Essay One

 

Preface

 

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

 

I only encountered Guy's work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas -- except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast bulk of material that claims to be Marxist (especially much that has been produced by Academic Marxists), 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 with the permission of his son, but no one should assume that Guy would have agree with any of the views expressed at this site -- other than those already contained in his essays. Nor should anyone assume that I agree with everything Guy says. For example, I would certainly want to say that our scientific theories and our technologies are superior to the ideas about the world held by cultures that have no developed science, or no science at all. Our ability to control nature (howsoever limited that is and howsoever much it has been misused and abused under capitalism) testifies to that fact. If you need a heart operation, Inuit culture (as well-suited as it is to the world they inhabit) isn't going to be of much use. Nor would you consult a Shaman if you wanted to help organise a demonstration in Greece or Egypt. You'd use the Internet, your phone, or the 'social media', among other things. And, it would be no good looking to an Amazonian tribe if you wanted to read Guy's essays, either.

 

In addition, I would not want to use the words "dialectics", or "dialectical". I have no problem with these terms if they are understood in their classical, pre-Hegelian sense, but these waters have been permanently muddied, so I tend to avoid using them since it only creates the false impression I mean them in their post-Hegelian sense. However, it is clear from what Guy says here and in other essays, he half sees things this way himself.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Making Materialism Historical

 

By Guy Robinson

 

This article will not be followed by a page or two of references to everybody from Hegel to Bhaskar because its whole point is to focus attention sharply on a neglected passage of Marx -- one that was neglected even by himself. This passage is of the greatest importance because it has the potential to generate a whole new world-view and framework of thought to replace the ahistoricist ideology that has dominated the modern era.

 

I also want to give notice that when I use the word "dialectical" in the phrases, "dialectical relation" or "dialectically connected", I am giving it a very simple minded and concrete sense that has little or no relation to the airy philosophical realms where it is normally located. A dialectical connection is, for me, simply one in which there is a mutual relation between two things such that development in one will bring about a development in the other which in its turn may reflect back and bring about a further development in the first -- and so on.

 

The first point we need to make is that it is of the greatest importance to see Historical Materialism as not just a materialist conception of history -- as many Marxists have taken it to be -- but more deeply and radically, as a historical conception of materialism, science, human knowledge and nature itself. Taken in that way, Historical Materialism becomes the basis and starting point of a whole new world-view and framework of thought that can replace the ideology created in the 17th century which was founded on an ahistorical materialism and a transcendentalized conception of nature. That framework and those conceptions have shaped both thought and social reality in the modern era. That ahistorical framework of thought operated as an ideology by hiding from us the breadth of our human creativity by presenting us as standing passive before a transcendental entity called 'Nature' (caps to indicate the quasi-divine status it was given). That entity had been constructed to offer a secular substitute for the God who had played the same role in the ideology of the {M}iddle {A}ges. Just as God was called on to explain and justify the manifestly unjust feudal social arrangements, such as serfdom -- so 'Nature' was dragged in to explain and justify the economic and social arrangements and inequalities and oppressions that came in with capitalism. One had only to describe those arrangements as 'natural' and they were taken as both explained and justified. Those jobs were also carried out by that ideological construct, 'human nature' which was supposed to stand outside humanity and to shape our behaviour timelessly -- as it had to if it was to carry out the function of both explaining and justifying the institutions of capitalism. Without these ideological constructs blocking the view we might be able to see that those capitalist institutions were the product of a particular set of historical circumstances and were therefore subject to change and replacement. That realization had to be avoided at all costs -- the costs were particularly to our sense of our own creativity and the historical nature of our development both of which were hidden behind those ahistorical entities conjured up to present those institutions as eternal.

 

That ahistorical framework has hobbled our thought for too long and set us off in fruitless searches for imaginary ahistorical entities that are no more than leftovers from the theological framework that dominated thought in the Middle Ages. It is time we set about constructing a whole new world-view and framework of thought to replace that ideological world-view based on that ahistorical materialism which called upon a transcendentalized conception of 'Nature' before which humans could only stand as passive as they stood before God in the previous ideology. Here Marx shows us the route to that new world-view even though he himself did not set out on that path. In fact he almost hid it from us by crossing out that section of the manuscript of The German Ideology in which he made the sharpest and most thought provoking statement of the framework that had to be developed if we are to emerge from the shadow of the ahistoricist ideology that has dominated thought in the modern era.

 

I suspect he crossed it out because he saw the huge amount of work and development that it cried out for -- work that would take him away from his other favoured projects such as that of analysing and dismembering capitalism. This suppression has had the most serious consequences for our understanding of historical materialism, the depth of its challenge to the ruling ideology and the need it poses for a complete re-examination of our views about the sciences and human knowledge generally. What is necessary is the construction of a whole alternative framework which can free us from the passivity assigned to humanity by the framework of thought and world-view that have dominated Western thinking in the modern era.

 

Here is the crossed out passage from the manuscript of The German Ideology we need to focus on:

 

A. We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist.

 

Marx then adds a section which goes some way to explain his neglect of the revolutionary suggestion that nature has a history dialectically connected to the history of humanity.

 

The history of nature, so-called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts to either to a distorted interpretation of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. Ideology is itself only one of the aspects of this history. [Guy has added a "so" in front of "called" not found in the published version of Marx's text. He has also substituted "interpretation" for "conception" -- RL.]

 

We will need to dissent from this latter view that 'almost the whole of ideology' amounts to the distortion of the interpretation of human history because we need to see that the ideology which has dominated the modern era has been based on the denial of a role for history in the understanding of science, nature and human knowledge generally. That ideology involved elevating nature to ahistorical and quasi-divine status, and giving it a founding role in that framework of thought which aimed to hide our human creativity behind what are in fact human creations that get presented as independent entities. As Marx puts it so beautifully in the Preface to The German Ideology: "The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away." In carrying out this liberation we have to bring out that it is not primarily the distorted interpretation of the history of humanity but the denial of history to nature and science that has been the foundation and starting point of that dominant ideology. This denial of a role for historical understanding has itself depended on a humanly created chimera -- a transcendentalized and ahistorical phantom called 'Nature' before which we are all meant to bow down.

 

We have to see that it was the relentless commitment to a viewpoint exactly opposite to the one set out by Marx, which was the basis of the ideology that has shaped and been shaped by the modern era. That ideology has been firmly rooted in the idea that genuine understanding has to be based on immutable an ahistorical 'laws' of this transcendentalized 'Nature' which stand outside the material world we know, to govern it from afar. The material world is a world of change and those timeless laws are meant to represent not just a recognition of patterns in that changing world but the explanation and the causes of those patterns being there to be recognized. The causes of those patterns are in that way projected outside the material world -- where they can only be immaterial. Yet, despite this immateriality, they are given powers to act on the material world, powers that are more mysterious than those awarded to God by a grateful humanity.

 

Science thus becomes a kind of 'theology of Nature' whose job is the pursuit of those ahistorical laws, and delivering an ahistorical materialism that will eliminate history from our understanding of the world. Ultimately, the development of that framework is meant to show that historical explanations are something we have simply to put up with till we can achieve genuine explanations in terms of the timeless forces of an ahistorical 'Nature'.

 

It is of course hard to stop this framework of thought from generating at the same time a materialistic determinism that takes the humanity out of human life and appears to erect a huge mechanism in which humans are no more than cogs. Thus the ideology of ahistorical materialism has done what it can to hide our human creativity, and even our humanity, from us. We need to go beyond merely pointing out the irony of the fact that this whole framework is a human creation that simply joins the vast array of human creations that seem to aim at hiding that creativity from us by projecting it onto our own creations in the heavens, on Mount Olympus or elsewhere.

 

We need to develop a materialism that is genuinely historical and develop it into a whole framework of thought which puts that passage of Marx's at its foundation and sets about giving an account of how nature can have a history and a history that is dialectically connected to the history of humanity.

 

It is, however, of the greatest importance to see that connection between the two histories as a dialectical one which involves mutual influences that run in both directions -- so that a development in one will foster a development in the other which may then return the compliment and lead to a further development in the first. Making the connection between human history and the history of nature a dialectical one is essential if we are on the one hand to avoid the idealism that would result of making the history of nature completely dependent on the history of humanity. This one-sidedness crops up not only in the idealism of an earlier era but in the 'social constructivism' of our own. The social constructivists rightly point out the shaping role that human-set standards, assumptions, programs and projects have on the development of the sciences. But they crucially fail to bring out that the setting of those standards and the making of those assumptions and the adopting of those programs and projects are not matters of whim or fashion but are the products of the practical interaction between historical humans and the material world from which they are trying to produce their needs. The social constructivists have correctly identified one of the points at which human history impinges on and intersects with the history of nature, but they have generally cancelled the value of their identification by treating those human inputs as though they came out of the air or out of human heads and were not the historical product of those practical struggles with the material world that need to be understood historically. It is at this point that we need to look carefully at the input from the material world so that we can make out that dialectical relation between the history of nature and the history of humanity.

 

This insistence on treating one side or the other as unconditioned starting points that exert their influence in one direction is a product of the conception of many modern philosophers that the central task of philosophy is to find absolute foundations. This anti-dialectical 'foundationism' was itself a product of the philosophers taking on the mistaken project of creating a rival to the theological world view of the Middle Ages. That framework based itself on God as an absolute starting point for everything in the world and as the explanation of things -- so any rival to it had to find alternative starting points to serve as 'foundations' for human knowledge. The resulting 'foundationism' has distorted modern philosophy badly and set it all sorts of useless and impossible projects that have wasted much time and energy.

 

Mechanical materialism is the opposite fallacy which results from the alternative of making the history of humanity dependent entirely on the history of nature. The relation cannot be one-sided in either direction and it is only a materialism that is both historical and dialectical that can save us from those two complimentary confusions that arise from taking the relation between human and natural history as one-sided in either direction. We have to see the relation between those histories as a 'dialogue' between the two sides -- which is the root meaning of 'dialectical' underneath all the mystifications that have been piled on it.

 

Idealism as a framework of thought does not dominate the modern world in the way that ahistorical materialism does, and, of course it could not so easily be erected into an ideology that contrived to hide our human creativity from us behind a barrier of human creations and thereby protect the status quo from human interference. On the contrary, it assigns too much, even absolute creativity to us -- as though there were no external constraints on it and no material world in which we had to work and which helps to define the creativity of our concepts and theories by how they aid our work in that world.

 

To get a measure of what we are up against in using that view of Marx's to set about constructing a new world-view to replace the old ideology, it is important to see that the philosophers of the 17th century were not being stupid or perverse, nor were they setting out to create an ideology -- even though that was the net result of their work. Those philosophers had not got the option of taking up a historical view of the world because they lived at a time when the age of the world was measured in thousands rather than billions of years. It was only with the founding of the sciences of geology and archaeology a century later was it possible to see the vast sweep of the world's history. It was that development that was responsible for the birth of both Darwinian evolution and of the historical perspective of Marxism, which allowed him to see human institutions as not the product of God or of 'human nature' but as historically developed and still developing.

 

Without even the possibility of a real historical perspective, those philosophers had not got the concept of ideology available to them and could not see that the earlier theologically based framework needed simply to be dismantled and discarded and could not be saved and put to work by being secularized. The result was that, in an age of secularization in Europe, they took their task as being to produce a secular alternative to the theologically based ideology of the Middle Ages. In the light of the rise of the sciences in that period, they seized on the concept of Nature as a secular one that could be substituted for God in the old framework in order to secularize it and turn it into something suitable for making sense of the new social order that had replaced feudalism. However, in doing this they succeeded in constructing a phantom entity that had all the characteristics of a deity -- and in that way converted the sciences from a secular pursuit of knowledge of the material world into a sort of theology of a transcendental being that was supposed to stand over and above the material world and govern the happenings there with what were called 'Nature's Laws'.

 

This helps us to see the nature and extent of the job facing us -- namely to construct a world-view and framework of thought that does without this transcendentalized, and therefore deified, entity and at the same time, while emphasizing human creativity, makes it clear that humans don't have it all their own way in dealing with the world. This is the hard part -- to see that there is something that shapes human practices from outside but still does not have that fixed and ahistorical externality that was assigned to Nature in the old system. We have to make concrete sense of that dialectic between the history of humanity and the history of nature that Marx puts forward.

