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Brian asked:

Why and on what basis Marxism regards Positivism as an idealist philosophy?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Brian, here’s my take on the issues. I’m not sure that Marxists regard Positivism as an Idealist philosophy. Rather, it is regarded as a variant of Empiricism — a philosophical approach connected with ‘bourgeois’ philosophers such as John Locke, August Comte and the like.

Firstly, Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism argued against fellow Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov’s ‘Empiriomonism’ which, attempted to incorporate Ernst Mach’s philosophy of Empirio Criticism into a Marxian world-view. That is, Mach maintained that all human beings could know were isolated sensations — much in the same way as George Berkeley held that human knowledge consisted only of immaterial ideas. On this basis, the materialist element of epistemology was downgraded and the ‘idealist’ element emphasised. Further, the examination of existing material conditions — the hallmark of the materialist conception of History or Historical Materialism as it became known — was bypassed in favour of emphasising human will and action. Revolutionary change became a matter of ‘Willing’. This was dismissed as vacuous Voluntarism which ignored an appreciation of and analyses of, actually existing socio-material conditions.

Secondly, Positivism is used by Marxists such as George Lukacs (see his History and Class Consciousness esp: the essay ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’ and Karl Korsch Marxism and Philosophy) to describe the methodology of ‘bourgeois’ sciences which they were critical of. The latter emphasises the recognition and analyses of ‘Positives’ (see Auguste Comte) or ‘Facts’ in the summation of social analyses. These are subsequently constitutive of immutable, universal Laws. This empirical approach took an atomised, particularist approach to phenomena without connecting them to the larger social totality.

As Lukacs remarks in ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’, in Capitalist society, ‘Fetishism’ (the apparent independence of creations, relations from their human creators) encourages the quantitative abstraction of ‘things’ so that isolated facts, complexes of isolated facts encourages the establishment of separate, specialist disciplines to analyse such ‘facts’ (economics, law, sociology and so on). Here we have ‘bourgeois’ sciences and their empiricist, positivist approach.

For Marxists such as Lukacs, the underlying ‘essence’ or connections between such ‘facts’ must be discerned from the isolated, immutable ‘factual’ appearance. This following Marx’s words that ‘the whole of science would be superfluous if the appearance of things coincided with their essence’ (Capital III, p. 797). The inter-connection between phenomena cannot be accounted for by Positivism but can be accounted for by the Dialectic. The latter recognises and accounts for the transitory nature of social and historical life i.e. that such phenomena change, exist in a process of movement or becoming. As Lukacs writes:

“Only in this context which sees the isolated facts of social life, as aspects of the historical process and integrates them into a Totality, can knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality. This knowledge starts from the simple (and to the capitalist world), pure, immediate, natural determinants described above’ It progresses from them to the knowledge of the concrete totality i.e., to the conceptual reproduction of reality.” (p. 8 ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’)

Finally, Positivism is used by Marxists to critically describe the writings, theories of other Marxists. More specifically, it is used by Hegelian Marxists to condemn as wrong, those Marxists who rely on the Natural sciences as evidence for the existence of a Dialectic of Nature (Engels’ Dialectics of Nature for example) which then supposedly justifies the operation of the Dialectic in social and Historical phenomena. Thus ‘Dialectical Materialism’ the Philosophy of Marxism — underpins Historical Materialism. So for example, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology and Theory and Practice from the standpoint of Dialectical Materialism by Nicolai Bukharin were judged to exhibit Positivistic tendencies. They relied too heavily on the natural sciences as a justification for the correctness of the Marxist Dialectic. This Positivist approach is taken to be wrong as it subsumes human activity and consciousness under ‘scientific laws’ when, the issue is much more complex than ‘vulgar Marxists’ can appreciate. Indeed, many Marxist Philosophers dismiss the attempt to justify Dialectics of Nature as Positivism.

Marden asked:

What do these words mean in Kant’s 12 Categories: Inherence and subsistence, and community? These three terms are in the third group of categories (of Relation). I’d be happy with any url that would define and discuss all 12 of Kant’s categories.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Categories of Relation: Substance (Subsistence), Causality (Inherence) and Interaction (Community) are outlined by Kant in Section 3, Chapter 2, Book 2 of the Critique of Pure Reason.

As written, in Section 3 ‘Systematic Representation of all Synthetical Principles of the Pure Understanding’, the Analogies of Experience are outlined.

Perception is only possible by the continuous connection of Intuitions. Otherwise, they would be isolated, contingent and unconnected. So what connects them? Time cannot, as an a-priori condition of experience, (See the Transcendental Aesthetic of the Critique) be a subject of perception. Here enter the First Analogy.

First Analogy: The Permanence of Substance.

As Time is not an object for perception, there must be something by which it is represented; a something in which change, modification and successive changes of state, occurs. For Kant, this ‘something’ is precisely Substance. Whilst there are changes, modifications etc to objects, their underlying Substance remains unchanged. Otherwise there would be an unconditioned, chaos of perceptions without coherence. For example, the tree exudes a succession of changes: buds become leaves, leaves which fall yet the underlying ‘thinghood’ of the tree remains as a ‘ground’ for such changes.

Second Analogy: The Principle of the Succession of Time according to the Law of Causality.

When a human subject looks at a house, gazes from its roof to its foundations to its windows and so on, there is a succession of intuitions in Time which is not causally determined. This is because they are dependent on that human subject — they are a Subjective sequence of events. It is otherwise when gazing at a boat flowing down a river.

Here, there is a linear, successive sequence of events: A then B, then C, then D and so on which cannot be otherwise. The boat was once high upon the river, then it was adjacent to the perceiver, then it is further down the river. This succession is conditioned by and made objective by the Transcendental Law of Causality. It cannot be otherwise, for then knowledge deriving from linear, successive perceptions would be made impossible – contrary to our actual experience.

