16-03-02 -- Summary Of Essay Three Part Two: Abstraction -- Or 'Science' On the Cheap
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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.
It is also worth pointing out that when I refer to Traditional Philosophy -- and I include DM in this, too -- as a prime example of ruling-class ideology, I don't mean to suggest that all or even most members of various ruling-classes actually invented these ways of thinking or of seeing the world (although there are well-known examples where this was the case -- for example, Heraclitus, Plato, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius), but that this is a thought-form that represents their view of the world and which serves their interests, by rationalising their wealth and power, whoever invents it. Up until recently this approach to 'knowledge' had almost invariably been promoted by thinkers who relied on ruling-class patronage, or who, in one capacity or another, helped run the system for the elite.
However, this 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 the above 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 posted in the previous paragraph, I have summarised the argument (but this time aimed at absolute beginners) here.]
An even shorter summary of some of the ideas outlined below, and in Essay Three Part Two, can be accessed here.
Finally, much of this Essay takes the results of Part One for granted.
[Latest Update: 26/01/20.]
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1) Mirroring An Ideal World
2) The 'Problem' of Universals
3) Appearance Ain't What They Used To Be
4) Appearances 'Contradict Essence'
Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism
Abbreviations Used At This Site
Return To The Main Index Page
Mirroring An Ideal World
Despite appearances to the contrary, the conclusions drawn in Part One are in fact good news; if it were possible to generate and then use abstractions in an attempt to state philosophical, or even scientific, truths about the world, it would mean that reality was rational, the product on 'Mind', and thus Ideal.
[These comments aren't aimed at criticising the legitimate use of abstract nouns in the vernacular.]
Why this is so will become clearer when we try to find an answer the following question: What exactly could there be in nature or society for a single abstraction to reflect?
According to Lenin, scientific abstractions are supposed to reflect nature more truly and deeply:
"Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract -- provided it is correct (NB)… -- does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, the law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely." [Lenin (1961), p.171. Emphases in the original.]
And yet, if this were the case, there would surely have to be extra-mental abstractions in reality for the mind to reflect. Plainly, on one view, abstractions wouldn't exist had human beings failed to invent them -- they are fundamentally products of mind. This suggests that the idea that abstractions can reflect nature "more deeply" commits believers to the view that nature is either Mind, Mind-like, or the product of Mind.
Small wonder then that it was Ancient Greek Idealists who invented philosophical abstractions -- and they did this because that is exactly how they saw the world, as Ideal. [The details supporting that assertion are given in Essay Twelve, and are summarised here.]
The only way to avoid that Idealist conclusion would involve, it seems, a denial that abstractions actually reflect anything in nature, but which dialectician is prepared to admit that?
Of course, it could be objected that abstractions in fact help us to reflect nature. But, it isn't entirely clear how they are capable of doing that if their supposed correlates in reality don't actually exist, or if they are only 'mental constructs'. How are they different from the "useful fictions" of Positivism?
Anyway, what exactly do they help reflect? The usual answer given is that they reflect general, or essential, features of objects and processes in the world.
There are two problems with that response. The first is that these abstractions have to be imposed on nature. The second is that this approach to abstract knowledge in fact destroys the capacity language has for expressing anything, true or false, particular or general, about anything in the world, or even in us. I will deal with each of these in turn:
(1) If abstractions don't reflect anything that actually exists in nature (i.e., if there are no material correlates of abstract ideas anywhere in the universe), they can't have been read from it -- as we were told they had been (on this see Part One) --, but must have been imposed on it. But, that is precisely what DM-theorists say they never do. Now we find they have to do it!
[We already know they do it anyway.]
As ancient mystics pictured things, the 'inner microcosm' (the 'mind') is supposed to reflect the 'outer macrocosm' (i.e., nature, or, in many cases, 'God's Mind') -- as they put it: "As above, so below". In its more modern incarnation -- in DM -- abstractions reflect "essences" that allegedly exist in nature: as outside, so inside. But, again, what exactly are these "essences" if they don't actually exist, but are still somehow reckoned to be the supposed referents of these equally puzzling abstractions?
[DM = Dialectical Materialism.]
Once more, the fact that this quandary is insoluble is no big surprise given its origin in Mystical Idealism and given the profound influence Hermetic ideas had on Hegel. No surprise either that, according to Lenin, each and every proposition is capable of reflecting the dialectical structure of the entire universe. As noted above, this could only happen if nature were in some way linguistic, or Mind-like, and the sentential 'microcosm' that was examined in detail in Essay Three Part One (i.e., "John is a man") is indeed able to reflect the entire macrocosm -- again, as Lenin asserted; that is, in this case, the "eternal development of the world", (Lenin (1961), pp.110, 359).
Unfortunately, however, Lenin unwisely let slip where he obtained these dubious ideas; he informed his readers that, far from deriving them from science, he had obtained from that mega-Idealist Hegel, who had very kindly had "divined" them (i.e., "dreamt them up"), perhaps not noticing the significance of that dialectical gaffe:
"Hegel brilliantly divined the dialectics of things (phenomena, the world, nature) in the dialectics of concepts…. This aphorism should be expressed more popularly, without the word dialectics: approximately as follows: In the alternation, reciprocal dependence of all notions, in the identity of their opposites, in the transitions of one notion into another, in the eternal change, movement of notions, Hegel brilliantly divined precisely this relation of things to nature…. [W]hat constitutes dialectics?…. [M]utual dependence of notions all without exception…. Every notion occurs in a certain relation, in a certain connection with all the others." [Lenin (1961), pp.196-97. Emphases in the original.]
So, DM has arisen, not from a careful scientific study of the world, but from Hegel's powers of divination.
Small wonder then that DM-fans struggle to tell us with what it is that their 'abstractions' actually correspond.
The 'Problem' Of Universals
(2) The second reason is that the process of abstraction reduces the general to the particular, converting universal terms into the names of Abstract Particulars. So, given this approach to theoretical 'knowledge', the general word "cat", for example, names the abstraction, CAT, the Universal, Cathood, the concept 'cat', the 'Essence' of Cathood, or the set of all cats, depending on who is telling this age-worn tale. The generality that the universal term "cat" was supposed to represent has thus been destroyed. [Why that is so was explained in detail in Part One.]
In order to account for the similarities we find around us, and provide a reference for general terms, Greek Philosophers from Plato onwards invented a whole series of Abstract Particulars (variously called "Forms", "Ideas", "Universals", "Categories", "Essences", etc., etc.). However, as we saw in Part One (summary here), this move was itself the result of a crass mis-interpretation of contingent grammatical features almost exclusively found in the Indo-European family of languages. Unfortunately, these Abstract Particulars are accessible to thought alone, based on a mysterious 'process of abstraction' that defies clear description even to this day.
Rationalist Philosophers tended to view such Universals variously as Abstract Ideas or notions apprehend by the "natural light of reason" (etc.), as 'the mind' surveyed the diversity the material world presented to it by the senses. Alternatively, they were the result of law-like, logical idealisations applied by 'the mind' to that diversity (which idealisations supposedly reflected the 'logical', or the 'rational', structure of 'reality') -- and, more recently (in Hegel, for instance) as a set of 'concrete universals'. Exactly what these 'concrete universals' referred to was no less mysterious than the referents of the Universals traditional theorists had invented. So, those who unwisely looked to Hegel for advice (upside down or the 'right way up') were left with a shiny new but empty term, and that was all. Not so much a pig in a poke, more: no pig and no poke.
By way of contrast, Empiricists argued that the mind was somehow able to organise the 'impressions' the senses sent its way by means of general ideas -- or, rather the mind somehow organised them into general ideas --, which had somehow been cobbled-together from past experience. This idea was propounded by theorists who also tended to deny that abstractions exist outside 'the mind' -- or they defined them in ways that made it easy to suppose they were simply the products of 'mind' (useful fictions, again). [I omit here all consideration of the Nominalist tradition.]
In the Ancient and Medieval worlds, the over-arching organisation of these Abstract Ideas was hierarchical, mirroring the dominant Aristocratic and Feudal class relations of the day. In early capitalist society, at least among Empiricist thinkers, abstractions were 'atomised' and scattered equally between each and every bourgeois head, reflecting the fragmentation the market had introduced into society -- mirrored now in theories that focused on the formation of knowledge, mediated by various ideological notions relating to 'bourgeois equality' and individuality.
Although the earlier hierarchical order had been dismantled, the appeal to abstraction and to abstract ideas was still alive, still distorting ruling-class thought. Same form, different content.
More recently still, rationalist and quasi-rationalist theories (like those constructed by Kant and/or Hegel) sought to restore order to these unruly ideas by imposing on them a series of a priori 'categories' and 'concepts'. So, these recently liberated abstractions were soon back in rationalist chains. The unfettered ideas of early bourgeois theorists were now regimented, controlled by a centralised bureaucratic 'Mind'. The Invisible Hand didn't just operate in the marketplace, it reappeared as a mailed fist in German Idealism -- there, each 'mind' was supposedly controlled by assorted concepts and categories, whose iron grip imprisoned one and all in an unyielding, Ideal straightjacket.
However, in order to solve the 'problem' of generality (i.e., how we are able to say general things about the world) it is a bad idea to begin by destroying it. But, as we saw in Part One (summary here), this was precisely the effect that the fractured logic of Traditional Thought had on general terms. Once again, in the hands of Traditional Philosophers, general terms had been transformed into the names of Abstract Particulars.
Indeed, it is an even worse idea to begin by doubling the theoretical difficulties a theory faces. If there is a problem explaining the link between ordinary concrete particulars in this world, there is an even greater one explaining the connection between abstract general ideas and concrete particulars themselves -- especially if the latter have now been distributed across all those socially-atomised, bourgeois heads. If the similarities we think we detect between ideas -- or between the objects and processes these ideas supposedly 'reflect' -- if these similarities can only be accounted for by postulating the existence of 'universals' or 'abstractions', then a puzzle immediately arises over what accounts for the similarity between any given 'universal' or 'abstraction' and the ideas it supposedly instantiates or regiments.
On the other hand, if there is no similarity here, how would it be possible for these intrepid abstractors to determine which of their ideas had been regimented correctly? If they have nothing to work with, no similarity between an abstraction and the idea it supposedly collected, how could they know if they had used the 'right abstraction' to collect the 'correct ideas'? Indeed, as seems plain, they can't know this.
[Of course, the fact that we use general words successfully all the time suggests that the traditional approach to general terms was completely misguided.]
Alternatively, if there is some sort of similarity between particular ideas and the general idea they supposedly instantiate, we would need yet another general idea to capture the similarity between these particular ideas and that general idea. And so on, ad infinitem...
In short, if ideas are capable of sorting themselves into neat mental sets, classes, or categories, what need have we of abstractions? On the other hand, if ideas are in fact incapable of doing this of themselves, how might abstract ideas help? Especially if there is nothing in common between these abstractions and the particular ideas they supposedly instantiate or regiment?
This brings us to the heart of the problem, for this approach to language in fact fragments knowledge. That is because it is surely impossible for Abstractor A to decide whether or not he/she possesses the same general idea (of anything) as Abstractor B. This isn't just because no one has access to the thoughts of anyone else (given the traditional approach to knowledge), but because it has yet to be established that A and B share the same idea of "same". And how might that be ascertained for goodness sake? They would have to possess that concept before they possessed it!
The problem, of course, began much earlier. Traditional Theorists viewed language as fundamentally representational -- that is, they assumed its primary role was to re-present to humanity either the thoughts of the 'gods', or the 'rational order' of reality. This approach then helped 'rationalise' the 'legitimacy' of the state, which supposedly expressed, or 'mirrored', the 'rational order', or the will of 'God'. But, this dogma simply created a series of insoluble philosophical 'problems', which, unsurprisingly, have remained in that condition to this day.
[That is because they are based on a systematic distortion of language, as Marx noted, and as Part One demonstrated.]
Unsurprisingly, too, in both Ancient and Feudal societies only the elite, or their ideologues, were capable of abstracting the 'correct divine representations' for the rest of the 'herd', which notions had generality been imposed on nature and mind by semi-divine fiat.