 

It is one thing to say that nature has a history that is dialectically connected to the history of humanity but it is quite another thing to make out what that means. We have made a start by analyzing the ideology of ahistorical materialism and tracing its sources in the historical circumstances of its formation. But it is not enough to dismantle the incoherent elements in that framework. We have to develop a positive account of the relation of humanity to the material world that will shed new light on human knowledge, skills, and language and their practical connection to the world on which we operate with them. I have deliberately used the expression "the practical connection" to avoid the usual expression describing knowledge as 'of the world' which invites the belief that there is something fixed 'out there' which our knowledge can do no more than passively and hopefully mirror.

 

The 'correspondence theory of truth' encapsulates that 'mirroring' picture of passivity. But our relation to, and our knowledge of, that material world is not the passive one of mirroring but the active one of operating on it and with it to produce our life. In that way we learn what distinctions and identifications are necessary or helpful in our particular way of life. We in the West where the way of life and the culture are dominated by the natural sciences can easily be seduced by the belief that they provide us with the ultimate truth of things -- the 'God's-eye view' as it were. But the truths of our science are not truths for the people of many of the vastly different cultures and ways of life around the world. Our scientific 'truths' have no place in those ways of life and do no count as truths for those people in living their lives. We of course think of our way of life as 'more developed' and as 'superior' though no one has set about trying to say what that 'superiority' consists in, and the phrase 'more developed' seems to imply that there is a single line of development for humanity as such and that those others are stuck at some earlier stage or else that they have somehow got diverted from the one true path. This is another place where that ideological construct 'human nature' shows itself. That picture tries to place humanity back before we became social creatures who left evolution behind and set off in a trajectory of development that has to be called 'historical'. We did this by confronting those environmental pressures that produce 'natural selection' among lesser species and we then set about modifying our environment instead of being modified by it. That capacity to modify with the knowledge and the skills to do it is something that is subject to historical development. In the West it has developed to the point that we are capable of destroying the environment and threatening human survival.

 

Our denial of the existence of such a 'true path' of development of humanity (or any one 'true faith' that is supposed to unite humanity) does not deny us the use of the word 'barbaric' to describe certain practices such as female circumcision or the stoning to death for adultery (women only, it should be noted).

 

Here we can make use of the signpost offered in the Second Thesis on Feuerbach and go on to say that the separate history of each of these different cultures and their very different ways of life have given them a variety of different projects and skills that will shape their world and what nature is for them. Though the Second Thesis is well enough known and has not been obscured like the passage in The German Ideology manuscript we have been looking at{,} it is as well to have it before us in considering its usefulness in the project of constructing a whole framework of thought and world-view out of the historical conception of materialism set out by Marx in the suppressed passage.

 

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or nonreality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. [Guy has plainly added the first italic emphasis -- RL.]

 

The first contribution of the Second Thesis to our project of constructing a world-view in which nature is seen as having a history is by its shooting down the concept of 'objective reality' which has been given so much ideological work to do in the ahistorical world-view we are trying to dismantle and replace with a historical perspective. 'Objective reality' is supposed to be externally fixed -- by God or Nature or some other human artefact that is pictured as standing outside and confronting us and presenting us with this 'reality', its product, which we can only accept passively.

 

The second contribution of the Thesis comes through the emphasis on practice and the practical interaction with the material world. This eliminates the one-sidedness of both materialism and idealism and shows how an interactive history belongs to both sides. Our practices develop over time and so do the classifications we use and the things we recognize.

 

On the whole, nature and the world we live in consists in the things and processes we recognize in our language and have names for. The infant emerges out of what William James called "the booming, buzzing confusion" of early infancy when he or she learns language. Learning the words is at the same time learning to recognize and distinguish the things they are names for. In that way, our world is organized. But our language does not come ready made from the world around us but has developed historically over millennia of productive interaction with that world to help us in dealing with it. Our human languages are assembled out of the distinctions and identifications that have proved useful over the history of development of our various societies and cultures.

 

And, of course, the different languages of the different cultures with different histories will organize different worlds for the people of those cultures. The Amazonian Indian hunter and the Micronesian fisherman will have different vocabularies that reflect not only their different environments of mountains, deserts, forests or flood plains, but their different ways of life. Those different ways of life will incorporate different skills and different projects that will involve the need to make quite different classifications in the material world around them. Our sciences and the classifications we find useful may well be of no use to them in their lives and their dealing with the material world around them according to the aims, desires and projects native to their individual cultures. And the Second Thesis allows us to say that the classifications and the beliefs they have developed are just as true and 'objective' for them as the sciences are for us. What the Second Thesis is denying is the belief common in the modern world that there is something called 'ultimate reality' or 'absolute objectivity' which are the latter-day equivalents of 'the God's-eye' view of things that supported the previous ideology in its attempt to establish human passivity in the face of 'higher truths'.

