Essay Five

 

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I am publishing here several of Guy Robinson's Essays. One or two of these had until recently been posted at Guy's site, which no longer exists. In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I'd go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.

 

I only encountered Guy's work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas -- except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast bulk of material that claims to be Marxist (particularly that which has been produced by academics), Guy's work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition.

 

[Many on the left think Wittgenstein was a conservative mystic. I have comprehensively refuted that idea here. Moreover, Guy's work alone is testimony to the fact that Wittgenstein's work is in fact conducive to Historical Materialism.]

 

Sadly, Guy passed away in October 2011.

 

This material has been posted here with the permission of his son, but no one should assume that Guy would have agreed with any of the views expressed at this site -- other than those already contained in his essays. Nor should anyone assume that I agree with everything Guy says -- especially about 'dialectics'. [I have no problem with the word "dialectics" if it is understood in its classical, or even pre-Hegelian sense, but these waters have been permanently muddied, and so I avoid the use of this word since it only creates the false impression I mean this word in its post-Hegelian sense.]

 

I have re-formatted these essays to agree with the conventions adopted at this site; spelling has been altered to conform to UK English. In addition, I have corrected a handful of minor typos and added several links. I have also highlighted the few minor changes I have made to the original text by the use of curly brackets. [These are modifications any editor or proof-reader would have recommended.]

 

This essay comprises Chapter One of Guy's second book, Philosophy and Demystification, which has yet to find a publisher. Other chapters from this book can be accessed here.

 

 

Chapter One: Historical And Ahistorical Views Of The World

 

 Guy Robinson

 

It is extraordinary that the promoters of mechanical materialism in the 17th and 18th centuries did not see the contradiction in having the project of setting out a framework of thought and program of explanation that had no room for concepts of purposive action, aim or goal. Their project of explaining everything causally by appeal to timeless laws of Nature left no place for the concept of a project -- since the very concept of project, purpose or goal involves explaining things as organized around the pursuit of something that does not yet exist -- something that brings about certain behaviours precisely because it does not yet exist. The aim and explanation of those actions is precisely the intention to bring it into existence. The causal explanations the mechanists insisted on could only cite pre-existing things or occurrences in explaining anything -- and therefore ruled out aims or purposes in explaining anything. In that way they ruled out the whole idea of human action and insisted on seeing everything as the passive result of previous conditions or conditioning. One wonders what previous conditions or conditioning they would cite by way of explaining their own espousing and setting out those theories and conceptions of explanation. [We could offer such an explanation -- and will, particularly in Chapter 8, but the explanation will be a historical one that will cite the rise of the scientific revolution and the fact that the only model of a framework of thought that they had and felt they had to imitate in order to displace it, was the theological framework of the feudal system.] However, our mechanists could not accept such a historical explanation because their framework of thought and explanation cancelled history and historical understanding by insisting on the involvement of timeless 'Laws of Nature' in any genuine explanation.

 

Historical Materialism was put forward to oppose that ahistorical framework of thought that characterized the mechanical materialism of the early modern era, a program of explanation that insisted on explaining everything in causal terms, rejecting every other form of explanation. The historical perspective offered by Historical Materialism therefore has the capacity to liberate us from the grip of one of the most powerful ideological constructs of our era and help us to see the depth and breadth of human creativity which those constructs have tried to hide from us. This job of liberation remains to be carried out and those ideological constructs still reign -- particularly the deified concept of 'Nature' (here capitalized to indicate its divine status) constructed as the bourgeois ideology's substitute for God -- who had been used to justify and ensure the eternity of the feudal order of society which the bourgeois revolution had overthrown. It seemed to the new philosophers that pretty clearly even God wasn't up to the job of preventing the bourgeois revolution so the philosophers of the new order put together a concept of nature which was given the job of governing the world for all eternity from an undefined position outside -- where it was safe from close inspection.

 

Nature was also given the task of justifying and guaranteeing the eternity of the new bourgeois order. All one had to do was to make something out to be 'natural' and it was regarded as justified -- and, if natural, it was guaranteed for all eternity because the Nature they invoked was supposed to lie outside of history. However we can bring it down from the clouds and show it has no genuine place in any secular account of things. All we have to do is ask one simple question: How is this purported entity supposed to enforce its laws on the material world? Once we do that we are brought back down from the clouds to the Aristotelian concrete conception of nature as simply a record of the order in things we find and work with and is neither the explanation of those regularities nor their guarantor. This disposes of that metaphysical materialism (and the determinism implicit in it) which was constructed to explain, justify and support the bourgeois order of things and leaves us facing the radically different historical materialism that Marx offers. These things are discussed in more detail in {'}The Concept of Nature Its Mystification and Demystification{'}, (Chapter 2).

