Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Heidegger and the Hideous

by Thomas Riggins

Martin Heidegger isn't a philosopher that progressives are likely to consider worthwhile reading. After all, he was an anti-Semite, a follower of Hitler, and most hideous of all, someone who likened the mass extermination of human beings to the excesses of battery farming.

Nevertheless, his fame and influence continue to grow. His collected works will weigh in at more than 80 volumes, more than enough to keep generations of graduate students at work on their PhDs well into the next century. Most of them, I am happy to to say, will not be graduate students in philosophy.

Heidegger's greatest influence is with students of the arts and of literature who, shame to say, perpetuate his baneful Nazi influence into the future. So let me give a preliminary rundown on some current writing on Herr Heidegger. A recent book by Daniel Morat has come out in Germany: "Von der Tat zur Gelassenheit: Konservatives Denken bei Martin Heidegger, Ernst Junger und Friedrich Georg Junger 1920-1960." This 592 page work on conservative thought (the conservative movement is welcome to all three of these men but I am am only going to discuss Heidegger)has been reviewed by George Steiner (Cambridge University)in the June 27,2008 issue of TLS.

Steiner tells us some interesting things about Heidegger studies. That 80+ edition of his works I mentioned above, for instance, "continues to generate disturbing uncertainties as to editorial method." There are questions about the integrity of the German text. There is fear it is being "cleaned up" so that overt Nazi expressions or ideas will be eliminated. Since English translations will be made from this edition, my fear is that unsuspecting students in the USA and elsewhere will be infected with a subtle form of Heideggerian fascism without knowing it. Even worse, or at least just as bad, the next generation of German students will not realize the overt Nazi sympathies of Heidegger.

Outside of his disciples, who practically worship him, Heidegger's reputation among professional philosophers is mostly negative. Marxists don't like him, and the English speaking philosophers in the Analytic and Positivist movements (Wittgensteinians, Carnapians, etc,) consider him, Steiner points out, "an impenetrable, loquacious, charlatan... [whose] hectoring verbiage [is] fatally tainted by and interwoven with his politics."

What is morally hideous about Heidegger is that even after WW2 and the actions of the Nazis were public knowledge, Steiner reminds us that "he never renounced his idealization of the National Socialist movement [and] refused to condemn the Final Solution...." How is it possible that this man remains an intellectual light to many Western intellectuals and academics?

Steiner asks just what is the relation of Heidegger's philosophy to Nazism? His critics, such as Karl Lowith, Jaspers, and Habermas, find "a fundamental organic link" in his philosophical views ["Being and Time" for example] "and his involvements with Hitlerism." His supporters (Derrida and others "in the deconstructionist ambit") "have denounced this very question as an impertinent vulgarity." It seems that Heidegger was such a great thinker it would have been impossible for him to really be a Nazi at heart. Steiner quotes the philosopher Gadamer as calling him "the greatest of thinkers." Nevertheless, as the review makes clear, "Heidegger's strategic silences and self-justifications after 1945 can be held to put in doubt any claims to intellectual integrity and philosophical seriousness."

Steiner points out that other books have documented Heidegger's relations with Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt and how they "sympathized with Nazism and attempted various apologetic manoeuvres after the debacle." What Morat brings to the table with his new book is the role of Freidrich Georg Junger, Ernst's younger brother-- an important member of the "conservative revolution." All of these men were allied in their contempt for "sickly bourgeois-liberal values" (let alone Marxism!).

As I said above, I am dealing with Heidegger so I will not go into the role of the Jungers. Heidegger, in the true Nazi spirit, saw Western civilization in intellectual and cultural decay (for different reasons than Marxists) and in need of rebirth along the lines of "Mein Kampf." Heidegger with his commitment to the concept of "destiny" blames the decline of the West on Plato! That is how far back we have to go to find how our understanding of "destiny" had been "deflected." In more modern times the "rationalism of Descartes" was also to blame and would have to be overcome for a "genuine rebirth."

So, Hitler was the tool "chosen", as it were, by destiny to bring about the rebirth of our degenerate civilization. Steiner tells us why 1945 was "a disaster of virtually cosmic proportions" for Heidegger. It was because Heidegger thought the only language that real philosophy could be done in (other than ancient Greek in its day) was the German language and that German culture was "the elect carrier of supreme philosophical illumination." With the downfall of the noble Germans only the American-Soviet hegemony was left-- both members of which represented materialistic technological scientism when compared to the great spiritual values of the Reich.