Later, in nominally 'equal' bourgeois society, theorists couldn't appeal to these archaic hierarchical principles, so it then became impossible to guarantee that the thoughts represented in each socially-isolated bourgeois skull would agree with those rattling around in any other. This abstract Humpty Dumpty -- fragmented as much by Bourgeois Individualism as it had been by modern forms of Representationalism --, couldn't easily be put back together again. Not even the 'objective', or 'inter-subjective', concepts invented by Kant and Hegel could repair the damage -- since it is impossible to tell if one Kantian/Hegelian means the same by the words he or she uses to depict the contents of their own privatised skulls as any other Kantian/Hegelian. Simply calling such fragmented concepts "objective" or "rational" -- as if these were magic words -- would have no more effect on the problem than posting a "keep off sign" in a field of corn would have on a swarm of locusts.
Hence, abstractionism is incapable of providing a secure or 'objective' foundation for knowledge. But even worse, it threatens subjectivity, too. That is because Abstractor A would have no way of knowing whether or not the fresh deliverances of today's abstractive labours were the same as, or were different from the those arrived at only yesterday. Memory would be of little help here, for it, too, is subject to the same insurmountable obstacles (as we saw above). How, for example, would A know if he/she meant the same today as yesterday, even about the word "same"?
Naturally, the importation into Marxism of Traditional Thought-forms like these (i.e., representationalism and abstractionism) has had a disastrous effect on dialecticians, too. That is because, on this view, it is equally impossible to decide if dialectician A means the same as dialectician B about anything whatsoever, let alone about their respective 'abstractions'.
While, on the one hand, dialecticians tell us they accept Marx's view that knowledge and language are social products, on the other, every single one of them has adopted a bourgeois-individualist theory of knowledge. According to this approach, we all represent the world to ourselves first (by means of "images" and/or abstractions), after which we all attempt to share these privately constructed ideas with others. Unfortunately, this view of language and knowledge would prevent communication, for, on this view, except by sheer coincidence, no two humans, let alone dialecticians, could share the same ideas about anything, rendering communication impossible. Nor could they resolve their differences, since, of course, they would have no way of knowing what anyone else meant by "difference".
Had dialecticians not made the mistake of appropriating Traditional Thought-forms like these, and had they adopted instead the communicational and communitarian model of language proposed by Marx and Engels (wherein each of us is socialised in the use of language, and where we are all taught what our words mean -- so that when we try to represent the world to ourselves we already know how to use this social medium to that end, and can thus share things with others), none of this would have happened.
Which is, of course, why one of the aims of this site is to return Marxist theory to the above social/anthropological view of language and thought in accordance with ideas expressed by Marx, and along lines suggested in Wittgenstein's work.
That also explains the emphasis placed here on the ordinary language of the working-class, since the vernacular isn't representational -- but is inherently communicational and communitarian -- having been invented by working people in collective labour precisely to that end.
In addition -- and this is something else that should recommend it to revolutionaries --, the vernacular actually prevents the formation of metaphysical theories, including those found in DM, which is, of course, one reason why ordinary language has been denigrated and depreciated by ruling-class hacks since Ancient Greek times --, and by now DM-theorists, too.
[This topic is discussed in detail in Essay Twelve Part One. The alleged 'limitations' of the vernacular have been neutralised here.]
Appearances Ain't What They Used To Be
Dialecticians have also bought into another traditional dogma, the division of the world into "appearances" and "reality". Even if it a were valid distinction, this metaphysical dichotomy would fatally undermine science, and not just DM, since it renders impossible the validation of any theory.
That is because science and DM are supposed to be confirmed in practice, but if practice takes place anywhere, it takes place at the phenomenal level, in the world of appearances. That being the case, the deliverances of practice would be no less unreliable than any other superficial feature of empirical reality supposedly is. If a possibly suspect theory can only be confirmed by phenomenologically-challenged practice, what is there left that can exonerate practice? More suspect practice? More unconfirmed theory?
Each and every theory, on this view, has to make a shaky entry in this world as an appearance of some sort; they all have to be written on paper or broadcast in the air as sounds -- that is, as phenomenal objects. Each infant theory born in this way would be quite incapable of fighting its corner, and thus totally incapable of lending support to its equally unreliable epistemological cousin -- those questionable appearances, again.