 

We have to start by recognizing the depth and radical nature of Marxist opposition to that reigning materialism. Such has been the grip of those constructs, particularly that of the concept of 'Nature' as something external and eternal, that it has proved almost impossible for many to take in and accept the radical challenge set out in the passage below from The German Ideology. Many Marxists have simply ignored that passage rather than face the many difficult problems thrown up by the radical shift of perspective it requires.

 

A. We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, so-called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted interpretation of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. Ideology is itself only one of the aspects of this history. [The German Ideology (Alternative opening to the section: 'Ideology in General and German Ideology in Particular').]

 

This proclamation by Marx of a dialectical link between the history of humanity and the history of nature offers a challenge to a constellation of the deepest held ideas of the modern era. The ideas of the 'externality' of nature and the autonomy of the sciences are so deeply held and so pervasive that most Marxists have been unable to free themselves from that dominant world-view, with bourgeois metaphysical materialism at its centre, to embrace the full-blooded historical materialism which is its only serious and effective opponent. It is the only one that can reveal the self-alienation reflected and reinforced by the bourgeois world-view and the mystified conception of 'Nature' it generates and depends on. Historical Materialism can show us the vital importance of dismantling that metaphysical materialism and of developing an alternative conception of the material world which does not theologize and mystify nature and turn it into the hopefully secular equivalent of the God which feudalism had used so shamelessly as {a} theoretical foundation and justification of its own social forms of domination and exploitation. The theologically based ideology of feudalism told us that kings ruled by divine right and that God had created three orders of men -- 'those who prayed', 'those who fought' and 'those who worked'. Modern ideologues have used Nature in just the same way, conjuring up something called 'human nature' to play that same role of presenting certain arrangements as necessary and unavoidable. Engels put this conflict between the two rival world-views brilliantly and suggestively in saying of what he called the 'abstract materialism' of the eighteenth century: that it 'did not contend with the Christian contempt for and humiliation of Man, and merely posited Nature instead of the Christian God as the Absolute facing Man'.1

 

Those absolutes presented as confronting and demanding recognition from all humans equally are the product of a misunderstanding of the character and the role in human life of both religion and the sciences. With the help of the historical perspective and framework of thought offered by Historical Materialism it becomes possible to arrive at a better understanding of both religion and science and to see that they are not in competition for some single absolute place but have utterly different roles in human life. This will involve carrying through the task of the next chapter, which is that of dismantling the concept of Nature as an 'absolute facing Man'.

 

 

Unmasking The Ideology

 

Our first task is to identify, unmask and deflate the host of ideological and self-alienated absolutes that have been constructed out of human practices, capacities and abilities and then set up as external entities before which humans are believed to be powerless and can only offer obeisance. Then we have to try to construct an unalienated picture which shows the foundation of the sciences and of human knowledge to be {located,} not in those externalized absolutes{,} but in human practices and practical engagement with the material world. That material world is external to us, all right, but it is external not as an {already} formed absolute imposing its form on us and requiring us only to recognize it and the truths it is supposed already to embody. A material world is 'external' for precisely the opposite reason. It is external to humanity because it is a condition for those productive activities that are an expression of our humanity. It is also external in the sense that the materials it offers have potentialities that are not a product of our wishes but of our skills. (These {topics are} explored more thoroughly in Chapter 4, 'The Material and the External'.)

 

Material is precisely something for humans to work on and give form to. The material world is just the collective name for those materials which humans can form to their needs according to their level of skill and the discovered potentialities of the particular materials {on hand}. Of course the natural world has its own processes such as lightning, earthquakes, floods, even collisions with asteroids, all of which can impinge on human life. And in the natural world we find plants and animals as well as mountain ranges, rivers and seas which may threaten, hinder or help us according to the skills we possess and our ability to use those natural processes to make products to sustain or enrich our lives. According to those skills and the projects they make possible humans may hunt or domesticate the animals, tame rivers and use them to generate electricity, even use mountains such as Mount Rushmore for gigantic sculpture.

 

What Engels meant by likening materialism to what he saw as the 'Christian contempt for and humiliation of Man' was the picturing {of} humanity as forced to bow down passively before the materialists' external and absolute deity, Nature, which was their alpha and omega -- the starting point and end or purpose of the world. In that way human creativity and purposiveness was denied. That momentous transition from herd to tribe by which humanity had raised itself above the rest of animate nature at some stage in the development of the genus homo, was denied by Christians who turned it all over to God, who was made the source of all purpose and therefore of all purposiveness. We will see later that neither purposiveness nor particular aims or purposes can be imposed from outside since an imposed purpose remains that of the imposer -- unless the recipient embraces it. This conception of God as the source of all purpose meant that humans could not have any purposes which could properly be called 'their own' and were in the end represented {as} mere tools in the hands of God. This is a possible religious take on the world but it cannot be turned into a secular account. The mechanists avoided this problem by denying purpose itself.

