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Greek Philosophy - Its Relevance Today

 

                          "Strife is the father of all things ... the one, sundering itself, coalesces with
                                             itself, like the harmony of the bow and the lyre ...
"         

                                                                                                                                     Heraclitus.

 


 

The Lyre

 

   Philosophy may be described as thinking according to some method.  It begins with sensuous perception of the material world which exists independently of perception and thought, and which is their cause.  We form this or that conception of the external world and proceed to gain further knowledge of it by understanding it in the light of this first relatively true conception. It is thus that philosophy arises, comes into being, in the individual person in every moment and it was thus that it came into being historically, the beginning of scientific thought as such.  The record indicates that it first came into being in the mind of a man called Thales.

 

   Thales of Miletus, Ionia, was born in 624 BC and died about 550 BC, and is regarded as the father of Greek philosophy. He was a mathematician, astronomer, and it seems something of a civil engineer, and it is safe to assume that his struggle to grasp and understand the external world in thought was driven by the practical needs of ancient Greek society.  His philosophy consisted of two propositions, firstly, that the first principle of all things is water, that all things come from and return to water, and secondly, that the earth is a flat disc that floats on water. It may seem that such a simple and naive theory of the world does not really deserve to be called philosophy, but it does, because it is the first recorded attempt to formulate a working theory of the world by direct observation and analysis of natural phenomena. Further, it is an attempt to reduce all such observed phenomena to one single fundamental cause, and in making this attempt Thales determined the direction in which Greek philosophy would afterwards proceed, and in which philosophy proceeds to this day, in the sense that scientists today are mainly concerned to reduce the four physical forces, gravity, electro-magnetism, the weak and the strong force, to one single phenomenon.

 

   All things change and evolve with time and must be understood as historical processes, and human thought is no exception. Anaximander, another Ionian philosopher, a map-maker and astronomer and a pupil of Thales, took a step forward. While Thales maintained that all things came from water, he does not seem to have given any explanation for this choice of first principle, nor do we have any record of his views on how water becomes transformed into the myriad of different forms of matter we perceive in the external world.  Anaximander's concept of the first principle was, like that of Thales, material, but while Thales named water, a definite and determinate form of matter, Anaximander regarded the first principle as being no particular kind of matter, but simply matter as such, and it is important to understand the thought process by which he arrived at this view. 

 

   We can only directly perceive matter in one of the many forms in which it exists, and knowledge gained by such direct perception is empirical knowledge.  Each of these forms, such as water, iron, or air, have separate identity because they are qualitatively different from each other.  However, since matter is the common substrate of every substance, it cannot be like one kind of substance without being unlike another, so we conclude that matter is devoid of all qualities or internal differentiation.  But no such matter can ever exist or be directly perceived, it can exist only as an abstraction, and this was the theoretical leap that Anaximander had made; he had made the leap from empirical to abstract thought. 

 

   No historical process ever moves inexorably forward.  Like the waves striking the shore, the "progress" of humanity surges forward only to roll back, but the overall result is the tendency to move from ignorance to enlightenment, from less profound to more profound knowledge.  Another inhabitant of Miletus, Anaximenes, began by taking a step backwards by taking air as his first principle of the universe, a determinate form of matter and therefore a step back from abstract to empirical thought. But at the same time he made a step forward.  The trouble with Anaximander's theory was that while there would seem to be nothing to prevent indeterminate, featureless matter from taking many different forms, he gave no explanation of how it might happen.  How could completely featureless matter ever change and produce from within itself matter of different quality without some external cause to make it happen?  And since matter was declared to be the first principle the presence of an external cause was specifically ruled out. Anaximenes solved the problem by relating quality to quantity. Where differing quantities of matter, (air), are contained in the same volume of space, their respective qualities would differ.  Hence earth contained more air, was denser, than water, and so on. It is important to note that according to Anaximenes even the soul was made of air, since this conception unites the inner conscious life of mankind with matter, the latter being the cause of the former, and this is the basis of the materialist outlook.

 

   As we have pointed out, all the things we perceive in the world owe their existence, their identity, as separate objects, to the qualitative differences between them. It follows from this that the qualities by which we identify objects are each limited in extent.  The difference between green things and brown things is that green things are not brown and brown things are not green.  Brown and green therefore, are limited in extent and not universal qualities, and if we wish to identify the single first principle of the universe these will not do.  Another school of philosophy, the Pythagoreans, proposed their own solution.  Pythagoras was born about 570 BC and founded his society about 530 BC in Crotona, southern Italy. It was essentially a religious sect which was based on the belief in reincarnation and other mysterious beliefs.  They indulged in strange rituals, studied mathematics to which they attached magical significance and practiced medicine and the arts, particularly music.

 

  The Pythagoreans argued thus: The many different things we perceive in the universe owe their separate identities to qualitative difference. But there are many different qualities and these occur in different combinations in different things, sometimes hidden and sometimes explicit. Identifying the one universal quality as first principle is therefore no simple matter, but there is one quality that is clearly common to all things, and that is that everything is susceptible to being counted.  It is impossible to conceive of a world in which the things in it cannot be counted, hence the first principle of the universe and the ultimate reality is number, and upon this principle they constructed the universe in the belief that it was actually made of numbers.  The minimum quantity is one, unity, and this corresponds in space to a point, which they thought had magnitude.  The number two corresponds to a straight line, (which exists between two points), three to a plane, (triangle), four to a solid, (triangular pyramid), and with this latter they had arrived at three dimensional space.  They further observed that there is a certain proportionality about space.  All men are roughly the same size, but generally smaller than horses, which are also roughly the same size, and so on with trees, stars etc. They attributed this proportionality to the nature of numbers, and in this respect they had some experimental results to support their theory. It is said that the Pythagoreans discovered the notes of the musical scale by listening to the sounds made by blacksmiths striking pieces of metal of differing lengths, and by experimenting with stringed instruments and measuring the lengths of the strings.  From this they concluded that everything that moved in the universe made a sound in proportion to its size, and that the universe was consequently filled with beautiful music. A nice thought, but unfortunately one which demonstrates the futility of careless conjecture rather than anything else. The Pythagorean Society made enormous contributions to mathematics but their philosophy was a blind alley and it came to an end about 430 BC. Its attempt to impose a strict and abstemious lifestyle on society in general provoked a violent response, many of its members were killed and the rest scattered, and although the tradition lived on it never really recovered. 