On this view, knowledge would remain forever trapped in Sceptic Land.
The solution here is, of course, to reject in its entirety the metaphysical dichotomy between "appearance" and "reality", and the traditional view of knowledge that gave it life. This approach to knowledge was invented by Aristocratic Greek thinkers who held the material world -- as well as the language, experience and labour of those whose exploitation bought these theorists enough leisure-time to concoct such brainless ideas -- in open contempt.
It could be argued that science and 'materialist dialectics' are in fact converging on absolute (or less relatively-challenged) truth, a target which presumably lends to knowledge its objectivity. Indeed, Engels himself asserted that DM and science are converging "asymptotically" on just such a goal (which he elsewhere calls "being"):
"The identity of thinking and being, to use Hegelian language, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other but never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. Because a concept has the essential nature of the concept and does not therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it had to be abstracted in the first place, it is nevertheless more than a fiction, unless you declare that all the results of thought are fictions because reality corresponds to them only very circuitously, and even then approaching it only asymptotically…. In other words, the unity of concept and phenomenon manifests itself as an essentially infinite process, and that is what it is, in this case as in all others." [Engels to Schmidt (12/03/1895), in Marx and Engels (1975), pp.463-64.]
Unfortunately, this analogy is inimical to DM.
First of all, Engels neglected to tell his correspondent how he knew all this -- that is, that knowledge is indeed convergent. Of course, if what he said were true -- that no concept is "directly and immediately reality", and that the two (i.e., a concept and 'reality') are in effect separated by a gap that can only be spanned by an "infinite process" -- his words would thereby be infinitely incorrect on that very basis. That is because, when asserted, this claim would itself be infinitely far away from absolute truth, and thus infinitely unreliable. In which case, the probability of Engels's words being incorrect themselves would be infinitely high.
An appeal to practice would be to no avail here, either, for, whatever else practice can or can't deliver, it can't confirm that knowledge is an infinitary process, or that it is even convergent. Nor can practice discriminate the correct from the incorrect. [More on that in Essay Ten Part One.] But, even if it could, any conclusions arrived at by this means would themselves be infinitely far from the truth, too, and thus of no help at all.
Second, Engels failed to show that there is such a limit for knowledge to converge upon (in fact, he didn't even attempt such a demonstration -- and, as far as can be ascertained, no DM-fan since has bothered to fill this probative gap). In that case, this mathematical metaphor is doubly inappropriate: if there is no limit, human knowledge must be divergent. And, if that is so, then at any point in human history, knowledge must be infinitely far from this supposed epistemological goal -- which, of course, still hasn't been shown to exist. Given Engels's inapt metaphor, humanity will always be infinitely ignorant of anything and everything!
Now, it could be argued that Engels actually claimed that:
"The identity of thinking and being...run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other but never meeting." [Ibid.]
This indicates that human thought does indeed converge on something that does exist -- namely, "being" (or 'reality itself'). In that case, Engels didn't need to show it existed. It's all around us!
Or, so it might be claimed.
Unfortunately, the word "being" is no less obscure a term than any other that has been imported into dialectics from Traditional Thought. [More on this in Essay Twelve.] But, even if that weren't so, the conclusion that "being" exists (or, indeed, that it is "all around us", or that it is 'reality itself') must itself be infinitely far from its target, too, if what Engels said above about concepts and 'reality' were itself correct. Otherwise, at least one truth (namely this one) would coincide with its object, falsifying Engels's claim!
So, if this conclusion (that "being" exists) is itself infinitely far from the truth, then Engels has yet to show that "being" does exist. Indeed, if he is right, he can't show this, ever, and no one else can, either -- otherwise, once more, at least one truth (namely this one) would coincide with its object, falsifying his unwise remarks, once again.
Once more, it is no use appealing to practice to bail this theory out; given the truth of Engels's claims, the idea that practice confirms theory is itself infinitely far from the truth, too -- which target, it is worth recalling, still hasn't been shown to exist.
And, if Engels is right, nor can it be -- ever.
Appearances 'Contradict Essence'
Connected with this is the DM-idea that there is a 'contradiction' between 'appearance and reality' (or between 'appearance' and 'underlying essence'), which thesis itself is also surprisingly ill-considered.
