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

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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Marx and Engels: on the relationship between the ruling class and the ruling ideas

 

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for domination and where, therefore, domination is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an ‘eternal law’.

The division of labour, which we already saw above as one of the chief forces of history up till now, manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the formation of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, but whenever a practical collision occurs in which the class itself is endangered they automatically vanish, in which case there also vanishes the appearance of the ruling ideas being not the ideas of the ruling class and having a power distinct from the power of this class. …

If now in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas, if we thus ignore the individuals and world conditions which are the source of the ideas, then we can say, for instance, that during the time the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc., were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc. The ruling class itself on the whole imagines this to be so. This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that ever more abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start, if only because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society, as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this because initially its interest really is as yet mostly connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes, because under the pressure of hitherto existing conditions its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class. Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of the other classes which are not winning a dominant position, but only insofar as it now enables these individuals to raise themselves into the ruling class. When the French bourgeoisie overthrew the rule of the aristocracy, it thereby made it possible for many proletarians to raise themselves above the proletariat, but only insofar as they become bourgeois. Every new class, therefore, achieves domination only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously…

Once the ruling ideas have been separated from the ruling individuals and, above all, from the relations which result from a given stage of the mode of production, and in this way the conclusion has been reached that history is always under the sway of ideas, it is very easy to abstract from these various ideas ‘the Idea’, the thought, etc. as the dominant force in history, and thus to consider all these separate ideas and concepts as ‘forms of self-determination’ of the Concept developing in history. It follows then naturally, too, that all the relations of men can be derived from the concept of man, man as conceived, the essence of man, Man. This has been done by the speculative philosophy. Hegel himself confesses at the end of the Geschichtsphilosophie that he ‘has considered the progress of the concept only’ and has represented in history the ‘true theodicy’ (p. 446). Now one can go back again to the producers of the ‘concept’, to the theorists, ideologists and philosophers, and one comes then to the conclusion that the philosophers, the thinkers as such, have at all times been dominant in history: a conclusion, as we see, already expressed by Hegel.

The whole trick of proving the hegemony of the spirit in history (hierarchy Stirner calls it) is thus confined to the following three attempts.

No. 1. One must separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as corporeal individuals, from these rulers, and thus recognise the rule of ideas or illusions in history.

No. 2. One must bring an order into this rule of ideas, prove a mystical connection among the successive ruling ideas, which is managed by regarding them as ‘forms of self-determination of the concept’ (this is possible because by virtue of their empirical basis these ideas are really connected with one another and because, conceived as mere ideas, they become self-distinctions, distinctions made by thought).

No. 3. To remove the mystical appearance of this ‘self-determining concept’ it is changed into a person – ‘self-consciousness’ – or, to appear thoroughly materialistic, into a series of persons who represent the ‘concept’ in history, into the ‘thinkers’, the ‘philosophers’, the ideologists, who again are understood as the manufacturers of history, as the ‘council of guardians’, as the rulers. Thus the whole body of materialistic elements has been eliminated from history and now full rein can be given to the speculative steed.

This historical method which reigned in Germany, and especially the reason why, must be explained from its connection with the illusion of ideologists in general, e.g., the illusions of the jurists, politicians (including the practical statesmen), from the dogmatic dreamings and distortions of these fellows; this is explained perfectly easily from their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour.

Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historiography has not yet won this trivial insight. It takes every epoch at its word and believes that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 67-71

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Engels on Russia

…no more in Russia than anywhere else would it have been possible to develop a higher social form out of primitive agrarian communism unless – that higher form was already in existence in another country, so as to serve as a model. That higher form being, wherever it is historically possible, the necessary consequence of the capitalistic form of production and of the social dualistic antagonism created by it, it could not be developed directly out of the agrarian commune, unless in imitation of an example already in existence somewhere else. Had the West of Europe been ripe, 1860-1870, for such a transformation, had that transformation then been taken in hand in England, France etc., then the Russians would have been called upon to show what could have been made out of their Commune, which was then more or less intact. But the West remained stagnant, no such transformation was attempted, and capitalism was more and more rapidly developed. And as Russia had no choice but this: either to develop the Commune into a form of production from which it was separated by a number of historical stages, and for which not even in the West the conditions were then ripe – evidently an impossible task – or else to develop into Capitalism, what remained to her but the latter chance?

Engels to Nikolai Frantsevich Danielson in St. Petersburg; London, October 17, 1893, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 438-439

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Lenin on matter: part four

Lenin in Red Square, 1920

Matter has disappeared, they tell us, wishing from this to draw epistemological conclusions. But has thought remained? – we ask. If not, if with the disappearance of matter thought has also disappeared, if with the disappearance of the brain and nervous system ideas and sensations, too, have disappeared – then it follows that everything has disappeared, and your argument as a sample of “thought” (or lack of thought) has disappeared. But if thought has remained – if it is assumed that with the disappearance of matter, thought (idea, sensation, etc.) does not disappear, then you have surreptitiously gone over to the standpoint of philosophical idealism. And this always happens with people who wish, for the sake of “economy”, to conceive of motion without matter, for tacitly, by the very fact that they continue their argument, they are acknowledging the existence of thought after the disappearance of matter. This means that a very simple, or a very complex philosophical idealism is taken as a basis; a very simple one, if it is a case of frank solipsism (I exist, and the world is only my sensation): a very complex one, if instead of the thought, ideas and sensations of a living person, a dead abstraction is taken, that is, nobody’s thought, nobody’s idea, nobody’s sensation, but thought in general (the Absolute Idea, the Universal Will, etc.), sensation as an indeterminate “element”, the “psychical”, which is substituted for the whole of physical nature, etc., etc. Thousands of shades of varieties of philosophical idealism are possible and it is always possible to create a thousand and first shade; and to the author of this thousand and first little system (empirio-monism, for example) what distinguishes it from the rest may appear important. From the standpoint of materialism, however, these distinctions are absolutely unessential. What is essential is the point of departure. What is essential is that the attempt to think of motion without matter smuggles in thought divorced from matter – and that is philosophical idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 248-49

Part Four/To be continued…

Engels on the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’

A toy Spaniel, a dwarf Spitz and a Maltese next to a basket (1855), Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Wegener

The form of development of natural science, in so far as it thinks, is the hypothesis. A new fact is observed which makes impossible the previous method of explaining the facts belonging to the same group. From this moment onwards new methods of explanation are required – at first based on only a limited number of facts and observations. Further observational material weeds out these hypotheses, doing away with some and correcting others, until finally the law is established in a pure form. If one should wait until the material for a law was in a pure form, it would mean suspending the process of thought in investigation until then and, if only for this reason, the law would never come into being.

The number and succession of hypotheses supplanting one another – given the lack of logical and dialectical education among natural scientists – easily gives rise to the idea that we cannot know the essence of things (Haller and Goethe). This is not peculiar to natural science since all human knowledge develops in a much twisted curve; and in the historical sciences also, including philosophy, theories displace one another, from which, however, nobody concludes that formal logic, for instance, is nonsense.

The last form of this outlook is the ‘thing-in-itself’. In the first place, this assertion that we cannot know the thing-in-itself (Hegel, Encyclopaedia, paragraph 44) passes out of the realm of science into that of fantasy. Secondly, it does not add a word to our scientific knowledge, for if we cannot occupy ourselves with things, they do not exist for us. And, thirdly, it is a mere phrase and is never applied. Taken in the abstract it sounds quite sensible. But suppose one applies it. What would one think of a zoologist who said: ‘A dog seems to have four legs, but we do not know whether in reality it has four million legs or none at all’? Or of a mathematician who first of all defines a triangle as having three sides, and then declares that he does not know whether it might not have 25? That 2×2 seems to be 4? But scientists take care not to apply the phrase about the thing-in-itself in natural science, they permit themselves this only in passing into philosophy. This is the best proof how little seriously they take it and what little value it has itself. If they did take it seriously, what would be the good of investigating anything?

Taken historically the thing would have a certain meaning: we can only know under the conditions of our epoch and as far as these allow.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 240-241

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