Essay Seven


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I am publishing here several of Guy Robinson's Essays. One or two of them 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. For example, I would prefer not to depict nature along Aristotelian lines, as Guy does in this essay, nor would I want to use the word "form". And I would certainly want to say that our scientific theories and our technologies are superior to the ideas about the world held by cultures that have no developed science, or no science at all. Our ability to control nature (howsoever limited that is, and howsoever it has been misused and abused under capitalism) testifies to this fact. If you need an operation on your heart, Inuit culture (as well-suited as it is to the world that they inhabit) is not going to be much use. Nor would you go to a Shaman if you wanted to help organise a demonstration in Greece or Egypt. You'd use the Internet, your phone, or the 'social media', among other things. And, it would be no good looking to an Amazonian tribe if you wanted to read Guy's essays, either.


However, this is something Guy also appears to accept, which makes some of his other comments rather problematic. I think there are reasons why Guy adopted this view, but this isn't the place to go into that. [I agree, however, with what he says about language and 'correctness'.] 


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 any changes made to the original text by the use of curly brackets. [These are modifications that any editor or proof-reader would have recommended.]


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




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Chapter Four: The Material And The External


Guy Robinson


There is a sort of transcendental ventriloquy through which men can be made to believe that something which was said on earth came from heaven -- Lichtenberg


Having tackled the deified and therefore mystified concept of Nature that lay at the bottom of the materialist program of explanation and understanding, we need now to turn to the equally mystified concept of 'the external world' which was bound up with, and set the agenda for empiricism. This was an equally ideological conception which was a product of the general enterprise attempting to create a secular replacement for the theological world-view of feudalism. This involved setting up entities before which humanity was meant to stand passive as they had before God. Calling them 'external' is meant to establish that those entities are fully existent and fully formed prior to, and independent of, humanity and human practices. This picture has been used to deny us our human creativity and to insist on our passivity in relation to those entities. We need to bring out that this would-be concept of an 'external world' is one without substance, and at the same time, one which has generated insoluble problems and impossible projects for the empiricism which it has shaped from the beginning. In its turn it has been the product of the attempt to deal with the problems generated by philosophic individualism, which has been the source of the impossible empiricist project of showing that each individual has in them the resources to come to a complete knowledge and understanding of the world on their own and without having to be part of any culture or linguistic community. This implies either that all knowledge is independent of language or that each individual is capable of creating their own language without benefit of contact with others. It is hard to say which of these impossibilities is the more unreal.


Empiricism was defined by this philosophic individualism and that impossible project of showing that each human individual has the resources to come to a complete knowledge and understanding of that single 'external world' confronting all. That so-called 'external' world was supposed to be external to each member of the human race alike -- that is, confronting each individually and not as a member of some culture and linguistic community. The whole idea of 'the external world' is of something which is supposed to confront each of us as something already formed, and which can be perceived and understood 'correctly' in only one way. But something is external and confronts me as something formed only if there is some way in which I can perceive that form 'correctly'. This picture can make no sense of the vast variety of cultures, languages and ways of perceiving the world -- except by engaging in an equally empty and possibly snobbish attempt to arrange those cultures, languages and ways of perceiving the world into a hierarchical order according to which it designates some languages and ways of life as 'more correct' and others as 'less correct'. Again, it would be impossible to give sense or substance to such an ordering without appealing to 'revelation' or some claim to direct knowledge of that 'external world' against which one could measure those languages and ways of perceiving.


It is both ironic, and important to notice, how this attempt to create a secular substitute for the religious world-view keeps being driven back to ideas such as 'revelation' that make sense only in a religious context.


However, despite the central role of the notion of an 'external world' in that framework of thought, no empiricist has set about giving us a clear and usable definition of what they mean by calling something 'external to humanity', nor have they shown how we are to establish the truth of any claim that something is 'external' to all of humanity equally. Within the empiricist framework the phrase {"}external world{"} remains an empty expression that is unable to give us anything we can make serious use of. Our task here is to try to bring that expression down to earth and give a clear and concrete sense to the notion of 'externality'. When we do that, it will no longer hide our human creativity from us, but will actually help to emphasize it.


We can {enter) further {into} the enterprise of clarification and the elimination of mystery and mystification generated by the concepts of reality or the real, the objective or the external{,} if we operate with the notion of a material world rather than with the notion of an external  world. To see how that can help and to see why the notion of an external  world tends to mystify rather than clarify, we need to look at the relation between these two concepts, a relation which, though intimate, hardly leaves them identical.


