The Nature of Human Brain Work. Joseph Dietzgen 1869
Although we know that reason is attached to perceptible matter, to physical objects, so that science can never be anything else but the science of the physical, still we may, according to the prevailing ideas and usage of language, separate physics from logic and ethics, and thus distinguish them as different forms of science. The problem is then to demonstrate that in physics as well as in logic, as also in ethics, the general or intellectual perceptions can be practically obtained only on the basis of concrete perceptible facts.
This practice of reason, to generate thought from matter, to arrive at understanding by sense perceptions, to produce the general out of the concrete, has been universally accepted in physical investigation, but only in practice. The inductive method is employed, and one is aware of this fact, but it is not understood that the nature of inductive science is the nature of science in general, of reason. The process of thought is misunderstood. Physical science lacks the theory of understanding and for this reason often falls out of its practical step. The faculty of thought is still an unknown, mysterious, mystical being for natural science. Either it confounds the function with the organ, the mind with the brain, as do the materialists, or it thinks with the idealists that the faculty of thought is an imperceptible object outside of its field. We see modern investigators marching toward their goal with firm and uniform steps, so far as physical matters are concerned. But they aimlessly grope around in the abstract relations of these things. The inductive method has been practically adopted by natural science and its successes have secured a great reputation for it. On the other hand, the speculative method has become discredited by its failures. There is, however, no conscious understanding of these various methods of thought. We see the men of physical research, when they are outside of their special field, offer lawyer-like speculations in lieu of scientific facts. While they arrive at the special truths of their chosen fields by sense perceptions, they still pretend to derive speculative truths out of the depths of their own minds.
Listen to the following statements of Alexander von Humboldt, which he makes in the initial argument of his “Cosmos” in regard to speculation: “The most important result of physical research by sense perception is this: that it finds the element of unity in a multitude of forms; that it grasps all the individual manifestations offered by the discoveries of recent times, carefully scrutinizes and distinguishes them; yet does not succumb under their mass; that it fulfills the sublime mission of the human being, of understanding the nature of things which is hidden under the cover of phenomena. In this way our aim reaches beyond the narrow limits of the senses, and we may succeed in grasping the nature by controlling the raw material of empirical observation through ideas. In my observations of the scientific treatment of general cosmic phenomena, I am not deriving unity out of a few fundamental principles found by speculative reason. My work is the expression of a thoughtful observation of empirical phenomena seen as one and the same nature. I am not going to venture into a field which is foreign to me. What I call physical cosmology does not, therefore, aspire to the rank of a rational science of nature.... True to the character of my former occupation and writings, which were devoted to experiments, measurements, and investigations of facts, I confine myself in this work to empirical observations. It is the only ground on which I can move with a measure of security.” In the same breath Humboldt says that “without the earnest desire for the knowledge of concrete facts any great and universal world philosophy would be merely a castle in the air” and in another place that “an understanding of the universe by speculative and introspective reason would represent a still more sublime aim” than understanding by empirical thought. And on page 68 of volume I. he says: “I am far from finding fault with endeavors of others the success of which still remains in doubt, when I have had no practical experience with them.”
Now natural science shares with Humboldt the consciousness that the practice of reason in physical research consists exclusively in “perceiving the element of unity in a multitude of forms.” But on the other hand, though it does not always admit its belief in speculative introspection as frankly as Humboldt does, it nevertheless proves that it does not fully understand the practice of science and that it believes in a metaphysical as well as a physical science by using the speculative method in the treatment of so-called philosophical topics, in which the element of unity is supposed to be discovered by introspective reason instead of an analysis of multiform sense perceptions, and it demonstrates its lack of unity by being unaware of the unscientific character of disagreements, by believing in a metaphysical science outside of the physical domain. The relations between phenomenon and its nature, cause and effect, matter and force, substance and spirit, are certainly physical ones. But what is there of unity that science teaches about them? Plainly then, the work of science, like that of the farmer, has so far been done only practically, but not scientifically, not with a predetermination of success. Understanding, that is to say the practice of understanding, is well applied in science, I readily admit. But the instrument of this understanding, the faculty of thought, is misunderstood. We find that natural science, instead of applying this faculty scientifically, simply experiments with it. What is the reason for this? Natural science has neglected the critique of reason, the theory of science, logic.