Steiner ends his review saying that there are at least four questions that remain unanswered with regard to Heidegger. The origin of his "mesmeric" style, his claim that his works are "provisional" for "a time in which men have not yet learned to think" [choosing Nazism indicates there was no thinking going on], his belief that "salvation lies with the poets" (Holderlin and Sophocles), and finally the connection between "Sein und Zeit" and its stress on "Sorge" (concern)and his Nazism.

Finally a question "that really matters" even more than these four. How did Heidegger and others, "of such stature", let themselves "become enmeshed in the politics of the inhuman?"

A preliminary answer may be that people really don't understand the latent Nazism in Heidegger's thought so his "stature" is undeserved. Also, maybe Nazism is not as "inhuman" as we like to think.It is rather one of possible outcomes of capitalism under stress. The attempted extermination of the Native Americans, slavery, the holocaust, Vietnam, Apartheid, the Taliban's, and others, treatment of women, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine were all done and are being done by humans-- not just by Germans. The problem is humans motivated by greed for the lands and wealth of others due to an economic system predicated on profit and financial conquest. To understand "Sein und Ziet" we must first understand "Das Kapital." Only in the socialist future, when we are fully human, will we understand what was "inhuman" in our past.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Remarks on Tim Crane's "Fraught with Ought" London Review of Books, 19 June 2008
by Thomas Riggins

"Fraught with Ought" reviews two new books concerning the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989). These are a collection of papers about Sellars by Jay Rosenberg (Wilfred Sellers: Fusing the Images, Oxford, 2007) and an anthology (In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, Harvard, 2007). Why all this interest in an academic philosopher, unknown to the general public, and dead for almost twenty years? And what has any of this to do with Marxism?

Briefly, Sellars was an analytic philosopher, a member of a school stemming back over a hundred years, that grew out of the rejection of the European philosophical tradition growing out of German Idealism, especially Kant and Hegel. Marxism also grew out of this German tradition.

Recently some analytic philosophers have come to believe that the wholesale rejection of Hegel and others in the classical tradition has been a mistake and was based on a faulty understanding of their works by some of the founders of the analytic movement, especially Bertrand Russell.

Sellars' philosophy is being examined in this light and is taken by some to be useful in reclaiming Kant and Hegel, for example, and using them as part of the program of analytic philosophy-- viz., of using the analysis of ordinary language usage and the philosophy of language to find the solution to philosophical problems. Rehabilitating the thinkers from whom Marx and Engels learned so much and whose ideas they grappled with in forming their own is also a way of reminding the contemporary world of the continuing relevance of Marxism.

One of Sellars' most important works was his 1956 paper "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind." Although not in this work, Sellars gives an interesting definition of the aim of philosophy:"The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term."

This really is quite general and could be said of the natural and social sciences as well. The aim of Marxism could be said to be to bring about the end of human exploitation in the broadest possible sense by the most effective means, considered in the broadest possible sense, of eliminating capitalism and abolishing classes.

Marxists also share a common aim with Sellars. He wanted, in his own words. "to formulate a scientifically oriented, naturalistic realism which would 'save the appearances.'" The last expression refers to a desire not to stray too far from common sense. His love of science is the same as that of all true Marxists and is very clearly expressed by him when he writes, "in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not."

In other words, he shares with Marxists the idea, as Crane says, that philosophy's "fundamental task" is "to explain how things seem (in the broadest sense of that term) consistent with what science has told us about the world." The term "scientia mensura" is used by Sellarsians (it could be adopted by Marxists as well)to sum up this view. The job of philosophy is to bridge what Sellars called the "manifest image" of the world [i.e., common sense]and the "scientific image" [we are just a bunch of vibrating strings or atoms, etc.] Crane says Sellars developed his own "systematic philosophy" to deal with this problem. Let us see how far it agrees with Marxism.

Many philosophers such as Sellars have been bothered by three things about the manifest image of the world, according to Crane, namely intentionality or meaning, value, and consciousness. All bourgeois realists, just as all Marxist materialists, accept "that there is a world independent of thought." Bourgeois realists are in fact materialists. Sellars, however, has a problem with how we become aware of the world and how we use language to describe it.

Marxist and non-Marxist realists alike tend to see language as somehow reflecting or referring to the objects of the world. We learn what "cat" means by referring to a real cat. "According to this view," Crane says, "things in the world cause our minds to form certain representations, which is why they represent what they do." This is what Lenin thought when he said consciousness or sensation is a picture of reality. Crane says it is the view of the early Wittgenstein (of the "Tractatus"). But Selars doesn't buy this. He has his own theory by which he replaces "reference" with "inference." As Crane puts it, "To talk about the meaning of a word is not to talk about the relation it bears to the object it stands for. Rather, it is to talk about what inferences-- what legitimate patterns of thought and reasoning-- that word can be used in."