The notion of material is precisely the notion of that with which we start but which we do not create. We create things from matter by forming it to suit our purposes, but the material is a condition of our productive activity and not a product of it. This is true even though what we produce out of some given material may itself be intended as the material of some other product, as copper is produced from ore, bricks from clay and flour from grain. Still, matter is the paradigm of the external because its existence is independent of our will. It is there whether we want it or not. What it becomes may well be the product of our will and our skill, but the existence of it is a given and a starting point and cannot be willed. Whatever we make must be made from something and even if that something is itself something made, it must itself be made from something -- and so on in a series that must start with something which is found and not made. There are of course differences in the things we find and work with -- even though some fundamental particle physicists may regard themselves as engaged in a search for some material from which everything is made. Still, amongst the things we encounter and make use of we find material suitable for one job and not for another and accordingly we classify materials in the light of their particular uses.


It is of course a very nice question and a very contentious one whether the two notions of the material and the external coincide, and whether it is the case that for something to be external it has to be material. {Classical} metaphysicians (and of course the theologians) would contest this suggestion hotly -- but they have never really told us what the 'externality' of the various worlds and entities they posit consists in, or what it is that licences them to call anything 'external'. Plato offered his Forms as  entities more real (perhaps in the sense of 'more realized' and 'perfected') than the things of this half-finished material world -- though, again, he never made it clear in what sense the Forms were meant to be 'external' to our ordinary world of material things. In fact he ran into great difficulties (recorded in the Parmenides) in trying to give an account of the relation between the Forms and those ordinary particular material things of which the world is composed. Later metaphysicians have not even attempted to examine the relation between their posited worlds and entities and the common things of the world we know, nor have they given any analysis of what that 'externality to humanity' is supposed to consist in. I am not claiming that the material and the external coincide but only offering the material as {providing} one clear sense in which something can be said to be external to all humanity.


What we can say is that there is a clear sense in which {matter} and the material world {are} 'external' to all humanity alike. This is because matter is the condition of that productive activity which distinguishes humanity from other species. In that sense and in that way, matter and its externality can even be said to be a condition of our humanity itself. We see the material world as something separate from ourselves, something on which we can work to produce and transform the conditions of our own life. In this way we distinguish ourselves from the rest of animate nature. By that productive activity, humans have created themselves as creators and produced themselves as producers. Matter to work on is a condition of all this and therefore a condition of our humanity itself. In that sense it is 'external' to all humanity.


But it is only the separate and prior existence of the material world which stands opposite the whole of humanity; its character is another matter. It is that recognition of its separation and prior existence which makes it into material for humans to work on and to shape to their needs. On the other hand, the character of the material confronting us, what it is and how it is classified{,} is not something which confronts all humans equally as something separate and fixed prior to their engagement with it. This is signalled in calling it 'material'. Material, as Aristotle puts it, is what {"}receives form{"}. But what form it can be given is a function, not just of the material, but of the skills, interests and the projects available in the hugely different cultures scattered around the world. These differences also generate very different classifications of the materials and the different languages and knowledge systems of those different cultures. This is where the notion of 'the external world' confuses things because it suggests that there is one single, formed world that confronts all equally. This picture cannot deal with the variety of cultures, languages, knowledge systems, skills and possible projects that they generate, which we find around the world. Our picture of a material world standing opposite to all humanity has no problem with this. Each culture can make what it wants, and can make out of that material world according to the knowledge and skills it has developed and the projects and desires generated by its particular way of life.


Matter can never exist entirely without form. The distinction between the two is a purely intellectual distinction between two complimentary aspects of a single whole. But the material aspect is identified as what can receive a further or alternative form. As a result, the material we work with generally gets classified by us in the light of the uses to which our skills allow us to put it and the ways in which we can work with it. The material things in front of us are on the whole identified and classified according to their uses and by how {they} enter into the lives of any human culture -- threatening, helping, enriching or diminishing them. But which of these relations actually characterizes some particular thing or stuff in front of us will also be a function of the projects and of the skills which our particular culture has attained at any moment. What may be a threat or a hindrance to one may be a help to another. The rainstorm may spoil the tennis match but be welcome to the water board. If I have no boat and no water skills, the river, lake or sea in front of me is a barrier when I am travelling. With a boat and water skills, they become an opening, a highway. And someone from a culture with no place for and no tradition of carpentry and its associated skills -- the Inuit or the Tuareg, for example {--}, would not know what to make of (in both senses) a load of planed lumber. It would be strange, wonderful stuff but not lumber, that is, not the material for carpentry.