Just as the handle and the blade of a knife constitute its general content, so we found that the general content of reason was the universal, the general “itself.” We know that it does not produce this content out of itself, but out of given objects, and these objects are the sum of all natural or physical things. The object of reason is, therefore, an infinite, unlimited, absolute quantity. This infinite quantity manifests itself in finite quantities. In the treatment of relatively small quantities of nature the true essence of reason, the true method of understanding, is well recognized. It remains to be demonstrated that the great relations of the world, the treatment of which is still doubtful, are likewise intelligible by the same method. Cause and effect, mind and matter, matter and force, are such great world problems, and they are of a physical character. We shall demonstrate that the most general distinction between reason and its object furnishes the key to the solution of the great world problems.
“The nature of natural history,” says F. W. Bessell, “lies in the fact that it does not consider phenomena as facts in themselves, but looks for their causes. The knowledge of nature is thus reduced to the minimum number of facts.” But the causes of the phenomena of nature had been investigated even before the age of natural history. The characteristic mark of natural history is not so much that it investigates causes, but that the causes which it investigates have a peculiar nature and a particular quality.
Inductive science has materially changed the conception of causes. It has retained the term, but uses it in a different sense from that employed by speculation. The naturalist conceives of causes differently within his special field and outside of it; here, outside of his specialty, he frequently indulges in introspective speculation, because he understands science and its cause in a concrete, but not in a general way. The unscientific forces are of a supernatural make-up, they are transcendental spirits, gods, forces, little and big goblins. The original conception of causes is an anthropomorphic one. In a state of inexperience, man measures the objective by a subjective standard, judges the world by himself. Just as he creates things with conscious intent, so he attributes to nature his human manner, imagines the existence of an external and creative cause of the phenomena of sense perception, similar to himself who is the special cause of his own creations. This subjective mood is to blame for the fact that the struggle for objective understanding has so long been in vain. The unscientifically conceived cause is a speculation of the a priori kind.
If the term understanding is retained for subjective understanding, then objective science differs from it in that such a science penetrates to the causes of its objects not by faith or introspective speculation, but by experience and induction, not a priori, but a posteriori. Natural science looks for causes not outside or back of nature’s phenomena, but within or by means of them. Modern research seeks no external creator of causes, but rather the immanent system, the method or general mode of the various phenomena as they are given by succession in time. The unscientifically conceived cause is a “thing in itself,” a little god who generates his effects independently and hides behind them. The scientific conception of causes, on the other hand, looks only for the theory of effects, the general element of phenomena. To investigate a cause means then to generalize a variety of phenomena, to arrange the multiplicity of experienced facts under one scientific rule. “The knowledge of nature is thus reduced to the minimum number of facts.”
The commonplace and inept knowledge differs from the most exalted, rarest, and newly discovered science in the same way in which a petty and childish superstition differs from the historical superstition of a whole period. For this reason we may well choose our illustrations from our daily circle, instead of looking for them in the so-called higher regions of a remote science. Human common sense had long practiced the investigation of causes by inductive and scientific methods, before science realized that it would have to pursue its higher aims in the same way. Common sense does arrive at the faith in a mysterious cause of speculative reason, just like the naturalist, as soon as it leaves the field of its immediate environment. In order to stand firmly on the ground of real science, every one requires the understanding of the manner in which inductive reason investigates its causes.
To this end let us glance briefly at the outcome of the study of the nature of reason. We know that the faculty of understanding is not a “thing in and by itself,” because it becomes real only in contact with some object. But whatever we know of any object, is known not alone through the object, but also through the faculty of reason. Consciousness, like all other being, is relative. Understanding is contact with a variety of objects. To knowledge there is attached distinction, subject and object, variety in unity. Thus things become mutual causes and mutual effects. The entire world of phenomena, of which thought is but a part, a form, is an absolute circle, in which the beginning and end is everywhere and nowhere, in which everything is at the same time essence and semblance, cause and effect, general and concrete. Just as all nature is in the last instance one sole general unity, in view of which all other unities become a multitude, so this same nature, or objectivity, or world of sense perceptions, or whatever else we may call the sum of all phenomena or effects, is the final cause of all things, compared to which all other causes become effects. But we must remember that this cause of all causes is only the sum of all effects, not a transcendental or superior being. Every cause has its effect, every effect causes something.
A cause cannot be physically separated from its effect any more than the visible can be separated from the eye, the taste from the tongue, in brief the general from the concrete. Nevertheless, the faculty of thought may separate the one from the other. We must keep in mind that this separation is a mere formality of thought, although it is a formality which is necessary in order to be reasonable or conscious, in order to act scientifically. The practice of understanding, or scientific practice, derives the concrete from the general, the natural things from nature. But whoever has been behind the scenes, and has looked at the faculty of thought at work, knows that, conversely the general is derived from the concrete, the concept of nature from natural things. The theory of understanding or science teaches us that the antecedent is understood by its consequent, the cause by its effect, while our practical understanding regards the after as a consequence of the before, the effect as a result of the cause. The faculty of understanding, the organ of generalization, regards its opposite, the concrete, as secondary, while the faculty of thought which understands itself regards it as primary. However, the practice of understanding is not to be changed by its theory, nor can it be; the theory intends simply to render the steps of consciousness firm. The scientific farmer differs from the practical farmer, not because he employs theory and method, for both do that, but because he understands the theory, while the practical man theorizes instinctively.
To continue: From a given multitude of facts, reason generates truth in general, and out of a succession of forms and transformations it abstracts the true cause, just as absolute multiplicity is the nature of space, so absolute variability is the nature of time. Every particle of time and space is new, original, and has never been there before. The faculty of thought enables us to find our way through this absolute medley by abstracting general concepts out of the multitude of things in space, and tracing the variations of time to general causes. The entire nature of reason consists in generalizing sense perceptions, in abstracting the common elements out of concrete things. Whoever does not fully understand reason by understanding that it is the organ of generalization forgets that understanding requires an object which must remain something outside of its conception, since such object cannot be dissolved by its conception. The being of the reasoning faculty cannot be understood any more than being in general. Or rather, being is understood when we take it in its generality. Not being itself, but the general element of being, is understood by the faculty of thought.
Let us realize, for instance, the process which takes place when reason understands something it did not know before. Think of some peculiar, unexpected and unknown chemical transformation which takes place suddenly and without apparent cause in some mixture. Assume furthermore that the same reaction takes place more frequently after that, until experience demonstrates that this inexplicable change occurs whenever sunlight touches the mixture. This already constitutes a certain understanding of the process. Assume furthermore that subsequent experience teaches us that several other substances have the faculty of producing the same reaction in connection with sunlight. We have then arranged the new reaction in line with a number of phenomena of the same class, that is to say we have enlarged, deepened, completed our understanding of it still more. And if we finally discover that a special part of the sunlight unites with a special element of the mixture and thereby produces this new reaction, we have generalized this experience, or experienced this generalization, in a “pure” state, in other words, the theory of this reaction is complete, reason has solved its problem, and yet it has done nothing more than it did when it classified the animal and vegetable kingdoms in families, genera, species, etc. To find the species, the genus, the sex, etc., of anything means to understand it.
Reason proceeds in the same way when it investigates the causes of certain transformations. Causes are, in the last instance, not noticed and furnished by means of sight, hearing, feeling, not by means of the sense perceptions. They are rather supplied by the faculty of thought. It is true, causes are not the “pure” products of the faculty of thought, but are produced by it in connection with sense perceptions and their material objects. This raw material gives the objective existence to the causes produced by the mind. Just as we demand that a truth should be the truth about some objective phenomenon, so we also demand that a cause should be real, that it should be the cause of some objective effect.
The understanding of any concrete cause is conditioned on the empirical study of its material, while the understanding of any general cause is based on the study of the faculty of reason. In the understanding of concrete causes, the material of study varies, but reason maintains a constant or general attitude. The cause, as a general cause, is a pure conception, and it is based on the study of the multiformity of concrete understandings of causes, or on the multiplied study of concrete causes. Hence we are compelled to return to the concrete material of the general concept, to the understanding of concrete causes, if we wish to analyze the concept of a general cause.
When a stone falls into the water and causes ripples on the surface, the stone is no more the cause of the ripples than the liquid condition of the water. If the stone falls on solid substances, it causes no ripples. It is the contact of the falling stone with liquid substances which causes the ripples. The cause is itself an effect, and the effect, the ripples, become a cause when they carry a piece of cork ashore. But in either case the cause is based on a mutual effect, on the interaction of the waves with the light condition of the cork.