 

   The last of the Ionian philosophers with whom we must deal is Xenophanes, born about 576 BC at Colophon, but usually regarded as the founder of the Eleatic school of Philosophy. He was a religious man rather than a philosopher, but, paradoxical though it seems to us, his approach to religion was philosophic. Popular religion at the time involved belief in the existence of a number of gods, not gods as we think of them today, rather mythical super-heroes possessed of prodigious or possibly magical powers who achieved great things, but fallible beings nonetheless, who were seen not as having created the world but merely as inhabiting it just as do mere mortals. Xenophanes grappled with the logic of such a system of belief and decided that the gods of the popular religion were nothing but creations of the mind.  Men had created men-like gods, he reasoned, and if animals created gods they too would create them in their own image. Following the example of preceding philosophers he began empirically, trying to discover god in the external world, and also to make this god the one first principle of the universe. For Xenophanes god was this first principle. He, of rather "it", was the world, was infinite, immutable and undivided.  "All is one, and the one is god", Aristotle quotes him as saying.  In truth the god of Xenophanes was no less a creation of the mind than previous gods, but his assertion that the universe was one undivided whole was an important step forward for philosophy.

 

   The two most important philosophers associated with the Eleatic school were Parmenides and Zeno.  Parmenides was born about 514 BC at Elea which is in Italy, and he followed the example of Xenophanes by adopting the empirical approach and regarding the universe as one undivided whole. However, Parmenides had a problem with the world he observed.  He noticed that everything moved, that all things constantly changed, that everything was in a state of coming into being and passing away.  How was it possible to say what the world, or any particular thing in it, actually was if it was in being in one moment and not in the next?  Since by its nature the truth must be constant and unchanging, he thought, there could be no question of this changing world containing any truth at all, and he concluded that the world we perceive through the senses was entirely false and illusory, did not actually exist at all, it was "Not-Being".

 

   The truth, therefore, that which really did exist, Being, could not be found empirically but only in human consciousness by way of logical thought processes.  Since this truth, the one first principle of the one undivided whole universe, must be common to all things, thought Parmenides, then it must be free of all quality and internal differentiation, hence he could only describe it in a series of negatives. Being does not change, it did not come into being and it does not pass away, it is undivided.  Being is "the full", that is, it stands wholly separate and unmixed with Not-Being.  The only thing that can be said about Being is that it "is", and Not-Being is not at all. Hence arose for the first time in the mind of Parmenides the antithesis between Being and Not-being and this was a great step forward, and even more importantly we note that he was the first to assert that the truth lay not in our sense perception of the world external to thought, but in thought itself.  While this division of human consciousness into two sides, the empirical and the theoretical, the world we perceive and the world of our thoughts, was also a big step forward it became the basis of the theoretical mistake which was to plague mankind for centuries and still does.


The Lyre and the Bow


The "sundering " of consciousness into these two sides, as the lyre and the bow, posed a vital question - how does this theoretical thought, which appears to have independent existence, relate to the material world we perceive? Which is primary and which relative? Which cause and which effect? We note that up to this point the Greeks had taken the independent existence of the material world for granted, but there now appeared on the scene a philosopher who categorically stated the reverse view, that thought was primary and the cause of the material world, Anaxagoras. In his Philosophical Notes Lenin gives a quotation from Hegel, who, in turn, quotes Anaxagoras as saying "Reason is the cause of the world and of all order". Thus Greek philosophy, the One, had been "sundered" into two opposing, contradictory sides, materialism, which took the material world as primary and held that thought was its reflection, and idealism, which took thought as primary and the was the cause of the material world and all that happened in it. From this point we must understand philosophy from the point of view of the conflict between these two views. (See Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 38, page 268)

 

   The third great Eleatic philosopher, Zeno, was a follower of Parmenides, and while he added nothing new to his theory, Zeno set out to prove him correct by logical argument, and in so doing raised important theoretical questions.  The most important of these questions concerned the nature of motion which Zeno set out to prove was impossible. Firstly, Zeno argued that if a body travels from A to B, then during the course of its travel it can only be in one place at one time.  It cannot be in two places at once. But to be in one place is to be at rest, and which ever point in its path we take, it is always in that one place and therefore at rest. From this Zeno concluded that motion is impossible and that there is no such thing. These questions exercised the minds of later philosophers for centuries, and as we shall see below the matter was finally settled by Hegel.

 

   Greek philosophy flared up and died down at various times and in various places across the Mediterranean world.  Heraclitus, born about 535 BC in Ephesus in Asia Minor, took the opposite view to Parmenides and Zeno. According to Heraclitus the ultimate and only reality is motion and change, nothing is fixed and unchanging, everything is in a constant state of coming into being and passing away.  This does not mean that a thing is in being in one moment and not in being the next, but that it both "is" and "is not" in one and the same moment.  We recall that the Eleatics made absolute separation between Being and Not-Being, considering that each excluded the other and could not exist in unity.  Heracleitus brought the two into unity in one moment, the moment of Becoming.  In this way everything contains within itself its own opposite into which it becomes transformed, thus the seed becomes the plant, life becomes death. Everything is a unity of opposites in conflict.   "Strife", said Heraclitus, "is the father of all things ... the one, sundering itself, coalesces with itself, like the harmony of the bow and the lyre… This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be eternal fire… Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water. Measures of it kindling and measures of it going out."  With these words Heraclitus laid the basis for the most advanced modern philosophy.  His assertion that the physical world is one whole and exists independently of man and uncreated by gods is materialism, and the view that it is in constant motion as the result of the conflict between its opposite sides and aspects is dialectical logic. 

 

   On the basis of their generally materialist outlook the Greek philosophers made progress in the field of physical theory.  Empodocles was born about 495 BC, and by now Greek philosophy taken as a whole had acquired a good deal of content in the form of conflicting hypotheses and ideas.  In particular Empodocles seized upon the ideas of Parmenides and those of Heraclitus and synthesised them into his own new theory.  Parmenides said that whatever is remains ever unchanged, had no beginning and has no end, while Heraclitus maintained that the belief in fixed and unchanging existence was illusion and that the only reality was change itself. Empodocles achieved this synthesis in the following way: It is clear from sense perception that the multiplicity of things in the world external to thought does come into being and pass away. But if the first principle of the world, matter, is unchanging, uncreated and indestructible, then the changing things we see can only come into being and pass away as the result of changing aggregations and arrangements of the material particles of which they are made.  The difficulty with this theory is that if all matter is the same and unchanging it is hard to see how things of new and changing qualities can arise from it, so Empodocles completed his theory by assuming that there are four kinds of matter, air, earth, fire and water, and all things are the result of differing aggregations of these elements. 

 

   As a physical theory this was undoubtedly a step forward but it posed as many questions as it answered.  In the first place, what was the nature of these elements, air, earth, fire and water?  Are they absolute first principles or do they too consist of other substance? Secondly, given the existence of these elements, what is it that causes them to exist in differing and changing combinations, in other words, what is it that sets them in motion?  Answers to these questions were provided by the two philosophers who are generally credited with originating the theory of atoms, Leucippus and Democritus. They did not consider that the four elements of Empedocles completed the division of matter, and that if matter were divided far enough it would be found to consist ultimately of indivisible particles too small to perceive, atoms.  These particles are impenetrable, non-qualitative, but differ in size and shape.  The things in space which we sensuously perceive come into being and pass away due to the changing aggregations of atoms, in the same way as with the elements of Empedocles.  Since the atoms are free to move in this way there must be space in which they move, which is infinitely penetrable. The atoms, matter, and space, the void, correspond respectively to the Being and Not-Being of Parmenides, with the difference that while for Parmenides Not-Being was absolute non-existence, for Leucippus and Democritus space, Not-Being was just as real and existent as matter, Being.   As to the cause of motion, it is uncertain whether the atomists had an explanation for this, but a later school, the Epicureans, certainly did.  They considered that atoms fall perpetually through infinite space, and since they have differing weight they fall at different speeds, and this is the cause of motion and of the differentiation into the various forms of matter that we sensuously perceive. Ingenious but as we now know quite incorrect, since there is no such thing as "up and down" in space and in any case all things moving under the influence of gravity in this way move at the same rate.