 

 

The Denial Of Purposiveness

 

We will have to look carefully, in Chapter 6, {'}Purpose and Purposiveness{'}, at the whole question of human purposiveness and its origins to see that purposes cannot be given us and purposiveness cannot be imposed. This is an overwhelming argument for Marx's picture of humanity's self-creation as creators and producers when they began to produce the means of their own subsistence. There is no other way in which the species could have acquired the capacity to act purposively except by its own social self-development in that transition 'from herd to tribe', a transition as momentous as the origins of life itself. Humans passed from being creatures of environmental forces to beings whose development owed more to their history and reflection on their past. This was a revolution that can only be compared to the original appearance of living things which were subject to evolution and development out of non-living molecules which were not. This introduced a revolutionary new form of development into a world that had been subject to the laws of physics and chemistry alone.

 

Humans began to modify their environment rather than being simply modified by it according to the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest. They had freed themselves from the tentacles of evolution and evolutionary selection and had set about modifying the world. They also set off on a new trajectory of development that has to be called 'historical' because it involves changes that arise through reflection on the past -- on past actions, developments, knowledge and skills.

 

The mechanical materialists were, if anything, more drastic in their abasement of humanity. As well as eliminating God from their picture of the world, they aimed to eliminate purpose and teleology from the world altogether. They insisted that the only valid form of explanation was a causal one in terms of prior conditions which brought something about necessarily according to the fixed and universal laws of Nature. Thus humans became not mere tools in the hand of God but mere mechanisms devised by the hand of Nature. As unrealistic as it may seem, metaphysical materialism had (and still has) a programmatic commitment to the elimination of all explanation in terms of ends, aims or purposes. Without recognizing the self-defeating contradiction of it, materialism set itself the goal of eliminating the concept of goals from our understanding of the world and humanity, substituting causal explanations for purposive ones. In the work of the sociobiologists, for example, we can see the aim of eliminating the historical and reflective development from our understanding of social institutions and returning to a more primitive understanding of them in biological and therefore evolutionary terms. This is an example of the dominance of that ahistorical framework put in place in the 17th century. Of course one should opt for the simpler explanation where possible, but it involves a misrepresentation of humanity and human development to try to explain human social relations biologically.

 

What did the mechanical materialists think they were up to in insisting on this ahistorical, causal form of explanation? It was, of course, pure abstract empty talk without the relation to human life or action which would give substance to their words. Anyone who really believed in this mechanistic picture and showed that belief was genuine and not just empty words by acting on the basis of that picture of the world and, for example, treating his family and neighbours as mechanisms -- such a sad and unfortunate person would soon be put away as suffering from a condition known as 'Capgras syndrome'. This condition is generally the result, not of philosophy, but of damage to those areas of the brain which supply the appropriate emotional response to perceptions of family and friends. Deprived by that damage of the ability to feel the appropriate emotions toward those closest to the sufferer, they come to be seen as impostors or even automata.

 

Composed of empty words with no connection to life or action this mechanistic picture may be, but it had a serious ideological purpose in setting an abstract and ahistorical Nature in the place where the Christian God had been, that is, as something over and above and outside the world and humanity as external governor of all within. The new materialists did not wish to contend with what Engels called 'the Christian contempt for and humiliation of Man'. They wanted to put it to use for the new order to convince humans of their passivity in the face of external powers and that 'there is no alternative' (as Margaret Thatcher put it) to the forms of oppression and exploitation that came in with the society shaped by market forces and the commodification of labour power and the separation of society into those who own and those who work.

 

 

The Ideological Function Of Both Creationism And Metaphysical Materialism

 

The unacknowledged and generally unrecognized aim of metaphysical materialism and of the whole world-view built round it was to hide from us that active creativity, that historical self-creation of humanity as creators with an ability to transform both our environment and ourselves by which humanity has distinguished itself from the rest of living species. That self-creation as creators and producers is the starting point not only of humanity but also of history itself and the need for a historical perspective to make sense of things. In the famous passage in The German Ideology Marx doubly underlines that active creativity by rejecting the emptiness of the passive voice in describing the human race: 'Men may be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like' -- and instead he insisted on the active voice and creativity -- 'They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization'. (The German Ideology.)

 

This is a founding fact that we must seize on because in that moment of self creation as creators and of producing themselves as producers, the human species turned its back on its former evolutionary trajectory of development and set off on a new line of development which has to be described as historical because in it, reflection on past history and learning from it helps shape present practices. This is why production lies at the heart of history -- it is the beginning of history itself.

