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


Lenin: Empirio-criticism and historical materialism – part twelve

Ordination of priests, Rome, 2008

Ordination of priests, Rome, 2008

Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach (continued)

…Haeckel does not attempt an analysis of philosophical problems and is not able to contrast the materialist theory of knowledge with the idealist theory of knowledge. He ridicules all idealist – more broadly, all peculiarly philosophical – artifices from the standpoint of natural science, without even admitting the idea that any other theory of knowledge than natural-scientific materialism is possible. He ridicules the philosophers from the standpoint of a materialist, without realising that his standpoint is that of a materialist!

The impotent wrath aroused in the philosophers by this almighty materialism is comprehensible. We quoted above the opinion of the “true-Russian” Lopatin. And here is the opinion of Mr. Rudolf Willy, the most progressive of the “empirio-criticists”, who is irreconcilably hostile to idealism (don’t laugh!). “Haeckel’s monism is a very heterogeneous mixture: it combines certain natural-scientific laws, such as the law of the conservation of energy… with certain scholastic traditions about substance and the thing-in-itself into a chaotic jumble” (Gegen die Schulweisheit, S. 128).

What has annoyed this most worthy “recent positivist”? Well, how could he help being annoyed when he immediately realised that from Haeckel’s standpoint all the great doctrines of his teacher Avenarius – for instance, that the brain is not the organ of thought, that sensations are not images of the external world, that matter (“substance”) or “the thing-in-itself” is not an objective reality, and so forth – are nothing but sheer idealist gibberish!? Haeckel did not say it in so many words because he did not concern himself with philosophy and was not acquainted with “empirio-criticism” as such. But Rudolf Willy could not help realising that a hundred thousand readers of Haeckel meant as many people spitting in the face of the philosophy of Mach and Avenarius. Willy wipes his face in advance, in the Lopatin manner. For the essence of the arguments which Mr. Lopatin and Mr. Willy marshal against materialism in general and natural-scientific materialism in particular, is exactly the same in both. To us Marxists the difference between Mr. Lopatin and Messrs. Willy, Petzoldt, Mach and Co. is no greater than the difference between the Protestant theologians and the Catholic theologians.

John Caird, theologian, 1871. From the page: ‘A sermon on Religion in Common Life, preached before Queen Victoria, made him known throughout the Protestant world.’

John Caird, theologian, 1871. From the page: ‘A sermon on Religion in Common Life, preached before Queen Victoria, made him known throughout the Protestant world.’

The “war” on Haeckel has proved that this view of ours corresponds to objective reality, i.e., to the class nature of modern society and its class ideological tendencies.

US dollar bill - In God We Trust. The motto of the United States ‘In God we trust’ was adopted by Congress in 1956 in response to fears of Godless ‘communism’.

US dollar bill – In God We Trust. The motto of the United States ‘In God we trust’ was adopted by Congress in 1956 in response to fears of Godless ‘communism’.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 331-332


Part twelve/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd