Joseph Dietzgen 1869
It may not be amiss here to say a few words to the kind reader and the unkind critic in regard to the personal relation of the author to the present work. The first objection which I anticipate will be aimed at my lack of scientific learning which is shown indirectly rather, between the lines, than in the work itself. “How dare you,” I ask myself, “come before the public with your statements on a subject, which has been treated by such heroes of science as Aristotle, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, etc., without being thoroughly familiar with all the works of your famous predecessors?”
At best, will you not merely repeat what has long since been accomplished?
In reply, I wish to say that the seeds sown by philosophy in the soil of science have long since blossomed and borne fruit. The product of history develops historically, grows and passes away, in order to live eternally in another form. The original deed, the original work, is fertile only in the contact with the conditions and relations of the time in which it is born. But it finally becomes an empty shell, when it has yielded its kernel to history. Whatever of a positive nature was produced by the science of the past, lives no longer in the words of the author, but has become more than spirit, has become flesh and blood in present science. In order, e. g., to know the products of physics and produce something new in its field, it is not necessary to first study the history of this science, nor derive the hitherto discovered laws from their fundamental source. On the contrary, historical research might only be an obstacle to the solution of a definite physical problem, for concentrated strength will naturally accomplish more than divided strength. In this sense, I consider my lack of other knowledge an advantage, because I am thus enabled to devote myself so much more intensely to my special object. I have striven hard to study this object and to learn everything which is known about it in my time. The history of philosophy has in a certain sense been repeated in the development of my individuality, since I speculated from my earliest youth on the means of satisfying my longing for a consistent and systematic conception of the world, and I believe I have finally found this satisfaction in the inductive understanding of the human faculty of thought.
Note that it is not the faculty of thought in its various manifestations, not the different forms of it, but its general form, its general nature, that satisfied me and that I propose to discuss. My object is then very plain and circumscribed, indeed it is so simple, that I had difficulties in showing its nature from different points of view and was compelled to resort to numerous repetitions. At the same time, the question concerning the nature of the mind is a popular one, which is not limited to professional philosophy, but concerns all sciences. And whatever the history of science has contributed towards the solution of this question, must be generally alive in the scientific conceptions of the present. I could well be satisfied with this source.
I may, then, confess in spite of my authorship, that I am not a professor of philosophy, but a mechanic by profession. If any one should feel justified in telling me: “Shoemaker, stick to your last!” I would reply to him with Karl Marx: “Your non plus ultra professional wisdom became enormously foolish from the moment when the watchmaker Watt invented the steam engine, the barber Arkwright the loom, the jeweler Fulton the steamship.” Without classing myself among these great men, I can strive to emulate them. Besides, the nature of my object is especially pertinent to the class, a member of which I have the pleasure, if not the honor, of being.
I treat in this work of the faculty of thought as the organ of the general. The oppressed fourth estate, the working class, is the true exponent of this organ, the ruling classes being prevented by their special class interests from recognizing the demands of general reason. Our first consideration is, of course, the relation of our object to human conditions. However, so long as conditions are not equalized for men in general, but vitiated by class interests, our view of things is influenced by these class limitations. A truly objective understanding requires a subjective theoretical freedom. Before Copernicus saw the Earth was moving and the Sun stationary, he had to place himself outside of his terrestrial standpoint. The faculty of thought, having all relations for its object, must abstract from all of them in order to grasp its own real nature. Since we can understand things only by means of thought, we must abstract from everything in order to understand thought in general. This task was too difficult, so long as man was bound to some limited class standpoint. Not until historical development has proceeded to the point of striving at dissolution of the last society based on a ruling and a serving class, can prejudices be overcome to the extent of enabling the faculty of understanding to grasp the nature of human brain activity in the abstract. It is only a historical movement aiming at the direct and general liberty of the masses, the new era of the fourth estate based on much misunderstood premises, which can dispense with the spirit cult sufficiently to be enabled to expose the real author of every spook, the “pure” mind. The man of the fourth estate represents at last the “pure” man. His interests are no longer mere class interests, but mass interests, interests of humanity. This indicates that we are now approaching the end of a development in which the interests of the mass were dependent on the interests of a ruling class and in which humanity made progress not so much in spite of as by means of continuous oppression by Jewish patriarchs, Asiatic conquerors, antique slaveholders, feudal barons, guildmasters, modern capitalists and even capitalist Cęsars. The class conditions of the past were inevitable in the general development. Now this development has arrived at a point where the mass becomes conscious of itself. Man has hitherto developed by class antagonism. By this means he has now arrived at the point where he wants to develop himself consciously. Class antagonisms were phenomena of humanity. The working class strives to abolish class antagonism in order that humanity itself may be a truth.
Just as the Reformation was conditioned on the actual environment of the sixteenth century, so, like the discovery of the electric telegraph, the research of the theory of human understanding is based on the actual conditions of the nineteenth century. To this extent the contents of this little work are not an individual, but a historical product. In writing it, I feel myself, if I may use this mystic phrase, as a mere organ of the idea. Only the form of presenting the subject is mine, and I beg the kind reader to judge it leniently. I ask that the reader may direct his or her silent or loud objections, not against the form, but against the substance of my remarks, not to cling to the letter, but to understand the spirit of my words.
If I should not succeed in developing the idea, and if my voice should thus be drowned in the hubbub of our overstocked book market, I am nevertheless certain that the cause itself will find a more talented champion.
Joseph Dietzgen, Tanner.
Siegburg, May 15, 1869.