It is in this way and for this reason that the material world is perceived and classified differently by different cultures. And in fact it is different for the people of different cultures and ways of life and even for the people from different historical periods of what we call the 'same' culture. And, when we are talking at the level of a whole culture at a given historical moment, we {cannot} force a distinction between how that culture perceives something and how that something is. For one people the river is a barrier, really a barrier, and for the other it is a highway, really a highway. There is no separate and prior 'correct' way for the people of that culture and way of life at that moment -- a way in which they 'ought' to perceive and to classify that thing or stuff. Of course we must keep it in mind that the classifications at a given time will not be fixed for all eternity but will change in the course of the historical development of the skills, knowledge and projects of each people. How they see and classify the material in front of them is a function of both the projects and skills available to them at that historical moment. Obviously if a people is constantly confronted by a river, lake or the sea as a barrier, there will be strong pressure to develop means to use them as a highway.


And of course, the projects open to the people of any culture are themselves a function of the skills available in that culture and way of life at that historical stage in its development. The project of putting satellites into orbit or sending a human to the moon became possible only as the result of the enormous efforts put into the development of rocket technology spurred by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed it.


Starting with the notion of a 'material' world rather than with the notion of an 'external' world allows us to understand the range of languages and ways of perceiving and classifying things that we find among the world's many and various ways of life at any time. It also helps us to understand the changes in perception, classification and language that occur over the history of any one culture as skills, knowledge and perceptions develop from one generation to the next. But at the same time this new orientation requires a re-examination of the  traditional conception of 'truth' and a rejection of the 'correspondence theory' since the latter presupposes and requires the conception of a 'fixed' and 'pre-formed' 'external world' for our beliefs and theories to 'correspond' with. We have seen the impossibilities in giving a concrete sense to that idea. In the Second Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx showed us the way out of this morass of mystification generated by the 'correspondence' theory:


The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.


There are those who have wanted to sign Marx up as a 'pragmatist' on the basis of the Second Thesis and other similar remarks that place practice at the root and basis of knowledge. But it should be clear that he is not offering us either a philosophic theory or a universal test of truth, and he is not interested in doing so. He is only calling our attention to the obvious fact about human knowledge that it begins in practice and aims at usefulness. This is the test we actually apply in practice -- though it does not give us the test of abstract and timeless truth of the sort that philosophers working in the shadow of the theological world-view thought they had to supply. They also needed a test of timeless truth that would apply to their abstract analyses of transcendental entities -- analyses that had no application in the world of practice and so couldn't count as real knowledge according to Marx's test. Even the most abstruse and abstract branches of mathematics hold out the prospect and hope of being put to use and applied some time in the future. If they didn't they wouldn't get funding.


The so-called 'theory' of correspondence has never been able to define its supposedly central term, {"]correspondence{",} which is meant to be a relation between linguistic entities such as beliefs or statements and that mysterious entity called 'the external world' or, by Marx, {"}the world beyond truth{"}. Its adherents therefore, have never been able to give substance to the 'theory'. The Second Thesis brings us back down from that abstract heaven to the material and historical world where we can see that the only test worth applying to our beliefs and theories is whether we can make practical use of them in our struggles to shape the material world to our needs. There are in addition of course, religious beliefs which should be judged by how they enrich our lives and perhaps satisfy entirely different needs.


Like the mystified notion of 'nature', the notion of an 'external world' or 'objective reality', by contrast with all this, seems to offer no opening for human creativity and productive activity{,} and actually seems to foreclose on this active engagement by offering us an ahistorical world which is formed and finished and which imposes itself on us in only one way which can be described as 'correct'{,} and can therefore only be contemplated. In the picture conjured up by this concept, the only relation of humans to the world is a passive one of contemplation and theoretical investigation rather than active dynamic intervention to shape that world. {"}The world is already formed{"} seems to be the suggestion of {the} concepts of {an} 'external world' and {an} 'objective reality' -- and all that humans can do is contemplate and theorize and hope that their theories actually reflect and 'correspond' to that reality which is supposed to lie outside of them. However this point of view fails to offer any clear way of testing that so-called 'correspondence' -- so we are left with the test of practicality that Marx mentions. By emphasizing form rather than matter, this conception that the 'externality' of world consists in its being pre-formed, lifts the world out of history -- because it is matter which is the basis of change. It is matter which can receive new forms but it is not the nature of forms themselves to change.


