Matter and motion

Monarch chrysalis

The indestructibility of motion cannot be conceived merely quantitatively; it must also be conceived qualitatively; matter whose purely mechanical change of place includes indeed the possibility under favourable conditions of being transformed into heat, electricity, chemical action, life, but which is not capable of producing these conditions from out of itself, such matter has forfeited motion; motion which has lost the capacity of being transformed into the various forms appropriate to it may indeed still have dynamis but no longer energeia, and so has become partially destroyed. Both, however, are unthinkable.

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

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What is Man?

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Vitruvian Man, c. 1490. Pen, ink and wash on paper, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venezia

And from the first animals were developed, essentially by further differentiation, the numerous classes, orders, families, genera, and species of animals; and finally vertebrates, the form in which the nervous system attains its fullest development; and among these again finally that vertebrate in which nature attains consciousness of itself – man.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 33

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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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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…

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…

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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