Essay Six


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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, pre-Hegelian sense, but these waters have been permanently muddied, so I avoid using this word since it only creates the false impression that when I use it, I mean it in its post-Hegelian sense. In addition, I am not in total agreement with Guy about the nature of science, nor would I prefer to use the word "reality" in such contexts. [I will say more about this in Essay Thirteen Part Two, when it is published sometime in 2017.]


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 that any editor or proof-reader would have recommended.]


This essay comprises Chapter Three 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 Three: Forms Of Life And The Construction Of Reality


Guy Robinson


Hopefully we have made some progress in expounding and bringing out the concrete facts that illustrate Marx's difficult conception of nature as something which has a history and a history that is bound up with the history of humanity. This is a view that is difficult for us to take in because it stands as a complete denial of the founding conceptions of the framework of thought dominant in our time and culture. The centrepiece of that framework was a conception of 'Nature' as a separate entity placed outside the material world and confronting humanity timelessly. That view has to be seen as empty and contradictory and as generating problems that are both unnecessary and insoluble. Disposing of that view is only half the job -- clearing away obstacles and making space for the positive view that can be constructed from the historical perspective. The main task in the last chapter was that of giving a positive account of the concepts of nature and the natural that bring out the role of humans in shaping them.  We need now to look at some concrete examples of the progress of the sciences that will also illustrate that essential view of Marx's of the connection {between} the history of nature and the history of humanity.


To grasp that view {we} need to see it first of all as set against the timeless notions of reality, the real and the objective{,} as those notions have been understood and put forward by the materialists of the Enlightenment. The historical perspective put forward by Historical Materialism was intended as a challenge and a replacement to that framework of thought which had aimed to eliminate both history and human input from our understanding of the world. Marx was directly denying the picture, offered by those materialists, of a nature that was both without history and completely independent of humanity -- while at the same time being the sole source of change and movement in the world. Of course the metaphysical materialists give no concrete sense to the concepts of 'the real' or 'reality' nor any concrete sense to the idea of something's being 'external' to humanity. In this chapter and the next we will have to tackle those problems, having in the last chapter set about dealing with the mystification of the concept of nature brought about by setting it outside the world as a kind of god which was meant to bestow order on the material world. We have also to set about relocating the source of our conception of nature and the natural bringing it down from the heavens and locating it in human practices.


I want to begin by examining how Wittgenstein's dictum: 'What has to be accepted, the given is -- so to say -- forms of life1 can illuminate for us the notions of reality and the real. Very roughly I want to do this by appealing to a precept implicit in Marx, Wittgenstein and Aristotle and inverting the foundationism which has dominated philosophy in the modern era. {This will show} how certain things become indubitable in practice and therefore 'real' by becoming so integrated with our language, our way of life and having so much resting on them that it becomes impossible to mount {any} serious and meaningful {doubts} about them -- {doubts}, that is, which {connect} to life and to practice, and {are} not mere words. In effect I will be claiming that in this area and in this sense, a foundation becomes more secure the more that is made to rest on it. This may not be a precept that one would want to apply in architecture2 but it is one which can help us with the age-old problems of reality and the real and maybe even lay to rest the endless debate between the realists and the anti-realists.


The latter, however is probably an exaggerated hope unless there is a serious re-examination by all concerned of the terms and the style of the debate, one which would involve a challenge to the belief that these matters can be clarified and even resolved by abstract discussions which consult only the formal meanings of words without examining their role in human life. Those discussions also frequently allow themselves the luxury of positing the existence of entities for which there is no evidence, and no prospect of {any} evidence -- apart from the very things they are meant to explain. It has to be asked whether those positings really advance matters or only cover them in a fog by pretending to explain something when they have in fact done no such thing. Our best example here is the emptiness of the would-be explanations based on Nature as a posited entity standing outside the world and confronting humanity as a whole from this unreal location.


Probably the only way in which a challenge to that style of analysis and discussion can be mounted is to offer an alternative, concrete analysis of the way in which those words and those notions of reality and the real actually function in the practical life of definite human cultures. This is what I aim to do for the sciences of the West, in what follows, by looking at the progress of atoms from being what Whewell called "mere theoretical entities" at the time of their positing by Dalton to a status as realities whose existence cannot, in our time and culture, be seriously doubted. After that I can only let that analysis speak for itself.


First we need to take a broad look at Wittgenstein's remark to try to get the measure of it by seeing how it can illuminate traditional problems and philosophic practice. It can nevertheless be seriously misunderstood if we fail to place it in a concrete historical context and give it a historical dimension.