Substance underpins the succession of Time according to the Law of Causality.

Third Analogy: Principle of Co-Existence according to the Law of Reciprocity or Community.

All Substances, existing under the conditions of Space and Time, exist in a simultaneous relation of reciprocity: of reciprocal action co-extensive with each other in a plurality of ways hence, – a reciprocal community of substances. Unlike the Law of Causality above where we have A then B then C and so on, here we have A affecting D or B (or any other term affecting any other) and vice versa – simultaneously in Time and Space.

The synthesis of the Understanding thus has objective, Transcendentally conditioned intuitions of a ‘compositum reale‘ – distinct phenomena, all in inclusive connection with each other in various ways such as inhereing with each other, consequences as effects of causes and composition as a manifold of intuitions in unity (or Reciprocal Community), simultaneously experienced by the ‘I think’ as the unity of apperception

Hope this is useful, Marden.

Jamie asked:

Is it possible for contradictions to exist not in our beliefs but in “even though I know its a fuzzy word” our reality? Do the logical absolutes hold true in every world, universe, and existence?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Depends what you mean by ‘reality’!!

It was Karl Popper who argued that contradiction, being a Law of Logic, can only apply to Logic. To maintain there are contradictions in the actual world as Marxists do, was, in Popper’s view, to misappropriate the term and wrongly apply it. Many disagree with this analytic reductionism.

In his philosophy of Absolute Idealism, GWF Hegel maintained that contradictions exist in reality. There is no separation between the human subject and the object, or perceiving agent and the reality beyond it. This epistemological divide stumps empirical thinkers and leaves the reality beyond the subject to endless, inconclusive speculation, to a condition of aporia. For Hegel, there is a mutual interaction, a virtuous circle between the Subject and Object mediated by human consciousness. Further, the three Laws of Logic (Identity, Non-Contradiction and Excluded Middle) cannot account for change or movement in phenomena.

For Hegel, contradictions in reality are real. They are recognised and overcome by the collective consciousness of a people (Geist) which is simultaneously, the historical progress of Reason and Freedom. This movement is central to Hegel’s philosophy, for he wishes to present human history as the dialectical movement of the Concept recognising tensions, or contradictions by means of Dialectical or Negative Reason. The contradictions are superseded (aufgehoben) by Positive, Speculative Reason and a new, higher level of Unity is thereby established until new contradictions arise. So for Hegel, yes, contradictions exist in a shared, intersubjective or phenomenological reality. There is no division between Subject and Object, as there is for empirical, analytical philosophy.

However, Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, as the odyssey of human consciousness, has been criticised as being precisely continuing Subjectivism and antropocentrism — which he ostensibly tried to overcome. Thought remains trapped in Thought so Humanity continues to create the world in its own image, yet the world may be different. In which case, any claim to objective, universal truth remains questionable.

Russell asked:

I am trying to do an analysis on the dualist essay of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. I was wondering if there are any tips to better understanding the large work? Depending on who sees this, Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Russell, Being and Nothingness is a difficult but rewarding read. The central issue for Sartre, is human Freedom. To explore this, he undertakes a phenomenological analyses of human ontology — what it is actually like to be a human being, being in the world. It is examining how the phenomena of the world (including ourselves) disclose themselves to us and how we interact, respond to them.

Unlike Descartes, who stands apart from the world to dispassionately ponders the existence of the world of objects to ask ‘What can I know? Or unlike a scientist who limits being to the quantitative measurements of things; for Existentialists, we are already in the world, living and practising many modes or ways of being in the world, of interacting with ourselves, others, objects and things. These are not limited to the reductive view that there are just objects in space and time but account for actual, lived human existence. It is these modes of being or structures that Sartre examines with a reference to human Freedom.

Unlike unconscious, inert things (a condition which Sartre terms Being-In-Itself), humans exist in a condition of Being-for-Itself. In other words, we possess Consciousness. This makes us distinct from ourselves, others and from objects. We can think about thinking, we can think about our actions, we are distinct from ourselves. In the jargon, we can ‘transcend facticity’. We are, an issue for ourself. My Being can be an issue for me — hence we are a Being-for-Itself.

Here arises an important point. If my Being can become an issue for me, I am not identical with it. I’m not in a condition of Being in Itself. I can transcend and thereby reflect upon my being. What is it that transcends? It is consciousness. But consciousness is not a thing, it is a Nothing. By so breaking with Being, Nothingness emerges.

Nothingness is at the heart of Being, there is an interplay between the two — hence the book title. Nothingness can arise in the world in many ways. It can arise from disappointment, from failure, from negations, from emotions and so on. Sartre gives the famous example of waiting in a café for his friend Pierre to arrive. Pierre fails to arrive and the café melts into disappointment, melts into Nothingness. We do experience Nothingness, it is a lived experience and phenomena. It is, as mentioned above, an existential structure of human being in the world.

With respect to ourselves, the existence of Nothingness in relation to consciousness guarantees Freedom. In so reflecting upon or transcending myself, objects etc, I am not identical with them. If not identical with them, I am distinct and free from them. Hence my Freedom emerges and this, is central to Sartre’s Existentialism. Existentialism is the philosophy of Human Freedom.

Yet, people can deny their Freedom by living in what Sartre terms ‘Bad Faith’. Here, the existence of Freedom, of Transcendence is denied or ignored. People conclude that they are their job, their occupation, their ‘nature’, their wealth and nothing else. (see the example of the Café Waiter). People in Bad Faith declare ‘I am what I am’ and cannot change. This, according to Sartre, is to ignore or wilfully deceive oneself to the phenomenological structures of human being — that there is Being and Nothingness.

Hope this is useful Russell.


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