16-13-01: Summary Of Essay Thirteen Part One -- Lenin's Disappearing Definition Of Matter




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This is an Introductory Essay, which has been written for those who find the main Essays either too long, or too difficult. It doesn't pretend to be comprehensive since it is simply a summary of the core ideas presented at this site. Most of the supporting evidence and argument found in each of the main Essays has been omitted. Anyone wanting more details, or who would like to examine my arguments in full, should consult the Essay for which this is a summary. [In this particular case, that can be found here.]


As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.


The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.


Phrases like "ruling-class theory", "ruling-class view of reality", "ruling-class ideology" (etc.) used at this site (in connection with Traditional Philosophy and DM), aren't meant to suggest that all or even most members of various ruling-classes actually invented these ways of thinking or of seeing the world (although some of them did -- for example, Heraclitus, Plato, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius). They are intended to highlight theories (or "ruling ideas") that are conducive to, or which rationalise the interests of the various ruling-classes history has inflicted on humanity, whoever invents them. Up until recently this dogmatic approach to knowledge had almost invariably been promoted by thinkers who either relied on ruling-class patronage, or who, in one capacity or another, helped run the system for the elite.**


However, that will become the central topic of Parts Two and Three of Essay Twelve (when they are published); until then, the reader is directed here, here, and here for more details.


[**Exactly how this applies to DM will, of course, be explained in the other Essays published at this site (especially here, here, and here). In addition to the three links in the previous paragraph, I have summarised the argument (but this time aimed at absolute beginners!) here.]



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(1) Image Conscious


(a) Lenin Confuses Repetition And Bluster With Proof


(b) Lenin And Santa Claus


(i)   Lenin's Theory


(ii)  Images Can Exist Even Though What They Supposedly Depict Do Not


(iii) Many Things Exist Of Which We Can Form No Image


(c) Images Can't Correspond With Anything In Reality


(2) Interconnection Strikes Back


(a) Idealism In Disguise?


(b) The Nature Of Matter


(c) Prevarication -- Dialecticians Have Developed This Tactic Into An Art Form



Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism


Abbreviations Used At This Site


Return To The Main Index Page


Contact Me



Image Conscious


Lenin Confuses Repetition And Bluster With Proof


In this Essay it will be argued that Lenin's philosophical ideas (in MEC, and elsewhere) only succeed in undermining materialism, they in no way support it.


One of the main problems with MEC, for example, is that Lenin seems to be determined to base human knowledge on "images" -- and, even worse, in his Philosophical Notebooks [PN], on Hegel's theories (upside down or 'the right way up'). This seems about as sensible as trying to build a skyscraper at first on sand, and then on quicksand. As if to compound this error, Lenin's supported his ideas by very few (but nonetheless surprisingly weak) arguments, accompanied by scant evidence, topped off with a surfeit of repetitive bluster and misrepresentation. I have counted no fewer than 36 places in MEC alone where Lenin keeps on saying things like the following, over and over again:


"[I]t is the sole categorical...recognition of nature's existence outside the mind...that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism." [Lenin (1972), p.314.]


[Page references (and links that take the reader to Lenin's multiple repetitions) can be found in Essay Thirteen Part One.]


[MEC = Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, i.e., Lenin (1972).]


If mere repetition were enough to win arguments, parrots would indeed be "mighty" thinkers.



Lenin And Santa Claus


Lenin's Theory


However, in one of the few detectable arguments to be found in MEC, Lenin claimed that an image implies the existence of the thing imaged:


"Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imagined, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it. Materialism deliberately makes the 'nave' belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge." [Ibid., p.69. Bold emphasis added.]


Later on, Lenin was even clearer:


"The image inevitably and of necessity implies the objective reality of that which it 'images.'" [Ibid., p.279. Bold emphasis added. In both of these, the quotation marks have been altered to conform to the conventions adopted here.]