 

   So far we have considered a period of history during which there was no clear dividing line between philosophy and science in the narrower, positive sense. While all the great thinkers so far mentioned took the physical world external to the senses as the starting point and a body of empirical knowledge had accumulated, virtually all general theory concerning its nature was the result of speculative thought. The earliest record we have of the divergence between philosophy and natural science is the Hippocratic Collection, a collection of documents which record the work of the medical school at Cos.  These contain records of scientific experimentation and actual case histories.  At first the doctors of the Hippocratic school relied mostly on theory derived from the speculation of earlier philosophy, but since medicine is above all a matter of practice much of this theory was quickly put to the test and found wanting.  Another important source of knowledge was the experience gained by athletes and gymnasts concerning injuries such a dislocations and fractures.  All the elements of positive science came together for the first time at Cos where theory was gleaned directly from experience, tested in practice and corrected in the light of the new experience gained.

 

   Thus the doctors at Cos became the first true scientists by bringing thought and practice into a living unity to establish the objectivity of truth, but this did not put an end to other forms of thought. The so-called Sophists, a loose school of itinerant professional lecturers, took the view that all truth lay in direct perception of the world and that speculative thought could add nothing to it. (This, you will remember, is the exact opposite of the position given by Parmenides, who thought that all sense perception was illusion and the truth could only be found by logical thought.)  The Sophist position leads necessarily to a hopelessly contradictory conclusion.  Since all truth is given only by sense perception, and each individual person perceives the same thing differently, and indeed perceives different things, then each person’s truth is different. Each person therefore has his own truth and there is no commonality between the truth as perceived by different persons; there is no such thing as truth in the objective sense at all. Understandably Socrates was incensed by such rubbish and strongly opposed it. 


   The great contribution Socrates made to philosophy was to introduce the method of induction.  By considering different cases and perceptions of a particular phenomenon, for example man, Socrates logically eliminated the differences between each case, and considered only that quality which was common to all cases.  In this way he arrived at an abstract concept of man which was universally true, and must be objectively true for everyone. Struck by the indestructibility of such truth, Socrates considered other such concepts, particularly those of mathematics, and decided that each individual was born in possession of such knowledge, and that this inner life constituted the soul. He reasoned similarly with respect to geometrical forms.  We never see a perfect straight line or circle in nature but the forms exist conceptually in thought. These thoughts are memories we retain from an existence previous to birth, to which we, that is the soul, returns after death.  However, although Socrates had arrived at all these abstract thought forms by way of sense perception, he nonetheless took them as primary and the cause of the external world and this is the idealist view.

 

   The most famous and popular of the Greek thinkers is Plato, but unfortunately he is best known and revered for the things he got wrong rather than the things he got right. His writings come down to us in the form of fictional dialogues in which his mentor, Socrates, dominates, and through these dialogues Plato expounds and develops the propositions given by Socrates. Plato was also a great writer in the artistic sense, and this strength was at the same time a fatal weakness, for whenever scientific thought failed him he resorted to literary devices to fill the gaps. Unfortunately it seems that it is these devices, his use of allegory, fable and myth, which are mostly fashionable today, and his brilliant scientific thought receives little attention.    

 

   Plato's earlier work is concerned with the refutation of all that he considered false philosophy, and like Socrates he opposed the Sophist view that only sense perception contains truth and that logical thought is valueless. His method was formal logic, which is based on the proposition that a thing cannot be itself and something other than itself simultaneously, (the opposite of the dialectical logic of Heraclitus), and we may paraphrase his criticism of the Sophist Protagoras as follows:-

 

   "Protagoras's theory contradicts itself.  According to his theory it is true that that which my senses tell me is true is actually true.  But if my senses tell me that Protagoras's theory is false then he must admit that for me, and therefore possibly for anybody, it is true that his theory is false."   

 

   Plato's real greatness lies in the fact that he was the first to formulate a theory of knowledge, a theory of how the human mind acquires knowledge. All round him the battle raged - did sense perception give the truth as the Sophists believed, or was truth to be found only in the form of thought concepts as Socrates insisted?  The answer, said Plato, was neither one nor the other, but the unity of both.  If we see a thing, we can say, "this is a house".  But we can only say this because we already know what houses are, that is we already possess in thought the concept "house".  This thought process involves selecting the concept which correctly corresponds with the sense perception of the object, so that the reasoning mind must be conscious of the difference between concepts.  This supplies the missing side to the inductive method of Socrates. By finding what is common to many particular things, say houses, we make identity between them to arrive at the concept “house”, the universal. By finding the difference between houses we can identify this particular object of perception and say "this is this individual house" and not some other house. Plato called such consciousness of a universal the idea. From this point Plato's "idea" took on a wonderful life of its own.  He conceived ideas as having their own substantial existence outside the mind, separate from the things of which the ideas were reflections, and proceeded to construct a system of ideas without further reference to the material world which was their cause. In this way he arrived at an interconnected hierarchical system of ideas; the idea of redness and blueness are united in the idea of colour, the idea of sweetness and saltiness are united in the idea of taste, and the idea of taste and of colour are united in the idea of quality, and so on. The ultimate idea was the "Good", which was the first ultimate principle and cause of the universe. 

 

   Plato's system, then, was based on the proposition that the ultimate cause of all existence is the idea, and since the only ideas we know of exist only in consciousness, thought, then it is thought that determines the external world. This is the position of philosophical idealism.  As we have seen, the earlier philosophers of the Ionian school, in particular Anaximenes, made no fundamental distinction between the material world and the world of thought, never addressed the question of the relation between them but quite unconsciously accepted the primacy of the former as a matter of course. This view, that the external world of matter exists independently of thought and is its cause, is philosophical materialism, and still another school of Greek philosophy, the Stoics, gave systematic expression to this naive unthinking materialism of the Ionian philosophers.  Their system encompassed logic, physics and ethics, and was based firmly on the understanding that all knowledge flows from sense perception of the external world which is the cause of all thought. 