This is a very dicey development. It seems to grow out of the later Wittgenstein (the "Philosophical Investigations") and his notion of a "language game." Whether this view can be reconciled with materialism is still being debated. What is really distinctive in this view is, Crane says, the role that normativity comes to play in the system. Sellars refers to words as "natural-linguistic objects" and we have to learn the rules (norms) for their use: "they tell us," Crane points out, "how words should and should not be used. Signification and meaning are normative matters." This leads us to a very important key concept of his philosophy-- namely, "the myth of the given." I'm not sure this "myth" is really a myth.

Sellars thinks of thought as "inner speech",as Crane says, "as employing the concepts one has learned in the course of acquiring a language to make inferences which result in dispositions to make 'outer' verbal judgments." So thinking, just as speaking, is subject to rules and norms.

Crane uses the example of a fig tree to clarify Sellars' views. An old fashioned materialist ( such as Lenin ) might say that we have the notion of a fig tree as a result of having learned how to use the words "fig tree" as a result of our early education. Our senses were presented with a particular object, our parents say "fig tree" and we learn that this "given" is to be referred to as a "fig tree."
This is an example (but not a good one) of "the myth of the given." Sellars says "all awareness is a linguistic affair." As crane puts it "the perceptually given" is not "a mental episode which is prior to thought and language." This has the smell of idealism clinging to it.

Lets try to be clearer. Crane says Sellars holds, "Every episode of taking something in is really a case of conceptualising it, and conceptualising requires being subject to the norms which can only come with the acquisition of a language." Sellars is really saying it is wrong to think there was a "concept of x" in the mind of the child just waiting to be given the name "fig tree". It was only by learning a language that a fig tree could present itself to the child as a fig tree and not just some kind of perceptual static.

Sellars' ideas about sense perception are weak, I think, and I agree with Crane when he says he thinks them "unconvincing." I think, for example, that consciousness and consciousness of objects have evolved from organisms that were precursors of H. sapiens. Other animals certainly have awareness and can even think yet are without "language"-- or least without what we humans think of as "language". Sellars appears to believe that only humans have language. If we grant this and restrict ourselves to "human language" then Crane thinks Sellars' ideas are "clearer and more
tractable" if we confine the inferentialist theory to thought and language and leave sense perception out of it.

Now thought, language, meaning, and inference are the result of brain processes that can be studied by science. This is the case even if meaning, thought, and knowledge will not themselves be, as Crane says, part of "the scientific image as such." Why is this so? Sellars writes that it is because "in characterising an episode or a state as that of KNOWING, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says." And Crane reminds us, this also goes for saying and thinking. If I say, think or know that e.g., my redeemer liveth, or that workers by uniting will only lose their chains I must give reasons that logically lead to a justification for these statements. I am not just referring to some chemical or neurological activity in my brain.

What is important about this part of Sellars' theory is, according to Crane, that questions dealing with "meaning and significance" are not about facts-- "questions about what is the case" -- they are questions concerning "what ought to be." They are not questions for science. Sellars thinks they are normative because we have to follow rules for justification which are located in "the logical space of reasons." Sellars says. "If they are thinking THIS, then they OUGHT to think THAT too."

What is going on here? It seems natural to distinguish between factual (scientific) statements and value (moral, un- or non- scientific) statements. But, says Crane, Sellars has gone beyond this dichotomy: "not only moral value, but also thought and consciousness, are (in his words) 'fraught with ought.'" There are problems with this I think. If I give justifications for my belief that united workers have only their chains to lose those justifications are intended by me to be true factual statements about the world and thus subject to scientific scrutiny. It is scientific socialism to which I appeal. It is another question, indeed fraught with ought, whether that commitment logically forces me to embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat as well.

Some have come to think that Sellars' views would cause a "sea change" in philosophy. Crain disagrees and thinks Sellars' "inferentialism" with respect to "meaning and thought" can be weaned away from other elements in his system and adopted by those with "more traditional" attitudes towards "the self and the mind." I think that there is no need for Sellarsian extremism on the question of the "scientia mensura." To save the appearances, the "manifest world", we don't have to divorce it so completely from the "scientific world" as Sellars maintains. We only need show there is no manifest contradiction between the two worlds. There is no contradiction between our being human beings running about with "minds" on the one hand, and being ultimately vibrating strings or atoms on the other.