There are several problems with this way of viewing things:


Images can exist even though what they supposedly depict do not


Contrary to what Lenin imagined, images not only can, they do exist without there being anything 'objective' corresponding to them in reality. It is easy to conjure an image of Santa Clause, for instance, but apparently only children and foolish parents believe he exists.


However, if we take Lenin at his word -- "The image inevitably and of necessity implies the objective reality of that which it 'images'" --, this must mean that we should add Lenin to the list of those who believe in Santa!


This particular argument didn't go down too well with the revolutionaries I tried it out on at RevLeft a while back. Almost to a dialectical clone, they all reacted emotively and irrationally to this argument. [For example, here and here. Why they all tend to respond this way is explained in Essay Nine Part Two.]


Anyway, as I pointed out in those debates, the fact that Lenin didn't actually believe in Santa Claus means that his argument that images ("inevitably") imply the objective existence of whatever they are the image of is manifestly unsound, leaving him in no better position than Mach or Bogdanov (characters he was criticising in MEC), since he, too, has to depend on faith in order to try to prove the existence of the outside world.


Nevertheless, in the above debates, one of the most common attempts to defend Lenin ran along the following lines: We have images of things like colour and shape because of our interaction with the world. So, even though we can form an image of Santa Claus, that doesn't imply he exists or that Lenin believed he exists. That is because Lenin was merely committed to the view that the (coloured) parts we imagine belonging to Santa, for instance, have been derived from experience. Out of such parts, and as a result of various cultural influences, we construct images (on paper, in the mind, in film, etc.) of certain objects, some of which do, and some of which do not exist, even though their parts manifestly do exist. In that case, Lenin isn't arguing that just because we have images of, say, Big Foot or the Tooth Fairy they must exist. What Lenin is committed to is the idea that the images we have of those parts imply that those parts must exist in reality -- somewhere -- since we couldn't have derived them from anywhere else.


This brave attempt to defend Lenin fails in several places. First of all, as noted above, Lenin argued as follows:


"Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imagined, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it. Materialism deliberately makes the 'nave' belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge." [Ibid., p.69. Bold emphasis added.]




"The image inevitably and of necessity implies the objective reality of that which it 'images.'" [Ibid., p.279. Bold emphasis added. In both of these, the quotation marks have been altered to conform to the conventions adopted here.]


No mention here of "parts".


Secondly, those whom Lenin was criticising in MEC could easily have responded as follows:


"And how, comrade Lenin, do you know that the images you have (whether they are of parts or of wholes) represent objects, or even the aspects/properties/parts of objects in the real world, and are not just figments of your own imagination?"


Lenin plainly had no answer to this in MEC (and none in PN, either), and, as far as can be ascertained, no DM-supporter who argues along these lines has produced an answer since -- mainly because they are content merely to regurgitate thoughtlessly Lenin's defective non-arguments, or simply copy his bluster and invective, imagining (no pun intended!) that this tactic constitutes proof. Naturally, this leaves Lenin (and his followers) in the same predicament as the Subjective Idealists and Immanentists he was criticising in MEC -- that is, he had no proof that the external world actually exists, or that our "images" are indeed of objects/properties in extra-mental reality. [On this, see also Essay Five, here.]


[It is important to add that this doesn't imply I think the external world doesn't exist, merely that if all we have to rely on are Lenin's rather weak arguments, materialism would surely sink without trace.]


When faced with this, Dialectical Marxists tend to retreat to the following fall-back position: only madmen, sceptics and Idealists would even think to doubt the existence of the outside world -- relying here on the reader's 'commonsense' to reject this absurd view of reality.


However, this response merely labels the problem, it doesn't solve let alone address it. Those whom Lenin was criticising in MEC are unlikely to have been persuaded or impressed by such a cop-out, and would no doubt have wanted to know how Lenin (or, indeed, anyone else offering the above argument in response) could possibly know/prove that their 'image' even of what they take ordinary folk to believe represents anything in reality, and isn't also a figment of their over-active imagination. Or, that there is such a thing as 'commonsense' (as opposed to 'images' of it), or, indeed, that there are any ordinary folk 'out there in reality' (again, as opposed to 'images' of 'them').


