Summary Of Essays Two, Three And Ten
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These three Essays focus on several of the main features of DM-epistemology, which, despite pretensions to the contrary, is surprisingly conservative. The reasons for saying something as controversial as this will become clear as the argument advances -- but first an apparent digression.
This material is now badly out-of-date. Visitors are encouraged to read the updated version of this summary, here.
For over two thousand years traditional Philosophers have been playing on themselves and their audiences what can only be described as a series of complex verbal tricks. Since Greek times, metaphysicians have occupied themselves with deriving a priori theses solely from the meaning of a few specially chosen (and suitably doctored) words. These philosophical gems have then been peddled to the rest of humanity, dressed-up as profound truths about fundamental aspects of reality, peremptorily imposed on nature -- often without the benefit of a single supporting experiment.
In fact, traditional theorists went further; their acts of linguistic legerdemain 'allowed' them to uncover Super-theses in the comfort of their own heads, doctrines they claimed revealed the underlying and essential nature of existence, which were supposedly valid for all of space and time. Unsurprisingly, discursive magic of this order meshes rather well with ambient ruling-class forms-of-thought (for reasons that are explored in detail in Essays Twelve and Fourteen (summaries here and here), chief among which is the belief that reality is rational.
Clearly, the idea that the world is rational must be forced onto nature since nature is not Mind. Nevertheless, it is far easier to justify the imposition of a hierarchical and grossly unequal class system on 'disorderly' workers if ruling-class ideologues can persuade one and all that the 'law-like' order of the natural world actually reflects, and is reflected in turn by, the social order from which their patrons just so happen to benefit --, the fundamental aspects of which none may question.
Material reality may not be rational, but it is certainly rational for ruling-class "prize-fighters" to claim it is.
Radical talk -- Conservative Walk
Even before the first dialecticians put pen to misuse, they found themselves surrounded on all sides by ideas drawn from this ancient tradition. Clearly, they faced a serious problem: if they imposed their ideas on nature in like manner, they could easily be accused of constructing a comparable form of Idealism. On the other hand, if they didn't do this, they wouldn't have a 'philosophical' theory of their own to lend weight to, and provide a bedrock for, their claim to lead the revolution. Confronted thus by traditional styles-of-thought (which they had no hand in creating, but which they were only too happy to appropriate), DM-theorists found there was no easy way out of this traditionalist minefield -- or at least none that managed to keep their theory the right side of immaterialism.
Their solution was simple and effective: ignore the problem.
This is not to deny that dialecticians are aware of the Idealism implicit in traditional thought; on the contrary, but their excuse for ignoring its pernicious influence on their own ideas is that the materialist flip they say they inflicted on Hegel was deemed capable of changing theoretical dirt into philosophical gold. However, flip or no flip, their own thought is still thoroughly traditional in style: it is dogmatic, a priori, and couched in jargon lifted straight from the Philosophers' Phrase Book. Even though few DM-theorists deny that Traditional Philosophy itself is predominantly Idealist, not a single one has avoided copying its conservative approach to a priori knowledge.
So, despite the fact that dialecticians constantly claim that DM has not been imposed on nature -- for that would surely brand their theory "Idealist" -- they all invariably end up doing exactly that, imposing their theory on reality. In so doing, they merely underline the fact that traditional thought has found a new batch of converts among erstwhile radicals.
Hence, in spite of frequent claims to the contrary, Marxist Philosophy has from its inception been remarkably traditional, if not disappointingly conservative. Instead of trying to bury traditional theory, dialecticians have in fact done the opposite, indirectly praising it by emulating it.
The Gospel Of John: In The Beginning Was The Word "Is"
For instance, in his Philosophical Notebooks Lenin attempted to derive the entire dialectic from a single sentence like "John is a man." [Lenin (1961), p.359.] There, Lenin was quite happy to construct several tall stories atop this alarmingly weak foundation, claiming to know what must be the case for all of reality, for all of time.
However, John's material insignificance did not prevent Lenin from uncovering a host of universal and omnitemporal truths concealed beneath this fictional character's imputed manhood. Thus, from this figment of the imagination, Lenin thought he could derive a number of seemingly eternal and all-embracing scientific facts. Indeed, from sentences like these (all of which were of the subject/predicate form -- a highly limited form of discourse, anyway), and scarcely giving a thought to the epistemological megalomania this implied --, Lenin was able to claim that not just John, but everything in reality must be a UO, and thus that everything in existence is contradictory. His reason? Simply that John cannot be identical with the universal term "man", a subject cannot be identical with a predicate.
[UO = Unity of Opposites.]
Granted, this is not very impressive logic, but it is at least eminently traditional.
Indeed, the imposition on reality of 'truths' of this sort is thoroughly traditional; in DM-circles this goes largely un-remarked upon (and this is still the case even after this manoeuvre has been pointed out) simply because not only does everyone do it, they always have. That is precisely what makes DM so traditional: moves like this are part of a philosophical game that was invented and has been played by ruling-class hacks for thousands of years.
To change the image: this is the theoretically-poisoned chalice from which not a single DM-theorist has failed to quaff. In fact, they happily pass it around and commend its contents to others. In this way, therefore, the ideas of the ruling-class have come to rule our movement, too. Dialecticians like Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky have been quite happy to borrow these alien-class ideas, internalising them and chiding others for denying that Marxists should buy into a single one of them.
Hardly pausing for breath, Lenin was also able to 'derive' several other ambitious theses from a defective understanding of the copula -- i.e., the predicate connective "is", as it appears in sentences like "John is a man". In so doing, he uncritically accepted Hegel's "Identity Theory of Predication" (a logical dodge invented by post-Aristotelian logicians, and one that was also quite popular with medieval theologians), confusing the "is" of predication with the "is" of identity. To be sure, this is a seemingly minor faux pas, but it is one that has hugely disproportionate consequences, as we will see.
This allowed Lenin to argue that "John" was at the same time identical with, but different from, all men. But, neither Hegel nor Lenin so much as attempted to justify this innovative grammatical segue, and yet that did not stop them both from extracting substantive metaphysical truths from so diminutive a misconstrued verb.
This manoeuvre was then compounded by the belief that the subject/predicate form -- as found almost exclusively in Indo-European grammar -- had profound ontological implications. This superficial grammatical feature of just that family of languages (i.e., this use of "is") was now transmogrified from a predicative into a relational form.
[The "is" of identity is relational, not predicative. So, because of the above slide, propositions of the form "NN is F" now become "NN = F", which is just one aspect of the aforementioned medieval "Identity Theory of Predication".]
It is thus no surprise then that from this serious misreading of so simple a verb bogus 'contradictions' freely flowed. This supposedly meant -- so this fable went -- that ordinary language must be riddled with paradox (since it implied contradictions so readily), that nature must therefore be fundamentally contradictory, that the universe and thought are universally dialectical, that everything is interconnected, that change is powered by internal contradictions, and that necessity and contingency are dialectically united as complimentary aspects of reality. All this a priori superscience Lenin managed to extract from this one sentence!
"To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., [sic] with any proposition...: [like] John is a man…. Here we already have dialectics (as Hegel's genius recognized): the individual is the universal…. Consequently, the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena, processes), etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs of the concept of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence; for when we say John is a man…we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other….
"Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as a 'nucleus' ('cell') the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general." [Lenin (1961), pp.359-60. Emphases in the original.]
This was later amplified by comrade Novack:
"This law of identity of opposites, which so perplexes and horrifies addicts of formal logic, can be easily understood, not only when it is applied to actual processes of development and interrelations of events, but also when it is contrasted with the formal law of identity. It is logically true that A equals A, that John is John…. But it is far more profoundly true that A is also non-A. John is not simply John: John is a man. This correct proposition is not an affirmation of abstract identity, but an identification of opposites. The logical category or material class, mankind, with which John is one and the same is far more and other than John, the individual. Mankind is at the same time identical with, yet different from John." [Novack (1971), p.92.]
Here, as elsewhere in Traditional Philosophy, a seemingly insignificant grammatical 'enhancement' 'permits' theorists to ignore and bypass the clear distinctions ordinary humans have built into material language. This then 'allowed' them to blame the vernacular and common understanding for discursive faults that were entirely of their own making.
On this basis, Lenin clearly felt quite justified in projecting dialectics right across the universe -- and, to rub it in, he did so without the aid of a single confirming experiment, just like the traditionalists mentioned above.
This was clearly regarded as a safe manoeuvre since, if language itself has dialectics built into it, and since we have to use it to depict nature, nature cannot fail to be dialectical. In that case, dialectics can be imposed on reality and the earlier bluff denial that this is never done may now safely be ignored.
The Idealism implicit in all this is not easy to miss: on this view, nature is dialectical because language can be made to say so at the flick of a verb.
In this way, sentences depicting John and his manhood guarantee that nature is contradictory because propositions contain contradictions between their subject and predicate terms (i.e., John cannot be all men).
[However, if the predicative form is merely descriptive, then predication cannot be confused with a reference to all the members of a certain group (in the case, allegedly, all men -- since description is not reference). Aristotle saw through that 'difficulty' 2500 years ago; for him predicates applied to those designated by subject terms -- so, as he saw things, there was no "is" anywhere in sight for anyone to magic into an identity. More details in Essay Three Part One.]
In addition, 'innovative' logic of this sort 'showed' that the LOI cannot apply to concrete reality (again, this was supposedly because subject terms are not identical to predicate terms), and that contingent reality is not only ruled by dialectical logic, the entire world is an interconnected Totality.
Luckily, these amazing facts are easy to discover: no boring experiments or observations are required. No, in but a few seconds they can be extracted from a 'dialectical analysis' of any given subject/predicate proposition, which 'analysis' shows that every part of reality is implied by, and is linked to, each and every other part. This is because John is identical with but different from a universal, which linguistic fact connects him with universal reality, but in a contradictory sort of way.
Fortunately, there are other superscientific facts that can be obtained from this 'analysis': appearances must contradict underlying 'essences' (since the essential logic of the relation between John and his universal cannot be accessed by mere appearances, but only by a process of 'abstraction'), and all of reality is governed by dialectical law --, which, paradoxically, also guarantees freedom of the will. This is yet another DM-contradiction that just has to be "grasped" to be believed -- since John is both contingently and essentially a man, apparently.
[LOI = Law of Identity.]
However, the best part of this thoroughly traditional tale is that anyone so minded can do a little dialectics with ease, in the comfort of their own convoluted jargon. Who needs expensive equipment, time-wasting experiments and rigorous scientific training when impressive truths like these can be derived so effortlessly from a few shafted words?
If every journey starts with a small step, this particular mystery tour began with just such a simple misreading of this tiny word (i.e., "is"). Traditional Philosophers (like Parmenides and Plotinus -- and their latter-day clone, Hegel) have been doing this sort of thing for centuries. Dialecticians, are thus mere parvenus in this regard; late-comers who have slotted rather nicely into this conservative groove. In fact you can't even see the join.
So, if discourse has dialectics programmed into it, then no language-user could possibly deny the 'truths' DM-theorists have effortlessly wrung from it. Super-verities like these can now be pulled straight out of Hegel's hat since every single one of his theses is hidden in all our sentences (if they are suitably 'enhanced', that is). DM can now be read into nature (on the pretence that it hasn't -- and then this can be sold as a 'materialist inversion' of Hegel) because any reading of anything must have dialectics built into it. The need for evidence can be waved aside since the seemingly obvious nature of the 'truths' obtained from such linguistic trickery is all the proof anyone could possibly need. Dialectics thus becomes self-evident; judge and jury in its own behalf.
This helps account for the relaxed ease with which all dialecticians slip into the a priori mode, and why they all fail to notice when they are doing it -- again, even after this has been pointed out to them.
It all looks so 'obvious'.
A Priori Dogmatics -- The Only Game In Town
This style-of-thought was invented by ancient Greek theorists who spoke, wrote and thought as if reality was actually rational and linguistic -- i.e., the product of Logos. Ever since then, every branch of Traditional Philosophy has more or less done likewise, but in its own idiom, as each Mode of Production dictated the content, but not the form. This tradition has provided the back-drop and created the theoretical climate-of-opinion that sets the limits to, and fixes the parameters of, 'acceptable thought'. Hence, and since then, if a theory isn't based on some form of word-juggling -- the more baroque the better --, it isn't 'proper' Philosophy.
Dialecticians have naively swallowed this ancient marketing ploy. This is why so many of them express genuine incredulity when it is suggested to them that Marxism does not need a philosophy of any sort, shape or kind -- never mind the one they lifted from Hegel. DM-fans are so neck-deep in this tradition (which sees a priori knowledge as the only legitimate goal) that they can't help but defend it against radical attacks (like those mounted here).
Small wonder then that Marx declared that the ruling ideas are always those of the ruling-class. [Dialecticians superficially accept this saying, but point the finger at everyone else, scarcely noticing the origin of their own a priori theses in Hermetic thought.]
Lenin thus calmly concluded that the principles he had uncovered while reading Hegel's Logic -- and after tinkering with a few simple sentences -- governed the "eternal development of the world." [Lenin (1961), p.110.] Furthermore, and despite the fact that dialecticians repeatedly tell us that their theory is not a "master key" to all that exists, Lenin let the metaphysical cat out of the linguistic bag when he declared that:
"[t]he identity of opposites…alone furnishes the key to the self-movement of everything existing." [Ibid. p.358.]
One minute DM is not the key; next it is. One minute we are told dialectics must not be imposed on reality; next it has been. All DM-theorists indulge in this pragmatic contradiction: first they disarm the reader with an open declaration that dialectics has not been imposed on reality (their favourite way of making this point recently is to say that DM is not "a royal road to truth"), then, sometimes on the same page or in the next paragraph -- or even in the very next sentence -- they proceed to do the exact opposite, claiming that this or that DM-thesis is universally true throughout all of space and for all of time.
For example, Engels felt bold enough to claim that:
"Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be…. Matter without motion is just as inconceivable as motion without matter. Motion is therefore as uncreatable and indestructible as matter itself." [Engels (1976), p.74.]
Exactly how Engels knew this to be true of all matter and motion in the entire universe, and for ever, he sadly kept to himself.
Similarly, Lenin felt moved to "demand" that nature be regarded dialectically because he was able to reveal (and presumably he knew this by non-physical means) that the universe actually works this way:
"Dialectical logic demands that we go further…. [It] requires that an object should be taken in development, in 'self-movement'." [Lenin (1921), p.90.]
Naturally, after reading this, the only conclusions possible are that either the word "imposed" meant something different in Lenin's day, or he was taking the dialectical piss.
[Q«Q: The Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality, and vice versa.]
DM-theorists tell us that nature is a contradictory unified whole, subject to the operation of Engels's Q«Q 'law', but their evidence in support of these a priori claims is alarmingly thin at best, non-existent at worst (on this see here).
For instance, Engels's thesis that all motion is contradictory is based solely on a verbal trick he copied from Hegel --, a doctrine the latter lifted from Zeno --, and which has been dutifully copied by subsequent dialecticians, almost word for word since.
No experimental evidence is adduced in support of this 'analysis' (nor could any be; no matter how accurate the instrument, or how careful the observation, no object could be shown to be in two places at the same instant, merely in two places during the same interval). Indeed, all that Engels presented us with was an unbelievably thin 'conceptual' argument about what bodies must do when they move, in a series of claims predicated on an extremely narrow and idiosyncratic interpretation of what words like "move", "place" and "same time" -- and prepositions like "in" -- must mean.
Once again, from the alleged meaning of a few words universal and eternally true 'scientific' theses have been 'derived' by generations of dialecticians. On a similar basis, of course, Darwin could have extracted his entire theory from the meaning of the word "evolution", and saved himself the bother of having to find any evidence to support it.
[Incidentally, and once more, it is not easy for dialecticians to appreciate these points because of the seemingly obvious nature of this Hegelian 'argument' about the contradictory nature of moving bodies. In this case, we are presented with a 'truth' that appears to follow either from the alleged definition of motion or from its 'concept', and because Traditional Philosophy has always done this sort of thing, it seems quite natural to accept this way of deriving a priori truths from a handful of words in this way.
Hence, just as political Conservatives do not question tradition, dialectical conservatives happily accept philosophical tradition.
However, this dialectical complacency will be severely bruised here, and more comprehensively in Essay Five.]
Not to be outdone, Trotsky tried to criticise the universal applicability of the LOI on the basis of an alarmingly brief consideration of his own mis-description of it -- having confused it with the principle of equality -- and on a perfunctory thought experiment involving imaginary bags of sugar!
[LOI = Law Of Identity.]
Indeed, he was quite open about his own apparently semi-divine knowledge of reality:
"[A]ll bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour etc. They are never equal to themselves…. [T]he axiom 'A' is equal to 'A' signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist…. [This] is established not by formal logic…, but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing…." [Trotsky (1971), pp.64-65.]
Once again, exactly how he knew that all bodies are never equal to themselves he left his readers to guess. Unfortunately however, Trotsky inadvertently gave the dialectical game away: clearly an axiom can be read from nature only if reality is Ideal -- otherwise it has to be foisted on it. [Manifestly, axioms are linguistic entities; if anything remotely like one exists in reality for it to 'reflect', that would imply reality is Ideal. More on this here.]
None of the above comrades carried out any experiments, and not only is the evidence collected so far by humanity insufficient to substantiate these eternal and universal theses, when examined more closely, what little data DM-theorists have scraped-together in support of their grandiose claims fails to justify even their local application, let alone their universal validity.
Naturally, that has not prevented DM-theorists from continuing to impose their ideas on nature -- just like countless previous generations of traditional metaphysicians.
Linguistic Idealism -- The Original LIE
This time-honoured approach to theory is here called "Linguistic Idealism" (LIE); LIE is a highly fertile thought-form, having given birth to centuries of superscientific theses conjured out of less than thin air.
This family of doctrines is based on the unsupported (often implicit, unacknowledged or even unrecognised) idea that language itself can reveal substantive truths about the world. This theoretical view of philosophical knowledge goes back (at least in the West) to the Greeks (although, ideologically, the doctrine is embryonically Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hebraic). Greek Philosophers, who thought the universe was indeed rational (the product of Mind), were quite happy to derive substantive truths about nature from a few tailor-made abstractions. To be sure, this is the only way that peremptory Metaphysics like this can be justified -- that is, if reality is assumed to be fundamentally linguistic.
However, as we shall see, the material world resists theoretical impertinence of this sort -- as does ordinary language, which is the social form upon which human interaction with reality has historically been based, and through which it has been appropriated most fully.
[In Essays Nine, Twelve and Fourteen (summaries here, here and here) the political implications of the traditional approach to knowledge are examined in detail, as is the ideological motivation underlying the opposite view of ordinary language to that taken here.]
However, at least one comrade unwittingly gave the Ideal game away:
"Nature cannot be unreasonable or reason contrary to nature. Everything that exists must have a necessary and sufficient reason for existence…. If everything that exists has a necessary and sufficient reason for existence, that means it had to come into being. It was pushed into existence and forced its way into existence by natural necessity…. Reality, rationality and necessity are intimately associated at all times…. If everything actual is necessarily rational, this means that every item of the real world has a sufficient reason for existing and must find a rational explanation…." [Novack (1971), pp.78-80.]
How Novack knew all this he sadly took to his grave.
Summary Of Essay Three
This material is now badly out-of-date. Visitors are encouraged to read an updated version of the Summaries of Essay Three Part One and Two, here and here.
Abstraction -- An Ancient Fable Beloved Of All Traditionalists
There is another aspect of the traditional approach to knowledge that has been copied by all card-carrying dialecticians: the Greek emphasis on "abstraction".
[It is worth recalling here that the usual philosophical justification given for assuming the existence of abstractions is that they account for general features of the world and thus our ability to study them. It is also worth noting that the ordinary use of abstract nouns is not being attacked here, just their metaphysical misuse.]
As it turns out, this ancient thought-form is in fact inimical to DM. This is because the process of abstraction radically alters key features of language, robbing indicative sentences of their capacity to say anything at all: this process changes general terms (i.e., "universals" -- which are outwardly general in form, but which turn out to be either bogus general nouns or reified linguistic functions) into abstract particulars named by abstract nouns.
[A linguistic function is an expression that allows the formation of indicative sentences when combined with singular terms, quantifier expressions, and the like.]
This move prevents language from expressing generality (hence destroying predication), which, clearly, fatally undermines DM-epistemology.
Abstraction achieves both by turning propositions into lists of names conjoined by the misconstrued identity sign (the hapless "is" again). To use an earlier example: in "John is a man", just as "John" undoubtedly names John, "man" supposedly names all men (as a singular logical category), or the abstract universal, Man. However, both this category and this abstract universal are now singular in nature, having had the generality that the word "man" formerly expressed (in ordinary material language) neutralised. Singular terms, obviously, are not general.
To compound things further, the participle "is" (of the verb "to be") was also transmogrified into an expression naming, or designating 'the identity relation'. So, "John is a man" became "John Identity Man."
[Clearly, this can't be "John is Identity Man", or even "John is identical with all men", without awkward questions arising once more over the nature of the extra (and this time irremovable) "is" we would be forced to use here. Now that "is" cannot be one of identity, for obvious reasons. If it were, "John is identical with all men" would have to become "John is identical with identical with all men", as the underlined italicised "is" is itself replaced by an "is identical with". In turn, that bold "is" must now itself suffer a similar fate, and the whole thing would quickly spin off to infinity.]
So, in this case, three Abstract Universals were conjured into existence, related to one another in an ethereal sort of world inaccessible to the senses.
Unfortunately, this ancient 'analysis' turns DM-propositions into lists of concatenated names (which somehow name these abstractions), preventing them from saying anything true or false -- because, of course, lists say nothing. By re-interpreting the "is" of predication as an "is" that names abstract identity, nothing at all can now be said of John, or of anyone else, or of anything at all. The use of Hegel's defective logic thus denies all DM-propositions a sense, preventing them from communicating anything whatsoever. In fact, they are not now even propositions.
So, despite what they say, dialecticians do not in fact start with general terms in order to extend knowledge, but with the names of abstract particulars. This stalls the dialectical juggernaut on the starting grid.
In Essay Three, Parts One and Two, the process of abstraction is subjected to destructive analysis; not only is it psychologically impossible to carry out -- and in principle impossible to check inter-subjectively --, its results are incomprehensible. And this is because, once again, abstraction undermines generality, producing only the names of abstract particulars wedged into pseudo-propositions, concatenated with other transmogrified names -- which prevents language from saying anything true or false, as noted above.
The early Marx and Engels are recruited in support of these claims because of their surprisingly similar views in this area.
Abstraction -- The Mirror Of An Ideal World
Despite appearances to the contrary, these observations are in fact good news; if abstractions could express truths about the world, it would mean that reality is rational, and thus Ideal.
What exactly could there be in material reality for a single abstraction to reflect? According to Lenin, scientific abstractions are supposed to reflect nature more truly and deeply; and yet, if this were the case, there would surely have to be extra-mental abstractions in reality for the mind to reflect.
On the other hand, since abstractions would not have existed had human beings not invented them, they are fundamentally mental entities. But, if the mind is able to reflect knowledge by means of them, then a belief in abstractions must commit believers to the idea that nature is Mind, or mind-like. Small wonder then that Greek thinkers invented this process, because that is exactly how they saw things. [The details supporting that assertion are given in Essay Twelve, and summarised here.]
The only way to avoid this result would, it seems, have to involve the denial that abstractions reflect anything in nature, but few, if any, dialecticians would want to admit that.
Of course, it could be claimed that abstractions help us reflect nature, but how they are able to this if they do not exist is entirely obscure. And anyway, what exactly do they reflect? In order to be able to say, such abstractions would have to be imposed on nature -- which is precisely what DM-theorists find they have to do.
As ancient mystics once pictured things, the inner microcosm must reflect the outer macrocosm; or as they put it: "as above, so below". In its more modern incarnation in DM, abstractions therefore reflect "essences" in the mind: as outside, so inside. This is thus the abstract core of this mystical shell.
Once more, this is no surprise given the demonstrable influence that Hermetic ideas had on Hegel. No surprise either then that, according to Lenin, each and every proposition is capable of reflecting the dialectical structure of the entire universe, which they could do only if nature were in some way linguistic -- and if that earlier sentential microcosm (i.e., "John is a man") was indeed able to reflect in the mind the entire macrocosm (i.e., in this case, the "eternal development of the world" [Lenin (1961), p.110.]).
Unfortunately for him, Lenin unwisely let it slip that Hegel had in fact "divined" these mysteries into existence for us -- perhaps not noticing the significance of that particular dialectical gaffe. [Lenin (1961), p.197.]
Divine Logic from a Hermetic source. So thoroughly traditional.
Appearances Ain't What They Used To Be
The traditional division of the world into "appearance" and "reality" is also destructively criticised. Even if valid, this metaphysical dichotomy would fatally undermine DM, since it makes validation impossible.
This is because DM is supposedly 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 to exonerate practice? More suspect practice? More suspect theory?
But, each and every theory has to make its shaky entrance in this dubious world as an appearance of some sort; that is, they all have to be written down on paper or broadcast into the air as phenomenal objects. As such, each infant theory, born thus into this material world, would be quite incapable of justifying itself, and hence incapable of substantiating their equally unreliable epistemological cousins: those questionable appearances.
On this view, knowledge would remain forever trapped in sceptic-world.
The solution here is of course to reject in its entirety the metaphysical dichotomy "appearance/reality", one that was invented by Aristocratic Greek thinkers who held the material world (and the labour that bought them their leisure) in open contempt.
Now, a 'dialectical' response to all this might include the claim that truth is in fact ever converging on a limit, a target which presumably lends to knowledge its objective clout. Indeed, Engels himself asserted that DM is converging "asymptotically" on truth:
"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 (12/3/1895), in Marx and Engels (1975), pp.457-58.]
Unfortunately, this analogy is inimical to DM-epistemology, too. First of all Engels forgot to say how he knew knowledge is convergent. Of course, if what he said were true, his words would thus be infinitely incorrect. That is because, when asserted, this claim would itself be infinitely far away from absolute truth, and thus infinitely unreliable. And manifestly, practice cannot confirm that knowledge is an infinitary process, so it is of no help.
Second, Engels failed to prove that there is such a limit for knowledge to converge upon asymptotically (in fact, he did not even attempt such a proof, and as far as can be ascertained, no dialectician since has bothered to supply one, either). 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 indeed be infinitely far from this supposed epistemological goal -- which still hasn't been shown to exist. On this view, given Engels's inapt metaphor, humanity will always be infinitely ignorant of anything and everything.
[Yes, I know that mathematicians have 'shown' that certain divergent series, those that are Cesàro summable, do 'have a sum', but this area of mathematics is controversial and it is far from clear that it will be of any help to Engels. That is because these series produce notoriously paradoxical and ridiculously implausible results -- such the following: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 +... = -(1/12) -- no misprint! If any DM-fans want to go down that route, I can only wish them good luck.]
Once again, it is no use appealing to practice to bail this theory out; given the truth of what Engels said, the claim that practice confirms theory is itself infinitely far from the truth (a truth that still hasn't been shown to exist), too!
Connected with this is the DM-idea that there is a "contradiction between appearance and reality", which claim is itself surprisingly ill-considered.
First, if things only appear to be so, then they surely cannot contradict a true proposition that they are not so -- not unless, of course, appearances are themselves propositional, which would mean that reality was linguistic after all.
[Of course, if appearances were linguistic agents, and were capable of arguing their corner, they could contradict whomsoever they liked; but they aren't and so they can't.]
Second, the distinction itself rests on yet another superficial 'thought experiment', and one which, just as soon as it itself has been uttered or written down (as a phenomenal object), must fend for itself in this reputedly untrustworthy phenomenal world -- but which phenomenal object (i.e., the linguistic expression of this thought) must somehow miraculously remain unsullied, for all that.
In that case, the Immaculate Conception is not just a feature of Roman Catholic Theology, for here we have the Immaculate Concepts of DM-Epistemology. On this basis, while these objects of thought exist in material reality, they somehow manage to remain stain-free, above epistemological reproach and capable of self-justification -- having been born into this world without the usual inherited character defects shared by all other fallen material appearances/phenomenal objects.
However, delivered into the world of appearances, and whose own 'mother' was and still is an appearance (the latter being a pen, typewriter, printer or computer screen), these now materially-embodied concepts are surely appearances themselves, with an equally suspect pedigree. All the same they are supposed somehow to be miraculously free from epistemological stain: Immaculate Concepts.
In that case, it is more than a little mysterious how and why a single DM-proposition can be trusted whenever it is written down or uttered (since it would thus become an appearance); in either material state (i.e., expressed in ink, or as vibrations in the air) one and all must surely come under immediate suspicion, and be contradicted by the reality they foolishly tried to picture.
[And it will not do to be told that dialecticians do not believe that appearances cannot be trusted. The fact that the 'dialectical' view of appearances means just this, is confirmed by the way that DM-theorists themselves depict them. For example, when this distinction (between appearances and reality) is applied to Capitalism we are told that while that system might, for instance, appear to be fair (but surely not to Marxists), in reality it isn't. In that case, appearances must be deceptive, and dialecticians must believe they are.
It is worth noting that this is not my belief, but that of dialecticians; but just try getting one of them to admit to this. No worries; we can apply some 'dialectics' to sort this out: DM-fans appear not to admit this, but that just means that in reality they do.
Of course, this is far too fast and trite an argument -- or it appears to be. Again, no problem: in essence this argument must contradict this appearance. So despite its superficially trite appearance, in reality it is quintessentially profound. Isn't diabolical logic wonderful!]
Of course, if DM-propositions are phenomenal objects, what they appear to say must contradict what they really say -- that is, if all appearances contradict reality, as we are led to believe. Hence, every DM-proposition that plies its trade in this world, but which brashly asserts that appearances contradict reality, must, it seems, contradict itself. [Or, it must at least appear to do so.]
This is worth spelling-out in more detail: if appearances always contradict reality, then with respect to any true empirical DM-proposition, "p", say, its contradictory, "not-p", must really be true (i.e., it must be "essentially" true). But, if "not p" is essentially true, "p" must be false. That means that no DM-empirical 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.
[Of course, the above uses the LEM, which dialecticians do not trust. However, they can console themselves with the thought that if the LEM appears to them to be defective, in reality it must be eminently sound!]
[LEM = Law of Excluded Middle.]
Indeed, if the contradictory of "John Rees is a revolutionary" is "John Rees is a not a revolutionary" then, if it appears to be the case that John Rees is a revolutionary (as indeed it does), he must in reality not be a revolutionary.
This surprising result can, of course, be generalised until it ends up falsifying every true empirical proposition, no matter how valid it might otherwise appear to be. Thus, it must in reality be false that Paris is in France, Hydrogen Cyanide is poisonous, and the Sun is hot. Worse, if, according to DM-theorists, appearances contradict reality, and the material world appears to change, then in reality it must remain changeless.