Marxists view the human world of consciousness as a higher level organization of matter (that stuff existing independently of the human mind from which the universe and everything in it derives) and what science ultimately discovers this stuff to be will not be in contradiction to the view that the manifest world is part of the continuum logically derived from the knowledge of the scientific world. Thus, Marxists can adopt some portions of Sellars' inferentialism, especially with regard to the consistency of their thoughts with respect to what they ought to believe and do given what they say they believe and do.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reading Lenin 23 [Finis]


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 23 ]
Thomas Riggins


In this last section of Chapter Six, Lenin turns his attention to the philosophy of science of Machism. All of the Machists reject the natural materialist standpoint of the sciences, calling it metaphysics. Petzoldt, for example, declares the scientific assumption of external reality no better than the Indian belief that the world rests on the back of a giant elephant. "It makes no difference," he says, "whether the world rests on a mythical elephant or on just as mythical a swarm of molecules and atoms epistemologically thought of as real and therefore not used merely metaphorically."

All of this Lenin calls "SHEER OBSCURANTISM, out-and-out- reaction." He then mentions the "storm provoked by Ernst Haeckel's THE RIDDLE OF THE UNIVERSE." This was a popular book written by a famous scientist, which was translated into many languages and appeared in many editions-- it was a best seller as we would say.

Haeckel (1834-1919) was a biologist and his book was written to explain the origin of life using Darwin's theory of evolution as the basis of his explanation. Haeckel's book, published in 1899, is still in print. He was denounced by theologians and professional philosophers alike for his theories. Lenin says there was "one underlying motif" in the attacks on Haeckel, namely, "they are all against the 'METAPHYSICS' of natural science, against 'dogmatism', against 'the exaggeration of the value and significance of natural science', against 'natural-scientific MATERIALISM.'"

What is seemingly so strange about this is that Haeckel is actually a reconciliationist who "RENOUNCES MATERIALISM" and wants religion and science to work together. The problem is, as Lenin sees it, is that despite "his personal conciliatory tendencies and proposals concerning religion" [in this he is somewhat like Steven Jay Gould] nevertheless "THE GENERAL SPIRIT of his book, the INERADICABILITY of natural-scientific materialism and its IRRECONCILABILITY with ALL official professorial philosophy and theology .... GIVES A SLAP IN THE FACE" to all forms of Machism and subjective idealistic tendencies. Haeckel himself does not see the contradiction between his method and his goal due to "philosophical naiveté."

The Machists and other idealist humbugs realize this and also realize that a hundred thousand readers of THE RIDDLE OF THE UNIVERSE will pick up the natural scientific (materialist) attitude towards the world that these idealists have been combatting. This is also the Marxist view-- i.e., the view of dialectical materialism. Lenin says: "The 'war' on Haeckel HAS proved that this view of ours corresponds to OBJECTIVE REALITY, i.e., to the class nature of modern society and its class ideological tendencies."

Lenin concludes this chapter with a reference to Franz Mehring's review of THE RIDDLE OF THE UNIVERSE in NEUE ZEIT. Haeckel's problem is that he has no conception of HISTORICAL materialism. He is unable to apply his natural scientific materialism to social problems. Mehring writes, "Haeckel is a materialist and monist, not a HISTORICAL materialist." And, "he who wants to be convinced that natural-scientific materialism must be broadened into historical materialism if it is really to be an invincible weapon in the great struggle for emancipation of mankind, let him read Haeckel's book."

Haeckel's book demonstrates that natural scientific materialism underlies the method of the natural sciences and its dialectical development into historical and dialectical materialism is the only basis for bringing about the final liberation of humanity and the solution of the social question.

Who could have predicted in 1908 what the world would be like in 2008? How can we know what 2108 will look like? Will Lenin still be read? If the social question hasn't been solved, I think so.


There are "four standpoints", Lenin says, that Marxists should start from in evaluating empirio-criticism.

1. Understand "the THOROUGHLY REACTIONARY character of empirio-criticism.

2. Recognize that "the whole school of Mach and Avenarius is moving more and more definitely towards idealism" along with the most reactionary idealists.

3. Know that the "vast majority of scientists ... are invariably on the side of materialism."

4. Finally, "one must not fail to see the struggle of parties in philosophy, a struggle which in the last analysis reflects the tendencies and ideology of the antagonistic classes in modern society."


Lenin added this while the book was at the printers. He added it as an extra dig at the Russian Machists wanting to be Marxists. Most people in the West, and especially in the USA will never have heard of Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) but he was a very famous Russian revolutionary democrat and socialist who would have been well known to all of Lenin's readers.

The point Lenin wanted to make was that Chernyshevsky opposed Kant from the left, as a disciple of Feuerbach, while Bogdanov et al opposed Kant from the right, from the Machist and hence idealist position and were backwards in their thinking even compared to Chernyshevsky whose views dated from the the 1850s and 60s.

So much then for MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM. But since so little is known about Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevskii (NGC) here, I culled some info from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia [GSE] to introduce him. You can also Google him.

The three major influences on NGC were German philosophy, French utopian socialism and English political economy (the same three factors that Lenin called the component parts of Marxism). NGC's philosophy was based on the anthropology of human nature and was a form of RATIONAL EGOISM. We look out for our own interests. This should lead us to become socialists ["The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy," 1860].

NGC was a follower of Feuerbach who was, in NGC's own words, "the culmination of German philosophy, which --- having now for the first time achieved positive solutions --- has abandoned its former scholastic type of metaphysical transcendentalism and, admitting that its own results has merged with the general theory of natural science and anthropology." For NGC, practice was the source of truth, it was "that immutable touchstone of all theory."

In 1855 he wrote THE AESTHETIC RELATION OF ART TO REALITY in which he declared "beauty is life" meaning "what is of general interest in life --- THAT is the content of art." [All quotes are from NGC's works.] Art should look to the real world and portray it and "pass judgment on its manifestations."

In his 1857 work LESSING; HIS TIME, LIFE, AND WORK, he maintained that "the principal motive force of historical development" could in certain historical situations be literature.

While NGC was a pre-Marxist revolutionary, he did hold that "intellectual development, like development in any other area, including the political, depends on economic circumstances."

In 1861 he wrote a study called "Essays on Political Economy (According to Mill)", in which he attacked the bourgeoisie, developed his own economic theory which he called "theory of the working people" which stated "the need to replace the present economic system with a communist one."

NGC held that with socialism, "the separate classes of hired worker and employer will disappear, being replaced by a single class of people who will be workers and managers at the same time." NGC, being a pre-Marxist as I said, thought that Russia would be able to skip over the stage of capitalism and build socialism directly based on peasant communes. The GSE says that he, along with Herzen, was the founder of NARODNICHESTVO (the Narodnicks), also known as POPULISM.

The Russian government persecuted NGC from the early 60s to the end of his life by imprisoning him (seven years at hard labor) and placing him in internal exile for his writings and ideas. His 1862 novel, WHAT IS TO BE DONE was read by Lenin who used the title for one of his most important early works. Lenin had great respect for NGC and said that he was the only high level philosophical materialist in Russia from the 1850s up to 1888.

Well, if you have persevered thus far you have finally reached the end of the course. Another one is brewing for the Fall, so be prepared! FINIS CORONAT OPUS.

The entire 23 parts of Reading Lenin: Materialism and Epirio-criticism is now availalble at its own blog spot: http://materialismandempiriocriticism.blogspot.com/

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bertrand Russell on Reading and Understanding History

Russell vs Marx
By Thomas Riggins

How to Read and Understand History” was originally written in 1943. My copy is from a reprint put out in 1957 by Philosophical Library, Inc.

Russell tells us straight away that he is only looking at history “as a pleasure,” as an enjoyable way to pass one’s free time, and that his approach is that of an “amateur.” Nevertheless, he thinks this approach will show what he has usefully derived from history and what others may also. Let us see.

He divides history into two parts – the large, which leads to an understanding of how the world got the way it is, and the small, which “makes us know interesting men and women, and promotes a knowledge of human nature” (supposing there is such a thing independent of culture). He thinks we should begin the study of history not by reading about it but rather from watching “movies with explanatory talk.” I think he has very young children in mind, because even "historical" movies are more fiction than history.

Russell maintains there have been only “three great ages of progress in the world”: the first being the growth of civilization in the Near East (Egypt, Babylonia), the second being Greece (from Homer to Archimedes), and the third being from the 15th century to the present. This scheme appears to be Eurocentric.

Russell appears to credit “progress” or historical development to men of genius. He says the proof of this is that the Incas and the Maya never invented the wheel. But they certainly had men of “genius,” as they had monumental architecture and the Maya and others had invented writing. It doesn’t occur to Russell that inventions such as the wheel are called forth from certain needs within a culture. The Maya and the Inca did just fine without the wheel. What they needed was gunpowder to give a proper greeting to the Spanish.