   

   The last of the great Greek thinkers we must consider is Aristotle, born about 384 B.C. He was a pupil of Plato's, and while he adopted much of Plato's philosophy his method was different in that he avoided artistic devices and proceeded strictly according to logic. Aristotle has been described as the founder of scientific philosophy, and not without reason, for he originated a system of philosophical categories without which scientific thought is not possible. There were ten in all, Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, State, Action, Suffering. We shall not deal exhaustively with these, but we shall remark that Aristotle seemed to regard the first three, Substance, Quantity, and Quality, as having some special importance over and above the rest, and here lies a fatal mistake, for this places Relation in a position of relative importance to Substance, Quantity and Quality. In fact, Relation is the most important category of all, since, as Heraclitus had already pointed out, “strife is the father of all things”. As we shall see below, modern dialectical thought has further concretised Heraclitus’ proposition. Hegel informs us that “the truth of Being is its Becoming”, that is, the contradictory process of transition of every thing into its opposite.  It is the Relation between things, (Being), which determines their Substance, Quality and Quantity, not vice versa. Hence, although Aristotle came within a hair’s breadth of true dialectical thought, his philosophy remained essential metaphysical, that is, based on an underlying assumption of an absolute and un-bridgeable separation between things, and between thought and things.

 

   This is not to suggest that Aristotle did not address the question of motion and change, far from it. He began from the concept of matter as a universal abstraction, featureless and free of qualitative differentiation, as it had been described by Anaximander. However, more clearly than Anaximander he saw that universal matter only exists as the infinity of actually existing particular objects or forms, so that form must be regarded as a principle of existence just as important as matter, and he arrived at the following conception of the relation between them. During the course of the motion we perceive, the coming into being and passing away of things in time, "becoming", matter and form become transformed into each other. That which is being transformed is matter, and that which it is transformed into is form. A plant begins from a seed, the seed is matter and is transformed into the plant which is form.  But the plant now produces seed, and in Aristotle's logic the plant is now considered as matter, and the new seed as form.  This way of cognising the world as an infinity of opposites in transformation into one another is certainly the basis of dialectical logic, and Aristotle differentiated matter into a system of conflicting forms, or elements, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, the various combinations and transformation of which accounted for all existing nature, but one question remained, what started the motion of the world in the first place? 

 

   Aristotle's answer was more ingenious than profound.  Since it appeared that the change he observed proceeded to ever more finished and sophisticated forms he regarded form as the driving force of all change, becoming. If the world proceeds from the less formed to the more formed, he reasoned, then in the beginning there was nothing but matter without form, and the ultimate end is pure abstract form without matter. Here is the classical metaphysical separation of opposites, with form and matter violently torn apart leaving the possibility of the transformation of the one into the other remaining to be explained. Aristotle supplied the answer by introducing the principle of Final Cause, the idea that the motion we perceive in nature is directed towards a definite end, which means that this end must somehow be contained in the beginning as an implicit potentiality.  Hence Aristotle regarded form as originator and creator of the world, and the first cause of the movement, which is directed towards a predetermined end, and this kind of thinking is known as teleology.

 

   So Aristotle accepted that matter existed externally to thought and treated thought as a reflection of matter in motion, and this is materialism, but it was an important advance from the old naive unthinking materialism of the Ionian philosophers for two reasons; firstly because he had introduced the idea of historical development into our understanding of the world, and secondly he had clarified thought by making the distinction between mathematics and physics.  He untangled the old confusion such as that of the Pythagoreans who regarded number as having material existence, and clarified Plato's system of ideas by understanding them as being nothing but the ideal reflection of real things in thought. However, although he came close to it Aristotle never achieved a truly consistent materialist outlook; he never mastered true dialectical thought, and the view that matter is the passive and form the active principle is an idealist formulation.

 

   We may sum up our brief account of Greek philosophy by remarking that the Greeks began as materialists, that it was only later that the idealist view came into being, particularly as expounded by Anaxagoras, and that the difference between these two views developed and unfolded with the much more sophisticated views of Plato. At the same time the formal logical method which metaphysically separates thing and phenomena gained ground against the dialectics of Heraclitus. The One had sundered itself and we shall now see how the conflict between the two sides, materialism and idealism, dialectics and formal logic, the lyre and the bow, unfolded to a point of climax.

 


The Lyre and the Bow

 

   The period of history we have so far discussed covers only about three centuries and there is clearly a great deal more to the story of Greek philosophy.  However, the ways in which they dealt with the fundamental questions of philosophy have at least been mentioned.  What is the true relation between thought and the material world external to thought which we experience through our senses?  Does this external world exist independently of our consciousness which is a reflection of it, this being the materialist view, or is thought primary to the external world which has no existence apart from thought, this being the idealist view?  Is the motion and change we perceive in nature real or illusory?  What is the relation of empirical knowledge to abstract thought? Do we accept formal logic as epitomised by Plato, which is based on the conception that a thing cannot be itself and something other than itself simultaneously, or do we agree with the dialectical logic as developed by Heraclitus, which says that a thing is both itself and the opposite of itself in every moment? 

 

   Let us see how these fundamental questions, upon which all philosophy rests, have evolved up to the present day. A long and tortuous historical process unites Greek philosophy with modern Europe, but we are concerned not with the historical but with the logical connection. The consideration of the way in which Greek philosophy lived on as an influence within modern European culture raises an important question: It must be remembered that the Greeks achieved their brilliant successes without the benefit of any positive science worth the name, even the atomic theory was formulated without the aid of so much as a pair of spectacles.  From this it is clear that, contrary to the positivist outlook which holds that the only source of knowledge is empirical positive science, philosophy has a necessary role to play in the process of cognition. However, we now have to consider a period of history during which huge leaps in scientific knowledge could inform philosophy, although we must be sure to understand that it did not happen in a straight forward and simple way, but through a great deal of conflict and contradiction. Engels informs us that:-

 

   “When we consider and reflect upon Nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away.  We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine or are connected.  This primitive, naïve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

 

   But this conception, correctly as it expresses the general character of the picture of appearances as a whole, does not suffice to explain the details of which this picture is made up, and so long as we do not understand these, we have not a clear idea of the whole picture.  In order to understand these details we must detach them from their natural or historical connection and examine each one separately, its nature, special causes and effects, etc.  This is, primarily, the task of natural science and historical research: branches of science the Greeks of classical times, on very good grounds, relegated to a subordinate position, because they had first of all to collect materials for these sciences to work upon.  A certain amount of natural and historical material must be collected before there can be any critical analysis, comparison, and arrangement in classes, orders and species.  The foundations of the exact natural sciences were, therefore, first worked out by the Greeks of the Alexandrian period, and later on, in the Middle Ages, by the Arabs. Real natural science dates from the second half of the fifteenth century, and thence onward it has advanced with constantly increasing rapidity.  The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms - these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of nature that have been made during the last four hundred years.  But this method of work has also left us a legacy, the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constants, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.  And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century." (F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

 

   Let us trace through the long process of scientific discovery of which Engels speaks.  Starting in the twelfth century the hitherto unknown Greek tradition penetrated Europe by way of the Arabic incursion into the Iberian peninsular, and into modern Italy, with translations of the works of Aristotle on physics, astronomy and metaphysics and of Plato’s writings, but it did not take place in a vacuum.  Christianity had come to Europe by way of Rome, and here we encounter an inheritance from Greece that was to hold back science and philosophy for centuries. It will be remembered that Socrates was mainly responsible for the ideas of life after death and of the individual soul, the main foundations of Christianity. The catholic church under the Pope in Rome was a political power on an equal footing with the Kings of Europe. To appease Christianity the translations had to be purged of their materialist content and distorted to conform to the Christian concept of God and the individual soul, a task that fell to Thomas Aquinas, (1225-1274). Further to this, at the same time as the natural sciences had led us away from Greek dialectics into the world of anti-dialectical, formal logic, as Engels explains above, it led us also away from the materialist and into the idealist outlook. Here was the strife between the lyre and the bow.

 

   Christian leaders such as Aquinas are remembered as “schoolmen”, and their method as “scholasticism”, an attempt to justify religious faith by reference to natural science and philosophical reasoning.  It is of course an impossible task, since faith and reason are mutually exclusive opposites; faith can only be understood as belief in some a priori truth without objective reason to believe, and reason is the mental process that starts from non-belief and sets out to prove the objectivity of truth a posteriori by logical treatment of all the available evidence of sense perception. Each implicitly excludes the other, but this did not deter the schoolmen.  Aquinas proposed that God was the first mover of the universe and that it follows from this that “he” himself is unmoved, and as such existed only as a disembodied act.  The universe is therefore the result of the will of God, and Aquinas attempted to produce logical proofs of his existence on the basis of the Platonic “idea”. We shall spare the reader an account of these "proofs" since we are concerned only with the relation between faith and reason as a general consideration. We have already discovered the nature of this relation; each is anathema to the other.

  

   Another representative of the scholastic persuasion was St. Anselm, who was born in 1034 and ended up Archbishop of Canterbury. He expressed the view that it was “a sacred duty to reduce the truths of all faith to scientific form, the neglect of which would expose Christians to the opprobrium of being inferior to the pagans.”  The dreadful confusion of this proposition must be obvious to anyone.  In the first place if it is possible to be certain of “the truth of all faith” a priori, then what need of logic have we at all? Since we already have the truth, there is no need to seek it by logical process.  The attempt to “reduce faith to logical form” is hopelessly mistaken, since the thing to be proved is already contained within the starting premise.  Any idiot can produce such empty word-forms by the barrow-load. How does the neglect of defending faith by logic render the Christian inferior to the pagan? Only by allowing the pagan to win the argument and prove faith to be false.  Here we have the reason why religious leaders must forever struggle to bind reason and logic in chains of faith and dogma which, having no basis in objective reality as perceived by the senses, are thought created phenomena and therefore belong to the method of philosophical idealism. Finally, the attempt to induce a person to have faith by logical argument is doomed from the start, because even if the person is convinced by the argument he still does not have faith, but only logical conviction.

 

   In the middle of the fourteenth century the period we know as the renaissance had its earliest beginnings.  The Greek classics were read in the original language and scholars regarded their work as the rebirth of the ancient Greek culture, hence the term “renaissance” was coined.  It truly was a rebirth, because it was not simply the rediscovery of past wisdom but a revitalising of it on the basis of contemporary culture.  A new social class, the bourgeoisie, had begun to take form, merchants and artisans of all kinds, people who expected to act as individuals and enjoy the fruits of their own labour rather than exist within the system of feudal patronage.  The fruit of the fusion of Greek culture and the kind of thinking that went with these new social conditions was humanism, a highly practical philosophical outlook concerned with the re-evaluation of man’s place in nature and based on the conviction that man can command his own destiny and direct it towards freedom, justice and peace.

 

   One of the leaders of this period was the Italian Marsilio Ficino.  In 1482 he wrote that there were two extremes of reality, God and body, the connection between the two was the soul, and that man is free to turn to either. This freedom neatly encapsulates the spirit of the age, the conflict between the old Greek culture and the new ideas. The ideas of God and body come straight from Plato, the soul from Socrates and the unity and conflict of opposites, the dialectical approach, from Heraclitus, and these are taken together with the new conception of man as the individual with free will. Another of the humanist writers, Lorenzo Valla, gave further expression to the bourgeois outlook.  His view was that the pursuit of pleasure was fully justified since nature herself presented mankind with all the necessary means, an obvious basis for individual enterprise and a progressive society. Once such human potential had become unlocked the struggle to extend man’s control over nature became inevitable and the age of true science began, a struggle that was bound eventually to lead away from idealism and formal logic and eventually to the true scientific outlook, materialist dialectics.

   

   The first serious challenge to authoritative feudal Catholicism came in the form of the helio-centric theory of the universe for which Copernicus, (1473-1543), was responsible. Not only did it challenge the old creationist dogma and undermine the authority exercised by the church over philosophy in general, it signified that henceforth the study of nature would be independent of religion and positive science became an ever more powerful influence on philosophy.  A new philosophical tendency, rationalism, came into being and its earliest exponent was Descarte, (1596-1650).  He was a mathematician and physicist and his approach to the world amounted to an attempt to place one foot in the camp of materialism and the other in the camp of idealism.  According to Descarte the objective truth of all things was given by the principles of mathematics and physical principles such as shape, size, weight, speed and so on. He did not dismiss sense perception such as colour, odour etc., but he regarded these as having only subjective significance and were open to doubt while mathematical and physical truth was certain.  His famous aphorism “I think therefore I am”, is often misinterpreted.  He did not mean to make a cause/effect relation between the two in the idealist sense that thought is the cause of Being, he simply meant that of all the things in the world the existence of which might be open to doubt, at least he could be sure of his own existence since he had to exist in order to think.  However, if this was not a positively idealist view it left the door wide open to it, so here we have the basis of the rationalist method, the separation between the objective world of sense perception and the subjective world of knowledge and thought, the latter being allowed to determine the former. We have met it already, it was precisely the method adopted by Parmenides but developed on the basis of more advanced positive science.  Descarte, and others beside him, operated systematically with the abstract content of their minds to grasp the truth of the world as sensually perceived and this method became known as pure reason.

 

   Philosophy was given a mighty impetus in the direction of the objective orientation by the work of Isaac Newton, (1642-1727). His pioneering work on mathematics and physics are well known and they provided a mountain of positive knowledge which influences philosophy to this day. What perhaps is not so well known is that Newton concerned himself with philosophical questions as such. In his Optics he wrote as follows:-

  

"As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult things by the Method of Analysis, ought ever to precede the Method of Composition.  This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths.  For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in Experimental Philosophy.  And although the arguing from Experiments and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things admits of, and may be looked upon as so much the stronger, by how much the Induction is more general.  And if no Exception occur from Phaenomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur.  By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general.  This is the Method of Analysis: And the Synthesis consists in assuming the Causes discover'd, and establish'd as Principles, and by them explaining the Phaenomena proceeding from them, and proving Explanations." (Opticks, pp. 404-05).