A stone falling into the water is not a cause “in itself,” not a cause in general. We arrive at such a cause only, when the faculty of thought uses concrete causes for its raw material and constructs out of them the “pure” concept of the cause in general. A stone falling into the water is only the cause of the subsequent ripples, and it becomes a general cause only through the experience that ripples always follow the falling of a stone into water.
We call cause that which generally precedes a certain manifestation, and effect that which generally follows it. We refer to the stone as the cause of ripples merely because we know that it always causes them when falling into water. But since ripples sometimes appear without being preceded by the fall of a stone, ripples have another general cause. So far as there is anything general in ripples which precedes them, it is the elasticity of the water itself which is the general cause of ripples. Circular ripples, which are a special form of ripples, are generally preceded by the falling of some body into the water, and this body is then considered as their cause. The cause is always different in proportion and to the extent of the phenomena under consideration.
We cannot ascertain causes by mere introspective reasoning, we cannot derive them out of our head. Matter, materials, sense perceptions are required for this purpose. A definite cause requires a definite material, a definite amount of sense perceptions. In the abstract unity of nature, the variations of matter are represented by the variations of concrete quantities. Every quantity is given in time before and after a certain other quantity, as antecedent and subsequent. The general element of the antecedent is called cause, the general element of the subsequent, effect.
When the wind sways a forest, the yielding character of the forest is as much instrumental in producing this effect as the bending power of the wind. The cause of a thing is its connection with other things. The fact that the same wind leaves rocks and walls standing shows that the cause is not qualitatively different from the effect, but that it is a matter of aggregate effects. If nevertheless science or knowledge determines any special fact to be the cause of any change, that is to say of any succession of phenomena, this cause is no longer regarded as the external creator, but merely as the general mode, the immanent method of succession. A definite cause can be ascertained only when we have under consideration a definite circle, series, or number of changes, the cause of which is to be determined. And within a definite circle of succeeding phenomena, that which generally precedes is their cause.
The wind which sways a forest differs from wind as a general cause only in that the latter has other general effects, inasmuch as it howls in one place, stirs up dust in another, or acts in many different ways. In the special case of the forest, the wind is a cause only in so far as it precedes the swaying of the trees. But in the case of rocks and walls, the solidity precedes the wind and is therefore the general cause of their resistance to the swaying power of the wind. In a still wider circle of hurricane phenomena, a gentle wind may be regarded as a cause of the stability of the objects last mentioned.
The quantity or number of given objects varies the name of their cause. If a certain company of people return from a walk in a tired condition, this change of condition is just as much due to the physical weakness of the people as to the walk. In other words, a manifestation has in itself no cause which can be separated from it. Everything which was connected with a phenomenon has contributed toward its appearance. In the case of the promenaders, the physical constitution of their bodies has to be considered as well as the physical constitution and length of the road and duration of the walk. If reason is nevertheless called upon to determine the special cause of some concrete change, for instance, of a tired feeling, it is simply a question of determining which one of the various factors has contributed most to that feeling. In this case as well as in all others, the work of reason consists in developing the general from the concrete, that is to say in this case, singling out from a given number of tired sensations that which generally precedes the tired feeling. If most of the promenaders or all of them are found to be tired, the walk will be considered as the cause. But if only a few are tired, the weak constitution of these people will be considered as the general cause of their tired condition.
To use another illustration: If the discharge of a shot frightens some birds, this effect is due to the combined action of the shot and the timidity of the birds. If the majority of the birds fly away, the shot will be considered as the cause. But if the minority fly away, their timidity will be regarded as the cause.
Effects are subsequences. Since all things in nature follow other things and all things have an antecedent and a subsequent, we may call the natural, the real, the sense perceptions absolute effects, having no cause unless we find one with our faculty of thought by systematizing the given material. Causes are mental generalizations of perceptible changes. The supposed relation of cause and effect is a miracle, a creation of something out of nothing. For this reason this relation has been and still is an object of speculative reasoning. The speculative cause creates its effects. But in reality the effects are the material out of which the brain, or science, forms its causes. The cause concept is a product of reason; not of “pure” reason, but of reason married to the world of sense perceptions.
