‘Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature’ by Kaan Kangal reviewed by Vesa Oittinen


Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2020. 213pp., £59.99 hb
ISBN 9783030343347

Reviewed by Vesa Oittinen

About the reviewer

Vesa Oittinen is Professor emeritus at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. He has …

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Engels’ Dialectics of Nature is one of the most controversial classics of Marxism. It is even questionable whether the collection of manuscripts in which Engels dealt with problems of the natural sciences was intended by him to add up to a coherent volume. In this respect, the Dialectics of Nature is like the German Ideology by Marx and Engels, which also consists of disparate texts which were united into one work only by its editors.

Kaan Kangal’s new analysis of the creation and reception of Engels’ researches in the natural sciences is welcome. It helps to settle the most obvious misconceptions and false interpretations which have arisen around this posthumous work of Engels. The book consist of six chapters which are only loosely connected, in fact they are almost independent essays. After an introductory part, the author discusses the origins of the “Engels debate”, that is, the question whether there exists a “dialectics of nature”, Engels’ motives in undertaking this project, and the forms of dialectical reasoning in Engels’ work.

According to Kangal, the debates so far show that “scholars have failed to distinguish Engels’ purposes, goals, desires, motivations, intentions and procedures” (3). A main fault has been that the incomplete character of Engels’ work has not received due attention. The central question has been whether processes taking place in nature are “dialectical”. Most famously this was denied by the young Lukács in History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He claimed that since dialectics presupposes a human subject, one cannot speak of dialectics in nonhuman nature. Lukács has always been accused of Hegelianism, but in this case he deviated radically from Hegel, who in his Logic dealt expressly with dialectical forms in physics, chemistry and biology. Later, Lukács denounced his “juvenile sins”, but his previous position has many followers, for example among the representatives of the Frankfurt school. One of them, Alfred Schmidt, even asserted that there exists a direct connection between Engelsian Naturdialektik and Stalinism (21). One of the main results of Kangal’s book is that he manages to show convincingly that it is not possible to separate Marx and Engels using their positions on the dialectics of nature as a criterion. There are many statements by Marx approving of Engels’ project, and he collaborated with Engels when the latter wrote Anti-Dühring, a work which closely adheres to the Engelsian project of a dialectics of nature.

Kangal, however, tries to do justice to the young Lukács by assuming that behind his position may have been the wish to distance himself from the mechanistic Marxism of Bukharin. As Gramsci noted, Lukács and Bukharin represented “opposite ends” on the question of the dialectics of nature (54ff). Gramsci himself seems to have accepted the idea of the dialecticity of nonhuman nature.

Furthermore, according to Kangal, the novelty of Lukács’ claim is overrated, since the origins of the “Engels debate” lie deeper in history – they go back to the critique of Hegel by Trendelenburg, presented already in the 1840s, and to Eduard von Hartmann. They were soon followed by Eugen Dühring, who accused Marx of following Hegel’s mistaken dialectical ideas. Eduard Bernstein later joined the chorus, claiming that “the great things which Marx and Engels achieved, they accomplished in spite of, not because of Hegel’s dialectics” (49). It is intriguing to find that Dühring attempted to create an alternative to the Marxian method; he dubbed it “natural dialectics” (natürliche Dialektik), which, however, had nothing in common with Engels’ project and which today has fallen into oblivion. It is a pity that Kangal does not discuss this Dühringian project (and its failure) more.

The editing history of Dialectics of Nature is described rather briefly by Kangal. In Engels’ Nachlass there were 197 manuscript fragments on the subject, divided into four folders. These were published for the first time in the Soviet Union in 1925 in the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) edition. Further editions followed in 1927 and a new MEGA version in 1935, which was to serve as the textual basis for all subsequent editions. The number of texts included in these different editions varied.

The publication of Engels’ manuscript had a big impact on the emerging Soviet philosophy. In the 1920s a journal with the title Dialektika v prirode (Dialectics in Nature) was even published for a short time. These discussions ceased in the 1930s when Stalin’s regime became stabilized, but some of Engels’ formulations concerning the dialectical method found their way into Stalin’s article “On Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, which became an obligatory guideline for Soviet Marxism. Unfortunately, Kangal does not follow the later, post-Stalin, Soviet discussions on dialectics of nature, although it would have rounded up the picture he gives in an essential manner. He mentions a couple of times Bonifati Kedrov (1903-1985), a historian of science, who wrote important studies on Engels’ work, but does not describe their content. Kedrov’s analyses, especially O metode izlozheniya dialektiki (On the Presentation Method of Dialectics), published in 1983, show many similarities with Kangal’s work and I think Kangal would have profited if he had taken them into account.

According to Kangal, the discussion of Engels’ project has hitherto failed to answer the question of “why Engels had undertaken such a gigantic task as Dialectics of Nature” (71). Why was a materialist-dialectical account of philosophy of nature and natural sciences so important for him, and for Marx? I believe Kangal is on the right track when he insists that the project of a dialectics of nature “arose from a need for establishing proletarian ‘counter-hegemony’ not only politically, but also philosophically” (97). The role of intellectuals was here crucial. On February 11, 1870, Marx wrote to Engels, noting that the “supply of heads that were brought over to the proletariat from other classes up until ’48 seems to have totally dried up”. What Marx meant was that after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, the intellectuals had increasingly turned away from their previous radicalism and accepted the status quo of the bourgeois order. This created a problem, since, as Engels wrote in another context, “the emancipation of the working class needs […] doctors, engineers, chemists, agronomists and other experts; for we are faced with taking over the running not only of the political machine, but of all social production”. In short, not only material production, but even its intellectual counterpart, the sciences, had to be recast to match the demands of a new, socialist society. One cannot but agree with Kangal, when he stresses the role of philosophy in fulfilling this task: “If theory is a practical tool of explanation and anticipation in use, it is rationally controlled and critically examined through a more fundamental framework that enables theory to function as a ‘guide to action’ […] In short, philosophy is a ‘guide to theory’” (104).

The fifth chapter of the book, which deals with Engels’ idea of dialectics, is to my mind somewhat problematic. The author claims that a comparison of Hegel’s and Engels’ positions shows that “there is no obvious divergence between materialism and idealism” (194). In other words, “Engels’ ‘materialism’ and ‘dialectics’ are in full conformity with Hegel’s ‘idealism’ and ‘metaphysics’”. Engels in fact only “reversed” Hegel’s idealism, he did not eliminate it (165). Kangal comes to this conclusion, because he seems to accept Hegel’s definition of idealism. According to this definition, the finite is but an “idealization” and does not truly exist if there is not an infinite totality of which it is a part (155, 194). From this definition it follows that materialist philosophies that assert universal substances, such as “matter”, are, from the viewpoint of Hegel, actually idealistic. In other words, Hegel claims that his objective idealism is in fact a form of philosophical realism. Now, it is true that many Marxists have noted Hegel’s “closeness” to materialism (for example, Lenin discusses this in his Philosophical Notebooks). But this closeness appears only in the details of the conceptual development, not on the level of the philosophical system. It is utterly improbable, that Engels, who has the merit of formulating the famous “basic question of philosophy”, would adhere to Hegel’s definition of idealism.

The fifth chapter also contains a discussion of the idea of dialectics that Engels uses. Kangal notes that for Engels, the most important part of Hegel’s logic is the Doctrine of Essence (the so-called Wesenslogik), which according to Engels forms “the genuine core of the whole teaching” (146). Already this remark shows that Engels is drawing on Hegel’s logic very selectively. Engels sees “contradiction” as a central concept of dialectics, but he does not discuss the more subtle problems which are inherent in Hegel’s idea of a dialectical contradiction. Already Trendelenburg accused Hegel of transforming contradictory (i.e. logical) opposites into contrary (i.e., real) ones, but Engels does not seem to reflect on this. In chapter five, Kangal scrutinizes in detail the concepts of contradiction and opposition in Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, but the presentation of the issues is rather disorganized. It seems that Engels simply thought that nature is dialectical, because there are real, material contradictions in nature, and that these physical contradictions are the source of movement. From the inherent contradictions of matter it follows that all matter is in movement. Engels’ dialectics of nature is actually a theory of movement, and the above mentioned Kedrov analyzes Engels’ project expressly as an attempt to single out different levels of movement of matter (physical, chemical, biological, social matter), which, in turn, would give clues for a respective classification of the sciences. Like Engels, Kedrov only notes the role of contradiction as the source of movement, but does not dwell on it further. Kangal’s analysis of Engels’ project would have profited if he had looked at the question of classification of different forms of movement.

A final comment on Engels’ relation to Kant. Kangal correctly notes Engels’ rather hostile view of Kant (144ff). We can only guess at the reasons for Engels’ attitude, but probably he confused Kant’s own views with those of Neo-Kantianism, a current which began to emerge in the 1860s. The Neo-Kantians attempted to remove the idea of “things-in-themselves” from the conceptual corpus of Kant’s philosophy and so they gave to it an interpretation which tended towards subjective idealism. Kangal discusses such aspects of Kantianism as the concept of transcendental dialectics and the question of logical versus real contradictions, but he bypasses a circumstance which to my mind is of the utmost important here, namely the methodological significance of Kant’s “Copernican turn”. Kant famously asserted that before we can begin to make statements about the world (the reality surrounding us), we must investigate our cognitive abilities, in order to be sure that we are capable of obtaining reliable knowledge. Thus, Kant stressed that a theory of cognition has priority over ontology (the doctrine of Being). From a Kantian point of view, we cannot make an unfounded ontological claim such as that Being or nature is “dialectical”; all we can say is that we can cognize nature by using the categories of dialectics. This is a distinction which makes good sense from the viewpoint of the everyday practice of science: the scientific theories about the character of nature or matter continuously change, and it would be dogmatic to assert that, for example, Newtonian mechanics is the final and ultimate truth about the essence of nature. In fact, it is a theory which our mind projects onto matter, and can in the future be replaced or expanded by a new theory which describes the reality in a more adequate manner.

Now, it seems to me that Engels has to pay for his anti-Kantianism. He does not take notice of the distinction between ontological and epistemological claims, which leads to a constant confusion in his project of a dialectics of nature. Sometimes he writes that “there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it” (127) – this is a an epistemological claim. On other occasions, he writes that “dialectical laws are real laws of development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science” (131) – this is clearly an ontological statement.

So, the question posed by Lukács in 1923 arises again: is there dialectics in nature, or not? I think that the “Solomonic” answer Lucien Sève (2004, 567) gave is the best one:

Strictly speaking, there are no dialectical contradictions in nature, any more than there are numerical relations, topological properties, causal sequences or any other rational elaborations through which our cognitive activities are grasped. The dialecticity of nature consists in this that its relations and processes cannot be grasped objectively nor rationally expressed in logical terms except in those of dialectical thought. It is only in this epistemologically mindful sense that one can rightly describe nature as objectively dialectical.

15 December 2020

References

  • Sève, Lucien 2014 Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui, III: ”La philosophie”? (Paris: La Dispute)

12 comments

  1. A thoughtful review, Vesa, that raises many significant questions about the nature of the manuscripts published especially in the late 1920s and 1930s, and which achieved canonical status. So important to re-establish the dialogues in which thinkers were engaged and how this shaped their exposition.

  2. it’s a good review of Engels ‘ dialectic of nature from the perspective of philosophy ; but the question is does natural science support it or not. Whatever, thanks to the reviewer.

  3. Nice review, Vesa. The only thing I would add is that “Idealism” has different meanings in different registers, and the contrast between idealism and materialism does not “line up” across the different registers.

  4. I apologize for my poor English.

    Thank you very much, Vesa, for your review! It seems that here also K. Kangal missed this moment in Engels’s work. The fact is that Engels did not consider only dialectical processes in nature. In this matter, I think, he is not far removed from the materialists of the 18th century, for example, from Diderot.
    More important questions for Engels were:
    1) the question of the dialectic of the development of the natural sciences, in general, i.e. what is today called the philosophy of science;
    2) the question of the internal dialectical unity of various levels of being (inorganic nature, organic nature, life, society, history, human thinking), which is found in various forms of movement and development;
    3) the question of the specifics of dialectics in natural processes.

    Lukacs is right that there is no active subject in nature. But if there is a development (evolution) in nature, then dialectics also takes place in it. But not the subject-object dialectic that we observe in human society, but a different, dissimilar dialectics. However, as far as one can judge, Engels failed to reveal such dialectic of nature without a subject.
    The Stalinists (M. Mitin, P. Yudin, E. Kolman) took from Engels (through the canonization of Lenin’s book «Materialism and Empirio-criticism» and the ideas of G. Plekhanov) only this «subject-free», «subjectless» dialectic of nature. And turned it into a diamat. And then, according to Stalin, they «extended», «extrapolated» the «laws of dialectics» to human society and history.
    Marx and Engels themselves, as is well known, followed a different path. First, they discovered dialectical laws of human society development, and then Engels tried to substantiate them in a broader materialistic ontology and epistemology.
    But I repeat: for Engels in the «Dialectic of Nature» (and earlier in the «Anti-Düring»), other issues were important, and not the metaphysics of matter and consciousness, etc.It was important for Him to justify the dialectical relationship of all levels of being and their immanent development, their historicity.
    And in this sense, Engels (and even more so Marx) has nothing to do with the Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism of the third years of the 20th century.

  5. Perhaps Engels had good reasons for not drawing a sharp boundary between the ontology and epistemology of dialectical phenomena.

    When Engels rightly says, that the dialectics of a subject-matter have to be “discovered” through a critical analysis and reworking of the subject-matter, he is assuming that there *really exist* dialectical relationships or characteristics which can be so discovered. It is not just an “imaginary”.

    That leads to another insight, that subjective dialectics cannot exist without objective dialectics. If you think it through in terms of the theory of evolution (in Engels’s “materialist” sense), dialectical processes can only have their ultimate source in physical nature itself (and not, say, in Hegel’s World Spirit), as the real origin and physical basis for human social formations. Today we have much better biological, historical and archaeological evidence to support that thesis.

    One of the problematic aspects of Kant’s theory of knowledge – as Hegel and Marx both recognized – was precisely the *radical separation* of thought and being. The chasm between the two became unbridgeable, casting doubt on the project of reaching certain knowledge. In practice, however, thought and being are always connected, interactive and interdependent. Dialectics acquires a very mysterious and esoteric character, when we categorize or conceptualize phenomena in such a way, that they are split up into separated and fragmented things, although in reality they are intrinsically related, and very much belong together.

    If we radically separate e.g. “thought and being”, “nature and society”, the “mental and the physical”, “sexuality and spirituality”, the “divine and the worldly”, “ontology and epistemology”, “theory and practice” etc., it is not surprising that the world appears very puzzling, alienated, fragmented, dualistic and full of paradoxes. The way the categorical distinctions are drawn, makes it difficult to apprehend the real interconnections (or Zusammenhang) between different things.

    Certainly, for the purpose of an analysis of any type (scientific, administrative, narrative, legal, technical etc.) we do often need to sift out and separate out the constituent parts of a phenomenon, with exact and consistent definitions of their identity. Because only then can we understand properly how the parts fit together and interact. You cannot understand the whole, if you know nothing about its constituent parts, and you cannot understand the significance of the parts, unless you understand their place in the whole.

    But once we have understood all that, we can take a further gnostic step: we are in a position to comprehend the whole phenomenon as a dynamic reality, as it emerges, develops, reaches its peak, declines and disappears. That is the fuller sense of dialectical comprehension that Marx and Engels talked about, applied to complex processes.

  6. Good question, above. How does Engels’ dialectics stand in the light of current natural science and philosophy? Is there any literature on that please?

  7. @Rum: The academic fashions have changed considerably. The main trend among the “super-radical” part of the Western Left in 1960-2010 was anti-Engels.

    Engels had supposedly falsely edited and misrepresented Marx’s scriptures, Engels had supposedly colluded with Second International reformists to blunt the revolutionary edge, Engels vulgarized Marx and Marxism, Engels was a positivist, Engels invented dialectical materialism, Marx never believed in a dialectics of nature etc. etc.

    This Western interpretation was actually strongly influenced by a critical reaction among part of the Western New Left to the stylized portrayal of Marx and Engels in official Marxism-Leninism.

    In Marxism-Leninism, you had the “holy trinity” of Marx, Engels and Lenin, forming a complete, integrated and harmonious whole, although some Marxist-Leninists also tacked on Stalin, or Mao, Castro, Tito, Enver Hoxha, Ho Chi Min etc.).

    Today, the “super-radical” Western academic Left is showing more appreciation of Engels than before. Why? One reason is, that more and more has become known about the real history of Marx and Engels, and the old “super-radical” anti-Engels stories are no longer credible.