 

   Here we see how serious natural science necessarily raises philosophical questions. Newton’s enquiry into the nature of light is at the same time an enquiry into the human sense of sight, our most important means of perceiving the external world of nature before thought even begins.  He adopts the logical method of analysis and synthesis, which we owe to Socrates and Plato, but in a much more rigorous way.  He insists that the objectivity of truth can only be established by practical experiment, that results so obtained can only be negated by further experiment and that “composition”, knowledge gained by logical thought process, (pure reason), is an altogether subordinate process.  Clearly he regards the acquisition of knowledge as a social and historical process proceeding from less profound to more profound knowledge, and this was also understood by his predecessors in the field of practical science, the Hippocratic doctors.  “Life is short, art is long”, they said.

 

   Newton’s work, particularly his mathematics, was a powerful clarification and development of the materialist point of view, but at the same time the opposite and conflicting tendency, idealism, was advancing in its own direction.  Bishop George Berkeley, (1685-1753), opposed Newton’s revolutionary development in mathematics because it conflicted with his views, and elaborated the idealist viewpoint into classical form. In 1710 he wrote “The table I write on I say exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my study I should say it existed; meaning thereby that if I were in my study I might perceive it … For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things, without any relation to their being perceived, that is to me perfectly unintelligible.” For Berkeley, then, things only exist if they are perceived, or to put the same thing the other way round, it is the perception, the human consciousness of them, that causes them to exist.  But it is not only the existence of finite things to which Berkeley objects, he denies even matter as a universal abstraction.  “You may”, he writes, “if so it shall seem good, use the word ‘matter’ in the same sense as other men use ‘nothing”.  We recall that it was Anaximander who made the leap to the concept of abstract universal matter to denote the material world which exists independently of our consciousness of it.  By denying its existence Berkeley had turned the clock back two thousand years.

 

   Three years before Newton died Emmanuel Kant was born.  In the light of Newton’s work it seemed necessary to take the positive, (materialist) approach and he could not be satisfied with the method of pure reason as advanced by Descarte.  In his most important work, Critique of Pure Reason, we read:-

 

   “That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt.  For how is it possible that the faculty of knowledge should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses?”

 

   He goes on:-

 

   “But although our knowledge begins with experience it by no means follows that all arises from experience.  For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we perceive through impressions, and that which the faculty of knowledge supplies itself, (sensible impression giving merely the occasion), an addition which we cannot distinguish from the element given by sense … Knowledge of this kind is called a priori, in contradistinction to empirical knowledge, which has its source a posteriori, that is, in experience.”

  

   Kant’s concept of knowledge a posteriori was simply that the external, material world is reflected in sensation and thought, and that the senses can be relied upon to correctly reflect things as they appear.  “It is therefore quite correct to say that the senses do not err, not because they always judge correctly, but because they do not judge at all.”   However knowledge a priori, which Kant takes as the basis of pure reason, is problematical. Such thought involves the use of concepts such as cause and effect, necessity and accident, the individual and the universal.  If A is the cause of B, then B must necessarily follow A. It cannot be a matter of chance or accident and it cannot be confined to one individual case, but must rather happen everywhere, and A and B must always exist in relation to one another.  But there is nothing in sense experience to justify such concepts since we can only experience what is and never what must be.  I can watch water boil into steam, but there is nothing in this experience to connect temperature and the allotropic state of water.  However, for scientific thought the faculty of synthetic judgement, the ability to connect events and facts into a whole in time and space, to systematically make necessary connections between cause and effect, the whole and the part, the individual and the universal etc., is absolutely necessary. Kant’s solution to the problem is contained in his two sided concept of knowledge given above, passive sense perception which does not judge, and spontaneous, active thought which does.  This active thought has its own movement and life and it always makes a spontaneous leap from the seeming accident to the necessary cause, from the individual to the universal in space and time.  I see one object fall, and conclude that objects must always fall.  Kant concluded that a priori thought was valid but only within the limits of the data given by sense experience.

 

   He decided that the leap of the mind, the synthetic judgement, was at least justified in the case of space and time, since while it is impossible to conceive of an object without at the same time conceiving of the space in which it exists, it is quite possible to conceive of space without the existence of the object within it.  In order to perceive the object it is therefore necessary for the mind to supply the concept of space.  He reasoned similarly with respect to the existence of objects in time, and concluded that it was the proper function of the mind to give shape and meaning to all experience, and that concepts such as cause and effect, necessity and universality were valid and a sound basis for scientific thought.  In what many regard as the most important part of Critique of Pure Reason, the chapter entitled The Transcendental Dialectic, Kant writes:-

 

“Transcendental idealism allows that the objects of external intuition – as intuited in space, and all changes in time – as represented by the internal sense, are real … But time and space, with all appearances therein, are not in themselves things.  They are nothing but representations, and cannot exist outside and apart from the mind.”

 

   Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism means, briefly, the idea that the perceiving mind spontaneously provides the conceptual framework to connect thought to the external world, and we note that space and time are the most fundamental of these concepts. But since space and time exist only in the mind the conditions under which the external world of real things exists is clearly incomprehensible to us.  Any thing which exists in the external world and which we sensually perceive Kant refers to as a “thing-in-itself” to indicate that its real truth, its essence, is locked up within it and inaccessible to us:-

 

   “For I can say only of a thing-in-itself that it exists without relation to sense perception and experience … the non-sensible cause of these representations is completely unknown to us. To this transcendental object we may attribute the whole connection and extent of our possible perceptions, and say that it is given and exists in itself prior to all experience.  But the appearances, corresponding to it, are not given as things in themselves, but in experience alone.” L.  

 

   Appearances, then, are reflections of real things in thought, not as they really are, but as they are shaped, altered, stripped of their inner truth and essence by the perceiving mind.  Kant was a materialist in so far as he accepted that the external world of things-in-themselves existed independently of our perception of it, but his theory that thought determined the appearance of things and that we could never know their true nature was essentially idealist. He had the lyre in one hand and the bow in the other and they remained separate.

 

   Clearly Kant accepted that the world of matter, Being, did in fact exist independently of our consciousness of it, but his insistence that we could never know the truth of the thing-in-itself remained open to doubt.  Was it possible, others asked, for thought to truly reflect the external world of Being? In philosophical terms this is known as the question of the identity of thought and Being, and clearly it can be answered in two ways. Either the external world of matter, Being, which we perceive through our senses, is primary to thought, that is matter exists, is in motion, and our thought is a reflection of it, is identical to it in this way, or all that exists is thought, and the world of sense perception is a product of thought and must therefore necessarily correspond with it, is identical to it in the reverse way.  It seemed possible for both of these situations to bring about the identity of thought and Being, and we now have to consider a philosopher who answered the question in the idealist sense, and what is more in the most consistent possible way, Frederick Hegel, (1770-1831).   