Russell also thinks that we would still be living at the productive level of the 18th century if “by some misfortune, a few thousand men of exceptional ability had perished in infancy.” This begs the question. Do the social conditions people find themselves in call forth their ingenuity and inventiveness, thus leading to progress, or is it all due to men of genius. Russell apparently believes in the ‘great man theory of history,’ but this theory rests on the logical fallacy I mentioned above (begging the question.)

Russell does not approve of those who "desire to demonstrate some 'philosophy' of history," and he singles out "Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and the interpreters of the Great Pyramid and its ‘divine message’." When it comes to Hegel, he even maintains that his view of history "is not a whit less fantastic than the views of those who divine by the Great Pyramid."

In all fairness to Hegel, he and Russell may share more ideas about the nature of history than the latter thinks. In a nutshell, Hegel saw history as a gradual increase in human self-consciousness of freedom, finally leading to a condition where all human beings would be equally respected and their rights recognized. Hegel also appeals to empirical evidence, i.e., history itself, to justify this conclusion.

The end which Hegel envisioned has had its ups and downs, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (part of the UN Charter) is the type of progress he had in mind, even though there must still be a long process of development for the ideals of this document to become translated into actuality.

In theory, I am sure, Russell would not disagree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite residual racist and misogynist opinions he might have shared with the people of his generation, not to mention latent eugenicist tendencies.

For instance, he believes female behavior should be "circumscribed by prudential considerations". Women who have been free to do as they like, i.e., women who have become rulers ("empresses regnant") have, in the main, "murdered or imprisoned their sons, and often their husbands; almost all have had innumerable lovers” (one would think Russell might have approved of this considering his private life).

"If this is what women would do if they dared," he writes, "we ought to be thankful for social restraints." The only example he gives is Catherine the Great. Henry VIII or Nero do not elicit similar thoughts about male behavior. We are also told that "men of supreme ability are just as congenitally different from the average as are the feeble-minded." This is a view he shares with Nietzsche.

The following opinion, however, is more in accord with what Hegel would believe. "Although," Russell writes, "history is full of ups and downs, there is a general trend in which it is possible to feel some satisfaction; we know more than our ancestors knew, we have more command over the forces of nature [this is highly problematic since our economic system seems to be in the process of destroying us and our natural environment], we suffer less from disease and from natural cataclysms [also problematic]." He adds that "violence is now mainly organized and governmental, and it is easier to imagine ways of ending this than of ending the sporadic unplanned violence of more primitive times."

We must remember that Russell was writing in 1943 in the midst of World War II. Nevertheless, his "general trend" is a nod to progress, and for him the founding of the UN, the growth of the concept of universal rights, and the spread of social democratic ideals are all in accord with Hegelian notions. Despite his dislike of the notion of a "philosophy of history", Russell's "general trend" is in accord with Hegel's outlook.

Besides being a closet Hegelian, it is interesting to note that this essay also reveals a Platonic bent to Russell's thought, and a decidedly non-Hegelian cyclical approach to history.

"The greatest creative ages,” Russell writes, “are those where opinion is free, but behavior is still to some extent conventional. Ultimately, however, skepticism breaks down moral tabus, society becomes impossibly anarchic, freedom is succeeded by tyranny, and a new tight tradition is gradually built up."

What is striking about this passage, besides its mechanical way of thinking, is that it seems to be in agreement with Russell's conservative critics. Russell, the "passionate skeptic," was himself accused of breaking down conventional moral beliefs, and it was objected that his teachings would lead to social breakdown and anarchy, and hence he should not be teaching at the City College of New York.

On the basis of the preceding passage, it appears that Russell might have even made the following statement: “It is true that I, Russell, am a skeptic, that I do think many conventional moral tabus are nonsense, and if my views are generally adopted a tyranny will replace our freedoms, since views such as mine lead to social breakdown and anarchy. Now, how about that teaching job?"

To be fair, Russell realizes this problem, which he later calls, "the dilemma between freedom and discipline." Russell needs a method to break the cycle described above, and he finds it in science, allied with what he calls "intelligence" (a rather amorphous concept).

"Genuine morality,” he writes, “cannot be such as intelligence would undermine, nor does intelligence necessarily promote selfishness. It only does so when unselfishness has been inculcated for the wrong reasons, and then only so long as its purview is limited. In this respect science is a useful element in culture, for it has a stability which intelligence does not shake, and it generates an impersonal habit of mind that makes it natural to accept a social rather than a purely individual ethic."

But this cannot be right. Here are some German scientists in 1943: "Well, personal ethical considerations aside, our society has asked us to figure our how much Zyklon-B should be delivered to Auschwitz to eliminate x number of social undesirables per day, and is Zyklon-B the best chemical for the task at hand. Let us calculate together."