 

Because Christianity has no place for an account of that self-creation and self-elevation of the human species above the rest of animate nature, it can have no coherent account of that creativity and purposiveness which is humanity's defining characteristic. Christians may fondly believe that the infinite and unfathomable power with which they have endowed their God is sufficient for Him to be able to endow them in return with that ability to have aims and adopt purposes. But that very idea of external endowment of purpose or purposiveness is, unfortunately for them, a nonsense. No one, whether man or God, can give purposiveness, or even a particular purpose, to another so that it belongs to that other. That is a grammatical impossibility. For a purpose to be my purpose, I have to accept it, take it on board and adopt it of my own act and will. If someone {imposes} a purpose on me and somehow (by threats or deceit, perhaps) contrives to get me to act for a purpose which I have not recognized and accepted, that purpose remains their purpose and is in no sense mine. Though by deceit, bribery or by oppressive power I can use another to accomplish an end which is not their own, I have not thereby given them a purpose except in an equivocal sense. That purpose for which they act remains mine and not theirs. This is most obvious under modern conditions of employment in which the labourer is actually working for the profit of the capitalist, though this is hardly their aim.

 

In the same way, it is impossible to endow someone from the outside with purposiveness itself. Since the adopting of a purpose has to be my act, that ability to adopt my own aim cannot be the act of another -- whether God or man. Of course we do all sorts of things to draw infants into the human family of purposive and productive agents. But those games and songs and dandlings are by way of primary socialization -- establishing social relations with the infant and thereby establishing the infant as a social being. It is in that way we help it discover purposiveness and become a purposive agent. But the infant has itself to respond and to enter into those social relations which make purposiveness possible. At the same time the repetitive patterns of the games and the songs and the drawing of the infant into imitating and repeating them are teaching it to recognize patterns -- which is the beginning of all reflection, understanding and knowledge. Of course at that stage the grasping of pattern lies simply in the ability to imitate and is not accompanied by any reflection, analysis and abstract description. That can only come later with language, which is itself the beginning of reflection. Language both requires and encapsulates reflection -- and it helps engender reflection.

 

The whole point of engaging the infant in these games is the opposite one from that of the conditioning process to which learning is too often assimilated by ideologues. In conditioning, a pattern of behaviour is imposed without the consciousness or acquiescence of the subject. The aim of those imitation games is precisely the opposite one of inducing the willing involvement in the game and the consciousness of pattern, which is just what imitation requires. Naturally, the ahistorical materialists try to represent learning as some kind of causal conditioning process -- but that muddying of waters is just what we would expect from those whose self-contradictory goal is to deny the existence of goals and whose self-contradictory purpose is to eliminate purpose from our understanding of the world.

 

By denying purposiveness altogether it is possible that the metaphysical materialists thought they were escaping those difficulties which confronted the idea of the Christian God (or any other) trying to endow humans with purposes or with purposiveness from outside. But the materialist substitution of Nature for God as the ultimate explanatory principle standing outside the world and humanity simply produced worse incoherencies. Purpose obviously had to go because they {the materialists} could not attribute purpose to Nature without personalizing it and turning it back into a personal deity. But that programmatic elimination of purpose ran them headlong into a worse contradiction that would have been obvious to anyone not blinded by their programmatic commitment. It left them thinking they were taking seriously a mechanistic picture of humanity which only a psychiatric patient could be said genuinely to believe. And one can hardly take seriously a program whose aim is to show that goals, aims and ends have no place in our understanding of the world.

 

And there are other incoherencies that are deeper and perhaps even more contradictory. In the explanatory scheme proposed, we are asked to believe in an entity called 'Nature' whose location, character and status are more mysterious than the Christian God Himself. We are told only that this abstracted and transcendental entity lies outside, above or behind the material world of change. But these descriptions are clearly only metaphors with no identifiable content. The fact that we could not sensibly ask 'How far?' above, behind or outside, shows that these are only metaphors and not real locations.

 

 

Nature As A Deity

 

And about the character of this purported entity we know only that it must be immaterial -- which {amounts} to the same thing as its pretended location outside -- namely that it lies outside the material world. Nevertheless, this non-material entity is endowed with powers worthy of the Christian God. That is, despite being immaterial and located nowhere, it is supposed to maintain some kind of control over the material world and events in it through what are described as 'Nature's laws'. That again turns out to be a poetic and metaphorical description with no identifiable or practical content with which we can do anything. We could hardly ask how that control is exercised nor could we set about investigating the forces by which it is supposed to be accomplished. And the fact that no one would think of setting out to investigate experimentally the forces or means by which the material world is meant to be controlled by this immaterial entity shows that we are again faced with a battery of metaphors which advances matters not at all -- rather covers them with a cloud so that we don't know how to advance and are brought to a halt in fog.

 

The whole thing is an ideological construct which is meant to contribute to that general picture of human passivity in the face of higher powers. These entities and powers lie in what Marx calls 'the world beyond truth' and which he describes as 'the fantastic realization of the human essence' -- that is, its realization in transcendental entities created to offer external explanations of things which are in fact the product of human activities, practices and abilities.