 

   Hegel’s great contribution was to bring to life the dialectical method of Heraclitus and to give it scientific validity. The secret of this method is contained in the quote we have given above, "Strife is the father of all things ... the one, sundering itself, coalesces with itself, like the harmony of the bow and the lyre.”  To see how Hegel dealt with this method we must see how he dealt with philosophical concepts and categories such as we have inherited from Aristotle, and which had evolved over time through the work of previous philosophers, particularly Kant, concepts such as Being, Nothing, Becoming, Identity, Difference, Quantity, Quality, Form, Essence, etc.  At the beginning of his most important work, The Science of Logic, Hegel writes:-    

 

   “Pure Being and Pure Nothing are, therefore, the same.  What is the truth is neither Being nor Nothing, but that being – does not pass over but has passed over – into Nothing, and Nothing into Being.  But it is equally true that they are not undistinguished from each other, that, on the contrary, they are not the same, that they are absolutely distinct, and yet they are unseparated and inseparable and that each immediately vanishes in its opposite.  Their truth is, therefore, this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one in the other: Becoming, a movement in which both are distinguished, but by a difference which has equally immediately resolved itself.”  (Science of Logic, p.82).


  And later he explains, 


“The unity, whose moments, Being and Nothing, are inseparable, is at the same time different from them and is thus a third to them; this third in its own characteristic form is Becoming.”

 

   The concept of Being is the most universal, abstract conception possible; Hegel refers to it as the “Absolute”. It does not even refer to any real existent thing, it is nothing but the thought of indeterminate “is-ness”.   It is easy to see how this is just the same as Nothing, and hence that it is quite impossible to think a thought that does not have two sides to it.  In the words of Heraclitus, “the one sunders itself”.  But each vanishes in its opposite.  We can think of Being but we know it is Nothing, and Nothing is a thought, and is therefore Being – the “one coalesces with itself”.  These two categories of Being and Nothing, we note, have together given rise to a third, the process of their vanishing, of coalescing, which is itself a form of Being, and this is the philosophical category of Becoming. “Strife, [Becoming], is the father of all things”. 


   Hegel went on to deduce logically in this way all the categories and concepts familiar to philosophy by finding the moments of Identity between them in the same way as he had found the moment of Identity between Being and Nothing, demonstrating at the same time that each had separate Being because they were distinct in some way.  This is best understood by considering the concepts of Genus, Differentia and Species. The Genus animal is differentiated into many different kinds of animal, but while all dogs are animals, not all animals are dogs, hence "genus" and "animal" are both identical and different.  Previous philosophers, such as Kant, did not develop this kind of scientific logic, they simply grasped the concepts and categories empirically; they just “seemed to be that way”.  However, Hegel took the idealist view that the final result of his logical method was the consciousness of the absolute idea which existed independently of human consciousness, and that nature was the absolute idea become physically real. With this Hegel considered that he had achieved the identity of thought and being, but since he thought idealistically that thought determined Being, he was clearly wrong.

 

   Hegel’s idealism found ready acceptance in the developing bourgeois society of the time due to the social division into the capitalist ruling class, and the exploited and politically dominated working class of wage labourers, the proletariat.  Along with this class division went a social division of labour, labour by brain which was, (and still is), the prerogative of the ruling class, and physical labour which fell to the working class. This arrangement resulted in a separation of theory from practice along class lines, and left the ruling class free to develop all kinds of religious and moral justifications for the injustice and oppression inherent in bourgeois society. And so idealist, formal thinking became the dominant social ideology, with dialectics and materialism confined to a minority world of critical philosophy.  


   We must now consider how this conflicting relation between the bow and the lyre coalesced into harmony.


The Harmony.


  

 Between Berkeley and Hegel idealism had been developed to its limits, since in truth it can never be anything but the result of logical thought. Materialism, on the other hand, had been shown to be the correct view by natural science again and again. At the same time, historically speaking, Kant had taken metaphysical, (forma), logic to an advanced level.

 

   We noted above that Hegel believed that thought, the Absolute Idea, was the cause of all Being, and that the world of sense perception was the “alienated Idea”, and it is true that all the multiplicity and motion of the world corresponds with his logic in a far more consistent way than any previous philosopher in history had achieved, but he had the world upside down; such identity between thought and Being as he had achieved was not due to the fact that the external material world we perceive through our senses is the idea made real, but to the fact that the multiplicity and motion of the material world, which exists independently of thought and behaves in a law governed way, was reflected in his system, although he did not know it.  Here is the true identity of thought and being in so far as they are ever truly identical, and it was achieved in the first place by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. In a most important work, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels explains how they went about it:-

 

   “The separation from Hegelian philosophy [that Marx and Engels decided upon] was here also the result of a return to the materialist standpoint.  That means it was resolved to comprehend the real world – nature and history – just as it presents itself to everyone who approaches it free from preconceived idealist crotchets.  It was decided mercilessly to sacrifice every idealist crotchet which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic interconnection.  And materialism means nothing more than this.  But here the materialistic world outlook was taken really seriously for the first time and was carried through consistently – at least in its basic features – in all domains of knowledge concerned.

 

   “Hegel was not simply put aside.  On the contrary, one started out from his revolutionary side, described above, from the dialectical method.  But in its Hegelian form this method was unusable.  According to Hegel, dialectics is the self-development of the concept.  The absolute concept does not only exist – unknown where – from eternity, it is also the actual living soul of the whole existing world.  It develops into itself through all the preliminary stages which are treated at length in the Logic and which are all included in it.  Then it ‘alienates’ itself by changing into nature, where, without consciousness of itself, disguised as the necessity of nature, it goes through a new development and finally comes again to self-consciousness in man.  This self-consciousness then elaborates itself again in history from the crude form until finally the absolute concept again comes to itself completely in the Hegelian philosophy.  According to Hegel, therefore, the dialectical development apparent in nature and history, that is, the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zigzag movements and temporary retrogressions, is only a copy of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no-one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain.  This ideological perversion had to be done away with.  We comprehended the concepts in our heads once more materialistically – as images of real things instead of regarding the real things as this or that stage of the absolute concept.    

 

  “This dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought – two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents.  Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was placed upon its head; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet.  And this materialist dialectic, which for years has been our best working tool and our sharpest weapon, was, remarkably enough, discovered not only by us but also, independently even of Hegel, by a German worker, Joseph Dietzgen.” 