The above comments and considerations seem to me to point out serious difficulties with some of Russell's ideas about the lessons one can learn from reading history the way he recommends – as a pleasurable leisure-time activity, one that assiduously avoids any attempt to formulate a philosophy of history.

"The men who make up philosophies of history," he writes, "may be dismissed as inventors of mythologies." His two primary bug-a-boos here are Hegel and Marx. He sees only two functions for the study of history. First we can look "for comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history."

This is pretty arbitrary. Why not the beginning of a philosophy as well as a science? Hegel insisted that philosophy was to be pursued as a rigorous scientific procedure, just as any other discipline claiming to arrive at knowledge. Marx also praised the scientific method and claimed his ideas were scientific.

The second function of history, according to Russell, is to seek "by the study of individuals ... to combine the merits of drama or epic poetry with the merit of truth." This is an Aristotelian approach. The first function "views man objectively, as the heavenly bodies are viewed by an astronomer; the other appeals to imagination."

I think it safe to say that Hegel and Marx fully agree with Russell's first function, but would object to his second function as having no place in an objective study of the historical process. In fact, the basis of Russell's animus towards Hegel and Marx is his opinion that they mix up his own second function with the first. I would like to conclude this brief presentation with a few remarks on Russell's criticism of Marx's views.

After a lively survey of the development of the West and an appreciation of some of the most interesting classical historians one ought to study (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Gibbon), Russell comes to Marx, whom he, in another essay, considers a free thinker and compares to Robert Owen and Thomas Paine.

In this essay, however, Marx is credited with founding the current interest in the economic interpretation of historical events. "Modern views," Russell says, "as to the relation of economic facts to general culture have been profoundly affected by the theory, first explicitly stated by Marx [and Engels], that the mode of production of an age (and to a lesser degree the mode of exchange) is the ultimate cause of the character of its politics, laws, literature, philosophy, and religion." Russell fails to mention the relations of production, a factor of prime importance for Marx and Engels.

Russell then says – and this is something that Lenin would certainly have agreed with, as would all who have been influenced by the Marxist classics – that this view "is misleading if accepted as a dogma, but it is valuable if used as a means of suggesting hypothesis." Russell adds that "It has indubitably a large measure of truth, though not so much as Marx believed." Just what was excessive in what "Marx believed" merits its own discussion, but in Russell’s essay Marx’s faults seem to be sins of omission rather than commission.

The "most important error" in Marx’s thought, according to Russell, is that "it ignores intelligence as a cause." It is difficult to understand this objection. Russell says that "men and apes, in the same environment, have different methods of securing food: men practice agriculture, not because of some extra-human dialectic compelling them to do so, but because intelligence shows them its advantages."

Granted that Marx was trying to explain the development of human society and not ape society, the question becomes, where did this "intelligence" come from? It appears that it just fell from the sky into human beings. A little dose of Darwin is needed here, and if Russell had read and been influenced by Engels' essay "The Role of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man," he would not, I think, have had such a reified notion of "intelligence."

Russell says he does not want to imply that "intelligence is something that arises spontaneously in some mystical uncaused manner." He grants its causes are partly social, partly biological, and partly individual, and that "Mendelianism has made a beginning" into understanding its origins.

My point is that Marx did not "ignore intelligence as a cause." He did not single it out as a primary factor, because he saw it as part of the human condition that arises as a response to the evolution of the species and its interactions with the natural and social environment.

Russell's concern with "intelligence" appears to be the result of the prominence of the eugenics movement in his time and is reflected in his comment, quoted above, about the differences between the feeble-minded "average" folk and people such as himself ("of supreme ability").

"How to Read and Understand History" is an enjoyable introduction to some of Russell's ideas, but although one can enjoy it, one cannot, I think, understand history from reading it.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reading Lenin 22

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 22 ]
Thomas Riggins


Lenin will now discuss Machism and religion. He reminds us that there are two basic trends in philosophy: materialism and idealism and that the basic question between these TWO GREAT CAMPS revolves around the question of the priority or matter over mind or vice versa.

Lenin opposes all attempts to blur this twofold division within philosophy by the invention of a "third way" that tries to squirm around these two schools. The greatness of Marx, according to Lenin, was his "insistence upon MATERIALISM and contemptuous derision of all obscurity, of all confusion and all deviations towards IDEALISM." Engels also followed this path both before and after the death of Marx.