Foundationism, 'Reality' And 'The World Beyond Truth'


Taken seriously, Wittgenstein's remark can immunize us against those metaphysical flights of fancy that are an inevitable product of the modern 'search for foundations'. Those 'foundations', like the deities of the proselytising religions, were supposed to be independent of, and the same for all human beings, and therefore to be a force for the unification of humanity. Fortunately for humanity, in their search for unity the metaphysicians {do not} use the same methods as the proselytisers to convert dissenters to their point of view, and {do not} generally give them the choice between accepting the canonical metaphysical view or being put to the sword. However, since foundationism is unable to recognize or admit its essentially religious character and motivation, it ends in contradiction and incoherence, generating entities lifted out of history and human contamination and placed in that mysterious metaphysical corral which Marx called 'The world beyond Truth' where they take on all the mystical attributes of deities.


These entities and these 'worlds beyond Truth' are incoherent and contradictory ultimately because they are required to be pre-formed as well as independent of humanity. This 'being pre-formed' means {--}, if it means anything -- that certain descriptions must attach to that 'world beyond truth' and its elements 'in themselves' and independently of humans and human languages. That in its turn implies that this 'external reality' already encapsulates or implies a language which is 'over and above' and prior to all human languages. (The language of Plato's forms perhaps.) Those who believe in the existence of this 'ideal language' would then have to say that some actual human languages were 'more correct' than others as approaching more nearly to that ideal.


One World, One Language?


Naturally, the candidates put forward {that merit} the description 'more correct' would be the languages of what we are pleased to call 'the developed world' and the candidates for the description 'less correct' would be Tagalog, Quechua, Inuit, the Aboriginal languages, or any of the other fast disappearing languages of the world, whose cultures are being overrun and destroyed by the march of those forces of globalization set in train by the developed world. To explain the overwhelming force of global capital by saying that the languages of the core capitalist countries are 'more correct' than the others would be more laughable than plausible. To understand the dominance of the West and its ability to destroy other cultures, it is necessary to make a concrete historical analysis such as Jared Diamond has done in Guns, Germs and Steel -- The Fates of Human Societies.3 At very least we would need to consider, for example, the devastating effect of gold prospectors or slash-and-burn cattle farmers on the tribal cultures of the Brazilian rain forest. That is hardly a matter of a superior and more 'correct' language and culture replacing an inferior one. It is simply the result of the pursuit of riches by one set of people with no concern for the welfare or even the lives of others.


Taking Wittgenstein's remark seriously would in any case put a stop on the possibility of describing one language being more 'correct' than another. If what is given is a form of life then the language can only be adequate to that form of life -- and, it should be added that the adequacy or inadequacy is for the speakers to judge and no one else. It is, after all, their language to make or modify, and no one else's. Quechua arises out of and reflects the way of life of the Andean Indians as Tagalog reflects and consolidates the entirely different life of the Polynesian islanders. There is no way we can say that any language or form of life is more 'correct' or is 'incorrect'. The fact that the world's languages develop and change historically shows us that no actual language is regarded and treated as ultimately and finally 'correct' by its speakers. And if 'rate of change' or relative immunity to change were made into a test of approach to 'correctness' -- the languages of the developed world which have the highest rate of change would come out as the farthest from 'correctness' and the languages of the more static societies such as the Mongolian nomads would come out as 'more correct'.


But we need to note that none of this in any way lands us in a relativism that prevents us from describing as 'monstrous' the Taliban oppression of women, or as 'abominable' the practice of clitorectomy or stoning to death for adultery (only of women, it should be noted) among some African and Middle Eastern cultures. And, nearer home, we can criticize the institutional racism of the German denial of citizenship to people of Turkish origin even though born in Germany. And we can go on to describe as 'degrading' that general feature of life in the developed world that in order to live, those without capital are forced to work for those who own. The fact that we can mount those criticisms does not involve an appeal to some abstract and universal ideal of a 'correct' way of life over and above the actual forms of life in this actual world. It means only that as human beings we are capable of reflection -- on our own actions and institutions as well as those of others. In fact, as we have suggested earlier, it is this ability to reflect that is what distinguishes humans from the other species of animals.


Undermining Foundationism


Those are some of the ways Wittgenstein's principle can help us clarify things if we let it help us challenge and overcome the foundationist projects and habits of thought which have dominated the modern era in Western philosophy. But before going on to see how it can help us to clarify the notions of reality and the real we should pause to look at the ways it can be grossly misunderstood by not being {examined} concretely and by being abstracted and {then} folded into the foundationist enterprise itself.