First, if things only appear to be so, then they surely can't contradict a proposition that they aren't so. "It appears to be raining" is contradicted by "It doesn't appear to be raining", not "It isn't raining". [Plainly, it can appear to be raining when it is not actually doing so -- for example, if a rain machine has been turned on, an aeroplane has discharged a load of water, or a water main had burst.]
Second, the DM-theory of change holds that objects and processes change because of a struggle between opposites -- opposites that constitute the 'internal contradictions' in that body or process -- but which opposites also change into one another, into that with which they struggle. [Anyone who doubts these assertions should read this, and then perhaps think again.] If so, appearances must not only be "struggling" with underlying "essences", they must turn into them, too! Either that, or they can't contradict those "essences". But, has anyone ever seen, say, a domestic cat 'struggle' with the 'essence' of cathood, and then turn into it? Or, the 'fair' wage that capitalists pay their workers 'struggle' with the real value of their labour power, and then turn into it? I doubt it.
Third, the distinction itself rests on yet another superficial 'thought experiment', and one which, just as soon as it has been uttered or written down, must suffer all the consequences of this ill-considered theory. That is because each utterance must fend for itself in this 'untrustworthy' world of appearances -- but which phenomenal object (i.e., the linguistic expression of a thought) must somehow remain miraculously unscathed, and emerge trustworthy, for all that.
In that case, the Immaculate Conception isn't just a feature of Roman Catholic Theology, for here we have the Immaculate Concepts of DM-Epistemology. On this basis, while such 'dialectical objects of thought' find they have to ply their trade in material reality as phenomenal objects (in this world of appearances), they must also somehow remain stain-free and above epistemological reproach -- indeed, they appear to be capable of self-justification -- having been born without the usual inherited character defects shared by every other 'suspect appearance' and 'unreliable' phenomenal object.
When they stage their entrance these materially-embodied 'dialectical concepts' are surely part of the world of appearances, and hence must have an equally suspect pedigree. Despite this, they are somehow supposed to be miraculously free from epistemological stain -- they are, indeed, Immaculate Concepts.
It is entirely mysterious, though, how a single DM-proposition could be trustworthy after it has been written down or uttered -- since, in that case, it has just been recruited to the world of appearances. Whether it has been written in ink, or propagated as a vibration in the air, it must surely come under immediate suspicion, contradicted by the (underlying) reality it so rashly sought to picture -- if this theory were correct.
And it won't do, either, to be told that dialecticians don't believe that appearances can't be trusted. The fact that the 'dialectical' view of appearances means just this is confirmed by the way that DM-theorists themselves regard them. For example, when the distinction between appearances and reality is applied to Capitalism, we are told that while this rotten system might itself appear to be fair, in reality it isn't; underlying reality 'contradicts' this superficial view. In that case, appearances must be deceptive, and dialecticians must believe they are deceptive, too. Otherwise, why would Marxists find they have to inform everyone else of the underlying exploitative nature of Capitalism? It would be plain for all to see if there were no deception.
On the other hand, if appearances aren't deceptive, why try to change a system that not only appears to be fair, it is in fact fair? If appearances aren't deceptive, capitalism must be fair, after all!
Marxism would self-destruct if either of these alternatives were the case.
[Which is, of course, why it was alleged earlier that this set of traditional doctrines collapse when its consequences are fully spelled out.]
It is worth noting that this is isn't my belief (i.e., that appearances are deceptive), but it is a direct implication of the philosophical distinction traditionally drawn between 'essence' and 'appearance', and hence this is a belief that dialecticians themselves hold, not me.
But, just try getting one of them to admit it!
No worries; we can apply some 'dialectics' to sort this out: DM-fans appear not to accept this criticism, but in reality they do!
Of course, this argument is far too brief and superficial to be convincing -- or, so it appears.
Again, no problem: in reality this argument must contradict its own appearance, too. So, despite its trite outer façade, in reality it is 100% water-tight.
But, that's Diabolical Logic for you...
Furthermore, if DM-propositions are phenomenal objects (i.e., they, too, have to be written down somewhere, or spoken aloud), then what they appear to say must contradict what they really say -- that is, if it is true that all appearances contradict reality, as we have been led to believe. Hence, every DM-proposition that plies its trade in this material world, but which brashly asserts that appearances contradict reality, must, it seems, contradict itself.
It is worth spelling this out in more detail: if appearances always contradict reality, then with respect to any supposedly true DM-proposition, p, say, its contradictory, not p, must really be true. But, if not p is true, p must be false. This means that no DM-proposition that appears to be true is in fact true!
In that case, this particular DM-thesis (that appearances contradict reality) must be self-refuting; if it appears to be true, it must really be false.
To be sure, the above argument employs the LOC, which dialecticians don't always trust. However, they can console themselves with the thought that if the LOC appears (sometimes) to be defective, in reality it must be eminently sound, all the time!
[LOC = Law of Non-Contradiction.]
This surprising result can, of course, be generalised until it falsifies every true empirical proposition, no matter how valid it might otherwise appear to be. Thus, in reality, it must be false that Paris is in France, Hydrogen Cyanide is poisonous, and the Sun is hot.
Worse still: if, according to DM-theorists, appearances contradict reality, and if the material world appears to change, in reality it must be changeless!
Of course, it could be argued that dialectical logic holds that appearances and underlying realities are both true. [But, we saw that that was untenable earlier.]
In that case, both of the following must be valid: (1) Concentrated Nitric Acid appears to be corrosive when poured on unprotected flesh; (2) Concentrated Nitric Acid isn't corrosive when poured on unprotected flesh.
Are both of these true?
Manifestly, dialecticians are careful about which propositions they choose to apply this supposedly universal dialectical solvent, but for any apparently successful application of this suspect method, reality must say the opposite. Hence, if it appears to be the case that dialecticians think that reality contradicts appearances, in fact it doesn't.
Now: can both halves of that be true?
However, for the purposes of argument, let us assume that appearances do indeed contradict reality, and that, although Capitalism looks fair to some, in reality it is completely unfair and grossly exploitative.
But, as should now seem plain, no Marxist could actually assert that fact without compromising the objectivity of what had just been said, for as soon as any proposition saying that Capitalism is unfair is written down or asserted, it enters the shadowy world of appearances, and like the cat in the proverbial hot place, it stands no chance of emerging unscathed.
It may, indeed, be true that capitalism appears to be fair, just as it is true that in reality it is the opposite, but adherence to this ancient Metaphysical dichotomy means that no Marxist could ever risk asserting either of these facts (in written or verbal form) for fear that by doing so he/she would condemn both to oblivion -- by turning them into appearances.
[Again, it could be objected that this confuses the physical form of a sentence with what it refers to or can be used to assert. Well, it certainly appears to do this; but, after another handy dollop of dialectical 'logic', we can conclude that in reality, it doesn't.]
Furthermore, this ancient distinction would completely undermine scientific knowledge. That is because scientific theory and practice not only take place in the phenomenal world, they can only be confirmed there, too. To take just one example: if light appears to bend when it passes between media, and all appearances are contradicted by underlying "essences", then it must be the case that light doesn't really bend when it passes between media. Clearly, both of these can't be true -- no matter how many dialectical incantations are muttered over it.
DM-theorists were recklessly unwise when they began to rely on ideas and bogus distinctions they imported from traditional defenders of class society -- i.e., on the ideas of theorists who based their concepts on a denigration of ordinary language and common understanding (not to be confused with common sense; this term will be explained in Essay Twelve Part Seven), and thus on a dismissal of the collective experience of working people.
This means, of course, that DM isn't even a materialist theory.
It also implies that any revolutionary party that taps into this ancient tradition must cease to be the genuine "memory of the class". By relying on distinctions that actually undermine the language and collective experience of workers, it would become, in effect, the amnesia of the class.
In order to rescue HM from this immaterial black hole, the metaphysical dichotomy between appearance/reality and essence/accident must be rejected in its entirety.
In fact, anyone asserting the opposite of this can safely be ignored on the grounds that whatever they say must be a mere appearance and cannot therefore be real.
A rather nice negation of a rash prospective negator that, one feels.
[HM = Historical Materialism.]
Latest Update: 26/01/20
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