Engels opposed the neo-Kantians, the positivists and Machists as well as the Humeans. Speaking about Engels' views on Thomas Huxley, Lenin wrote, "That 'positivism' and that 'realism' which attracted, and which continue to attract, an infinite number of muddleheads, Engels declared to be AT BEST A PHILISTINE METHOD OF SMUGGLING IN MATERIALISM while publicly abusing and disavowing it." Lenin asks if Engels said that about Huxley, "a very great scientist", what would he say about today's [1908] muddleheads?

Lenin answers his own question by writing, "they are a contemptible MIDDLE PARTY in philosophy, who confuse the materialist and idealist trends on every question." They produce nothing but "conciliatory quackery." This quackery is also used by religion to gain respectability. By and large religion is the great ally of reaction and bourgeois domination.

Lenin quotes J. Dietzgen: "The materialist theory of Knowledge is 'a universal weapon against religious belief' and not only against the 'notorious, formal and common religion of the priests, but also against the most refined, elevated professorial religion of muddled idealists'" So,it appears it was from Dietzgen that Lenin picked up "muddle- heads" an expression he is overly fond of using. Lenin appears to think that one of the functions of Marxist journalism and writing is to disabuse the public of any faith in faith.

Lenin agrees that Ostwald, and Mach, and Poincare and all the others (almost) are important scientists making contributions to physics, chemistry, history, etc., but they cannot "BE TRUSTED ONE IOTA when it comes to philosophy." Nor can they be trusted in political science, outside of "factual and specialised investigations." This is because both philosophy and political science are, in our society, PARTISAN endeavors.

Lenin adds an interesting footnote at this point about another "reactionary bourgeois philosophy"-- one we still have with us-- namely, PRAGMATISM. Lenin has gotten hold of William James' PRAGMATISM. A NEW NAME FOR SOME OLD WAYS OF THINKING, published in 1907, and has not been impressed. "Pragmatism ridicules the metaphysics both of materialism and idealism, acclaims experience and only experience, recognises practice as the only criterion, refers to the positivist movement in general, ESPECIALLY TURNS FOR SUPPORT TO OSTWALD, MACH, PEARSON, POINCARE AND DUHEM, for the belief that science is not an 'absolute copy of reality' and ... successfully deduces from all this a God for practical purposes, and only for practical purposes, without any metaphysics, and without transcending the bounds of experience."

This is not very different from Machism, according to Lenin, and is similar to Bogdanov's view, especially with regards to James' definition of "Truth"-- i.e., "a class-name for all sorts of definite working values in experience."

So what is "the task of Marxists" when confronted with all this anti-materialist literature? It is to take what is worthwhile from bourgeois thought and shape it in conformity with Marxism. Lenin tells us we can make NO PROGRESS is our thinking, about "new economic phenomena" (but other areas of knowledge are also meant) unless we make use "of the works" of the bourgeois intellectuals. So one task is to study them and not just our own people. The second task is to enrich dialectical and historical materialism with the valid information gained. We should NOT REVISE Marxism to be in accord with bourgeois thought.

Lenin uses Lunacharsky as an example of a Marxist who has allowed himself to be tainted by the influence of Machism to such an extent that he entertains notions derived from RELIGION (shudder). Some of Lunacharsky's statements: he speaks of the "deification of the higher human potentialities" and mentions "religious atheism" and "scientific socialism in its religious significance" and even writes "For a long time a new religion has been maturing within me." Lenin doesn't go for this. I note that around this time the British philosopher Bertrand Russell was talking about Social Democracy as a form of religion.

Lenin says, "this attitude [is] in no way like that of Marx, Engels, J. Dietzgen and even Feuerbach, but is the VERY OPPOSITE." Lenin is not at all neutral on this issue. "The neutrality of a PHILOSOPHER in the question IS IN ITSELF servility to [religion]." And: "Once you deny objective reality given us in sensation, you have already lost every weapon against [religion]."

Lenin says that Lunacharsky's mixing up of religious and Marxist categories is "shameful." Lenin is totally opposed to piecemeal Marxism, of taking some parts of the theory and ignoring others. It is true the Marxism is a guide to action and not a dogma, but it is a unified theory in which every doctrine is logically implied by and logically implies every other. You cannot, for example, reject the dictatorship of the proletariat on the one hand and on the other speak sensibly about class struggle and its outcome. "A single claw ensnared and the bird is lost," Lenin writes. Idealism and religious chatter a la Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Yushkevich, etc., "this is what one inevitably comes to if one does not recognise the materialist theory that the human mind REFLECTS an objectively real external world."

Stay tuned for next week's thrilling conclusion of MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM starting with Chapter 6 Section 5 "Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach".