which the Minimum coincides and in which enfolded difference is not opposed to enfolding identity.’

Nicholas of Cusa, De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance), 1440, II, 3, 106-7, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1990, 65-66

Exploring the Antennae

Exploring the Antennae

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The motley play of the world and its dialectical relativity

Cairns Birdwing butterfly

Cairns Birdwing butterfly

‘In this motley play of the world, if we may so call the sum of existents, there is nowhere a firm footing to be found: everything bears an aspect of relativity, conditioned by and conditioning something else.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, Trans., William Wallace, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975, 180

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Do you want to understand the world? Then consider this

NGC 4676: When Mice Collide

NGC 4676: When Mice Collide

‘…the tremendous power of the negative…’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans., A.V.Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 19

Events recorded by the ALICE experiment from the first lead ion collisions, at a centre-of-mass energy of 2.76 TeV per nucleon pair 03.03.14

Events recorded by the ALICE experiment from the first lead ion collisions, at a centre-of-mass energy of 2.76 TeV per nucleon pair 03.03.14

LL Orionis: When Cosmic Winds Collide

LL Orionis: When Cosmic Winds Collide

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