 

   The German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, who criticised Hegel from the materialist standpoint, was a powerful influence on Marx and Engels. Summing up the work of Feuerbach in a series of theses, Marx wrote:-  

 

   “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question.  In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking.  The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”

 

   Positive science has produced mountains of such proof and we shall take just one example from history. The French astronomer, Leverier, (1811-1877), observed a perturbation in the orbit of Uranus and immediately understood its cause. Where bodies in space rotate in relation to each other under the reciprocal influence of their respective gravitational fields they rotate about a common centre of mass, and the behaviour of Uranus indicated that the accepted common centre of mass indicated by the then known planets must be in error. He calculated the approximate position and mass of the body needed to balance up the system, in other words, he predicted the presence of another planet.  After a period of observation, that is practical experiment, it was discovered by Galle in 1846 and named Neptune.  Now it is clear that Neptune existed before it was ever seen and before we received any sensation from it because the rest of the solar system was behaving in accordance with its presence, as Leverier observed, and hence, like the rest of nature, Neptune existed entirely independently of our consciousness of it.  

 

   It is of course impossible to observe a body without at the same time perceiving its motion, so that to truly reflect material bodies in the world external to thought we must correctly reflect their motion. Motion, indeed, is their actual mode of existence. However, we recall the problem posed by Zeno above, who concluded that since an object can only be in one place at one time then it must be at rest in that one place, hence at rest in all places along its path, and that therefore motion is impossible and an illusion. But we have already shown that things exist independently of our perception and consciousness, and since we perceive them in different positions at different points in time we know that they move. We find the answer to this riddle in volume 38 of the collected works of Lenin which contains his philosophical notes:-

 

   “Something moves, not because it is here in one point in time and there at another, but because at one and the same point of time it is here and not here, and in this here both is and is not.  We must grant the old dialecticians the contradiction which they prove in motion; but what follows if not that there is no motion, but rather that motion is existent Contradiction itself.” (Page 140)

 

   Lenin notes that motion is existent contradiction, and when we see a thing move what we see is the result of motion rather than motion itself.  We recall how it is impossible to think a thought that does not have two sides to it.  Contradiction is the single most fundamental category of dialectical logic, it is the conflict between the two sides into which, according to Heraclitus, the one “sunders itself”.  The whole of nature behaves in this way, as Engels discovered for himself through his own study of natural science:-

 

   “Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only a reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature. Attraction and repulsion.  Polarity begins with magnetism, it is exhibited in one and the same body; in the case of electricity it distributes itself over two or more bodies which become oppositely charged.  All chemical processes reduce themselves to processes of chemical attraction and repulsion.  Finally, in organic life the formation of the cell nucleus is likewise to be regarded as a polarisation of the living material, and from the simple cell onwards the theory of evolution demonstrates how each advance up to the most complicated plant on the one side, and up to man on the other, is effected by the continual conflict between heredity and adaptation.” (F. Engels, Dialectics of Nature.)

 

   Here Engels speaks of “the continual conflict of opposites and their final passage into one another”.  The conflict of opposites we have dealt with is that between ancient Greek thought and European bourgeois culture. The former was materialist and dialectical, the latter based on idealism and formal, (anti-dialectical) logic.  Through the course of history the conflict between these modes of thought increased and sharpened to the point of a revolutionary transformation, the synthesis of the two in a new unity on a higher level. The re-interpretation of idealist official science and philosophy in strictly materialist and dialectical terms enabled Marx and Engels to transcend the ancient Greek naïve, unthinking materialism and sensuously perceived dialectics and to make a science of thought itself.


   Thus the two sides of the old Greek philosophy, which had its formal logic and idealistic side, (e.g. Parmenedes and Plato), and the dialectical materialist side, (e.g. Heraclitus and Democritus), were developed and widened during the renaissance and modern scientific era till a limit was reached at which the leap to a new synthesis at a higher level took place. The One which had sundered itself had coalesced with itself.  This moment of synthesis constituted a break with the past and a leap to a more developed form of philosophy. As a result of the scientific achievements of the modern era philosophy had been at last placed on a truly scientific basis, and such leaps are the essence of the harmony of which Heraclitus spoke over two thousand years ago.

 

  We now have a sound scientific theory to understand the world in which we live, but the only possible purpose of theory is as a guide to practice, as a means to empower us and to extend our control over nature. The decisive contribution of the Marxist method to human culture is to have understood that not only the physical world of nature and its reflection in thought move according to the dialectical laws of motion, but that human society also moves according to these laws, and that human history itself is one continuous demonstration of these laws. In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels explains:-

 

   “In one point, however, the history of the development of society proves to be essentially different from that of nature.  In nature – in so far as we ignore man’s reaction upon nature – there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting upon one another, out of whose interplay the general law comes into operation.  Nothing of all that happens – whether in the innumerable apparent accidents observable upon the surface, or in the ultimate results which confirm the regularity inherent in these accidents – happens as a consciously desired aim.  In the history of society, on the contrary, the actors are all endowed with consciousness, are men acting with deliberation or passion, working towards definite goals; nothing happens without a conscious purpose, without an intended aim.  But this distinction, important as it is for historical investigation, particularly of single epochs or events, cannot alter the fact that the course of history is governed by inner general laws.  For here, also, on the whole, in spite of the consciously desired aims of individuals, accident apparently reigns on the surface.  That which is willed happens but rarely; in the majority of instances the numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends themselves are from the outset incapable of realisation or the means to attaining them are insufficient.  Thus the conflicts of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produce a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature.  The ends of the actions are intended, but the results which actually follow from these actions are not intended; or when they do seem to correspond to the end intended, they ultimately have consequences quite other than those intended.  Historical events thus appear on the whole to be likewise governed by chance.  But where on the surface accident holds sway, there actually it is always governed by inner, hidden laws and it is only a matter of discovering these laws … When, therefore, it is a question of investigating the driving powers which – consciously or unconsciously, and indeed very often unconsciously – lie behind the motives of men who act in history and which constitute the real ultimate driving forces of history, then it is not a question so much of the motives of single individuals, however eminent, as those motives which set in motion great masses, whole peoples, and again whole classes of people …”

 

   On the basis of the dialectical materialist method Marx and Engels analysed capitalist society and discovered its inner contradiction, the division into classes.  The One, society, had sundered itself, but the dialectical logic of its motion necessarily leads to coalescence into classless society, a form of motion first discovered in ancient Greece. But since we are here considering the motion of human society the conscious intentions and motivations of men will be the decisive force in the process.


  We may summarise as follows: The Ionian materialist philosophers materialistically took it for granted that the world we perceive through our senses exists independently of our consciousness of it, and they did not doubt that the material world and the world of thought were One. Heraclitus empirically grasped the dialectical laws of its motion.  Then came the idealist tendency as expressed in the work of Anaxagoras and Plato, which underwent growth and development in Europe, where, at the same time, Greek dialectics lost the battle with formal, anti-dialectical logic. Then came Hegel’s dialectical logic and its synthesis with the materialist outlook, a return to the early Greek tradition but now based on a higher level of scientific knowledge and mathematics, with the added understanding that the laws of the motion of nature apply equally to human society and human thought as a historical process.  This latest philosophical form, dialectical materialism, which empowers us to take control of our own destiny in a way never previously possible, rightly bears the name of Karl Marx. 


Terry Button.

First published June 2006 

Edited December 2013