Joseph Dietzgen 1877

The Limits of Cognition

Source: Joseph Dietzgen, Philosophical Essays, Charles Kerr & Co., Chicago 1906, pp. 224-235;
First published: in Vorwärts, 1877;
Translated: by M. Beer & Th. Rothstein, Edited by Eugene Dietzgen & Joseph Dietzgen Jr.;
Transcribed: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread: Andy Carloff, 2010

An anonymous letter touching the above subject, written evidently by an expert, has recently been received by the Vorwärts, which in an unbiased manner attempts to show that Philosophy and Social-Democracy are two things apart and that, therefore, one may very well belong to our party without adhering to the “Social-Democratic Philosophy.” Hence it is concluded that the central organ of the party was wrong in allowing philosophic discussion to become a party matter.

The editor of the Vorwärts has been good enough to show me that letter as it referred to my articles. Though the author has given clearly to understand that he had no wish to provoke by his protest any public controversy, since, as he maintains, newspaper controversies did not admit of a thorough treatment of the subject, nevertheless I hope he will not find it indiscreet if his objections are used here for the purpose of elucidating a question which both to him and to myself and, to judge from the general interest displayed at present with regard to it, appears to be of great importance to our whole generation. And as regards thoroughness, it seems to me that voluminous books are no better qualified for it than newspaper articles. On the contrary, there has been of late so much long-winded twaddle that a great portion of the public is losing all taste for the discussion of such matters.

First of all I should like to contradict the statement that Philosophy and Social-Democracy were two things apart which had nothing between them in common. Quite true, one may be an efficient member of the party and at the same time a “critical philosopher,” or even a Christian. The human soul is such a queer thing that it can easily find some sort of conciliation between the veriest contradictions. And not only in things philosophical and religious, but also in things economical, a great measure of heresy is permitted. We must in practice be tolerant to the extreme, and surely no Social-Democrat would ever think of putting any Party member into the straight jacket of uniformity. Nevertheless, theoretical uniformity must be demanded of all who devote them selves to scientific investigation. Theoretical uniformity, systematic homogeneity is the consummation to be desired as well as the advantage of all science. That Social-Democracy is scientific and science is social-democratic will, I hope, be granted by my esteemed opponent. Of course, there are many branches of science which bear less on the socialistic aspirations to emancipate enslaved humanity. But the philosophical question – the question whether there is beyond and above the world anything metaphysical, “anything higher,” which it would be too monstrous for our intellect to attempt to conceive, or which is beyond the human understanding to explain – this special question of Philosophy about the “Limits of Cognition” bears very closely upon the slavery of the people.

Social-Democracy does not seek to establish eternal laws, permanent institutions or unchangeable forms; it seeks in general the salvation of mankind. The indispensable means toward attaining that object is mental enlightenment. The question whether the instrument of cognition is a narrow makeshift, that is an inferior one whether scientific research supplies us with true ideas, with truth in its highest form and last instance, or merely with poor “substitutes” which have above them the Inconceivable – this problem of the Theory of Cognition is eminently a Socialist problem.

All the ruling powers which have exploited the people have to this very day appealed for justification to a higher destiny, to the grace of God, to the holy ointment, to the metaphysical incense. And if they also referred to enlightenment, religious freedom, political progress and critical philosophy, they knew very well that without “something higher,” something inconceivable, something metaphysical, be it even a mere “moral world,” the reins will break which keep the people straight and the ruling classes in wealth and dignity.

But let there be no misunderstanding. Not that the Social-Democracy are against the moral world. We, too, desire to arrange the world morally; but we desire this arrangement to emanate from the many below, and not from the few above, that is, we desire to arrange it ourselves. We, therefore, need no chimeras, no “limits of cognition” to effect and to keep up such an arrangement. It is, on the contrary, preeminently the business of Social-Democracy to make it clear to the perverted world that the individual intellect is a poor instrument in comparison with the fathomless problem of science, so that the individual must circumscribe his efforts within definite limits; but that, on the other hand, the faculty of cognition of the human race is as full of possibilities, as limitless, as fathomless as the problem which nature sets before it for solution. The doctrine of mental poverty, the doctrine of the limited understanding of man is the last remnant of the religious humbug. Those who, on the basis of the Social-Democratic program, strive to emancipate the working class through the workers them elves, must entirely divest themselves of all the foolish expectations and hopes and philosophical hairsplitting and speculation in so far as it all relates to another world.

This other world is now an exploded notion with science and scientific circles; there is only that portion of it left which deals with the “limits of cognition,” and as long as these are supposed to exist, there is still a higher limitless cognition standing behind, and there is also the Inconceivable, and nobody who has before his eyes that phantom will ever arrive at a proper appreciation of, and confidence in, human energy and responsibility.

To transform radically the present immoral world, an energetic consciousness of the unlimited faculty of cognition of the human mind is required. This makes it imperative that we should place all talk of the possibility of a “higher cognition” in the same category where the bodies of the Saints stand who, indeed, have stomachs, but need no food, no drink. If another sort of cognition is possible than the one which is commonly called so, then, of course, flesh and blood are possible, too, which look, taste and are constituted like flour and water. In short: we ought, then, to become Catholics, and seek our salvation in prayer and not in active work; we must then give up Social-Democracy.

Our anonymous comrade is of a different opinion. He wants to take up the cudgels in behalf of something inconceivable, in behalf of a limited human cognition, and yet is not willing to stop and keep to those limits. Those who really believe that there is something inconceivable must and will keep away from it with their conception and not try to penetrate further and inquire, – else they treat the supernatural as if it were natural, and the inconceivable as if it were merely not yet conceived. An equation like this, our opponent thinks, is merely an “external” one, the contradiction only a superficial one, since it indicates only that the human mind, which involuntarily affects that equation, is reluctant to admit the existence of the Inconceivable and, therefore, pronounces it merely to be not yet conceived.

“If it did do that; if, on the contrary, it were to accept that there really is something inconceivable, which to it is like a sealed book, then under such an acquiescence all incentive towards inquiry would be lost and there would no longer be any science.”

From this it follows that man has two minds: one which must needs have something inconceivable, and another which must needs inquire into it. As against that I hold that the time has arrived when the human mind must be taught that the inconceivable is not a subject for science and that scientific inquiry has more than enough food in the domain of things yet to be conceived.

“This,” says our opponent, “is really nothing but the old controversy over again about the limits of human cognition, a controversy which your (the Vorwärts) correspondent has presented in a way of his own with which I am not quite in sympathy.”

“Let us see, then,” he continues, “whether our professors of Philosophy have really treated this point so badly as to deserve a curt dismissal.”

“The one who first carried out the investigation into the limits of cognition was Kant. However, he did not proceed beyond the ‘Categories of Understanding,’ and had in his Practical Reason to assume hypotheses which gave his system a contradictory character. It was, however, this circumstance in his system which, although the limits of formal cognition had been defined sharply enough, made further progress a necessity. And what else was it than the endeavor to conceive the inconceivable, that is to solve the inner contradiction of thinking?”

“Fichte it was who attempted the solution, etc.”

“Then it was Hegel who came nearer to the inconceivable by a far greater step by demonstrating, etc. ... He showed that, in order to understand the World-Reason, it is only necessary to understand our own Reason. This, it is patent, brought the Inconceivable appreciably nearer to us. And when we thus consider to what an extent those three philosophers have advanced our scientific understanding by attempting to conceive the Inconceivable we must take some care not to condemn the ‘official’ Philosophy and to give her notice to quit.”

The reply of the Social-Democratic philosophy is as follows: It never thought of refusing the philosophers of the past what is historically due to them. On the contrary, it starts from the premises that Kant, Fichte and Hegel have transformed the Inconceivable (i. e., the faculty of cognition) into the Conceivable to such an extent that the time has at last arrived when we can give all metaphysics with its official philosophers notice to quit, – and also all those thinkers who fail to recognize this important achievement and do not cease making an Inconceivable of everything which is not yet conceived. The Critique of Pure Reason, the History of Science, the Logic, or the theory of cognition has in its development advanced so far that now Social-Democracy has a clear knowledge of what is meant by to know, and we may well speak with derision of those learned capucines who place above the knowledge of nature something “higher” still.

Kant is said to have “sharply enough defined the limits of formal cognition.” This is precisely what we dispute with all our might – the point that separates radically the Social-Democratic philosophy from the official. Kant has not sharply enough defined the limits of formal cognition because, with his famous “thing in itself,” he still left the belief in another, a higher cognition, in a superhuman monster-mind. Formal cognition is knowledge of Nature! The philosophers may sigh for another sort of knowledge, but they are, before all, bound to give us some indication where it is to be found and how it is constituted.

Of the real cognition, the one which is in daily use, they speak contemptuously like the ancient Christians spoke of the “weak flesh.” The actual world is for them only an “appearance” and its essence a mystery. Long after this rotten phrase has become discredited in other branches of science, the fraud is still being perpetrated in the theory of cognition. Nobody will have any other sort of tin than natural tin, why should it be different with knowledge? If natural science is content everywhere with the phenomenon, why not with the phenomenology of mind? Behind the “Limits of formal cognition” there always hovers the higher, unlimited metaphysical mind; behind the official philosopher, the theologian, and behind both of them, the Inconceivable.

And when Hegel showed that, “in order to understand the mind of the world it is only necessary to understand our own mind,” we declare ourselves perfectly in agreement. Only the Social-Democracy would correct the mystical expression: we know only one mind, the human mind is the mind of the world.

“But what is this Inconceivable?” asks the author of the letter to the Vorwärts. “When we are forced to acknowledge that every scientific attempt to conceive it brings us appreciably nearer to it, are we not bound at the same time to believe that it will eventually become the Conceived? Then we should have the demand of your correspondent fulfilled, – not, indeed, in his way, but in that of official philosophy. To this, too, the official philosopher has his reply, namely, that ‘Being’ as in a state of absolute rest, can by no means be resolved into the absolute movement of thinking. This dictum, says our opponent, defines at once the limits of knowledge, that is, the Inconceivable. Does it follow, then, that we must deny its existence, and that we must keep away from it? Surely not. Every scientific attempt to approach it, to conceive it, or even to formulate the problem of it, leads us nearer to the obscure point and throws new light on it, though it may never bring us to an absolutely clear vision of it. And the pursuit of this object is the business of philosophy in contradistinction to natural science which only deals with facts and explains phenomena.”

Phenomena! Of course!

Thus the subject of philosophy, the Inconceivable, is a kind of a bird from which we can now and then pluck out a feather or two, but are unable to strip it to the skin, and which must forever remain inconceivable. If we examine closely the feathers which the philosophers of the past have already plucked, we recognize by them the sort of the bird: it is the human mind. And here we are again at the decisive point which separates the dialectic Materialists from the pure Idealists: mind is to us a phenomenon of Nature, while Nature is to them a phenomenon of mind. If it only stopped there! But no, there lurks in the background the malicious intention to promote mind to an “entity,” a thing of a higher descent and to reduce everything else to a platitude.

We are, therefore, bound to call attention to the fact, well known as it is to the world at large, that not only mind, consciousness or apperception, but all things are “in the last resort” inconceivable.

“We are unable to conceive the atoms, and we cannot explain out of the atoms and their movement the slightest phenomenon of consciousness,” says Lange in his History of Materialism, and another writer also says, “the nature of matter is absolutely inconceivable.” And yet we continue to inquire into their nature, because of our need of causation or, as it is also called, “impulse towards research,” which, in its irrepressible way, cannot help plucking feathers even from the Inconceivable.

As against this we say: that which allows of being possibly conceived is not inconceivable. Whoever wants to conceive what he considers inconceivable, cannot be taken seriously. Just as with my eye I can only perceive the visible, with my ear hear only the audible, so with my faculty of conception I can only conceive the conceivable. And when the Social-Democratic philosophy teaches that everything which exists can be perfectly conceived, it does not thereby deny the Inconceivable in a natural sense. We admit the same as the naturally invisible for our eyes; we only object to that double-dealing, shuffling “philosophical” sense which makes the Inconceivable again conceivable on a higher plane. We are earnest about this question, we know of no higher and other cognition than the ordinary human one, we know positively that our understanding is truly called understanding, and there can as much or little be any other and essentially different understanding as square circles. We place the intellect among the ordinary things which cannot change their nature without changing their names.

The Social-Democratic philosophy agrees with the official one that “Being can by no means be resolved into thinking” – not even a particle of it. But neither do we regard it as the task of thinking to resolve Being, but merely to arrange, to order it formally in classes, to explain its rules and to find its laws, – in short to arrive at what is called “Knowledge of Nature.” Everything is conceivable in so far as it can be classified, everything is inconceivable in so far as it cannot be entirely reduced to thought. This we cannot, must not and have no wish to do, and therefore we keep away from it. But we can very well do the reverse – namely, to reduce thinking to being, i.e., to classify the faculty of thinking as one of the numerous modes of existence.

My opponent appeals to the fact that Kant, Fichte and Hegel have come nearer to the Inconceivable by a few steps. But what those philosophers have grasped was nothing inconceivable, but merely the conceivable portion of the intellect or the “formal cognition.” We only go a little step further and conceive the intellect as totally a formal instrument which can only perform in the theory of cognition what it practises in natural science. With us science is a homogeneous species of which philosophy and knowledge of nature are varieties, – both observe “given facts” or explain “phenomena.” We find intellect to be as much empirical as matter. Thinking and being, subject and object exist in the domain of experience. To characterize one of these natural objects as absolute rest and the other as absolute motion is, since natural science has reduced everything to motion, no more permissible. What our comrade said of the Inconceivable – namely, that every scientific attempt leads us a step nearer to the obscure point, though we can never gain an absolutely clear vision of it, – is also true, without mystification, of every object of natural science, of the inconceived. Also knowledge of Nature has its unlimited objective; even without mystic limits we approach the obscure point ever nearer and nearer without ever bringing it within full vision. That means simply that science, like nature, has no limits.

Granted, however, that impulse towards enquiry is inherent in man, it cannot be denied that, in order to use this impulse rationally, one must properly understand it. The rational impulse towards enquiry tends to a certain systematic arrangement of existence, i.e., to find out the laws of existence. If it exhibits the tendency to go beyond existence, it must go beyond itself, beyond all nature. With such aspirations Philosophy necessarily overshoots itself and falls into extravagance which it inherited from religion. Philosophy and religion miss the “final causes” of all conceivableness: namely, the empirical, the fact; our thoughts should be based on sense-perceptions, on experiences. Those who, on the contrary, wish to base fact on mind or logic must understand this merely in a formal sense. The last cause why the stone falls or heat expands is the fact, and the law of gravitation and the law of expansion are abstractions or formal reasons. Not only can Being not be resolved into Thinking, but even the philosophic aspiration to do so is a pure-ideological overstraining.

Just as man is possessed by the impulse to know everything, so he possesses also the impulse to see everything. Well, here is a pane of glass which is quite transparent. Yet it is not all transparent. Its specific gravity or degree of solidity cannot be seen; its quality to emit a sound can only be heard, etc. Precisely the same with the organ of knowledge: we are able to know everything completely, yet along with this everything is something more than knowable, and this fact that Being cannot be resolved into thinking can be a matter of lamentation only to the fantastic dreamer. If we could know of any one thing absolutely everything, then knowledge would be all and the object nothing. Knowledge and nothing left to know! Light and nothing left to see! Then it would be like of yore when nothing was – “and the earth was without form, and void.”