It is little point trying to take on the sophisticated arguments of Phenomenalists if in the end all one can do is appeal to what one imagines madmen, sceptics and Idealists do or do not believe, when the existence of these individuals (as opposed to our 'images' of them) has yet to be shown 'objective'.


The very last desperate fall-back position here would involve arguing that we determine/decide in practice which of our images are actually of objects and process that do exist. The problem with this response is that, if Lenin were right, all we would have here would be 'images' of practice, and it isn't easy to see how such 'images could help anyone escape the solipsistic world in which Lenin has trapped himself (and anyone else who is foolish enough to believe him). A similar problem faces those who say we should rely on the deliverances of science to tell us which images are valid and which aren't. That is because, if Lenin is to be believed, we would only have access to 'images' of science and what scientists have to say, leaving us in the same Idealist hole.


Hence, any dialectician who adopts a traditional, representational theory of mind/knowledge must inevitably trap her/himself in just such a solipsistic 'world' -- as we will see in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part Three. Indeed, those who appropriate the methods and concepts handed down to them from previous generations of ruling-class ideologues should learn to accept this self-inflicted predicament with stoic fortitude. They are the ones who dropped themselves into this phenomenalist hole --, and, in the vast majority of cases, they are also the ones who refuse even to consider effective ways of avoiding such pitfalls in the first place (for instance, by adopting the anti-metaphysical method promoted at this site) -- nor do they seem inclined even to consider Marx's comments on the obvious source of these and similar 'problems':


"The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphasis added.]


As we saw in Essay Twelve Part One, the radical misuse of language found throughout Traditional Thought (and in DM), renders such theses incoherently non-sensical. [Summary here.]


Finally, as noted in Essay Thirteen Part One, it is a bit rich of those who spare no effort telling us of the limitations of 'commonsense' to turn round now and inform us that it underpins their theory of knowledge!


Nevertheless, the following considerations show that this untoward example (concerning images of mythical characters like Santa Claus) isn't entirely unique:


(1) It is possible to form images in the mind's eye of people who no longer exist, which fact plainly doesn't imply they do exist.


(2) It is also easy to induce vivid but formless coloured images 'inside' the eyeball by gently pressing on one or other of them with a finger. Clearly, this doesn't mean that these artificial images relate to anything in the outside world.


(3) Again, by re-focussing, or by pressing one eye, it is possible to form two images of the same object (which our system of sight normally merges into one). But, no one believes that there are in fact two identical copies of the same object in reality answering to these two pre-merged images. By a similar trick, it is also possible to see a three-dimensional image in two-dimensional "magic eye" pictures. That doesn't mean that this image corresponds with anything in the 'external' world.


(4) We see stars every night (or are they merely the 'images of stars'?), many of which scientists tell us no longer exist. Does this mean that these scientists are mistaken, and those stars nonetheless do exist?


(5) A scientist photographs a bent stick in a bucket of water. Does this image of the bent stick prove that there really are bent sticks in buckets of water?


(6) Someone claims to see an image of Christ in the clouds. Should we all become Christians? [Maybe not.]


(7) Those who have lost limbs claim that they can still feel them long after they have been amputated. Does this sensation (or is it an image (Lenin carelessly runs these two together)?) prove that the surgeon who performed the operation was incompetent? [Indeed, this individual has to put her arm in a freezer to dull the 'phantom pain'.] Others report sensations actually in prosthetic limbs. Does that show the original limbs hadn't actually been removed, or that the artificial limbs aren't artificial, after all?


Examples like these can be multiplied almost indefinitely. Any book (or website) on optical illusions will provide countless further examples.


But, if the above are correct (in fact, they are surely part of common knowledge), why did Lenin claim that DM begins with the "nave belief" of humankind when these naive beliefs include 'images' of things that only the severely disturbed actually believe picture things in 'objective' reality? Few ordinary people (not in the grip of superstition, drugs, or mental illness) would be fooled into believing that phantom limbs, mirages, and dragons actually exist -- or that sticks bend when put in water.


Lenin can't have been unaware of this. In which case, it is difficult to see why he concluded that anyone (not so afflicted) begins with 'images', rather than with a healthy distrust of them. Or, even better: why anyone should mention 'images' in this connection to begin with -- if only the mentally ill, the terminally nave, the superstitious, or those high on LSD, would even think to base their knowledge of the world on them.


Of course, the above examples trade on the patent truth that images do not have to correspond with things in the real world.


Be this as it may, and as we are about to see in the next sub-section, the problems faced by Lenin's theory are much worse -- since images can't in fact correspond with anything in 'reality'.


Many Things Exist Of Which Can Form No Image


There are many things that exist -- to which we can easily refer -- but of which we can form no image. For example, who among us can imagine (or 'image') a light ray, a π-meson, a gene, 10100 elementary particles (or even one elementary particle) --, or the universe itself?



Images Can't Correspond With Anything In Reality


Even worse still, images can't correspond with the objects and processes they supposedly depict. And this observation, if anything, is even more true of the sort of objects and processes studied in the sciences.


To be sure, Lenin did attempt to argue as follows:


"It is beyond doubt that an image cannot wholly resemble the model, but an image is one thing, a symbol, a conventional sign, another. The image inevitably and of necessity implies the objective reality of that which it 'images.'" [Lenin (1972), p.279.]


"A reflection may be an approximately true copy of the reflected, but to speak of identity is absurd. Consciousness in general reflects being -- that is a general principle of all materialism. It is impossible not to see its direct and inseparable connection with the principle of historical materialism: social consciousness reflects social being." [Ibid., p.391. Bold emphases added.]


How Lenin knew all this is somewhat unclear. Indeed, and quite the opposite, Lenin couldn't possibly have known that an image is an "approximate" copy of the "thing reflected", unless he had independent access to the "thing reflected" with which he could compare it!


[And we have already seen that an appeal to practice can't bail him out here, either.]


Nevertheless, as noted above, even if Lenin were correct, no image (in Lenin's sense of that word --, i.e., a sort of 'mental' copy of objects and processes in the external world, albeit later enhanced over time by practice) could possibly correspond with its 'intended' object, nor anything like it. That is because images are confined to partial and perspectivally-limited 'views' of their 'intended' targets. In that case, it isn't possible to form an image of the whole object viewed from every angle all at once. So, at best, even if an image could correspond with its 'intended' target, it would only match a partial view of that object from that angle and that distance. That is, at the every most, it would correspond with how that object would look when seen from that angle and that distance and direction --, but it wouldn't correspond with the object itself.


So, the 'images' to which Lenin refers could only correspond with views of objects from some angle or other, which would make his theory a rather naive form of Phenomenalism -- since these 'images' would correspond with perspectivally-limited (possible) views of objects, not those objects themselves.


And, even if Lenin's 'image' analogy were re-jigged (so that it now applied to an all-round scientific description of an object or process), not only would the 'copy' metaphor have to be abandoned, the word "objective" would have to go, too.


That is because, in an objective world there are no "views" of objects for 'images' to correspond, or fail to correspond with. Clearly, in such a world there are no viewers to have any views at all, no views to be had, and no specially privileged angles from which to 'view' them. The 'objective' world, so we are told, is supposed to be that which exists independently of mind:


"To be a materialist is to acknowledge objective truth, which is revealed to us by our sense-organs. To acknowledge objective truth, i.e., truth not dependent upon man and mankind, is, in one way or another, to recognise absolute truth." [Lenin (1972), p.148. Bold emphasis added.]


"Knowledge can be useful biologically, useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of life, for the preservation of the species, only when it reflects objective truth, truth which is independent of man." [Ibid., p.157. Bold emphasis added.]


Hence, in such a world there are no 'views' for Lenin's "images" to match.


Of course, it could be argued that the images Lenin had in mind actually correspond with how an object (or processes) would look to a viewer if he or she looked at it from that angle. No doubt this is so; but in that case, such 'images' would once more correspond to possible views of objects -- but views enjoyed by whom? --, not those objects themselves. And, if there are only views, what becomes of these objects? Given Lenin's account, it seems that there could only be 'images' of 'views' of objects -- or, as seems plain, just 'images' of 'images', and no objects!


Ironically, Lenin's 'theory', which was cobbled-together partly in order to counter various Idealist attempts to spirit matter away, in the end actually manages to accomplish what his theoretical enemies had all along wanted to achieve -- that is, Lenin's theory makes matter vanish just as quickly.


In Lenin's 'universe' there are now only partial, and perspectivally-challenged 'images' of views, or 'images' of 'images'!


Once again, introducing science here would be of little help; every object and process in nature is -- according to physicists --, a set of scalar, vector, and/or tensor fields, spruced-up with a few probability density distributions, situated in at least four dimensions. No humanly-formed 'image' could correspond with that bowl of 'mathematical spaghetti'!


In such a 'scientific' universe, each 'image'-former would, at best, have 'images' of perspectivally-limited views of heaps of knotted 'mathematical noodles'. And even if such 'images' could be formed, no human would be able to do so without first ascending into a higher dimension, and probably a considerably higher plane of 'consciousness' (which one supposes only Gerry Healy and Bob Avakian ever to have attained). And, with that the objectivity of DM would collapse, since it clearly requires the existence of an Ideal Observer, who is everywhere and nowhere all at once.



Interconnection Strikes Back


Idealism In Disguise?


Furthermore, if DM-theorists are correct in believing that everything in nature is interconnected with everything else, then yet another idea of theirs (i.e., that matter is independent of mind -- in the sense that (1) the vast bulk of matter in the universe is unaffected by our knowledge of it, and that (2) matter existed before there were any minds -- will have to be abandoned. While it might be possible to base the independence of mind and matter successfully on the connectivity of all things in nature, this can't be done on the basis of their interconnectivity. Why this is so will now be explained.


If all things are interconnected then the material processes in, say, a scientist's central nervous system from which 'emerges' the thought that the Sun is approximately 93 million miles from earth must itself be connected with the material facts that make this thought true -- or, plainly, it wouldn't be true, but false.


So, the fact that the Sun is approximately 93 million miles from earth is connected with and causes the processes from which 'emerges' the thought that the Sun is roughly that distance from the earth (or at least the material and social processes involved cause this). So far so good.


However, if everything in nature is interconnected then the reverse must also be true: the thought that the Sun is approximately 93 million miles from earth is interconnected with and causes the material facts that make it true that the Sun is approximately 93 million miles from earth. In other words there is at least one 'mental state' that is interconnected with and thus causes a remote material state of the universe. And if there is one, there are many; indeed, there is at least one for each true thought about nature.


There seem to be only two ways to avoid this Idealist conclusion: (1) The doctrine that everything in nature is interconnected must be abandoned, or (2) The link between interconnectivity and causation must be broken.


If the first escape route is chosen, much of classical DM would collapse, but if the second option is preferred, the interconnectivity of nature would have to be recast in a non-causal (perhaps a non-physical?) terms. But, how might that be done without the whole thing turning into full-blown Idealism, with mystical and magical 'influences' permeating nature at every turn? The conveniently opaque DM-word "mediation" and the openly misleading phrase "internal relation" are perhaps a little too obscure to rescue this beleaguered 'theory' from oblivion -- unless, of course, one or both are interpreted as synonyms for "causation", again.


Anyway, their deployment here would confirm the suspicion that in order to cover the gaping wounds in their theory, the only sticking plasters available to DM-theorists come in the form of yet more convenient linguistic fixes.


[That would, of course, turn at least this part of DM into a variety of Ideal Conventionalism.]



The Nature Of Matter


The precise nature of matter is an issue that all DM-apologists duck, to a greater or lesser extent. Oddly enough for avowed materialists, DM-theorists since Engels's day believe that matter is an abstraction:


"N.B. Matter as such is a pure creation of thought and an abstraction. We leave out of account the qualitative differences of things in lumping them together as corporeally existing things under the concept matter. Hence matter as such, as distinct from definite existing pieces of matter, is not anything sensuously existing." [Engels (1954), p.255. Bold emphasis added.]


This risks DM being liable to prosecution under the Metaphysical Trade Descriptions Act, for, on this view, it isn't even a materialist theory!


Nevertheless, and independently of this, it isn't too clear from the above what Engels imagined the process of abstraction was supposed to work on, or what it was supposed to be applied to -- or, worse, what its supposed conclusion should be. What are the common features of all material objects, which distinguish them from the non-material? Lenin seemed to think it was 'objective' existence outside the mind (but, as we have seen in Essay Thirteen Part One, this 'definition' is no use at all). In contrast, Engels appealed to motion and several unspecified "common properties" to explain its nature:


"Matter is nothing but the totality of material things from which this concept is abstracted and motion as such nothing but the totality of all sensuously perceptible forms of motion; words like matter and motion are nothing but abbreviations in which we comprehend many different sensuous perceptible things according to their common properties.... Subject-matter -- matter in motion.... The different forms and varieties of matter itself can likewise only be known through motion, only in this are the properties of bodies exhibited; of a body that does not move there is nothing to be said. Hence the nature of bodies in motion results from the forms of motion." [Ibid., pp.236, 248.]


However, not everything that moves is material (on that, see Essays Five and Twelve Part One); but, even if what Engels said were 100% correct, it really is little help being given a circular 'definition' of matter and motion:


"Matter is nothing but the totality of material things from which this concept is abstracted and motion as such nothing but the totality of all sensuously perceptible forms of motion...." [Ibid.]


What we still do not understand (philosophically) are the words "matter", "material", and "motion" (however, on the latter, and Engels rather odd views about it, see Essay Five again). The appearance of these words here as part of their own alleged definition is about as useful as this would be:


"Schmatter is nothing but the totality of schmaterial things from which this concept is abstracted and schmotion as such nothing but the totality of all sensuously perceptible forms of schmotion...."


And there is little point appealing to the everyday words we have for material things and moving objects, for they are far too varied to be restricted or co-opted in this way. [Once more, that was demonstrated in Essays Five and Twelve Part One.] The language we have for such things is indeed our best guide here, but that language is incredibly rich, and doesn't favour the 'philosophical' spin Engels (or Hegel, or Lenin) wished to impose upon it.



Prevarication -- Dialecticians Have Developed This Tactic Into An Art Form


DM-theorists are in general aware of their serial prevarication in this area (i.e., their failure to tell us what matter actually is); indeed, far from regarding this as a weakness, they view it as one of their theory's strengths. That is because it allows them to argue that DM is compatible with any future (genuine) development in the physical sciences. A fixed definition of matter, they seem to think, would compromise their obvious desire to tail-end Physics. Unfortunately, such a strategy is a hostage to fortune; in fact, as is reasonably clear, it has backfired on them, especially now that many Physicists have declared that matter "has vanished" -- i.e., that it is now just a "field", or it is merely a 'subjective' aspect of how 'conscious beings' experience their existence in a four-dimensional manifold, etc., etc.


Dialecticians have so far failed to address this gaping hole in their version of 'materialism'. In fact, far too many have been content to bury their vanishing heads in these disappearing sands. Others have re-defined materialism in such a loose way that makes it compatible with practically anything at all (including, for example, belief in angels, 'gods' and assorted mythical beasts -- again, as we saw in Essay Thirteen Part One).


[Lenin's attempt to response to this objection (i.e., about 'disappearing matter') has been neutralised in Essay Thirteen Part One, too.]


Unless a satisfactory resolution of this critical problem can be found, DM itself might just as well stand for Disappeared Matter!


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