 

Mathematics is often held up as one of those 'higher truths' that are fixed and exempt from history and stand beyond humanity where they can only be contemplated and accepted. We need to undermine this view and to bring out the truth of Newton's view that "The foundations of geometry lie in mechanical practice." We need to turn to Marx's emphasis on practice and bring out the connection between mathematics and practice and see how the fundamental concepts arise out of practical activities. Geometry, for example, is often held up as a set of God-given truths that stand outside humanity. But if we look at the sources of its fundamental ideas such as 'straight line' or 'right angle' we can see them as arising out of the practices and problems of building in wood or stone. Fitting planks together without gaps or doors into frames requires the straight line and if blocks are similarly to fit without gaps it is easiest if they are square.

 

Because they lost sight of those origins in practical problems, commentators on Euclid's geometry from the earliest times down to the present have been unable to understand Euclid's own definition of 'straight line' as "a line that lies evenly with the points of itself". Failing to understand this definition, they have tried to make do with definitions that actually have no place and no function in geometry -- such as the "shortest distance between two points" definition. It is scandalous that this definition appears in geometry texts, because it has no function in geometry and cannot be used in any theorem. So far as I know I have been the first in the best part of two millennia to see the sense and meaning of Euclid's definition and its function in proofs. This was because I was able to connect it to a practice of draftsmen in testing a straightedge by drawing a line and rotating the straightedge through 180 {degrees} and laying it against the line.1 If and only if the points coincide ("lie evenly along the points of itself") is the straightedge straight.

 

Though those fundamental concepts come from practices and help to deal with the problems that arise there, they are then adopted as definitions and thus taken outside of history even though they are human artefacts. The mathematicians then set about exploring and articulating the logical relations between them and forging new concepts and definitions in the process. We have needed to stop and take a careful look at mathematics because the failure to see the practical origins of its concepts has led many to a mistaken view of mathematics as some kind of 'higher truth' that stands outside. We can accept it that mathematics has not got a history in the sense that its discoveries are subject to revision over time. We simply have to notice that it is constructed out of human artefacts that we have fixed by definitions that we see as not in need of revision and so stand outside of time.

 

We have made at least a small start on bringing out the challenge posed by that small suppressed passage of Marx -- the challenge to develop a whole framework of thought and world-view based on a historical perspective one that will give concrete substance to Marx's claim that there is only the single science -- the science of history. If that historical framework of thought is developed it will allow us to escape from the ideologies that base themselves on unchanging entities such as God or 'Nature' and in that way aimed to eliminate history from our understanding of things. They count as ideologies because they supported the existing institutions whether feudal or capitalist by presenting them as the creations of God or 'Nature'.

 

To say that nature has a history is to strike at the roots of that ideology and to help us to see that those institutions whether of feudalism or of capitalism are the result of historical development in a particular area of the world and are not permanently imposed on us by forces from outside -- whether God or that God-substitute, the externalized and deified conception of 'Nature'.

 

A historical perspective is the only way forward out of the grip of ideology and ideologies. Let us seize the challenge of Marx's contention that there is only one framework of knowledge -- the historical, and set about unmasking and dismantling all those manufactured pretenders to an ahistorical and 'objective' status, while at the same time putting behind us those 'foundationist' projects that led to their creation as false answers to false questions. Then we need to take on the task of developing that single science -- the science of history to give accounts in that framework of all those things that the foundationists thought they needed to explain in terms of their own creations masquerading as 'objective' entities.

 

Notes

 

1. I discuss this in chapter 13, 'Newton, Euclid and the foundation of Geometry', in my book: Philosophy and Mystification (NY, Fordham University Press, 2003). If he had put his mind to it, Newton could easily have seen the sense and function of Euclid's definition that had escaped the commentators. This is because he took the essentially Marxian position that "the foundations of geometry lie in mechanical practice".

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