If Kant maintains that the statement: “Every change has its cause” is an a priori truth which we cannot experience because no one can possibly experience all changes, although every one has the irrefutable feeling of the correctness of this statement, we know now that this statement expresses merely the experience that the phenomenon which we call reason recognizes the uniform element in all multiformity. Or in other words, we now know that the development of the general element out of the concrete facts is called reason, thought, or mind. The secure knowledge that every change has its cause is nothing else but the conviction that we are thinking human beings. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. We have experienced the nature of our reason instinctively even if we have not analyzed it scientifically. We are as well aware of the faculty of our reason to abstract a cause out of every given change, as we are that every circle is round, that a is equal to a. We know that the general is the product of reason, and reason produces this general thing in contact with every given object. And since all objects before and after a certain other object are temporal changes, it follows that all changes which we as thinking beings experience must have a general antecedent, a cause.
Already the English sceptic Hume felt that true causes are different from assumed causes. According to him the concept of a cause contains nothing but the experience of that which generally precedes a certain phenomenon. Kant rightfully remarks on the other hand that the conception of cause and effect expresses a far more intimate relation than that indicated by a loose and accidental succession, and that the concept of a cause rather comprises that of a certain effect as a necessity and strict general result. Therefore he claimed that there must be something a priori in reason which cannot be experienced and which extends beyond experience.
We reply to the materialists who deny all autonomy of the mind and hope to detect causes by experience alone that the general necessity which presupposes the relation of cause and effect represents an impossible experience. And we reply to the idealists: Although reason explores causes which cannot be experienced, this research cannot take place a priori, but only a posteriori, only on the basis of empirically given effects. It is true that the mind alone discovers the imperceptible and abstract generality, but it does so only within the circle of certain given sense perceptions.
The understanding of the general dependence of the faculty of thought on material sense perceptions will restore to objective reality that right which has long been denied to it by ideas and opinions. Nature with its varied concrete phenomena which had been crowded out of human considerations by philosophical and religious imaginings, and which has been scientifically re-established again on special fields by the development of natural sciences, gains general theoretical recognition by the understanding of the functions of the brain. Hitherto natural science has chosen for its object only special matters, special causes, special forces, but has remained ignorant in general questions of so-called natural philosophy regarding the cause of all things, of matter, of force in general. The actual existence of this ignorance is revealed by that great contradiction between idealism and materialism which pervades all works of science like a red thread.
“May I succeed in this letter in strengthening the conviction that chemistry as an independent science represents one of the most powerful means for the higher cultivation of the mind, that its study is useful not alone for the promotion of the material interests of mankind, but because it permits a deeper penetration of the wonders of creation, with which our existence, our welfare, and our development are intimately connected.”
In these words Liebig expresses the prevalent views which have accustomed themselves to look upon material and spiritual differences as absolute opposites. But the untenability of such a distinction is vaguely felt even by the just quoted advocate of this view, who speaks of material interests and of a mental penetration which is the condition for our existence, welfare, and development. But what else does the term material interests mean but the abstract expression of our existence, welfare, and development? Are not these the concrete content of our material interests? Does he not say explicitly that the penetration of the wonders of creation promotes our material interests? And on the other hand, does not the promotion of our material interests require a penetration on our part of the wonders of creation? In what respect are our material interests different from our mental penetration of things?
The superior, spiritual, ideal, which Liebig in conformity with the views of the world of naturalists opposes to our material interests, is only a special part of those interests. Mental penetration and material interests differ no more than the circle differs from the square. Circles and squares are contrasts, but at the same time they are but different and special classes of form in general.
It has been the custom, especially since the advent of Christian times, to speak contemptuously of material, perceptible, fleshly things which are destroyed by rust and moths. And nowadays people continue on this conservative track, although their antipathy against perceptible reality has long disappeared from their minds and actions. The Christian separation of mind and body has been practically abandoned in the age of natural science. But the theoretical solution of the contradiction, the demonstration that the spiritual is material and the material at the same time spiritual, by which the material interests would be freed from the stigma of inferiority, has not yet been forthcoming.
Modern science is natural science. Science is deemed worthy of its name only in so far as it is natural science. In other words, only that thought is scientific which consciously has real, perceptible, natural things for its object. For this reason representatives and friends of science can not be enemies of nature or of matter. Indeed they are not. But the very existence of science shows that this nature, this world of sense perceptions, this matter or substance, does alone and by itself not satisfy us. Science, or thought, which has material practice or being for its object, does not strive to reproduce nature in its integrity, in its entire perceptible substance, for these are already present. If science were to aim at nothing new, it would be superfluous. It is entitled to special recognition only to the extent that it carries a new element into matter. Science is not so much concerned in the material of its study as in understanding. Of course it is the understanding of this material which is desired, the understanding of its general character, of the fixed pole in the succession of phenomena. That which religion supernaturally separates from the material, which science opposes to the material as something higher, diviner, more spiritual, is in reality nothing but the faculty of rising above multiformity, of proceeding from the concrete to the general.
The nobler spiritual interests are not absolutely different from the material interests, they are not qualitatively different. The positive side of modern idealism does not consist in belittling eating and drinking, the pleasure in earthly possessions and in intercourse with the other sex, but rather in pleading for the recognition of other material enjoyments besides these, as for instance those of the eye, the ear, of art and science, in short of the whole man. You shall not indulge in the material revelries of passion, that is to say you shall not direct your thought one-sidedly to any concrete lust, but rather consider your entire development, take into account the total general extension of your existence. The bare materialist principle is inadequate in that it does not appreciate the difference between the concrete and the general, because it makes the individual synonymous with the general. It refuses to recognize the quantitative superiority of the mind over the world of sense perceptions. Idealism, on the other hand, forgets the qualitative unity in the quantitative difference. It is transcendental and makes an absolute difference out of the relative one. The contradiction between these two camps is due to the misunderstood relation of our reason to its given object or material. The idealist regards reason alone as the source of all understanding, while the materialist looks upon the world of sense perceptions in the same way. Nothing is required for a solution of this contradiction but the comprehension of the relative interdependence of these two sources of understanding. Idealism sees only the difference, materialism sees only the uniformity of matter and mind, content and form, force and substance, sense perception and moral interpretation. But all these distinctions belong to the one common genus which constitutes the distinction between the special and the general.
Consistent materialists act like purely practical men without any science. But, since knowing and thinking are real attributes of man regardless of his party affiliation, purely practical men do not exist in reality. Even the merest attempt at practical experiment on the basis of experienced facts differs only in degree from scientific practice based on theoretical principles. On the other hand, consistent idealists are just as impossible as purely practical men. They would like to have the general without the special, the spirit without matter, force without substance, science without experience or material, the absolute without the relative. How can thinkers who search for truth, being, relative causes, such as naturalists, be idealists? They are so only outside of their specialties, never inside of them. The modern mind, the mind of natural science, is immaterial only so far as it embraces all matters. But men like the astronomer Madler find so little of the ridiculous in the current expectation of the materially increased spiritual power after our “emancipation from the bonds of matter,” that he has nothing better to substitute for it and flatters himself with having defined the “bonds of matter” as material attraction. Truly, so long as mind is still conceived in the form of a religious ghost, the expectation of an increased mental power after the emancipation from the bonds of matter is not so much an object for ridicule as for compassion. But if we regard mind as the expression of modern science, we offer the better scientific explanation for the traditional faith. By bonds of matter we do not mean, in that case, the bond of gravitation, but the multiplicity of sense perceptions. And matter holds the mind in bondage only so long as the faculty of thought has not overcome the multiplicity of things. The emancipation of the mind from the bonds of matter consists in developing the general element out of the concrete multiplicity.
The reader who has closely followed our main idea, which will be further illustrated, will anticipate that the question of matter and force finds its solution in the understanding of the relation between the general and the special. What is the relation of the concrete to the abstract? This is the common problem of those who see the active impulse of the world either in the spiritual force or in the material substance, who think to find the nature of things, the non plus ultra of science, in either of these facts.
Liebig, who is especially fond of straying from his inductive science into the field of speculative thought, says in an idealist sense: “Force cannot be seen, we cannot grasp it with our hands; in order to understand its nature and peculiarities, we must investigate its effects.” And if a materialist replies to him: “Matter is force, force is matter, no matter without force, no force without matter,” it is plain that either has determined this relation only negatively. In certain shows, the clown is asked by the manager: “Clown, where have you been?” “With the others,” answers the clown. “And where were the others?” – “With me.”