It is the productive activity enabled by the recognition of the separateness and externality of matter which has transformed the species homo from the creature of external evolutionary forces into a producing animal with a new dynamic of development{,} which can be called 'historical' since it involves reflection{,} and an active relation to the material world{,} rather than being the passive creature of environmental pressures. As I have said before, humanity needs to be seen as the species that has turned its back on evolution and has set about changing its environment instead of being the passive product of that environment and the forces it exerts on us. We build houses instead of growing fur.


Form itself, abstracted from matter is something that cannot change. It is simply replaced by another form when the material thing changes, but forms themselves do not change.  A square piece of cardboard becomes an octagon when you cut the corners off, but squareness cannot become octagonal. In that sense forms can have no history -- though the development of human skill and practical understanding will lead to the making of new distinctions and classifications and to the production of new forms as part of the intellectual equipment of that developed culture. Those new classifications and new forms grow out of the practical productive activities of humans, and their reflection on those practices in order to refine and improve the power of their practical understanding. In that way the devising of new classifications and the creation of new forms and possibilities has a history associated with those struggles and the reflection on them. But the forms themselves have no history and that is why, once they have appeared it seems almost impossible not to think of them as always being there and therefore as having an existence prior to and an existence separate from our own. But this is a trick of the vision which we must identify as an illusion and not accept as evidence for the separate existence of forms or of a fully formed 'external world'.


We can't say, for example that the sonata form was there from all eternity waiting to be discovered by some careful and clear-eyed musical investigator. Its appearance had to wait for a certain point in the development of Western musical culture and it would have made no sense and would have had no place at some earlier moment or in some other musical culture. And though it is almost impossible for us in our time and in our culture to think so -- the same is true of that way of looking at things called 'atomic theory'. I tried in the last chapter to show that there had been a kind of inevitability within Western science of the proposal and development of atomic theory -- however that inevitability was dependent on the adoption of a certain vision and model of explanation in the scientific revolution. Neither atomic theory nor the sonata form, were lying there for all eternity waiting to be discovered. At an earlier period, Democritus' atomic vision had no substance or reality since it could have no practical application in his time and could not generate experiments or practical applications. There was no context of understanding in which it could be put to work. That context which could make practical sense out of the notion of atoms required over two millennia of historical development of the scientific context which ultimate gave reality to the atoms. There was nothing there for Democritus' theory to 'correspond' to. It was neither true nor false. It was simply a poetical picture of things.


Not only is form itself not subject to change, but as we have been trying to show, there is a question hanging over the notion of its 'externality' -- in the sense of its independence of human ways of looking and thinking. Those ways of looking and thinking we need to keep reminding ourselves do not come out of the air or out of our heads but out of those practical struggles with the material world and our reflection on them. We can learn a lot by reflecting on the development of the infant from the time when its world was, as William James described it: {"}a booming, buzzing confusion{"}. The child is rescued from that state by being taught and {by} learning the language of its culture, since learning {that} language involves at the same time learning to perceive and distinguish the things which various words refer to. In this way those things emerge from the confusion and the child's world begins to take shape. But the shape it takes will be a function of the culture and way of life the child is being inducted into and the language which that culture has developed over the millennia of struggles to live and develop their way of life within the particular context in which they find themselves -- mountains, desert, savannah, rainforest, suburb or slum. It is also worth reflecting that the situation of the earliest humans must have been rather like that of the newborn -- excepting that there was not a language in existence for them to learn. They had to create their language and the perceptions that went into it in the course of their struggles. In that way they created their world.


We have made out what I think is a clear idea of what it is for material and the material world to be external to us -- that is, its existence is in no way a function of our wishes, desires, capabilities or projects. On the other hand, what the thing or stuff is -- how it is classified, under what form it is perceived and dealt with, will be a matter of the skills, aims and projects available in the way of life, culture and language of the perceiver. To that extent, and in that way, the form of things is not something independent of humanity, human cultures, languages and ways of life in the way that is suggested by the notion of 'an external world'. The externality of the material world is owing to its materiality not its form. Its form, how its components are classified, is a product of the skills and understanding accumulated by the various human cultures and ways of life over millennia of practical engagement and struggle with the material world and the attempt to form it in ever more sophisticated ways to meet ever more sophisticated demands.