Of course, it could be argued that dialectical logic holds that appearances and under-lying realities are both true (i.e., that reality 'shines' out through appearances).
In that case, the following must both be correct: (1) Nitric Acid appears to be corrosive; (2) Nitric Acid is not corrosive. Are both of these true? Of course, dialecticians carefully choose which propositions they apply their supposedly universal dialectical solvent to, but for any apparently successful application of this handy device, reality must say the opposite. Hence, if it appears to be the case that dialecticians think that reality contradicts appearances, in reality they do not. [Now: can both of those be true?]
Finally, this ancient distinction would completely undermine scientific knowledge. This is because, not only do scientific theory and practice take place in the phenomenal world, they can only be confirmed there. 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 true that light does not really bend when it passes between media. Clearly, both of these cannot be true -- no matter how many dialectical prayers are said over this dying theory.
In addition, dialecticians have hitherto applied the distinction between "appearance" and "reality" without giving much thought to the effect this has on social and economic phenomena. Although it is undeniable that workers hold many false beliefs (as do others), the claim that this is down to "false consciousness" on their part cannot be attributed to Marx. Not only did he not employ the term, Engels himself only used it once in his life, and then only in a letter written late in his life. This is not a solid base on which to build a reliable theory of ideology. [On this, see here.]
However, for the purposes of argument, let us assume that appearances do indeed contradict reality, and that although, to some, Capitalism looks fair, in reality it is highly unfair and grossly exploitative.
But, as should now seem plain, no Marxist could actually assert that fact in material reality without compromising the objectivity of what she or he had just 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 zero chance of emerging unscathed.
It may indeed be true that capitalism appears to be unfair, just as it is true that in reality it is the opposite, but adherence to this Aristocratic and metaphysical dichotomy means that no Marxist could ever risk asserting either of these facts for fear that by doing so he or she would condemn them both to unreality -- by turning both into appearances.
In the event, DM-theorists are chided for their reliance on ideas and bogus distinctions inherited from traditional defenders of class society -- i.e., those who based their concepts on a denigration of ordinary material language and common understanding, and thus on a dismissal of the collective experience of working people.
This means, of course, that DM is not even a materialist theory.
It also implies that any revolutionary party that taps into this Aristocratic tradition must cease to be the genuine "memory of the class"; in relying on distinctions that actually undermine the collective experience of workers, such a group 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, it must be a mere appearance, and cannot therefore real.
[A rather nice negation of a rash prospective negator this, one feels.]
[HM = Historical Materialism.]
Summary of Essay Ten: Practice -- No Friend Of Dialectics
This material is now badly out-of-date. Visitors are encouraged to read the updated version of this summary, here.
Finally, we turn to practicalities. First, it is argued that Lenin's advice to revolutionaries that objects and processes should be considered in an all-round sense -- taking all their infinite "mediacies" into account (which idea was itself based solely on a hasty consideration of what he considered must be true of a simple tumbler!) --, is impractical in the extreme. [Lenin (1921), p.90.]
Quite apart from the fact that Lenin forgot to say how he knew that everything had an infinite number of "mediacies", it is surely impossible to consider everything before anything can be concluded, let alone done. Indeed, in order to consider what Lenin wrote, we would need to ignore his advice.
Any attempt to appeal to relevance to filter out the vast bulk of these 'mediacies' will not do, since one man's irrelevance is another woman's relevance. Worse: how could we prove that relevance was itself not irrelevant in this regard? Where are the infinite "mediacies" behind that claim?
Small wonder then that there is no evidence that Lenin took his own advice! Indeed, any revolutionary stupid enough to accept his counsel in this instance would be useless to the movement -- and a potential danger to themselves --, having thus been condemned to a state of infinite prevarication. Just think how long it would take to decide to print a single strike leaflet, let alone build the first barricade!
Secondly, the idea that truth is confirmed in practice is dependent on the CTT, not the other way round. This is because, if a theory predicts that "p", and practice brings it about that "p" is the case, in order to judge that "p" is indeed the case, "p" would have to be compared with reality. Manifestly, no one would try to guess whether "p" was the case; and there is no way that more practice could confirm that "p" was indeed the case.
[CTT = Correspondence Theory of Truth.]
So, the confirmation of the results of practice is dependent on correspondence relations, not the other way round. To give a concrete example: if, say, party RR set out to help win a strike by, among other things, mounting a series of meetings, distributing leaflets, organising marches, making collections, and so on -- and that strike was won as a result --, the fact that it had been successful could not itself be confirmed by more practice. That outcome would be clear from the way that the world had changed in line with earlier expectations. But who in their left mind would try to verify this by having another march, or holding more collections? In that case, the practical output of revolutionary activity cannot serve as a fundamental test of its correctness; there is much more to it than this.
In addition, it is worth noting that incorrect theories make successful predictions all the time -- as did Ptolemy's system for many centuries; the allegedly superior Copernican system was no more accurate than the older theory. Indeed, Ptolemy's system was refined in line with observation for many centuries, and became more accurate over time, but it was no nearer what we now regard as the truth, for all that.
It could be objected to this that it ignores much wider issues. For example, the Ptolemaic system was finally abandoned because it proved inferior to its rivals in the long run.
That is undeniable, but this response is alas double-edged: if it is only in the long run that we may evaluate a theory as successful, then that theory might never be so judged. This is because future contingencies could always arise to refute it -- no matter how well that theory once seemed to 'work'. In fact, if history is anything to go by, this has been the fate of the vast majority of previous theories; even though all 'worked' at some point, most of them have been abandoned. So, if anything, practice shows that practice is not unreliable!
Moreover, if it is only in the long run that superior theories win out, then for most of the time, inferior theories will make successful predictions. In that case, we would have no way of telling the good from the bogus for most of the time.
The above observations apply equally well to dialectics; if Marxists have to wait for the revolutionary overthrow of society before they know whether their theory is correct, they might not only have a long time to wait, they could find that Marx's caveat -- the one referring to the "common ruin of the contending classes" -- in the end refutes everything (that is, everything but that anti-deterministic pronouncement). Clearly, Marx and Engels would not have put this particular phrase in the Communist Manifesto if practice always determined truth, and correct theories invariably worked -- whatever they might appear to have said elsewhere:
"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." [Marx and Engels (1968), pp.35-36. Bold emphasis added.]
Anyway, such long-term promissory notes cannot tell us today whether dialectics is now correct. Indeed, that is one of the main weaknesses of pragmatic criteria such as these; they are projective, not assertoric.
Part of the problem with this sort of alethic consequentialism is that conditions and circumstances change -- a fact which dialecticians would be the first to acknowledge. But, this minimal point of agreement only serves to weaken their case, for if they continue to pin their hopes on outcomes alone to vindicate their theory then it might never be judged correct. Indeed, the opposite could turn out to be the case, especially if events unfolded in unexpected ways -- a denouement clearly allowed for by Marx and Engels, as noted above.
Naturally, in such circumstances, an appeal would have to be made to mitigating factors to save the theory from any awkward facts that might emerge; but if such additional (possibly theoretical) principles have to be deployed to reinterpret such apparently refuting outcomes -- in order to explain why the latter do not actually disconfirm the theory, but 'conform' to it -- then pragmatic criteria are clearly irrelevant.
This should be apparent even to hard-nosed Bolsheviks, if they but thought about their own practice with respect to practice. There seems to be little point in appealing to practice if the results have to be constantly reinterpreted when outcomes fall short of expectations -- as they almost invariably seem to do for us Marxists.
Indeed, when confronted with the glaring and long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism, dialecticians do just this -- they deny that DM has been tested in practice and shown to fail, and promptly appeal to 'objective factors' to account for its long and sorry history. So, practice is never used to account for failure, only success. In that case, practice need never be altered, since it can never fail. And so this sorry story staggers through yet another decade of defeat.
Pragmatic theorists must always do this sort of thing, or abandon their criterion.
The reason for saying this is that pragmatic theories are eternal hostages to fortune. Because of that, those who appeal to practice as a test of truth should feign no surprise when future contingencies fail to match expectations.
Again, it could be objected that modern scientific theories are remarkably successful which must mean that they are closer to the truth -- and that is why they work.
But, theories have to survive rigorous testing, and they evolve over time. The fact that certain theories remain viable is down to the additional fact that they have so far survived. But just because of that it does not mean that they are 'closer to the truth', no more than the fact that an organism survives in nature means that it is 'closer to the truth'. There is no such thing as the true form of a cat that all cats are evolving toward. Cats just survive. Truth does not enter into it. So successful cats do not prove cats are true; and cats, like theories, could become extinct one day, no matter how well they once survived, or 'worked'. Indeed, most organisms are now extinct; does that mean that they were unsuccessful when they were around? Hardly. And did that guarantee they would always remain so? Clearly not. And the same goes for any and all theories.
It could be objected that theories are not like cats, or dogs, or any other species; they are either true or they are not. Species cannot be so characterised.
Maybe not, but the reason why some theories survive and others do not is analogous to the way certain organisms do likewise: there are all sorts of historical, social and ideological pressures on theories, which, like the environmental impact on organisms, filter out those suited to that environment. In that case, the fact that a theory survives/works does not imply it is true (a case for the obverse inference might be viable (that a true theory will work/survive), but not this one). Unless we know on independent grounds that a theory is true, its survival cannot be used to infer its truth. And, as we have seen, practice itself cannot discriminate the good from the bad here.
[However, a new Marxist approach to the nature of scientific theories will be outlined in a later Essay -- one that does not make HM a hostage to fortune.]
If all this is so, then the emphasis revolutionaries place on practice as a guide to truth is misguided at best --, which all to the good, given the next point.
Thirdly, I argue that while revolutionaries constantly claim that their theory has been tested successfully in practice, the opposite is in fact the case. Indeed, given their unenviable record, it would be advisable for militants to stop appealing to practice to confirm dialectics. This is because throughout its history Dialectical Marxism has been spectacularly unsuccessful. It is perhaps among the most glaringly unsuccessful of all the major political theories/movements in human history -- even though this need not be.
I do not merely assert this; I list (in Essay Ten) the many DM-inspired failures our movement has faced/inspired -- alongside its few successes -- to prove the point.
DM has never seized the masses; by its own lights it stands refuted.
[Details concerning the works cited in this summary can be accessed here.]
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