Joseph Dietzgen 1877

The Inconceivable
A Special Chapter in Social-Democratic Philosophy

First Published: Vorwärts, 1877;
Source: “Joseph Dietzgen, Philosophical Essays” (ed. Eugen Dietzgen & Joseph Dietzgen Jr.), Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago 1906, pp. 254-261;
Translated: by Theodore Rothstein & Max Beer.
Transcribed: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive.

Both the clergy and the professors are of the opinion that the human intellect is debarred from the greatest possible knowledge and from the clearest possible understanding. They agree in their endeavor to preserve to the human intellect the character of the limited understanding of the poor commoner. Yet there is a difference between the two camps. The clergy keep account of the human desire of a perfect light, in so far as they refer the poor commoner’s intellect for support to the great spirit above who, through his revelations, enlightens and makes known to man what is good for him to know. The Philosophers of our Universities, on the other hand, have their doubts about the great spirit above; they are progressive and they substitute the earthly knowledge for the divine one, but for all that they show the same dualistic, half-hearted character in abstract thought as their colleagues, the “Progressists,” in politics. They exhibit the same mixture of mala fides and incapacity in wisdom as these colleagues in matters of liberty. They cannot make an end to all secret-mongering; and if they find no mystery in heaven and the sacraments, then there must be something mystical in “the essence of things” and in “the ultimate reasons” of Nature, some insurpassable barriers or “limits of our cognition of Nature.” Against such inveterate mystics it is as Social-Democrats our bounden duty to proclaim the limitless possibilities of the human intellect.

No doubt there is much in Nature which is not yet known, – who would deny that? Where is the man who never met with phenomena which he called wonderful, inexplicable, incomprehensible! Who would find that unnatural? But what is really wonderful, incomprehensible and inexplicable is that there are still in the second half of the nineteenth century certain scholars who seriously speak of the limits of human understanding and believe in the real existence of wonderful things, of miracles which are beyond the understanding not of Peter or Paul, but beyond the horizon of mankind.

We must, however, soon recover from our astonishment and try to comprehend the incomprehensible. And to do this, it is necessary to find the category to which it belongs. The incomprehensible is explained as soon as we recognise that it belongs to the category of thoughtlessness. It may appear presumptuous on my part to speak so disrespectfully of a thing which is treated by high authorities with such a solemn seriousness. In science, however, all belief in authorities must cease. The capacities of the human intellect are so unlimited that they, in the course of time, make new discoveries, open new vistas which regularly make the old authorities appear as mere duffers. Though I am defending the view of the unlimited capacities of the human intellect, I am none the less thoroughly conscious of the limitation of all men and all times, and so I am, despite my exuberant spirits, a modest fellow.

The intellect is, as is well known an organ with which we perceive. From the other organs of perception it is differentiated by its being the most essential factor. Without eyes we may still hear. taste and smell but without consciousness, without the spirit in our head the whole world is at an end. On the other hand a consciousness without the aid of the senses would know nothing. Thus it may be seen that they all belong together. The intellect may be a captain but only so in connection with the private soldiers, our five senses and the things of the world.

We may even regard the senses of man deficient, because there are animals whose senses are more developed than his, but with regard to intellect man is no doubt superior to all other “creatures.” “In this world” nobody has ever met with a superior mind to that of man. How it stands “in the other world” with angels, goblins and nymphs, history can tell us nothing about that. And even if we admit for a moment that supernatural spirits crowd the stars and moons, they must, insofar as they bake bread, use flour, and not metal or wood for this purpose. If the supernatural spirits are endowed with reason, then that reason cannot be of any other general nature than ours. If the metaphysical intellect is different, and perhaps of the nature of wood or tallow, then we must be permitted to deny it the name of intellect. We may only use the language as it is customary. It has divided things into classes and varieties and we must accept them as such if we want to be comprehensible and reasonable. If there are things in heaven or in some transcendental region, which are of a nature totally different from the things on earth, then they must be given other names; and not being adepts of the angel-language we cannot reasonably say anything with regard to “something higher,” the metaphysical or ghostly.

Strange and yet true! Such reasoning is exasperating to our philosophers. Kant has told them something and they are going on rehearsing it: only the natural phenomena can be conceived; but what is behind them, the “thing in itself” or the mystery that, – thou poor human intellect, is inconceivable by thee. And yet that whole mystery, the whole secret, is nothing but an exaggerated idea which they got about the intellect. Although they pretend limitation and continually speak of the incapacity to go beyond the limits of cognition, they cannot get rid of the exaggerated notion of an inconceivable conceivability, or of the idea of a monster-mind who could understand where there is nothing to be understood.

Aha! – my keen opponent will retort – you see! you speak somehow of things which no man can understand. Then there are inconceivable things. Well, well!

Yes, my dear mystic! I should like to see the wonderful things discussed, provided that they are stripped of their wonderful metaphysical character. There is much that is incomprehensible, there are limits to our understanding, but only in the sober sense of the word, just as there are things invisible and inaudible, just as there are limits to the capacity of our senses of seeing and hearing. Everything has its natural limit, and so has also the intellect. If musical tunes, sweet scents, the gravity of bodies are not visible to the eye, it is because the eye has reasonable limits, and not because the eye has unnatural limits in a metaphysical sense, which denotes human inferiority in comparison with some over-human superiority. Inferior a thing may be in comparison with another of the same class, but in general all things are perfect – they can’t be otherwise. A more perfect wood than that which is generally growing on earth could not be grown in metaphysics. When the wood changes completely the character of its kind then we can’t call it wood any more. Or should we deal with iron woods? Just as wood is limited by its wooden nature, so is the eye limited to visible things. And just as the eye, the general eye, sees all that is visible, so does the intellect, especially the human intellect, perceive everything which is reasonable. Unreasonable things, which can’t be reasoned out and understood, do not belong to its domain, and that is no more a defect, a barrier of the intellect, than the incapacity of the eye to see without light, or to feel a toothache. Monster-eyes may possess such an unnatural capacity of seeing.

In order to make an end to the gruesome talk of the Inconceivable and of the “limits of knowledge of Nature” in the metaphysical sense it is necessary to be clear about this question: What does it mean to know, to explain, to perceive? I repeat the cause of all superstition, of all religious and philosophic metaphysics, is to be found in the exaggerated idea of the function of the intellect, in the unreasonable demands made upon the faculty of cognition – that is, in epistemological ignorance. Our contemporaries have an inkling of this fact. The learned magazines teem with discussions on that subject-matter, and nearly approach the truth, but the full light is still missing, and can only be given by Social-Democrats. It is the possession of that light which enables our party to handle the intellect with systematic precision and to clear away the philosophic and theological mysteries guarded until now by the privileged classes.

Just as the peasant misunderstands the principle of mechanics, so does the professor of Philosophy misunderstand the principle of the intellectual function. It is difficult to make untrained brains understand that all levers and wheels do not increase the volume of a power, but merely distribute the pressure and thus enable us to handle it in an easier manner. But still more difficult as it to convince the professors of Philosophy that all cognition, comprehension and explanation is simply a formal act. The phenomena of the world and of life must be regarded as comprehended and explained when they are divided into classes, families, varieties, species, etc., and brought into a formal scientific schedule showing how they belong to one another and how they follow each other.

When a monster meets me in the forest, which, on account of my defective knowledge of natural history, makes me wonder as to what it is, and when at the same time a naturalist comes along and informs me that it is not a cannibal, but a rhinoceros which belongs to the family of pachyderms whose home is in Africa, Asia, etc., then under such a systematic registration my astonished ignorance turns into clear knowledge. And when I ask the physicist why the falling body increases in velocity from second to second, he will explain it to me by the law of gravitation, that is, he brings the different phenomena into one class and subordinates them under one scientific formula. All our reasoning, explaining and knowing cannot ask for more and ought not ask for more of our intellectual force. Those who demand more of the intellect are like the ignorant mechanic who seeks to invent the Perpetuum Mobile.

“Physics,” says Schopenhauer, “explains the phenomena by something still more unknown, by natural laws, natural forces, etc. Such explanations are, like the devil with the cloven foot, afflicted with the defect that they themselves need to be explained.”

The same philosopher says in another place:

“However great the progress may be which physics makes, it does not bring us a single step nearer to metaphysics ... Under metaphysics I (Schopenhauer) understand any alleged knowledge which goes beyond the possibility of experience, in order to furnish us with information as to what is behind Nature ... Even if one has traversed all stars and planets, no step was made into the region of metaphysics.”

With those words the famous man has stated two things: First, that metaphysics lies in Cloudlands; secondly, that he, with his inordinate desire for crazy explanations, still sticks to the metaphysical craving. He calls man “animal metaphysicum,” whereby he wants to say that it is metaphysics which distinguishes man from the animal. As against that I am of deliberate opinion that the descent of man begins just where the metaphysical or philosophical animal disappears.

No doubt, the thing has, as everything else, different sides. Metaphysics or the exaggerated ideas had to proceed in order to lead to the sober view that our intellect is an ordinary, formal and mechanical force. The light of that conviction is even dawning everywhere, but still only dawning. How its ascent is hampered by the old exaggerated ideas may be seen daily in dozens of the learned reviews. For instance, in No.34 of the Wage, 1876, Dr. Kalischer remarks:

“Newton as well as Darwin starts from given material, to which the first applies his Law as a measure. But what he shows by such an application is the mathematical, the formal, while the essential of the physical process remains completely unexplained ... According to that we reach the highest summit of knowledge when we get the mathe matical formula; for the so-called ‘explanation’ goes always so far as we can subordinate the natural phenomena under the principle of mechanism.”

Thus Dr. Kalischer knows the highest summit of knowledge, he is, so to speak, in agreement with Hobbes: “Where there is nothing to add and nothing to subtract all thinking is at an end,” yet he desires to climb to the highest-highest top in order to reach an explanation which overtops the “so-called explanation.” Or in other words: Though our thinking force is in the last in stance explained when we recognize it as a formal instrument, yet there are people who speculate upon a monster-reason which should explain the world metaphysically.

I can well imagine how the professors of Philosophy dislike our conception, but I should like to ask them most earnestly to kindly tell us what gives them the right to conclude from the natural limits of reason that there is an unnatural unlimited reason; further to tell us why they don t conclude from the limited nature of a piece of tin-plate that there is a limitless, heavenly, metaphysics) tin-plate. Such a conclusion can only be drawn by one who does not consider reason or tin-plate to be a natural thing which, like all other natural things, have their fixed limits defined by linguistic usage; only professors and scholars who carry in their bosom the last Mohican of a “higher” transcendental world, an exaggerated idea of a superhuman intellect, can draw such conclusions.

After the clear statements of the philologists Max Müller, of Oxford, or of William Dwight Whitney, that where the limit of things begins their names cease, all limitless fancyful speculations must cease. When our intellect reaches the point where there is nothing to be perceived, or where the Inconceivable begins, even then we have as little right to speak of a totally different world as when we reach the point with our voice where there is nothing more to sing. Where the singing ceases, howling may commence, and where theory is at an end, practice should begin.