We have to notice particularly that the knowledge which is the product of that practical engagement and that struggle is measured by the power it puts into our hands, as Marx has said, not by some abstract notion of its 'correspondence' with some 'reality' whose very 'externality' is impossible to specify, or clarify. All of this raises serious questions about the traditional treatment of the notions of truth and knowledge, as well as the concept of facts whose 'correspondence' or lack of correspondence is supposed to determine the truth or falsity of any statement or belief. One could characterize the notion of the external world we have been looking at as consisting in {"}facts, not things{"} as the Tractatus has it -- though the view we have been putting forward is that the world consists of things which we humans have to make into facts. Though there is plenty of room for debate whether the Tractatus conception of facts makes them into something independent of humanity as a whole and as the same for all humans of whatever period. Our view is unequivocally that facts have a history and are not the same for people of different cultures or even for people at different stages of their education or development of skills.


Still, if we keep in mind the historical dependence of classifications and language on the development of skills and practical knowledge, we can happily go along with the description of the world as consisting of {"}facts not things{"}. The 'things' we recognize are a function of the classifications embodied in our language and so are not as independent of the facts we acknowledge as the constructors of 'objective' worlds assume. These observations reduce the distance between saying that {"}the world  consists of things, not facts{"} and its seeming opposite that {"}it consists of facts, not things.{"} Presumably the point of the Tractatus remark was to emphasize the involvement of language in the world we face. This, of course is precisely the message we have been trying to send all along.


The traditional attempts to invert this relation and make the ghostly 'world beyond truth' the ultimate source of the distinctions and classifications embodied in our language are as unintelligible as the attempts to make our language self-standing and a source of those distinctions. The trouble comes from trying to find an 'ultimate source' rather than recognizing that our language with its distinctions develops over time out of the practical interaction between our use of it in dealing with the material world and what we learn in the course of those dealings. Reflection on our practical interactions with the material world may show us the need for finer distinctions or even major changes in our classifications. But still we have to factor in the further element of the way of life of the people whose language it is -- with its particular values, projects, skills and knowledge available at the time of the interaction. All of these will influence what someone learns from working with the distinctions already made in a language and what developments and changes are shown to be needed.


The earlier arguments have tried to make out the case that it is only for material things and stuff that we can give a clear sense to the notion of their externality. Nevertheless, Pierce tried to offer the notion of a convergence of human beliefs and theories as evidence of externality or objectivity of what was believed, but he didn't go so far as to say that the convergence constituted that externality. And of course, convergence in belief may be the result of many human activities -- from the Inquisition to the forces of globalization which are destroying cultures and languages at an ever increasing pace and imposing uniformity on the world.


The idea behind Pierce's suggestion is that the convergence in belief is a necessary one as caused by something external to humanity as a whole and not by a historical convergence in human projects, practices and practical aims.  We could, of course, have no evidence for the external necessity of any convergence unless we are allowed to invoke 'revelation' -- a notion which is at home in a religious/theological context but hardly in secular philosophy. Since we can explain any historical convergence that we may find in the beliefs and languages of the cultures and ways of life in the world by means of historical factors without appeal to any ghostly {"}world beyond truth{"}, the phenomenon of convergence is no help in establishing the 'externality' of some world imposing convergence. The missionaries sent to Africa and other parts of the world may have fondly believed that it was the truth of Christianity that was the cause of their ability to convert the natives, but it is easier to understand their conversions in terms of the obvious power of the tribe that sent the missionaries. Also if the truth of Christianity, Islam or any other religion were the cause and source of conversion, it would hardly have been necessary to offer so many the alternative of conversion or the sword as both Christians and Muslims historically did, and the Taliban continued to do until recently.


So we are left without any alternative way of giving sense to the notion of externality, particularly as something claimed to be external in the sense of confronting all of humanity equally. We have not yet found an intelligible alternative to our suggestion that what is external to all of humanity equally is that which is a condition of our humanity itself, namely, the material world for humans to work on and form. Nevertheless there are two non-material candidates for the title of {"}external to all humanity equally{"} and we need to look at what can be brought forward as the basis and nature of that externality. I have in mind here the two laws which Aristotle describes as the principles of {"}being qua being{"} -- the Law of Contradiction and the Law of Excluded Middle. There is an interesting parallel between the basis and nature of their externality and the reasons we have offered for describing matter as external to all of humanity equally -- namely, that matter and the material world are a 'condition' of that productive activity which is the basis and starting point for humanity itself and are external in the sense that they are a condition of and therefore prior to that humanity and humans themselves.