    Another is, that Engels was a successful businessman, a dashing adventurer, a multi-talented writer and a gentleman who generously donated money to the Marx family, so that they could survive. Thirdly, the whole intellectual and political spectrum has shifted to the Right, while the elites themselves are fragmenting, and liberalism is experiencing a serious moral crisis.

    The imagery of Engels as a “noble bourgeois socialist” who is concerned with the plight of the poor, jells much better with the contemporary inequality discourse and a liberal culture in which, according to surveys, workers often trust their employer more than they trust politicians or the police.

    All this stands in contrast to the desperately poor and unsavoury Karl Marx, who sacrificed his family to write a book that very few people ever read or understood, and who suffered from piles on his butt.

    In today’s culture, Engels is just so much more attractive, vigorous, interesting, inspiring and sexy than Marx (it cannot be ruled out altogether, that in future we may see Friedrich Engels featuring in American hamburger commercials).

    In the last 40 years, there were numerous Western Anglo-Saxon scientific researchers who have taken Engels’s ideas about dialectics and human origins seriously (despite the “super-radical” anti-Engels academics).

    Think, for example, of books and articles by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, Stephen Jay Gould, Robert L. Carneiro, Eleanor Leacock, Thomas C. Patterson, Randall H. McGuire, Bruce Trigger, Charles Woolfson, etc. to name just a few. A classic Western interpretation of Soviet science and philosophy was by Loren R. Graham.

    A basic problem of British historical materialism today appears to be, that it has very little to do either with real history, or with the real future, or with Marx & Engels and their project of a “science of history”. It is more a sort of clever Althusserian theoreticism, infused with doses of quasi-Hegelian philosophy, a dash of theology and a mix of quack psychologies, through the lens of which leftist academics try to grasp and cream off the latest intellectual flavours, and capture the high road of intellectual thought as quickly as possible, so they can dot the i’s on the most advanced ideas.

    If you would really follow Marx and Engels though, then you would be trying to integrate systematically all the new findings of research about human society and history, and about the theory of evolution, in numerous different scientific fields, in order to update, improve and modernize Marx & Engels’s interpretation of history.

    It is anachronistic to tackle the issues of 2021 with the socialisms of 1917, 1938, 1957, 1968 and 1990. Yet is it also a mistake to dismiss 20th century findings as irrelevant to 21st century concerns. If today’s Left fails badly in many areas, it is because the “super-radical” academic Left has simply failed to integrate the real lessons of old and new research & experience. They are more concerned with praise ands blame, with demons and deities, instead of dealing with what really happened and what was, or is, really to be learned from it.

  8. Interestingly, in his 1844 Paris manuscripts, Marx envisaged that “Natural science will in time subsume under itself the science of humans, just as the science of humans will subsume under itself natural science: there will be one science.”

    We can see that already today, with new hybrid scientific paradigms emerging, such as sociobiology, econophysics, evolutionary economics, and social bio-archaeology.

    In a letter to Engels dated 22 June 1867, Marx commented that “Incidentally, you will see from the conclusion to my Chapter [on the rate and mass of surplus value, in Capital Vol. 1, Pelican edition p. 423], where I outline the transformation of the master of a trade into a capitalist — as a result of purely quantitative changes — that in the text there I quote Hegel’s discovery of the law of the transformation of a merely quantitative change into a qualitative one as being attested by history and natural science alike.”

    The relevant passage in Capital Vol. 1 states: “Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel, in his Logic, that at a certain point merely quantitative differences pass over by a dialectical inversion into qualitative distinctions.”

    In a footnote, Marx adds that “the molecular theory of modern chemistry, first scientifically worked out by [Charles Frédéric] Laurent and [Auguste] Gerhardt, rests on no other law.” (ibid., p. 423-424). This passage was also quoted and commented on by Engels in his “Anti-Duhring” (1878) polemic, which Marx reportedly read before it was published.

    There have been New Left philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Alfred Schmidt who wanted to restrict dialectical characteristics exclusively to social and human relations, to the world of human experience. Such a demarcation seemed important, to avoid “naturalizing” social phenomena, or reducing the domain of the social to the natural and physical.

    Yet this idea is also rather odd, in view of the fact that “social and human relations” inescapably have biological and physical dimensions at all times. At the very least, there is always a biological substratum of human behaviour, even if it manifests itself only as eating and drinking, bodily functions etc.

    From this perspective, Sartre’s and Schmidt’s thought would appear as a wholly “disembodied philosophy” – which in truth it wasn’t; it was merely an inconsistent philosophy, disregarding, in this instance, the interplay between the social and the physical.

    Marx certainly would not have agreed with Sartre’s and Schmidt’s idea, though Marx obviously did not intend to simply conflate social phenomena with biological and physical phenomena, or to accept uncritically just everything that Hegel had to say.

    Whether Marx would have agreed with Engels’s speculations about the dialectics of nature, we do not know; most likely, Marx would have gone along with some of it, and not all of it. Indeed Engels himself might well have discarded some ideas, if he had prepared his drafted manuscripts for publication.

    It was more that later, Marxist authorities philosophically systematized the drafts, to create a complete cosmology out of them. That was probably taking things too far, more like hot air, since it went far beyond what science could hope to test and prove.

    It became a grandiose dialectical metaphysics, a “philosophical world schematism” of a type that Marx and Engels were, precisely, skeptical of. The political-ideological intention of the dialectical cosmology was to provide a complete “scientific” alternative to religious cosmology, but, ironically, in so doing, it transformed a perfectly sensible idea into a quasi-religion.

  9. Oh, I forgot. A quite sophisticated modern “dialectical” interpretation of physics generally, and quantum theory in particular, is the one by David Bohm (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bohm). Obviously it goes far beyond what Engels could imagine. Regrettably Bohm died in 1992, just when I started to get interested in his philosophy. There are many publications on David Bohm’s ideas online, and there are also youtube videos such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-jI0zzYgIE

  10. Spoiler: probably a sharper presentation by David Bohm about the parts and the whole in the universe, is in this video from 1984: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7VKGcmWVCw Bohm’s main books are actually readable, unlike many physics texts, because he focuses on the concepts, rather than the algebraic equations.

    To be honest, when I think of this topic, my own thoughts keep drifting off to a certain faraway Mediterranean country, a country which isn’t a nation, and what is Mr Biden going to do about it, despite all the commercial hoo-hah. Or, what could I do about it, as a mere mortal, I feel rather inadequate and bereft, without Gods to appeal to. There’s got to be a better way, on this the world can agree.

    Mr Obama said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We could add, “the duty of a man is to stand straight, for what is truly good and decent”. It doesn’t have to be an army parade, but you know what I mean. I think Aristotle and Plato would have agreed. Maybe a risky thing to say, but worth a try. Who knows what we can still achieve, together.

    Does philosophy have a use? Yes it does, I think, by clarifying the meaning of issues that people are grappling with, for example, inequalities, freedom, justice, reality, peace, knowledge, morality etc., which are all concerns that orient human behaviour everywhere in the world, but which may be vaguely defined, giving rise to cynicism and skepticism about idle and worthless rhetorics. Yet, actions cannot be formed well without clear ideas.

    The young Marx opined boldly, that philosophy had to “become worldly”, to concern itself with the actual world and its preoccupations. Philosophy can help, because it offers “the freedom to think outside the box”, a freedom which we always can partake in, whatever the rules, frameworks and disciplines. It is the freedom to think. There are questions out there, that urgently demand answers, and that requires clear thought – critical and searching thought. Philosophy can help. It deserves to be taken seriously, if pursued with the appropriate motivation.

    Of course, at Xmas we would like to see what is in the box, but philosophy might also reflect on what we find in the box, and put it in a broader context. Perhaps I ought therefore to wish you: a “philosophical Xmas”, in the best and sincerest sense of the word. Who knows, it might inspire us to better actions. What has the love of wisdom got to with it? You bet, everything.

  11. @Corinna: my views about dialectics are probably pretty similar to yours, whatever the particular names and labels we might use.

    The trouble is, that people often suppose that there is this thing called the “dialectical method”, and that if you understand that method, that then you have the key to the dialectical understanding of the totality. This is a bit like the (elusive) positivist search for the correct idea of “the scientific method”. It is a bit like the search for the Holy Grail, or the Philosophers’ Stone. I don’t think myself that Marx and Engels thought of dialectics that way at all.

    Antonio Gramsci was more on right track, when he mentioned somewhere that (paraphrase) just as there exists no key that will open all doors, there exists no “one scientific method” which, whenever applied to anything, will unlock all the insights we need. Instead, we have to develop a method adequate to understand a subject-matter by… grappling with the subject-matter itself.

    The way Gramsci puts it, is that we acquire an adequate method for the study of an object from the object itself, by appraising its characteristics. Practically speaking, there isn’t any way other than that, to achieve success with the research. Marx’s Grundrisse for example is a good illustration of how he grappled with the science of political economy.

    If you want to learn to swim, you have to get into the water, and if you don’t want to get into the water, then you can only obtain an Althusserian Theory of swimming which is far removed from the actual practice of swimming (the “theory of swimming” as a “theoretical practice”, rather than the actual swimming). The remoteness of the object of study actually becomes an obstacle to understanding anything vital about it. Whereas, if you deigned to try some swimming for yourself, this would vastly improve your own understanding of the subject of swimming.

    It is simply ridiculous to think that you can have a one-size-fits-all general Method to comprehend Everything that Exists. A method for understanding a subject-matter always has to be “appropriate to the subject-matter”, and so you have to grapple with the subject-matter, to understand what is appropriate. The socialist historian Edward Thompson said more or less the same thing. You only begin to understand the meaning and purpose of theory, when you are faced with real experiential evidence that you have to find an explanation for. That is the point where you thinking really begins to grow.

    Marx distinguished clearly between the “method of inquiry” and the “method of presentation or exposition”. If you want to understand something in its totality, then analysis must prefigure synthesis. You first have to separate out the different component parts of a subject-matter, and learn to understand how exactly they are connected with each other, and how they all fit together.

    Only when you have done that, can you tell a logically sound and coherent story about the subject-matter, in which you give all aspects of the subject-matter their appropriate place, and elucidate how they are all connected, to obtain an integral, consistent and holistic understanding of what it is about.

    That story can be told in a “dialectical” way, only because its author profoundly understands the subject which he already studied for a long time. It is not that you “start out” with a dialectical understanding or waving the magic wand of the Dialectical Method, but that you achieve dialectical insight through systematic empirical and logical research, i.e. as a result or conclusion of a lot of investigative work.

    Friedrich Engels made all this very explicit, when he stated that the challenge is to “discover” the dialectical properties of the subject-matter. You can only really do this, when you are able to “see the whole thing in perspective”, because you have already closely studied all the different parts of it, how they are related and how they move or develop together.

    There exists no grandiose open Road to Science which you only have to promenade through to reach scientific glory, as Marx says. Namely, if you really want to know things, then you have to “do what it takes to know those things” (this is obviously not a popular idea in the age of cyberspace, when many people believe you can very simply and quickly cream off – and head off or neutralize – all the latest insights, just by scraping, hacking and cracking other people’s worlds, with everybody looking over the shoulders of everybody else to pick their brains).

    I have an interesting DDR relic at home, which is a 1975 German-language book published by Dietz and edited by Mark Moisevich Rosenthal, titled “Geschichte der Marxistischen Dialektik – von der Entstehung des Marxismus bis zur Leninschen Etappe” [A history of Marxist dialectics – from the origin of Marxism to the Leninist stage]. It’s a translation of the 1971 Russian edition of Istoriya Marksistskoy Dialektiki : ot vozniknoveniya marksizma do leninskogo etapa, a joint work of ten philosophers associated with the USSR Academy of Sciences.

    In this book (which has 14 chapters), Ilyenkov contributed two chapters, one of them about the “dialectics of the abstract and the concrete”, and the other on “the logical and the historical”. What makes this book – the English translation seems almost impossible to obtain these days – interesting in retrospect is, that it shows, how Ilyenkov’s work fitted into a much larger philosophical project in the USSR to redefine all the different themes and topics involved in the dialectical understanding of people, society, the world and the universe.

    What is also very interesting is, how similar these themes and topics were to the Western Marxist discussions about dialectics – how much the New Left was actually still influenced by the Marxist-Leninist reading of dialectical philosophy, even although the New Left introduced various innovations and modifications of the ideas of dialectical materialism.

    What I think now is, that to show the valid content of dialectical understandings, we have to invent a new language (and also a more precise scientific language) to talk about these things. The doctrinaire academic-Marxist rhetorics and cliche’s about dialectics, endlessly repeated, mostly killed off the real spirit of dialectical thought. We need to find new ways of expressing these ideas, so that people can use them much better, and more creatively than before.

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