In this case we have two answers with the same content, in the other we have two camps which quarrel with different words about an indisputable fact. And this dispute is so much more ridiculous because it is taken so seriously. If the idealist makes a distinction between matter and force, he does not mean to deny that the real phenomenon of force is inseparably linked with matter. And if the materialist claims that there is no matter without force and no force without matter, he does not mean to deny that matter and force are different, as his opponent claims.
The dispute exists for a good reason and has its object, but this object is not revealed in the dispute. It is instinctively kept under cover by both parties, so that they may not be in a position where they would have to acknowledge their own ignorance. Each wants to prove to the other that the other’s explanations are inadequate, and both demonstrate this sufficiently. Büchner admits in the closing statements of his “Matter and Force” that the empirical material is insufficient to permit of definite answers to transcendental questions, and that therefore no positive answer can be given to them. And he furthermore says that the empirical material “is fully sufficient to answer them negatively and to do away with hypothesis.” This is saying in so many words that the science of the materialist is adequate for the proof that his opponent knows nothing.
The spiritualist or idealist believes in a spiritual, which means in a ghostlike and inexplicable, nature of force. The materialist thinkers, on the other hand, are skeptical. A scientific proof of faith or of skepticism does not exist. The materialist has only this advantage over his idealist opponent, that he looks for the transcendental, the nature, the cause, the force, not back of the phenomenon, not outside of matter. But he remains behind the idealist when he ignores the difference between matter and force. The materialist dwells on the actual inseparability of matter and force and does not admit any other reason for a distinction between the two than “an external reason derived from the demand of our mind for systematization.” Büchner says in “Nature and Mind,” page 66: “Force and matter, separated from one another, are for me nothing but thoughts, fantasies, ideas without any substance, hypotheses which do not exist for any healthy study of nature, because all phenomena of nature are rendered obscure and unintelligible by such a separation.” But if Büchner deals with any special department of natural science in a productive way, instead of handling phrases of natural philosophy, his own practice will show him that the separation of forces from matter is not an “external,” but an internal, an imminent necessity, by which alone we are enabled to elucidate and understand the phenomena of nature. Although the author of “Force and Matter” chose for his motto: “Now, what I want is – facts,” we assure the reader that this device is more a thoughtless word than a serious opinion. Materialism is not so coarse-grained that it wants purely facts. Those facts which Büchner is looking for are by themselves not specifics for his desires. The idealist likewise wants such facts. No student of nature wants mere hypotheses. What all cultivators of the field of science want is not so much facts as explanations or an understanding of facts. Even the materialist will not deny that science, the “natural philosophy” of Büchner not excepted, is more concerned with mental forces than with bodily matter, that it cares more for force than for matter. The separation of force and matter is derived from “the demand of our mind for systematization.” Very true! But so does all science emanate from the demand of our reason for systematization.
The contradistinction between force and matter is as old as that between idealism and materialism. The first conciliation between the two was attempted by imagination which, through the belief in spirits, suggested a secret nature as the cause of all natural phenomena. Science has of late expelled many of these special spirits by replacing the fantastic demons with scientific, or general, explanations. And after we have succeeded in explaining the demon of “pure” reason, it is not difficult to expel the special spirit of force by the general explanation of its nature and thus to reconcile scientifically the contradiction between spiritualism and materialism.
In the universe which constitutes the object of science and of the faculty of reason, both force and matter are unseparated. In the world of sense perceptions force is matter and matter is force. “Force cannot be seen.” Oh, yes! Seeing itself is pure force. Seeing is as much an effect of its object as an effect of the eye, and this double effect and other effects are forces. We do not see the things themselves, but their effects on our eyes. We see their forces. And force cannot alone be seen, it can also be heard, smelled, tasted, felt. Who will deny that he can feel the force of heat, of cold, of gravitation? We have already quoted the words of Professor Koppe to the effect that we “cannot perceive heat itself, we merely conclude from its effects that this force exists in nature.” This is saying in other words that we do not see, hear, or feel the things themselves, but their effects or forces.
It is just as true to say that we feel matter and not its force as it is to say that we feel force and not matter. Indeed, both are inseparable from the object, as we have already remarked. But by means of the faculty of thought we separate from the simultaneously and successively occurring phenomena the general and the concrete. For instance, we abstract the general concept of sight from the various phenomena of our sight and distinguish it by the name of power of vision from the concrete objects, or substances, of our eyes. From a multitude of sense perceptions we develop by means of reason the general element. The general element of different water phenomena, for instance, is the water power distinguished from the substance of the water. If levers of different materials but of the same length have the same power, it is plain that in this case force is different from matter only in so far as it represents the general element of various substances. A horse does not pull without force, and this force does not pull without the horse. Indeed, in practice the horse is force and force is the horse. But nevertheless we may distinguish the power of pulling from other qualities of the horse, or we may refer to the common element in different services of horses as general horse power, without thereby starting from any other hypothesis than we do in distinguishing the sun from the earth. For in reality the sun does not exist without the earth, nor the earth without the sun.
The world of sense perceptions is made known to us only by our consciousness, but consciousness is conditioned on the world of sense perceptions. Nature is infinitely united or infinitely separated, according to whether we regard it from the standpoint of consciousness as an unconditional unit or from the standpoint of sense perceptions as an unconditional multiplicity. There is truth in both unity and multiplicity, but it is truth only relatively speaking, under certain conditions. It matters a great deal whether we look about with the eyes of the body or with the eyes of the mind. For the eyes of the mind, matter is force. For the eyes of the body, force is matter. The abstract matter is force, the concrete force is matter. Matter is represented by the objects of the hand, of practice, while force is an object of understanding, of science.
Science is not limited to the so-called scientific world. It reaches beyond all classes, it belongs to the full depth and width of life. Science belongs to thinking humanity in its entirety. And so it is with the separation of matter and force. Only a stultified fanaticism can ignore the practical distinction. The miser who accumulates money without adding any wealth to his life process forgets that the valuable element of money resides in its force, which is different from, its substance. He forgets that not mere wealth as such, not the paltry gold substance, lends a reasonableness to the quest for its possession, but its spiritual content, its inherent exchange value, which buys the necessities of life. Every scientific practice, which means every action carried on with a predetermined success and with understood substances, proves that the separation of matter and force, though only performed in thought and existing in thought, is nevertheless not an empty phrase, not a mere hypothesis, but a very fertile idea. A farmer manuring his field is handling “pure” manuring force, in so far as it is immaterial for the abstract conception whether he is handling cow dung, bone dust, or guano. And in weighing bundles of merchandise, it is not the iron, copper, stone, etc., which is handled by the pound, but their gravity.
True, there is no force without matter, no matter without force. Forceless matter and matterless force Fare nonentities. If idealist naturalists believe in an immaterial existence of forces which, so to say, carry on their goblin-pranks in matter, forces which we cannot see, cannot perceive by the senses and yet are asked to believe in, then we say that such men are to that extent that naturists, but mere speculators, in other words spiritualists. And the word of the materialists who refer to the intellectual separation of matter and force as a mere hypothesis, is quite as brainless.
In order that this separation may be appreciated according to its merits, in order that our consciousness may neither etherealize force in a spiritualist sense nor deny it in a materialist sense, and in order to comprehend it scientifically, we have only to understand the faculty of thought in general or “in itself,” that is to say its abstract form. The intellect can not operate without some perceptible material. In order to distinguish between matter and force, these things must exist and be experienced by sense perception. By means of this experience we refer to matter as the expression of force and to force as the expression of matter. The perceptible object which is to be studied is therefore matter and force in one, and since all objects are in their tangible reality such matter and force-things, the distinction made by the mind consists in the general method of brain work, in the derivation of the general unity, from the special multiplicity in any one and in all given objects. The distinction between matter and force is summarized in the universal distinction between the concrete and the abstract. To deny the value of this distinction is equivalent to denying the value of any and all distinction, equivalent to ignoring the function of the intellect altogether.
If we refer to phenomena of sense perception as forces of matter in general, then this generalized matter is nothing but an abstract conception. But if we mean by the term sense perception the various concrete substances, then the general element which embraces the differences of things and pervades and controls them is force producing concrete effects. And whether we say matter or force, the mental which science is studying, not with its hands, but with its brain, the so-called essence, nature, cause, ideal, superior or spiritual, is the generality comprising the special things.