In Book IV of the Metaphysics Aristotle examines the possibility of denying those laws -- denying them really in the sense of living out that denial in a way that gives it substance, rather than being merely the mouthing of some words that have the grammatical form of a denial of the laws.  He shows that these denials can only be empty words to which no concrete sense can be given and on which no life can be based. Aristotle's argument is that a genuine denial in the sense of giving up any commitment to the laws would involve giving up language itself, rationality and the making of choices. Choices involve seeing something as not both good and not-good (making all the necessary restrictions to {"}not in the same respect or for the same purpose{"}, &c.) Also the words of a language would loose all sense if the same thing could be both square and not square (again with all the restrictions to {"}in shape and from the same aspect{"}, &c.) So anyone who uses language and makes choices is already committed to the Law of Contradiction. Whatever may be the words which come out of his or her mouth, they cannot amount to a genuine denial of the laws. That denial, as Wittgenstein would say, {"}cannot be lived{"}.


Following Aristotle's argument, we can say, again, that these two laws, which he has described as {"}the laws of being qua being{"} stand opposite and external to all of humanity equally -- to humanity as such, because they are a condition of human rationality, that is, of our humanity itself. They are implicated in the ability to make choices, in having projects, practices and purposes, and in the having of languages. That is, those laws are a condition of those things which make us human and in that way stand in a relation which parallels the way in which our recognition of the separate existence of matter and the material world are a condition of the productive activity which sets humanity apart from the rest of animate nature. Thus those two laws seem to be the only non-material things for which a philosophic argument, rather than an argument based on faith or revelation, can be made for their being external to all of humanity equally. And we can call them {"}the laws of being qua being{"} since for anything to be at all, it must be one thing and not its opposite.


Since everything we have been saying will attract the accusation 'relativism', it is important to see that those categories set out by humans in the course of their struggles to form the material world will not be the free creation of each culture but the historical product of two interacting factors -- the historically available skills and understanding (including the linguistic categories with which they start) and the material world in which each people finds itself -- desert, jungle, Sahel, islands, plains, mountains, and so forth{,} as well as the built environment of cities, factories, cleared fields which are the legacy of the work of previous generations.


Chapter 3, {"}Forms of Life and the Creation of Reality{",} described the way in which, in a scientific context, conceptions such as that of the atoms could develop from being mere suggestions for a new way of looking at things (what Whewell called {"}mere hypotheses{"}) to being unassailable parts of our way of looking at the world. I suggested that this was the result of the power that was put into our hands by the theories which were developed on the hypothesis of the atoms. That power has so shaped our knowledge and enabled us to do so much -- from developing new sources of energy to making new materials as well as understanding and manipulating so many other things -- that we could not give up that picture of things without giving up so much that we are unwilling to forego{,} since it would also throw us back into that state of ignorance and impotence from which the theory of atoms helped us to emerge. As a result of the enfolding of all that work of the physicists and chemists in developing and integrating the theories in which the atoms are embedded, it has become impossible even to formulate an intelligible doubt about the reality of the atoms, and any expressed doubt will be no more than 'words of the mouth' to which no practical sense can be given.


Though it is in one sense the external source of the power that is put into our hands by all that accumulated work, the material world and the matter which comprises it needs, as we have said, to be understood in Aristotle's way as {"}that which receives form{"}. The material world does not impose form on our intellect as the believers in the {"}world beyond truth{"} want to picture the 'external world' as doing.  In their anxiety to find an external source of human knowledge that will unify humanity by whipping all into line, the empiricists have simply inverted matters and {have thus} seen them upside-down, and in the same inversion have needed to present humans as passive receivers of 'data' or 'signals' rather than active shapers of the material world. For the empiricists, the world shapes our knowledge rather than our knowledge being used to shape the world.


Though we have been emphasizing the shaping power of knowledge by way of trying to bring out the falsity of the one-sided view of the proponents of the {"}world beyond truth{"} picture, the truth is not one-sided in either direction. That is, the knowledge which humans use to shape the world does not come out of the air or out of their brains, but out of earlier struggles to shape the world, struggles from which generations of humans discover what can or cannot be done with this material or that material. Reflecting on those earlier struggles allows us to develop and extend our skills and our knowledge and then to attempt more ambitious projects.


As the power of our knowledge increases, it may appear increasingly as though it is knowledge that one-sidedly shapes the world. However, to see it in that way is to look at it ahistorically and unrealistically by ignoring the historical development of our knowledge and grasp of the world over the millennia that separate us from the earliest makers of stone and bone tools. If we keep in mind this historical development of our knowledge we can see that the relation between our knowledge and the material world cannot be described as one-sidedly causal in either direction. The material world corrects our bad guesses and wrong notions in the course of our practical attempts to shape it, but when we have reflected on and corrected those guesses, we develop more power to shape that world. And scientific experiments themselves need to be seen as getting the material world to confirm or deny the value of the informed guesses embodied in our theories.


And it is obvious that humans don't have it all their own way in shaping that world. The materials of the world will allow themselves to be shaped only in certain ways and to be put only to certain uses and it is the business of our skills and our knowledge to classify the materials we find according to those uses. We can't make car springs out of terracotta or cooking pots out of wool. The material world is external to us not only because we cannot will matter into existence but also because, and in so far as, it resists or enables our efforts to form it and to use it in certain ways. Those qualities and capacities of materials also are something we cannot produce by merely wishing it{,} even though what we can do with those materials is also a matter of our knowledge and skills. And that independence of our wishes and thoughts is the only concrete sense we can give to the notion of their externality. For all these reasons the accusation of 'relativism' does not apply and those who like to use that accusation need to ask themselves what they think they mean by it.


The notions of externality and materiality nearly coincide, though we must go beyond regarding the material world as only something for us to work on and need to add the large and important categories of animate creatures, rational creatures and the active forces of nature such as tides, volcanoes and so forth -- all of which may impinge on us without waiting for our move. Those active forces or nature, animate and inanimate, tiger or tidal wave, can of course have catastrophic effects on the lives of humans. But in the majority of human transactions with the material world it is the humans who are the active component and the material world the passive. And it is from that active engagement and the reflection on it that human knowledge arises. But that engagement takes place from within definite forms of life and reflects the knowledge and skills, the projects and aims, the standards and self-conceptions, traditions and institutions that characterize and define each of those diminishing number of different forms of life lived by humans in the modern world.


The differences in their engagement with the material world will inevitably produce different forms of knowledge each appropriate to those different forms of life. Though different, they all {count as} knowledge in that they enable their possessors to operate in the world and navigate through the life into which they were born -- and there is nothing more we can ask of those different forms of knowledge.


That recognition of different knowledge systems as genuine knowledge will not sustain a charge of 'relativism' because none of those different systems are arbitrary and whimsical and therefore the source of unintelligibility -- which is the real crime riding masked and camouflaged by the not very helpful term 'relativism'. Each of the many hugely different forms of life around the world has its own history which makes intelligible its particular development and its particular features. Jared Diamond{,} in Guns, Germs and Steel, makes a brilliant and convincing analysis of the many factors, historical, geographical, climatological and environmental which have given rise to the huge differences in the way human societies have developed, and humans have lived, in the niches they have carved out for themselves in the world from the Arctic to the Sahel, from the Mongolian Steppes to Micronesia, from Nuristan to New York. And each of those unimaginably different forms of life has knowledge appropriate to it and not to others. Socio-linguistics is not knowledge for the Andaman Islanders who have no place, use nor understanding of it. Nor is evolutionary theory knowledge for the Tuareg, because what is knowledge in our society may have no practical role or use in theirs. Similarly, the knowledge which sustains the life of the Aboriginals in the Australian desert or the fishermen of Micronesia and is passed on from generation to generation, has no function in the life of a native New Yorker.


We can still get some useful mileage out of another look at the charge of 'relativism' even though there is normally more sound and fury about that accusation than there is substance. We can start by looking at the way Thomas Kuhn was subjected to the charge because it was thought that his account of scientific revolutions in terms of {"}paradigm shifts{"} left a gap through which arbitrariness and unintelligibility might enter. What is more, his account was thought to open an 'appalling vista' of the possibility that the various sciences might have adopted different paradigms from the ones that were historically adopted, and as a result have developed differently from the way they have actually gone. This idea is anathema to those who want to see scientific progress as an approach to an ultimate truth rather than as an improvement over previous theories, an improvement measured by increases in what the new theories allow us to do.


We can dispose of that implied accusation of arbitrariness and unintelligibility by making out a case that within that culture which gave impetus to and shaped the scientific revolution (and was in turn shaped by it) there was an  inevitability about the emergence and eventual triumph of the theory of atoms. To understand that inevitability and see the forces that made for it, we will have to go back as far as post Renaissance Europe and the huge social changes which were mandating a changed perspective and world-view.


It was no accident that the scientific revolution and the mechanical world-view developed in step with the overthrow of the theocratically ordained social hierarchy of feudalism with its hereditary obligation to serve and work for another. The scientific revolution and the mechanical world-view that went with it were both part of a tide of secularization that was propelling Europe toward a market economy and a society based on a money mediated obligation to work for another rather than an obligation 'ordained by God' to work for a feudal lord. At the same time the secular understanding of things was given an impetus by the development of the {"}theory of impetus{"} which made possible an understanding of the phenomena of motion which would eliminate the need for angels and other theological apparatus to keep the stars in their courses and the planets in motion.


When the scientific revolution had taken only its first tiny steps, a goal was set and a program defined to explain all change in mechanical, that is physical terms. This program and goal was the outcome of those first steps and it defined the scientific revolution. Our criticism was not of the program itself but of the assumption that it provided the only genuine form of understanding.

But that program ensured that there was no arbitrariness in the choice of a new paradigm whenever any science found itself confronting two radically different frameworks of understanding. It decided the shape of the sciences down the centuries starting with the overthrow of the Ptolemaic model of the universe{,} despite the fact that as a mathematical and predictive model it was simpler and more accurate than the Copernican. Taken as a purely mathematical and predictive model Ptolemy's was superior at that time, but once there was laid on it the demand that it make physical sense, the geocentric picture was finished. The same requirement finished off the phlogiston theory of combustion, the caloric theory of heat and finally that one-time rival to the atoms, the '
affinity chemistry', which held that the differential ratios of combination between elements was due to their different 'affinities' for one another. The theory of atoms offered the prospect of a physical understanding of those ratios where the 'affinity chemistry' offered none. It was for that reason that the atoms were seized on and developed despite all the enormous difficulties that they faced at the outset, difficulties which could easily been seen as counter-evidence for the theory instead of problems that had to be solved despite the great effort this involved.


And now the atoms can no longer be doubted within that culture which has given them birth. If there is a better and unambiguous test of their 'reality' which can be applied we can await it with interest and be happy to see it set out. In the meantime, inevitability and indubitability will have to do. The atoms are real and indubitable to the people of our culture in the sense that we can no longer doubt them or wish them away. In that way they have become external and part of the material world we work with -- but they are not external to humanity as such, but only to those of us who live in what is called 'the developed world' whose languages and knowledge systems have foreclosed on the possibility of intelligible doubt of their reality.


We have been engaging in the project of unmasking and abolishing that proposed {"}world beyond truth{"} before which humanity could only bow down and show respect. We have proceeded by trying to tie down and give concrete sense to that phrase {"}external to humanity{"}. Since this phrase is clearly not meant to describe a physical location, the only sense we can give it is to say that it must describe something which is a condition of humanity itself. Within a secular context, this can only refer to the material world itself since the recognition of its existence is the condition of humans producing the means of their own subsistence and creating the conditions of their life. It is in this way that the species homo distanced itself from the other animals and produced itself as producers and created itself as creators.


Though those philosophers who call themselves {"}realists["} have never told us what the 'externality' of the 'external world' consists in, they seem to take its 'externality’ to consist in its being 'fixed' and 'formed' independently of humanity -- again they are a bit short of evidence for this. This 'externality' seems to imply that the world can be seen and recorded in only one 'correct' way by people and by their languages. This has the consequence that some languages must be 'more correct' than others. Naturally, the people of every culture will regard their own language as the 'correct' one since it helps define their world for them. It is hard to see what method of assessment and ordering of the world's languages could be devised which could give substance to that claim of greater 'correctness' for some languages and save it from being simply an emotive expression of preference for a language and associated way of life that one was brought up in and was familiar with. I, for one, am not willing to claim that the way of life and the language of the Inuit are less 'correct' than my own. Their way of life and environment throw up different needs that their language serves. My life and environment throw up an entirely different set which my language reflects and I would not be able to make sense of a suggestion that we should impose our language on the Inuit or any other people because it was 'more correct' than theirs.


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