Setting itself up as a secular rival to the proselytising religions of the world, foundationism gave itself the noble aim of uniting humanity by discovering the universal foundations to knowledge and morality that could be used to offer all humans a single vision of truth and justice, one which stood over and above and outside of all actual human societies and moral systems and could be used in judging them. Within that tradition, to talk of something as 'given' meant that it was given to humans as such, rather than being given to this individual or that, through the accident of their birth into a particular society. But Wittgenstein's radical dissent from the foundationist aims and assumptions that have shaped much modern philosophy is rooted in the fact that forms of life are not given in that abstract and general way. A particular form of life was 'given' to me  in the sense that I was brought up in it, taught a language and inculcated with certain skills and values and practices. But the particular form of life that was 'given' to me was the result of my having been born in a particular place, into a certain class and at a certain time.


Forms of life are not only multifarious, they are historical and are developed and altered by those to whom they are 'given'. Some forms of life, that of the nomads of Mongolia, or the settled agriculturalists of Ladakh, for example, may have been very nearly static in themselves -- though they have not been immune from incursions from the 'modern world' (as in Ladakh), incursions which can destroy an ancient and sustainable way of life in one generation. Other forms of life, such as those of what is called 'the developed world', are driven by pressures to innovate that leave each generation struggling to understand the life of their children. Forms of life are therefore totally incapable of acting as 'foundations' of the kind wrong-headedly being sought. Wittgenstein's role for them is actually subversive of that project because he, like Marx is actually making human practices the starting points.


Socialization And Learning To Reflect


However it is important also to examine the force of Wittgenstein's phrases 'the given' and 'what has to be accepted' -- because, taken abstractly and without a temporal dimension, they can return us to the false idea that forms of life cannot be examined, criticized and changed. A way of life is not 'given' to humanity or even to a whole people. It is given and 'has to be accepted' at the formative stage of the life of individuals -- the stage when infants are being drawn into a particular society and are engaged in the delicate process of becoming rational human beings capable of reflection. At that stage, when one is learning one's first language and being inducted into the ways and institutions, the values, categories and criteria that constitute that way of life, as well as being introduced to the whole idea of inference and criticism -- at that stage one has not yet got either the means to reflect or anything to reflect on. One can only take on board all those things which are a condition of becoming a rational, reflective, critical being, someone who is later perhaps in a position to reflect on that form of life  and  then perhaps contribute to its alteration for better or for worse, leaving later generations with a different form of life to accept.


We have to take several things from all this. One is that forms of life are themselves concrete and historical not abstract and timeless. We can, of course, talk of them without referring to those concrete and temporal features when we are considering their functional relation to language, truth, perception and judgement in a completely general way -- as Wittgenstein was clearly doing. But we must not lose sight of the fact that our talk is shorthand for a much more complex story. And the story it is shorthand for is of the greatest importance for our understanding of humanity, human rationality and how it is that humans differ from all other species. The key to that story is the fact that for each infant of the species, being inducted into a whole form of life with its institutions, its language, its skills, standards, categories and ways of producing its material life is a condition of acquiring the rationality, reflection and ability to choose -- which constitute us as human beings.


And here we can see why we have also to reject utterly that philosophic individualism which has distorted philosophy in the modern era and wasted much time in the careful examination of false problems and blind alleys. This individualism took {the} separation, competition and antagonism generated in a particular culture and in an era in which private property had come to dominate the relations between humans, and then set that particular historical social state up as a fundamental feature of 'human nature' for all time. It can easily be shown that humanity would never have been able to rise above the purely animal existence of its earliest ancestors and turn itself into social creatures if that had been its essential nature.


Nevertheless we need to make a slight criticism of Wittgenstein's way of putting things because the concepts of acceptance or rejection are already tied to that rationality which is conditional on already having been inducted into a form of life -- so that we can't really talk about someone 'accepting' a form of life in the way the Social Contract theory would require. One is brought up in, or inducted into a form of life but the ability to accept or reject only comes later. Still, we can see what he was getting at -- so no great harm has been done. And, of course, he may simply have meant that the forms of life must be accepted by philosophers as a starting point for their understanding of meaning, truth, reality and other fundamental notions.


Still, the point is important, and we will have to come back to it in turning aside the inevitable charges of 'relativism' that will be laid against the account which follows of the role of 'forms of life' and of practice in the determination of what we count as 'real'. The term 'relativism' tends to be used as rather unspecific term of abuse or in order simply to sow doubts, rather than to make a definite and provable claim about a {particular} view. If it is to have any weight at all the charge has to be {taken} as an accusation of arbitrariness and indefiniteness. Only the ill-informed would bring an indictment of 'relativism' against the special theory of relativity on the ground that it tells us that there is no absolute value for the velocity of any body, but that its velocity can be given a definite value only in relation to some other body. The charge would be empty  because there is no arbitrariness or whim in the assignment of velocities by the Lorenz Transform equations.


Our chief problem in what follows will be to distinguish our account of  'the construction of reality' from the social constructionist view of truth generally{,} and of scientific truth in particular. This account, like ours, also aims at dispensing with the mystical 'world beyond truth' of the foundationists. However constructionism is a perspective which seems to regard social agreement as self sufficient. This leaves those determinations a matter of collective whim and genuinely subject to the charge of 'relativism'. The account which follows will aim to show those social agreements as the product of a definite historical process in which the participants have an input -- but not an arbitrary one, rather one which is conditioned by the developmental history both of the individual and the form of life in which the individuals are participants. It is in that way the result of just that kind of mutually determining dialectical relation which modern Western philosophy, steeped in the tradition of one-sided causal determination and explanation, finds it hard to recognize and understand. As a result we get the pure 'external' determination of foundationism on the one side and seemingly unconditioned social determination on the other. Of course, neither of those one-sided views can make sense of the situation{, but} land us with incoherence or mystification on the one hand, and arbitrariness and unanalysable, unintelligible collective whim on the other. We have to keep in mind here Marx's important point in The Eighteenth Brumaire that 'Humanity makes its own history -- but not on ground of its own choosing.' The 'ground' that each generation has to work with and on has been left to it by previous generations and perhaps by environmental changes.


Causality, Dialectics and Relativism


The opposed one-sidedness of both the foundationists and the social constructionist results from the assumption that causation, determination and therefore explanation is one-dimensional and unidirectional. This has two consequences that need to be questioned. One is that it leads inevitably to the belief in ultimates and this in turn generates the belief in complete explanations, ones that stretch from that ultimate starting point down to the things to be explained. The ultimates, the starting points, however, would in themselves necessarily be without explanation; they would have simply to be accepted -- without evidence and by faith alone in the case of the other-worldly posits, and unquestioningly in the case of the social determinations -- on the ground that there could be nothing outside those social determinations that could be appealed to in order to bring them into question. For that reason there could not be a genuine history of those determinations, only a catalogue of the different ones that had taken place over time, a list which has no connecting story and no rationale. It is in that sense that the charge of 'relativism' as arbitrariness can be made to stick. If they are made into ultimates, there can be no basis for criticizing the social determinations. Their arbitrariness will be secure from rational analysis and questioning. This leads us to the paradoxical result that it is the believers in ultimate foundations that are the real relativists -- since once they have made their foundations ultimate, they have, on the one hand  put them outside the material world and, in any case beyond concrete investigation and criticism, proof or disproof -- serene and unassailable, a matter of faith alone.


This is where a dialectical conception of understanding and explanation in terms of mutual and reciprocal determinations can lead us out of these two blind alleys whose ends are blocked by unintelligible ultimates. The dialectical and historical form of understanding has neither need nor place for those ultimates whether they are supposed to be located in this world or outside it. This is because the dialectic has no place for that notion of absolute priority and the one-sided determination which generates both the possibility and the need for those ultimates.


Aristotle was the first to show us the way out of this sort of impasse blocked by ultimates through his introduction of the notion of a staring point (arché) which is not an ultimate -- but a starting point 'for us'. We start from where we are and move on. It is true that something he called 'starting points in themselves' but when we look closely at what are for him the most pre-eminent, and, if you like, 'fundamental' of these -- the laws of Contradiction and Excluded Middle, and examine closely his arguments for them4 you see that they are {--} like Newton's account of the 'foundation' of geometry'5 -- rooted in human practices and not in some abstract and transcendental reality which sheds its mysterious light on the intellect of humans in ways that no one can fathom or explain. Aristotle's apodeixai elenctikos argument for his deepest laws of 'being qua being' is that no one can in practice formulate or express a doubt about the laws because the very act of formulating or expressing the denial of the laws already involves a commitment to those laws. They are required for the words to have sense and are implicated even in our acts of rational choice. If something could be both sharp and not-sharp, in violation of the Law of Contradiction, the sentence 'The knife is sharp' would no longer contain any information. Aristotle allows that there could be someone not committed to those laws, but that individual would be incapable of speech, thought or rational choice and no better than a vegetable' (that is, not a human){,} as Aristotle puts it.


For Aristotle, these are the deepest laws of all -- the condition of significant speech and rationality itself, and their unshakeable truth for humans  consists in and results from the fact that no meaningful doubt about them can be expressed because those laws would already be implicated in the meaningfulness of the doubt. Our rationality and our humanity itself rests on them because they are implicated not only in our meaningful speech, but, as Aristotle points out, in our making distinctions and choices at all. In judging that 'it is not both good and not good to walk to Megara' and 'not both good and not good to fall into a well' we are committed in our behaviour to those principles.


One can pronounce empty words which have the grammatical form and appearance of a denial of those laws, but those words will lack meaning and sense because they cannot be connected to practice and to life and thereby made to express real doubts. As Wittgenstein would put it they 'cannot be lived'. The very idea of practice, that is, of directing one's action involves acceptance of the laws and seeing that one line of action is not both good and not-good. If the denials are to have meaning, they must be false -- so the law of contradiction can only be true. And that truth consists in the fact that all human rationality and practice rest on {these} laws. Because they lie at the base of and are a condition for judgement itself, {these} laws are impregnable and cannot be displaced by reasoning and judgement. But it {is} important to notice -- and to some {this will} no doubt {be} surprising -- that the laws which Aristotle denominates 'the laws of being qua being' -- that is, reality itself -- are laws of human judgement, action, the making of distinctions, the laws of practice.


The Ahistorical Conditions Of History


Aristotle is dealing with laws of reason and assertion and the impossibility of their denial, laws which stand above human history itself and are therefore not historically conditioned. Those laws are a condition of human rationality and therefore of history itself. History only begins with the social transformation of the previously animal species homo and the emergence of rationality and rationally directed practices. This allowed humanity to identify, confront and counteract the environmental pressures which had previously shaped the species, and to rise above a mere animal existence to embark on a new trajectory of development which we call 'historical'. It gets that title because it is a line of development shaped by the ability to reflect on past performance. It was this transformation of humanity's relation to the environment and to the material world from passive to active that marked the emergence of a new species -- a species of producers and creators.


Those laws that Aristotle showed impossible to doubt were a condition of human rationality and human history and therefore stood outside of that history. The indubitablilities and the realities we will be looking at in following the story of the atoms are, by contrast, the product of human history and the cumulative work of generations of scientists operating in the context of the scientific community of Western Europe in the 19th century. The possibilities and impossibilities of doubt and rejection that we will be dealing with will therefore be quite unlike those Aristotle was appealing to. That is they will be not only historically conditioned -- possible at one time and not at another -- but they will be possible or impossible only within  a given culture and way of life. It is this that may provoke the charge of 'relativism' which we will have to deal with later.


Genuine {Versus 'Hyperbolic' Doubt} As A Test Of Reality


This test of the possibility of meaningful doubt is an important one and must be distinguished totally from the empty and meaningless operation which Descartes called 'hyperbolical doubt' - something that has wasted much time and energy in philosophy over the centuries and contributed little but confusion and spurious reasoning in place of that clarity which ought to be philosophy's aim. The 'hyperbolical' doubting that Descartes proposed to use to explore conceptual boundaries was an empty and meaningless incantation because he expressly forbad any connection to practical life. He also distanced it further from genuine doubting when he made it into a voluntary action that could be turned on and off at will and be 'used' to clarify conceptual boundaries. But real doubts are not like that -- something we can turn off and on at will. By now nothing was left that could licence the application of the word 'doubting' to Descartes' imaginary exercise. (I have dealt with this at greater length in chapter 7, 'Skepticism about Skepticism' in my book, Philosophy and Mystification.)


Though Descartes' false simulacrum can reveal nothing to us but the vagaries of his imagination, genuine doubt and its possibility or impossibility can reveal much, particularly when we follow Aristotle's lead and use the impossibility of genuine and meaningful doubt to show us what has to be counted as 'real' and true.


The Construction Of The Atoms


The best way to see this is by following out the concrete example of the transition of the atoms from shaky hypothesis in the early 19th Century to indubitable realities in the early 20th. This will help also to bring out the impassable gulf between metaphysical posits and scientific hypotheses -- to which those metaphysical posits have wrongly been compared by way of trying to give them legitimacy and philosophic respectability. As I'll try to bring out, scientific work has no place for posits that are permanently beyond the reach of explanation or even investigation -- as the metaphysical ultimates necessarily are. It is this that makes them both empty and useless. A genuine scientific hypothesis is beyond the reach of explanation only pro tem, and the inexorable advance of scientific work, both experimental and theoretical, will displace it from its position of {the} inexplicable starting point for explanation of other things and make it into something which is the subject of explanation itself.


This development is as good an example as one could wish of what is called 'dialectical' -- a development in which what is at one time a starting point and basis on which work in some field is predicated, as a result of the very work for which it has been the starting point, gets displaced from that role and position. It becomes something to be explained in terms of a new starting point suggested by the theoretical and experimental work the first starting point has generated. The starting points in the sciences are not fixed and absolute -- despite the talk of some scientists of the 'big bang' as 'the origin of the universe' or the belief of some others that they have reached absolutely fundamental particles (which, revealingly, some scientists have called 'god particles'). In time these proposed 'ultimate' starting points will inevitably be surpassed and folded into deeper and more inclusive theories and we will be able to ask sensibly and seriously, 'What went Bang?'. That is, unless scientific work is halted by boredom or lack of funds -- or perhaps something more catastrophic.


This is why the sciences have to be understood historically, and scientific knowledge has to be seen as the result of the dialectical process of historical development. The attempts to base the sciences timelessly on an abstracted and timeless notion of 'experience' (as though experience and the senses themselves were not subject to historical development and the 'experience' of the Palaeolithic hunter was on all fours with that of a researcher in Cryogenics or {the art of} a Matisse) and an equally abstracted and ahistorical notion of 'reason'. These attempts at formal and ahistorical models have consumed much time and energy without noticeable result. This is because the ahistorical notion of experience they work with bears no relation to reality. Experience and the senses themselves are subject to learning and development and different cultures will develop them in different directions. An example I have used before is the fact that native speakers of some of the oriental languages can not hear the difference between an 'R' and an 'L' -- though they can with difficulty be taught to hear and to make those different sounds.


Now, back to the Atoms whose historical development from Dalton's time down to the time of Crookes, Thomson and Rutherford is a nice illustration of a dialectical development. Not only that, but it gives an illustration and makes sense of Marx's shocking suggestion that nature has a history that is bound up ['dialectically' we should add] with the history of humanity.


When they were first proposed Dalton's atoms were no more than hypothetical entities, 'mere hypotheses' as Whewell called them at the time. They were not even set out by Dalton as the basis for understanding chemical phenomena but {as} meteorological {devices connected with} with the absorption of air in water and water in air. However they were seized on by chemists such as Humphry Davy who saw their potential and described Dalton's proposal as 'the foundation for future labours'. And they were given exactly that role by the chemists and the physicists -- as something into which other substances could be decomposed, but which themselves could not be decomposed. They were at that stage the inexplicable starting points for explanation. And not only were those atoms beyond the reach of explanation or decomposition, they raised huge problems which could even have thrown their intelligibility in doubt, but for the faith of the physicists and chemists who saw them as problems to be solved, not reasons for disbelief. And some of those problems were only solved a generation or more later.


All this is by way of bringing out the faith and confidence that was necessary for the physicists and the chemists to make the atoms the premise of their work and to treat those problems they faced as problems and not as reasons for questioning their commitment to the atoms. This calling attention to the faith, confidence and commitment that the early proponents of the atoms needed to go on to develop the theory, may give rise to the accusation that this leaves open the possibility that the atoms might have been dropped and chemistry developed in some completely different direction. This is the sort of thing that Thomas Kuhn got accused of enabling with his account of scientific revolutions as involving 'paradigm changes' that were not determined by the previous theories or by the experimental results that called them into question. However the faith that Humphry Davy expressed, and the commitment that he and his fellow workers in the field took on, did not come out of the air but expressed a deeper commitment that really defined the whole scientific revolution. This was the commitment to seek a physical understanding and {explanation of} things in physical terms. As I have said before, this commitment determined crucial changes in the history of the sciences -- it finished Ptolemaic astronomy even though Ptolemy's was, as a mathematical model more accurate in predicting movements than Copernicus'. But no physical sense could be made of it, and that finished it -- as it finished the 'phlogiston' theory of combustion and the 'caloric' theory of heat.


At that stage, we need to notice, there was no question of proclaiming the 'reality' of the atoms nor of branding any doubts as 'meaningless' and doubters as 'ignorant'. However, in the end that confidence brought its own rewards in the work of Davy, Dulong-Petit, Gay-Lussac, Avogadro, Joule, Volta, Kekulé, Mendeleev and many others. With Mendeleev's periodic table of elements, the question of structure was posed by the need to understand the relations between the families of elements that his table revealed. And the posing of this question was the beginning of that process of deposing atoms from the position of foundation and {an} unanalysable starting point for explanation, turning them into something to be decomposed and themselves explained. It was also part of the process of turning them from 'mere hypotheses' into indubitable realities.


The Dialectical Advance To Reality


That transition is, as I have said, an excellent example of the kind of development which is called 'dialectical' and shows how scientific understanding has no need and no place for 'absolute' starting points even though each stage of development will have its own temporary starting points which are the basis -- but not the subject of explanation. One can say that absolute and ultimate starting points have no place in the sciences because it is the nature of scientific enquiry to dig under its current 'foundations' as soon as it has the means and the understanding to do so. At the same time, we should notice that the digging is only possible and the questions only practical and sensible at a certain stage of development of the subject. In Dalton's own time and for two generations after, the question of the structure of his atoms would have been purely speculative and idle, unable to generate any actual research, experiment or theory. Democritus' atoms were purely speculative because there was in his time no context of scientific practice and understanding within which they could be integrated to generate practical research questions.


But it is not only the provisional and temporary nature of starting points in the development of scientific understanding that we have to take from the story of the progress of the atoms from Dalton's time to our own. We need also to register their progress from 'mere hypotheses' to realities about which no meaningful doubt can now be raised. That impossibility of genuine and meaningful doubt is not an impossibility such as Aristotle set out, that is, one which can legitimately be called 'timeless' because it is tied to human rationality itself {and} is therefore a condition of human history itself. On the contrary, the above story brings out the fact that the impossibilities we are dealing with are much lesser ones{,} historically conditioned by the stage of development of scientific knowledge and its integration with the whole way of life of the culture of which the would-be doubter is a part. On the other hand, a Bushman or a Tierra del Fuegan is not capable of expressing a meaningful doubt about the existence of atoms for the opposite reason -- namely, that the atomic theory is no part of their culture,  way of life and language and so {it} is not there to give meaning to the words {or} genuine content to the doubt.


For someone who is part of the 'developed' world in which technology and scientific understanding {are} deeply implicated, the impossibility of a meaningful doubt has what is, in a sense, the opposite source -- namely, the very depth of {the} implication of {atomic theory} in our whole way of life and all the understanding {this brought in its train}, {alongside} all those technologies which have arisen out of that hypothesis which, nearly two hundred years ago was only a tentative and shaky one. Now, because of all that has been built upon it, we are no longer in a position to give up that hypothesis or to give practical force or meaning to questioning it. The atoms have become indubitable and therefore 'real'. We have proved their reality by all that we have done with them and all that we have rested on that foundation -- the practical technical mastery of the material world which has given truth to our theories and indubitability to our atoms. It is in this sense that we can say that the foundation becomes more secure the more that is made to rest on it. Our scientific understanding and our technology are now so dependent on the atoms for our working understanding of things that they could not be withdrawn. More than this, it is no longer possible to formulate or express a doubt about them that has substance and meaning.


To be meaningful and to raise itself above the empty dumb-show of Cartesian 'doubting', the babblings of a bar-room philosopher, or of an ignorant crank, a doubt in our time about the reality of the atoms would face two impossible tasks. On the one hand, it would have to display fatal flaws in existing theory and at the same time have on hand an alternative account that promised to be even more powerful.


Unreal Doubts About The Reality Of Atoms


Ernst Mach and his English counterpart, Karl Pearson{,} expressed purported doubts about the reality of atoms at the end of the nineteenth century -- significantly, before the discovery of radioactivity and x-ray diffraction photography. But Mach's doubts turn out to be abstract and 'philosophical' rather than scientific and practical. Also his conception of what it is to be 'real' turns out to be the rather crude one {concerning} 'what can be seen and handled'. Everything else which entered into our scientific understanding he classified under the heading 'aids to calculation'. In that way he wanted to classify the atoms along with moments of inertia, centres of gravity, differentials and perhaps Ptolemy's 'equants' -- as aids to calculation to which no physical sense could be given. Mach's views turn out to be themselves not even 'aids to calculation' but only a general way of looking at things with no use or application within the sciences -- even though they rightly upset Lenin greatly as an example of 'idealism' with no connection to reality. Nevertheless it is pretty clear that Mach would not be able to maintain that view about atoms in the face of twentieth century developments in x-ray diffraction photography -- unless he took up the attitude of the professors who refused to look through Galileo's telescope.


I think we have to say that Mach and Pearson were not expressing doubts that were 'real' -- certainly not in the sense of that word which they were trying to impose on us. But, as we have said, that so-called 'doubt' about the reality of atoms and the conception of 'reality' that was involved was hardly even an 'aid to calculation' with any practical use or consequences within the sciences or anywhere else. It seems impossible to find any function for those views or to tell what we are meant to do with them. Perhaps we have to invoke yet again Lichtenberg's devastating assessment: 'His theories are only good for arguing about.'


The doubts expressed by Wilhelm Ostwald as late as 1904 were concrete enough in the sense that they had implications for scientific practice -- though in the end they were utterly unrealistic, because his alternative theory of 'chemical dynamics' and 'stochiometrics' offered to explain only a tiny fraction of the phenomena in which 'the atomic hypothesis' was invoked. He claimed only that he could explain the laws of proportionality of chemical combination without invoking atoms. But by Ostwald's time the atoms had become the point of integration between physics and chemistry and the basis of physical understanding of chemical phenomena and there was absolutely no chance that some purely abstract chemical theory could displace them. In effect, Ostwald aimed to set the clock back to the late 18th century and to offer us a theory much like that of the 'affinity' chemists which bit the dust precisely because it isolated chemistry and did not offer the prospect of the physical understanding of chemical phenomena as the 'atomic hypothesis' did.


By Ostwald's time no meaningful doubt about the atoms could be expressed because such a doubt could no longer be connected to scientific practice and by that means given substance. But we should notice that the relation to practice which gives substance to beliefs and through them meaning to words, is not the one-sided relation usually assigned to beliefs as only motivating action and shaping practice. That one-sided relation which ignores the effect of practice on beliefs, makes the beliefs autonomous and inexplicable. We need to see the relation between beliefs and practice as a two-way dialectical one in which the practice shaped by certain beliefs can in its turn reflect back and re-shape those beliefs. And the re-shaped beliefs will give rise to a revised practice. Rational practice reflects our beliefs and rational beliefs are grounded in practice -- and neither are fixed.


The Practical Roots Of Reality


But once atomic theory was developed by the work of all those earlier generations of scientific workers, and once the practical power it gave us is manifested in medicine, in the creation of new materials, electronic devices, sources of energy, and so much else, by then it becomes almost impossible not to see that power having a source external to ourselves. And in one sense it does have an external source -- though not in the kind of pre-formed 'world beyond truth' which delivers us both into determinism and into mystery. Belief in that sort of other-worldly source is supported only by impulse, awe and blind faith. But the awe is itself a displaced one from what ought to be awe at the achievements of humanity not only in creating itself out of an animal species of primates, but, following that achievement of rationality and self-directedness, its ability to modify its environment and to create so much out of the material world surrounding us. It is that material world surrounding us which is in one sense the 'external' source of the atomic theory and its power. But neither the theory nor its power come ready-made from that source; they have to be created by work and wit out of the material to hand, using the accumulated understanding of all the previous generations who struggled to live and prosper in that material world. We will look more closely in the next chapter at the concept of the 'external' and try to give it a concrete meaning -- something which those who use the concept most do not try to do.


It is here that we have yet another example to illustrate Marx's statement that nature (and we could even add 'reality') has a history that is indissolubly bound up with human history. This point is admittedly difficult to take in, but hopefully a concrete example of this connection can be seen in the fact that it was the work of human scientists that converted the atoms from hypotheses to indubitable realities.


The above discussions should help us to see that neither the concept of nature nor the vaguer and more general term 'reality' refer to something fixed and formed independently of and confronting humanity and which all humans can only acknowledge and attempt to come to terms with. I hope we can see that each culture constructs its own reality -- not freely to be sure -- but by applying the skills and the knowledge it has developed in its struggles to shape the material world to serve the special needs, aims and interests generated by its particular way of life that has been developed historically over the generations.


The other thing it is important to draw from the above discussions is how much is revealed by understanding those developments dialectically in terms of reciprocal influences over time, and how much is obscured and mystified by the program of explaining everything in terms of unidirectional causation descending from absolute and timeless starting points or foundations', or else by seeing progress as the approach to some equally timeless and absolute end point or 'ultimate truth'. That reality is historical -- is the message of Historical Materialism and the historical framework of understanding we have taken from it.



1. Philosophical Investigations, Oxford, Blackwell, p.226


2. Here we can see where Descartes helped to set philosophy on the wrong foundationist course by imposing on it that innocent looking architectural metaphor which has generated impossible and insoluble problems{, and  to} which only pseudo-solutions can be offered.


3. New York and London, WW Norton, 1999.


4. I have examined Aristotle's argument in some detail in chapter 2, 'Following and Formalization', of my book Philosophy and Mystification (London and New York, Routledge, 1998 -- paperback by Fordham University Press, 2003).


5. This surprising view of Newton's is also examined in my book {Philosophy and Mystification} -- in chapter 13, 'Newton, Euclid and the Foundations of Geometry', as well as in Chapter 7 of this book {Philosophy and Demystification}, 'Newton, Marx and Wittgenstein'.


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