Sunday, January 10, 2010


ANTI-DÜHRING: Part One: Philosophy -- Classification & Apriorism

Thomas Riggins

There are eleven chapters in Part One of Anti-Dühring which deal with the topic of philosophy. This part begins with Chapter Three: "Classification. Apriorism."

Dühring, Engels informs us, believes philosophy is the supreme form of the consciousness of all the PRINCIPLES of willing and knowledge and, since all the forms of being are studied by consciousness, then these principles must appear to consciousness as objects of philosophy. Being thus appears to us under three headings-- as the form of the universe, as Nature, and as the human world. Being appears to us in that order as a logical progression.

What Dühring proceeds to do is deduce the structure of the world system and the role of the human sciences from this logical structure produced by his philosophical consciousness. This is IDEALISM and quite the method used by Hegel half a century before. Dühring is quite confused as the facts relating to the nature of the universe and humankind are to be discovered by the study of Nature and History and the logical structure arrived at by philosophers is only valid, insofar as it is valid, because it is derived from experience of the external world not because it is imposed upon it.

Idealists were struck by the fact that the laws of thought and the laws of nature were in such close correspondence but failed to see that the laws discovered by the human brain were so discovered because the brain is a part of nature. Thus, "it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature's interconnections but are in correspondence with them."

Dühring's idealism leads him, Engels says, to view human consciousness as not human! Here are Dühring's own words: It's "a degradation of the basic forms of consciousness and knowledge to attempt to rule out or even put under suspicion their sovereign validity and their unconditional claim to truth, by applying the epithet 'human' to them." But consciousness (human) and knowledge (human) have only developed through the process of evolution in human brains. How can Dühring think they have some kind of transcendental existence?

Engels writes that "no materialist doctrine can be founded on such an ideological basis." But let us see if we can salvage some of Dühring's idea here. Granted that A=A is a human concept developed in a human brain. But A=A appears as a basic law of thought -- it would hold for any rational consciousness including non-human extraterrestrial rational beings. So we can agree that A=A or Reason may not be limited to just the human brain or to the Earth.

Engels says that Dühring, by separating thought from being a human product "has to sever it from the only real foundation on which we find it, namely man and nature." Well, maybe "thought" can be severed from the human brain-- how can we rule out that some other star system does not have intelligent life that reasons on the basis of A=A. But still this would be the result of a process of nature, the natural conditions of this other star system. So Engels is still basically correct, but Dühring too has his point: that rational consciousness may exist independently of humanity(even though we have yet to discover any other rational creatures in the universe). But it is no "degradation" to Reason to call it human.

Engels main point remains true-- we understand the world structure not from our minds but THROUGH our minds. In this sense we don't need philosophy "but positive knowledge of the world" that is "not philosophy, but positive science." I think Engels goes too far when he suggests "if no philosophy as such is any longer required, then also there is no more need of any system, not even of any natural system of philosophy." I want to suggest that we still need philosophy. DIAMAT itself is a philosophical system based on scientific realism or naturalism (materialism). Just a few sentences later in Anti-Dühring Engels himself makes some observations that suggest that we will still need philosophy.

I will argue that Engels, in fact, proposes ideas remarkably similar to what Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) the great English skeptic will say, some seventy years later than Anti-Dühring, is the nature of philosophy. Here is Russell, from the introductory remarks to his HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: "Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All DEFINITE knowledge-- so I should contend-- belongs to science; all DOGMA as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy." Needless to say, when some kind of definite knowledge is discovered in No Man's Land it quickly moves on over into science leaving philosophy behind.

Now, what Engels has to say about knowledge is pretty much the same as Russell, so much so that Engels, save for stylistic differences, could have himself penned Russell's words. What does he say? Engels says that the goal of science is to give a complete description of nature. The mind, via perceptions of the external world, constructs a mental image of "the world system." The scientific world view is the result of an interconnection between the processes of nature and our mental image of them.

But, Engels says, it is not possible for us to attain a complete scientific description of this interconnection. If we ever attained a complete understanding of nature, the mind and history, it would mean knowledge "had reached its limit." If we made society in agreement with this absolute knowledge it would be the End of History ('further historical evolution would be cut short). "This is absurd, it is nonsense", says Engels.

Humanity faces a big contradiction. We strive to attain absolute knowledge, but due to the nature of the world system and of mankind, it is unattainable. "Each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator." This being the case every advance in knowledge brings about new conditions and new problems ad infinitum. So, as it were, there will always be a speculative No Man's Land where philosophy will be located between dogmas of the past on one side and definite knowledge on the other.

So, Engels rejects Dühring's concept of Being. He also rejects his ideas about mathematics. In pure mathematics, Dühring says, the mind works "with its own free creations and imaginations" with regard to figures and numbers it deals with ideas which are "the adequate object of that pure science which it can create of itself" and so with a "validity which is independent of PARTICULAR experience and of the real content of the world."

Engels agrees that the particular experience of individuals can be left out of account, 2+2=4 will still be 2+2=4, but rejects the idea that in mathematics the mind is only working "with its own creations and imaginations." Ideas of number and figure "have not been derived from any source other than the world of reality." [Since the "mind" is part of that world this would seem to follow ipso facto.] Engels means they are "borrowed exclusively from the external world" and do "not arise in the mind out of pure thought." [Whatever is "pure thought" anyway?]

Higher mathematics can become very abstract and seemingly removed from the empirical world but this is the result of the historical evolution of mathematical thought that seems to result in "the free creations and imaginations of the mind."

The truth is, Engels says, "Like all other sciences, mathematics arose out of the NEEDS of men." As knowledge evolves the concepts and laws derived from concrete reality become more and more abstract until they seem to be independent of their mundane origins. They then begin to appear "as something independent, as laws coming from outside, to which the world has to conform." This is what has happened with economics and political science. The economic laws of capitalism, an economic system created by mankind after a long social evolution, now appear as independent economic laws to which all economic life must conform. We make the idols we worship.

So much for chapter three of Anti-Dühring. But I should remark that Engels makes a few more remarks about mathematics that, while they are not crucial to his argument, have been attacked as showing confusion with regard to his understanding of the axiomatic method and the relation of mathematics to logic. Anyone wishing to pursue these criticisms should start with a paper by Jean van Heijenoort, "Frederick Engels and Mathematics" available on the internet.

Stay tuned.
[Anti-Dühring 3]

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