Essay Three Part Two: Abstractionism -- Or, 'Science' On The cheap
For some reason I can't work out, Internet Explorer 11 will no longer play the video I have posted to this page. Certainly not on my computer! However, as far as I can tell, it plays in other Browsers.
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This Part of Essay Three has been written and re-written more times than any other at this site; the first half of it still contains rather too many mixed metaphors and stylistic monstrosities. I am in fact experimenting with new ways of expressing ideas that have been raked over countless times in the last 2400 years by Traditional Thinkers. It will require many more re-writes before I am completely happy with it; in which case, the reader's indulgence is required here more than elsewhere.
As is the case with all my Essays, 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 a good 50% of my case against DM has been relegated to the End Notes. Indeed, in this particular Essay, most of the supporting evidence is to be found there. This has been done to allow the main body of the Essay to flow a little more smoothly. This means that if readers want to appreciate fully my case against DM, they should consult this material. In many cases, I have added numerous qualifications and considerably more supporting detail to what I have to say in the main body; in addition, I have raised several objections (some obvious, many not -- and some that will have occurred to the reader) to my own arguments -- which I have then answered. [I explain why I have adopted this tactic in Essay One.]
If readers skip this material, then my answers to any objections they might have will be missed, as will the extra supporting detail and the many qualifications I have included. [Since I have been debating this theory with comrades for well over 25 years, I have heard all the objections there are! Many of the more recent on-line debates have been listed here.]
In addition, it is worth pointing out that phrases like "ruling-class theory", "ruling-class view of reality", "ruling-class ideology" (etc.) used at this site (in connection with Traditional Philosophy and DM), aren't meant to suggest that all or even most members of various ruling-classes actually invented these ways of thinking or of seeing the world (although some of them did -- for example, Heraclitus, Plato, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius). They are intended to highlight theories (or "ruling ideas") that are conducive to, or which rationalise the interests of the various ruling-classes history has inflicted on humanity, whoever invents them. Up until recently this dogmatic approach to knowledge had almost invariably been promoted by thinkers who either relied on ruling-class patronage, or who, in one capacity or another, helped run the system for the elite.**
However, that will become the central topic of Parts Two and Three of Essay Twelve (when they are published); until then, the reader is directed here, here, and here for more details.
[**Exactly how this applies to DM will, of course, be explained in the other Essays published at this site (especially here, here, and here). In addition to the three links in the previous paragraph, I have summarised the argument (but this time aimed at absolute beginners!) here.]
Finally, since this Essay continues where Part One left off, they should be read in conjunction with one another. In what follows, I take many of the points established in Part One for granted.
As of November 2017, this Essay is just over 89,000 words long; a summary of some of its main ideas can be found here.
The material presented below does not represent my final view of any of the issues raised; it is merely 'work in progress'.
[Latest Update: 02/11/17.]
Anyone using these links must remember that they will be skipping past supporting argument and evidence set out in earlier sections.
If your Firewall/Browser has a pop-up blocker, you will need to press the "Ctrl" key at the same time or these and the other links here won't work!
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(2) The Traditional Approach To Abstract General Ideas
(a) Dialectical Traditionalism
(b) How Not To Solve A Problem -- Begin By Doubling It
(c) Descent Into A Metaphysical Abyss
(3) Empiricism And The Anthropomorphic Brain
(a) The Empiricist 'Mind' Hits A Brick Wall
(b) Bourgeois Individualism
(c) How Not To Solve Insoluble 'Problems' 101
(d) Intelligent Ideas Versus A 'Little Man' In The Head
(4) Yet More Headaches For Dialecticians
(a) Induction And The Social Nature Of Knowledge
(b) Driven To Abstraction
(c) Reality: Abstract, Concrete -- Or Both?
(d) Collective Error Over General Terms
(5) Abstractionism: Bury It -- Or Praise It?
(a) Nothing To Lose But Your Confusion
(b) Public Criteria Versus Private Gain
(c) Particular Problems With 'Dialectical Generality'
(6) Appearance And Reality
(a) The Underlying 'Essence' Of 'Being'
(b) Does Reality Contradict Appearances?
(i) Contradictions Supposedly Generated By Science
(ii) The 'Contradiction' Between Science And 'Commonsense'
(iii) 'Contradictory' Capitalism?
(c) Adrift In A Sea Of Appearances
(i) 'Dialectical' Practice Can't Be 'Objective'
(ii) Are All Appearances 'False'?
(iii) Dialectics Engages Auto-Destruct Mode
(d) Why Science Cannot Undermine Common Sense
(i) Ordinary Language Conflated With Common Sense
(ii) Why Scientists Can't Afford To Undermine Common Sense
(a) 'Mental Strip-Tease'?
(b) Do Scientists Indulge In Abstraction?
(i) Berkeley And Frege
(ii) The Young Marx And Engels
(8) Bertell Ollman's Traditionalism
(a) Initial Disappointment
(b) The Privatised 'Process Of Abstraction'
(c) Karl Marx -- A Magician?
(d) The Young Marx And Engels Torpedo 'Abstractionism'
(e) Ollman Misconstrues The Nature Of Change
(f) 'Internal Relations' To The Rescue?
(g) Welcome To The Desert Of The Reification
(h) Brain Scans Required?
(i) Ollman Versus DM's Critics
Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism
Abbreviations Used At This Site
Return To The Main Index Page
In this Part of Essay Three, traditional answers to the 'problem' of generality (which involve, inter alia, the invention of 'Universals', 'Forms', 'Abstract Ideas', 'Categories' and/or 'Concepts'), and the deleterious effect they have had on Dialectical Marxism will be critically examined. In addition, the distinction between "appearance" and "reality" -- a dichotomy dialecticians have also imported from Traditional Thought -- will be subjected to sustained and destructive criticism.
The Traditional Approach -- Rationalism And Original Syntax
As Part One of this Essay demonstrated -- and as Part Two will further confirm --, beyond superficial differences, dialecticians have bought into the traditional view of 'abstract general ideas'.
Radical they are not.
In Metaphysics, the above ideas were intimately connected with the so-called 'problem' of "Universals".1
Rationalist Philosophers tended to argue that general words or 'concepts' were either anterior to experience or were apprehended (using 'the light of reason', or, perhaps, other a priori, regulative 'concepts' and/or 'categories') by means of generalisations drawn, or "abstracted" from -- or even applied to -- an unspecified number of particulars (i.e., individual objects or events of a certain sort) given in experience. The 'concepts', 'categories', and 'Ideas' so derived -- or employed -- were supposed to 'represent' or 'reveal' the formal, constitutive and/or 'essential' properties belonging to every particular of that type. Depending on their nature or provenance, these were variously called 'primary' or 'secondary' qualities, or properties that they either instantiated or in which they were said to "participate".
Naturally, this meant that material objects and events were somehow less 'real' than the abstractions that supposedly lent them their substantiality, or which constituted their "essence". Partly because of this, the general -- the 'rational' -- came to dominate over the particular -- the material --, in all subsequent thought in the Rationalist Tradition. So, what were in principle invisible and undetectable "essences" were viewed as more real than the world we see around us.
Hence, in view of the fact that these 'abstractions' are Ideal objects of thought (that is, either the individual's or 'God's thought -- they re in fact Abstract Particulars), this meant that, for Rationalists, while 'reality itself' was essentially Ideal, the material world was in effect a shadow world, not fully 'real', since it was where contingency, brute fact and uncertainty ruled supreme. The 'rational structure' that underpinned 'appearances' was the real world, and that world was accessible to 'thought' alone. If general terms constituted the 'essence' of material bodies then they were only such because of the Abstract or Ideal Particulars that underpinned them, or which the instantiated. Naturally, this implied that the material world was only 'real' because it was in effect Ideal -- an abstraction in its own right.
[We will see Engels, Lenin, and other DM-theorists reach similar conclusions, arguing that the 'concrete' is only concrete because of the abstractions to which we have to appeal in order to render them concrete -- and, oddly enough for erstwhile materialists, they held that matter itself is an abstraction! In which case, these self-proclaimed, hard-headed 'materialists' had already capitulated to Idealism, and had adopted a core principle of Rationalism -- that matter is an abstraction!]
To be sure, Descartes believed there were two substances -- 'Mind' and Matter --, but it soon became apparent (in the work of Spinoza, and in a somewhat different form in Leibniz's writings -- and later still in Hegel's 'theory') that there is only one rational or 'real' substance: 'Mind'. Everything else is an 'appearance', and hence 'accidental', 'ephemeral', contingent.
The traditional approach, which particularises general terms and nominalises verbs, has in one form of another dominated Western Thought -- and latterly DM -- for the best part of 2500 years. Its logical conclusion, in the work of Leibniz and Hegel (and their latter-day epigones), only serves to underline the claim advanced in these Essays that all ancient, medieval and early modern versions of Rationalist Philosophy are simply different forms of Idealism. And, as we will see, this approach to generality (or the meaning of general terms) has spread its tentacles into every subsequent metaphysical system/theory --, and to such an extent that it is clear that all forms of Traditional Philosophy (Rationalist, Nominalist, Realist, Monist, Dualist or Empiricist) are no less Idealist.1a
These "ruling ideas", given life in the 'west' by Ancient Greek Philosophers, found a new home in more recent, Bourgeois surroundings, albeit with brand new content that mirrored the new social and economic conditions in which they were born.
Even when this 'theory' is flipped "right-side up" (and "put on its feet"), allegedly in DM, material reality is still viewed as secondary, derivative, dependent, and not fully real. The material world, as it is seen by dialecticians, requires the rational principles encapsulated in DL to give it both life and form. After all, underlying "essences" 'contradict' "appearances", and in that punch-up, it is always "essence" that reigns supreme.1aa
[This, of course, helps explain why DM-fans find it impossibly difficult to tell non-believers what their 'abstractions' correspond with in 'reality'. As we saw in Part One (and as we will see in more detail In Essay Twelve Part Four), if there were anything in the universe for these 'abstractions', these 'rational principles', to correspond with, nature would either prove to be 'Mind', or the product of 'Mind'. On the other hand, if there isn't anything for them to correspond with, what use are they? To boost the morale of DM-fans?]
As the Book of Genesis noted, in an Ideal world it takes the 'word of God' (or something analogous) to give life and form to matter; without it, everything would remain lifeless, chaotic, or it might cease to exist -- or, indeed, even fail to begin to exist:
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.... And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God called the firmament Heaven.... And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so...." [Genesis, Chapter One, verses 2-11.]
In like manner, a 'Dialectical Logos' is required not just to add form to formless matter, but to call it into existence (from 'Nothing'), to give it life and make it move. Matter, even for DM-fans, isn't sufficient to itself. Which is, of course, why Hegel and DM-fans found they had to appeal to a linguistic form -- to contradiction -- to make things move and to give them life.
"Contradiction is the root of all movement and life, and it is only in so far as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity." [Hegel (1999), p.439, §956. Bold emphasis added.]
"So long as we consider things at rest and lifeless, each one by itself…we do not run up against any contradictions in them…. But the position is quite different as soon as we consider things in their motion, their change, their life, their reciprocal influence. Then we immediately become involved in contradictions. Motion itself is a contradiction…. [T]here is a contradiction objectively present in things and processes themselves, a contradiction is moreover an actual force...." [Engels (1976), pp.152-53. Bold emphases added]
"Dialectics…prevails throughout nature…. [T]he motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites…determines the life of nature." [Engels (1954), p.211. Bold emphasis added]
"The identity of opposites…is the recognition…of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature…. The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their 'self-movement', in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. Development is the 'struggle' of opposites. The two basic (or two possible? or two historically observable?) conceptions of development (evolution) are: development as decrease and increase, as repetition, and development as a unity of opposites (the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relation).
"In the first conception of motion, self-movement, its driving force, its source, its motive, remains in the shade (or this source is made external -- God, subject, etc.). In the second conception the chief attention is directed precisely to knowledge of the source of 'self-movement'.
"The first conception is lifeless, pale and dry. The second is living. The second alone furnishes the key to the 'self-movement' of everything existing; it alone furnishes the key to the 'leaps,' to the 'break in continuity,' to the 'transformation into the opposite,' to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new.
"The unity (coincidence, identity, equal action) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute." [Lenin (1961), pp.357-58. Italic emphases in the original. Bold emphases added.]
Because of this, it isn't possible to find, or even nominate, a single physical correlate in nature for the abstractions that dialecticians have conjured into existence (or, rather, for the 'abstractions' they imported from Hegel and other boss-class theorists) to correspond with --, and since they form the 'essential nature' of material objects and processes, the latter must be Ideal, too.
And that is why the aforementioned dialectical "flip" was no flip at all.
Hence, it is hardly surprising to find that DM-fans have had to denigrate ordinary language, and thus the experience of ordinary workers (accusing them of being dominated by 'commonsense', 'formal thinking' or 'false consciousness' -- aping a tactic adopted, and perfected, by countless generations of ruling-class hacks), in order to 'justify'/'rationalise' the appropriation of Hegelian concepts in their failed attempt to make DM work.
[These allegations will be substantiated in Essay Twelve (summary here).]
As we will discover throughout the rest of this site, dialecticians have only succeeded in saddling themselves with a series of insoluble theoretical problems because of their reliance on the traditional thought-forms they imported into the workers' movement. This also helps explain why every single dialectician slips into an a priori, dogmatic mode-of-thought at the drop of a copula --, and why they all fail to notice this even after it has been pointed out to them!
Moreover, as indicated earlier, this version of 'upside-down Idealism' [DM] sees the material world as less 'real' than the Ideal world that lends it its substance, or 'essence', and which determines what DM-theorists regard as "concrete".
And, we can now see why that is so: for dialecticians material objects are only "concrete" in the Ideal limit. But, since that limit is forever unattainable, this means that for them there are, in effect, no concrete objects or processes at all!
How Not To Solve A Problem: Begin By Doubling It
Aristotle pointed out -- in reference to Plato's Theory of Forms and the so-called Third Man Argument --, that it isn't a good idea trying to solve a problem by doubling it.
By this he meant that if there is a difficulty explaining the similarities that exist between the particulars given in experience, there is surely a more intractable one accounting for the alleged link between these particulars and the Abstract Universals found in Plato's theory. Where once they was only one problem there are now two.
Worse still, if the solution to this age-old conundrum implies there is a link that connects these particulars with 'a something-we-know-not-what', a specially invented 'Universal' --, situated in a mysterious world anterior to experience, and hence accessible to thought alone --, then this is a solution in name only.1b
Thus, if an abstract term is required to account for the similarities that exist between particulars, then a third term would plainly be needed to account for the similarity between that abstraction and those particulars themselves. Otherwise, the connection wouldn't be rational, merely fortuitous, accidental, undermining the whole point of the exercise.
Clearly, this third term simply reproduces the original problem. Plainly, because questions would naturally arise over the link between this new term and the other two -- each particular and this hypothesised Universal -- it had been introduced to connect.
However, Abstract Universals 'exist' in an Ideal realm, and they supposedly have connections with particulars in this world that are of a different order to those that material particulars might enjoy among themselves. Plainly, this just leaves the 'abstract' side of this family of 'solutions' shrouded in mystery.
Hence, if, for example, the introduction of Universal/Concept, C1, is required to account for the common features shared by objects A and B, then a new Universal/Concept, C2, a third term, will be required to account for the connection between C1 and A, and between C1 and B, and so on. The whole exercise thus threatens to collapse into an infinite regress, leaving nothing explained.
On the other hand, if C1 can't connect A and B directly on its own, what then is the point of introducing it?
Of course, it could be argued that C1 belongs to a different category to A and B, so the above argument is misconceived.
Well, it would be if 'Universals' hadn't already been transmogrified into Abstract Particulars (or the names thereof) by the syntactical segue exposed in Part One of this Essay. But, because Traditional Theorists have been doing precisely this at least since Plato was a lad, Aristotle's point (suitably adapted) applies to every known version of this theory. In which case, 'Universals', 'Concepts'', "Ideas" or "Categories", as they feature in Traditional Thought (and, alas, in DM, too), can't be general. They are just particulars of a rather peculiar sort, ashamed, perhaps, to come out of the closet.
Hence, the question remains: Is there a general term that is capable of linking ordinary objects and processes given in experience with these newly-minted Abstract Particulars?
That is just one of the reasons why this 'problem' is addressed in the way it was in Part One of this Essay. There, the discussion was aimed at exposing the syntactic and semantic slide that originally motivated it -- whereby predicate expressions were transformed into the names of Abstract Particulars. To be sure, Aristotle himself half recognised this problem (as we have seen), but the logic he developed wasn't sophisticated enough to account for its origin (and thus for its solution -- or, rather, for its dissolution), and he ended up committing himself to an early form of this error (in what turned out to be a precursor of the Identity Theory of Predication discussed in Part One (this links directly to a downloadable .doc file)).
On the other hand, if the aforementioned "third term" (i.e., C2) is superfluous, if a new general term isn't needed in order to connect an abstraction with a material particular, then it is difficult to see why particulars themselves need a second term (i.e., C1 itself) to link them in the first place. This is especially so if it turns out that this 'general term' is incapable of doing the job assigned to it -- i.e., because it has been transmogrified into particular itself!
But, if objects in the world do in fact relate to one another without a whole menagerie of abstract intermediaries (which are, after all, the metaphysical equivalent of the Crystalline Spheres or the Epicycles of Ptolemaic Astronomy) -- or, rather, if speakers manage to use general terms with ease every day of their lives without all this fuss --, what need is there for these 'abstractions' to begin with?1bb
Alternatively, if the relation between Universals and Particulars isn't one of resemblance (i.e., if C1 fails to resemble A or B), then the relation between each particular and its Ideal 'exemplar' must now be mysterious. If Universals and Particulars do not resemble one another, how can they possibly be connected, or how could the one connect the other two?
Indeed, it is far from clear what a Universal could possibly supply a particular that the latter can't provide for itself -- and that worry isn't mitigated in the least when it is recalled that, in Traditional Thought, Universals were pictured in ways that deprived them of the capacity to fulfil the very role that had been assigned to them -- i.e., accounting for generality.
Descent Into A Metaphysical Abyss
Unfortunately, this ancient error has been passed down the centuries to later generations of Traditional Theories, as this ancestral fall from linguistic grace traduced the entire population of flawed 'solutions' that have descended from it by unnatural selection --, including the 'poor relation' found in DM, the theoretical runt of this class-compromised litter.
Empiricism And The Anthropomorphic Brain
The Empiricist 'Mind' Hits A Brick Wall
Philosophers of a more practical, worldly or empiricist frame-of-mind approached this 'problem' from a different angle; they held that general terms were 'constructions' of some sort, cobbled together by the 'mind'.
[It is worth noticing that this approach also implied that the 'mental' side of the equation came first -- with 'mind' holding primacy over matter, once more. So, as we will see, the 'high road' (Rationalism) and the 'low road' (Empiricism) both drove Traditional Theorists into adopting one form of Idealism or another.]
In fact, the 'mind' was somehow able to 'apprehend' the 'common' elements supposedly shared by particulars given in experience (which process manifested itself internally in the production, or the 'processing', of "ideas", "images", "impressions" and "sense data" -- or, of late, "qualia").
Minimal agreement aside, such theorists tended to be divided over whether universal terms were genuine features of reality or were simply a by-product of an overactive mind --, or, indeed, whether they were merely empty terms and thus perhaps just "useful fictions".
As things turned out, it mattered not, for on this view general words were once again demoted, having been transformed into 'mental particulars' of one sort or another (i.e., they were the names given to ideas in the mind, or those of processes in the brain). Even though Berkeley saw the need to escape from this theoretical cul-de-sac, his 'solution' only succeeded in sinking the Empiricist Tradition deeper into the same old Idealist quick sands.
Unfortunately, there were far more serious problems over and above those that had been bequeathed to empiricist thought as a result of the syntactical sins of their philosophical forebears: if 'general' ideas were in fact particular to each mind (and, on this view, they had to be such for, plainly, no two individuals share the same mind or were fed the same experiences), they couldn't be general across a population -- even in theory! [The point of that observation will soon emerge.] This would be all the more so if the 'process of abstraction' (as it had been conceived by these empiricists) simply created yet more Abstract Particulars --, just as earlier forms of the 'same process' had manufactured rationalist, abstract particulars in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy.
In that case, the empiricist tradition seemed quite happy to maintain, and then elaborate upon, these ancient misadventures. This particular set of "ruling ideas" (i.e., these 'abstractions') now colonised another set of eager, but now bourgeois, brains.
To explain: assume thinker T1 has formed (by whatever 'empirical means' available to her) the supposedly general idea, G1, and thinker, T2, forms the 'same' general idea, G2, of supposedly the 'same' objects. Now, in order to say of these 'general ideas' (G1 and G2) that they are indeed ideas of the same things (or, indeed, are the same general idea), a third term will be required to connect them (i.e., because in that case G1 and G2 would presumably both be exemplars of the same general, general (no mis-print!) idea, G -- ), so that it could truly be said that these two were instances of the same 'concept', 'idea', or 'impression'. Plainly, this, too, falls foul of Aristotle's objection, which in turn means that every single 'solution' offered up by those working in the Empiricist Tradition suffered from the same fatal defect that blighted those that had been dreamt up by the Rationalists.
As we will see, this not only made it impossible for every single Traditional Thinker -- drawn from right across the philosophical spectrum -- to account for human inter-communication, representation and learning, it also emptied generality of all content, vitiating the whole exercise.
[Exactly how this approach would make communication (etc.) impossible will be examined briefly below, but in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
Of course, it could be objected that such ideas had intentional generality built into them --, whereby their inventors intended they should refer to general features of reality. But, as should seem obvious, 'intentional generality' is similarly trapped in its own solipsistic universe, since it is itself a particular.
[To see this, just replace "G1" with "intentionally general idea G1" in the above argument, and the rest will follow.]
Naturally, this is just another way of saying that intentions can't create generality any more than wishes can alter in any way travel arrangements for beggars.
Indeed, simply gluing the word "general" onto the word "concept" (as, perhaps, part of an 'intention' to refer to a "general concept") would merely saddle prospective users of that word with a term born of the same defective logic, for the phrase "general concept" is yet another particular --, or, at least, it is the title thereof.
In fact, any attempt to derive generality from the atomised conceptual fragments that (on this view) floated randomly into each individual mind via the senses (or cobbled together from them) will always hit the same brick wall: abstraction only succeeds in creating the names of abstract particulars --, whosoever indulges in this black art, whenever it is practiced, and with whatever 'noble philosophical intentions' this conjuring trick is attempted.
Fortunately, however, for us genuine materialists, the logic of predication (as it features in ordinary language) has already loaded the dice and fixed the result in our favour --, and there is no leave to appeal its uncompromising final judgement. Generality is a feature of the way we use words, not a property of those words themselves (or of the 'images', 'ideas' and 'impressions' that supposedly underpin such words).
[That was established in Part One of this Essay.]
It could be countered that inter-communication isn't in fact threatened by empiricist versions of abstractionism, since communication with others is not only possible, it is actual -- because, manifestly, people can and do share their ideas.
But, quite apart from the above response assuming what was to be proved, it runs aground almost immediately. That is because it reproduces Aristotle's original problem -- only now greatly magnified. It is an even worse idea to multiply one's difficulties by a factor of several billion -- right across the entire human race -- in an endeavour to account for generality by an appeal to the abstractions forged, and now trapped, in each socially-atomised brain.
[To see this, just replace the "G1" or "G2" with "G3 to Gn", where "n" can take any value from one to six billion, or more, in the above argument, and the rest should follow.]
In that case, we wouldn't just have the two theorists mentioned above with their two supposedly individually formed 'general' ideas, we would have billions of minds, with countless individual ideas, to interconnect.
And the same difficulties will afflict anyone who aims to provide their own general solution to this bogus 'problem'. A strategy forged along these lines is doomed to fail because any explanation of how the particular ideas of general terms located in separate heads actually resemble the same general features of reality they supposedly express, reflect or mirror -- or even the same particular ideas of these alleged general terms located in anyone else's head --, would each require its own linking term on the lines detailed above. Accounting for them would, of course, make squaring the circle look like child's play in comparison. This Sisyphean task would simply create yet more abstract particulars locked in the individual mind of anyone foolish enough to try.
In short: a 'general' silk purse can't be made out of this atomised pig's ear.
Struggling to escape these metaphysical quicksands thus draws the trapped Philosopher deeper in. Given the traditional approach, Abstract Particulars (but not general terms) loom out of the shadows at every turn as additional layers of Abstract Particulars are required to account for the last batch that had just been conjured into existence. Since none of them is capable of evolving into a higher general form by its own efforts, this approach to knowledge, or 'ontology', merely creates an endless, ascending series of Abstract Particulars.
Generality thus evaporates like morning dew high summer.
Just as ancient rationalist ideas can be traced back to Aristocratic notions invented and propagated by Greek Philosophers (concerning the 'natural' hierarchical or divine order underpinning the Universe, a view itself motivated by the need to 'justify' ruling-class power, social stratification and inequality), the origin of more recent Atomist and Empiricist theories (of the so-called 'Universals') can be linked to the early modern rise of Bourgeois 'democracy', with its characteristic emphasis on "possessive individualism". [On this, see Note 2.]
If this new social order was meant to be democratic (but only "within certain limits"), founded on the presumed psychology of the fabled Bourgeois Individual, then private ownership in the means of mental production made eminent good sense.
The fragmentation introduced into society by the rise of Capitalism was mirrored by an analogous dissolution of the Universal into its particulars, now scattered across countless million isolated bourgeois heads.
Capitalism 'freed' workers from the land and Empiricism freed Ideas from the Platonic Forms and Aristotelian Universals; the old ontological pecking-order crumbled as new market conditions swept all before them. However, the need remained to 'justify' undemocratic and oppressive state power and rationalise the newly emerging class relations, ad this in turn meant that theorists now had to concoct novel ways of conceptualising 'bourgeois reality'.
As we will soon see, in this respect Empiricism couldn't cut mustard. A fresh wave of Rationalist thought was urgently needed to (i) Counter this fragmentation of knowledge, (ii) Provide the theoretical and ideological unification required by the Absolutist Bourgeois Nation State, and (iii) To 'justify' its 'rightful' or 'god-given' sovereignty. The ideas of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Wolff, Kant and Hegel were thus thrown into the breach, as fresh waves of boss-class theory flowed from these newly commissioned ruling-class hacks.1c0
Even so, just as workers still got screwed in this new 'market economy' (only now in novel ways), general ideas were similarly shafted (but in the same old way).1c
Once more, this turn to Rationalism was futile; the ancient fragmentation of general ideas can't be reversed -- whoever tries to do it -- unless and until the syntactic sins of yesteryear have themselves been absolved, and then corrected.
Indeed, as those fabled soldiers found with respect to Humpty Dumpty, once in pieces, 'general concepts' are impossible to put back together again.2
Figure One: Abstractionism Takes A Tumble
No surprise then that despite countless pretensions to the contrary, these newly-minted 'modern' theories found it equally impossible to account for the very thing they had been invented to explain: generality.
If generality is simply an aspect of the mind's operation (and not a feature of 'things-in-themselves' -- as some rationalists claimed) --, it was far from easy to see what it was about each particular idea of the general (located in each socially-isolated head) that made it general, or even appear to be general, now that one and all had been hived-off, and then re-located in each individual bourgeois skull.
Given this 'modern' approach, there would be nothing but individual ideas loosely tied together in ways that became increasingly difficult to fathom, floating about in each socially-atomised head. At a minimum level, even a general idea like this (i.e., that which apparently concerns "every individual", and which sought to tell us what resides in each mind -- soon to be re-Christened "Thought", "The Understanding", or even "Speculative Reason") is, on this theory, devoid of any clear sense. If Philosophers couldn't account for generality (largely because they had killed it stone dead many centuries ago), then they had no way of accounting for its appearance, or lack of it, anywhere else --, either in the general population, or in the privacy of their own heads. How is it even possible to speak about "every head" with anything other than a string of empty words if generality had already been done to death?2a
To be sure, some attempt might be made to attach to the word "idea" another as-yet-to-be-explained term -- i.e., "general" (as in, say, "general idea") --, but, if all meaningful words in circulation have to be backed by genuine 'mental bullion' (i.e., if they all have to be cashed-out in terms of 'ideas' in the mind', as this family of empiricist theories consistently maintained), then a phrase like "the general idea of..." would itself still be particular in the mind of whomever had thought it, whatever associationist incantations had been uttered over it. The definite article, of course, gives the game away.
In that case, for Empiricists, the term, "general idea" would be as empty a phrase as "general particular" had been for Rationalists.
Feigned generality like this implies that the use of such terms amounted to little more than the issuing of epistemological 'promissory notes' -- of little real value if there was nothing in the bourgeois vaults to back these rapidly escalating 'semantic debts'.
Thus it was that in the empiricist tradition there ensued several more centuries of a priori 'science-on-the-cheap', this time backed not even by printed currency, only by yet more empty words.
[It might be thought that empiricist epistemology is a posteriori, not a priori. Well, so the official brochure would have us believe, but it has always been predicated on rather fanciful a priori psychology, 'buttressed' by centuries of what was in effect science fiction. More on this in Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
To suppose otherwise (i.e., that the word "general" -- or any other term, for that matter --, is quite up to the task of creating generality by its own efforts) is tantamount to thinking that inscriptions alone are capable of determining, or projecting, their own meanings throughout the whole of 'semantic space' (with this trick also miraculously coordinated across each and every epistemologically-isolated bourgeois skull), as if they were autonomous agents. But, unaided, as a mark on the page -- or even as an "idea" in the head -- the word "general" seems entirely incapable of unscrambling this very real metaphysical egg.
On the other hand, if general ideas are capable of representing, or 'reflecting', 'things-in-themselves' (that is, if there are indeed 'real universals' that exist 'somewhere', to which general words supposedly 'correspond') -- as the scientific realist wings of this traditional 'journey-into-nowhere' maintained -- it would surely prove impossible to explain the mode of signification of either term, as we are about to see.
If each general idea or word refers to something, somewhere in reality -- in Platonic Heaven, Hegelian Hell, or anywhere else -- they could only do that if they functioned as Proper Names, or Proper Name surrogates. But, as we saw in Part One, if that were so, general ideas, or words, couldn't be general, just particular.
Even if one and all were grandiosely re-christened and given the Honorary Title, "General Name", they would stubbornly remain humble particulars. In this case, they would still amount to a particular phrase -- or to what each supposedly referred --, for reasons outlined above. No matter what was done to, or with, each and every particular instance of the word "general", it would still prove quite incapable of escaping from the atomised dungeon into which it had been so unceremoniously cast.2b
Even if each 'bourgeois mind' had its own individual idea of a given 'general name', one that was particular to each head, the universality that post-Renaissance theorists sought would forever remain elusive, fragmented as it now was in the skulls of all who played this futile game, and with these fractured rules.
The bottom line is, of course, that if anything supposedly general is capable of being given a Proper Name, it can't be general, but must be particular.
And, rather like virginity, once lost, generality can't be restored.3
How Not To Solve Insoluble 'Problems' 101
Empiricists attempted to solve this intractable 'problem' by diverting attention from it: they invented an irrelevant 'mental' capacity, an ability the 'mind' apparently possessed that enabled it to spot "resemblances" between the various 'impressions', 'images, or 'ideas' the senses supposedly sent its way, or which were subsequently prompted by them.
But, once again, Aristotle's objection rears its annoying head: if there is a problem over the existence of 'resemblances' in 'external reality', it is surely a bad idea to retreat from the Real into the Ideal in an attempt to resolve it. Indeed, if this process takes place hidden away in the 'mind', the philosophical 'problem' this approach sought to resolve simply resurfaces in a completely intractable form, since inner processes of this sort are beyond both objective and subjective confirmation.4
Generality, driven inwards, is even more difficult to coax out of its individualised shell.5
Platonic Realism, Aristotelian Conceptualism and Bourgeois Empiricism (along with a host of other metaphysical doctrines that addressed this pseudo-problem in these terms) all ran aground on these unyielding particularist rocks.
By way of contrast, the words we use in ordinary language enable, with ease, the expression of generality when they are left to social agents to breath life into them. They soon lose all semantic vitality when they are replaced by the moribund abstract singular terms invented by work-shy Philosophers with more leisure time on their hands than is good for any mortal.6
However, by placing all the emphasis on each individual's apprehension of generality (howsoever this is engineered in that individual's head), theorists found they could only account for generality by surreptitiously re-employing other general terms somewhere else.
This unfortunate turn-of-events arose largely because Traditional Philosophers tended to conceive of this conundrum epistemologically. Unfortunately, the logical fall from grace that gave life to the original 'problem' (in Ancient Greek thought, covered in detail in Part One) was simply ignored, buried as it now was under centuries of irrelevant psycho-babble (aka, Traditional Epistemology). And there it largely remains entombed to this day.6a0
As Empiricists conceived things, if experience presents 'the mind' with particular ideas, then generality must be cobbled-together from whatever resemblances it notices in each assumed exemplar. This made the whole 'problem' look as if it depended on an individual's 'inner recognitional capacities', as if the fragmented contents of 'the mind' were like the faces of long lost friends who had wandered fortuitously into the same room, and in strict order.
Friends one can recognise; but how could anyone recognise an idea they had never seen before?
No good constructing a photo-fit.6a
Worse still, not one of these impromptu 'visitors' would resemble the next without the use of the general terms this 'theory' was itself meant to explain!
Anyway, given this family of theories, general terms had to be distilled painstakingly from a manifestly finite batch of examples, those that serially confronted each lone abstractor, or observer, as the whim took them, or as their imagination drifted off into hyper-drive, and in random order.
But, if each socially-isolated 'mind' is supposed to extrapolate successfully from the few particulars that fortune sent its way, then, in order to construct the relevant abstract general idea, each fragmentary experience -- each sensation, impression, idea, or quale (singular of qualia) -- would have to be coaxed out of its particularised shell, and given a radical, general make-over.
In order to do that, the 'mind' would have to re-connect these sensate atoms (sensations, impressions, ideas, or qualia) with others of the 'same sort', using whatever similar features it happened to notice in each. But, not only does this make it difficult to explain how any two lone abstractors could ever form the same idea of anything, it makes the whole process dependent on similarity.
This new twist now introduced yet another general idea through the back door -- as noted above --, while failing to explain either the general or the particular that had just slipped out the front. If two things are similar then plainly that would be so with respect to some feature they both hold in common, which feature (of necessity) can't itself be another particular (or it wouldn't be held in common).
Nevertheless, just as theologians discovered (with respect to their ideas of the Trinity, in, for example, the Athanasian Creed: "Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance"), so empiricists found that with regard to their fragmentary ideas of generality: it was impossible for them not to confound the particular without dividing the Universal.6b Hence, if each individual shares exactly the same universal of resemblance (say, G1, from earlier), then that term must be particular to that individual. The general, having thus been distributed over the entire congregation of novice abstractors, can't now fail to inherit this already fractured nature.
Conversely, if the re-distribution of generality hadn't been carried out in a perfectly egalitarian manner, the relevant particulars wouldn't have been collected under the same general term, shared equally between all.
On the other hand, once more, if generality is shared equally, it would be difficult to tell each individual apart. So, in these terms, the general is either divided or particulars are confounded. And, how might one or both of these be accurately ascertained across an entire population of lone abstractors?
[No good commissioning a Gallup Poll.]7
And, if they can't be so ascertained, inter-communication would be impossible.
In that case, the choice between confounding the individuals or dividing the substance (i.e., the general) plagued Empiricists and Rationalists alike, as it had the Trinitarians -- and for the same basic reason: this entire family of doctrines had been sired by the same ancient syntactic sin.
All of which helps explain the serial oscillation (in Traditional Ontology) between Monism, Dualism and Pluralism.
Intelligent Ideas Versus A 'Little Man' In The Head
These problems don't, of course, stop there. Any answer to questions that concern themselves with how the 'Mind' sifts through the 'ideas' of particulars the senses supposedly send its way, or which prompt them, sorting them correctly into the right groups, would surely have to appeal to a prior grasp of general words (in public use) in order to do just that. This is a point that Kant realised (in his own confused way -- "confused" since he located this 'sorting' in 'the mind', and ignored the public use of language):
"Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." [Quoted from here.]
"Our cognition arises from two fundamental sources in the mind, the first of which is the reception of representations (the receptivity of impressions), the second of the faculty for cognizing an object by means of these representations (spontaneity of concepts); through the former an object is given to us, through the latter it is thought in relation to that representation (as a mere determination of the mind). Intuition and concepts therefore constitute the elements of all our cognition, so that neither concepts without intuition corresponding to them in some way nor intuition without concepts can yield a cognition." [Kant (1998), pp.193-94, A51/B75. Bold emphases in the original. By "intuition" Kant meant something like "immediate experience" -- Caygill (1995), pp.262-66.]
"Our knowledge springs from two main sources in the mind, first of which is the faculty or power of receiving representations (receptivity for impressions); the second is the power of cognizing by means of these representations (spontaneity in the production of conceptions). Through the first an object is given to us; through the second, it is, in relation to the representation (which is a mere determination of the mind), thought. Intuition and conceptions constitute, therefore, the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither conceptions without an intuition in some way corresponding to them, nor intuition without conceptions, can afford us a cognition." [Online version of the above. As we saw in Part One, Hegel also made a similar point.]
However, without this pre-requisite (i.e., public use of the vernacular), inter-subjective 'objectivity' would be an empty notion.
Indeed, this is just another way of saying that 'impressions' and 'ideas' can't be expected to sort themselves neatly into groups, since they have neither the wit nor the motivation so to do. They clearly need some form of regimentation, externally imposed. But, in the age-old battle between the One and the Many, the Many have always proved to be far too 'uncivilised' to marshal themselves voluntarily in the required manner, the One far too Ideal (and thus too weak) to crack the necessary whip.
However, if the regimentation of these 'ideas' and 'impressions' is possible, or achievable -- and, if 'objectivity' is to be preserved --, then principles external to these unruly 'impressions' and 'ideas' (the Many) must be found in order to lend the 'Mind' (the One) a helping hand. Never was care in the community of ideas more needed than here. And yet, if these 'impressions' and 'ideas' are to become more than what would otherwise be a heap of conceptual dust (that is, if there is in this bourgeois community of ideas no such thing as "society", to paraphrase Mrs Thatcher), such 'care' must be sought elsewhere.
As seems plain, the sortal principles necessary to keep these disorderly 'impressions' and 'ideas' in check can't be self-explanatory, nor can they be self-regulating. If they were, then there would seem to be no reason why this couldn't in like manner be true of these 'impressions' and 'ideas', or, indeed, why they couldn't troop unaided into the right metaphysical categories -- certifying their own inter-subjective 'resemblances' with others of the 'same ilk' without an 'internal drill-sergeant' to whip them into shape.
Alternatively, if every 'impression' and 'idea' were indeed capable of self-regulation, or of self-sorting, that would remove the need for a 'Mind' with its attendant goons to do the regimenting.
[To save repetition, I will drop the cumbersome phrase "'impressions' and 'ideas'" and just refer to ideas.]
Clearly, the first of the above two options would see the 'Mind' as some sort of 'internal drill-sergeant', thus anthropomorphising it; the second would throw this sergeant on the scrap heap with little more than a compulsory demob notice.
[There are echoes of both halves of this dilemma in Cognitive Psychology and Behaviourism: the former anthropomorphises the brain, the latter banishes the 'Mind' altogether (i.e., it has sent this drill-sergeant packing). More on this in Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
Of course, Empiricists claimed that the 'Mind' was somehow capable of extrapolating way beyond the limited number of particulars -- supposedly delivered to it by the senses, or as a result of the 'impressions' they created -- extrapolating to general ideas, which they supposedly instantiated. This handy 'solution' left it unexplained how this 'extrapolation' might be carried out without the 'Mind' already having some notion of the general to guide it.
And, as Kant might have asked: where on earth would that come from?
Nevertheless, if particulars are to be corralled into the correct sortal groups by the 'Mind' (or, these days, by goons disguised as 'modules'), there seem to be only two ways this might be achieved:
(A) The first involved a reference to specific 'mental faculties' (again, these days called "modules") that every novice abstractor supposedly possesses, or to which they enjoy automatic, privileged access to do the marshalling for them -- mental "bodies of armed men", as it were. Bourgeois Ideas, supposedly born free, would everywhere have to be clapped in chains. This is the 'mental' equivalent, perhaps, of the Absolutist State.
(B) The second appealed to the "natural properties" that ideas or "concepts" were supposed to possess, which meant that they were capable of regimenting themselves, marching 'voluntarily' into the right sortal categories with no outside assistance. This is the 'mental equivalent', perhaps, of an Anarchist Utopia.
Taking each in turn:
(A) One version of this alternative postulated the existence of the so-called "innate ideas" of resemblance 'programmed' into the mind, activated, or guided, either by the "laws of thought", the "natural light of reason", or some other handy a priori 'mental structure' or 'architectonic'. [Caygill (1995), pp.84-85.]
[Modern analogues of this bourgeois 'mental assembly-line' have these factors 'hard-wired' in the brain as a sort of "transformational grammar" (now called "Unbounded Merge"), or even a "Language of Thought." (On this, see Cowie (2002).)]
An older version of this particular alternative held that 'innate ideas' were somehow capable of motivating aspiring abstractors, allowing them to classify each particular under the relevant (and 'correct') general term. [How each knew what was 'correct' and what was 'incorrect', and how they might agree with one another across an entire population, we must pass over in silence -- largely because those who adopted this alternative passed over them in silence, too.]
Of course, this places Option (A) squarely in the Rationalist Camp, and perhaps because of this the temptation became irresistible to bury the source of these 'innate principles' in the mists of time -- boosted of late with a barrage of Neo-Darwinian fairy-tales back-projected into the Pleistocene -- original syntax now based on Genetics, not Genesis.8
Other versions of this alternative weren't even remotely Empiricist; they made a brash appearance in the Cartesian-Leibnizian-Kantian-Hegelian tradition of a priori myth-making.
Nevertheless, each variant shared the same fundamental premiss: abstract concepts or ideas were alive and well, and were either living in a skull near you, or were camped out somewhere in 'objective' reality waiting to be enlisted to the cause -- presumably, by merely being thought-about.
Even more convenient was the additional fact that although abstract ideas were held somehow to be real, they also transcended actual or possible experience (as Kant put the point) -- indeed, rather like the gods of yore. And, as was the case with those Ancient Divinities, these abstractions underpinned, gave substance to, or even created the material world we see around us -- as they 'self-developed' as pictured, for example, in Hegel's Hermetic House of Horrors.
In fact, given this approach, abstract ideas were more real than the material objects and processes we encounter every day. The latter were debased, lowly, contingent beings (fit only for destruction, according to Hegel), and hardly worth mentioning in Ideal company.
Moreover, since these abstractions could be, and had been, given rather grandiose names, they must exist somewhere. Linguistic reification had in fact transformed them, making them somehow Super-Real -- since they were, of course, above and beyond those unreliable and contingent 'appearances' -- meaning they alone were worthy of delivering the Super-Scientific Truths they brought in their train. As White pointed out:
"Already with Fichte the idea of the unity of the sciences, of system, was connected with that of finding a reliable starting-point in certainty on which knowledge could be based. Thinkers from Kant onwards were quite convinced that the kind of knowledge which came from experience was not reliable. Empirical knowledge could be subject to error, incomplete, or superseded by further observation or experiment. It would be foolish, therefore, to base the whole of knowledge on something which had been established only empirically. The kind of knowledge which Kant and his followers believed to be the most secure was a priori knowledge, the kind embodied in the laws of Nature. These had been formulated without every occurrence of the Natural phenomenon in question being observed, so they did not summarise empirical information, and yet they held good by necessity for every case; these laws were truly universal in their application." [White (1996a), p.29. In fact, Rationalists since Plato's day had already concluded this.]
Even better, the Ancients had re-programmed them into the subject-copula-predicate form -- even if this cosmically important linguistic device only showed its face in the Indo-European family of languages.
As we saw in Part One of this Essay, science-on-the-cheap like this has dominated practically all forms of Traditional Thought since Ancient Greece -- it is indeed a genuine ruling idea:
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch." [Marx and Engels (1970), pp.64-65, quoted from here. Bold emphases added.]
(B) The second of the above two Options implied that ideas 'naturally' congregated of their own 'free will', as it were, into their 'correct' or 'natural' pigeon holes. However, if ideas are capable of assembling themselves into classes under their own steam, they must possess a 'herding instinct' of some sort. Clearly, in order for them to gather together correctly, such ideas must either:
(B1) Possess an intellect of their own, or,
(B2) Be capable of 'obeying', or being 'guided by', certain specific natural or logical 'laws' -- or, maybe even, a "law of cognition".
As far as (B1) is concerned, ideas were not only capable of 'recognising' those of the same kind, they were bright enough and meek enough to flock together with no further ado. This implied that they were able to, (B1a) 'Detect' for themselves the resemblances they shared with others of their clan -- which once more meant that they were really surrogate minds, skilled at identifying their own close 'mental relatives' correctly, and unerringly.
Alternatively, these spontaneously gregarious ideas were (B1b) 'Programmed' to behave as if they could act this way.
In short, these two sub-options (B1a and B1b) traded on the belief that (i) Ideas were just minds writ small, or (ii) Minds were little more than Incarnate Ideas.
B1a(i) found a safe haven in Leibniz's mind (whether this was his own idea, or he was programmed to think it was his is somewhat unclear) -- whereby everything in the universe is 'really' composed of pre-programmed, inter-reflecting 'minds' (or "Monads").
B1a(ii), in a much grander, if not grandiose, form parasitized Hegel's brain. There, Mind was self-developing Idea, the final Supreme Controller of this Metaphysical Mystery Tour.
To be sure, Hegel certainly thought he was the engineer of his own ideas, but if he was right, he was merely the oily rag.
However, with (B2) the idea seemed to be that natural 'laws' operating on the contents of the 'Mind' could account for the regimentation of its contents in strict battalion order (a time-worn notion that resurfaces these days in naturalistic theories of 'the mind'). Once again, this merely reduplicates the very problem it was meant to solve, for it implied that an external 'Will' of some sort ran both the 'inner' and the 'outer' world, as everything in this unified 'Mental Cosmos' obeyed its orders as if one and all were law-abiding citizens.
Clearly, in order for something to be capable of obeying orders it must be intelligent (otherwise, the word "obey", used in such a context, must have a different meaning). But, in like manner, these 'inner ideas' must be intelligent, too, only now they were supposedly governed by the 'laws of thought'. Each one of these 'ideas' wasn't simply a passive lodger in the brain, but an active citizen in this (internal) Cosmic/Cognitive State. In that case, the Inner Microcosm was capable of mirroring the Outer Macrocosm (and vice versa), as assorted mystics never tire of telling us -- according to them, the Mind was well-ordered because the Cosmos is, and vice versa. They were capable of knowing each other because both were 'Mind', or the product of 'Mind'. [There is a faint echo of this in Kant; a deafening echo in Hegel.]
Small wonder then that Traditional Theories of causation (and, indeed, of 'physical law') were shot through with anthropomorphism, mysticism, and animism, and can only be made even to seem to work if inappropriate modal terms (like "necessity" and "must") are press-ganged into service.8a
This in turn suggests that 'objective laws', and the objects that 'obey' them, were in effect a reification of the subjective mental capacities and dispositions of the individual indulging in all this armchair speculation.9
Conversely, it implied that the human mind was intelligent simply because the universe was (this notion can be found in the odd idea that the universe became conscious of itself as a result of the emergence of humanity (a doctrine implicit in Hegel, but openly propagated by Teilhard de Chardin, Bergson, and several Marxist dialecticians -- Ted Grant, for example)), which conclusion itself was a reflection of the tortured 'logic' used to mirror the thoughts of the superhuman Alter-ego that allegedly ran the entire show, 'The Absolute', which we met in Part One.
Given this scheme-of-things, not only was the Real Rational, and the Rational Real, there was in fact only the Rational. Only 'Mind'.
Be this as it may, these two options readily collapse into either Subjective or Objective Idealism -- as we have seen.10
Yet More Headaches For Dialecticians
Traditional 'solutions' to these bogus philosophical 'problems' -- "bogus" because, in the 'West', they were originally based on a class-motivated misconstrual of a small and unrepresentative grammatical feature of Indo-European grammar (as we saw in Part One of this Essay, as well as in Essay Two) -- traditional 'solutions' only succeeded in creating two further 'difficulties'.11
Oddly enough, both of these 'difficulties' re-surface, albeit in modified form in each case, in the DM-theory of 'abstraction'.
Induction And The Social Nature Of Knowledge
In Traditional Philosophy, the first of these later came to be known as "the problem of induction". The latter centres on the (presumed) theoretical possibility that future events might fail conform to what would ordinarily be expected of them -- or, to put this another way, they might fail to remain locked inside the conceptual straight-jackets the 'mind' had hitherto intended for them.12 If any single 'mind' is capable of experiencing only a limited range of exemplars from which it has to piece-together the general ideas later attributed to it, subsequent experience could always refuse to play ball, metaphysically 'rebelling', as it were.
In that case, the future might fail to resemble the past in any meaningful sense. Not only might the Sun fail to rise (tomorrow), but cats might even refuse to walk about on mats, and could even turn into them. Worse still, fire might no longer burn books on Metaphysics -- as Hume had hoped -- but write them instead --, and Hegel might even begin to make sense.
[I hasten to add that these aren't my views; I am simply summarising the 'problem of induction'.]
Of course, some philosophers have argued that these 'difficulties' could be neutralised if the mind was able to gain direct access to, or to employ, 'abstract' ideas (Real Universals, or General Concepts and Categories, etc.), which were fully capable of regimenting contingent nature (or, at least, the 'impressions' of it the senses supposedly send its way), so that the future is guaranteed to resemble the past -- or, at least, resemble our previous experience and knowledge of one or both.
However, in order to control these potentially 'rebellious' ideas (and our ideas of them), something a little more convincing was called for than Locke's Social Contract, or Hume's feeble habitus (habit). Ancient Greek notions concerning an ordered Cosmos -- a limited Whole, a doctrine concocted at a time when Idealist theories like this seemed to make some sort of sense to the ruling-class hacks who dreamt it up --, didn't translate at all well into the fragmentary, bourgeois world of the 18th century; indeed, it was a dogma threatened on a daily basis by these seemingly unruly material particulars.12a
In such inhospitable surroundings, not only must these regimental 'Concepts' and 'Abstractions' be robust enough to organise the contents of the 'mind' behind the backs, as it were, of their producers (i.e., Traditional Theorists), they must exist prior to, and be independent of, experience -- or, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune themselves.
Initially, for "crude materialists", at least, it wasn't easy to account either for the source or for the effectiveness of these 'sergeant-major'-like concepts, -- i.e., these 'mental constructs' ('concepts' and 'categories', etc.), which permit of no exceptions, past, present or future. The theoretical rescue for empiricists and materialists (if such it may be called) came from an unexpected source: German Idealism. More specifically, and even more revealingly, this 'rescue' turned out to be an impossibly convoluted, obscure version of Ancient Greek Hermeticism.
The Seventh Cavalry had arrived in the nick of time, but it was, alas, blowing a very indistinct note -- possibly none at all.
Esoteric Flannel replacing Errol Flynn.
The 'Epistemologically Imperialist Utopia' concocted by these Teutonic Idealists required the invention of Super-Duper 'Concepts', Industrial Strength 'Categories', and Carbon Fibre 'Principles', Borazonic Ideas, packing enough metaphysical clout to control the deliverances of the senses with an iron hand. These days such heavy-duty principles are further buttressed by impressive sounding phrases -- like, "natural necessity", "conceptual-", or "ontological-necessity". Terms like this are clearly needed, otherwise the semi-house-trained impressions (or, for Kant, "intuitions") the senses deliver up might continue to revolt and set up their own Anarchist Collective -- where fires actually freeze things instead of burning them, fish might break out in song, and Dialectical Marxism might even become a ringing success.13
Furthermore, these 'Concepts', 'Categories' and 'Principles' would have to be logical -- or, indeed, 'dialectical' --, if they are capable of exercising iron control over the future course of events -- or the future deliverances of the senses --, ensuring that every single impression and idea troops into the correct metaphysical category, collected under the right general term, never even thinking to step out-of-line; not once.
As noted earlier, bourgeois ideas were now clapped in chains; the 'free market' 'revolution in the head' was over. The Rationalist and Idealist takeover turned out to be veritable 'Mental Thermidor'.14
One awkward question remained: How could something even as powerful as a 'Logical Principle' guarantee that future contingencies will always do as they have been told? Surely these 'rational principles' are particulars themselves -- especially if they reside in individual, isolated bourgeois skulls?
The point here is rather simple: logical principles per se can't create generality; generality emerges from the application of a rule, which neither words or 'Concepts' -- or even 'Principles' -- can quite manage on their lonesome. Once again, it is human beings (as part of a collective, but not as individuals) who determine what constitutes the correct application of a rule, since, as has been pointed out many times, words, 'Concepts', and 'Principles' have neither the wit, intelligence, nor social structure sufficient to the task.
That was, indeed, the point of emphasising the atomisation that breathed life into the bourgeois 'logical principles' mentioned earlier in this Essay. The fragmentation introduced into epistemology (in both its Rationalist and Empiricist incarnations) means that in the heads of 'socially isolated' bourgeois thinkers -- this isn't my judgement on them, it follows from their own epistemologies -- these 'Concepts' can only operate as the names of Abstract Particulars, or, indeed, as particulars themselves, destroying generality and undermining the unity of the proposition. So, for example, 'the concept of time' (in Kant) and that of 'Being' (in Hegel) are no less Abstract Particulars than anything Aristotle had ever introduced.14a0
Clearly, 'Logical Principles' like this could only regiment those unruly ideas and particulars if they controlled their future behaviour, and were thus intelligent agents themselves. Truth be told, it was almost as if these 'Logical Principles' actually exist in 'external' reality, too, and were those very Ideas themselves in 'self-development', or were the rules which led them by the hand. In Hegel, this doctrine clearly sundered the distinction between Mind and Matter -- which is largely why Engels thought he could argue that matter is just an abstraction, indeed, using an echo of the very same argument (and example!) Hegel had cobbled-together:
"It is the old story. First of all one makes sensuous things into abstractions and then one wants to know them through the senses, to see time and smell space. The empiricist becomes so steeped in the habit of empirical experience, that he believes that he is still in the field of sensuous experience when he is operating with abstractions.... The two forms of existence of matter are naturally nothing without matter, empty concepts, abstractions which exist only in our minds. But, of course, we are supposed not to know what matter and motion are! Of course not, for matter as such and motion as such have not yet been seen or otherwise experienced by anyone, only the various existing material things and forms of motions. Matter is nothing but the totality of material things from which this concept is abstracted and motion as such nothing but the totality of all sensuously perceptible forms of motion; words like matter and motion are nothing but abbreviations in which we comprehend many different sensuous perceptible things according to their common properties. Hence matter and motion can be known in no other way than by investigation of the separate material things and forms of motion, and by knowing these, we also pro tanto know matter and motion as such.... This is just like the difficulty mentioned by Hegel; we can eat cherries and plums, but not fruit, because no one has so far eaten fruit as such." [Engels (1954), pp.235-36. Bold emphasis alone added.]
"N.B. Matter as such is a pure creation of thought and an abstraction. We leave out of account the qualitative differences of things in lumping them together as corporeally existing things under the concept matter. Hence matter as such, as distinct from definite existing pieces of matter, is not anything sensuously existing." [Ibid., p.255. Bold emphasis added.]
"When the universal is made a mere form and co-ordinated with the particular, as if it were on the same level, it sinks into the particular itself. Even common sense in everyday matters is above the absurdity of setting a universal beside the particulars. Would anyone, who wished for fruit, reject cherries, pears, and grapes, on the ground that they were cherries, pears or grapes, and not fruit?" [Hegel (1975), p.19, §13, quoted from here. Italic emphases in the original; bold added..]
In fact, the control of future contingencies now became a question concerning the self-discipline of a veritable army self-developing 'Concepts'. In fact, these 'Concepts' controlled the future because they controlled themselves, and with a bright and shiny 'new logic' -- a dialectical logic -- to lead the way; a 'logic' that was itself based on a seriously distorted metaphor about how arguments themselves edge toward their conclusions. This new 'logic' laid down the law, and everything in nature -- Mind and Matter -- could do little other than bend the knee to its Contradictory Will.
The World Soul in Plato thus had new life breathed into it and ran the entire show; the future was now under the effective control of this 'logic' as part of the supernatural self-expression of this 'animating spirit'. In this way, the social application of linguistic rules was inverted and became the inner expression of 'Self-Developing Mind'.
It is precisely here that the fetishisation of language -- referred to in Part One -- inserted itself into Dialectical Philosophy, and hence into Marxism.
As we saw, Ancient and Medieval Logic had in effect destroyed the expression of generality in language. In its place, an ersatz 'generality' taken off the bench and called into play, but now as an integral aspect of the operation of a Cosmic Mind burrowing away inside Hegel's head. However, when Hegel's fantasy is "put back on its feet", the age-old errors on which it had been based remained in place. Indeed, they were fetishised all the more, and were transmogrified into the animating spirit of otherwise inert matter. This gave life to the empty imaginings inherited from the 'crude materialists' -- for without this animating spirit, these 'contradictions', the universe would be like a 'clock without a spring'. Hegel's 'Self-Developing Mind', now "back on its feet", re-animated matter -- and nature was summarily re-enchanted. [Harrington (1996).]14a1
Paradoxically, in this topsy-turvy 'dialectical universe', we have also been told that the working out of the 'Iron Laws of the Cosmos' is wholly compatible with human freedom! These Self-Developing Ideas were, of course, free because they were a law unto themselves. Indeed, they even seemed to control 'God', who, it turns out, had been led by the nose by these 'self-developing' concepts, too.
The 'good news' for humanity is that the more they subject themselves to these Laws, the 'freer' they become. As the Gospel says, "The truth shall make you free", and the 'law' of Christ brings 'true' freedom.
Hence, the more human beings are in chains the less they are in chains!
You just couldn't make this stuff up!
But, hey, that's Diabolical Logic for you...
Rousseau thought he could justify social control in this way, too, but all he had in mind was an 'Ideal Thermidor'. In comparison, Hegel discovered that his own Ideas controlled him, but only if he projected the protocols of 'social reality' internally, and fetishised them ideas for good measure inside his head. Hence, for him, what had once been the product of the social relations between human beings (language, argument and dialectic) not only upended itself and manipulated his own thought processes, it ran the entire universe!
This is indeed the philosophical equivalent of the deranged who claim they are 'God Incarnate'. Instead of the psychologically-challenged contradicting themselves, Hegel's universe did it for them!
Feuerbach plainly got things completely the wrong way round; Hegel's 'God' is the projection of humanity inwards, not outwards. For DM-fans, ideas supposedly 'reflect' the world --, but they do this only if they allow Hegel's mystical and fractured 'logic' to control their thoughts, too.14a2
Indeed, as Max Eastman noted:
"Hegelism is like a mental disease; you can't know what it is until you get it, and then you can't know because you have got it." [Eastman (1926), p.22.]
[Anyone who objects to my quoting Max Eastman should check this out first, and then perhaps think again.]
Which, of course, helps explain the semi-religious fervour with which the Sacred Dialectic is defended by all those whose brains it has colonised. [On that, see here and here.]
However, Hegel's Idealist 'solution' only succeeded in creating another problem: If autocratic 'Principles' like these are required if order is to be imposed on unruly reality -- as well as our ideas about it -- and knowledge is still dependent on the vicissitudes of human cognition, then these 'Principles' only succeed in undermining themselves. Indeed, if the cosmic order can only be comprehended by being put in some sort of order inside each bourgeois skull, by anthropomorphising reality and our ideas about it, then that anthropomorphisation can't fail to self-destruct. That is because, if ordinary human beings can't be relied on (i.e., if the vernacular is untrustworthy, and 'commonsense' is unreliable --, which boss-class slurs and suspicions motivated this suicidal 'theory' in the first place, thus assisting in the destruction of generality), then these 'inner human beings' (these anthropomorphised, Self-Developing Ideas), and their shadowy 'internal relations', must be equally, if not more, suspect.
If every day, material human beings can't be trusted, then what confidence can we have in the reliability of these inner, ghostly spectres, these shadow human beings?
This worry arises not just because it is difficult enough to account for the social nature of knowledge in the individual case, but because this 'problem' becomes completely intractable when it is generalised to take into account the countless minds supposedly able to perform the same trick and arrive at the same conclusions from their limited experience and finite stock of ideas. [As we saw earlier.]
Given this approach, humanity-wide conceptual coordination would be completely miraculous. Indeed, it would be no less miraculous for this to happen across the inhabitants of a small village, let alone a large city.
In fact, it is far more likely that each and every member of the much smaller, self-selected group of 'professional abstractors' -- or, for that matter, every single Hegel scholar -- is dancing to a different dialectical tune echoed in each socially-atomised head under the direction of their very own quintessentially bourgeois brain.
The problem we met earlier (concerning the social and epistemological fragmentation introduced by the market economy) re-surfaces precisely here; the bourgeois psyche disunited will, it seems, never be re-united.
So, in the realm of ideas alone, it now proves impossible to undo the effects the bourgeois revolution introduced into epistemology. If every single human being has to performs these 'feats of abstraction' in their socially-atomised heads, then there can be no such thing as socialised knowledge -- or, more pointedly, no such thing as knowledge per se.
This helps account for the many and varied, and failed, theories of knowledge humanity has had inflicted on it over the last four hundred years -- to add to those concocted during the previous two thousand.
Nevertheless, by these means the Individual was allowed, if not invited, to strike back, initially disguised as the Dialectical Guru, Hegel Himself. Only he (and perhaps his DM-descendants) were 'licensed' to interpret the self-development of thought, and thus the course of history -- for the benefit of the rest of benighted humanity. Dialectical Philosophers were now Dialectical Prophets, a resolutely substitutionist ideology their Gospel.14a
Given this approach to knowledge, no matter how robust the metaphysical, neurological or psychological coercion involved (operating inside each dialectical skull), the coordination of knowledge across a whole population would be, as we have seen, quite miraculous --, unless, of course, it had been imposed on all those involved by the Iron Will of the Glorious Leader, the Great Teacher, or simply, 'The Party'. The Invisible Hand was now replaced by the Mailed Fist of the Stalinised State -- or the Guardians of Orthodoxy in the case of (nominally) non-Stalinist parties. In the 'bourgeois market' of internally-processed ideas, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand couldn't leave even so much as a smudged fingerprint. Hence, a very visible mailed fist belonging to the Dialectical Magus -- which sometimes took the shape of Gerry Healy; elsewhere that of Mao or Bob Avakian, or even the Great Teacher Himself, Stalin -- was necessary in order to guarantee good epistemological order.
[Exactly how 'Epistemological Stalinism' like this has worked its way into practically every nook and cranny of Dialectical Marxism, and thus into virtually every party and tendency on the far left, is explored in Essay Nine Part Two.]
However, not only would each lone abstractor have absolutely no access to the ideas tucked away in the heads of other lone abstractors, they would have no way of checking whether or not they were even edging their abstractions in the 'right', or even the 'same', direction. [And, it is no good appealing to 'practice', since that, too, is over-shadowed by the dead hand of abstraction.]
Despite this, the fact that inter-subjective agreement actually takes place (and countless times, everyday) suggests that this fanciful neo-bourgeois picture is as wide-of-the-mark as anything could be. Indeed, when the day-to-day requirements imposed by the material world on every socially-active agent are factored in, this myth falls apart even faster than a WMD dossier.
The reasons for this aren't hard to find: just because it is highly unlikely that each mind would form the same general idea of the same objects and processes from its limited stock of data -- which is problematic enough in itself in view of the fact that no two people share exactly the same experience or draw the same conclusions from it -- it is because the word "same" attracts identical difficulties (irony intended). In turn that is because this question itself implicates a concept that looks suspiciously general, too. If no two minds can check the supposed 'similarities' in or between anyone else's ideas -- howsoever dialectically orthodox those abstractors or these concepts are -- then there is no way that a social process, if it is based on abstraction, could even make it onto the starting grid, let alone begin the race. Questions would naturally arise as to whether the 'same' ideas of anything (abstract, particular, concrete, general -- or even dialectical) had actually taken root in such socially-isolated dialectical minds. And these worries would persist until it had been established whether or not each abstractor had the 'same' idea about the word "same", let alone anything else.14b
And, how on earth might that be ascertained for goodness sake?
Worse still: given the 'dialectical' view of identity, this problem can't even be stated, let alone solved. The peremptory rejection of the LOI now returns to haunt DM-epistemology; by confusing a logical issue with an epistemological red-herring, the quest for what is supposed to be a 'superior form of dialectical knowledge' has now been trapped in a solipsistic dungeon.
[LOI = Law of Identity.]
Once more, that is because it has yet to be explained how any two dialectically-distracted minds could frame the same general, or even particular, idea of anything at all -- even before the dialectical juggernaut begins to roll --, or how a check might be made whether or not either of these intrepid abstractors had accomplished this miraculous feat correctly. And, that isn't so much because none of us has access to the mind of any other abstractor -- which, on this view, we haven't -- it is because it has yet to be established whether anyone has the same idea of the word "correct"!15
Once more: how on earth might that be checked for goodness sake?
Again, it is no use looking to practice to rescue this failing theory, for it has yet to be established whether or not any two abstractors have the same abstract (or 'concrete') idea even of practice!
Once more, how on earth might that...?
[The reader is invited to finish that question for herself.]
Furthermore, it is equally unclear how even this relatively minor worry (about the generality of what are supposed to be general ideas) may be communicated between these lone abstractors without employing the very same notion that originally required explanation -- i.e., generality itself --, along with the application of the LOI as a rule of language.16
More problematic still (for those who at least gesture toward accepting even a minimally social view of language and knowledge) is the following question: How might it be ascertained whether or not the same ideas about anything (be they abstract, concrete, general, or particular) have been inherited correctly from former generations of intrepid abstractors? Without access to a time machine, mind probes -- and, once more, a prior grasp of the very things they have allegedly bequeathed to us (i.e., general ideas!) -- no one would be in any position to determine the accuracy of a single 'concept' or 'dialectical principle' supposedly belonging to this 'common inheritance'.
But, given DM-epistemology, no start could be made at even at attempting to build such knowledge; not only would this 'intentional edifice' have no foundation -- since the basis on which we might build on inherited knowledge has already been shown to be no firmer than quicksand --, no two prospective labourers would have the same plot of land to labour upon, the same plan to guide them, the same materials to work with -- nor even the remotest idea about what would conceivably count as the 'same brick'!
[Except, of course, by sheer coincidence; but even then aspiring abstractors would still be unable to determine the nature of any such similarities -- plainly, since they would need general ideas in order to do this -- which they haven't yet constructed --, and, even worse, the word "same" is itself subject to the same difficulties (no pun intended), as noted above.]
Again, but to change the image, this is because dialecticians unwisely threw their hand in before the cards had even been dealt, for they are the ones who deny that anything could be exactly the same as anything else -- except in the most tenuous and abstract of forms. If they insist on taking pot shots at the LOI, it is little wonder DM-fans keep shooting themselves in the non-dialectical foot.
[Apologies for all these mixed metaphors!]
This means that, based on the strictures dialecticians have themselves placed on any concrete application of the LOI, no two people could have the same general -- or even particular -- idea of anything, ever. Nor could they have the same idea about approximate identity (so that they could conclude that their ideas only really roughly coincided with those of anyone else). If the dread word "same" can't be the same in any two minds, the phrase "approximately the same" stands no chance.
Worse still, no dialectician would or could have the same (or approximately the same) general (or particular) idea as he or she previously had about anything -- last week, yesterday, or even a few seconds ago --, so that they could say of their own opinions that they were even approximately stable from moment to moment.
In that case, of course, the 'process of abstraction' can't even get off the ground!
It should hardly need pointing out that abstraction can't make a start where there is nothing common to abstract, or no shared concepts to work with from moment to moment -- or, of course, where no 'law of cognition' remains the same from second to second, or which is shared across an entire population of socially-isolated dialectical skulls.16a
An appeal to memory here would be to no avail, either. That is because it would be unclear to anyone attempting to remember whether or not the general ideas they had even a few moments earlier were the same as, or were different from, those they now possess -- until they could recall whether or not they had the 'same' idea of "same" that they once had.
Once again: how on earth might that be ascertained for goodness sake?
In this way, the theory of abstraction has not only destroyed each and every dialectical proposition (that was established in Part One of this Essay), the entire project has only succeeded in strangling itself before birth -- when its adherents appropriated the regressive bourgeois idea that we all abstract in the privacy of our own heads -- just as it succeeds in undermining the thought processes of anyone foolish enough to give it so much as the time of day.
Of course, that is why an earlier claim was advanced (i.e., again, at the end of Part One) that the hypothetical activities of our heroic ancestral abstractors can't have taken place, since no sense can be made of the possibility that they could.
Indeed, as we have just seen.
Driven To Abstraction
The above points might be regarded by some as a grossly unfair misrepresentation of DM. As TAR notes:
"…[A]ll science 'deductively anticipates' developments –- what else is an hypothesis tested by experimentation?" [Rees (1998), p.131.]
This appears to contradict the claim made above that DM-epistemology can't cope with future contingencies. If scientists actually use abstractions -- and legitimately so -- why can't DM-theorists do likewise? What stops them from projecting their ideas into the future in like manner -- especially if their work is subject to constant empirical check? Alas for Ms Lichtenstein, successful practice refutes her excessively negative conclusions.
Or, so it could be maintained...
Quite apart from the fact that practice has in fact delivered the opposite verdict (on that, see Essay Ten Part One), it is worth pointing out that based on DM's own principles this neat picture only works if 'reality itself' is Ideal. That is because, even if the author of TAR were correct that science "'deductively anticipates…' developments", it could only do so if reality already had an underlying logical structure, and nature was 'externalised thought', no different in form from Objective Idealism.
[Why that is so seems pretty obvious; the reasons for concluding this were given at the beginning of Part One of this Essay. This topic will be examined in greater detail in Essay Twelve (summary here).]
As Part One showed, (i) Traditional Theorists as a matter of course extrapolated from a finite body of 'partial' knowledge to infinitary conclusions about all of reality, for all of time and (ii) This was originally motivated by an ideologically-driven, but syntactically inept re-interpretation of general words as the names of Abstract Particulars. This 'ancient error' was further compounded when the same theorists projected the 'abstractions' born of these moves back onto a 'shadow-reality' anterior to experience, which supposedly underpinned the material world (in an as-yet-to-be-explained manner), and which ersatz-reality turns out to be more real that the universe we see around us.
DM-theorists readily bought into this Idealist view of knowledge, even though it completely compromises their wider epistemology; that is because these moves are based solely on a set of linguistic malapropisms, not on evidence derived from the sciences, or even from everyday experience.
Worse still: as Part One also showed, those moves destroy the capacity language has for expressing anything whatsoever -- the particular and the general.
Indeed, and quite apart from these fatal consequences, if general ideas are the names of abstract particulars, no general conclusions can be drawn from them -- and certainly not by means of another set of abstractions that simply reproduces the very same error.17
Reality: Abstract, Concrete -- Or Both?
The second difficulty (mentioned earlier) isn't unconnected with the first, but has somewhat different implications. As we have just seen, traditional solutions to the 'problem' of Universals only appeared to succeed because they either (i) Anthropomorphised the brain and its ideas, or they (ii) Fetishised language, so that the products of social interaction were reified as the relation between objects or processes, or they were transformed into those objects and processes themselves.
As we have also seen, in order to explain the operation of 'the mind', Empiricists found that they had to postulate the existence of 'intelligent ideas', which were either spontaneously gregarious or were somehow capable of obeying externally imposed rules intelligently as they went about their lawful business.
On the other hand, Rationalists held that contingent events in 'reality' couldn't account for our -- or, in fact, their -- ideas about such events. In fact, as they saw things, the reverse was the case: it was the nature, or the development, of our ideas or minds that explained the 'outer' world. Naturally, this inverted epistemology, and dictated to nature what it must be like, implying that reality was fundamentally Ideal.
All this is reasonably obvious.
The next bit isn't.
On the basis of this world-view, theorists constructed (or 'discovered') what they took to be nature's "laws", but what they didn't do is conclude that their theories were true merely because nature was law-governed. On the contrary, many held that the connection was much tighter than this. They imagined they were able to read these 'laws' into nature simply because the mind was structured in a specific way. The 'possibility of experience' meant that the world had to be a certain way or we couldn't experience, and hence know it.18 This placed human cognition right at the centre of the meaning and cognitive universe -- and what was intended to be a 'Copernican Revolution' in Philosophy turned out to be its exact opposite: a Ptolemaic realignment.
[On this, see David Stove's articles: 'Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story, Parts I and II', in Stove (1991), pp.83-177. However, in relation to Stove's work, readers should take account of the caveats I have noted here.]
If, as tradition would have it, the world is a reflection of 'God's Mind' -- and the human mind is, in turn, a pale reflection of 'His' 'Mind' --, the 'inter-reflection' between 'mind' and world, world and 'mind', would guarantee that thought left to its own devices was capable of penetrating beneath the surface of 'appearances', right into to the heart of 'Being' itself, uncovering its hidden 'essences'. General laws thus seemed to be either the result of these 'self-directed' concepts, which accurately captured or mirrored nature's inner secrets, or they were their constitutive cause.
As Hermetic Philosophers had imagined, the Microcosm of the human mind reflected the Macrocosm of 'God's' creation because both were Mind. Union with 'God' was of a piece with union with Nature (or rather its 'Essence'), which helps explain the origin of what turned out to be the main problematic of German Idealism: 'Subject-Object Identity'. In Hegel's system, the union between the 'Knower and the Known' was guaranteed by the application of Divine -- aka Dialectical -- Logic; the mystical 'Rosicrucian wedding' had finally been consummated.18a
Empiricist theories arrived at analogous conclusions, but from a different direction.19
Either way -- as Hegel himself pointed out -- every branch of Traditional Philosophy sooner or later finds its way back to the Ideal home from whence it slithered.20
Nevertheless, the serious problems this approach to knowledge brings in its train re-surfaced in DM, only now in a more acute form. Dialecticians claim that their system somehow reverses the above process of cognition in order to neutralise its Idealist implications (albeit after its "mystical shell" has been removed, leaving only its "rational kernel"). So, they declare that their theory has been rotated through 180 degrees to stand on its own two, very materialist legs -- hardly noticing that the Ideal backside is now where the materialist head used to be, and vice versa.
At least that helps explain all that hot air.
However, psycho-logical gadgetry like this wasn't designed to operate in reverse -- hence, the Ideal forward gear always manages to reassert itself.
As Essay Two has shown, dialecticians proceed as if it were quite natural -- hardly worth mentioning, in fact -- quite natural to extrapolate from thoughts, words or concepts to necessary and universal truths about 'reality'. Not only do DM-theorists proceed as if they think their laws and a priori theses are applicable to all of reality for all of time, they have to talk this way.
And we can now see why they do it: it comes with the territory. The Dialectical Macrocosm and the Dialectical Microcosm are two sides of the same class-compromised coin. That is because this entire world-view was inherited in a highly modified form from Aristocratic Greek thinkers who designed, and who intended that it should work this way. These "ruling-ideas" rule 'radical' heads because, to DM-fans, they seem so natural and quintessentially 'philosophical'.20a
If abstractions provide the glue that supposedly binds knowledge together (or that enables the formation of knowledge, as Lenin argued), what else could these creatures of Greek Thought imply about Nature except that it is just one Big Idea?
Or, more accurately: what else could this imply but that Hegel Junior (DM) looks just like his dad?
"Logical concepts are subjective so long as they remain 'abstract,' in their abstract form, but at the same time they express the Thing-in-themselves. Nature is both concrete and abstract, both phenomenon and essence, both moment and relation." [Lenin (1961), p.208. Italic emphases in the original.]
"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." [Ibid., p.171. Italic emphases in the original.]
Perhaps we can now understand why Lenin argued this way: DM is the Ideal offspring of an equally Ideal Family. And this family tree stretches right back into the mists of ruling-class time.
Of course, dialecticians are among the first to tell us that these abstractions have been derived from the world (via some sort of 'law of cognition'), and have been "tested in practice", but the above considerations cast serious doubt on the validity of that claim.
Those infant doubts will mature quite alarmingly as the Essays posted at this site unfold.
Collective Error Over General Terms
Nominalism aside, traditional accounts of the origin of abstract general Ideas all shared the belief that 'the mind' was somehow capable of ascending from particulars (given in experience) to the general (not so given) -- or, perhaps sometimes the other way round (depending on which myth-maker was telling this tale), unifying particulars under an 'objective law' --, as it progressively disregarded their unique ("accidental", "inessential") properties, or as it searched for wider connections in order to uncover the 'essences' that supposedly underpinned 'appearances'.21
That alone should have made erstwhile materialists pause for more than just a thought; what on earth could be so materialist about a theory that has to withdraw from the material into the Ideal in such an irresponsible and profligate manner?
The pay-off, so we have been led to believe, is the greater explanatory power (etc.) this approach supposedly brings in its train. But, if the latter is gained at the expense of populating the world with nearly as many abstractions as there are material bodies, and which turn out to be more real than these material bodies (which is part of the reason why dialecticians regard matter itself as an abstraction!) -- since these 'abstractions' are required to explain the nature and behaviour of objects and process in this world, not the other way round -- one wonders what sort of victory has been won over Idealism.
[A 'victory' of the same order, perhaps, as that of the Church over 'sin', 'crime' and warfare? Or, that of Social Democracy over Capitalism? These questions become all the more ironic when it is recalled that dialectics is incapable of explaining anything at all (as we will see as these Essays unfold), a disconcerting outcome that is only further compounded by the additional fact that Dialectical Marxism has been an abject and long-term failure.]
In fact, the reverse appears to be far more likely. Indeed, this entire approach looks for all the world to be based on the belief that material reality is insufficient of itself, inadequate and not fully real, and that nature requires the background operation of Ideal principles to make it work. For dialectical materialists, matter (would you believe!) is far too crude and lifeless to do anything on its own -- even if this is all that nature has to offer. Apparently, it needs a 'Logic' to make it tick. Well, we all know which religion is based on the Logos.
[Spoiler: the vast majority.]
And that explains why Lenin could declare that he preferred intelligent Idealism to "crude materialism".22
By nailing their colours to this ruling-class masthead, dialecticians have unfortunately placed themselves on the side of the 'Gods'.23
Abstractionism: Bury It -- Or Praise It?
Nothing To Lose But Your Confusion
Unfortunately, unlike Capitalism, Abstractionism has attracted few effective gravediggers, and those it has managed to accrue have proved to be even less successful at overthrowing the latter than workers have been at toppling the former. That is largely because these erstwhile undertakers were (and still are) more content simply to point out the psychological impossibility of the entire abstractionist process rather than reveal its logical flaws, or, indeed, expose its ideological motivating factors. So, this batch of "ruling ideas" lives on to rule another day -- and another dialectician.
More recently, however, even though Abstractionism has been subjected to a series of destructive critiques, this ancient theory still lumbers on. That in turn is partly because many of those who avowedly came to bury it -- unlike Mark Antony -- ended up praising it by emulating it. In so doing they have helped breathe new life into its moribund cadaver by inventing brand new 'essentialist' theories of their own.24
Public Criteria Vs Private Gain
In the event, as seems reasonably obvious, an ability to talk about, say, dogs depends on a prior grasp (in use) of the relevant general terms (otherwise, plainly, nothing would have been said about them!). This fact doesn't need an explanation -- nor could one be provided for it that hadn't already employ the very things that required explaining in the first place, i.e., general terms.25
If the above observations have one thing going for them, it lies in the re-direction of attention away from hidden, internal processes and hypothesised private, individualised abilities -- allegedly possessed by expert 'lone abstractors' -- toward socially-acquired and publicly checkable skills and capacities, in a endeavour to understand not only our use of language, but generality and socially-constituted knowledge.
Naturally, only anti-materialists will complain at this point.
Which is why emphasis has been placed in these Essays on our use of ordinary language in a public arena. This is also why serious questions have been raised about the ability we are all supposed to possess of being able to extract abstract epistemological juice from desiccated discourse in the 'privacy of our heads'.
In contrast once more, the approach adopted here would mean that human cognition is open to view, subject to public scrutiny -- unlike the mysterious, inner rituals that underlie the 'process of abstraction', a process, it is worth recalling, that fails to deliver even what was advertised for it.26
Particular Problems With 'Dialectical Generality'
It has been argued at length above, and in Part One, that instead of beginning with the general as a way of advancing toward knowledge of the particular, the DM-'process' of abstraction in fact turns general words into the names of Abstract Particulars, which theory, unsurprisingly, then succeeds in going nowhere. This not only distorts the way language actually functions -- destroying the capacity it has for saying anything at all --, it breaks the 'dialectical circuit' before it can even be tested in practice.
The rest of this Part of Essay Three is aimed at widening, and then providing further substantiation for these allegations.
Appearance And Reality
The Underlying 'Essence' Of 'Being'
A cursory reading of earlier sections might elicit the objection that they ignore the fact that scientists actually use the method of abstraction -- and have done so for centuries -- in their search for knowledge. According to this widely held belief they do so in order to discover -- or 'uncover' -- the underlying, "objective" nature of reality.
[The first part of this counter-claim was in fact examined in Note 24; both halves will be examined in detail in Essay Thirteen Part Two, to be published in late 2017.]
However, the above objection invites consideration of two further ideas that DM-theorists have also inherited from Traditional Metaphysics: (i) The distinction between "appearance" and "reality", and (ii) The difference between "essence" and "accident".
Once again, we see that dialecticians have (naively) bought into these ancient, Aristocratic distinctions, meekly accepting the class-motivated dogma that 'appearances' aren't 'fully real', and that 'abstraction' is required if we are to penetrate the outer 'shell' of the former in order to gain access to the underlying 'rational order' of the latter. In short, it enables these intrepid theorists to comprehend 'appearances', objects, and processes more fully, scientifically and philosophically.
Ironically, as we will discover, this is the exact opposite of what actually emerges at the end.
In this connection TAR makes the following series of points:
"The important thing about a Marxist understanding of the distinction between the appearance of things and their essence is twofold: 1) by delving beneath the mass of surface phenomena, it is possible to see the essential relations governing historical change -– thus beneath the appearance of a free and fair market transaction it is possible to see the exploitative relations of class society, but, 2) this does not mean that surface appearances can simply be dismissed as ephemeral events of no consequence. In revealing the essential relations in society, it is also possible to explain more fully than before why they appear in a form different to their real nature. To explain, for instance, why it is that the exploitative class relations at the point of production appear as the exchange of 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay' in the polished surface of the labour market." [Rees (1998), p.187. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Bold emphases alone added.]
"As we know appearances can be deceptive. Each day the sun appears to circumnavigate the earth, when the reality is that the earth travels around the sun. We therefore need to penetrate the veil of appearance in order to reveal the reality that is disguised within. That is the reason for Marxist economic theory. As the Soviet economist Rubin explained, 'Marx approaches human society by starting with things, and going through labour. He starts with things which are visible and moves to phenomena which have to be revealed by means of scientific research.'" [Quoted from here. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]
But, according to Rees, who clearly agree with Rubin, a commitment to scientific knowledge also involves the belief that:
"There is a deeper reality, but it must be able to account for the contradiction between it and the way it appears." [Ibid., p.188. Bold added.]
And, this is where abstraction supposedly enters into the picture:
"[K]nowledge requires an active process of abstraction capable of discriminating between essence and appearance." [Ibid., p.189. Bold added.]
However, abstraction can't simply operate by itself:
"[A]bstraction can be a method of seeing reality more clearly…[but] consciousness must issue in practical activity, which will furnish the proof of whether or not our conceptions of the world are accurate….
"In conscious activity, human beings overcome the abstractness of thought by integrating it with concrete, immediate reality in all its complexity -– this is the moment when we see whether thought really does assume an objective form, whether it really can create the world, or whether it has mistaken the nature of reality and is therefore unable to enter the historical chain as an objective force which, in the case of the class struggle, seizes the masses….
"[F]or Lenin practice overcomes the distinction between subjective and objective and the gap between essence and appearance." [Ibid., pp.190-91. Bold added.]
There are several points here that are worth examining in more detail, but for present purposes attention will be confined to the supposed 'contradiction' between "appearance" and "deeper reality", as both of these notions apply to the natural and the social world.
["Social contradictions" will be examined below, and in Essay Eight Parts Two and Three.]
Does Reality 'Contradict' Appearances?
Contradictions Supposedly Generated By Science
Despite the fact that dialecticians assert that appearance and reality (or, 'essence' and 'appearance') contradict each other, they seldom tell us what they mean by this; nor do they illustrate this alleged clash with examples drawn from the natural world. [Those that supposedly emerge in the social sphere will be examined presently.] Nevertheless, even if they were to provide just such an explanation, it is still difficult to see what the alleged contradiction between 'appearance' and 'reality' is supposed to be.26a
Moreover, few DM-theorists inform us what they mean by 'commonsense' (although Lenin did express this opinion "common sense = the prejudices of its time" [Lenin (1961), p.271]), or what its core beliefs are supposed to be. One theorist who has ventured into this area is Teodor Oizerman, speaking about 'everyday consciousness', which I take it is meant to be the same as 'commonsense':
"Everyday consciousness is a multi-layered. complex and contradictory entity composed of a multitude of perceptions, emotions and concepts that are generated and continuously reproduced by the relatively constant and familiar conditions surrounding individuals.... We encounter concepts of everyday consciousness everywhere. They are, first and foremost, empirical notions consisting partly of relative truths and partly of illusions and errors: water boils at 100oC; gold does not rust; the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening; money in a savings bank pays interest. Proverbs are classic expressions of everyday consciousness, polished to perfection by the ages; they are the quintessence of popular wisdom ('life is not a bed of roses'), the class instinct of the oppressed and exploited..., popular fears and hopes." [Oizerman (1982), p.101. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
One can almost hear the contempt and condescension in Oizerman's voice as he penned this. But, what evidence was offered in support of these allegations?
None at all.
We will examine one of Oizerman's examples (sunrise) later, but if we focus on the volunteered example given below, we might be able to make sense of the wider claim that there is a 'clash of sorts' between the way things appear and the truths scientists and Philosophers are supposed to be looking for, tucked away, somehow, and hidden 'below the surface'.
The aforementioned example has been deliberately chosen for both its triteness and its familiarity. A more arcane example would have obscured the issues involved. As noted above, other instances will be considered as the argument unfolds, as well as in other Essays posted at this site.
The aforementioned "volunteered example" concerns the apparent incongruity that exists between the way that sticks look bent and the fact that they do not really bend when they are partially immersed in water. Of course, it could be objected that this example doesn't illustrate a process in nature, and so it isn't relevant. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to adapt it so that this objection itself becomes irrelevant, as we will also see.
[Other examples of this alleged incongruity can be modified in like manner, but I will refrain from doing so here for obvious reasons. Hence, those examples should be read in the same way to prevent this section descending into recondite, scholastic pedantry.]
Be this as it may, this illusion, or incongruity, might be expressed as follows:
R1: This stick appears bent in water.
R2: It isn't the case that this stick appears bent in water.27
R1a: This stick appears to bend when immersed in water.
R2a: It isn't the case that this stick appears to bend when immersed in water.
R1 and R2, and R1a and R2b, form apparently contradictory pairs, but this type of incongruity is clearly not the sort to which Rees and other dialecticians are alluding -- which is the alleged contradiction between appearance and reality. Plainly, R1 and R2 are both about appearances, hence, they don't illustrate the aforementioned clash between appearance and reality.
Perhaps then, the following will work?
R3: This stick bends when put in water.
R4: It isn't the case that this stick bends when put in water.
Again, these two seem to be contradictory, but, unfortunately once more they aren't what Rees and other dialecticians have in mind, either, since they fail to contrast appearance with reality. R3 and R4 merely express two contradictory propositions relating to a possible state of affairs; neither is about appearances.
However, the following pair of sentences does attempt to contrast appearance and reality:
R5: This stick appears bent in water.
R6: It isn't the case that this stick is bent in water.28
The problem with these two is that they aren't contradictories since they can be (and are) both true at once, and they could both be false at once; there thus appears to be no logical connection between them. The truth of one does not imply the falsehood of the other, nor vice versa. Nor do they even seem to be 'dialectically' connected: they don't struggle with one another nor do they turn into each other (as they should if the DM-classics are to be believed), and they don't imply one another (in the way that the capitalist class supposedly implies the proletariat, and vice versa).
It could be objected that the fact that sticks appear to bend in water prompts the naïve belief that they do just that, which contradicts the fact that they don't really bend when partially immersed. That incongruity could motivate someone into rejecting an unscientific belief. In that sense, therefore, it could be argued that reality does indeed contradict appearances.
But, does this make it false to say that sticks look bent in water? Clearly not. And yet, if these two sentences were contradictory (recall, no two contradictory propositions can be true together), and given that R6 and R5 are both true, it would be false to say that they are contradictory.29
R5: This stick appears bent in water.
R6: It isn't the case that this stick is bent in water.
In connection with this, it is also worth recalling that according to physical theory light rays are deflected when they pass between air and water, creating the 'illusion' that sticks bend. However, if sticks didn't really look bent in water (or if it were false to say that they appeared to bend when immersed) that would refute the scientific thesis that light rays themselves deviate upon entering or leaving the relevant media. Tinker around with theses like this too much and far more serious problems will arise that threaten to undermine at least this part of Physics.
So, even in this sense, appearances aren't contradicted by reality -– far from it, they play an essential part in the verification of scientific theory concerning light as it passes between media. Hence, the scientific truth that light deviates when passing between media is confirmed by, if not founded upon, the appearance recorded in R5!
Again, it could be objected that this is an entirely specious response. The plain fact is that scientific knowledge is inconsistent with the belief that sticks bend in water. No amount of re-interpretation can minimise its significance.
However, that would have been an effective rebuttal if (i) The argument above were about beliefs and not about appearances, and if (ii) It could be shown that anyone actually believed (or has ever believed) that sticks bend in water -- since this version of the counter-response volunteered in the previous paragraph specifically mentioned what might plausibly be believed by naïve or untrained observers. Undeniably, such a belief would be incompatible with what we know to be the case, but the DM-claim is that appearances contradict reality. It says nothing about beliefs doing this.
Indeed, the point made above is that far from reality contradicting appearances, scientists themselves need appearances to be correct in order to confirm such things as Snell's Law, and hence that they have to take note of what seem to be bent sticks. Clearly, that is because scientists have to look at things, and if they saw sticks in water that didn't appear to bend when immersed they would either (a) question whether the liquid concerned was indeed water or they would (b) wonder if they were hallucinating.
Hence, the above objection only seems to work by confusing appearances with beliefs. Now, it certainly isn't being questioned here whether or not propositions drawn from science contradict certain beliefs about the world and what it contains. But, beliefs aren't the same as appearances.
It could be objected that the argument above is inconsistent; while it alleges that there can be no contradiction between appearances and reality it allows for the fact that there can be, and are, contradictions between scientific propositions and certain beliefs.
So, on the one hand, the above argument appears to hold that these are contradictory:
B2: NN believes that not p,
On the other, it seems to hold that these aren't:
B4: It appears to NN that not p.
How can the first pair be deemed contradictory while the second isn't?
Or, so it might be wondered.
Of course, the wording of my earlier claim was specifically this:
B5: It certainly isn't being questioned here whether or not propositions drawn from science contradict certain beliefs about the world and what it contains. But, beliefs aren't the same as appearances.
Now, while not p certainly is the contradictory of p, p itself isn't the contradictory of the back end of B4 -- i.e., p itself isn't the contradictory of what "to NN that not p" expresses (in this particular sentential context).
B4: It appears to NN that not p.
If B2 were instead:
B6: It believes to NN that not p (sic),
a case could be made against what I asserted earlier, but it wasn't, and so it can't. In that case, B1/B2 and B3/B4 aren't analogous.
[B6 has been deliberately left in a stilted state so that this point can be made. In addition, it mustn't be assumed that I believe B1 and B2 are contradictory (they aren't!); I am just seeing where this counter-argument might go.]29a0
It could be argued that if we re-word the above, they might still be contradictory; perhaps in the following way:
B8: NN has a belief that not p.
B10: NN has an appearance that not p.
In response to this I will merely note that these two sets of sentences can only be made to appear to contradict one another (irony intended) by a crass misuse of language (in B10). People can no more have appearances than they can have seemings or lookings. Of course, if we had sentences in language like B11 (mirroring those like B10, or even B12):
B11: It believes to me that not p,
B12: It appears to me that not p,
then we might be able to make some sense of this response, but we don't -- and it isn't difficult to see why. We form our beliefs based on all manner of contingencies, but appearances are things we undergo, like it or not -- we don't form them. Moreover, we use sentence like "NN believes that p", but not "NN appears that p".
So, appearances still aren't beliefs.
Nevertheless, it could be objected that while sticks might appear to bend in water, the fact is that they don't actually do this. In that sense, subjective appearance is contradicted by objective fact.
However, this latest objection itself labours under several misconceptions:
(1) First, appearances are part of reality. No one supposes, surely, that appearances are fictional (like, say, The Tooth Fairy) or that they have been invented (like Fake News). It isn't as if our ancestors made this fable up -- that there were such things as appearances -- and several millennia later we have finally rumbled them. If so, appearances are just as 'real' as unbent sticks. [Of course, the problem here centres on the word "real". I will say more about that in Essay Twelve.]
(2) Moreover, and worse, since neither appearances nor reality are propositional, no contradiction is possible between them.29a
It could be objected that the issue in hand is the contradiction between essence and appearance not that between appearance and reality, which is an invention of the present Essay.
But, even if the meaning of "essence" itself were clear, it is difficult to see how there could be such a contradiction, not unless appearances and essences were propositional, too. Hegelians might be able to get away with that idea (but as far as I know they haven't wandered down that alley yet), since, for them, everything is Ideal; but materialists can't.
Of course, that comment itself depends on a view of contradictions I don't expect dialecticians to accept, but until they tell us what they do mean by this word, little progress can be made. Since we have only been waiting for 200 years to be informed what dialecticians actually mean by "contradiction", it would perhaps display a little too much impatience on my part to expect them to produce one in the next generation or so.
[This topic is discussed in more detail in Essays Four, Five, Eight Parts One, Two and Three, and Eleven Part One.]
Moreover, it is important to remember that the example under discussion here focuses sticks that look bent in water. In that case, unless dialecticians have a theory about the 'essence' of sticks that differs from their notion of 'real sticks', this objection must fail, too. After all, Novack it was who argued that:
"...A thing is truly real if it is necessary, if its appearance truly corresponds to its essence.... Materialists...locate the roots of necessity in the objective world, in the material conditions and conflicting forces which create, sustain and destroy all things. But, from the purely logical standpoint, both schools of philosophy [i.e., Idealism and Materialism -- RL] agree in connecting reality with necessity.
"Something acquires reality because the necessary conditions for its production and reproduction are objectively present and operative. It becomes more or less real in accordance with the changes in the external and internal circumstances of its development. It remains truly real only so long and insofar as it is necessary under the given conditions. Then, as conditions change, it loses its necessity and its reality and dissolves into mere appearance." [Novack (1971), p.86.]29b
Which more or less settles things; appearances are just as much a part of reality as essences are, if they coincide. [How they manage do this in the case of bent sticks I will leave those addicted to this of this way of talking to fathom out for themselves since I neither prefer it, nor can make any sense of it.]
(3) Thirdly, the idea that it is merely a 'subjective' experience that sticks appear to bend when put in water is itself mistaken. Not only does everyone see the same appearance (i.e., bent sticks) -– which means it can't be subjective (or only one person would be able to see it) -–, but this apparent bending of sticks forms a basis for the 'objective' fact that confirms the scientific belief that light changes its path when passing between media. If the appearance of bent sticks were merely subjective, what should we make of the idea that light alters its course? Is that subjective too? Is the 'objectivity' of science founded on such weak 'subjective' foundations?
Again, exception might be taken to the claim that appearances are "objective", since most philosophers and scientists appear to agree that they are subjective (no pun intended). Since objectivity relates to something called "observer independence", appearances must be subjective -- or so it could be argued.
(A) First of all, I'm not advancing any such claim, since I reject the use of metaphysical language. I have already noted above that I don't prefer this way of talking; obscure language like this is merely being employed here to assist in its own demise. Hence, the frequent use of 'scare' quotes.
(B) Secondly, if appearances are subjective then, because the fact that philosophers and scientists believe that appearances are subjective is also an appearance, it, too, must be subjective -- since it plainly isn't "observer independent". In fact, as should seem reasonably clear, no observation made by scientists or philosophers would ever be "observer independent", and thus "objective", on this basis.
In fact, if 'objectivity' is understood as "observer-", or "mind-independence", then it would be impossible to form an 'objective' opinion of anything -- let alone about 'subjectivity' -– that is, while we humans unwisely possess 'minds' and foolishly go about the place observing things.
Indeed, as we shall soon see, any attempt to classify appearances as 'subjective' (hence not fully 'real') would fatally undermine not only science, but the status of the opinions of anyone who holds that rash belief itself.
So, if 'objectivity' is defined as "observer-independence" etc., then plainly the notion that light bends when it passes between media (and every other belief we have) can't be 'objective'. As seems undeniable, the truth of this and every other scientific idea depends on centuries of observation (and no little human thought, too), as much as it depends on the current beliefs of human beings. Exactly how the former can be held to be independent of the latter is a mystery few bother to explain. Eliminate the 'subjective' element from science -- if that is what it is -- and everything we believe to be 'objective' must go with it. If science dealt only with "observer-independent" realities, we wouldn't be able to form any 'objective' beliefs whatsoever.
Of course, all this will be music to dialecticians' ears, since they already accept the dialectical interplay between the 'objective' and the 'subjective':
"Logical concepts are subjective so long as they remain 'abstract,' in their abstract form, but at the same time they express the Thing-in-themselves. Nature is both concrete and abstract, both phenomenon and essence, both moment and relation. Human concepts are subjective in their abstractness, separateness, but objective as a whole, in the process, in the sum-total, in the tendency, in the source." [Lenin (1961), p.208. Italic emphases in the original.]
In that case, we must abandon the idea that "objective" means "mind-independent". [More on 'objectivity' here.]
However, if dialecticians are prepared to do that, then much of their epistemology will soon follow it out the window, for, according to this latest turn-of-events, it seems that nature is 'objective' only if we know about it, and then only if we manage to do so in certain ways!
It could be objected here that this misconstrues Hegel's notion of objectivity; indeed, it confuses it with a much looser modern concept. Hegel drew many of his ideas from Kant's Critical Philosophy, and adapted them accordingly. In fact, his ideas on this score can't be separated from his system as a whole. However, since this topic will be examined in Essay Twelve Parts Five and Six, no more will be said about it here.
However, Dialectical Marxists surely can't accept Hegel's notion of objectivity, since it would render them Objective Idealists. So, until we are informed exactly what dialecticians do mean when they say the sort of obscure things about 'objectivity' that Lenin does, little more can be done with it.
[However, it is important to remind ourselves that in Materialism and Empiriocriticism Lenin clearly meant by "objectivity" the existence of objects and processes independent of, and exterior to, the human mind, which doesn't appear to be what Hegel meant by this word (no pun intended). I have said much more about this in Essay Thirteen Part One.]
Nevertheless, it could be argued that an objective view of nature is one which attempts to picture it as it must be (or as it must have been) without observers, or as it would be if there were no minds to observe and interact with it -– that is, it aims to depict reality as it is in-itself -- perhaps in its constantly changing 'essence'.
Of course, this take on 'objectivity' would undermine what Lenin has just said, since "nature in-itself" doesn't mean "nature-as-observed-by-some-mind-or-other".
Even so, the use of the word "picture" above is a give-away. Pictures are only such because of the observers who view them. Eliminate the observer and the 'picturing' role of science must go with it. To be sure, the physical object that constitutes a picture (the canvas, the frame, the paint, and so on) won't vanish if humanity and all sentient life perished, but the verb "to picture" is for us transitive; without our input, no picturing could take place. The Moon, for example, isn't a picture for, or of, anything.
That is, of course, why we find the 'Ideal Observer' -- and/or the use of terms that imply that actual observers exist somewhere --, we find the 'Ideal Observer' supposedly viewing events (even if only as part of a 'thought-experiment'), cropping up all over the place in such 'objective' theories of nature. On that basis, the term "objective" must mean something like "observer-, but not ideal observer-independent". In other words, science would be 'objective' only if we conveniently forget that it is meant to be observer-independent.
Again, it could be argued that the objectivity of science is based on the following sort of counterfactual:
R7: Even if there were no observers, light would still bend as it passed between media.
Naturally, sentences like R7 won't be controverted here (although it is debatable whether the word "objectivity" is much help), but it is worth pointing out that R7 isn't relevant to the doctrine presently being challenged, for if there were no observers then appearances couldn't contradict reality -- for, in that case, there would plainly be no 'appearances' to conflict with anything, and, indeed, no one to do the 'contradicting'.
So, 'objectively' speaking (to adopt this confused mode of expression for the moment) appearances can't contradict "things-in-themselves", if they are counterfactually depicted this way.
It might still be felt that there must be a contradiction between 'commonsense' -- or ordinary language -- and scientific knowledge if the latter is to make any progress. We no longer believe many things that once seemed obvious to 'commonsense', which, of course, means that most of our former erroneous ideas must have been either abandoned or corrected by science at some point.
However, this latest attempt to rescue the claim that reality contradicts appearances labours under another confusion -- one that holds that 'commonsense' and ordinary language are somehow the same. They aren't.
[This topic is examined in greater detail in Essay Twelve (however, some of this material has been posted here). There, it will become apparent that since no one seems to have a clear idea what the term "commonsense" means (in its philosophical sense, that is), it is difficult to make much sense of this objection.]
It is also worth pointing out that long before the scientific study of nature began, human beings were well aware of the fact that sticks don't bend in water. It hardly took a Newton or a Galileo to uncover that amazing fact. This isn't to say that earlier generations were able to explain this phenomenon, but that plainly isn't relevant to the topic in hand.
[Several of the other 'corrections' scientific advance has allegedly forced on 'commonsense' are examined below, and again in other Essays posted at this site.]
As we have just seen, this entire topic revolves around the use of two obscure terms-of-art: "objective" and "subjective". Neither of these has a clear meaning or a fixed use -- even for those who think they know what they mean when they employ them. Of course, this implies that the distinction between these two words must be 'subjective' itself -- again, if we must accept this obscure way of talking.
Be this as it may, if the thesis that reality contradicts appearances really does depend on this obscure pair, then it would prove impossible to assess until these terms have been given a clear sense -- and, incidentally a sense that doesn't itself depend on a single instance of human or observer-motivated input --, for that would render it 'subjective', too.
[Again, 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' are examined in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part One.]
Finally, as noted above, this entire issue reduces this discussion to a consideration of contradictory beliefs -– those engendered in us by scientific advance, as opposed to those derived from 'commonsense'. If that is all it means then this, too, won't be controverted here, for there is nothing in the least bit puzzling about contradictory beliefs.
Indeed, they are as common as dirt.30
The 'Contradiction' Between Science And 'Commonsense'
In view of the above, perhaps we should consider examples that illustrate the alleged conflict between science and 'commonsense' (conflicts that many think have actually taken place), in order to try to understand what the supposed 'contradiction' between 'appearance' and 'reality' is meant to be. To that end, consider the following:
R8: The Sun appears to rise each morning.
R9: It isn't the case that the Sun appears to rise each morning.
R10: It isn't the case that the Sun rises each morning.
Again, while R8 and R9 might look contradictory they fail to illustrate the sort of conflict we seek since they are both about appearances again. In addition, there is no obvious logical connection between R10 and either one of R8 and R9. That is because the truth or falsehood of R10 has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of R8 and R9, nor vice versa. In fact, if the earth were stationary, and it was the Sun that moved, things would appear no different than if the reverse were the case. Furthermore, we surely wouldn't conclude that R10 had been contradicted if sunrise couldn't be seen one morning because of, say, fog or clouds; that is, if it didn't appear to rise. Nor would R8 become false if, in the future, scientists changed their minds about the truth of R10 (or its corollary, the idea that the earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way round).31
Clearly, this recurring problem is the result of a difficulty that John Rees and every other dialectician seem to have overlooked: it isn't possible to form a contradiction by comparing a proposition that expresses matters of fact with one that reports appearances indeed, as we saw above.
In short, the following schematic sentences:
R11: It appears to be the case that p,
R12: It is not the case that p,
can't form a contradictory pair when interpreted in the manner specified, and then conjoined (where, again, "p" is a propositional variable).
Moreover, unless we subscribe to the view that facts and appearances are intelligent and/or belligerent -– that is, that they are capable of picking arguments with one another -- it would make no sense to suppose that appearances could literally contradict (i.e., "gainsay") true propositions. Not only are appearances non-linguistic and non-sentient, but as far as propositions and appearances are concerned, they don't seem to oppose each other 'dialectically' in any obvious way. They don't turn into one another (which is what dialectical opposites are supposed to do, so we are told), nor do they cause each other to change. The existence of one does not imply the existence of the other (unlike the existence of the proletariat which is implied by the existence of the capitalist class, and vice versa). Hence, as such, this alleged contradiction makes little sense, even in DM-terms.
Furthermore, the apparent motion of the Sun is the same today (with respect to sunrise, at least) as it was thousands of years ago. To be sure, we might interpret this phenomenon differently today, but that doesn't affect how things still appear. In that case, a DM-'contradiction' here must be figurative, at best -- or perhaps it is merely terminological. If this were a DM-'contradiction', something should have changed, at least since Copernicus wrote what he did. Alternatively, something should change over the next couple of centuries. But what?
Nevertheless, it could be argued that there are aspects of scientific knowledge that do in fact contradict appearances, despite what has been argued above. It is surely true that those who relied on 'commonsense' at one time imagined that the earth was stationary, whereas scientists now know that our planet moves. In which case, the following pair of propositions could illustrate the intended contradiction:
R13: The earth moves.
R14: It is not the case that the earth moves.
These certainly contradict one another, but even this pair isn't what we are looking for, since neither of them is about appearances.
Moreover, Rees seems to be interested in contradictory pairs where both halves are true, those involving seemingly 'correct' appearances which are contradicted by genuinely 'objective' underlying realities -– otherwise the alleged superiority of DL over FL would be illusory. That is because, as already noted, DM-style contradictions must both be true at once (or, they must both 'exist' at once, to use the jargon), unlike their less contentious FL-cousins. Unfortunately, however, R14 is false.32
This means that we still don't have a DM-'contradiction', even in this relatively clear case. Nor are we ever likely to get one --, and that is for the reasons already set out above.
Even if a case could be made that supporter the view that scientific propositions contradict indicative sentences that express appearances, that still wouldn't achieve all that dialecticians require of them. That is because (as argued at length in Essay Five) propositions that might look contradictory -- and which are both held to be true -– would normally be disambiguated, or they would be given a background against which they might be understood, which would resolve the apparent contradiction.
This latest assertion is no mere 'bourgeois' prejudice or diktat. Consider the following examples, which are analogous to the previous pair:
R15: The strikers moved.
R16: It is not the case that the strikers moved.
This pair certainly looks contradictory (especially if both relate to the same strikers at the same moment, and thus both are held true) -- but this would cease to be the case once it was discovered that the said strikers were sat on a train that was travelling at 80 miles per hour. On the train, these militants could be sat perfectly still, but to an observer on a platform they would appear to be moving at speed. Since all motion is relative to an inertial frame, the beliefs prompted by one set of observations would merely appear to contradict those motivated by another. As soon as a frame of reference is supplied the 'contradiction' disappears.
And it won't do to complain about the trite nature of R15 and R16 --, not, that is, unless and until DM-theorists tell us what they mean by the obscure phrase "dialectical contradiction". [Since this topic is dealt with more fully in Essay Eight Parts One, Two and Three, no more will be said about it here.]
All this is quite apart from the fact that DM-texts themselves contain little other than trite examples -- boiling water, contradictory seeds, anecdotes from The Arabian Nights, characters who speak "prose all their lives", the differential fighting ability of Mamelukes, cone bearings, "Yea, Yea"/"Nay, Nay", etc., etc. This is Mickey Mouse Science, after all.
Just as it is quite apart from the fact that relative motion is hardly a "trite" topic in physics.
As seems clear, apparent 'contradictions' aren't presented to us by nature and society totally unadorned, as it were; they arise either from ambiguities inherent in language or from a lack of clarity (etc.) in the original 'problem' -- or so it is maintained in these Essays. In the above case, the 'contradiction' plainly arose because of a (suppressed, or covert) change of reference frame.
Naturally, this would make such contradictions sensitive to the choice of reference frame, but not dependent on 'reality' as such. However, that was certainly not the point DM-theorists wanted to make about their 'contradictions'. And yet, those mentioned above were either artefacts of a conventionalised choice of inertial frame or they were a direct consequence of confused thinking; they are certainly not based on 'reality' (whatever that means).33
It could be objected that in a perfectly ordinary sense the following two sentences are contradictory:
C1: It appears to be φ-ing.
C2: No, it isn't φ-ing.
[Where "φ" stands for a verb clause or phrase.]
Consider this ordinary language interpretation of C1 and C2:
C1a: "It appears to be raining."
C2a: "No, you're mistaken, it isn't raining."
Or, consider this example:
C3: "The Sun appears to be moving."
C4: "No, you're mistaken, the Sun isn't moving."
Anyone who uttered C2a (or C4) would be correcting (gain-saying) anyone who uttered C1a (or C3), contradicting them.
This shows that the earlier claim that "It isn't possible to form a contradiction by comparing a proposition that expresses matters of fact with one that reports appearances" is false.
Or, so it could be argued.
Of course, C4 is false anyway, since the Sun is moving relative to the Galaxy; so it isn't too clear that C3 and C4 will be of much use to DM-apologists, especially since the obvious reply to anyone who tried to correct C3 by means of C4 would be:
C5: "Well, I didn't say it was moving, only that it appears to be -- and it still appears to be moving, despite what you say."
So, C3 and C4 aren't contradictories since they can both be true (and they can both be false). This is, of course, because of the equivocal nature of the verbs "move" and "appear". [In Essay Five we saw that the word "move" was rather complex and had many different meanings.]
The same sort of response applies to C1 and C2:
C6: "Well, I didn't say it was raining, only that it appears to be -- and it still appears to be raining, despite what you say."
In which case, this is still the case: It isn't possible to form a contradiction by comparing a proposition that expresses matters of fact with one that reports appearances.
Putting the natural sciences to one side for the moment, Rees and other DM-theorists employ examples drawn from HM to illustrate the alleged clash between "essence" and "appearance".
[Several other such examples are considered at length in Essay Eight Part Two, here, here and here.]
Perhaps an examination of these instances might help make the point DM-theorists wish to make a little clearer?
Rees's argument, for instance, proceeds as follows:
"The important thing about a Marxist understanding of the distinction between the appearance of things and their essence is twofold: 1) by delving beneath the mass of surface phenomena, it is possible to see the essential relations governing historical change -– thus beneath the appearance of a free and fair market transaction it is possible to see the exploitative relations of class society, but, 2) this does not mean that surface appearances can simply be dismissed as ephemeral events of no consequence. In revealing the essential relations in society, it is also possible to explain more fully than before why they appear in a form different to their real nature. To explain, for instance, why it is that the exploitative class relations at the point of production appear as the exchange of 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay' in the polished surface of the labour market." [Rees (1998), p.187. Bold emphases added.]
This passage makes it plain that while Capitalism appears on the surface to be fair, its underlying 'essence' is thoroughly exploitative. Hence, in that sense it could be claimed that appearances contradict reality.
Unfortunately, Rees's example isn't even a contradiction, howsoever much we might deplore what it reveals. [Why that is so is explained more fully here. On the highly misleading metaphor that certain truths, or even "essences", lie somehow "below the surface", see here.]
Perhaps this is too hasty? Maybe we can rephrase Rees's claim so that the alleged contradiction becomes a little more obvious:
R17: Capitalism appears to be fair.
R18: It isn't the case that Capitalism appears to be fair.
This pair of sentences certainly looks contradictory, but as we saw above, because both sentences are about appearances, they aren't what Rees intended.34
Well, maybe then the following are?
R19: Capitalism is exploitative.
R20: It isn't the case that Capitalism is exploitative.
This pair certainly seems contradictory, too, but once again, since these two sentences fail to contrast appearance with reality they won't do either.
A more perspicuous indication of Rees's intentions is perhaps to be found in the relation he says exists between (i) "essence and appearance" and (ii) "subjective and objective" views of the world:
"[F]or Lenin practice overcomes the distinction between subjective and objective and the gap between essence and appearance." [Ibid., pp.190-91.]
This could mean that these hard-to-pin-down DM-'contradictions' actually arise between a "subjective" and "objective" view of the world. But, even if what Rees says were the case, what precisely is the contradiction here?
Perhaps the following 'argument' might help bring it out:
R21: Capitalism appears to be fair.
R22: This appearance leads people (including workers) to think that it is fair.
R23: Hence, Capitalism is fair. [Or, so they conclude.]
R24: But, revolutionary theory and practice convince some that Capitalism isn't fair.
R25: Therefore, Capitalism isn't fair. [Or, so some conclude.]
R26: Consequently, Capitalism is both fair and not fair.
R27: But, the contradiction in R26 implies that R23 can't be true (based on the truth of R25).
R28: Therefore, Capitalism isn't fair.35
Ignoring the fact that the above argument is hopelessly invalid, its message looks reasonably clear: the 'objectivity' of revolutionary theory (expressed in R24) makes plain the contradiction in R26.
However, even if this were the case, the contradiction here is still not between appearance and reality, but between certain beliefs held about both -- or perhaps the inferences that could be made from each.
Anyway, few people (and certainly no revolutionaries) believe that capitalism is both fair and not fair at the same time. Anyone who gives the matter sufficient thought will agree with either R23 or R25, but not both at once. Indeed, that is why R28 would be held true by socialists. However, DM requires both R23 and R25 (and hence R26) to be true at once. But, we have been here already.36
It could be objected that the appearances referred to above prompt the false belief that Capitalism is fair, which is contradicted by the fact that it isn't, and it is this which yields the required contradiction. But, no one is questioning the fact that there are all sorts of contradictory beliefs in people's heads. What is at issue here is (a) Whether any two can be (unequivocally) held true together and (b) Whether appearances contradict reality --, both of which have yet to be established.37
Hence, it doesn't look like we can construct a clear example of the sort of contradiction Rees had in mind -- even when we use his own choice of candidates!
Nevertheless, this latest impasse introduces yet another problem facing DM-epistemology: if appearances are finally acknowledged to be (in some way) deceptive, not entirely or fully accurate (or 'real'), or they are said to be limited and misleading to some extent, how can anything of value be learnt from them, or by means of them? Worse still, if revolutionary practice itself takes place at the level of appearances, how can it serve as a test of the objectivity of Marxist theory?
The next few sections are aimed at resolving these unexpected difficulties.
Adrift In A Sea Of Appearances
'Dialectical' Practice Can't Be 'Objective'
I propose to examine the contribution revolutionary practice makes to the validation of theory in more detail in Essays Ten Part One and Nine Part Two, but for present purposes it is worth pointing out that practice can't in fact test 'objectivity' in the way imagined (nor can it be 'objective', either) -- and this isn't just because the word "objective" is itself hopelessly vague. As noted above, it is because practice clearly takes place at the level of appearances, which, according to DM, can't be anything other than 'subjective'.38
Admittedly, some Marxists claim that there is such a thing as "theoretical practice", but even there its deliverances can only surface in the world of appearances.
Unless we believe in telepathy, or are committed to the bizarre idea that theoretical propositions live an abstract world accessible to the 'mind' alone, and aren't embodied or expressed in anything material -– that is, that they can't ever be written down or spoken out loud, or even whispered in soliloquy -– the deflationary conclusion that theoretical propositions are as material as sticks and stones seems to be reasonably sound.
Plainly, that is because abstract objects (and any words used to express them) must make some appearance in the phenomenal world at some point or be forever unknown to us. In the real world, even theoretical propositions have to be written down or uttered in a public language, and that immediately places them in the grip of these 'unreliable appearances'.
Are All Appearances 'False'?
Exception might be taken to the above since it seems to imply that dialecticians regard appearances as unreliable, misleading or false (even though, as we will see, Herbert Marcuse, for example, openly admitted they are). On the contrary, it could be maintained that dialecticians (or the majority of them) do not believe this of appearances. Indeed, the following passage from TAR underlines this fact:
"…[T]his does not mean that surface appearances can simply be dismissed as ephemeral events of no consequence. In revealing the essential relations in society, it is also possible to explain more fully than before why they appear in a form different to their real nature. To explain, for instance, why it is that the exploitative class relations at the point of production appear as the exchange of 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay' in the polished surface of the labour market." [Rees (1998), p.187. Bold emphasis added.]
"There is a deeper reality, but it must be able to account for the contradiction between it and the way it appears." [Ibid., p.188.]
But if, as these passages say, superficial appearances aren't a guide to deeper "essences" -- indeed they "contradict" them --, then they must be deceptive at some point, especially if most human beings misread them or are misled by them and it takes clued-in Marxists to disabuse them of their false beliefs or incorrect conclusions. If the exploitative relations in Capitalism aren't really as they seem, and if on this view they "appear in a form different from their real nature", then what they reveal can't be anything other than misleading, and hence false. There is no other way of reading this passage. [This topic is discussed more fully in Notes 33 to 35.]
But, in what sense do 'appearances' "contradict...deeper reality"? Do they struggle with, and then turn into one another (as the DM-classics tell us they do, and will)? If they do, DM-theorists have been remarkably coy about the details. Do they imply one another such that the existence of one implies the existence of the other? That can't be correct, for if it were, then before sentient life emerged, the existe4nce "deeper reality" would have implied there were 'appearances' somewhere for non-sentient objects and processes to 'experience'. While this might work for maverick Hegelian Idealists, it can't for hard-headed materialists. Once more, this doesn't make sense even in DM-terms.
Again, it could be argued that DM-theorists don't accept such a simple-minded view of the relation between appearance and reality; they hold that there is a dialectical interplay between theory and practice. This means that even though thought depends on appearances for its immediate content, it nevertheless ascends by means of abstraction, or critical analysis/synthesis (subsequently confirmed in practice) to a more adequate (less partial or relative), theoretical and concrete understanding of reality --, which process is also rooted in past theory (and which, in turn, isn't set in stone). In the long-run, this process leads to a more accurate account of the real processes at work in Capitalism. At each stage, thought returns to the original world of experience where, after again being tested in practice, its content may be viewed in a more all-rounded, concrete manner. This process of cognition renders any conclusions that have been drawn and tested in this manner objective, or, at least, increasingly objective (even if they are still only partially or relatively true). Hence, appearances needn't be regarded as merely subjective, as suggested above; their connection with underlying reality allows them to be viewed in a different, more complex, inter-connected, all-rounded light, allowing revolutionaries to understand why things seem the way they do, and why most individuals view them in this light, too.
Or, so it might be argued.
Of course, this doesn't explain precisely what the 'contradiction' is here, even in DM-terms.
Ignoring that thorny topic for now, and despite the fanfare, the fact is that the old conservative adage, "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work", for instance, couldn't serve as a guiding principle for revolutionaries writing agitational leaflets, no matter how many hoops dialectical sloganeers manage to force it through.
That is because at no stage in the execution of the above dialectical gyrations would it be correct to say, think, or even imply, that Capitalism isn't exploitative. No matter how many dialectical somersaults are expertly performed, only the most naïve of militants would automatically believe a boss who said that he or she "couldn't afford" the latest pay demand from a strike committee.
If so, and in practice once more, no revolutionary would take the beliefs motivated by the superficial appearances of Capitalist society as anything other than false, or self-serving. Certainly, no Marxist -- that is, this side of a major sell-out -- believes Capitalism is "fair" and acts in accord with that belief.39
Anyway, the rejoinder (from a few paragraphs back) seems to rely on the assumption that thoughts and theories aren't themselves 'appearances' -– i.e., that they don't surface in a public language, in an open arena in a material form of some sort. In fact, reading DM-texts on the "dialectical method" one gets the distinct impression that dialectical gyrations -- like those that Rees mentions above (my words, not his!) -- take place in a sort of 'inner psychic sports arena', as it were, where concepts and abstractions are put through their paces in private. And not just that; it very much looks like these dialectical summersaults must be performed afresh each time, by DM-fans, in each individual head.
That was one of the main themes of the first half of this Essay: the idea that DM-epistemology, for all its pretensions to the contrary, is trapped in a bourgeois individualist dungeon.
[The general principles underlying the social nature of language and knowledge will be addressed again in much more detail in Essays Twelve Part One and Thirteen Part Three.]
Hence, as was noted earlier, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the process of abstraction is a skill that adepts learn to perform as isolated individuals in their own private inner auditorium: their heads. We have yet to witness teams of synchronised dialecticians all chanting in unison the latest verbal application of their most recent dialectical flip or abstraction, under the direction of the Absolute as it Notions its way into glory --, or, indeed, under the unforgiving lead of a Gerry Healy or a Bob Avakian in full sectarian flow. So, how DM-fans imagine they are capable of coordinating their separate dialectical acrobatics (if, as they imagine, these are all carried out in some sort of inner mental gymnasium) is entirely mysterious. In fact, given the truth of DM-epistemology, no two dialecticians would be able to determine whether or not their individual feats of abstraction actually converged on the same target, let alone the right target. [On that, see here and here.]
An appeal to a publicly accessible language would be no avail either -- indeed, as pointed out earlier. Moreover, since a publicly accessible language is also situated in this unreliable world of appearances, recourse to it would be like checking your height by putting your hand on your head.
[And, as if to rub it in: (i) HCDs are, to all appearances, petty-bourgeois intellectuals, and (ii) LCDs are by-and-large petty-bourgeois or de-classé martinets, both of whom arrived at (allegedly) the same individualist conclusions, but by far less salubrious means.]
In short, the superficial gestures DM-theorists make toward their (supposed) belief in the social nature of language and knowledge are at odds with their theoretical pronouncements. Given the latter, knowledge and language can't be social products. Conversely, if language and knowledge are social products, Abstractionism can't work. [On that, see here.]
Here, at least, 'essence' and 'appearance' neatly coincide; a genuine 'unity of non-opposites'!
To be sure, we see dialecticians reporting to all-and-sundry the results of their own 'inner' machinations -- this they do verbally, or in print; indeed they have no choice, they have to do one or both of these, and in this 'world of appearances', too --, but short of a hot-line connecting each dialectical brain to the next, there is no way that the contents of any one inner 'abstractorium' could be made available to any other member of the same 'dialectical display team', for validation, or even for comparison.
So, in order to compare their ideas (etc.), dialecticians have to record their deliberations in this material world, in some form or other, where these 'nasty appearances' reign supreme.
If so, and if we are to believe what we are told about this 'unreliable world of appearances', no DM-proposition could be "objective" in any sense of that word.
Of course, it could be argued that even if DM-propositions surface in the world of appearances, that doesn't affect their content, what they are about. And yet, anyone wishing to ascertain what these theses are "about" has to rely on what appears before them in this 'shady world of appearances', and thus what they conclude about their content will only appear to be this or appear to be that.
Alas, there is no way round this unmoveable obstacle -- that is, for anyone who has bought into the ruling-class distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality'.
Furthermore, even if it were true that the process of abstraction takes place in the 'mind', unless DM-theorists are prepared to accept a quasi-Cartesian account of thoughts (whereby the latter guarantee their own veracity, as opposed to merely appearing to do so),39a this inner, dialectical detour can't succeed in grounding DM-abstractions in objectivity (again, to use the jargon). Hence, without postulating the existence of abstractions that are self-authenticating, and thoughts that are self-certifying (and thus in need of no support from practice or evidence), these 'inner phenomena' can't by-pass the need to make a validating entrance into the world of 'subjective appearances'.40
Moreover, an appeal to 'inter-subjectivity' can't ground this theory, either; that is because, if this theory were correct, the reports others deliver would similarly be trapped in this world of 'unreliable appearances', and thus 'contradicted' by underlying 'essences', as would be any opinion formed about them, too.
Even in the mind's alleged 'inner chamber', a 'thought' is no less an appearance than are the deliverances of the senses. Even to the most solipsistically-incarcerated individual, his or her thoughts merely appear to him or her to be thus and so.
And even if such ideas and concepts were 'self-certifying', they would still only appear to be so.40a
If, on the other hand, the existence of self-interpreting and auto-confirming thoughts were part of DM-epistemology (there is an echo of this idea in Hegel, but as far as I can determine, no Marxist dialectician has gone the whole hog here and agreed with Hegel -- or even much as half-hog, in that direction), and thoughts were deemed not to be part of the world of appearances, then they would be no different from the 'intelligent ideas' we met earlier.
However, as seems plain, if DM-theorists were to argue along these lines, it would make a mockery of the materialist flip they supposedly inflicted on Hegel's system, for such thoughts would then be little different from Hegelian ideas, but now in fragmented self-development. So, if thoughts are to be excluded from the world of appearances, then there seems to be no way of distinguishing them from Platonic/Cartesian/Hegelian self-developing, self-certifying ('semi-divine') Ideas. And, if that is so, their subsequent referral back to the empirical world for testing and verification would be an empty gesture. Why bother to test a god-like thought? Did Moses check the Ten Commandments or the creation story in the Book of Genesis?
[Moving higher up the cosmic pecking-order: did Gerry Healy check a single thing he ever said? And, of course, we all know Bob Avakian doesn't need to check anything. But, the situation is worse than this might suggest: not even 'God' can side-step how things appear to 'Him'. Even to the 'Absolute Idea', at The End of Time, things will merely appear to be as history has delivered them to 'Him/Her/It'. Once again: Even if their 'appearance' coincided with their 'essence' (to use the jargon) they would still only appear to coincide.]
And we can console ourselves with the further thought that whoever denies or rejects these deflationary conclusions must do so in this world of appearances, or stay silent.
Indeed, even Hegel's system is accessible only to those who can read, speak or hear. That is because Hegel's writings (indeed, anyone's writings) confront us now and always as phenomenal objects -- and, in this world, appearances hold the whip hand.
Any appearance to the contrary is simply misleading.
Dialectics Engages Auto-Destruct Mode
Furthermore -- and this shouldn't need pointing out --, thoughts and theories can be every bit as mistaken as beliefs based on appearances can.41 For example, the thought that sticks bend when immersed in water is no less (potentially) misleading than is the analogous appearance to that effect. [That is partly what lay behind the point made earlier about contradictory beliefs.]
Indeed, the history of science is littered with erroneous and radically mistaken theories. With respect to DM, the situation is far, far worse. Given the DM-thesis that knowledge depends on an infinite, asymptotic convergence on an ever-elusive absolute or Ideal limit, DM-epistemology is little different from radical scepticism. [That allegation was substantiated at length here.] If so, there is an extremely high probability that even the soundest of DM-theses merely only looks correct, and the very latest and best DM-abstraction merely appears to be valid, when neither are, or even remotely are.42
Unfortunately, just as soon as the virus-like distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality' is introduced into thought, the downfall of the theory that welcomed with open arms it is all but guaranteed. Indeed, for that theory: the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.
Even more annoying: this is one idea that does self-develop, but not in a healthy direction, or in a direction DM-theorists should find conducive. In fact, it soon engages self-destruct mode. For if nothing in epistemology is indubitable (save we revert to those comforting Cartesian certainties, once more --, which anyway only seem to be secure, and only seem to be so to those who think that ideas can somehow interpret themselves), then the superiority of thought over phenomena, essence over accident, and reality over appearance is illusory -- given this crazy way of seeing things.
In which case, alongside misleading phenomena, we find we now have to contend with even more dubious DM-theories and abstractions. And, like it or not, these latterly suspect theories can't form a secure basis for any subsequent explanation of the "true nature" of those equally shaky appearances. An apparently correct theory is clearly incapable of providing the required certainty for the safe interpretation of suspiciously misleading phenomena. In which case, a radically suspect theory (such as DM) stands no chance.
Oscillate dialectically as much as you like -- between 'thought' and 'appearance', 'essence' and 'accident' --, loop the dialectical loop all day long, it matters not; traditional philosophical notions like these (i.e., "essence", "reality", "appearance", "theory", and "objectivity", and their ilk), are now irredeemably lost in this shadowy world of misleading semblances.43
So, it now seems that the already suspect dialectical circuit locks DM in permanent orbit around these eternally shaky appearances. In that case, with respect to any given DM-theorist, who uses problematic concepts like these ('appearance' and 'reality'), the supposed route that leads him/her into abstract theory -- and then back again (via practice), as a way of delving behind phenomena to uncover those hidden "essences" --, is forever blocked. For just as soon as a single DM-abstraction is penned, typed, thought about or spoken, it enters and then remains trapped in this world of faded simulacra.
Despite this, it could be argued that dialecticians actually locate abstraction in thought, and this associates it with theory and thus with essence, not with appearances.
But, this rebuttal won't do, for thought (according to DM) only becomes objective in practice. Thought does not become objective if it remains confined in an inner, mental or abstract domain; it has to enter the phenomenal world through practice (minimally, it has to be spoken or written down, if it is subsequently to be acted upon, or tested) in order for it to mature into 'objectivity'. Unfortunately, given this unwise way of depicting things, in the phenomenal world appearances reign supreme, and any material representation of thought (and any attempt to resolve anything whatsoever in practice) must negotiate its peace with them.
Indeed, given the traditional view of things, appearance is an unforgiving taskmaster.
Moreover, if the further restrictions that DM places on thought are taken into account (i.e., those related to practice, once more), there would be no way of corroborating a single DM-proposition -- at least, none that weren't themselves compromised by doubts initiated by the 'reality'/'appearance' distinction, too -- even more so if the 'asymptotic approach' metaphor is thrown in for good measure. Furthermore, as we discovered is the case with thought, confirmation isn't self-certifying, either; it, too, has to earn its keep in this vale of appearances. Practice is also situated there. Hence, any test of theory must take place in this 'unreliable world of appearances'. If so, practice, even if it were a test of truth, can't provide DM-epistemologists with a handy 'get-out-of-any-need-to-appeal-to-appearances' card.
Negotiate this rusty old DM-banger around as many dialectical bends as you like, it makes no difference: it still winds-up wrapped around the same old tree of appearances.
And this is just one more reason why genuine materialists distrust the Idealist non-sense dialecticians have unwisely imported into Marxism, courtesy of that Hermetic Harebrain, Hegel.
Indeed, as we have seen, this interminable muddle is a direct consequence of importing a set of ideas from Traditional Metaphysics; in this case, those associated with the 'appearance'/'reality' distinction.
It may be avoided (with ease) by rejecting this historically regressive clanger in its entirety.
Naturally, this doesn't mean that an HM-analysis of Capitalism, for example, is incapable of distinguishing between its genuinely exploitative relations and the false beliefs workers (and others) form of them --, nor of accounting for the contradictory ideas people develop as a result.44 But, it does mean that we may only construct these successfully (in HM) if the confused categories of Traditional Metaphysics and DM are completely excised.
And good riddance, too...
1. A rather short but clear introduction to this topic can be found in Staniland (1973). A more comprehensive work is Aaron (1967), although the latter concentrates almost exclusively on post-Cartesian theory. Also see Tugendhat (1982), as well as here, here and here.
It is worth adding that DM-theorists have adopted an idiosyncratic understanding of the word "metaphysics"; I have discussed this topic at greater length here. Readers are directed there for more details.
1a. As we saw in Part One of this Essay, and as we will also see in Essay Four, Traditional Theorists invented a grammatical theory that in effect altered the way general words were supposed to work in indicative sentences, transforming predicate expressions into the names of Abstract Particulars. The misbegotten 'abstractions' that emerged as a result of this were then projected onto the world so that material reality was made to conform to them rather than the other way round; the Ideal became the arbiter of the material for the next 2000+ years.
In this way, the 'rational' universe of Ancient Greek Theorists (as well as that of the vast majority of subsequent Philosophers) was nothing more than a back-reflection onto the world of the products of distorted language, as Marx himself argued:
"The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphasis alone added.]
Indeed, as Hegel let slip:
"Every philosophy is essentially an idealism or at least has idealism for its principle, and the question then is only how far this principle is carried out." [Hegel (1999), pp.154-55; §316.]
[The ideological background that motivated these traditional moves is exposed in Essay Twelve (summary here).]
Moreover, the presumed ability to 'abstract' certain Concepts or Ideas into existence, or call them to mind, is supposed to be innate. Of course, hardcore Rationalists (like Descartes, Leibniz, and, quintessentially, Hegel) held that these concepts were, indeed, innate (or they were innate to the architectonic (i.e., cognitive structure) of our minds. That is, our minds cannot but operate in certain ways -- which is an idea up-front in Kant that explains how we are all supposed to be able to see, apprehend or comprehend 'abstractions' as they are instantiated in the objects we meet in experience -- by means, perhaps, of something Lenin called a 'law of cognition'. In more contemporary terms, these concepts, or 'abstractions', in effect 'organise experience'; hence, they make experience possible. This approach was supposed to cut the ground from under Empiricism, since it underlined the putative fact that without these concepts, or 'abstractions', we would be unable to apprehend anything at all from experience.
These ideas, of course, are a faint echo of Plato, who renders this idea explicitly theological:
"If mind and true opinion are two distinct classes, then I say that there certainly are these self-existent ideas unperceived by sense, and apprehended only by the mind; if, however, as some say, true opinion differs in no respect from mind, then everything that we perceive through the body is to be regarded as most real and certain. But we must affirm that to be distinct, for they have a distinct origin and are of a different nature; the one is implanted in us by instruction, the other by persuasion; the one is always accompanied by true reason, the other is without reason; the one cannot be overcome by persuasion, but the other can: and lastly, every man may be said to share in true opinion, but mind is the attribute of the gods and of very few men. Wherefore also we must acknowledge that there is one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only." [Plato (1997c), 51e-52a, pp.1254-55. I have used the on-line version here. Bold emphases added. The published version translates the third set of highlighted words as follows: "It is indivisible -- it cannot be perceived by the senses at all -- and it is the role of the understanding to study it." Cornford renders it thus: "[It is] invisible and otherwise imperceptible; that, in fact, which thinking has for its object." (Cornford (1997), p.192.) See also Note 1b.]
There are very strong echoes of this approach to knowledge in DM-epistemology, too, which isn't surprising given the fact that it is supposed to be 'upside-down' Hegelianism. Indeed, this is abundantly clear from these words of Lenin's:
"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.]
"Logical concepts are subjective so long as they remain 'abstract,' in their abstract form, but at the same time they express the Thing-in-themselves. Nature is both concrete and abstract, both phenomenon and essence, both moment and relation. Human concepts are subjective in their abstractness, separateness, but objective as a whole, in the process, in the sum-total, in the tendency, in the source." [Ibid., p.208. Italic emphases in the original.]
[I have discussed the above comments in more detail in Part One of this Essay.]
There is an illuminating discussion of this trend in Rationalism, along with an exposé of its serious limitations, in Cowie (2002), pp.1-68. [Cowie also shows that the underlying assumptions of Rationalism and Empiricism are remarkably similar.] These 'limitations' are apparent in DM-epistemology, too. I will return to this theme in later Parts of Essay Three. [Also see Cowie (2008), and Stich (1975).]
1aa. Marcuse expresses the Idealism implicit in the Hegelian tradition (upside down, or 'the right way up') rather clearly:
"The doctrine of Essence seeks to liberate knowledge from the worship of 'observable facts' and from the scientific common sense that imposes this worship.... The real field of knowledge is not the given fact about things as they are, but the critical evaluation of them as a prelude to passing beyond their given form. Knowledge deals with appearances in order to get beyond them. 'Everything, it is said, has an essence, that is, things really are not what they immediately show themselves. There is therefore something more to be done than merely rove from one quality to another and merely to advance from one qualitative to quantitative, and vice versa: there is a permanence in things, and that permanent is in the first instance their Essence.' The knowledge that appearance and essence do not jibe is the beginning of truth. The mark of dialectical thinking is the ability to distinguish the essential from the apparent process of reality and to grasp their relation." [Marcuse (1973), pp.145-46. Marcuse is here quoting Hegel (1975), p.163, §112. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Minor typo corrected.]
"Prior to this formalisation, the experience of the divided world finds its logic in the Platonic dialectic. Here, the terms 'Being,' 'Non-being,' 'Movement,' 'the One and the Many,' 'Identity,' and 'Contradiction' are methodically kept open, ambiguous, not fully defined. They have an open horizon, an entire universe of meaning which is gradually structured in the process of communication itself, but which is never closed. The propositions are submitted, developed, and tested in a dialogue, in which the partner is led to question the normally unquestioned universe of experience and speech, and to enter a new dimension of discourse -- otherwise he is free and the discourse is addressed to his freedom. He is supposed to go beyond that which is given to him -- as the speaker, in his proposition, goes beyond the initial setting of the terms. These terms have many meanings because the conditions to which they refer have many sides, implications, and effects which cannot be insulated and stabilised. Their logical development responds to the process of reality, or Sache selbst ['thing itself' -- RL]. The laws of thought are laws of reality, or rather become the laws of reality if thought understands the truth of immediate experience as the appearance of another truth, which is that of the true Forms of reality -- of the Ideas. Thus there is contradiction rather than correspondence between dialectical thought and the given reality; the true judgment judges this reality not in its own terms, but in terms which envisage its subversion. And in this subversion, reality comes into its own truth.
"In the classical logic, the judgment which constituted the original core of dialectical thought was formalised in the propositional form, 'S is p.' But this form conceals rather than reveals the basic dialectical proposition, which states the negative character of the empirical reality. Judged in the light of their essence and idea, men and things exist as other than they are; consequently thought contradicts that which is (given), opposes its truth to that of the given reality. The truth envisaged by thought is the Idea. As such it is, in terms of the given reality, 'mere' Idea, 'mere' essence -- potentiality....
"This contradictory, two-dimensional style of thought is the inner form not only of dialectical logic but of all philosophy which comes to grips with reality. The propositions which define reality affirm as true something that is not (immediately) the case; thus they contradict that which is the case, and they deny its truth. The affirmative judgment contains a negation which disappears in the propositional form (S is p). For example, 'virtue is knowledge'; 'justice is that state in which everyone performs the function for which his nature is best suited'; 'the perfectly real is the perfectly knowable'; 'verum est id, quod est' ['the true is that which is' -- RL]; 'man is free'; 'the State is the reality of Reason.'
"If these propositions are to be true, then the copula 'is' states an 'ought,' a desideratum. It judges conditions in which virtue is not knowledge, in which men do not perform the function for which their nature best suits them, in which they are not free, etc. Or, the categorical S-p form states that (S) is not (S); (S) is defined as other-than-itself. Verification of the proposition involves a process in fact as well as in thought: (S) must become that which it is. The categorical statement thus turns into a categorical imperative; it does not state a fact but the necessity to bring about a fact. For example, it could be read as follows: man is not (in fact) free, endowed with inalienable rights, etc., but he ought to be, because be is free in the eyes of God, by nature, etc....
"Under the rule of formal logic, the notion of the conflict between essence and appearance is expendable if not meaningless; the material content is neutralised....
"Existing as the living contradiction between essence and appearance, the objects of thought are of that 'inner negativity' which is the specific quality of their concept. The dialectical definition defines the movement of things from that which they are not to that which they are. The development of contradictory elements, which determines the structure of its object, also determines the structure of dialectical thought. The object of dialectical logic is neither the abstract, general form of objectivity, nor the abstract, general form of thought -- nor the data of immediate experience. Dialectical logic undoes the abstractions of formal logic and of transcendental philosophy, but it also denies the concreteness of immediate experience. To the extent to which this experience comes to rest with the things as they appear and happen to be, it is a limited and even false experience. It attains its truth if it has freed itself from the deceptive objectivity which conceals the factors behind the facts -- that is, if it understands its world as a historical universe, in which the established facts are the work of the historical practice of man. This practice (intellectual and material) is the reality in the data of experience; it is also the reality which dialectical logic comprehends." [Marcuse (1968), pp.110-17. Italic emphasis in the original; bold emphases added. Spelling adjusted to conform to UK English. I have used the on-line text here, and have corrected any typographical errors I managed to spot.]
It is worth noting that Marcuse connects the subject-predicate form with the alleged 'contradiction' between 'essence' and 'appearance', which neatly confirms the analysis developed in Part One of this Essay.
The same basic point is made by John Rees, but, fortunately, in much plainer language:
"The important thing about a Marxist understanding of the distinction between the appearance of things and their essence is twofold: 1) by delving beneath the mass of surface phenomena, it is possible to see the essential relations governing historical change -– thus beneath the appearance of a free and fair market transaction it is possible to see the exploitative relations of class society, but, 2) this does not mean that surface appearances can simply be dismissed as ephemeral events of no consequence. In revealing the essential relations in society, it is also possible to explain more fully than before why they appear in a form different to their real nature. To explain, for instance, why it is that the exploitative class relations at the point of production appear as the exchange of 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay' in the polished surface of the labour market....
"There is a deeper reality, but it must be able to account for the contradiction between it and the way it appears." [Rees (1998), pp.187-88. Bold emphases added. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
We will have occasion to return to these two quotations, later. [However, see also Note 1b.]
This echoes Lenin's words:
"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.357-58, 359-60. Italic emphases in the original; bold emphases added.]
The Idealism apparent in Lenin and Marcuse's analyses was brought out (no doubt inadvertently) by George Novack:
"A consistent materialism cannot proceed from principles which are validated by appeal to abstract reason, intuition, self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source. Idealisms may do this. But the materialist philosophy has to be based upon evidence taken from objective material sources and verified by demonstration in practice...." [Novack (1965), p.17. Bold emphasis added.]
1b. Donald Davidson put this point rather well:
"In one dialogue or another Plato tells us that the forms are not perceived by the senses, but are objects of the mind; that they are imperishable; that they are indivisible; that they are superior to material objects; that they are norms by which we judge material things; that they have a certain creative power (the form of wisdom 'makes' Socrates wise). Material objects participate in, resemble, copy, or are modelled by the forms. Problems arise because some of these characteristics of the forms turn out to clash with others. If material things resemble the forms they instantiate to various degrees, then material things have something in common with any form they resemble. If a well-drawn circle resembles the form of circularity, it must be because both the particular drawn circle and the form of circularity share the property of circularity; but then what the particular and the property share must be still another form. Scholars of Plato have puzzled over this problem, the problem of the 'third man,' because it seems to lead to an infinite regress." [Davidson (2005), pp.78-79. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Bold emphasis added.]
Of course, Davidson goes on to argue that Plato appears to have 'solved' this problem by arguing that it is a mistake, for example, to think that shapes also have a shape, or that Socrates resembles the concept of a man. This may be so, but it isn't easy to see how the Forms could be exemplars of the particulars they supposedly instantiate if they share nothing with them. Indeed, why call something the Form of Circularity if there is nothing circular about it? Or if there is nothing in common between this Form and circles they have drawn or have seen in a book? Why isn't it, perhaps, the Form of Squareness, or of Triangularity? Of course, a rule (if this is what the Forms are) in no obvious way resembles the objects or propositions to which it is, or can be, applied, but there is little in Plato that suggests he regarded his Forms as rules. But, if the Forms are to work as exemplars, there would have to be a rule of some sort that informed those who implicitly or explicitly used them (or their linguistic counterparts) how to apply them correctly. But, there are none.
Well, this might be to misinterpret the nature of Plato's the Forms, perhaps anachronistically. In fact, Plato talks as if we just 'see' or 'remember' the Forms (on this, see Note 6a) -- and there's an end on it (as we say up North). But, if we are to recognise the Form of Circularity and distinguish it from the Form of Squareness, then there must be something about the former that doesn't apply to the latter, which it shares with Circularity that it doesn't share with Squareness. And what can that be? A name or label of some sort? But, names can't express a rule, nor can labels. We already know what Circularity is, so our understanding is already biased, but just looking at the alleged Form of Circularity in Platonic Heaven, before we were born (which is how Plato conceived of this Cosmic Drama) without knowing what it represented would tell you nothing. Maybe we were all given a guided tour, or presented with an Empyrean User's Handbook of some sort? If so, that would make this a social theory, and all the problems Plato saw with that would apply to a heavenly version of it. What, for example, would be common to The Form of Dog, of Cat, of Lion, of Rat..., that would make them all partake in the Form of Animal? That would now re-introduce Aristotle's Third Man Argument, only now applied to the Forms themselves!
Well, maybe Platonic Heaven works on 'mysterious ways' and Cosmic Knowledge is different from ordinary, boring earthy knowledge. But, this is precisely the point at issue, for Plato's theory locates this 'problem' in an entirely mysterious realm.
Of course, this 'difficulty' resurfaces in Hegel's theory but in a different form (no pun intended), for he had no way of knowing if his apprehension of the concepts of concern to him were genuine copies of those processed by the Absolute itself, or, indeed, even if they were the same, he would have no way of knowing whether or not he had interpreted them aright, or knew what they meant. Having the name of a concept (such as "Being") is of no more use to Hegel than seeing the Form of Circularity would be to our allegedly pre-existent selves in Platonic Heaven. The name of a concept would provide no clue as to how it should be applied, or even what it meant -- certainly no more than the word "Meskonator" would help you, dear reader, if you simply looked at, or thought about, it for many weeks on end.
But, this is precisely where Hegel's non-social theory of knowledge (aka bourgeois individualism) -- for that is what it is despite pretentions to the contrary (he has worked it all out in the privacy of his own head) -- that is where his ideas have landed his theory of 'conceptual development'. So, simply grafting a temporal component onto Plato's theory of Forms is no solution at all. Time cannot add a dimension of meaning where there was none to begin with.
Any who doubt this need only ask themselves in, say, two weeks time if "Meskonator" now means something.
[There is more about this below, here and here.]
Be this as it may, Davidson makes the point that even if Plato managed to circumvent these 'difficulties', his theory falls foul of another and even more intractable infinite regress: the problem of predication and the unity of the proposition -- covered in Part One of this Essay.
However, this Platonic doctrine immediately demotes the 'evidence' that sense experience delivers to the 'knowing subject', rendering it only of secondary importance (or even of no importance at all) compared to whatever is contributed by 'thought', or by 'tradition' -- as, indeed, Plato's Allegory of the Cave confirms.
This Aristocratic depreciation of both the material world and contingency is what we find, too, in the later Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions, both of which found echo in Hegel's work, and thus in DM. [On that, see O'Regan (1994). This theme will be explored in detail in Essay Fourteen Part One (summary here).]
In which case, if "What is rational is real, and what is real is rational" [Hegel (2005), p.xix.], then the 'real' and the 'rational' must both be inaccessible to the senses, and the outward appearance of things can't match their real form. That is because only 'the Mind' is 'rational', and since material things aren't 'Mind', they can't be 'rational' -- nor can they be governed by rational principles.
[The various responses that could be made to that seemingly dogmatic assertion will be considered in detail in Essay Twelve Part Four.]
Or, perhaps better: matter and 'mind' can only be reconciled if the material world is now interpreted as an aspect of 'Mind', or even as an Ideal entity in its own right. Hence, the logical conclusion of this approach to 'knowledge, as indeed Hegel saw, is that, despite appearances to the contrary, everything must be 'Mind', an aspect of 'Mind', or a reflection of 'Mind' in 'self-development'.
At best, this means that appearances are indeed misleading; at worst, they are 'contradicted' by underlying 'essences' -- as dialecticians indeed tell us. In any such clash between the 'evidence' the senses deliver and the rational principles upon which the 'Mind' supposedly relies, Traditional Thought has always privileged the latter over the former, as the following authors point out:
"Empirical, contingent truths have always struck philosophers as being, in some sense, ultimately unintelligible. It is not that none can be known with certainty…; nor is it that some cannot be explained…. Rather is it that all explanation of empirical truths rests ultimately on brute contingency -- that is how the world is! Where science comes to rest in explaining empirical facts varies from epoch to epoch, but it is in the nature of empirical explanation that it will hit the bedrock of contingency somewhere, e.g., in atomic theory in the nineteenth century or in quantum mechanics today. One feature that explains philosophers' fascination with truths of Reason is that they seem, in a deep sense, to be fully intelligible. To understand a necessary proposition is to see why things must be so, it is to gain an insight into the nature of things and to apprehend not only how things are, but also why they cannot be otherwise. It is striking how pervasive visual metaphors are in philosophical discussions of these issues. We see the universal in the particular (by Aristotelian intuitive induction); by the Light of Reason we see the essential relations of Simple Natures; mathematical truths are apprehended by Intellectual Intuition, or by a priori insight. Yet instead of examining the use of these arresting pictures or metaphors to determine their aptness as pictures, we build upon them mythological structures.
"We think of necessary propositions as being true or false, as objective and independent of our minds or will. We conceive of them as being about various entities, about numbers even about extraordinary numbers that the mind seems barely able to grasp…, or about universals, such as colours, shapes, tones; or about logical entities, such as the truth-functions or (in Frege's case) the truth-values. We naturally think of necessary propositions as describing the features of these entities, their essential characteristics. So we take mathematical propositions to describe mathematical objects…. Hence investigation into the domain of necessary propositions is conceived as a process of discovery. Empirical scientists make discoveries about the empirical domain, uncovering contingent truths; metaphysicians, logicians and mathematicians appear to make discoveries of necessary truths about a supra-empirical domain (a 'third realm'). Mathematics seems to be the 'natural history of mathematical objects' [Wittgenstein (1978), p.137], 'the physics of numbers' [Wittgenstein (1976), p.138; however these authors record this erroneously as p.139, RL] or the 'mineralogy of numbers' [Wittgenstein (1978), p.229]. The mathematician, e.g., Pascal, admires the beauty of a theorem as though it were a kind of crystal. Numbers seem to him to have wonderful properties; it is as if he were confronting a beautiful natural phenomenon [Wittgenstein (1998), p.47; again, these authors have recorded this erroneously as p.41, RL]. Logic seems to investigate the laws governing logical objects…. Metaphysics looks as if it is a description of the essential structure of the world. Hence we think that a reality corresponds to our (true) necessary propositions. Our logic is correct because it corresponds to the laws of logic….
"In our eagerness to ensure the objectivity of truths of reason, their sempiternality and mind-independence, we slowly but surely transform them into truths that are no less 'brutish' than empirical, contingent truths. Why must red exclude being green? To be told that this is the essential nature of red and green merely reiterates the brutish necessity. A proof in arithmetic or geometry seems to provide an explanation, but ultimately the structure of proofs rests on axioms. Their truth is held to be self-evident, something we apprehend by means of our faculty of intuition; we must simply see that they are necessarily true…. We may analyse such ultimate truths into their constituent 'indefinables'. Yet if 'the discussion of indefinables…is the endeavour to see clearly, and to make others see clearly, the entities concerned, in order that the mind may have that kind of acquaintance with them which it has with redness or the taste of a pineapple' [Russell (1937), p.xv; again these authors record this erroneously as p.v, RL], then the mere intellectual vision does not penetrate the logical or metaphysical that to the why or wherefore…. For if we construe necessary propositions as truths about logical, mathematical or metaphysical entities which describe their essential properties, then, of course, the final products of our analyses will be as impenetrable to reason as the final products of physical theorising, such as Planck's constant." [Baker and Hacker (1988), pp.273-75. Referencing conventions in the original have been altered to conform with those adopted at this site.]
"Already with Fichte the idea of the unity of the sciences, of system, was connected with that of finding a reliable starting-point in certainty on which knowledge could be based. Thinkers from Kant onwards were quite convinced that the kind of knowledge which came from experience was not reliable. Empirical knowledge could be subject to error, incomplete, or superseded by further observation or experiment. It would be foolish, therefore, to base the whole of knowledge on something which had been established only empirically. The kind of knowledge which Kant and his followers believed to be the most secure was a priori knowledge, the kind embodied in the laws of Nature. These had been formulated without every occurrence of the Natural phenomenon in question being observed, so they did not summarise empirical information, and yet they held good by necessity for every case; these laws were truly universal in their application." [White (1996a), p.29.]
But, as we will see in Essays Ten Part One and Twelve Part One, not only is the above search an empty charade (in that it can't deliver what had been advertised all along for it), it destroys the capacity we have for articulating any ideas at all.
[We saw how that happens in Part One.]
Even worse: Dialectical Marxists have shown that they are only too willing to adopt this anti-materialist, and hence ruling-class, view of 'reality'. These 'ruling ideas' certainly now rule supposedly radical minds. The sad truth is that this approach to knowledge (that dialecticians have imported into Marxism (ironically)) has the opposite result: it has delivered no knowledge at all. In fact, if 'true', it would prevent any from being developed.
This means that while DM-theorists have hocked the 'materialist cow', they haven't even received a handful of beans in return.
Figure Two: Jack Negotiates A Far Superior Deal
This also helps explain why DM-theses collapse so readily into incoherence, as the next ten Essays demonstrate.
[On the "Third Man Argument", see Allen (1960), Code (1985), Cohen (1971), Geach (1956), Owen (1953), Strang (1963), and Vlastos (1954, 1956). For the general background, see Crombie (1963), pp.247-472, and Copleston (2003a), pp.163-206.]
It is important to add to what I said earlier: Plato himself doesn't make the sort of mistake I attribute to others throughout this Essay -- except in places were he argues that the forms also "participate" in their own form (when, for example, he speaks of the Form of the Beautiful being beautiful, which implies that it, too, is an Abstract Particular). In fact, he hypostatises the Forms in other ways (and not solely in order for them to provide a reference for predicate expressions), but as exemplars.
Exemplars function rather like, say, the Standard Metre in Paris. [I owe this point to Peter Geach, who reveals that this idea originated with Wittgenstein; on that, see Geach's article referenced earlier. (There is also an echo of this approach to Plato in Donald Davidson's comment, above.)] However, as pointed out earlier, even this interpretation of the Forms runs into the ground.
1bb. In addition, it is worth pointing out that this criticism isn't aimed at the use of abstract nouns in ordinary language, merely these artificial 'abstractions' concocted by Traditional Philosophers.
However, if we accept Plato's more considered theory (that the Forms were exemplars), then an anthropological or sociological account of generality might become possible, for in that case, as Berkeley certainly appreciated (and as Wittgenstein considered in detail), generality can be accounted for on the basis of rule-governed linguistic behaviour, rather than on the basis of a mystical theory that appealed to a set of ghostly Forms, Concepts, Categories, Ideas, and Universals of dubious nature and provenance.
This also undercuts a serious problem faced by those who regard the Forms as exemplars. If the Forms end up working like the Standard Metre in Paris (suggested above), then the 'Third Man' problem simply reasserts itself. That is because even the Standard Metre shares properties or features with an ordinary measuring rod or device. However, if the Standard Metre is regarded as the embodiment of a rule (in which case, it becomes important how we apply the rule), and not so much a physical exemplar, then these 'difficulties' vanish. It makes no sense to suppose that a rule shares anything with whatever it is applied to -- and, the Standard Metre itself can't tell us how to apply it, either. However, on this point, see Note 1b.
1c0. This isn't to suggest that there weren't other important currents in political thought, but in this section of the Essay I am concentrating on one of the main sources of rationalist conceptions of the state, as well as the 'world-views' that supposedly underpinned them.
1c. To some, this might not seem to be a crucially important point; that misconception will be laid to rest in Essay Twelve (summary here), where these philosophical moves will be linked to other themes that run right through the history of ruling-class thought, later to re-surface in DM, alongside the substitutionism it serves to 'rationalise. [On the latter, see Essay Nine Parts One and Two.]
2. The ideological background to "Possessive Individualism" can be found in MacPherson (1964) -- an outline of the philosophical context in Hacking (1975).
[Unfortunately, despite its other strengths, Hacking's book is largely a-historical --, i.e., in the sense that it fails to link changes in philosophical fashion to contemporaneous social forces, ideological pressures, and the bourgeois Mode of Production -- which is no surprise since Hacking doesn't claim to be a Marxist.]
A clearer Marxist account -- but, restricted to philosophical ideas allegedly connected with scientific change -- can be found in Freudenthal (1986), with a more sophisticated one in Hadden (1994). The latter is itself based on ideas detailed in Borkenau (1987), Grossmann (1987), and Sohn-Rethel (1978). Also see Kaye (1998).
For a Wittgensteinian slant on all this, see Robinson (2003), especially chapters 9, 10, 12 and 14.
More details can be accessed at Guy Robinson's website, here. [Unfortunately, Guy's site is no longer available. However, many of his Essays can now be read at this site -- here. (Sadly, I heard that Guy passed away in October 2011.)]
2a. As should now seem clear: If traditional analyses of predication turned general terms into the names of Abstract Particulars, then the sentence, "This is a general idea of F" must suffer the same fate with the term "general idea of F" now referring to yet another Abstract Particular!
The bowdlerised and corrupted 'Term Logic' developed by early modern Logicians and Philosophers (and this includes Kant and Hegel) also interpreted quantifiers (such as "every", "all", "nothing", "some", etc.) as special sorts of names. This error wasn't corrected until Frege's revolutionary logic hit the philosophical streets nearly a century later.
[On this, see Geach (1972b), and Beaney (1996). See also this, but note the caveats I have posted here.]
This age-old syntactical screw-up resurfaced, too, in the way that concepts are interpreted by DM-theorists: they are plainly viewed as names, held to refer to, or are said to "reflect", certain aspects of reality. Such 'concepts' are thus capable of being true (or "relatively true") on their own, as isolated atoms. To be sure, dialecticians might want to reject that conclusion, but their turning of them into the names of Abstract Particulars belies each and every such denial.
Unfortunately, these 'dialectical moves' are in turn based on the idea that the unit of meaning or truth is the individual word or concept, not the sentence or proposition. In this way, naming, not saying, becomes the model for understanding meaning in language. [On this, see Hacking (1975).] That, of course, 'allowed' Hegel to see the self-development of concepts as central to his system, thus ignoring how we actually use language. [On this, see here, and Note 6a, below.]
In that case, over the last few centuries we have witnessed the production of several dozen dirigibles full of Idealist hot air, the motivation for which was the aforementioned -- seemingly insignificant -- logical gaffe.
Figure Three: At Last! A Use Found For Traditional Philosophy
As Wittgenstein noted: Metaphysics is merely a shadow cast on reality by grammar -- but, in this case, distorted grammar, as, indeed, Marx himself pointed out:
"We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petty-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases added.]
[More on this in Part Three of this Essay, and in Essays Twelve (summary here) and Thirteen Part Three.]
2b. As we saw in Essay Three Part One, it is human beings who provide the generality here, not words, concepts, or ideas. Plainly, that is because words, concepts, and ideas have no social structure, history, intelligence, or language -- whereas we do.
3. The natural response to this would be to argue that general names aren't like Proper Names, they have a different "mode of signification". This is undeniable, but while it is clear that Proper Names typically name particulars (or individuals) -- but even then, our use of such names is itself rather complex (on that see Baker and Hacker (2005, pp.227-49)), it is unclear what general names could actually name. Even to ask this question would be to give the game away, since, obviously, it trades on the idea that general terms name something. Hence, in order to remain consistent with the use of ordinary names, general names would also have to be viewed as referring expressions, denoting an individual of some sort -- be this a Universal, a class, group, natural kind, set or concept. So, even though some might want to speak of "the set of…", or "the class of…", or "the natural kind…", named by the relevant 'general name' (such as "table, "animal", "planet" or "molecule"), the use of the definite article nullifies the generality that these terms once seemed to enjoy.
Hence, in this case, 'abstract individuals' (such as, "the Universal", "the set of…", or "the class of…", or "the natural kind…") are the referents of these supposedly 'general names', cancelling their generality. Plainly, they would now work just like Proper Names.
Of course, giving such abstractions a name begs the question --, which is: Is there indeed one 'thing' there to be named?
Despite an ancient grammatical and logical tradition that treats general nouns as general names (an approach that was itself based on the metaphysical views being questioned in this Essay), as we have seen, we may only concur with it if we, too, aim to undermine the facility we have in language for using such terms to express generality (along the lines outlined in Part One of this Essay).
It could be objected that classes and sets, for example, aren't necessarily or even typically singular, but are compound in nature and can encompass any number of members or elements. In that case, when a predicate designates the extension of a class, it is neither naming it, nor referring to it.
[The extension of a class is every object collected by that class; so the extension of the class human being is every human being.]
Of course, it isn't too clear whether predicates designate anything; if someone says "The boss is a crook", the use of "...is a crook" isn't to designate, but to describe. [On that, see Slater (2000).]
Turning a description into a designation would, however, be to repeat the errors analysed in Part One of this Essay; that is, it would be to model all meaningful discourse on the naming relation, only in this case using a euphemism (i.e., "designate") as a fig-leaf to hide that fact.
Again, as Fraser Cowley pointed out:
"The open sentence 'x is a spider' determines a class only because 'spider' signifies a kind of thing. It is by being one of that kind...that a value of x is a member of the class. To identify something as a spider, one must know what a spider is, that is, what kind of thing 'spider' signifies. Kinds of things can come to be or cease to be. The chemical elements, kinds of substances, are believed to have evolved. The motorbike -- the kind of vehicle known as a motorbike -- was invented about 1880. The dodo is extinct. There is no obvious way of producing sentences equivalent to these in terms of classes. The class of dodos and the class of dead dodos are not identical: though all dodos are dead, a dead dodo is not a dodo....
"Since a kind is to be found wherever there are particular things of the kind, it can have various geographical locations. The lion is found in East Africa. Lions are found in East Africa. It makes no difference whether we say 'the lion' or whether we say 'lions': what is meant is the kind of animal. To say that it can be seen in captivity far from its remaining natural habitats does not contradict the statement that it is found in East Africa. A kind is not a class: the class of lions is nowhere to be found...." [Cowley (1991), p.87. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. The rest of this section of Cowley's book is relevant, too.]
On this, also see Ryle (1949). Ryle called this error the "Fido-Fido Fallacy", the idea that to every word there must correspond something in reality (abstract or concrete) that it names or designates.
[His argument is summarised here. This links to an article by Yorick Wilks (a one time student of Wittgenstein's), available as a PDF here.]
4. Why that is so will be revealed presently.
5. It is arguable that for all their apparent sophistication, modern 'scientific' theories of mind and language (cybernetically-, cognitively-, physicalistically-, or psychologically-orientated, etc.) haven't advanced much beyond this point. That contentious claim won't be substantiated here (although it has been defended in depth in Essay Thirteen Part Three).
[This entire approach to the Philosophy of Mind is criticised in Bennett and Hacker (2003, 2008).]
6. We saw the life drained out of general terms in Part One of this Essay, with all those lists.
The social and ideological background to, and motivation for, such moves will be explored at length in Essay Twelve (summary here, and here).
6a0. For example, witness the habit DM-fans have of speaking about logic as a study of the 'laws of thought'. [On this topic, see my comments over at Wikipedia.]
6a. No wonder Plato had to appeal to the alleged pre-existence of the soul to account for these 'recognitional powers'. According to Plato, we all know the Forms since we were all acquainted with them before we were born; the shock of birth apparently makes us forget this pre-natal encounter. Subsequent (i.e., philosophical or 'genuine') knowledge was thus a form of recollection; our re-cognition of the Forms in the objects that supposedly instantiated them in this world was supposedly rekindled because the Forms were rather like long lost acquaintances we had met and knew in our 'pre-existing life' but which we had temporarily forgotten, even if they were 'acquaintances' of a rather peculiar sort.
[On Platonic recollection, see Crombie (1963), pp.135-47, Guthrie (1986), pp.249-77, and Scott (1999). More on this topic, here, but more particularly here. See also Note 25, below.]
It is here, in this doctrine, that we meet yet another pernicious side-effect of Traditional Theories of meaning: if meaning is a function of single words, concepts or ideas, then theorists are forced to relate to the latter as one individual does to another (or, as one mind does to one concept, idea, or 'representation', taken individually), just as they do with all their earthly acquaintances. Knowledge and meaning thus become relational properties -- the Knower is linked somehow to the Known, the meaning of a word is related to whatever it supposedly refers, Signifier and Signified, each 'Mind' is connected with its ideas or its concepts (which, as we have seen, are all abstract objects of a rather peculiar sort), as they individually make themselves manifest to that Knower.
[In a later Essay, we will see that this error resurfaces in connection with Hegel's 'understanding' of truth, among other things. See also, here.]
But, these 'acquaintances' are in fact total strangers -- and completely featureless ones, too. Furthermore, since ideas don't carry with them a 'Metaphysical Identity Card', so to speak, how anyone could cognise, let alone re-cognise, these faceless spectres is deeply puzzling, to say the least.
[There are also echoes of this 'problem' in more recent Nativist theories of language, based, for example, on the work of Noam Chomsky. On this, see Cowie (1997, 2002, 2008), and Sampson (2005). Also see a summary of Sampson's criticisms, here. (I hesitate to refer anyone to Sampson's work since he is a right-wing Tory who holds several offensive ideas about race, among other things; fortunately, that doesn't appear to have affected his work in this area.)]
Indeed, the article by Yorick Wilks (mentioned in Note 3, above) takes Jerry Fodor to task for somewhat similar misdemeanours.
[These issues are discussed extensively in Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
6b. In fact, the insurmountable 'problems' the doctrine of the Trinity introduced into Christian Theology arose directly out of Plato and Aristotle's attempts to account for generality -- but, more specifically, because of the 'Forms', 'Universals' and 'Substances' they concocted. Of course, this fact hasn't been lost on anti-Trinitarian Christians for many centuries.
7. These points depend on an earlier argument, and might not be fully appreciated by anyone who has skipped past it.
This isn't to suggest that there aren't, or haven't been, countless 'solutions' to these classical brainteasers, only that this knotty 'problem' has resisted every single one for nigh on 2400 years.
Plainly, an entirely new approach is long overdue.
Fortunately, one such was suggested a generation or two ago, the central point of which is that philosophical 'problems' like this can be resolved by dissolving them, by identifying the syntactic and semantic blunders that gave them life, and which even now keep them alive.
So, a return to the use of ordinary language at least has the following to recommend it (that is, as far as Marxists are concerned!): it locates language, knowledge and the search for knowledge in a public domain, and hence on home turf for the left, basing it on the material language of the working class -- a tactic we saw Marx himself advocate.
[This topic is examined in more detail in Essay Twelve Part Two (summary here).]
8. These rather gnomic comments are expanded upon in Essay Thirteen Part Three.
8a. Again, this theme will be developed in Essay Three Part Five -- along lines suggested by Bertrand Russell [in Russell (1917b)], developed here, and here -- the first of these is Swartz (2009), the second, Swartz (1985).
How Traditional Theories grew out of (i) the systematic distortion of language, explored in Essay Twelve Part One, and (ii) the anthropomorphisation of the brain, detailed in Essay Thirteen Part Three -- specifically, here and here.
[More details can be accessed in Price and Corry (2007). The line I will be adopting (but given a far less theoretical slant) can be found in Hacker (2007), pp.57-89.]
9. We shall meet this particular option again in connection with the RRT in Essay Twelve Part Four (summary here).
[RRT = Reverse Reflection Theory; this will be fully explained in Essay Twelve Part Four. Basically, the idea is that given DM, language and 'mind' do not in fact reflect reality (as its theorists maintain); quite the reverse: reality is engineered so that it reflects how both Traditional and DM-theorists think we think. In that case, discourse doesn't reflect the world, the world is made to reflects discourse. Indeed, the 'cardboard reality' that results form this 'reverse-reflection' is no more than a shadow cast on the world by a misuse and misconstrual of language, to paraphrase Wittgenstein again -- and, in effect, Plato.]
10. This explains an earlier aside: Traditional Philosophy is based on (a) A set of alienated thought-forms, (b) Distorted language and (c) The fetishisation of discourse. [There is more on this in Essay Twelve, to, summary here.]
11. More details will be given in Essays Twelve and Fourteen (summaries here and here).
12. Once again, I am forced to frame this 'problem' using traditional jargon, but readers mustn't assume I think any of it makes sense.
The so-called "Problem of Induction" focuses on the assumed fact that generalisations about the future course of nature -- based on a finite body of data concerning how certain objects, processes or events have behaved in the past (etc.) --, can't provide a deductively sound basis for an inference that events (of a certain type) that have not yet happened will always resemble those (of that type) which have; or, more generally, that the course of nature will remain the same (howsoever that phrase is to be conceived). So, for example, just because water has always frozen at a certain temperature, that doesn't mean that it will always freeze at that temperature (that is, given the same level of purity of the water, and the same atmospheric pressure, etc., etc.). Or, to use David Hume's example, just because bread has always nourished those who consume, that doesn't (deductively) imply that it always will. Hence, there is no contradiction in supposing it won't.
"All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas, and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic, and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides, is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures. That three times five is equal to the half of thirty, expresses a relation between these numbers.
"Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever retain their certainty and evidence.
"Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible, because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind." [An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Part I. Link added. (My quoting this passage doesn't imply I agree with it!)]
This idea is brought out rather well by the following passage:
"But there is a price to be paid for this new methodology. About a hundred years after Bacon, Hume (1711-1776) pointed out the problem.
'The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: But does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers? The consequence seems nowise necessary.' [This passage is taken from Part II of Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and can be accessed here -- RL.]
"If we want to be very careful and not lump things into the same category, if types are not real, if the only real things are particular individuals, then there are no general truths about bread. We can describe the colour, shape, texture, taste and so on of this piece of bread, but if the general kind 'bread' isn't real, then whatever I learn about this piece of bread won't help me learn anything about the next piece of bread. That is the crucial usefulness of real types: if 'cat' is a real type, and not simply a nominal type, then whatever I learn about this particular cat will help me understand all cats. I can learn and know something about how to cure a problem with your cat if I have studied other cats, as long as they are identical in nature. If there is no reality to their unity as cats, then every new particular is just a new thing, and we can learn about it only by studying it; nothing else we study can possibly help us. So the existence of universals turns out to have a very profound impact on scientific methodology and epistemology." [Quoted from here. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site; spelling modified to agree with UK English. Links added.]
[Once more, I hasten to add that the above doesn't represent my opinion; I am merely making a point about the traditional approach to this topic. Where Hume went wrong was to ignore the fact that if something that is assumed to be bread fails nourish us (all things being equal!), we would have good reason to stop calling it bread.]
However, as we have seen, the traditional approach to 'Universals' merely translates any attempted 'answer' to this 'problem' into another 'problem' of the same form, involving yet more Abstract Particulars --, which, of course, may or may not behave the same way tomorrow as they have done today, if we choose to approach this 'problem' along these lines. Although these Abstract Particulars might be Ideal, 'Heavenly Creatures' of some sort, there is no guarantee that even if they are 'obedient' today, and behave themselves, they won't 'come off the rails' tomorrow.
Some might want to argue that these are changeless abstractions (although it isn't too clear that a DM-fan can consistently advance that response), but even if that were so, the words used to express this idea aren't, and there is no guarantee that they will mean the same in the future as they have done in the past -- or even that our memory of these abstractions will remain the same, too. [On that, see here.]
In short, an appeal to 'Universals' is no help at all if they, too, turn out to be particulars, which, because of that, can't guarantee their own future behaviour without another set of universals to do it for them, and so on ad infinitem.
Of course, any theory committed to the Heraclitean Flux (such as DM) has only succeeded in sinking itself even deeper in the mire, for if there is a universal flux, the future can't resemble the past! Indeed, the word "resemble" can't even 'resemble' itself!
[The 'relative stability' defence was neutralised here.]
This 'problem' partly originates in the mistaken belief that scientific theory itself delivers a special sort of truth. When that idea is abandoned (that scientific theories are capable of being either true or false), a solution to the 'problem' of induction soon suggests itself. [Notice the word "theory" here. I am not impugning scientific facts -- but, to state the obvious, facts aren't the same as theories. These rather controversial assertions will be substantiated in Essay Thirteen Part Two.]
Nevertheless, let us pose this 'problem' more acutely, pushing it a little further than is usually the case: Since both the flow of ideas in the mind (even those in the head of an Über-Rationalist, like Hegel), and the sensations that accompany them are also events, 'subjective' experience can't avoid being thrown into irredeemable doubt concerning the future behaviour even of these 'mental events'.
In that case, given this line of reasoning, our experience of anything that has yet to occur (and this also includes our own future thoughts) might fail to 'resemble' what they had been, or seemed to have been, in the past. Even the nature of our sensations and ideas could alter from moment to moment. If we experience an idea now as an idea of a certain sort, it could be experienced or thought of as something totally different tomorrow, even though it might prove impossible to say right now what that might be (either because we haven't the language available to do this, or because that language (and/or its accompanying 'thoughts') might itself change before we managed to utter or think anything at all).
Recall, 'abstractions' were invented to provide philosophical -- or even scientific -- stability to the deliverances of the senses. They were supposed to help provide a secure basis for knowledge. However, if we now have to appeal to 'Universals' ('Concepts', 'Categories', 'Principles', 'Ideas' or 'Rules'), all of which are privately processed, in order to guarantee that the aforementioned changes won't happen, then, because these 'abstractions' are particulars, too, they are clearly no help at all. That is because these 'Universal' particulars (for want of a better term!) are subject to the very same doubts about their own future behaviour that weigh against ordinary material particulars (if we insist on thinking of this 'problem' along traditional lines). In that case, no particular -- abstract or concrete -- can secure a single general conclusion about the future, concerning other objects, events and processes --, or even about themselves. There are no self-certifying ideas to be had here, given this way of conceiving this 'problem'.
Worse still: any 'solution' to this 'problem' (should one ever be found!) could itself be experienced as a non-solution (or, indeed, as anything whatsoever) at some point in the future -- especially if we are foolish enough buy into the Heraclitean Flux.
Naturally, expressed in this way, and in relation to the thoughts of theorists who are happy to employ the language and concepts of Traditional Philosophy, the 'problem' of how the present 'binds' the future has already lost its way. In fact, as should now seem obvious, phrases like "The present" and "The future" are particulars, too (or, they 'refer' to Abstract Particulars), and as such they possess neither the brain nor the brawn to assist Traditional Thinkers extricate themselves from this age-old, sceptical quagmire.
And, herein lies a clue to the solution to this family of 'problems': reject this entire way of talking as incoherent non-sense.
Not even the anti-materialist, Aristocratic Philosophers who invented it could make head or tail of it.
As we now know -- mainly because it was exposed in Part One of this Essay -- the original source of these 'difficulties' was the syntactical blunder committed by Ancient Greek metaphysicians and grammarians; hence, the dissolution of 2400 years of wasted effort recommends itself.
That is why Wittgensteinians have no need of a philosophical theory in their endeavour to deflate the countless balloonfulls of hot air ruling-class hacks have been inflating for over two thousand years; these theories self-deflate when (i) The source of hot air is switched off, and (ii) A very real, very sharp materialist pin is introduced into the equation.
12a. David Hume attempted to solve this 'problem' by an appeal to the habits of the mind (hence my use of the word "habitus"), which supposedly induce in us certain expectations about the future, based on past experience. Clearly, this rather vague notion is susceptible to the challenges set out in the previous Note, among many others. This is quite apart from the fact that once it is allowed that any series of events in this universe is subject to such sceptical protocols, then it is difficult to see how these 'habits of the mind' can themselves emerge unscathed.
However, the abandonment of the 'logical' or necessary connection between a Universal and its Particulars, which took place in the High Middle Ages (with the rise of Nominalism -- but the cracks were already forming in the Ancient World in the work of post-Aristotelian theorists, the Nominalists merely prised them wide open for all to see), and introduced radical contingency into Traditional Theories of nature. This later development wasn't, of course, unconnected with the decline of the power of the Papacy as Feudalism began to unravel, giving way to early forms of the market economy.
Rationalist Philosophers (like Spinoza and Leibniz) attempted to repair the damage these 'revisions' had inflicted on the 'Rational Order'. To that end, they devised a series 'necessitarian' theories of their own. Unfortunately, these theories were predicated on the same old "ruling ideas" -- i.e., on (i) The unsupported dogma that 'reality' is 'rational', and (ii) The belief that fundamental 'truths' about 'reality' can be derived from thought alone. [On the general background to this, see, for example, Copleston (2003a, 2003b, 2003c).]
Here is how I have made a similar point in Essay Eleven Part Two (in relation to a discussion of certain aspects of Christian Fundamentalism and 'Intelligent Design', but it seems relevant to the main theme of this Essay):
There is an excellent summary of the two main avenues theists have taken in their endeavour to conceive of the relationship between 'God' and 'His' creation, in Osler (2004), pp.15-35. [Not unexpectedly, these neatly mirror the tensions that plague the DM-account of nature, too.]
Here follows a summary of the relevant parts of Osler's thesis (with a few additional comments of my own thrown in for good measure):
Traditionally, there were two ways of conceiving 'God's' relation to material reality: (a) 'He' is related to it by necessity, as an expression of 'His' nature, and (b) 'He' is related to it contingently -- as an expression of 'His' 'free will'.
If (a) were the case, there would be a logical connection between the properties of created beings and their 'essence' -- i.e., the logical core of each being, which is either an expression of its unique nature, or of the 'kind' to which it belongs. In turn, this would be a consequence of the logical or conceptual links that exist between 'creation' and 'God's Nature'. If that weren't the case, it would introduce radical contingency into creation, undermining 'God's Nature' and/or 'His' control of 'Creation'. As a result language and logic must constitute reality (why that is so is outlined here).
[Also worth pointing out is the fact that super-truths like this -- about fundamental aspects of 'reality' -- may only be accessed by means of speculative thought.]
This means that all that exists is either (i) An expression of the logical properties inherent in 'God', or (ii) An emanation from 'God'. That is, material reality must be logically 'emergent' from, and hence connected with, the 'Deity'. So, the universe 'issues' forth from 'His' nature 'eternally' and a-temporally, outside of time, since 'He' exists outside of time. Everything must therefore be inter-linked by 'internal', or 'necessary', relations, all of which were derived from, and constituted by, 'concepts' implicit in 'God', which are also mirrored in fundamental aspects of creation. This idea is prominent in Plotinus and subsequent Neo-Platonists, like Hegel.
Given this approach, the vast majority of 'ordinary' human beings can't access, nor can they comprehend, this 'rational' view of 'reality'; their lack of knowledge, education -- or even 'divine illumination' -- means that, at best, they misperceive these 'logical properties' as contingent qualities. Hence, for them, appearances fail to match underlying "essence". Naturally, this implies that "commonsense" and ordinary language are fundamentally unreliable.
Now, where have we heard all that before?
(b) On the other hand, if 'God' acted freely when 'He' created the world -- that is, if 'He' wasn't acting under any form of 'compulsion', logical or conceptual -- that is, because of the logical properties inherent in 'His' nature -- then there would be no logical or necessary connection between 'The Creator' and 'His Creation' -- nor, indeed, between each created being. Every object and process in reality will therefore be genuinely contingent, and appearances will no longer be 'deceptive', since appearances can't mask the hidden, esoteric 'essences' mentioned above, for there are none. If so, there are no synthetic a priori truths (as these later came to be called), ascertainable by thought alone. The only path to knowledge was through observation, experiment, and careful study of the 'Book of Nature'. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the foundations of modern science were laid in the Middle Ages largely by theorists who adopted this view of 'God' -- for example, Jean Buridan.
[Copleston (2003c), pp.153-67, Crombie (1970, 1979), Grant (1996), Hannam (2009), Lindberg (2007).]
In post-Renaissance thought, the 'necessitarian' tradition surfaced in the work of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Hegel; the 'voluntarist' tradition reappeared in an attenuated form in the work of Newton, the Empiricists, and the so-called "mechanists", who stressed the connection between 'God's' free will and contingency in nature, alongside the primacy of empirical over a priori knowledge and the superiority of observation and experiment over speculation and abstract theory.
[To be sure, the above categories are rather crude; for example, Descartes was a mechanist, but his theory put him on the same side of the fence as Spinoza and Leibniz, whereas Gassendi was also a mechanist, but his ideas aligned him with the voluntarists. On this, see Copleston (2003d).]
Now, when, for example, Fundamentalist Christians look at nature and see design everywhere, they also claim to see 'irreducible complexity' -- the handiwork of 'God' -- and they either put this down to 'His' free creation, or they see it as an expression of logical properties imposed on nature by the Logos (depending, of course, on how they view the nature of 'The Creator' and 'His' relation to the world).
Christian mechanists saw design in nature, too, but their theories became increasingly deistic, and later atheistic. The introduction of a contingent link between 'God' and nature severed the logical connection that earlier theorists had postulated, making "the God hypothesis" seem increasingly redundant.
[On this, see Lovejoy (1964). There is also an excellent account of these developments in Redwood (1976). Also see Dillenberger (1988). A classic expression of these developments can be found in the debate between Leibniz and Clarke. Cf., Alexander (1956), and Vailati (1997).]
Much of this controversy had been provoked, however, by the work of the Medieval Nominalists, whose theories also sundered the logical link between a substance and its properties, as part of a reaction to the tradition begun by Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, with his separation of 'essence' and 'existence' in created beings), Averroës (Ibn Rushd), and the so-called "Latin Averroists" (e.g., Siger of Brabant). The latter argued strongly in favour of Aristotle's doctrine of natural necessity, undermining 'God's' free will -- at least, so far as the Roman Catholic Church saw things. This reaction was also prompted by philosophical worries about the nature of transubstantiation and the relation between the 'essence' of the emblems (the bread and the wine in the Eucharist) and their 'accidents' (their apparent properties).
The aforementioned reaction was occasioned by the 'Condemnations of 1277', whereby the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, condemned 219 propositions, among which was the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle -- particularly the idea that the created order was governed by logical necessity. The most important response to these condemnations appeared in the work of the Nominalist, William of Ockham, who, as a result, stressed the free will of 'God' and thus the contingent nature of the world. For Ockham, this meant that there were no 'essences' in nature, nor were the apparent properties of bodies (their 'accidents') logically connected with their 'nominal essence' (as this later came to be called by Locke).
[On this, see Osler (2004), Copleston (2003b), pp.136-55, 190-95, 437-41, Copleston (2003c), pp.43-167, and Copleston (2003e), pp.79-107.]
In the 18th century, a resurgence of the 'necessitarian' tradition motivated, among other things, the "re-enchantment" of nature in the theories concocted by the Natürphilosophers and Hegel -- and later, those invented by Marxist Dialecticians.
[On this, see Harrington (1996), Lenoir (1982), Richards (2002), and Essay Fourteen Parts One and Two, when they are published. More details can be found in Foster (1934), Hooykaas (1973), Lindberg (2007), and Osler (2004). For the Hermetic background to all this, see Magee (2008). Cf., also Essay Twelve (summary here). At a future date, I will publish an essay on Leibniz I wrote as an undergraduate, which anticipated some of the ideas in Osler's book, for example.]
So, where Christians see design, DM-fans see "internal relations". Same problematic, same source -- same bogus 'solution' to this set of pseudo-problems.
I will say much more about this in Essay Three Part Five, were I will link the above considerations to Traditional Theories of Mind, Will, Freedom. Necessity, and Determinism, also connecting them with the subsequent enchantment of nature apparent in Dialectical Marxism (in Essay Fourteen Parts One and Two (summary here)).
13. Anyone who objects to the anthropomorphic terminology used at this point should perhaps recall that it is only being employed in order to show how completely unbelievable Traditional Theories like this are when its language and concepts are pushed to the limit, and thus applied more consistently -- its class roots also exposed -- than is usually the case.
Anyone who still objects should rather take issue with those who concocted these theories not those who seek to lampoon them.
14. This echoes Rousseau:
"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer." [Rousseau (1952), p.3.]
14a0. The phrase "undermining the unity of the proposition" refers to the fact that Traditional Logic and Grammar turned propositions into lists of names. Since lists say nothing (unless they are articulated with words that aren't names), this move destroys the capacity language has for expressing anything at all. [That was, of course, the main theme of Part One. Readers are referred there for more details.]
14a1. As Glenn Magee points out:
"What Hegel's system promises is a transformed experience of the world, in which we see familiar things in a new light. Science, poetry, art, religion, the state, are all seen to be expressions or embodiments of the Absolute. Ordinary things suddenly take on new meaning. That which had been thought to be a human contrivance, carried out only for finite human ends, devoid of any higher meaning, mystery or religious significance...is now suddenly imbued with spiritual significance.... Thus, Hegel attempts to heal the rift in the modern consciousness between thought and sensation, or thought and experience, by giving us a new form of experience. The very modern scientific and philosophical ideas that formerly seemed to cut us off from experience and from our intuitions of the divine are now seen to be moments of a system of experience that constitutes the divine itself. Hegel's system is an attempt to 're-enchant' the world, to re-invest nature with the experience of the numinous lost with the death of the mythical consciousness." [Magee (2008), p.97. Bold emphasis added; quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]
Where Hegel saw the Absolute in everything, DM-theorists see the "Totality". In that light everything "takes on a new meaning".
14a2. Which might help explain why Trotsky argued as follows:
"Dialectic training of the mind, as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist, demands approaching all problems as processes and not as motionless categories. Whereas vulgar evolutionists, who limit themselves generally to recognizing evolution in only certain spheres, content themselves in all other questions with the banalities of 'common sense.'" [Trotsky (1971), p.70. Bold emphases added; quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
As is the case with opiate addiction, a regular series hits becomes necessary. Not only that, this intellectual drug robs each junkie of their free will, point underlined by Max Eastman:
"Hegelism is like a mental disease; you can't know what it is until you get it, and then you can't know because you have got it." [Eastman (1926), p.22.]
[Again, anyone who objects to my quoting Max Eastman should check this out and then perhaps think again.]
In Essay Nine Part Two, we will discover why hard-nosed revolutionaries (like Engels, Lenin and Trotsky) surrendered (or alienated) their will to this mythical 'Cosmic Will'.
14a. This also helps account for the rather peculiar fact that the more 'dialectical' the party the more autocratic it seems to be -- and the more prone it is therefore to split (or, indeed, to imprison and/or execute the 'recalcitrant'). When it comes to imposing order on the faithful, the dialectically-mailed fist soon replaces the invisible hand of reasonableness, and fights soon break out. This is especially true of Stalinists and Maoists (if and when they actually manage to seize power). Their parties don't split or fragment as much as the Trotskyists -- who have turned fragmentation into an art form --, they imprison, 're-educate', silence, or 'liquidate' dissenters.
[These ideas are developed extensively in Essay Nine Part Two in order to expose the damage DM and its petty bourgeois acolytes have inflicted on Marxism.]
14b. By "socially-isolated" I don't mean to suggest that intrepid abstractors are literally isolated from one another -- as if they lived on a desert island -- only that since their knowledge begins with whatever they manage to process in their own heads as individuals, that implies that when it comes to language and knowledge they might as well be literally isolated.
As I have shown in the main body of this Essay, given this view of abstraction, it is in fact impossible to build a workable, or even a believable, account of the social nature of language and knowledge -- and, further, that this view of abstraction (when coupled with Lenin's theory of knowledge in MEC), this view traps each abstractor in a solipsistic prison. As such, they are literally isolated individuals, since, for all they know (or can prove), they are all alone in their 'image' of the 'universe'.
[I have developed this point at length in Essay Thirteen Part One; readers are directed there for more details. Also see Note 15, below.]
15. In fact, in the bourgeois intellectual universe -- populated with nothing but particularised ideas, atomised concepts, and socially isolated thinkers (i.e., as far as their theories pictured them) -- any attempt to prove there are other minds faces an uphill task, to say the least.
Some might be tempted to argue that a lone abstractor could extrapolate from her own experience to the conclusion that others are just like her and have minds, too. However, any theory based on one self-observation is no better than a guess. Worse still, since the language used to formulate any such theory is hopelessly impoverished (since, as we have seen, every word has been tuned into a name), it would be impossible for this lone abstractor to be able to say towards what any such guess had been aimed. That is because, of course, belief in other minds requires the use of yet more general words, which this theory lacks -- or, rather, which it has just destroyed. This is quite apart form the fact that Lenin's theory of perception would trap him and 'everyone else' in a solipsistic dungeon.
[The details surrounding Wittgenstein's dissolution of these and other 'problems' won't be entered into here. I will say more about this in Essay Thirteen Part Three. However, those new to his ideas should perhaps begin with Glock (1996), Kenny (1973), and Sluga and Stern (1996); see also here.]
16. This topic is discussed more fully in Essay Six.
16a. The 'relative stability' defence was neutralised in Essay Six, too.
Be this as it may, any attempt to make use of the 'relative stability' response would be to no avail, since, given DM-epistemology, no two dialecticians could possibly have the same idea even about relative stability, or even the same idea about relative stability as they themselves had only a few moments earlier.
And, it is no use replying that they would have relatively or approximately the same idea about relatively or approximately the same idea, since the phrase "relatively or approximately the same" is up for grabs, too, having now no determinate sense. That is because if we have no idea what counts as exactly the same, we are surely in no position to declare that something only approximates to this ideal. And, the same would be true of any other words thrown in for good measure in a vain attempt to sort this out -- including the word "word".
In a dialectical universe, all that is solid melts into an 'image' of thin air.
17. It would be no use appealing to the 'relative' or 'partial' nature of knowledge here, either, since, as we shall see in Essay Ten Part One, the implication of this particular doctrine is that, given DM, reality (or our knowledge of it) would be indistinguishable from Kant's Noumenon -- even if we could say that much!
18. This idea is prominent in Kant, although it was rather less clearly expressed in the work of earlier thinkers. However, since Hegel (by-and-large) adopted, and then adapted, Kant's approach to suit his own ends, the comments in the main body of this Essay only need to be true of post-Kantian Idealists in general for it to apply to DM (upside down or 'the right way up').
Of course, these days, evolution (as opposed to our social development) is considered by many to be capable of shaping the 'mind'; I have devoted much of Essay Thirteen Part Three to showing how misguided that idea is, too. Readers are directed there for more details.
18a. The details underlying Hegel's, shall we say, 'Rosicrucian leanings' are expanded upon in Magee (2008), pp.35-36, 51-53, 248-57. See also Benz (1983) and O'Regan (1995). On Rosicrucianism in general, see Yates (2004). [The Introduction to Magee (2008) can be accessed here.]
This terminally obscure 'intellectual discipline' (i.e., 'Subject/Object Identity') has dominated much of what passes for theory among HCDs, just as it has formed an important strand in Continental 'Philosophy' for the last two centuries or more. However, the origin of this 'problematic' in mystical thought (indeed, this union forms the main 'problematic' of mysticism in general) hardly raises an eyebrow in either tradition, but especially not in those ideologically-compromised HCD-cabals. In fact, I have lost count of the books and articles written (in both traditions) concerning the (mystical) union between the Knower and the Known, between 'Subject' and 'Object'. Of course, HCDs refuse to see things this way, but mystical union is nevertheless what they seek; indeed, in some cases they are quite open about it (but wisely using less compromising, more diplomatic language). More on this, here.] An excellent example of this can be found here. [Unfortunately this link is now as dead as the ideas it once promoted. In fact, it has re-surfaced here.]
[HCD = High Church Dialectician; that term is explained here.]
Here is what the Glossary at the Marxist Internet Archive had to say on this topic:
"'Subject' refers to the person or entity carrying out and responsible for an action, rather than the object which is being acted upon. The term is often used as a synonym for 'human being', or the consciousness of a human being. In the context of history, 'subject' means the agent of history, the people who are the conscious architects of events, rather than their unconscious tools. The 'subject-object' problem, or the separation of subject and object is often taken as a fundamental problem of Western thinking, ever since Descartes invented the 'Cartesian divide' as an epistemological problem. For dialectics, subject and object can only be understood as opposite aspects of the subject-object relation and thus inseparably part of the same relation.
"It was Kant who defined the 'Subject' in ethical terms, as the moral agent, having freedom and subject to moral laws. Hegel further developed the concept to overcome the division between the individual 'Subject' or person and the corporate or collective 'Subject,' by means of an understanding of 'Subject' as a self-conscious system of activity, in which the Individual, Universal and Particular aspects are coordinated. Historically, the individual subject only gradually distinguishes herself from the social subject of which she is a part. See 'Subjectivity.'... The earliest recorded use of the word was in 1315 as an adjective meaning 'bound to a superior by some obligation' and in 1340 the word was used as a noun to mean a person under the dominion of a Monarch, as in 'a subject of King Henry.'
"In 1374, Chaucer used the word in the sense of 'subject matter' about which different things could be said, and in 1380 the word was used to refer to the substance to which attributes (in the Aristotelian sense) adhered. In this sense, the word has been generalised from being 'subject' to an obligation to being 'subject' to any kind of attachment or property. In 1551, 'subject' was used in the sense of something to which properties could be attributed, and In 1603, Shakespeare used the word in the sense of a thing having a real independent existence, and therefore properties inhered in it, and to which attributes could be contingently attached. By 1638 it had taken on the modern meaning of the word 'subject' in grammar, as opposed to 'predicate' which expresses properties of the subject. The subject is then the 'do-er' of the verb, and we can see the beginnings of a move from the passive carrier of attributes and obligations to the do-er of actions.
"With René Descartes in 1638, as the Latin subjectum, the word then came to mean a fully conscious thinking 'subject,' in particular the mind or ego, as the subject in which all ideas inhere, and to which all representation and operations are to be attributed. In other words, the thinking and cognising agent. With Descartes, the word did not have an ethical connotation however, but is understood epistemologically. With Kant, the meaning of the word stabilised in its modern philosophical meaning as the moral agent:
'A person is a subject who is capable of having his actions imputed to him. Moral personality is, therefore, nothing but the freedom of a rational being under moral laws; and it is to be distinguished from psychological freedom as the mere faculty by which we become conscious of ourselves in different states of the identity of our existence. Hence it follows that a person is properly subject to no other laws than those he lays down for himself, either alone or in conjunction with others.' [Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785]
"With Hegel, the word takes on the broader meaning, not restricted to the individual ego or person, but rather the self-conscious, self-legislating social actor which is both corporate and individual, including for example, states, families and individuals -- provided they are legally free agents (in his day, excluding women and children, for example)." [Quoted from here; accessed 05/02/2017. Paragraphs merged to save space. Emphases in the original; quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Links in the original. Minor typo corrected.]
"Subject and Object are crucial concepts in Epistemology, the study of knowledge. 'Subject' refers to the active, cognising individual or social group, with consciousness and/or will, while 'object' refers to that on which the subject's cognitive or other activity observes.
"In the dialectical theory of knowledge, the important thing is to understand the subject and object as a unity and to see both the activity of the subject (which had been developed by idealism -- see Theses on Feuerbach No.1) and the independent existence of the world of which the subject is a part (which had been emphasised by materialism)." [Quoted from here; accessed 05/02/2017. Bold emphases and one link added.]
A summary of the background to the entire sorry affair can be found in Beiser (2005, 2008), and in more detail in Beiser (1987, 2002). Cf., also: Copleston (2003d, 2003f, 2003g), O'Hear (1999) and Pinkard (2002). On this, see also David Stove's articles: 'Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story, Parts I and II', in Stove (1991), pp.83-177. [In relation to Stove's work readers should take note of the caveats I have posted here.]
One unfortunate HCD critic of this site has fallen under its spell, too. See also here, where many of the archived articles were written by Raya Dunayevskaya, where it is clear that the same Hermetic virus has been at work only in a much more virulent form. [See also here. Several more examples of this HCD/DM-affliction will be given in Essays Twelve and Fourteen (summaries here and here).]
19. If the 'mind' knows only its own ideas and impressions (etc.), then the outer world can't fail to be a back-reflection or projection of what that 'mind' contains. Furthermore, since the 'world' isn't just a mere idea, but the subject's own idea, there would in the end be no real difference between the 'objective' and the 'subjective'.
Naturally, Empiricists might want to deny this; but if they are right, every single one of them will simply be arguing with him/herself, not me!
Others may object that this confuses Empiricism with Solipsism, but that isn't so. In fact, it goes further; it identifies them. But, this isn't just to pick on Empiricists; one implication of the criticisms levelled at this site is that all metaphysical theories of knowledge collapse into some form of Solipsism (that is, what little sense can be made of them).
That controversial claim will be defended in Part Four of this Essay (when it is published). Also see Note 20, below.
"Every philosophy is essentially an idealism or at least has idealism for its principle, and the question then is only how far this principle is carried out." [Hegel (1999), pp.154-55; § 316.]
Of course, this means that even an upside-down and eviscerated version of Hegel's system -- whether or not it has been put back "on its feet" (i.e., in DM) -- is no less Ideal.
Hegel was quite clear: Logic and the Divine Logos are one, Nature is Idea, and the Idea is Logos in self-development:
"Actuality is the unity, become immediate, of essence with existence, or of inward with outward. The utterance of the actual is the actual itself: so that in this utterance it remains just as essential, and only is essential, in so far as it is immediate external existence.
"We have ere this met Being and Existence as forms of the immediate. Being is, in general, unreflected immediacy and transition into another. Existence is immediate unity of being and reflection; hence appearance: it comes from the ground, and falls to the ground. In actuality this unity is explicitly put, and the two sides of the relation identified. Hence the actual is exempted from transition, and its externality is its energizing. In that energizing it is reflected into itself: its existence is only the manifestation of itself, not of another.
"Actuality and thought (or Idea) are often absurdly opposed. How commonly we hear people saying that, though no objection can be urged against the truth and correctness of a certain thought, there is nothing of the kind to be seen in actuality, or it cannot be actually carried out! People who use such language only prove that they have not properly apprehended the nature either of thought or of actuality. Thought in such a case is, on the one hand, the synonym for a subjective conception, plan, intention, or the like, just as actuality, on the other, is made synonymous with external and sensible existence. This is all very well in common life, where great laxity is allowed in the categories and the names given to them; and it may of course happen that, e.g., the plan, or so-called idea, say, of a certain method of taxation, is good and advisable in the abstract, but that nothing of the sort is found in so-called actuality, or could possibly be carried out under the given conditions. But when the abstract understanding gets hold of these categories and exaggerates the distinction they imply into a hard and fast line of contrast, when it tells us that in this actual world we must knock ideas out of our heads, it is necessary energetically to protest against these doctrines, alike in the name of science and of sound reason. For on the one hand Ideas are not confined to our heads merely, nor is the Idea, on the whole, so feeble as to leave the question of its actualisation or non-actualisation dependent on our will. The Idea is rather the absolutely active as well as actual. And on the other hand actuality is not so bad and irrational, as purblind or wrong-headed and muddle-brained would-be reformers imagine. So far is actuality, as distinguished from mere appearance, and primarily presenting a unity of inward and outward, from being in contrariety with reason, that it is rather thoroughly reasonable, and everything which is not reasonable must on that very ground cease to be held actual." [Hegel (1975), pp.200-01, §142; I have used the on-line version here, and have left the MIA links in. Minor typos corrected. (I have informed the editors over at the MIA.)]
"The divine Idea is just this: to disclose itself, to posit this Other outside itself and to take it back again into itself, in order to be subjectivity and Spirit.... God therefore in determining Himself, remains equal to Himself; each of these moments is itself the whole Idea and must be posited as the divine totality. The different moments can be grasped under three different forms: the universal, the particular and the individual. First, the different moments remain preserved in the eternal unity of the Idea; this is the Logos, the eternal son of God as Philo conceived it.... The third form which concerns us here, the Idea in the mode of particularity, is Nature....
"A rational consideration of Nature must consider how Nature is in its own self this process of becoming Spirit, of sublating its otherness -- and how the Idea is present in each grade or level of Nature itself...." [Hegel (2004), p.14, §247. As far as I can ascertain, the copy published at the MIA with this title is a different version of this edition. Indeed, this is what the MIA has to say about this version: "From 'Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline and Critical Writings', Edited by Ernst Behler, translated by Steven A Taubeneck from the Heidelberg text of 1817, published by Continuum, 1990. The more widely known translation by A V Miller (1970 -- i.e., 2004 -- RL) is a translation of the late versions of Hegel's Encyclopedia with additions by Leopold von Hemming and K L Michelet."]
Moreover, Hegel specifically linked this conception of (i) the relation between Logic and the world, with (ii) ideas spun by Ancient Greek Theorists:
"This objective thinking then, is the content of pure science. Consequently, far from it being formal, far from it standing in need of a matter to constitute an actual and true cognition, it is its content alone which has absolute truth, or, if one still wanted to employ the word matter, it is the veritable matter -- but a matter which is not external to the form, since this matter is rather pure thought and hence the absolute form itself. Accordingly, logic is to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought. This realm is truth as it is without veil and in its own absolute nature. It can therefore be said that this content is the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind.
"Anaxagoras is praised as the man who first declared that Nous, thought, is the principle of the world, that the essence of the world is to be defined as thought. In so doing he laid the foundation for an intellectual view of the universe, the pure form of which must be logic.
"What we are dealing with in logic is not a thinking about something which exists independently as a base for our thinking and apart from it, nor forms which are supposed to provide mere signs or distinguishing marks of truth; on the contrary, the necessary forms and self-consciousness of thought are the content and the ultimate truth itself." [Hegel (1999), pp.50-51, §53-54. Bold emphases alone added.]
So, just another "ruling idea", then...
20a. On this, see Note 20, above. This topic will be covered in more detail in Essay Twelve Parts Two to Four, and Essay Fourteen Part One (summaries here and here).
21. It shouldn't be concluded from these comments that Nominalism is my preferred option, nor even that it is 'correct'. In fact, as the Introductory Essay pointed out, I reject all philosophical theories as incoherent non-sensical hot air, and that includes Nominalism. Why that is so is explained in detail in Essay Twelve Part One.
"Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism. Dialectical idealism instead of intelligent; (sic) metaphysical, undeveloped, dead, crude, rigid instead of stupid." [Lenin (1961), p.274.]
It is quite clear from this that Lenin meant "Dialectical idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than crude materialism...."
And we now know why; Lenin's compromise with, and appropriation of, this ancient and well-established set of "ruling ideas" undermined his own materialist good sense.
"The history of philosophy and the history of social science show with perfect clarity that there is nothing resembling 'sectarianism' in Marxism, in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the high road of the development of world civilisation. On the contrary, the genius of Marx consists precisely in his having furnished answers to questions already raised by the foremost minds of mankind. His doctrine emerged as the direct and immediate continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism.
"The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism." [Lenin, Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism. Bold emphases alone added.]
How and why this happened to Lenin and other Dialectical Marxists -- and what ideological motivations lay behind it -- will be the subject of Essays Nine Parts One and Two, Twelve (summary here), and Fourteen Part Two.
On this, also see Note 23.
23. Diodorus Siculus is, I think, the originator of this image:
"When the Gigantes about Pallene chose to begin war against the immortals, Herakles fought on the side of the gods, and slaying many of the Sons of Ge [or Gaia, the 'Earth Goddess' -- RL] he received the highest approbation. For Zeus gave the name of Olympian only to those gods who had fought by his side, in order that the courageous, by being adorned by so honourable a title, might be distinguished by this designation from the coward; and of those who were born of mortal women he considered only Dionysos and Herakles worthy of this name." [Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.15.1.]
However, this trope alludes to an image painted in Hesiod's Theogony (link below) and in Plato's Sophist, one of his more profound surviving works. Indeed, this dialogue is the principle source of much of subsequent Idealism. The section reproduced below revolves around a conversation between an Eleatic "Stranger" (who appears to be a follower of Parmenides) and a character called "Theaetetus":
"Stranger. We are far from having exhausted the more exact thinkers who treat of being and not-being. But let us be content to leave them, and proceed to view those who speak less precisely; and we shall find as the result of all, that the nature of being is quite as difficult to comprehend as that of not-being....
"...There appears to be a sort of war of Giants and Gods going on amongst them; they are fighting with one another about the nature of essence.
"Theaetetus. How is that?
"Stranger. Some of them are dragging down all things from heaven and from the unseen to earth, and they literally grasp in their hands rocks and trees; of these they lay hold, and obstinately maintain, that the things only which can be touched or handled have being or essence, because they define being and body as one, and if any one else says that what is not a body exists they altogether despise him, and will hear of nothing but body.
"Theaetetus. I have often met with such men, and terrible fellows they are.
"Stranger. And that is the reason why their opponents cautiously defend themselves from above, out of an unseen world, mightily contending that true essence consists of certain intelligible and incorporeal ideas; the bodies of the materialists, which by them are maintained to be the very truth, they break up into little bits by their arguments, and affirm them to be, not essence, but generation and motion. Between the two armies, Theaetetus, there is always an endless conflict raging concerning these matters.
"Stranger. Let us ask each party in turn, to give an account of that which they call essence.
"Theaetetus. How shall we get it out of them?
"Stranger. With those who make being to consist in ideas, there will be less difficulty, for they are civil people enough; but there will be very great difficulty, or rather an absolute impossibility, in getting an opinion out of those who drag everything down to matter. Shall I tell you what we must do?
"Stranger. Let us, if we can, really improve them; but if this is not possible, let us imagine them to be better than they are, and more willing to answer in accordance with the rules of argument, and then their opinion will be more worth having; for that which better men acknowledge has more weight than that which is acknowledged by inferior men. Moreover we are no respecters of persons, but seekers after truth." [Plato (1997b), pp.267-68, 246a-246d. I have used the on-line version here.]
The battle itself is described in Hesiod's Theogony (lines 675-715), available here.
From this it is quite clear that Marxist Dialecticians are far closer to the Idealist 'Gods' than they are to the materialist Giants!
[To be fair to John Rees, he does at least try to defend a DM-view of concepts that aren't somehow 'fully material' in his examination of "friendship", on pp.109-10, of TAR. His argument will be examined in detail in Essay Twelve Part Four (when it is published).]
24. The views of several of these will be examined in Essay Thirteen Part Two.
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." [Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2.]
[This forms part of Note 24.]
While we are at it, what exactly are the common features that can be abstracted from (or even attributed to) all shades of, say, the colour blue? Or, the notes that can be played on the bagpipes? Or, the taste of different wines? Or, the feel of silk, wool and nylon? Or, even the smell of roses?
[Of course, in several of these examples, the use of other general terms might come into play -- but they, too, will attract similar questions. For instance, an appeal might be made to certain tastes or aromas that can be detected in different wines -- for example, "a fruity bouquet". But, what are the common features of "fruity bouquets"? One answer to that might involve a reference to the taste or smell of Lychees, for instance. But, what are the common features of the taste/smell of Lychees? And so on. I owe this point to Geach (1957).]
One of the more bizarre aspects of the mysterious process of abstraction (at least, in so far as the Empiricist version is concerned -- which is in fact little different from the method adopted, or advocated, by many dialecticians --, and one that is rarely noticed) involves the drawing of an unintended analogy between the properties an object is supposed to have and clothing. Hence, in the 'abstractive process', as each outwardly unique distinguishing feature of a particular is 'peeled off' (or "disregarded") by 'the intellect', the true (general) form of the 'object' in question is supposed gradually to come into view -- but, of course, only in the 'mind's eye'. This 'mental disrobing ceremony' is, naturally, accessible only to those who are able to 'metaphysically undress' things like tables, chairs, cats, dogs, electrons and galaxies. Indeed, 'conceptual strippers' like this must be capable of deciding what has to be true not only of all the many examples of 'the same sort' (for instance, all cats) that haven't been ideally skinned in this way (by anyone, and not just themselves), but also of the many more that no human will ever experience -- based solely on a brief 'internal' inspection of a severely restricted sample of these ghostly spectres.
However, and this should hardly need pointing out, the properties of objects don't resemble apparel in any meaningful sense. If this had ever been an apt analogy then these 'metaphysical garments' (i.e., an object's properties) would be just as shareable as items of clothing. On that basis, dogs should be expected to be able to sing like larks, kettles recite the Gettysburg Address, and dialecticians accept criticism.
Nevertheless, the analogy with clothing is as inapt as any could be. For one thing, it is surely abnormal to imagine that clothing is causally related to -- or physically connected with -- the body of its wearer. Yet, the properties of an object are linked (in some way) to its constitution. Colour, for example, as intimately connected with the atomic and molecular structure of the item in question (and, of course, the light source). For another, while clothing may perhaps serve to hinder the appreciation of underlying form, an object's properties advertise it, they don't mask it. They are, so to speak, 'metaphysically transparent'.
Furthermore, and more absurdly, properties can't be peeled away from objects as part of a hidden, internal 'disrobing ceremony' of some description. Or, if they can, one would expect that the nature of each underlying 'object' should become clearer in all its naked glory as the proceedings unfold. In fact, we find the opposite turns out to be the case as each 'metaphysical burlesque show' proceeds.
If, for instance, a cat were to lose too many of its properties as it is 'mentally skinned', it would surely cease to be a cat. Clearly, this philosophically-flayed 'ex-cat' (now 'non-cat') would serve rather badly in any subsequent generalisation based upon it. Indeed, strip the average moggie of enough of its properties and it would be impossible to decide whether or not the rest of the abstractive process had been carried out on the same mammal, the same animal, or, for that matter, on the same physical object -- let alone the same idea of one and all.
Moreover, in the absence of any rules governing the process of abstraction (such as where to begin, which feature to abstract first, which second -- which never) one person's abstractions would surely differ from those of the rest of the abstractive community.
For instance, while Abstractor A might begin by ignoring (or attributing) Tiddles's engaging purr, B might start with her four legs, and C might commence with her shape. But, do we (should they?) ignore (or attribute) first, second or third a cat's colour, fur, fleas, whiskers, tail, intestines, age, number...?
And, as part of the abstractive process, which number relevant to each cat is to be put to one side (or attributed to it): the one cat, its two ears, its four legs, its dozen or so whiskers, or the several trillion atoms of which it is composed...?
And where do we stop? Are we to whittle-away (or attribute to it) its position on the mat, the last dozen or so things it did, its present relation to the Crab Nebula…?
It could be objected none of the above really matters; the results will be the same anyhow. But, how do we know? Is there a rule book to guide us? Is there an abstractionists' algorithm we all unconsciously 'follow', programmed into each of us at birth (or is it from conception?) as a set of tried-and-tested instructions? Are we all instinctive abstractors, or do we need training? And, if there are metaphysical disrobing protocols determining the order in which Tiddles's qualities are to be paired away (or attributed to it), so that this process is to be executed correctly by the entire coterie of intrepid abstractors, when and where did they learn them? On the other hand, if there are no such protocols, how might each heroic abstractor know if he or she has abstracted Tiddles the same way each time?
Do we all keep a secret Abstractor's Diary? An internal log of what we did the last time we thought about that cat -- or any cat?
Furthermore, even if there were clear or plausible answers to such questions, a disconcerting fact would still block our path: it would still be impossible for anyone to check anyone else's abstractions to see if they tallied, or, for that matter, ascertain whether or not they had 'abstracted them right -- in fact the word "right" can gain no grip in such circumstances --, which means that this process can't form the basis of 'objective' science. Plainly, that is because (i) No one has access to the results of anyone else's 'mental machinations', and (ii) There appear to be no rules governing the production of these alleged results, or, indeed, the entire 'process' itself.
On the contrary, in the real world, agreement is achieved by the use of publicly accessible general terms already in common use long before a single one of us was a twinkle in our (hypothetical) ancestral abstractors' eyes.
[That is, of course, just a roundabout way of saying that "abstraction" is a highly misleading euphemism for subjective, uncheckable idiosyncratic classification.]
One obvious reply to the above might be that we abstract by concentrating only on those factors that are "relevant" to the enquiry in hand. But, what are these "relevant factors"? And who decides? How might they be specified before an enquiry has begun? Surely, in order to know what is "relevant" to the process of, say, 'abstracting a cat', one would have to know how to use the general word "cat", otherwise the accuracy of any supposed 'abstractions' that might emerge at the end would rightly be called into question, let alone those concerning the competency of the abstractor him/herself. If he/she doesn't already know how to use the word "cat" what faith can be put in anything they subsequently 'abstract', or even report about such 'abstractions'? If we already have to know how to use the word "cat" in order to abstract the 'right' object, what, pray, is the point of abstracting it in the first place? This would seem to be about as pointless as checking to see if you know your own name by looking it up in a telephone directory.
Again, in response to this it could be argued that past experience guides us. But, how does it manage to do this? Can any of us recall being made to study the heroic deeds of intrepid abstractors in days of yore? Does past experience transform itself into a sort of inner personal Microsoft Office Assistant, (or these days, Cortana) if we hit the right internal 'Help' key? But, what kind of explanation would that be of the allegedly intelligent power of abstraction if it requires a guiding hand? And where on earth did this 'inner PA' receive its training?
Once more, it could be objected that in the investigation of, say, the biology of cats, it is important for scientists to find out what these animals have in common with other members of the same species, family, order, class or phylum, so that relevant generalisations might be made about it. In order to do so, zoologists disregard (or attribute) certain features common to cats and concentrate on those they share with other mammals, vertebrates, living things, and so on --, be they morphological, ecological, behavioural, genetic or biochemical (etc.). Clearly, in each case, and at each stage, greater abstraction is required.
Or, so the argument might go.
Nevertheless, if this is what "abstraction" means, it is surely synonymous with a publicly accessible and checkable set of linguistic performances, similar in all but name to description, analysis and classification (etc.). It has nothing to do with a private, internal 'skill' we are all supposed to possess: being able to polish rough and ready particulars into smooth general concepts. If abstraction were an occult (i.e., hidden), inner process then, as noted above, no two people would ever agree over the general idea of, say, a mammal, let alone that of a cat. All would have their own idiosyncratic inner, but intrinsically un-shareable and un-checkable, exemplars.
Again, one response to this could be that while we might use language to facilitate the transition from a private to the public arena, that doesn't impugn our abstractive skills. Unfortunately, this objection introduces topics discussed in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part Three. Nevertheless, a few additional comments are worth making in response:
Human beings have generally managed to agree on what animals they consider belong to, say, the Class Mammalia -- i.e., those humans who possess the relevant education and linguistic skills. [We might even join with Hilary Putnam and call this a legitimate division of linguistic labour (although, without implying an acceptance of his ideas about 'essentialism').] However, this agreement doesn't encompass those individuals who are supposed to possess unspecified abstractive powers. Trainee zoologists don't gain their qualifications by demonstrating to their teachers their expertise in performing an 'inner dissection' of certain mental images, ideas, and concepts. The same is true of practising zoologists. On the contrary, these individuals have to demonstrate their mastery of highly specialised techniques, technical vocabulary and sophisticated theory, which skills they must exhibit publicly, showing they are capable of applying them in appropriate circumstances and in a manner specified by, and consistent with, the professional standards laid down by their teachers, etc., etc.
The widespread illusion that we are all experts in the 'internal dismemberment' of ideas is motivated by another confusion, which also originated in Traditional Philosophy: the belief that the intelligent use of general words depends on some sort of internal, mental naming, representing or processing ceremony. In effect, this amounts, once more, to the belief that, despite appearances to the contrary, all words are names, and that meaning something involves an 'inner act of meaning', 'naming' or 'representing' -- matching words to images, sensations, processes, or ideas in the brain/'mind'.
At work here is another inappropriate set of metaphors, which in turn trade on the idea that the mind functions like an inner theatre, TV or computer screen -- now refined with an analogy drawn against Microsoft Windows perhaps, wherein 'the mind' is described as "modular" (operated, no doubt, by the internal analogue of a computer geek, skilled at 'clicking' on the right inner 'icon' at the right moment, filing things in the right folders and setting-up efficient 'networks', etc., etc.). Given this family of metaphors, understanding has been modelled on the way we ordinarily look at pictures, but now applied to these 'inner representations', employing the equivalent of an 'inner eye' to appraise whatever fortune sends its way.
[A family of ideas that underpins Pixar's recent cartoon, Inside Out.]
This family of metaphors is a faint echo of Plato's theory of knowledge by acquaintance, and his allegory of the Cave. [Of course, Plato's allegories were intended to make different points.] More recent versions of this family of ideas see knowledge as the passive processing of 'representations' by socially-isolated, lone abstractors -- even if this approach to knowledge is augmented by dialecticians with their gesture toward practice. Nevertheless, this view of knowledge also turned it into a form of acquaintance. Believe it or not, the reasoning is little more complex than this: we all know our friends by personal acquaintance, or sight, so we all know the contents of our minds by (internal) acquaintance or (inner) sight.
This once again reminds us why Traditional Theorists argued that knowledge is a relation between the Knower and the Known. Here we are the Knower and our own ideas are the Known.
[More on this in Essays Three Part Four, Thirteen Part Three (here and here), and Six.]
Naturally, if this hidden, private abstractive skill had ever been of any importance in the history of science, we should expect to find evidence to that effect in the work of the vast majority, if not every single, scientist. Alas there is none.
Even the attempt to investigate the truth of that particular assertion (i.e., that there is no evidence of scientists privately dismembering ideas in their heads/'minds') would automatically throw into doubt the role that abstraction is supposed to play in science. That is because such an inquiry would have to examine the notes, documents and writings of scientists -- not their brains. Indeed, any recognition of the relevance of the publicly available, linguistic production of such scientists, their equipment and techniques (etc.), their social surroundings -- as opposed to the contents of their heads -- would confirm that in their practical activity no historian of any intelligence actually believes that abstract ideas (understood in the traditional sense, as the products of 'inner acts of intellection') underpin scientific knowledge -- whatever theoretical or philosophical views they might otherwise entertain or rehearse in public.
Here, as elsewhere, actions speak louder than abstractions.
[Again, several examples (drawn from the work of a handful of 'great' scientists), which disprove the contention that they were/are abstractors extraordinaire will be given in Essay Thirteen Part Two. (See also below.)]
But, Don't Scientists Use Abstraction?
[This also forms part of Note 24.]
Admittedly, this way of putting things might fail to coincide with the way that scientists themselves theorise about what they do. But, and once more: their practical activity belies whatever post hoc rationalisations they might advance concerning the nature of their work.
Except in certain areas of obsolete psychology, in seeking to advance scientific knowledge, scientists report neither on the results of their own processing of 'mental entities', nor on the contents of their heads. And, they certainly don't require the same with respect to the heads of others in their field, nor anywhere else for that matter. On the contrary, as far as their work is concerned, researchers develop new theories (at the very least) by extending the use and application of publicly accessible scientific languages (already in use), techniques and, in many cases, established theory. And, this they do by employing, among other things, analogy, metaphor and the novel use of general terms --, again, terms already in the public domain. All of this is allied to the introduction of specifically constructed models and targeted "thought experiments", alongside the employment of other relevant rhetorical devices. [On this, see the references listed here.]
[Naturally, this doesn't mean that the above items are unrelated to the development of the forces and relations of production. However, as noted above, these issues will be discussed in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part Two.]
Despite this, it could be objected that thee above comments thoroughly misrepresent the way that knowledge advances. In fact (but edited down), the objection might proceed as follows: scientists attempt to discover the underlying nature of objects and processes in the world in order to reveal the laws and regularities (etc.) that govern the universe. To take just one example: an animal's essential nature -- arrived at by increased use of abstract terms -- turns out to be its DNA (or whatever). Another, but more general example could be the way that Physicists extend knowledge by developing increasingly abstract theories expressed in complex mathematical formulae and/or causal laws.
But, this can't be correct; scientists manifestly didn't discover DNA by the use of greater or more refined abstractions. They used the theoretical and practical advances achieved by earlier, or contemporaneous, researchers (which advances in turn weren't arrived at by abstraction), and they augmented them with their own ideas (often these have been developed by other teams of scientists, working within certain research traditions), as well as the results of other innovative experiments in the same or related fields. All of these were, and still are, based on cooperative work, thought and observation -- frequently assisted by the use of models, yet more 'thought experiments', all expressed in a public language, subsequently published and assessed in an open arena.
None of these (save, perhaps, those 'thought experiments') even remotely looks like a mental process, still less an example of abstraction carried out in a private, 'inner' sanctum. And, as far as 'thought experiments' are concerned, these, too, are typically rehearsed in the public domain, and in a public language. Any alleged 'mental processes' that accompany them are likewise connected with the innovative use of language -- but, with the volume turned down.
['Thought experiments' will be discussed in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part Two; some of the relevant literature devoted to them has been listed in Essay Four.]
Of course, it could be argued that no one supposes that abstraction is "done in the head", or that scientists don't use a publicly accessible language in relation to their work. It might therefore be maintained that scientists still endeavour to form abstract ideas based on their use of resources such as these, and in this way.
Again, this isn't what scientists actually do. The above is a myth put about by professional philosophers and amateur metaphysicians.
These somewhat controversial claims (i.e., those relating to what scientists do, as opposed to what they say, or what they imagine they do, or, indeed, what certain philosophers think they do) will be substantiated (and illustrated) more fully in Essay Thirteen Part Two.
This is quite apart from the fact that abstractionists themselves tell us that abstraction is "done in the head"; many examples of the same were added to Part One (here, here and here) -- and, indeed, to this Essay (for example, here and here).
Berkeley And Frege
[This, too, is a continuation of Note 24.]
Nevertheless, anti-abstractionist thought is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first major thinker to subject it to detailed criticism (outside the Medieval Nominalist tradition, that is) was Berkeley.
[Berkeley's arguments against abstract ideas are summarised in Dancy (1987), pp.24-40; a different approach linked to Berkeley's Philosophy of Mathematics can be found in Jesseph (1993), pp.9-43. On Berkeley in general, see here and here; his case against abstraction is expertly summarised here.]
Berkeley's arguments in this regard revolve around the observation that it is impossible to form an abstract idea of anything whatsoever since that would require whatever it is supposed to be, to possess and not to possess several (incompatible) properties at one and the same time. He asks whether anyone:
"…has, or can attain to have, an idea that shall correspond with the description that is here given of the general idea of a triangle, which is, neither oblique, nor rectangle, equilateral, equicrural (Isosceles -- RL), nor scalenon (Scalene -- RL), but all and none of these at once." [Berkeley (1975b), p.81.]
Based on his own inability to form such abstract ideas, Berkeley casts doubt on the capacity of others to do the same:
"I can imagine a man with two heads or the upper parts of a man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and colour. Likewise the idea of a man that I frame to myself, must be either of a white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight, or a crooked, a tall or low, or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described [of a general man]. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectilinear; and the like may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever." [Ibid., p.78.]
A somewhat similar argument can be found in Frege (in his review of Husserl's Philosophy of Arithmetic):
"The author himself finds a difficulty about the abstraction that provides the general concept of the collective. He says (p.84):
'The peculiarities of the individual contents that are collected...must be completely abstracted from, but at the same time their connection must be maintained. This seems to involve a difficulty, if not a psychological impossibility. If we take the abstraction seriously, then the individual contents vanish, and so, naturally, does their collective unity, instead of remaining behind as a conceptual extract. Th solution is obvious. To abstract from something simply means: not to attend to it specially.'
"The kernel of this explanation is obviously to be found in the word 'specially'. Inattention is a very strong lye; it must be applied at not too great a concentration, so that everything does not dissolve, and likewise not too dilute, so that it effects a sufficient change in the things. This it is a question of getting the right degree of dilution; this is difficult to manage, and I at any rate have never succeeded....
"[Detaching our attention] is particularly effective. We attend less to a property, and it disappears. By making one characteristic after another disappear, we get more and more abstract concepts…. Inattention is a most efficacious logical faculty; presumably this accounts for the absentmindedness of professors. Suppose there are a black and a white cat sitting side by side before us. We stop attending to their colour and they become colourless, but are still sitting side by side. We stop attending to their posture, and they are no longer sitting (though they have not assumed another posture), but each one is still in its place. We stop attending to position; they cease to have place, but still remain different. In this way, perhaps, we obtain from each one of them a general concept of Cat. By continual application of this procedure, we obtain from each object a more and more bloodless phantom. Finally we thus obtain from each object a something wholly deprived of content; but the something obtained from one object is different from the something obtained from another object -– though it is not easy to say how." [Frege (1980), pp.84-85.]
Frege's sharpest criticisms were reserved for those of his day who imagined that mathematical concepts are created by a 'process of abstraction' --, in particular the views of the 19th century mathematician and mystical Platonist, Georg Cantor, and his followers:
"When negroes from the heart of Africa see a telescope or pocket watch for the first time, they are inclined to credit these things with the most astounding magical properties. Many mathematicians react to philosophical expressions in a similar manner. I am thinking in particular here of the following: 'define' (Brahma), 'reflect' (Vishnu), 'abstract' (Shiva). The names of the Indian gods in brackets are meant to indicate the kind of magical effects the expressions are supposed to have. If, for instance, you find that some property of a thing bothers you, you abstract from it. But if you want to call a halt to this process of destruction so that the properties you want to see retained should not be obliterated in the process, you reflect on these properties. If, finally, you feel sorely the lack of certain properties in the thing, you bestow them on it by definition. In your possession of these miraculous powers you are not far removed from the Almighty. The significance this would have is practically beyond measure. Think how these powers could be put to use in the classroom: the teacher has a good-natured but lazy and stupid pupil. He will then abstract from the laziness and the stupidity, reflecting all the while on the good-naturedness. Then by means of a definition he will confer on him the properties of keenness and intelligence. Of course so far people have confined themselves to mathematics. The following dialogue may serve an illustration:
'Mathematician: The sign Ö-1 has the property of yielding -1 when squared.
'Layman: This pattern of printer's ink on paper? I can't see any trace of this property. Perhaps it has been discovered with the aid of a microscope or by some chemical means?
'Mathematician: It can't be arrived at by any process of sense perception. And of course it isn't produced by the mere printer's ink either; a magic incantation, called a definition, has first to be pronounced over it.
'Layman: Ah, now I understand. You expressed yourself badly. You mean that a definition is used to stipulate that this pattern is a sign for something with those properties.
'Mathematician: Not at all! It is a sign, but it doesn't designate or mean anything. It itself has these properties, precisely in virtue of the definition.
'Layman: What extraordinary people you mathematicians are, and no mistake! You don't bother at all about the properties a thing actually has, but imagine that in their stead you can bestow a property on it by a definition -– a property that the thing in its innocence doesn't dream of -– and now you investigate the property and believe in that way you can accomplish the most extraordinary things!'
"This illustrates the might of the mathematical Brahma. In Cantor it is Shiva and Vishnu who receive the greater honour. Faced with a cage of mice, mathematicians react differently when the number of them is in question. Some…include in the number the mice just as they are, down to the last hair; others -– and I may surely count Cantor amongst them -– find it out of place that hairs should form part of the number and so abstract from them. They find in mice a whole host of things besides which are out of place in number and are unworthy to be included in it. Nothing simpler: one abstracts from the whole lot. Indeed when you get down to it everything in the mice is out of place: the beadiness of their eyes no less than the length of their tails and the sharpness of their teeth. So one abstracts from the nature of the mice. But from their nature as what is not said; so one abstracts presumably from all their properties, even from those in virtue of which we call them mice, even from those in virtue of which we call them animals, three-dimensional beings -– properties which distinguish them, for instance, from the number 2.
"Cantor demands more: to arrive at cardinal numbers, we are required to abstract from the order in which they are given. What is to be understood by this? Well, if at a certain moment we compare the positions of the mice, we see that of any two one is further to the north than the other, or both are to the same distance to the north. The same applies to east and above and below. But this is not all: if we compare the mice in respect of their ages, we find likewise that of any two one is older than the other or that both have the same age. We can go on and compare them in respect of their length, both with and without their tails, in respect of the pitch of their squeaks, their weight, their muscular strength, and in many other respects beside. All these relations generate an order. We shall surely not go astray if we take it that this is what Cantor calls the order in which things are given. So we are meant to abstract from this order too. Now surely many people will say 'But we have already abstracted from their being in space; so ipso facto we have already abstracted from north and south, from difference in their lengths. We have already abstracted from the ages of these animals, and so ipso facto from one's being older than another. So why does special mention also have to be made of order?'
"So let us get a number of men together and ask them to exert themselves to the utmost in abstracting from the nature of pencil and the order in which its elements are given. After we have allowed them sufficient time for this difficult task, we ask the first 'What general concept…have you arrived at?' Non-mathematician that he is, he answers 'Pure Being.' The second thinks rather 'Pure nothingness', the third -– I suspect a pupil of Cantor's -– 'The cardinal number one.' A fourth is perhaps left with the woeful feeling that everything has evaporated, a fifth -– surely a pupil of Cantor's -– hears an inner voice whispering that graphite and wood, the constituents of the pencil, are 'constitutive elements', and so arrives at the general concept called the cardinal number two. Now why shouldn't one man come out with the answer and the other with another? Whether in fact Cantor's definitions have the sharpness and precision their author boasts of is accordingly doubtful to me. But perhaps we got such varying replies because it was a pencil we carried out our experiment with. It may be said 'But a pencil isn't a set.' Why not? Well then, let us look at the moon. 'The moon is not a set either!' What a pity! The cardinal number one would be only too happy to come into existence at any place and at any time, and the moon seemed the very thing to assist at the birth. Well then, let us take a heap of sand. Oh dear, there's someone already trying to separate the grains. 'You are surely not going to try and count then all! That is strictly forbidden! You have to arrive at the number by a single act of abstraction....' 'But in order to be able to abstract from the nature of a grain of sand, I must surely first have looked at it, grasped it, come to know it!' 'That's quite unnecessary. What would happen to the infinite cardinals in that case? By the time you had looked at the last grain, you would be bound to have forgotten the first ones. I must emphasise, once more that you are meant to arrive at the number by a single act of abstraction. Of course for that you need the help of supernatural powers. Surely you don't imagine you can bring it off by ordinary abstraction. When you look at books, some in quarto, some in octavo, some thick, some thin, some in Gothic type and some in Roman and you abstract from these properties which distinguish them, and thus arrive at, say, the concept "book", this, when you come down to it, is no great feat. Allow me to clarify for you the difference between ordinary abstraction and the higher, supernatural, kind.
"With ordinary abstraction we start out by comparing objects a, b, c, and find that they agree in many properties but differ in others. We abstract from the latter and arrive at a concept Φ under which a and b and c all fall. Now this concept has neither the properties abstracted from nor those common to a, b and c. The concept "book", for instance, no more consists of printed sheets -- although the individual books we started by comparing do consist of such -- than the concept "female mammal" bears young or suckles them with milk secreted from its glands; for it has no glands. Things are quite different with supernatural abstraction. Here we have, for instance, a heap of sand...." [Frege (1979), pp.69-71. Unfortunately, the manuscript breaks off at this point. Italic emphases in the original. Links added.]
Frege's parody of Cantor illustrates just how ridiculous it is to suppose that abstraction can create mathematical concepts out of mere signs, or, indeed, out of anything. [Frege's comments find echo in the thoughts of Fraser Cowley, quoted elsewhere in this Essay.]
[Frege's criticisms of Cantor are summarised in Dauben (1979), pp.220-25. A more detailed discussion of these matters can be found in Dummett (1991). On the mystical aspects of Cantor's work, see Aczel (2000).]
The Young Marx And Engels
[This is still a continuation of Note 24.]
There are several remarkably similar passages to the above in Marx's earlier work:
"Is it surprising that everything, in the final abstraction -- for we have here an abstraction, and not an analysis -- presents itself as a logical category? Is it surprising that, if you let drop little by little all that constitutes the individuality of a house, leaving out first of all the materials of which it is composed, then the form that distinguishes it, you end up with nothing but a body; that if you leave out of account the limits of this body, you soon have nothing but a space -– that if, finally, you leave out of account the dimensions of this space, there is absolutely nothing left but pure quantity, the logical category? If we abstract thus from every subject all the alleged accidents, animate or inanimate, men or things, we are right in saying that in the final abstraction the only substance left is the logical categories. Thus the metaphysicians, who in making these abstractions, think they are making analyses, and who, the more they detach themselves from things, imagine themselves to be getting all the nearer to the point of penetrating to their core….
"Just as by means of abstraction we have transformed everything into a logical category, so one has only to make an abstraction of every characteristic distinctive of different movements to attain movement in its abstract condition -- purely formal movement, the purely logical formula of movement. If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things...." [Marx (1978), pp.99-100. Italic emphases in the original.]
However, in a passage that has already been quoted in Part One -- from The Holy Family (which reveals Marx and Engels at the height of their philosophical powers) -- we find the following acute observations (notice a similar reference to Vishnu we found in Frege above):
"Now that Critical Criticism as the tranquillity of knowledge has 'made' all the mass-type 'antitheses its concern', has mastered all reality in the form of categories and dissolved all human activity into speculative dialectics, we shall see it produce the world again out of speculative dialectics. It goes without saying that if the miracles of the Critically speculative creation of the world are not to be 'desecrated', they can be presented to the profane mass only in the form of mysteries. Critical Criticism therefore appears in the incarnation of Vishnu-Szeliga ["Szeliga" was the pseudonym of a young Hegelian, Franz Zychlinski -- RL] as a mystery-monger....
"The mystery of the Critical presentation of the Mystéres de Paris is the mystery of speculative, of Hegelian construction. Once Herr Szeliga has proclaimed that 'degeneracy within civilisation' and rightlessness in the state are 'mysteries', i.e., has dissolved them in the category 'mystery', he lets 'mystery' begin its speculative career. A few words will suffice to characterise speculative construction in general. Herr Szeliga's treatment of the Mystéres de Paris will give the application in detail.
"If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea 'Fruit', if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea 'Fruit', derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then -- in the language of speculative philosophy –- I am declaring that 'Fruit' is the 'Substance' of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea -– 'Fruit'. I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of 'Fruit'. My finite understanding supported by my senses does of course distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely 'Fruit'. Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is 'the substance' -- 'Fruit'.
"By this method one attains no particular wealth of definition. The mineralogist whose whole science was limited to the statement that all minerals are really 'the Mineral' would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says 'the Mineral', and his science is reduced to repeating this word as many times as there are real minerals.
"Having reduced the different real fruits to the one 'fruit' of abstraction -– 'the Fruit', speculation must, in order to attain some semblance of real content, try somehow to find its way back from 'the Fruit', from the Substance to the diverse, ordinary real fruits, the pear, the apple, the almond etc. It is as hard to produce real fruits from the abstract idea 'the Fruit' as it is easy to produce this abstract idea from real fruits. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction.
"The speculative philosopher therefore relinquishes the abstraction 'the Fruit', but in a speculative, mystical fashion -- with the appearance of not relinquishing it. Thus it is really only in appearance that he rises above his abstraction. He argues somewhat as follows:
"If apples, pears, almonds and strawberries are really nothing but 'the Substance', 'the Fruit', the question arises: Why does 'the Fruit' manifest itself to me sometimes as an apple, sometimes as a pear, sometimes as an almond? Why this semblance of diversity which so obviously contradicts my speculative conception of Unity, 'the Substance', 'the Fruit'?
"This, answers the speculative philosopher, is because 'the Fruit' is not dead, undifferentiated, motionless, but a living, self-differentiating, moving essence. The diversity of the ordinary fruits is significant not only for my sensuous understanding, but also for 'the Fruit' itself and for speculative reason. The different ordinary fruits are different manifestations of the life of the 'one Fruit'; they are crystallisations of 'the Fruit' itself. Thus in the apple 'the Fruit' gives itself an apple-like existence, in the pear a pear-like existence. We must therefore no longer say, as one might from the standpoint of the Substance: a pear is 'the Fruit', an apple is 'the Fruit', an almond is 'the Fruit', but rather 'the Fruit' presents itself as a pear, 'the Fruit' presents itself as an apple, 'the Fruit' presents itself as an almond; and the differences which distinguish apples, pears and almonds from one another are the self-differentiations of 'the Fruit' and make the particular fruits different members of the life-process of 'the Fruit'. Thus 'the Fruit' is no longer an empty undifferentiated unity; it is oneness as allness, as 'totality' of fruits, which constitute an 'organically linked series of members'. In every member of that series 'the Fruit' gives itself a more developed, more explicit existence, until finally, as the 'summary' of all fruits, it is at the same time the living unity which contains all those fruits dissolved in itself just as it produces them from within itself, just as, for instance, all the limbs of the body are constantly dissolved in and constantly produced out of the blood.
"We see that if the Christian religion knows only one Incarnation of God, speculative philosophy has as many incarnations as there are things, just as it has here in every fruit an incarnation of the Substance, of the Absolute Fruit. The main interest for the speculative philosopher is therefore to produce the existence of the real ordinary fruits and to say in some mysterious way that there are apples, pears, almonds and raisins. But the apples, pears, almonds and raisins that we rediscover in the speculative world are nothing but semblances of apples, semblances of pears, semblances of almonds and semblances of raisins, for they are moments in the life of 'the Fruit', this abstract creation of the mind, and therefore themselves abstract creations of the mind. Hence what is delightful in this speculation is to rediscover all the real fruits there, but as fruits which have a higher mystical significance, which have grown out of the ether of your brain and not out of the material earth, which are incarnations of 'the Fruit', of the Absolute Subject. When you return from the abstraction, the supernatural creation of the mind, 'the Fruit', to real natural fruits, you give on the contrary the natural fruits a supernatural significance and transform them into sheer abstractions. Your main interest is then to point out the unity of 'the Fruit' in all the manifestations of its life…that is, to show the mystical interconnection between these fruits, how in each of them 'the Fruit' realizes itself by degrees and necessarily progresses, for instance, from its existence as a raisin to its existence as an almond. Hence the value of the ordinary fruits no longer consists in their natural qualities, but in their speculative quality, which gives each of them a definite place in the life-process of 'the Absolute Fruit'.
"The ordinary man does not think he is saying anything extraordinary when he states that there are apples and pears. But when the philosopher expresses their existence in the speculative way he says something extraordinary. He performs a miracle by producing the real natural objects, the apple, the pear, etc., out of the unreal creation of the mind 'the Fruit'. And in regard to every object the existence of which he expresses, he accomplishes an act of creation.
"It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by presenting universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, 'the Fruit.'
"In the speculative way of speaking, this operation is called comprehending Substance as Subject, as an inner process, as an Absolute Person, and this comprehension constitutes the essential character of Hegel's method." [Marx and Engels (1975), pp.71-75. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Italic emphases in the original.]
This quotation almost completely undermines the DM-theory of abstraction. It is a pity that both Marx and Engels later seem to have lost the philosophical clarity of thought they display in this passage. In many respects it anticipates Frege's and Wittgenstein's approach to abstract ideas, even if phrased in a completely different philosophical idiom.
It is worth underlining the fact that this passage exposes the sham nature of any 'dialectical circuit', not just Hegel's use of it. As Marx and Engels argue:
"Having reduced the different real fruits to the one 'fruit' of abstraction -– 'the Fruit', speculation must, in order to attain some semblance of real content, try somehow to find its way back from 'the Fruit', from the Substance to the diverse, ordinary real fruits, the pear, the apple, the almond etc…. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction….
"When you return from the abstraction, the supernatural creation of the mind, 'the Fruit', to real natural fruits, you give on the contrary the natural fruits a supernatural significance and transform them into sheer abstractions. Your main interest is then to point out the unity of 'the Fruit' in all the manifestations of its life…that is, to show the mystical interconnection between these fruits, how in each of them 'the Fruit' realizes itself by degrees and necessarily progresses, for instance, from its existence as a raisin to its existence as an almond. Hence the value of the ordinary fruits no longer consists in their natural qualities, but in their speculative quality, which gives each of them a definite place in the life-process of 'the Absolute Fruit.'" [Ibid., pp.73-74. Bold emphases added; italic emphases in the original. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
Marx and Engels are quite clear here: no amount of "careful empirical" checking can turn a creature of abstraction back into its concrete alter ego.
It is also important to note that Marx and Engels also anticipated the claim advanced in these Essays that abstract general ideas are the result of a syntactically inept interpretation of ordinary general terms (outlined in detail in Part One of this Essay). As they themselves pointed out:
"The ordinary man does not think he is saying anything extraordinary when he states that there are apples and pears. But when the philosopher expresses their existence in the speculative way he says something extraordinary. He performs a miracle by producing the real natural objects, the apple, the pear, etc., out of the unreal creation of the mind 'the Fruit'….
"It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by presenting universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, 'the Fruit.'" [Ibid., p.75. Bold emphases added; italic emphases in the original. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
Here, Marx and Engels quite rightly point out that it is the distortion of language that gives life to metaphysical abstraction. Indeed, they underlined this approach to ordinary language (and the distortion it suffers in the hands of Philosophers) in The German Ideology (partially quoted earlier):
"For philosophers, one of the most difficult tasks is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they had to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life.
"We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petty-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers would only have to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, to recognise it as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases added; italic emphases in the original.]
The highlighted section of the last paragraph above might well serve as the guiding motto of this site. Indeed, Wittgenstein himself could almost have written it.
In his perceptive analysis of Metaphysics, Fraser Cowley had this to say about 'abstract universals':
"In the traditional doctrine, according to which one can both refer to universals and predicate them of particulars and other universals, a general term like 'lion' would signify or designate a universal. This universal would be predicated of a particular in such a sentence as 'This is a lion' and referred to in such a sentence as 'The lion is a creature of the cat family.' The lion being carnivorous and subject, I believe, to melancholy in captivity, that universal would be carnivorous and subject to melancholy. And just as one can point to an animal and say 'this kind' or 'this species', so one should be able to point to one and say 'This universal comes from East Africa'…. But clearly 'universal' is not admissible in such contexts, and this shows that the logical syntax is quite different from that of 'kind,' 'sort,' 'type,' 'species,' and so on….
"Many people have tried in their metaphysical performances consciously or half consciously to avoid such nonsense by referring, for example, to the universal which is allegedly predicated in 'This beast is a lion,' by the expression 'lionhood.' Many similar malformations occur in philosophical writings -– doghood, thinghood, eventhood, and so on. They are formed by mistaken analogy with manhood, womanhood, girlhood, widowhood, bachelorhood, and of course not with neighborhood, hardihood, falsehood, likelihood, or Little Red Riding Hood." [Cowley (1991), p.92. Italic emphases in the original. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
Linguistic monstrosities like those above -- and worse -- litter the pages of Traditional Philosophy texts in their Ancient, Medieval and Modern incarnations. For example, in a recent book on the nature of 'Time' we find the following rather bizarre phrases:
"Any property partly composed of presentness, apart from the two properties of pastness and futurity is not an A-property." [Smith (1993), p.6.]
Here we note with Frege that the powers of certain Asian deities have been resurrected in order to create the required temporal 'properties' out of thin air: "pastness", "presentness" and "futurity." There are countless pages of material like this in contemporary metaphysical literature, and not just those concerning the nature of 'Time'.
Sustained criticisms of abstract general concepts and ideas and essentialism can be found in the following: Hallett (1984, 1988, 1991) and Kennick (1972). A more general refutation of abstractionism is outlined in Geach (1957). A broad attack on the nature of abstract objects can be found in Teichmann (1992). [See also here.]
[This is also a continuation of Note 24. I am including Ollman's work in this Essay since many comrades recommend it as an excellent explanation, or account, of 'the dialectic' at work. A recent example of this can be found here, where I have also posted a series of fatal objections.]
Recently, Bertell Ollman has outlined what he takes to be Marx's use of abstraction (in Ollman (2003), pp.59-112; this material also appears in Ollman (1993), pp.23-83).
However, readers of Ollman's work will be forgiven for their sense of disappointment that after the opening fanfare (to the effect that 'abstraction' is centrally important to Marx and Marxist theory), no account is given beyond the usual superficial gestures at explaining what the actual process is itself:
"First and foremost, and stripped of all qualifications added by this or that dialectician, the subject of dialectics is change, all change, and interaction, all kinds and degrees of interaction. This is not to say that dialectical thinkers recognize the existence of change and interaction, while non-dialectical thinkers do not. That would be foolish. Everyone recognizes that everything in the world changes, somehow and to some degree, and that the same holds true for interaction. The problem is how to think adequately about them, how to capture them in thought. How, in other words, can we think about change and interaction so as not to miss or distort the real changes and interactions that we know, in a general way at least, are there (with all the implications this has for how to study them and to communicate what we find to others)? This is the key problem addressed by dialectics, this is what all dialectics is about, and it is in helping to resolve this problem that Marx turns to the process of abstraction." [Ollman (2003), pp.59-60. Bold emphasis added. As we will see, Andrew Sayer's attempt to characterise the 'process of abstraction' is no less disappointing.]
We have already seen that neither dialecticians nor their 'theory' are capable of explaining change -- indeed, we also saw that if this theory were true, change would be impossible (on that see Essays Five through Eight Part Three, but especially here and here), just as we have also seen in this Essay that no sense can be made of the 'process of abstraction'. So, the question is, has Ollman anything new to add that might turn the tide of theory back in favour of this discredited left-over from the Metaphysics of Ancient Greece?
Well, apparently not, for all he has to offer are a few pages of trite observations about what he thinks we all do when we allegedly engage in 'abstraction' (supported by no evidence at all -- quoted or referenced), and what he thinks scientists engage in when they construct their theories (again, supported, not by evidence, just a lively imagination).
The Privatised 'Process of Abstraction'
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
Perhaps this is being unfair? In that case, it might be wise to examine what Ollman actually says to see if the above comments are as peremptory and prejudicial as they might at first sight seem.
"In his most explicit statement on the subject, Marx claims that his method starts from the 'real concrete' (the world as it presents itself to us) and proceeds through 'abstraction' (the intellectual activity of breaking this whole down into the mental units with which we think about it) to the 'thought concrete' (the reconstituted and now understood whole present in the mind) (Marx (1904), pp.293-94; this is a reference to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy -- RL). The real concrete is simply the world in which we live, in all its complexity. The thought concrete is Marx's reconstruction of that world in the theories of what has come to be called 'Marxism.' The royal road to understanding is said to pass from the one to the other through the process of abstraction." [Ibid., p.60. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site, as they have been in the rest of the passages quoted from this source. Referencing conventions changed to concur with those adopted at this site, too. Bold emphases added.]
Now, we have seen that the way this 'process' has been depicted by Traditional Theorists (like Ollman) means it is in fact an individualised 'mental' skill -- and one that undermines belief in the social nature of knowledge and language.
True to form, Andrew Sayer's attempt to characterise this 'process' reveals that he, too, thinks this is an individualised, if not private skill in relation to which we all seem to be 'natural' experts:
"The sense in which the term ['abstract' -- RL] is used here is different [from its ordinary use -- RL]; an abstract concept, or an abstraction, isolates in thought a one-sided or partial aspect of an object. [In a footnote, Sayer adds 'My use of "abstract" and "concrete" is, I think, equivalent to Marx's' (p.277, note 3).]" [Sayer (1992), p.87. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Bold emphases alone added.]
As is the case with Ollman, and, indeed, everyone else who has pontificated about this obscure 'process', we aren't told how we manage to do this, still less why it doesn't result in the construction of a 'private language'.
Indeed, this is something Ollman himself pointed out:
"What, then, is distinctive about Marx's abstractions? To begin with, it should be clear that Marx's abstractions do not and cannot diverge completely from the abstractions of other thinkers both then and now. There has to be a lot of overlap. Otherwise, he would have constructed what philosophers call a 'private language,' and any communication between him and the rest of us would be impossible. How close Marx came to fall into this abyss and what can be done to repair some of the damage already done are questions I hope to deal with in a later work...." [Ollman (2003), p.63. Bold emphases added.]
Well, it remains to be seen if Professor Ollman can solve a problem that has baffled everyone else for centuries -- that is, those who have even so much as acknowledged it exists!
It is to Ollman's considerable credit, therefore, that he is at least aware of it.
[In fact, Ollman is the very first dialectician I have encountered (in nigh on thirty years) who even so much as acknowledges this 'difficulty'! Be this as it may, I have devoted Essay Thirteen Part Three to an analysis of this topic; the reader is referred there for more details.]
Of course, none of this fancy footwork would be necessary if Ollman recognised that even though Marx gestured in its direction, HM doesn't need this obscure 'process' (that is, where any sense can be made of it) -- or, indeed, if he acknowledged that Marx's emphasis on the social nature of knowledge and language completely undercuts abstractionism.
[Nor does Ollman appear to take into consideration Marx's own refutation of abstractionism, in The Holy Family.]
Nevertheless, the few things that Ollman does say about this 'process' fail to inspire much confidence:
"In one sense, the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts. Reality may be in one piece when lived, but to be thought about and communicated it must be parceled (sic) out. Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs. Everyone then, and not just Marx and Marxists, begins the task of trying to make sense of his or her surroundings by distinguishing certain features and focusing on and organizing them in ways deemed appropriate. 'Abstract' comes from the Latin, 'abstrahere', which means 'to pull from.' In effect, a piece has been pulled from or taken out of the whole and is temporarily perceived as standing apart.
"We 'see' only some of what lies in front of us, 'hear' only part of the noises in our vicinity, 'feel' only a small part of what our body is in contact with, and so on through the rest of our senses. In each case, a focus is established and a kind of boundary set within our perceptions distinguishing what is relevant from what is not. It should be clear that 'What did you see?' (What caught your eye?) is a different question from 'What did you actually see?' (What came into your line of vision?). Likewise, in thinking about any subject, we focus on only some of its qualities and relations. Much that could be included -- that may in fact be included in another person's view or thought, and may on another occasion be included in our own -- is left out. The mental activity involved in establishing such boundaries, whether conscious or unconscious -- though it is usually an amalgam of both -- is the process of abstraction.
"Responding to a mixture of influences that include the material world and our experiences in it as well as to personal wishes, group interests, and other social constraints, it is the process of abstraction that establishes the specificity of the objects with which we interact. In setting boundaries, in ruling this far and no further, it is what makes something one (or two, or more) of a kind, and lets us know where that kind begins and ends. With this decision as to units, we also become committed to a particular set of relations between them -- relations made possible and even necessary by the qualities that we have included in each -- a register for classifying them, and a mode for explaining them.
"In listening to a concert, for example, we often concentrate on a single instrument or recurring theme and then redirect our attention elsewhere. Each time this occurs, the whole music alters, new patterns emerge, each sound takes on a different value, etc. How we understand the music is largely determined by how we abstract it. The same applies to what we focus on when watching a play, whether on a person, or a combination of persons, or a section of the stage. The meaning of the play and what more is required to explore or test that meaning alters, often dramatically, with each new abstraction. In this way, too, how we abstract literature, where we draw the boundaries, determines what works and what parts of each work will be studied, with what methods, in relation to what other subjects, in what order, and even by whom. Abstracting literature to include its audience, for example, leads to a sociology of literature, while an abstraction of literature that excludes everything but its forms calls forth various structural approaches, and so on." [Ibid., pp.60-61. Bold emphases added.]
As far as can be determined, that is all Ollman has to say about this 'process' as such (as opposed to his comments about how Marx allegedly used it).
Now, anyone reading through the above passage will surely conclude that Ollman has omitted the social aspect of knowledge. Sure, he gestures toward it with a comment that we must factor in "group interests, and other social constraints", but how this helps turn an individualised 'aptitude' into a socially-conditioned skill is left entirely unclear (which isn't surprising, since this trick is impossible to pull-off). How is it possible for Abstractor A to ensure that he/she has abstracted anything in the same way as Abstractor B? Given this theory, all they have to go on are their own subjective attempts to this end, their own individual take on "group interests, and other social constraints", but they will have no way of comparing their results with those of anyone else.
[Since this line of objection was rehearsed in detail here and here, I won't rake over it again in this section.]
An appeal to a public language here as a way out of this impasse would be to no avail, either, for this theory undermines the very possibility of there being just such a language. That is because this theory bases language acquisition itself on the process of abstraction. In which case, anyone who accepts this theory can hardly appeal to language to bail it out -- at least, not without arguing in a circle.
As we have seen, this entire approach is entangled in, and has been compromised by, the post-Renaissance, bourgeois view of language, cognition, and knowledge, which pictures these as skills we all learn as isolated individuals, or the result of such privatised skills we are later supposed to bring to society as social atoms in order to compare the 'contents of our minds' with those of others in the same market place of ideas. On this view, the social comes second, the individual first; we first act as social atoms and then endeavour to transform ourselves into social molecules. This would seem to be the abstractionist's version of Margaret Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society", which, plainly, only succeeds in undermining or neutralising Marx's commitment to the social nature of language and knowledge. [More on this in Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
As Meredith Williams noted of Vygotsky's views (whose ideas are, alas, highly influential among DM-fans):
"Vygotsky attempts to combine a social theory of cognition development with an individualistic account of word-meaning.... [But] the social theory of development can only succeed if it is combined with a social theory of meaning." [Williams (1999b), p.275.]
Williams could in fact be talking about any randomly-selected Dialectical Marxist who has written on this subject (including Ollman).
Again, these comments might seem a little too hasty, so we will have to wait to see how Ollman digs himself out of this particular, bourgeois-inspired hole in his future work -- if he does.
Update, February 2017: Fifteen years later, there is still no sign of Ollman's long-awaited miraculous 'escape'!
Independently of this, Ollman has surely confused the capacity we have for concentrating on certain features of the world with this artificial 'process' of abstraction. So, to take his example, when we attend a concert, we might indeed concentrate on the soloist, say, but we do not abstract him or her.
It may be argued that this is indeed where abstraction kicks in. But what do we gain by saying this that the word "concentrate" hasn't already achieved for us? What extra feature does this alleged 'process' now add? Ollman doesn't say. In fact, this 'crucially important process' stalls at this point. It has nowhere to go and nothing to work with (as the earlier sections of this Essay have demonstrated).
This is quite apart from the fact that even when we concentrate on the soloist, the rest of the orchestra doesn't grow silent or disappear; this is the opposite of what is said to happen when we 'succeed' in 'abstracting' something.
Of course, none of us begins with these skills. We all have to be socialised into them, and have to be taught what our words mean (we can see this from the way that individuals from other cultures focus on different aspects of their surroundings, especially when it comes to listening to music -- one area where we all have to develop 'trained ears'). Hence, even if there were such a 'process' of abstraction, it wouldn't be needed, for we already have the skills necessary to advance knowledge using these socially-acquired capacities. Moreover, these skills possess the not inconsiderable advantage that they follow from, but do not undermine, the social nature of language and knowledge. They are also learned, tested and performed in social contexts. Abstraction (supposedly) takes place in a hidden, inner world, where the bourgeois individual reigns supreme.
Karl Marx's Magic Trick
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
Nevertheless, Ollman tells us that Marx in fact employed four different senses of "abstraction": (i) A division of the world into manageable "mental constructs"; (ii) In order to refer to the results of that process; (iii) In relation to a deficient, or ideological use of certain concepts; and (iv) In connection with his own method in Das Kapital (pp.61-62).
Now, it is undeniable that Marx used this word ("abstract" and its cognates), and he certainly imagined he had applied this 'process' in the pursuit of his studies, but there nothing in Marx's writings to show he actually abstracted a single thing. And, that isn't just because the 'process' itself is impossible to carry out.
The passage that is usually quoted in order to show that Marx did in fact use abstraction actually fails in this respect, as we are about to see:
"It seems correct to begin with the real and the concrete…with e.g. the population…. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest…. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception of the whole, and I would then, by further determination, move toward ever more simple concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations…. The latter is obviously scientifically the correct method. The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence the unity of the diverse." [Marx (1973), pp.100-01.]
As I noted in Part One of this Essay:
In fact, Marx doesn't actually do what he says he does in this passage; he merely gestures at doing it, and his gestures are about as substantive as the hand movements of stage magicians. This isn't to disparage Marx. Das Kapital is perhaps one of the greatest books ever written; but it would have been an even more impressive work if the baleful influence of traditional thought had been kept totally at bay.
[Yes, I know the first quotation above is from the Grundrisse, not Das Kapital!]
What Marx actually achieved was putting familiar words to use in new ways, thus establishing new concepts that enabled him to understand and explain Capitalism with startling depth and clarity. Anyone who reads the above passage can actually see him doing this. They don't need to do a brain scan on Marx (even if he were still alive!), nor apply psychometric tests to follow his argument -- or, indeed, re-create his alleged 'abstractions', which they would have to do if the 'process of abstraction' were something we all do privately in our heads. And, they certainly don't have to copy Marx's supposed moves -- and they most certainly can't copy them, for Marx failed to say what he had actually done with the concepts/words he employed, or how he had 'mentally processed' them (if in fact he had done so!). Indeed, his 'instructions' about how to abstract the "population" are even less useful than John Lennon's famous remark that to find the USA you just had to turn left at Greenland. Hence, no one could possibly emulate Marx here since there are no usable details -- which, of course, suggests that Marx didn't in fact do what he thought he had done, or proposed to do, otherwise, careful thinker that he was, he would have spelt them out. More significantly, no one since has been able to reconstruct these mythical 'mental' moves, or show that their own weak gesture at applying this method is exactly the same as the one used by Marx -- or even that it yields the same results (as noted earlier).
In fact, it is quite apparent from the above passage that Marx had forgotten about his own refutation of this very process! [On that, see here, and again in the next sub-section, below.]
Of course, none of this is surprising. As we have seen, abstractionists become rather hazy when it comes to supplying the details of this mysterious 'process'; that is why, after 2400 years of this metaphysical fairy-tale having been spun -- over and above the sort of vague gesture theorists like Ollman offer their readers --, no one seems able to say what this 'process' actually is!
By way of contrast, the actual method Marx employed (as noted above: we can actually see him doing this on the page -- i.e., indulging in an intelligent and novel use of language) is precisely how the greatest scientists have always proceeded. In their work, they construct arguments in an open arena, in a public language -- albeit this is often accompanied by a novel use of old words --, which can be checked by anyone who cares to do so. This can't be done with Ollman's mythical "mental constructs".
The Young Marx And Engels Torpedo 'Abstractionism'
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
Marx and Engels's earlier words are, therefore, surely a more accurate guide to what he actually did in Das Kapital:
"The ordinary man does not think he is saying anything extraordinary when he states that there are apples and pears. But when the philosopher expresses their existence in the speculative way he says something extraordinary. He performs a miracle by producing the real natural objects, the apple, the pear, etc., out of the unreal creation of the mind 'the Fruit'….
"It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by presenting universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, 'the Fruit.'" [Marx and Engels (1975), p.75. Bold emphases alone added.]
"For philosophers, one of the most difficult tasks is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they had to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life.
"We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petty-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers would only have to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, to recognise it as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases alone added.]
Here, the process of abstraction is shown up for what it is: a capitulation to philosophical confusion, based on a distortion of ordinary language (which is, oddly enough, the opposite of the approach to Traditional Theory advocated in these Essays).
Ollman Misconstrues Change
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
Ollman now offers his readers the following highly clichéd comments about change:
"Beginning with historical movement, Marx's preoccupation with change and development is undisputed. What is less known, chiefly because it is less clear, is how he thought about change, how he abstracted it, and how he integrated these abstractions into his study of a changing world. The underlying problem is as old as philosophy itself. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, provides us with its classic statement when he asserts that a person cannot step into the same river twice. Enough water has flowed between the two occasions so that the river we step into the second time is not the same river we walked into earlier. Yet our common sense tells us that it is, and our naming practice reflects this view. The river is still called the 'Hudson', or the 'Rhine' or the 'Ganges'. Heraclitus, of course, was not interested in rivers, but in change. His point is that change goes on everywhere and all the time, but that our manner of thinking about it is sadly inadequate. The flow, the constant alteration of movement away from something and toward something else, is generally missing. Usually, where change takes place very slowly or in very small increments, its impact can be safely neglected. On the other hand, depending on the context and on our purpose in it, even such change -- because it occurs outside our attention -- may occasionally startle us and have grave consequences for our lives." [Ollman (2003), p.64.]
Although Ollman is concerned to tell us that Marx "abstracted" change, he neglected to tell us exactly where he did this, or even what it means to "abstract" change.
Be this as it may, we shall see in Essay Six that Heraclitus in fact got into a terrible mess over the criteria of identity for mass nouns and count nouns. But, he had a viable excuse: he lived at a time when little was known about this distinction (indeed, I have been told that this distinction doesn't actually exist in the Greek language; even though I have yet to verify this claim, no Greek speaker will attempt to count cabbage or chalk (although they will count cabbage heads, or sticks of chalk), nor will they even attempt to weigh passengers when asked how many there are on a bus or in a taxi). That is no longer the case, so, Ollman's breezy conclusions (which were clearly based on no acknowledgement of contemporary work in this area) are far less easy to excuse.
Now, had Heraclitus said that it was impossible to step into the same body of flowing water twice, he might have had a point. Even so, and despite what he said, it is quite easy to step into the same river. [On that, see here.] Indeed, without that particular capacity, not even Heraclitus could test his own 'theory' (or even imagine such a test performed in his 'mind's eye'), for he wouldn't be able to recognise the same river to test it on, let alone assert it about!
[The 'relative stability' defence was also neutralised in Essay Six.]
Nevertheless, Ollman nowhere even so much as questions Heraclitus's semi-divine ability to extrapolate from this trite, incorrect observation about stepping into a river to what must be true right across the entire universe for all of time.
"In contrast to this approach, Marx set out to abstract things, in his words, 'as they really are and happen,' making how they happen part of what they are (Marx and Engels (1964), p.57 -- this is the German Ideology (i.e, Marx and Engels (1976), p.31, see below -- RL). Hence, capital (or labour, money, etc.) is not only how capital appears and functions, but also how it develops; or rather, how it develops, its real history, is also part of what it is. It is also in this sense that Marx could deny that nature and history 'are two separate things' (Marx and Engels (1964), p.57). In the view which currently dominates the social sciences, things exist and undergo change. The two are logically distinct. History is something that happens to things; it is not part of their nature. Hence, the difficulty of examining change in subjects from which it has been removed at the start. Whereas Marx, as he tells us, abstracts 'every historical social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence' (My emphasis (i.e., Ollman's emphasis -- RL)) (Marx (1958), p.20 -- this is Kapital Volume One -- i.e., Marx (1996), p.20, see below -- RL)." [Ibid., p.65. Spelling altered to conform with UK English. Referencing conventions modified in line with those adopted at this site. Italic emphases in the original.]
But, as we have also seen (in Essay Three Part One), abstraction may only penetrate to the heart of things if 'reality' itself were abstract (i.e., if it were Ideal).
The MECW edition renders the above passages from The German Ideology and Das Kapital as follows:
"The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way." [Marx and Engels (1976), p.31. Bold emphasis added.]
I can't find the second passage to which Ollman refers on this page, or on surrounding pages of The German Ideology. Here is the third:
"...[B]ecause it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary." [Marx (1996), p.20.]
Of course, in the first passage Marx refers to abstraction that "can only be made in the imagination", but he pointedly failed to tell us how this might be achieved -- and neither does Ollman. What is more, Ollman's 'below the surface' metaphor explains nothing, either (on that, see here).
Now, few doubt that social development and science may or may not be able to tell us how things "really are", or how they "actually change", but it certainly can't do this by means of abstraction, for that 'process' deprives language of its capacity to express generality, even if we knew how this 'process' was supposed to work. And further, even if abstraction could do all that Ollman claims for it, dialectics would be the last theory that scientists would turn to for assistance, for, if 'true', it would make change impossible!
So, all this labour has brought forth not even so much as an abstract mouse!
"The Mountain labor'd,
On which a num'rous gaping crowd
Of noodles came to see the sight,
When, lo! a mouse was brought to light!" [Phaedrus, IV, XXIV.]
Ollman spends the next few pages outlining several of the abstract terms he believes Marx employed (whereas Marx doesn't appear to call them "abstract"!), in the course of which he makes the following substantive point:
"Before concluding our discussion of the place of change in Marx's abstractions, it is worth noting that thinking in terms of processes is not altogether alien to common sense. It occurs in abstractions of actions, such as eating, walking, fighting, etc., indeed whenever the gerund form of the verb is used. Likewise, event words, such as 'war' and 'strike', indicate that to some degree at least the processes involved have been abstracted as such. On the other hand, it is also possible to think of war and strike as a state or condition, more like a photo than a motion picture, or if the latter, then a single scene that gets shown again and again, which removes or seriously underplays whatever changes are taking place. And unfortunately, the same is true of most action verbs. They become action 'things.' In such cases, the real processes that go on do not get reflected -- certainly not to any adequate degree -- in our thinking about them. It is my impression that in the absence of any commitment to bring change itself into focus, in the manner of Marx, this is the more typical outcome." [Ollman (2003), p.67.]
Ollman is absolutely right to point out that ordinary language contains many words that depict change (and yet he, like so many others, confuses the vernacular with "common sense"), but he merely asserts that "thought" assumes or concludes that many of these words depict states or conditions (when no such 'assuming or concluding' actually goes on -- or if it does, Ollman omitted the evidence and argument to that effect), which, naturally, would only seem to undermine the other feature of language he had just mentioned (i.e., the fact that discourse contains so many action words).
This is, of course, the problem with abstraction and reification, but, it isn't obviously related to "common sense". And yet, if what Ollman says does indeed take place with respect to ordinary language, that would be the result of the same set of crass syntactic errors that misled Philosophers and Grammarians in Ancient Greece -- those errors were, once again, exposed in Part One of this Essay --, which have now re-surfaced in dialectics!
In that case, if "common sense" is at fault, so is DM! On the other hand, if ordinary language hasn't been deliberately distorted in this way (and if we take seriously the advice Marx and Engels proffered earlier), the action verbs to which Ollman refers won't be deformed in this traditional, metaphysical and Philistine manner. Indeed, as pointed out in Essay Four:
As is well-known (at least among Marxists), human society developed because of its constant interaction with nature and as a result of the struggle between classes. In which case, ordinary language could not fail to have developed the logical multiplicity (and vocabulary) to record changes of limitless complexity.
This is no mere dogma; it is easily confirmed. Here is a greatly shortened list of ordinary words (restricted to modern English, but omitting simple and complex tensed participles and auxiliary verbs) that allow speakers to refer to changes of unbounded complexity, rapidity, or duration:
Vary, alter, adjust, adapt, amend, make, produce, revise, rework, advise, administer, allocate, improve, enhance, deteriorate, depreciate, edit, bend, straighten, weave, merge, dig, plough, cultivate, sow, twist, curl, turn, tighten, fasten, loosen, relax, ease, tense up, slacken, fine tune, bind, wrap, pluck, carve, rip, tear, mend, perforate, repair, renovate, restore, damage, impair, scratch, bite, diagnose, mutate, metamorphose, transmute, sharpen, hone, modify, modulate, develop, upgrade, appear, disappear, expand, contract, constrict, constrain, shrivel, widen, lock, unlock, swell, flow, glide, ring, differentiate, integrate, multiply, divide, add, subtract, simplify, complicate, partition, unite, amalgamate, fuse, mingle, connect, link, brake, decelerate, accelerate, fast, slow, swift, rapid, hasty, protracted, lingering, brief, heat up, melt, freeze, harden, cool down, flash, shine, glow, drip, bounce, cascade, drop, pick up, fade, darken, wind, unwind, meander, peel, scrape, graze, file, scour, dislodge, is, was, will be, will have been, had, will have had, went, go, going, gone, return, lost, age, flood, swamp, overflow, precipitate, percolate, seep, tumble, plunge, dive, float, sink, plummet, mix, separate, cut, chop, crush, grind, shred, slice, dice, saw, sew, knit, spread, coalesce, congeal, fall, climb, rise, ascend, descend, slide, slip, roll, spin, revolve, bounce, oscillate, undulate, rotate, wave, splash, conjure, quick, quickly, slowly, instantaneously, suddenly, gradually, rapidly, briskly, hurriedly, lively, hastily, inadvertently, accidentally, carelessly, really, energetically, lethargically, snap, drink, quaff, eat, bite, consume, swallow, gulp, gobble, chew, gnaw, digest, ingest, excrete, absorb, join, resign, part, sell, buy, acquire, prevent, avert, avoid, forestall, encourage, invite, appropriate, lose, find, search, pursue, hunt, track, explore, follow, cover, uncover, reveal, stretch, distend, depress, compress, lift, put down, fetch, take, bring, carry, win, ripen, germinate, conceive, gestate, abort, die, rot, perish, grow, decay, fold, empty, evacuate, drain, pour, fill, abduct, abandon, leave, abscond, many, more, less, fewer, steady, steadily, jerkily, intermittently, smoothly, awkwardly, expertly, very, extremely, exceedingly, intermittent, discontinuous, continuous, continual, emit, push, pull, drag, slide, jump, sit, stand, run, sprint, chase, amble, walk, hop, skip, slither, crawl, limp, swim, fly, hover, drown, submerge, immerse, break, abrogate dismiss, collapse, shatter, split, interrupt, charge, retreat, assault, squash, adulterate, purify, filter, raze, crumble, erode, corrode, rust, flake, demolish, dismantle, pulverise, atomise, disintegrate, dismember, destroy, annihilate, extirpate, flatten, lengthen, shorten, elongate, crimple, inflate, deflate, terminate, initiate, instigate, replace, undo, redo, analyze, synthesise, articulate, disarticulate, reverse, repeal, abolish, enact, quash, throw, catch, hour, minute, second, instant, moment, momentary, invent, devise, teach, learn, innovate, forget, rescind, boil, freeze, thaw, cook, liquefy, solidify, congeal, neutralise, evaporate, condense, dissolve, process, mollify, pacify, calm down, excite, enrage, inflame, protest, object, challenge, confirm, deny, repudiate, reject, expel, eject, repel, attract, remove, overthrow, expropriate, scatter, distribute, surround, gather, admit, acknowledge, hijack, assemble, attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse, defeat, strike, occupy, picket, barricade, revolt, riot, rally, march, demonstrate, mutiny, rebel, defy, resist, lead, campaign, educate, agitate, organise...
[In each case, where there is a noun form of the word listed, its verb form is intended. So, where you see "ring", for example, think of the verb "to ring" and its cognates -- like "ringing", for instance.]
Naturally, it wouldn't be difficult to extend this list until it contained literally thousands of words (on that, see here), all capable of depicting countless changes in limitless detail (especially if it is augmented with the language of mathematics, science and HM). It is only a myth put about by Hegel and DM-theorists...that ordinary language can't adequately depict change. On the contrary, it performs this task far better than the incomprehensible and impenetrably obscure jargon Hegel invented in order to fix something that wasn't broken.
If many of the above verbs are put in the present continuous tense (e.g., flowing, burning, running, turning, directing, dissolving, crumbling...), and then put into a sentential context (e.g., "The cops are running away from the strikers", "Management's resolve is crumbling", "The strike committee is still directing the dispute"), or, indeed, other more complex present tenses are used (e.g., the present iterative or frequentative), then only those ignorant of language would conclude the following alongside Ollman:
"On the other hand, it is also possible to think of war and strike as a state or condition, more like a photo than a motion picture, or if the latter, then a single scene that gets shown again and again, which removes or seriously underplays whatever changes are taking place.... And unfortunately, the same is true of most action verbs. They become action 'things.' In such cases, the real processes that go on do not get reflected -- certainly not to any adequate degree -- in our thinking about them." [Ibid.]
If workers are striking, or a war is being fought, who in command of their senses would conclude that a "state or condition" (and one that "removes or seriously underplays whatever changes are taking place") was being described, or even implied?
Moreover, it isn't too clear what an "action 'thing'" is supposed to be. Perhaps Ollman means that "most action" verbs can also be thought of as depicting a "state or condition", but, since dialecticians like Ollman make a virtue out of abstraction, which freezes verbs and predicate expressions into the names of Abstract Particulars, we would be well advised to take his comments with a lorry load of non-dialectical salt.
[For a much clearer and comprehensive account of state, activity and performance verbs than Ollman offers his readers (with his rather amateurish and risibly superficial 'analysis' of this grammatical form), see Kenny (1963), pp.151-86.]
'Internal Relations' To The Rescue?
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
Ollman then meanders off into a consideration of "internal relations" (a 'concept' that will be destructively analysed in Essay Four Part Two), which 'allows' him to make several wild and unsubstantiated claims about Marx's method. In the course of which he adds this comment:
"The view held by most people, scholars and others, in what we've been calling the common sense view, maintains that there are things and there are relations, and that neither can be subsumed in the other. This position is summed up in Bishop Butler's statement, which G. E. Moore adopts as a motto: 'Everything is what it is, and not another thing,' taken in conjunction with Hume's claim, 'All events seem entirely loose and separate' (Moore, (1903), title page; Hume (1955) p.85 -- see the References for further details; the first reference is to Moore (1959) -- RL). On this view, capital may be found to have relations with labour, value, etc., and it may even be that accounting for such relations plays an important role in explaining what capital is; but capital is one thing, and its relations quite another. Marx, on the other hand, following Hegel's lead in this matter, rejects what is, in essence, a logical dichotomy. For him, as we saw, capital is itself a Relation, in which the ties of the material means of production to labour, value, commodity, etc., are interiorized as parts of what capital is. Marx refers to 'things themselves' as 'their interconnections' (Marx and Engels (1950), p.488 -- Briefwechsel Volume 3 -- RL). Moreover, these relations extend backward and forward in time, so that capital's conditions of existence as they have evolved over the years and its potential for future development are also viewed as parts of what it is." [Ibid., p.69. Spelling modified in line with UK English. Referencing conventions altered to conform with those adopted at this site.]
So, on the basis of a quotation from Butler (!), and a comment of Hume's (!!), Ollman is able to tell us what the "common sense" view is.
[In Essay Seven Part One, I have labelled 'evidential displays' like this, beloved of DM-fans, "Mickey Mouse Science"; and we can now see why! However, in that Essay I merely accused LCDs of this, but here we can see a card-carrying HCD indulging in the sport. And Ollman isn't alone; other HCDs do likewise. That allegation will be substantiated in Essay Twelve.]
[LCD = Low Church Dialectician; HCD = High Church Dialectician; follow the links for an explanation.]
However, as we saw in Part One, Ollman is only able to confuse relations with "things" because of yet another linguistic sleight-of-hand (whereby nominalised relational expressions are taken to be the names of another set of Abstract Particulars); in this way Ollman finds he can to blur the distinction between "things" and "relations", and, what is more, this is the only way he is able to do it.
In this case, however, Ollman merely adds the assertion (copied from Marx) that Capital (etc.) is a relation. Of course, what he means is that in order to understand Capitalism, it isn't enough just to look at "things", but at their connections, their history, and so on (no problem with that!), and yet he fails to tell us why that makes Capital a relation. Naturally, if it were a relation, it could have no relations of its own. On the other hand, it could have relations of its own only if it were an object of some sort. [Note, I am not committing myself to either view here! Quite the reverse, in fact, I am merely pointing out that the cliché that Capital is a relation makes no sense.]
Ollman (and other HCDs) may be happy with this syntactic slide, but his (or their) only defence would once again involve an appeal to the crass syntactical segue mentioned earlier. We also saw (here) that this slippery approach to the denotation of relational and nominal expressions is what underlies the egregious moves Hegel thought he could pull (in order to befuddle his readers, all the while imagining he was advancing logic!) -- moves that are on a par with the equally suspect linguistic tricks that 'underpinned' Anselm's Ontological Argument.
It thus seems that all that those who peddle this interpretation of the nature of Capital -- the alleged 'relation', not the book -- all they can appeal to in support is a simple-minded view of "common sense" -- backed up by an evidential display that makes WMD-dossiers look reassuringly substantial in comparison --, compounded by a crass view of the logic of relational expressions, and a Philistine view language!
[The reader will no doubt have noticed that this is precisely the accusation made at the beginning of Essay Three Part One, and will be repeated many times as these Essays unfold. Moves like this are indeed a hallmark of ruling-class forms-of-thought -- i.e., of Linguistic Idealism [LIE] --, that is, the belief that profound theses about fundamental features of reality (valid for all of space and time) can be inferred from language or from thought alone, which moves then 'allow' any who so indulge by-pass the need to provide (adequate, or even any) evidence in support (indeed, as we have just seen is the case with Ollman and his appeal to what Hume and Butler had to say to substantiate his conclusions about "common sense"!).
This approach to language and knowledge will be criticised in extensive detail in Essay Twelve (parts of which have already been published here, here, and here).]
Welcome To The Desert Of The Reification
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
It could be objected that Ollman in fact rejects many of the above criticisms -- for example:
"In order to forestall possible misunderstandings it may be useful to assert that the philosophy of internal relations is not an attempt to reify 'what lies between.' It is simply that the particular ways in which things cohere become essential attributes of what they are. The philosophy of internal relations also does not mean -- as some of its critics have charged -- that investigating any problem can go on forever (to say that boundaries are artificial is not to deny them an existence, and, practically speaking, it is simply not necessary to understand everything in order to understand anything); or that the boundaries which are established are arbitrary (what actually influences the character of Marx's or anyone else's abstractions is another question); or that we cannot mark or work with some of the important objective distinctions found in reality (on the contrary, such distinctions are a major influence on the abstractions we do make); or, finally, that the vocabulary associated with the philosophy of internal relations -- particularly 'totality,' 'relation,' and 'identity' -- cannot also be used in subsidiary senses to refer to the world that comes into being after the process of abstraction has done its work." [Ibid., p.72. Bold emphasis added.]
But, this is precisely what Ollman does do (i.e., "attempt to reify" 'abstractions'), and flat denials can in no way alter that fact. Moreover, as we have seen (here and here), it isn't possible to halt, or even slow, the dialectical juggernaut as it careers off the road into the infinite beyond, nor deflect the fatal criticism that, given this 'theory', it is indeed necessary to "understand everything in order to understand anything".
If Ollman is right that "the particular ways in which things cohere become essential attributes of what they are", then for any given object or process, A(1), its "essential" nature must be connected with some other object or process, A(2), which in turn must depend on A(3), and so on. In that case, fully understanding A(1) (to put things rather crudely) must, of necessity, imply that A(2), A(3), A(4),..., A(n) also be fully understood. If A(n) can't be fully understood without fully understanding A(n-1), and A(n-1) can't be fully understood without fully understanding A(n-2), then by (n-1) applications of this rule, A(1) can't be fully understood until A(2)-A(n) are fully understood. And it won't do to substitute "understood" for "fully understood", here. Or, rather, that ploy might have had a chance of working if the "attributes" to which Ollman refers hadn't been described as "essential". If these "attributes" are, indeed, "essential" then they are essential to understanding anything to which they supposedly belong or relate. How much 'understanding' would be credited to a scientist who didn't know that cats, for example, were animals, or that Iron is a metal? [I have said much more about this, here.]
Moreover, we have also seen that no sense can be made of dialecticians' use of words such as "totality" and "identity" (on that, see here, here and here). Merely denying the untoward consequences of this Hermetic Horror Show isn't enough (just as it isn't enough for George W Bush, for instance, to deny he is a mass murderer). The evidence tells a different story.
[As noted above, I will return to the Idealist doctrine of 'Internal Relations' in Essay Four Part Two.]
Brain Scans Required?
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
"Once we recognize the crucial role abstraction plays in Marx's method, how different his own abstractions are, and how often and easily he re-abstracts, it becomes clear that Marx constructs his subject matter as much as he finds it. This is not to belittle the influence of natural and social (particularly capitalist) conditions on Marx's thinking, but rather to stress how, given this influence, the results of Marx's investigations are prescribed to a large degree by the preliminary organization of his subject matter. Nothing is made up of whole cloth, but at the same time Marx only finds what his abstractions have placed in his way. These abstractions do not substitute for the facts, but give them a form, an order, and a relative value; just as frequently changing his abstractions does not take the place of empirical research, but does determine, albeit in a weak sense, what he will look for, even see, and of course emphasize. What counts as an explanation is likewise determined by the framework of possible relationships imposed by Marx's initial abstractions.
"So far we have been discussing the process of abstraction in general, our main aim being to distinguish it from other mental activities. Marx's own abstractions were said to stand out in so far as they invariably include elements of change and interaction, while his practice of abstracting was found to include more or less of each as suited his immediate purpose. Taking note of the importance Marx gave to abstractions in his critique of ideology, we proceeded to its underpinnings in the philosophy of internal relations, emphasizing that it is not a matter of this philosophy making such moves possible -- since everybody abstracts -- but of making them easier, and enabling Marx to acquire greater control over the process. What remains is to analyze in greater detail what actually occurs when Marx abstracts, and to trace its results and implications for some of his major theories." [Ibid., pp.73-74. Bold emphases added.]
But, we have yet to be told what these 'abstractions' are, or how Ollman could possibly know anything about them if, as he says, they are "mental activities"! Has he exhumed Marx's body and held a séance over what remains of the corpse? Has he access to a time machine and travelled back to the 1870s to perform a brain scan on Marx? But, these seem to be the only ways he could possibly know anything about the alleged "mental activities" engaged in by Karl Marx.
Furthermore, as we have seen, it is little use appealing to the language Marx used since that can't tell us anything about these hidden "mental activities", nor does it show that Marx actually indulged in the yet-to-be-explained 'process of abstraction' (over and above his use of the word "abstract" from time to time -- even while he failed to tell us with any clarity what he meant by it). Sure, Marx must have thought about what he was studying and writing, but that has nothing to do with the 'process of abstraction', since Marx had to use familiar words drawn from a public language in order to do just that. And the language he chose to employ will already possess general terms that aren't themselves the product of 'abstraction' -- that is, not unless they had been subjected to the sort of distortion exposed in Part One, and which Marx himself had criticised and condemned.
But, is it even true that "everybody abstracts"? Well, as this Essay has shown, not only is there no evidence that they do, no one seems to be able to tell us what they are supposed to be able to do while they are allegedly doing it! Nor can anyone work out how the heroic "mental activities" of Abstractor A could possibly agree with those of Abstractor B, or, indeed, how it is possible for anyone to check the results.
"The process of abstraction, which we have been treating as an undifferentiated mental act, has three main aspects or modes, which are also its functions vis-à-vis the part abstracted on one hand and the system to which the part belongs and which it in turn helps to shape on the other. That is, the boundary setting and bringing into focus that lies at the core of this process occurs simultaneously in three different, though closely related, senses. These senses have to do with extension, level of generality, and vantage point. First, each abstraction can be said to achieve a certain extension in the part abstracted, and this applies both spatially and temporally. In abstracting boundaries in space, limits are set in the mutual interaction that occurs at a given point of time. While in abstracting boundaries in time, limits are set in the distinctive history and potential development of any part, in what it once was and is yet to become. Most of our examples of abstraction so far have been drawn from what we shall now call 'abstraction of extension.'
"Second, at the same time that every act of abstraction establishes an extension, it also sets a boundary around and brings into focus a particular level of generality for treating not only the part but the whole system to which it belongs. The movement is from the most specific, or that which sets it apart from everything else, to its most general characteristics, or what makes it similar to other entities. Operating rather like a microscope that can be set at different degrees of magnification, this mode of abstraction enables us to see the unique qualities of any part, or the qualities associated with its function in capitalism, or the qualities that belong to it as part of the human condition (to give only the most important of these levels of generality). In abstracting capital, for example, Marx gives it an extension in both space and time as well as a level of generality such that only those qualities associated with its appearance and functioning as a phenomenon of capitalism are highlighted (i.e., its production of value, its ownership by capitalists, its exploitation of workers, etc.). The qualities a given capital may also possess as a Ford Motor Company assembly line for making cars or as a tool in general -- that is, qualities that it has as a unique object or as an instance of something human beings have always used -- are not brought into the picture. They are abstracted out. This aspect of the process of abstraction has received least attention not only in our own discussion but in other accounts of dialectics. In what follows, we shall refer to it as 'abstraction of level of generality.'
"Third, at the same time that abstraction establishes an extension and a level of generality, it also sets up a vantage point or place within the relationship from which to view, think about, and piece together the other components in the relationship; meanwhile the sum of their ties (as determined by the abstraction of extension) also becomes a vantage point for comprehending the larger system to which it belongs, providing both a beginning for research and analysis and a perspective in which to carry it out. With each new perspective, there are significant differences in what can be perceived, a different ordering of the parts, and a different sense of what is important. Thus, in abstracting capital, Marx not only gives it an extension and a level of generality (that of capitalism), he also views the interrelated elements that compose it from the side of the material means of production and, simultaneously, transforms this configuration itself into a vantage point for viewing the larger system in which it is situated, providing himself with a perspective that influences how all other parts of the system will appear (one that gives to capital the central role). We shall refer to this aspect of abstraction as 'abstraction of vantage point.' By manipulating extension, level of generality, and vantage point, Marx puts things into and out of focus, into better focus, and into different kinds of focus, enabling himself to see more clearly, investigate more accurately, and understand more fully and more dynamically his chosen subject." [Ibid., pp.74-75. Bold emphasis added.]
And yet, if we still haven't a clue what this 'process' is (except that it is a "mental act"), and no idea what these 'abstractions' are supposed to be that emerge at the end, then the distinctions Ollman wants to draw in this passage are about as useful as the classification of angels worked out by Medieval Theologians. Independently of this, how Ollman knows so much about abstraction when neither he nor anyone else has access to the mental gyrations of other intrepid abstractors is no less a mystery. The very best he can do is tell us about the "three main aspects or modes" of his own abstractions, if these are indeed "mental acts", as he says they are. Of course, it is quite clear what Ollman is doing when he tell us about the abstractions Marx supposedly employed: he is relying on what Marx committed to paper, not these hypothetical "mental acts". In other words, he has concentrated on the publicly available language Marx employed in his analysis of Capitalism. What this has got to do with the mythical 'process of abstraction' is equally mysterious.
Be this as it may, Ollman's distinctions might prove to be useful in an analysis of Capitalism (I will pass no comment on this -- except to point out that the 'process of abstraction' destroys generality -- it doesn't express it, or even provide a "level of generality" --, so it would be wise to retain a healthy scepticism, here), but if they are, that would be because (i) Ollman uses general terms drawn from a public language -- and he pointedly doesn't use abstractions (since the latter are "mental acts" about which he can know nothing) --, and because (ii) he nowhere asks his readers to scan his brain in order to comprehend his own (or Marx's) 'abstractions'. Indeed, he took care to explain what he was doing -- again, achieving this in an open arena, in a public language. That is, of course, what allows his readers to understand (or, in most cases, try to understand) his words, which they couldn't do if they paid attention to his theoretical deliberations while ignoring what he actually does.
Once again, actions speak louder than abstractions.
"As regards the abstraction of extension. Marx's general stand in favour of large units is evident from such statements as, 'In each historical epoch, property has developed differently and under a set of entirely different social relations. Thus, to define bourgeois property is nothing else than to give an exposition of all these social relations of bourgeois production.... To try to give a definition of property an independent relation, a category apart, an abstraction and eternal idea, can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics and jurisprudence' (Marx (n.d.), p.154 -- This is a reference to The Poverty of Philosophy -- RL). Obviously, large abstractions are needed to think adequately about a complex, internally related world." [Ibid., pp.75-76. Bold emphasis added. Spelling modified to agree with UK English. Referencing conventions altered to conform with those adopted at this site.]
But, the passage Ollman quotes can't be about Marx's own 'abstractions', and that isn't just because it isn't about "mental acts", it is because Marx himself repudiates these mythical 'objects' in the book Ollman quoted! It is also worth recalling that this repudiation agrees with what we discovered earlier about Marx's opinion of this backwater of Ancient Greek myth-making. The following is also from The Poverty of Philosophy:
"Is it surprising that everything, in the final abstraction…presents itself as a logical category? Is it surprising that, if you let drop little by little all that constitutes the individuality of a house, leaving out first of all the materials of which it is composed, then the form that distinguishes it, you end up with nothing but a body; that if you leave out of account the limits of this body, you soon have nothing but a space -– that if, finally, you leave out of account the dimensions of this space, there is absolutely nothing left but pure quantity, the logical category? If we abstract thus from every subject all the alleged accidents, animate or inanimate, men or things, we are right in saying that in the final abstraction the only substance left is the logical categories. Thus the metaphysicians, who in making these abstractions, think they are making analyses, and who, the more they detach themselves from things, imagine themselves to be getting all the nearer to the point of penetrating to their core…." [Marx (1978), p.99.]
"The specifics of Marx's position emerge from his frequent criticisms of the political economists for offering too narrow abstractions (narrow in the double sense of including too few connections and too short a time period) of one or another economic form. Ricardo, for example, is reproached for abstracting too short a period in his notions of money and rent, and for omitting social relations in his abstraction of value (Marx (1968), p.125; Marx (1971), p.131 -- these are references to Theories of Surplus Value, Parts Two and Three -- RL). One of the most serious distortions is said to arise from the tendency among political economists to abstract processes solely in terms of their end results. Commodity exchange, for example, gets substituted for the whole of the process by which a product becomes a commodity and eventually available for exchange (Marx (1973), p.198 -- this is a reference to the Grundrisse -- RL). As Amiri Baraka so colourfully points out: 'Hunting is not those heads on the wall' (Baraka (1966), p.73 -- I have not been able to check this source -- RL). By thinking otherwise for the range of problems with which they are concerned, the political economists avoid seeing the contradictions in the capitalist-specific processes that give rise to these results." [Ollman (2003), p.76. Spelling changed to conform to UK English; referencing conventions altered to agree with those adopted at this site. Minor typos corrected. Bold emphases added.]
And yet, Marx's criticisms aren't aimed at these alleged 'abstractions' (which, even if they exist, are, once more, the product of certain unspecified and hidden "mental acts"), but at the tendency classical economists have of concentrating on "results", and their penchant for substituting "commodity exchange...for the whole of the process by which a product becomes a commodity and eventually available for exchange." Similarly, Ricardo is taken to task for fixating on "too short a period in his notions of money and rent, and for omitting social relations...". In this respect, Marx plainly relied on what these economists had published in an open arena and didn't once think to speculate about what might have gone on in their heads.
[Of course, Ollman inserted the word "abstraction" (or its cognates), here, but since they are the product of certain nondescript "mental acts", he can't have (seriously) meant to do this, otherwise Marx couldn't have advanced the criticisms he did.]
And, as far as these alleged "contradictions" are concerned, until we are told what they are, Ollman might just as well have written the following for all the good it does:
"By thinking otherwise for the range of problems with which they are concerned, the political economists avoid seeing the schmontradictions in the capitalist-specific processes that give rise to these results."
[As we will see in Essay Twelve, Ollman's attempt to 'define' "contradiction" (pp.17-18) is no help at all.]
Now, other than the passage quoted in the next sub-section, I don't plan to chisel away at the other things Ollman has to say over the next thirty-five or so pages of his book, not simply because that would make this Essay tedious in the extreme, but because they add very little to his attempt to explain what 'abstractions' are -- as the reader is invited to check for herself.
To be sure, Ollman advances various familiar claims about other areas of dialectics (which have been batted out of the park elsewhere at this site, some of which will be examined again in Essay Twelve), however, he has little more to add concerning the nature of 'abstraction', certainly nothing which makes this mysterious 'process' any clearer, more comprehensible -- or even vaguely plausible.
Ollman Versus Dm's Critics
[This is also a continuation of Note 24.]
In which case, this passage is all the more unfortunate:
"Is there any part of Marxism that has received more abuse than his dialectical method? And I am not just thinking about enemies of Marxism and socialism, but also about scholars who are friendly to both. It is not Karl Popper, but George Sorel in his Marxist incarnation who refers to dialectics as 'the art of reconciling opposites through hocus pocus,' and the English socialist economist, Joan Robinson, who on reading Capital objects to the constant intrusion of 'Hegel's nose' between her and Ricardo (Sorel (1950), p.171; Robinson (1953), p.23 -- references given at the end of this Essay, RL). But perhaps the classic complaint is fashioned by the American philosopher, William James, who compares reading about dialectics in Hegel -- it could just as well have been Marx -- to getting sucked into a whirlpool (James (1978), p.174 -- again, reference given at the end, RL)." [Ibid., p.59. Referencing conventions altered in line with those adopted at this site. Links added.]
In view of the continual slide into confusion and error that bedevils DM -- exposed in the Essays at this site --, the above critics weren't nearly harsh enough.
As I pointed out in Essay One:
Another aspect of the defensive stance adopted by dialecticians is the fact that few of them fail to point out that hostile critics of Marxism always seem to attack "the dialectic". This then allows DM-fans to brand such detractors as "bourgeois apologists", which in turn means that whatever they say can safely be ignored (as, 'plainly', ideological).
[This is the DM-equivalent of the Roman Catholic Church's old Index of Forbidden Books.]
However, it has surely escaped their attention that the reason the dialectic is attacked by friend and foe alike is that it is by far and away the weakest and most lamentably feeble aspect of traditional Marxist Philosophy. Far from it being an "abomination" to the bourgeoisie (even though the State Capitalist rulers of Eastern Europe, the former USSR, Maoist China and North Korea are, or were, rather fond of it, as are those sections of the bourgeoisie that publish book on dialectics, or on 'Marxist Philosophy'), 'the dialectic' has in fact proved to be an abomination for revolutionary socialism.
So, our enemies attack dialectics precisely because they have found our Achilles Heel.
Whereas, revolutionaries like me attack it for the opposite reason: to rid Marxism of its Achilles Heel.
To be sure, Trotsky tried to respond to this argument along the following lines:
"Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers' parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism and even to the camp of bourgeois reaction began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals consider the dialectic the most vulnerable point in Marxism and at the same time they take advantage of the fact that it is much more difficult for workers to verify differences on the philosophical than on the political plane. This long known fact is backed by all the evidence of experience." [Trotsky (1971), p.94.]
But, this works both ways, for if it is also difficult for workers to verify such "differences", then that plainly allows others (such as party theorists/leaders) to manipulate workers with ideas they don't understand, or can't check (i.e., those found in DM itself).
However, as the Essays posted at this site show, there are no good reasons to cling to these lamentably weak DM-theses, even though there are easily identifiable psychological and ideological motives why they are, have been, and will be clung to.
And, far from it being the case that only workers find it hard to defend (or even understand) this 'theory', so that they are capable of detecting such "differences", DM-theorists themselves have shown that they too don't understand their own theory (as these Essays also demonstrate, particularly this one)! That isn't because it is a difficult theory to grasp; it is because it relies on the use of incomprehensible Hegelian and philosophical jargon (upside down or the 'right way up').
Hence, the conclusion is inescapable: petty-bourgeois revolutionaries maintain their commitment to this mystical set of doctrines for contingent psychological, opportunist, and ideological reasons, and for no other. [More about this in Essay Nine Parts One and Two.]
[The "Ah, but what about 1917?" defence has been neutralised here.]
25. This seems to be the import of the passage from TAR quoted earlier:
"[I]t is impossible simply to stare at the world as it immediately presents itself to our eyes and hope to understand it. To make sense of the world, we must bring to it a framework composed of elements of our past experience; what we have learned of others' experience, both in the present and in the past; and of our later reflections on and theories about this experience." [Rees (1998), p.63.]
As will be noted later, this is a rather odd way of making the point that knowledge isn't solely, or maybe even directly, derived from 'experience'.
While several of the comments in the main body of this Essay might lead some to conclude that this objection centres on the recognitional capacities of, for example, trainee canine classifiers, in fact it doesn't. As pointed out in Essay Six (and Note 6a, above), this metaphor trades on a confusion between two different uses of the verb "to know" introduced into Traditional Epistemology by Plato, and then promptly conflated with each other.
Knowledge of a friend or an acquaintance isn't the same as propositional knowledge; there is a difference between "Knowing that p" and "Knowing A" (where "p" is a propositional variable, and "A" stands for a Proper Name). Modern English doesn't have a pair of words that brings this out very well, but French does: connaitre and savoir. "Acquaintance" is far too weak, and misleading. [I owe this point to Peter Geach.]
Knowledge (connaitre) of one's friends does, of course, involve recognitional capacities since it alludes to an ability we are all supposed to possess of being able to identity over time specific individuals with whom we are acquainted as friends. Propositional knowledge (savoir) isn't a relation between the Knower and the Known, unless we regard a proposition -- or what it supposedly refers to (i.e., a fact) -- as an object of some sort. In the first case, if that were so, it would express an alleged relation between the supposed Knower and a set of ink marks, which, one takes it, isn't what was meant by knowing something is the case. When we know, for instance, that the Nile is longer than the Thames, we aren't adverting to a relationship we might have with a set of inscriptions -- or even certain sound waves propagated through the air --, nor yet the rivers themselves.
K1: NN knows MM,
we can't infer:
K2: NN knows.
But, from the following:
K3: NM knows that p,
we can infer:
K4: NM knows.
[Where "NN", "MM" and "NM" are Proper Name surrogates.]
This shows that we already distinguish the relational (transitive) from the non-relational (intransitive) form of the verb "to know" -- "NN knows that p", being of the latter form, and "NN knows MM", the former.
[These observations alone render obsolete large swathes of Ancient and Modern Epistemology (much of which, predictably, is now to be found festering away in French 'Philosophy' -- which is rather odd when we remember that the French do have a set of verbs that clearly distinguish these two forms of knowledge!]
On the other hand, if these two terms are run together, then generality exits through the window -- for, clearly, as individual objects, such reified propositions (now transformed into an inscription on the page, or screen, etc.) would be particulars, too. [The same comment applies if it were concluded that knowing that the Nile is longer than the Thames puts us in a relationship with one or both of these rivers. (More on this in Part Four.)]
[In the second case, it confuses objects with states of affairs and what we know about them.]
Moreover, if the successful use of general terms were based on recognitional capacities we should then have to postulate a second order ability to recognise when a particular was an example of the right type, as well as recognising which word correctly applied to either or both -- and so on, ad infinitem. But, this re-introduces Aristotle's objection, since it multiplies by two the 'difficulties' with which we originally began, instead of eliminating them. Furthermore, and once again, this would involve the use of the very thing that was to be explained (i.e., generality), and reference would have to be made to further mysterious inner "mental acts" to buttress the public use of words, and so on.
On this topic in general, see Hacker (1987) and Geach (1957). Problems associated with naive accounts of language acquisition are examined in Cowie (1997, 2002) -- who has, to her credit (on pp.x-xi of her (2002)), also underlined the connection that exists between certain theories concerning the origin of language and a set of regressive political and social doctrines 'popular' of late.
26. That this is the correct approach can be seen from the fact that Traditional Philosophers themselves have to employ general words to account for general ideas, whatever else they later attempt to change them into.
However, the abstractions they attempt to define (or identify) are supposedly located in one or other of the following: (i) A mysterious region of the 'mind'/brain in some as-yet-unspecified form, (ii) A 'heavenly' or a 'Platonic' realm (the days, a 'Third Realm'), and (iii) The objects from which they have been 'abstracted', where they have been apprehended by special 'acts of intellection', or by something no less mysterious called 'intuition'.
Plainly, as such, these 'abstract particulars' could only be accessed privately, and only by the individual abstractor concerned. Unlike objects in the natural and social world --, which are openly and publicly accessible by those involved in conversation, life, practice, or collective labour --, abstract particulars are quintessentially private unique to each mind. In that case, their nature and existence are in principle not only un-checkable, they can't be compared with any of the 'abstractions' of other intrepid abstractors. In this respect, too, the postulation of such abstractions (or abstract ideas and concepts) only serves to undermine the social nature of language by suggesting that key linguistic activities are private, inner, socially atomised, and representational.
It is worth recalling, too, that what had been touted all along as an ontological and epistemological expedition aimed at tracking down these elusive 'Universals', these 'abstractions', now turns out to be little more than a quibble about the meaning of general nouns, only surprisingly ineptly executed -- as Part One of this Essay demonstrated.
26a. Some of the 'dialectical' background to this can be found here -- and good luck to anyone trying to understand it!
Dialecticians often also speak about the contradiction between "essence" and "appearance"; Herbert Marcuse, for instance, expressed that particular idea as follows:
"Under the rule of formal logic, the notion of the conflict between essence and appearance is expendable if not meaningless; the material content is neutralised; the principle of identity is separated from the principle of contradiction (contradictions are the fault of incorrect thinking); final causes are removed from the logical order....
"Existing as the living contradiction between essence and appearance, the objects of thought are of that 'inner negativity' which is the specific quality of their concept. The dialectical definition defines the movement of things from that which they are not to that which they are. The development of contradictory elements, which determines the structure of its object, also determines the structure of dialectical thought. The object of dialectical logic is neither the abstract, general form of objectivity, nor the abstract, general form of thought -- nor the data of immediate experience. Dialectical logic undoes the abstractions of formal logic and of transcendental philosophy, but it also denies the concreteness of immediate experience. To the extent to which this experience comes to rest with the things as they appear and happen to be, it is a limited and even false experience. It attains its truth if it has freed itself from the deceptive objectivity which conceals the factors behind the facts -- that is, if it understands its world as a historical universe, in which the established facts are the work of the historical practice of man. This practice (intellectual and material) is the reality in the data of experience; it is also the reality which dialectical logic comprehends." [Marcuse (1968), pp.114-17. Bold emphasis alone added.]
"The doctrine of Essence seeks to liberate knowledge from the worship of 'observable facts' and from the scientific common sense that imposes this worship.... The real field of knowledge is not the given fact about things as they are, but the critical evaluation of them as a prelude to passing beyond their given form. Knowledge deals with appearances in order to get beyond them. 'Everything, it is said, has an essence, that is, things really are not what they immediately show themselves. There is therefore something more to be done than merely rove from one quality to another and merely to advance from one qualitative to quantitative, and vice versa: there is a permanence in things, and that permanent is in the first instance their Essence.' The knowledge that appearance and essence do not jibe is the beginning of truth. The mark of dialectical thinking is the ability to distinguish the essential from the apparent process of reality and to grasp their relation." [Marcuse (1973), pp.145-46. Marcuse is here quoting Hegel (1975), p.163, §112. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions employed at this site. Minor typo corrected.]
[We will see (here) how wide of the mark the first paragraph above actually is; Marcuse's risible attempt to criticise Analytic Philosophy (as well as the ordinary language of working people) has already been destructively dissected in Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
[HCD = High Church Dialectician; LCD = Low Church Dialectician; FL = Formal Logic.]
The above passage, of course, says more-or-less the same as John Rees (quoted here), but with just enough obscure jargon thrown in to confuse the unwary.
Even so, readers will no doubt have noticed that an HCD of Marcuse's undoubted stature quotes not one single FL-text (or source) in support of this odd allegation:
"Under the rule of formal logic, the notion of the conflict between essence and appearance is expendable if not meaningless...." [Ibid.]
Marcuse must know that there are many ancient and modern logicians and philosophers who have in fact adopted this way of talking (about the distinction between 'essence' and 'appearance'); however, FL itself doesn't seem to enter into it. If it does, we still await the evidence.
Now, this comment:
"...the principle of identity is separated from the principle of contradiction (contradictions are the fault of incorrect thinking)...", [Ibid.]
also reveals the depth of confusion we have hitherto come to associate with our even more logically-challenged LCD-brethren. As we will see (here, for example), Hegel committed several egregious logical blunders of his own, upon which Marcuse unwisely rests his faith.
This is quite apart from the fact that contradictions aren't the result of "incorrect thinking". In fact, they could be the result of (a) A genuine disagreement between two individuals, (b) A reductio ad absurdum argument, (c) A mismatch between theory and observation in the sciences (more on that in Essay Thirteen Part Two), (d) An illustrative example in logic (where no mistakes have been made), or (e) An indirect proof. [(b) and (e) are, of course, variants of one another.] In which case, many contradictions are the result of the application of 'correct' thinking.
[When it comes to FL, why do so many DM-fans insist on leading with their chins?]
Finally, it is worth pointing out that Marcuse admits that:
"To the extent to which this experience comes to rest with the things as they appear and happen to be, it is a limited and even false experience." [Ibid. Bold added.]
So he, too, holds that appearances can be, and (often?) are, false.
George Novack also weighs in with his very own brazen example of dogmatic apriorism:
"What distinguishes essence or essential reality from mere appearance? A thing is truly real if it is necessary, if its appearance truly corresponds to its essence, and only so long as it proves itself to be necessary. Hegel, being the most consistent idealist, sought the source of this necessity in the movement of the universal mind, in the Absolute Idea. Materialists, on the other hand, locate the roots of necessity in the objective world, in the material conditions and conflicting forces which create, sustain and destroy all things. But, from the purely logical standpoint, both schools of philosophy agree in connecting reality with necessity.
"Something acquires reality because the necessary conditions for its production and reproduction are objectively present and operative. It becomes more or less real in accordance with the changes in the external and internal circumstances of its development. It remains truly real only so long and insofar as it is necessary under the given conditions. Then, as conditions change, it loses its necessity and its reality and dissolves into mere appearance.
"Let us consider a few illustrations of this process, this contradiction between essence and appearance, resulting from the different forms assumed by matter in its motion. In the production of the plant, seed, bud, flower and fruit are all equally necessary phases or forms of its existence. Taken separately, each by itself, they are all equally real, equally necessary, equally rational phases of the plant's development.
"Yet each in turn becomes supplanted by the other and thereby becomes no less unnecessary and non-real. Each phase of the plant's manifestation appears as a reality and then is transformed in the course of development into an unreality or an appearance. This movement, triadic in this particular case, from unreality into reality and then back again to unreality, constitutes the essence, the inner movement behind all appearance. Appearance cannot be understood without an understanding of this process. It is this that determines whether any appearance in nature, society or in the mind is rational or non-rational." [Novack (1971), pp.86-87. Bold emphasis added.]
It isn't my immediate concern to criticise this paradigm (and contemporary) example of mystical Natürphilosophie (however, it will be later), but merely to note: (i) The fanciful way that the term "contradiction" has been employed by Novack, and (ii) Novack's idiosyncratic use of the word "appearance". Exactly why a seed turning into a plant makes the seed an "appearance" Novack failed to say; why any of this is a 'contradiction' he left no less obscure. Indeed, it is worth asking how Novack knows that something is real only if its "appearance" coincides with its "essence" (always assuming that there are such things as 'essences' to begin with) --, that is, over and above merely accepting Hegel's diktat to that effect.
[Robin Hirsch makes the same sort of point here.]
Contrast the above comments of Novack's with his far more reasonable thoughts:
"A consistent materialism cannot proceed from principles which are validated by appeal to abstract reason, intuition, self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source. Idealisms may do this. But the materialist philosophy has to be based upon evidence taken from objective material sources and verified by demonstration in practice...." [Novack (1965), p.17. Bold emphasis added.]
And yet, much of what Novack has to say about "appearance" and "reality" (and, indeed, on 'dialectics') is based on "abstract reason, intuition, self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source(s)".
HCD theorist, Hyman Cohen, takes great exception to 'crude' interpretations of the 'contradiction' between 'essence' and 'appearance' (as part of his response to an article written by Mark Mussachia):
"Yet, if one consults a textbook of Marxist philosophy (Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow -- this appears to be Konstantinov (1974), pp.188-92 (no pun intended!) -- RL), it is plain to see that essence and appearance are depicted as complex categories, correlated categories whose oppositeness does not constitute a total negation, one of the other, but a unity; they are characterised through one another." [Cohen (1980), p.120. Italic emphases in the original.]
Here is what we find in the above textbook:
"Essence and appearance are correlated categories. They are characterised thorough one another. Whereas essence is something general, appearance is individual, expressing only an element of essence; whereas essence is something profound and intrinsic, appearance is external, yet richer and more colourful; whereas essence is something stable and necessary, appearance is more transient, changeable and accidental.
"The difference between the essential and the unessential is not absolute but relative. For instance, at one time it was considered that the essential property of the chemical element was its atomic weigh. Later this essential property turned out to be the charge of the atomic nucleus. The property of atomic weight did not cease to be essential, however. It is still essential in the first approximation, essential on a less profound level, and is further explained on the basis of the charge of the atomic nucleus.
"Essence is expressed in its many outward manifestations. At the same time essence may not only express itself in these manifestations. When we are in the process of gaining sensory knowledge of a thing, phenomena sometimes seem to us to be not what they are in reality. This seemingness is not generated by our consciousness. It arises through our being influenced by real relationships in the objective conditions of observation. Those who thought the Sun rotated around the Earth took the seeming appearance of things for the real thing. Under capitalism the wages of the worker seem to be payment for all his work, but in reality only part of his work is paid, while the rest is appropriated by the capitalists free of charge in the form of surplus value, which constitutes the source of their profit.
"Thus to obtain a correct understanding of an event, to get to the bottom of it, we must critically test the evidence of immediate observation, and make a clear distinction between the seeming and the real, the superficial and the essential.
"Knowledge of the essence of things is the fundamental task of science. Marx wrote that if essence and appearance directly coincided, all science would be superfluous. The history of science shows that knowledge of essence is impossible without considering and analysing the various forms in which it is manifest. At the same time these various forms cannot be correctly understood without penetrating to their 'foundation', their essence." [Konstantinov (1974), pp.191-92. Italic emphasis in the original; bold added. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
Well, this is all rather vague, and not entirely consistent (as one should expect of any self-respecting DM-text!); one minute we are told that 'essence' is "profound" and "intrinsic", the next that it might not be this, but "relative" and hence not the least bit "intrinsic". Is this a contradiction between what seems to be the definition of "essence" and what it really is? I fear so, since the definition of "essence" appears to contradict its own 'essence'! And, far from being told that 'essence contradicts appearance' we find these rather sheepish words:
"When we are in the process of gaining sensory knowledge of a thing, phenomena sometimes seem to us to be not what they are in reality." [Ibid. Bold added.]
Only "sometimes"? And only "seem"? How often is this "sometimes"? And how strong is this "seem"? Does the Sun orbit the Earth or not? As seems plain (no pun intended), readers will find they need to ignore the DM-criticism of the "either-or" of 'commonsense' at this point, since it looks like (no pun intended again!) the above textbook has just applied it. That is because the answer must be one or the other of these options -- either the Earth orbits the Sun, or it's the other way round, but not both! The above textbook clearly concurs, and opts for the former. So, this innocent-looking "seem" is a little stronger than it appears to be (irony intended), since this 'seeming' itself isn't "the real thing". The Earth orbits the Sun. End of story (so we are told).
In which case, it isn't too clear why Cohen referenced this textbook since we are now no clearer than we were before about what either of these authors (i.e., Cohen and Konstantinov) meant. Quite the reverse in fact. What, for example, does Cohen mean by the following?
"[E]ssence and appearance are depicted as complex categories, correlated categories whose oppositeness does not constitute a total negation, one of the other, but a unity; they are characterised through one another." [Loc cit.]
So, how is the correct relation (whatever it is) between the Sun and the Earth "characterised" by the appearance that the former rotates around the latter, when we are now told that the reverse is the case? As we have just seen, there is a clear "either-or" at work here, which implies the former and the latter aren't in the end "characterised through one another".
[The "either-or" of 'commonsense' is in fact much more robust than it appears to most DM-fans to be; on that, see here.]
Cohen's comment is, therefore, far too brief, confused and enigmatic to do much with, while the much longer passage from Konstantinov is, as we have seen, far too vague -- and inconsistent, to boot.
Finally, as we will see in Essay Ten Part One, an appeal to "practice" here would be to no avail. [See also Note 29b, below.]
At a time in his life when he was being influenced by ruling-class thought, Marx himself expressed this idea rather forcefully:
"The contradiction between existence and essence, between matter and form, which is inherent in the concept of the atom, emerges in the individual atom itself once it is endowed with qualities. Through the quality the atom is alienated from its concept, but at the same time is perfected in its construction. It is from repulsion and the ensuing conglomerations of the qualified atoms that the world of appearance now emerges.
"In this transition from the world of essence to the world of appearance, the contradiction in the concept of the atom clearly reaches its harshest realisation. For the atom is conceptually the absolute, essential form of nature. This absolute form has now been degraded to absolute matter, to the formless substrate of the world of appearance." [Marx (1975b), pp.61-62. (This links to a PDF.) Italic emphasis in the original.]
Here, too, is Mao:
"We should draw a lesson here: Don’t be misled by false appearances. Some of our comrades are easily misled by them. There is contradiction between appearance and essence in everything. It is by analyzing and studying the appearance of a thing that people come to know its essence. Hence the need for science. Otherwise, if one could get at the essence of a thing by intuition, what would be the use of science? What would be the use of study? Study is called for precisely because there is contradiction between appearance and essence. There is a difference, though, between the appearance and the false appearance of a thing, because the latter is false. Hence we draw the lesson: Try as far as possible not to be misled by false appearances." [Mao (1977b), pp.165-66. Bold emphases added.]
One might well wonder how this is possible:
"It is by analyzing and studying the appearance of a thing that people come to know its essence." [Ibid.]
Surely, in order to study "the appearance of a thing" we should have to rely on its appearance, which we have just been warned not to trust. No good appealing to scientific observations since they also rely on these maligned appearances. And, what would be the point of "analysing" these iffy appearances if they can't be trusted? [Other attempts to defend comments like this from Mao have been subjected to detailed criticism elsewhere in this Essay.]
Other Marxists have also made the same point (one of which we have already seen):
"Let us consider a few illustrations of this process, this contradiction between essence and appearance, resulting from the different forms assumed by matter in its motion. In the production of the plant, seed, bud, flower and fruit are all equally necessary phases or forms of its existence. Taken separately, each by itself, they are all equally real, equally necessary, equally rational phases of the plant's development." [Novack (1971), pp.86-87. Bold emphasis added.]
"Whereas Kant stopped at contradiction, Kant being paralyzed by its omnipresence where thought was concerned, Hegel presses forward to the recognition of the profound truth of contradiction, and thus Hegel is not trapped with an incognizable essence and a perfectly cognizable appearance, as in Kant; since, for Hegel, reality can only present itself by means of contradictory oppositions, such as the opposition appearance/reality." [David DeGrood, quoted from here; bold emphasis alone added.]
"Elsewhere, it is the contradiction between essence and appearance that is emphasised in the dialectic approach." [Hirsch (2004), Paragraph 27. Bold added.]
"The notion of 'inversion' is very important to Marx, as it sums up the idea that the capitalist mode of production contains contradictions. The contradiction is between the essence and appearance. Marx goes so far as to say that 'everything appears as reversed in competition'. Ideology 'conceals the contradictory essential relations...because it is based on a sphere of reality which reveals the contrary to its essential relations'. The role of ideology, therefore, is to hide the essence of society as it contradicts the appearance, which is beneficial to the ruling class at the time. As ideology is based on the 'phenomenological sphere', or the sphere of 'appearances', is fulfils its role by reinforcing the appearances of society, thus further burying the 'essence'." [Luis Avilés, quoted from here. Accessed 16/12/2016.]
However, Ernest Mandel tackles this problem head on:
"But for Marx, the materialist dialectician, the distinction between 'essence' and 'appearance' in no sense implies that 'appearance' is less 'real' then 'essence'. Movements of value determine in the last analysis movements of prices; but Marx the materialist would have laughed at any 'Marxist' who suggested that prices were 'unreal', because in the last analysis determined by value movements. The distinction between 'essence' and 'appearance' refers to different levels of determination, that is in the last analysis to the process of cognition, not to different degrees of reality. To explain the capitalist mode of production in its totality it is wholly insufficient to understand simply the' basic essence', the 'law of value'. It is necessary to integrate 'essence' and 'appearance' through all their intermediate mediating links, to explain how and why a given' essence' appears in given concrete forms and not in others. For these 'appearances' themselves are neither accidental nor self-evident. They pose problems, they have to be explained in their turn, and this very explanation helps to pierce through new layers of mystery and brings us again nearer to a full understanding of the specific form of economic organization which we want to understand. To deny this need to reintegrate 'essence' and 'appearance' is as un-dialectical and as mystifying as to accept 'appearances' as they are, without looking for the basic forces and contradictions which they tend to hide from the superficial and empiricist observer." [Mandel (1976), p.20. Italic emphasis in the original. (This links to a PDF.)]
It could be argued that this shows that Marxists don't believe that appearances are false.
First of all, it is worth noting that Mandel considers social phenomena, here. He would hardly suggest that because sticks, for instance, appear to be bent in water implies they are bent, or that this is somehow "real". Do they really bend in water? Would it be false to say sticks are bent in water? Indeed, it would.
Second, Mandel asserted that Marx would have laughed at any 'Marxist' who suggested "prices were 'unreal'" simply because prices were really determined by the movement of value. But, would it be false to say that price was an accurate reflection of value? No it wouldn't. So, this appearance (that is, if it is one!) is deceptive and motivates a false belief among economists. Which 'Marxist would accept this as a true picture of the economy? Would Marx? Again, no, he wouldn't.
Third, Mandel then argues that:
"The distinction between 'essence' and 'appearance' refers to different levels of determination, that is in the last analysis to the process of cognition, not to different degrees of reality." [Ibid.]
Well, this would suggest that Marxism doesn't actually tell us about "reality"; the distinction between "appearance" and "essence" is merely a heuristic device which no more relates to "reality" than any other "appearance". "Essence" would now seem to be no more "real" than, say, the 'real shape of a table'. When asked what the 'real shape of a table' is, what could anyone say? They all look different from each angle, as does everything else. If someone were to tell us that this is the 'real shape of a table', would they be stating a truth? Of course not.
Hence, Mandel's 'explanation' is no help at all. It fails to show that 'appearances' don't motivate false beliefs (in those 'not in the know'), or that the distinction between 'appearance' and 'essence' (as has been alleged in this Essay) doesn't suggest that Marxists believe that appearances are in some sense false.
[I will look at what Mandel says about 'abstraction' in a later re-write of this Essay.]
27. I have employed the rather stilted sentential prefixing clause (or, as it is generally known, sentence-forming operator) "It is not the case that…" to avoid well-known scope ambiguities (this links to a PDF), which result from the incautious use of the negative particle in certain sentential contexts.
28. R6 has also been left somewhat 'stylistically-challenged' to minimise the differences between the stated examples. The same applies to several other illustrative sentences used in this part of the Essay.
R6 was: It is not the case that this stick is bent in water.
29. Of course, if DM-theorists reject this contention (as it seems they will), then they must be intending to revise the meaning of the word "contradiction", as opposed to using a familiar term drawn from ordinary language -- where, incidentally, the verb form ("to contradict") literally means "to gain-say". Either that, or they intend to revise a typographically similar word ("contradiction") that features in FL. In fact, they oscillate between a hybrid understanding of this word, positioned half-way between the meaning(s) it has in the vernacular and its FL-connotation all the while somehow linking it with the maverick sense given to the word in DM -- which sense, of course, has yet to be explained with any degree of clarity. [This topic will be covered in detail in Essay Thirteen Part Two.]
Naturally, dialecticians are at liberty to make revisions as they see fit, but any endeavour to do so in this case would have no more significance than would a similar attempt to revise the definition of, say, "relative surplus value", in order to prove that because Marx ignored this 'new definition', his analysis of the falling rate of profit was misguided.
[I say much more about 'contradictions' in Essays Four, Five, Eight Parts One, Two and Three, and Eleven Part One.]
29a0. The contradiction might emerge along something like the following lines (although it isn't being suggested here that this is indeed how the argument has ever proceeded, only how it could do so):
C1: NN believes that p.
C2: Science has shown that not p.
C3: Therefore, not p.
C4: NN accepts C3.
C5: Therefore, NN believes that p and that not p.
[Where "p" is a propositional variable, and "NN" is a Proper Name surrogate.]
Of course, it is then up to NN to adjust her beliefs, or otherwise.
Manifestly, C3 doesn't follow from C2, unless we add the following:
C2a: Whatever science has shown to be the case, is true.
Or something like it.
[Recall that not p is just as capable of being true as is any non-negated proposition. For example: "The Thames is not longer than the Nile" -- i.e., "It isn't the case that the Thames is longer than the Nile" -- is no less true than "The Nile is longer than the Thames".]
[How observation and experiment (but not beliefs) can contradict scientific theory will also be examined in Essay Thirteen Part Two.]
29a. To be sure, it could be claimed that Hegel also appeared to believe this (i.e., that appearances are part of reality, too -- although he would have refrained from calling them "real" -- on this, see Note 29b, below). In which case, it isn't too clear what the contradiction here is supposed to be.
Alas, what little help we get from DM-fans turns out to be no use at all in trying to comprehend any of this.
Anyway, what Hegel had to say about appearances is not only about as useful as a chocolate tea pot, it is as clear as mud (to vary the image).
[I will say more about Hegel's views in a later re-write of this Essay. Until then, see the next Note.]
29b. As pointed out above, Novack argues as follows:
"Let us consider a few illustrations of this process, this contradiction between essence and appearance, resulting from the different forms assumed by matter in its motion. In the production of the plant, seed, bud, flower and fruit are all equally necessary phases or forms of its existence. Taken separately, each by itself, they are all equally real, equally necessary, equally rational phases of the plant's development.
"Yet each in turn becomes supplanted by the other and thereby becomes no less unnecessary and non-real. Each phase of the plant's manifestation appears as a reality and then is transformed in the course of development into an unreality or an appearance. This movement, triadic in this particular case, from unreality into reality and then back again to unreality, constitutes the essence, the inner movement behind all appearance. Appearance cannot be understood without an understanding of this process. It is this that determines whether any appearance in nature, society or in the mind is rational or non-rational." [Novack (1971), pp.86-87. Bold emphasis added.]
Why Novack wants to describe plants as unreal is somewhat unclear. If they were plastic, or were part of a painting, he might have had a point.
However, he concurs with Hegel in regarding as not real, or not fully real, whatever perishes:
"We have already seen what great measure of truth there is in the proposition that the real is rational. We have ascertained that all things come into existence and endure in a lawful and necessary way. But this is not the whole and final truth about things. It is one-sided, relative, and a passing truth. The real truth about things is that they not only exist, persist, but they also develop and pass away. This passing away of things, eventuating in death, is expressed in logical terminology by the term 'negation.'
"The whole truth about things can be expressed only if we take into account this opposite and negative aspect. In other words, unless we introduce the negation of our first affirmation, we shall obtain only a superficial and abstract inspection of reality.
"All things are limited and changing. They not only force their way and are forced into existence and maintain themselves there. They also develop, disintegrate and are pushed out of existence and eventually disappear. In logical terms, they not only affirm themselves. They likewise negate themselves and are negated by other things. By coming into existence, they say: 'Yes! Here I am!' to reality and to thought engaged in understanding reality. By developing and eventually going out of existence, they say on the contrary: 'No, I no longer am; I cannot stay real.' If everything that comes into existence must pass out of existence, as all of reality pounds constantly into our brains, then every affirmation must inexorably express its negation in logical thought. Such a movement of things and of thought is called a dialectical movement.
'All things...meet their doom; and in saying so, we have a perception that Dialectic is the universal and irresistible power, before which nothing can stay, however secure and stable it may deem itself,' writes Hegel. (Shorter Logic, p.128.) [I.e., Hegel (1975), p.118, §81 -- RL.]
"There is a fable in The Arabian Nights about an Oriental monarch who, early in life, asked his wise men for the sum and substance of all learning, for the truth that would apply to everything at all times and under all conditions, a truth which would be as absolutely sovereign as he thought himself to be. Finally, over the king's deathbed, his wise men supplied the following answer: 'Oh, mighty king, this one truth will always apply to all things: "And this too shall pass away".' If justice prevailed, the king should have bequeathed a rich reward to his wise men, for they had disclosed to him the secret of the dialectic. This is the power, the omnipotence of the negative side of existence, which is forever emerging from, annihilating and transcending the affirmative aspect of things.
"This 'powerful unrest,' as Leibnitz (sic) called it, this quickening force and destructive action of life -- the negative -- is everywhere at work: in the movement of things, in the growth of living beings, in the transformations of substances, in the evolution of society, and in the human mind which reflects all these objective processes.
"From this dialectical essence of reality Hegel drew the conclusion that constitutes an indispensable part of his famous aphorism: All that is rational is real. But for Hegel all that is real is not without exception and qualification worthy of existence. 'Existence is in part mere appearance, and only in part reality.' (Introduction to the Shorter Logic, §6.) [I.e., Hegel (1975), p.9, §6 -- RL.] Existence elementally and necessarily divides itself, and the investigating mind finds it to be so divided, into opposing aspects of appearance and essence. This disjunction between appearance and essence is no more mysterious than the disjunction between the inside and outside of an object." [Novack (1971), pp.84-86. Quotation marks changed to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. I have reproduced the edition of Hegel's work used by the editor of Novack's on-line text, Andy Blunden, not that which appears here.]
As if the difference between a real (genuine) dollar note and a counterfeit lies in the fact that the latter will perish, but not the former. Or, indeed, that there is somewhere a 'real dollar note' that will never perish.
Be this as it may, minus its openly religious language, the above passage from Novack isn't significantly different from they way that some Hindus depict Shiva.
"Shiva (Sanskrit: Auspicious One), or Siva, is one of the main Deities of Hinduism, worshipped as the paramount lord by the Saivite sects of India. Shiva is one of the most complex gods of India, embodying seemingly contradictory qualities. He is the destroyer and the restorer, the great ascetic and the symbol of sensuality, the benevolent herdsman of souls and the wrathful avenger." [Quoted from here. Bold emphasis added.]
"Shiva is 'shakti' or power, Shiva is the destroyer, the most powerful god of the Hindu pantheon and one of the godheads in the Hindu Trinity. Known by many names -- Mahadeva, Mahayogi, Pashupati, Nataraja, Bhairava, Vishwanath, Bhava, Bhole Nath -- Lord Shiva is perhaps the most complex of Hindu deities. Hindus recognize this by putting his shrine in the temple separate from those of other deities....
"Shiva, in temples is usually found as a phallic symbol of the 'linga', which represents the energies necessary for life on both the microcosmic and the macrocosmic levels, that is, the world in which we live and the world which constitutes the whole of the universe. In a Shaivite temple, the 'linga' is placed in the centre underneath the spire, where it symbolizes the naval of the earth....
"Shiva is believed to be at the core of the centrifugal force of the universe, because of his responsibility for death and destruction. Unlike the godhead Brahma, the Creator, or Vishnu, the Preserver, Shiva is the dissolving force in life. But Shiva dissolves in order to create, since death is the medium for rebirth into a new life. So the opposites of life and death and creation and destruction both reside in his character....
"Since Shiva is regarded as a mighty destructive power, to numb his negative potentials he is fed with opium and is also termed as 'Bhole Shankar', one who is oblivious of the world. Therefore, on Maha Shivratri, the night of Shiva worship, devotees, especially the menfolk, prepare an intoxicating drink called 'Thandai' (made from cannabis, almonds, and milk) sing songs in praise of the Lord and dance to the rhythm of the drums." [Quoted from here. Spelling altered to conform with UK English. Bold emphases added. Links in the original.]
Is this perhaps the dance of the 'Hindu dialectic'?
Shiva, is the "most powerful god"; compare the above with the following:
"This is the power, the omnipotence of the negative side of existence, which is forever emerging from, annihilating and transcending the affirmative aspect of things." [Novack, op cit.]
Or, indeed, with Raya Dunayevskaya's "The Power of Negativity" [i.e., Dunayevskaya (2002)].
[Similar thoughts can be found in other religions (e.g., Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Daoism). What was that again about "ruling ideas"?]
Even so, what we want to know is this: Is it the "whole and final truth about things" that they pass away, or is this itself a "one-sided, relative, and...passing truth"?
If the latter is the case, we can ignore it (since it might not be true tomorrow); but if it isn't, then some things are permanent (namely this truth), and dialectics is false, and we can ignore it.
Either way, we can ignore it.
Be this as it may once more, as we will see in Essays Seven and Fourteen Part One (summary here) -- and as we have just seen --, Novack's view is both a mystical and a poetic way of depicting nature, which openly confuses linguistic and logical expressions with reality itself. It also represents an echo of the idea (and one Hegel certainly accepted) that only 'God' is fully real, since 'He' alone exists of necessity. Everything else is merely contingent, and depends on 'Him' for its own insecure and tenuous grip on the 'Real'. Indeed, Novack neglected to quote this part of the above passage:
"...we must presuppose intelligence enough to know, not only that God is actual, that He is the supreme actuality, that He alone is truly actual; but also, as regards the logical bearings of the question, that existence is in part mere appearance, and only in part actuality." [Hegel (1975), p.9, §6; bold emphasis added.]
However, to spoil the Hermetic Hilarity, protons, for example, seem to have received an exemption certificate from all this perishing (this is perhaps a gift from 'Being' itself?), for they don't change; or, if they do, they don't do so as a result of their 'internal contradictions'. Photons are similarly as uncooperative as they are un-dialectical, as are electrons. [More on that, here.]
To be sure, the sort of flowery language Novack toys around with goes down rather well in DM-circles (especially among the HCD-fraternity) -- even though it has a distinctly offensive air of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism about it, especially when we are allowed to see the Hegelian quotations in all their glory! And this flowery jargon clearly serves to maintain -- as is the case in openly religious contexts -- the morale of its adepts.
[There is more on how that sort of language manages to do this in Essay Nine Part Two. Again, on this, also see David Stove's articles: 'Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story, Parts I and II', in Stove (1991), pp.83-177. However, in relation to Stove's work, readers should take note of the caveats I have posted here.]
And yet, these passages only make sense if we are prepared to anthropomorphise 'reality'. Novack's "Here I am" and "No I am not" rather give the game away, one feels.
Last but not least: we have yet to be told what the 'contradiction' here actually is!
[HCD = High Church Dialectics/Dialectician, depending on context; this term is explained here.]
30. There is something distinctly odd about the idea that appearances are capable of 'contradicting' reality, the facts, or, indeed, anything at all. That is because, plainly, appearances can't contradict anything else unless both ('appearance' and 'reality') are expressed in indicative sentences -- or, perhaps, both induce beliefs conducive to that end. Clearly, this not insignificant detail now redirects attention to the conflict that might or might not exist between contradictory beliefs. But, in that regard, and with respect to bent sticks, for example, who actually believes sticks are bent in water? More to the point: which person of sound mind believes that sticks are both bent and not bent in water?
And yet, if that is the sort of confusion that scientific advance encourages us to abandon, it would be no great loss to humanity.
However, none of this has anything to do with the alleged contradiction between appearance and reality, since, plainly, such contradictions would be between beliefs expressed in language; still less would it have anything to do with 'commonsense'.
31. Those who think this unlikely should read Note 32, below.
32. It hardly needs pointing out that Rees (and other DM-theorists) wouldn't be interested in pairs of allegedly contradictory propositions if they thought both were false, or that one was true while the other was false -- or even that they didn't 'exist' simultaneously. But, because DM-theorists without exception fail to specify clearly what they mean by "contradiction" in such contexts, it is impossible to say whether or not this supposition is itself correct. Or, indeed, if it only appears to be the one or the other -- or something else -- while it 'really' isn't as it seems.
It could be objected that modern, post-Copernican science has in fact contradicted Aristotelian and Ptolemaic ideas about the immobility of the Earth. Of course, that is itself a controversial interpretation of the relationship between ancient and modern science -– and one that isn't obviously correct. [I will explain why that is so in Essay Thirteen Part Two.]
[TOR = Theory of Relativity.]
Be this as it may, one clear consequence of the TOR is that with a suitable change of reference frame it is possible to picture the Earth as stationary and the Sun (etc.) in motion relative to it. That done, this alleged 'contradiction' disappears. In which case, the only necessary 'correction' to Aristotelian/Ptolemaic Physics (in this respect) would involve the abandonment of the idea that the Earth is situated in a unique frame of reference -– but science itself can neither confirm nor confute that particular metaphysical or theological assumption.
On this topic, Robert Mills had this comment to make:
"Another way of stating the principle of equivalence, a way that better reflects its name, is to say that all reference frames, including accelerated reference frames, are equivalent, that the laws of Physics take the same form in any reference frame…. And it is also correct to say that the Copernican view (with the sun at the centre) and the Ptolemaic view (with the earth at the centre) are equally valid and equally consistent!" [Mills (1994), pp.182-83. Spelling altered to conform with UK English.]
It is worth recalling that the late Professor Mills was co-inventor of Yang-Mills Theory in Gauge Quantum Mechanics, and was thus no scientific novice.
Add to that what Astronomer, Fred Hoyle, had to say:
"Instead of adding further support to the heliocentric picture of the planetary motions the Einstein theory goes in the opposite direction, giving increased respectability to the geocentric picture. The relation of the two pictures is reduced to a mere coordinate transformation and it is the main tenet of the Einstein theory that any two ways of looking at the world which are related to each other by a coordinate transformation are entirely equivalent from a physical point of view....
"Today we cannot say that the Copernican theory is 'right' and the Ptolemaic theory 'wrong' in any meaningful physical sense...." [Hoyle (1973), pp.78-79.]
"We now know that the difference between a heliocentric theory and a geocentric theory is one of relative motion only, and that such a difference has no physical significance. But such an understanding had to await Einstein's theory of gravitation in order to be fully clarified." [Hoyle (1975), p.416.]
Similarly, Nobel Laureate Max Born commented:
"Thus from Einstein's point of view Ptolemy and Copernicus are equally right. What point of view is chosen is a matter of expediency. For the mechanics of the planetary system the view of Copernicus is certainly the more convenient. But it is meaningless to call the gravitational fields that occur when a different system of reference is chosen 'fictitious' in contrast with the 'real' fields produced by near masses: it is just as meaningless as the question of the 'real' length of a rod...in the special theory of relativity. A gravitational field is neither 'real' nor 'fictitious' in itself. It has no meaning at all independent of the choice of coordinates, just as in the case of the length of a rod." [Born (1965), p.345. I owe this reference to Rosser (1967).]
However, this particular idea pre-dates the TOR; as Robert DiSalle notes, it goes back to Leibniz:
"Leibniz, later, articulated a more general 'equipollence of hypotheses': in any system of interacting bodies, any hypothesis that any particular body is at rest is equivalent to any other. Therefore neither Copernicus' nor Ptolemy's view can be true -- though one may be judged simpler than the other -- because both are merely possible hypothetical interpretations of the same relative motions. This principle clearly defines (what we would call) a set of reference frames, differing in their arbitrary choices of a resting point or origin, but agreeing on the relative positions of bodies at any moment and their changing relative distances through time." [DiSalle (2009). Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
[Although, DiSalle goes on to point out that Leibniz's equivalence principle was actually inconsistent with his view of motion. It took the TOR to sort this conundrum out.]
Of course, as Leibniz argued, it could always be claimed that Copernican theory is simpler than the Ptolemaic system, but until we receive a clear sign that nature works in accordance with our notions of simplicity (or cares a fig about them), that response won't wash.
This is quite apart from the fact that 'simplicity' is impossible to define in non-question-begging terms. For example, which is the simpler of these two formulae?
(1) θ = Ae-kt
(2) θ = At2 + Bt + C
Plainly, (2) is algebraically 'simpler', but (1)