 

It is to these fantastic constructions that their builders and admirers give the honorific titles, 'objective', 'ultimate' or 'external reality' as though these titles will shore up and solidify their fantasies. Our aim has to be to bring out the human practices that have been fantasized and presented to us as external realities confronting humanity. This fantasy world is what we have to eliminate so that we can move on to the genuine business of describing the actual material world and the human engagement with it, in an unmystified and unalienated way. As Marx says, 'The task of history, once the other world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the saintly form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy forms' -- that is, the self-alienation in form of the mechanical materialism of the world-view of the bourgeois revolution.

 

This is {precisely} what we have just been trying to do in comparing the two forms of self-alienation, the holy and the unholy and unmasking them both by revealing not only their incoherencies but the ideological aims that lie behind them. Behind them also is that self-alienation of humanity which has not yet been able to recognize and accept its own creativity and self-creation. Humanity has projected onto God its own creations and creativity. We could even say that God has been given the job of making those human products external to humanity. In this role God becomes simply a principle of externalization and we should see this as a demeaning of religion by giving it ideological work to do. But when we have finished that work of dismantling those fantasies we have to begin the positive work of constructing a genuine historical account of the sciences and human knowledge generally, one which shows how that knowledge grows out of human practices and is based on them. (This is {entered} into in Chapter 3.)

 

 

Knowledge As Passive, Knowledge As Active

 

First we must confront an emblematic example of how philosophers in thrall to this self-alienated picture have turned things on their heads so that it was left to Marx to point this out to the world and start the process of turning things the right way up. (This process, however, will not be complete until humanity's self-alienation and refusal to recognize its own powers has been overcome. Philosophic analysis can help, but cannot accomplish that revolution in consciousness on its own.)

 

In the inverted and self-alienated picture of human knowledge that was propagated by the empiricist philosophers, human knowledge had its starting point not in human practice and active engagement with the material world but in the passive reception of 'signals' or what were symbolically called 'sense data', which we were meant to see as something 'given' or 'sent to us' by what was commonly called the 'external world'. In this picture, the senses were meant to be passive receptors, fixed in place by genetic endowments and the same for all humans -- who would therefore receive precisely the same signals in the same situation and would lead all humans to exactly the same understanding of the world. Those who come to a different picture of the world -- as do the myriad cultures around the world where very different forms of life are lived -- would on this view, have to be regarded as in some way defective.

 

This picture continues the same bizarre inverted program of presenting humans as passive and the material world as active. But the philosophic language has been so debased and words like 'signals, 'data' and the words used to describe the commerce between the material world and humans has been so abstracted and cut off from their root senses, that it was possible for the philosophers to hide from themselves the fatuousness of a picture that made the material world the active member of the relation (the 'signaller' or the 'giver') and humanity the passive receiver of data and signals given. Because of that debasement of language by {such} sloppy use they could no longer see that without humans, those so-called 'signals' or 'data' would be nothing more than transfers of energy from one place to another. A signal implies a signaller and data (gifts) implies a giver. However it is humans who turn those energy transfers into 'signals' and who give them whatever significance they may have.

 

The activity is on the side of the humans and the passivity on the side of those energy transfers which are part of the material world, a world which does not deserve to be called 'external' because it becomes what we make of it.

 

Humans are not passive witnesses of the processes of the world and human knowledge is not the product of passive observation -- as the empiricist picture would suggest. Human knowledge is overwhelmingly the product of active practical engagement with the material world in the attempt to shape it and to make from it whatever we need. Even those scientific experiments which are not directed at immediate practical aims involve a practical interaction with the material world in setting them up and running them. And there is always the hope and expectation that the theories which are drawn from those experimental interactions will have a practical payoff in the fullness of time. They would be unlikely to get funding otherwise.

 

Also, contrary to the assumptions of the inverted, empiricist dogma, the senses are not passive receptors of which we humans are the passive receivers at birth. The senses are not, as they assume, simply given to us with all their sensitivity in place. They have to be used by humans, and humans have to be trained to use them. Seeing, hearing and the rest are skills and we have to be trained in them. And the senses are trained differently in different cultures, so that individuals from one culture will hear, see and smell things that a member of another will not. Even members of one trade or profession will be taught to see things that others of their general linguistic community do not. A striking example for those of us who speak what Benjamin Lee Whorf calls 'standard average European', is the fact that native speakers of Japanese cannot hear the difference between the R and L sounds, and have great difficulty in being trained to hear and to make those separate sounds. And I know perfectly well that a doctor, a trained mechanic or a New Guinea Highlander will hear, see or smell things which I cannot (though with training I may be able to learn to hear the sound of a loose timing chain, or actually hear a heart murmur.) As Marx puts it: 'The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.'

 

The senses are not simply given in their fullness, they are developed and differentiated by human history and the different forms of life that humans have evolved in their struggle with their particular environment and enlightened by their past history. And the people from those different cultures with different ways of life will have very differently developed senses -- even those from different occupations -- will hear, see, smell, taste and feel things that others might miss.2

 

The picture the empiricist philosophers have tried to impose on us starts from assumptions that bear no relation to reality and proceeds to inverted fantasies that make the material world active and humans passive. One wants to say that anyone who can believe all that, can believe anything -- and this turns out to be more or less the case.

 

 

A Picture Of The Material World That Is Historical

 

For reasons that go beyond simply the self-alienation of the age, many accept that ahistorical and undialectical picture of the sciences as the purveyors of universal and timeless truths that confront all of humanity the same -- no matter what their form of life. They regard that view of the sciences as the only alternative to, and bulwark against, a relativism which allows, if not individuals, at least societies, to make up their view of the world and their truth to suit themselves. This seems to be the view of some who call themselves 'social constructivists'. We have to show that it is possible to develop an account of the sciences as arising out of and based on human practices, an account which at the same time shows that it in no way leads to relativism. Ultimately, the reason why it does not is that, as Marx points out in The Eighteenth Brumaire, though humanity makes its own history, it has to do so out of materials already in existence. Each generation may transform those materials and conditions left to it by all the previous generations, and it will leave the next generation a transformed set of conditions from which to make its own history in turn. And this includes the knowledge and skills accumulated over the generations. But no generation has an entirely free hand{,} the kind of free hand that would generate the incommensurable and untestable views and theories that could attract the label 'relativism'. Those views would have no substance because no one could do anything with them. They would have no practical use.

 

Each generation and culture can make of those materials offered by the material world only what in practice they will allow -- given the skills and understanding possessed by that generation or culture. Marx shows us that we do not have to choose between believing in an externally formed reality confronting humans universally and ahistorically on the one hand, or else believing in a wide-open and unrestricted creativity that allows us to make things up to suit ourselves (which is what people seem to mean by 'relativism'.)

 

That introduction of a dialectical relation between humanity and the material world which it faces and with which it has to work, allows us to say that though we do confront something external (contrary to the post-structuralist slogan 'Il n'y a pas hors de texte' -- 'there is nothing outside the text', RL), that external something is not (as the ahistorical materialist metaphysic would have it) formed and fixed independently and imposed on humanity -- as is suggested by their favourite phrase: 'objective reality' -- a phrase to which they can give no substance and is a left-over from the 'God's-eye view' of the theological framework. The metaphysicians' notion of 'an external world beyond truth' when looked at closely turns out to incorporate what must already be linguistic elements and therefore be a kind of would-be 'text' outside of language. We can agree with the post-structuralist rejection of this metaphysical 'world beyond truth' which tries to place itself both inside and outside of language. But we could not go along with what seems to be the post-structuralist claim, namely, that there is nothing at all outside of human thought and action. On the contrary, a condition of our humanity is that there is a material world waiting to be shaped  and to be given descriptions and classifications by humans -- though it can't be classified and shaped in just anyway that we please. We have to find out through working with it just what we can do with different things and materials, which we then classify into types accordingly.

 

 

The History Of Ahistoricism

 

I have been deliberately rude about the philosophers of the Enlightenment and before, who co-operated in the construction of the world-view of metaphysical materialism and proclaimed it as 'the liberation of humanity'. I have been trying to show that the Enlightenment world-view had the opposite role -- that{,} as a denial of human creativity{,} it was the instrument of humanity's enslavement. That was the rudeness of polemic. If we are to make a balanced historical assessment we can show those philosophers as children of their time who were trying to make sense of a vast historical change using the intellectual equipment and standards of explanation which they were trying to forge out of what they had inherited from the scholastics. Though at the same time they have to be seen as partisans of the new social order and opponents of the feudal order against which they saw the new science based world-view as an effective weapon.

 

However that is the work of another day and will be taken up in Chapter 8. Our business now is with the attempt to construct a positive account of the sciences and of human knowledge which base them not in some non-existent world beyond truth but in actual human practices located in this world. I have previously tried to make a start on this by tackling what may look like a particularly hard nut, Euclidian geometry.3

 

 

Geometry And Human Practice

 

Geometry was for the metaphysicians of knowledge the very paradigm example of something which faced us with an objective necessity that could have its source only in a 'world beyond truth'. In dismantling this belief in the objective necessity of geometry{,} founded outside the world{,} we have an important ally, Isaac Newton, whose subversive and Marxist views will come as a shock to those Marxists who have long regarded him as a chief support of the bourgeois materialist world-view. Those Marxists, along with Newton's contemporaries and others who have wanted to use him to support a whole mechanistic world-view should read carefully the preface to his Principia where he makes some illuminating remarks about the geometry which was going to be the chief mathematical tool in a work he titled The Mathematical Principles of the Philosophy of Nature. In that passage of his preface, Newton subverts that whole project of using him to support a metaphysical materialism by declaring that 'the foundation of geometry lies in mechanical practice'. And the reasons he offers for this subversive proposition are compelling. He points out that drawing straight lines and circles, on which, as he says, 'geometry is founded' are not problems of geometry which geometry can solve, but are in effect practical problems which can only be solved by practical mechanics.

 

If we go on to examine the definitions of 'straightness' that are based on various practices we can come to see the role of that notion in human life{;} {by} examining that role and by pressing the inquiry further we can come to see where that sense of the necessity of geometry comes from. We can see that the necessity we seem to face does not come from the mystical world beyond truth but from our collective commitments which we have embodied in the geometric language we have made up for ourselves in wrestling with construction and estimation problems over the generations and millennia. These linguistic commitments can easily deceive us into thinking of the conceptions as external impositions -- because any individual faces language as something external, something maintained and kept in existence by the linguistic community to which that individual belongs. But that language and its commitments to usage and sense is external to the group to which the individual belongs only in the sense that it has been received from a previous generation which has in turn received it from its predecessors, with each generation modifying and extending it to reflect developments of the skills, knowledge and way of life of that generation. Though the language is in one way external to any individual and in another way to any generation, there is no sense in which it is external to humanity itself. Language does not inhabit or constitute yet another mystical metaphysical 'world beyond truth' which visits itself on humanity. Languages are human artefacts -- but they are not free creations of any particular historical individual or group -- and this makes them easy to mystify and project outwards.

 

 

Misunderstandings Of Language

 

We need to stop here and look at language and its commitments, because misunderstandings of it have been the richest source of the self-alienated projections of human capacities and products into 'the world beyond truth'. Those commitments and necessities come into being because if we are to have a language at all we must individually be bound by rules which we individually do not make up or enforce. Those rules and uses are enforced and maintained by the linguistic community of which we are a part, and it is those shared commitments that give meaning to our words. Languages are human artefacts of course, but if we are not to be swept away with the social constructionists, we have to add the essential proviso that language is a historical artefact constructed over countless generations. No generation has a free hand in its construction but is able only to add to or modify what it has been left by the previous generations. And of course the overwhelming constriction is that the language has to be of use in our life and our interactions with the material world.

 

Because, apart from language itself, geometry has been one of the most mystified of human artefacts, we need to stop over it for a further look at the actual construction of the whole edifice on the base of that collection of concepts (point, straight line, right angle, parallel, angle, &c.). This requires nothing more mysterious than the principle of the Aristotelian syllogism -- if All A is B and All B is C, then All A must be C. And unless you are willing to go back on of one or other of the previous commitments you must accept the conclusion. This is, one could say, a grammatical matter of the combined sense of your previous commitments. Geometry is an edifice which looks absolute but is in fact conditional. It is also worth looking at Euclid's own work which makes it clear that geometry not only begins in practice, it ends in practice as well. Many of the propositions (which nowadays {are} called 'theorems') are overtly practical problems ('to bisect', 'to construct a figure with such-and-such properties', 'to draw a line such that') and most of the others establish relations which are ancillary to solving those practical problems. It was only later generations of mathematicians -- and especially philosophers with an agenda --, who lost sight of the practical roots and the practical aims of geometry and saw it as an abstract structure standing over and above and outside the concrete material world of human endeavour and as dictating practice rather than as being dictated by it.

 

Geometry provided one seemingly solid base from which those with a bent for the transcendental could launch their 'world beyond truth' into those weightless realms beyond close inspection. With Newton's help we can bring it back down to earth and reveal the cables tying it to ordinary human practices{,} such as building and fitting things together. But there is yet another great launch pad which is used to accelerate alienated and transcendentalized human products beyond the pull of gravity and clear understanding. This is provided by the regularities of behaviour and the properties of the objects and materials with which we work and amongst which we live. Our transcendentalist wants to put the question: 'How is it that we can we count on water always to boil at 100șC, or on copper to continue to conduct electricity?' with the implied suggestion that we need a guarantor for those regularities, something to keep the world on a steady course. This job of guaranteeing was normally assigned to God, or later, to a similarly transcendentalized Nature standing over and above the material world and {which is} supposed to be keeping order with its laws. (It is this picture which generates the pseudo-problem of 'The Uniformity of Nature' which we will dispose of soon.)

 

We have already looked at those notions and that picture and at their failure to give more than a hallucination of an answer -- a mirage which disappears on a closer approach. But now we need to deal with the question ourselves and try to answer it in an unmystified way that may save some from that transcendental trip and from developing a taste for those weightless realms.

 

First we need to notice that those sample questions about water or copper if they are to have any substance must not be asked as metaphysical questions that look outside the world for their answer, but as practical scientific research questions which will get an answer in terms of some other regularity such as molecular bonding or the flow of free electrons. But those regularities in their turn will be the subject of further questions and further investigation, as soon as enough information has been assembled, so that matters are never set to rest in the ultimates or absolutes of the kind that the metaphysicians seek. (Sometimes scientists think they have found such ultimates and even talk about 'God particles' and suchlike, but unless their fellow researchers get bored or their funding dries up, the research will inevitably push beyond those 'ultimates' with further questions. It is in the nature of the subject, and those who talk about 'complete explanations' are chasing chimera. It is the nature of the sciences always to dig under their own foundations to see what supports them.)

 

Our transcendentalist, however, has a different question. He wants to know the source, not of this regularity or that one, but of all regularities, of regularities as such. For him the answer must come from or imply the existence of something outside the material world on which all the regularities are founded. We can accept that restriction and still answer his question in an unmystified way which will not satisfy him because it will not help him indulge in that favourite occupation of metaphysicians -- constructing mysterious worlds separate from our own. We have already made a separation between human purposeful, productive activity and the material on which it works so that we can say that those regularities are a product of human classifications devised in our practical engagement with the material world and incorporated into our language and our practices. This is still pointing to something outside the material which is exhibiting the regularity but hardly something confronting and imposing itself on humanity.

 

The short answer to our transcendentalist is that honey is sweet because if it isn't sweet we don't call it 'honey' but classify it differently. And water boils at 100șC because if something which at first sight we thought was water didn't boil at that temperature in the specified conditions, we would invent a new category ('anomalous water', 'polywater' or some such) and set about investigating it further to see where it differed from ordinary water. In fact something like this did happen when some Russian scientists studying the modification of liquids on certain surfaces under different conditions of pressure and temperature came to the conclusion that they had produced tiny amounts of a superfluid water which {they} called 'polywater'. Naturally much attention was focused on their experiments because the team had a reputation as careful and elegant experimenters, but in the end the conclusion was that their results were an artefact of the experimental setup and so polywater sank without trace.

 

We need to see that the source of the regularities in the material world and their guarantee lies in the classifications made by different human societies, classifications that arise out of their different ways of life and consequently different practical engagements with the material world. And we should notice that those different societies will each recognize and record their own set of regularities that will reflect their particular way of life and the needs and projects it generates. We have not separated human beings as such from the material world (which would turn them into immaterial beings) but only their purposive and productive activity which is logically and necessarily distinct from, though dependent on, the material on which it works.

 

Still, this will not satisfy our transcendentalist. He or she will want to say that humans did not create those regularities but only found and classified those already in existence. The question which we need to throw back in reply to this is whether we need a special explanation such as God or Nature to explain the ability of humans to find regularities. The question is whether there is any alternative possibility to our being able to find regularities? Is a world even conceivable in which it was not possible to find some regularities? Such a world could not exist.

 

I have tried here to carry forward what Marx describes as the task of philosophy in the service of history -- unmasking both the holy and the unholy forms of human self-alienation which turn humanity's own products and own abilities into external things which exert their own demands. At the same time I have tried to take up that side of the science of history, the history of nature, the so-called 'natural science', which Marx did not take up and pursue in The German Ideology. It is unfortunate that Marx never found the time to articulate his analysis of the sciences and only left us hints and suggestions in his general remarks about human knowledge. This is unfortunate because in a world-view in which 'Nature' has been substituted for 'God', the natural sciences have been nearly as rich a source of self-alienated constructs as religion ever was. I have tried above to make a start on an account of those regularities and laws which roots them in this world, in human classifying and human practices. This dispenses with 'the world beyond truth'. But the above is no more than a sketch, a set of hints and an attempt to indicate what needs to be done. I have tried to work out a concrete example of the dialectical relation between the history of nature and the history of humanity in Chapter 3, {'}Forms of Life and the Construction of Reality{'}, which traces the transition of the atoms from what were called 'mere hypotheses' in the early 19th century to what we now see as 'indubitable realities' since the 20th. This is taken to be the result of the work of the scientists in the 19th century. Only by concentrating on the concrete history of the sciences can the history of nature be seen to be bound up with the history of humanity as Marx described it. Abstract talk will leave us trapped in 'the world beyond truth' which is part of the self-alienation of our time.

 

That historical perspective of Historical Materialism can liberate us only from that world-view which hides from us our essential creativity but it cannot in itself liberate us from the social order that robs us of that creativity. That we must do for ourselves once we accept the fact that we have the power.

 

Notes

 

1. Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Religion, (Moscow, 1957, Foreign Languages Publishing House, p.42).

 

2. I have discussed the question of the training of the senses more fully in chapter 11, 'On Misunderstanding Science' in my book, Philosophy and Mystification (London and New York, 1998, Routledge and in paperback by Fordham University Press).

 

3. In Chapter 7, 'Newton{,} Marx and Wittgenstein' in the present book and in Chapter 13, {'}Newton, Euclid and the Foundations of Geometry{'} in Philosophy and Mystification.

 

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