Review of Philosophy for a Modern Man. H. Levy

The Philosophy of a Natural Scientist

Clemens Dutt

Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 20, Number 4, April 1938, pp.254-260 (3,153 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

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A Philosophy for a Modern Man by H. Levy

That this book should have been published as a monthly choice by the Left Book Club is a tribute both to the seriousness of the club membership and to Professor Levy’s gift for popular exposition.

Some persons have complained that the book after all is not easy to understand. Professor Levy has done more than most people could to explain himself clearly, but he is attempting a more difficult task than to write a popular primer of philosophy, or a radio talk on modern science. He is trying to work out for himself an all-embracing view of the most general conclusions to be derived from a study of the universe in the light of modern knowledge, and for this he may be excused some difficulties of language.

Every man of science whose outlook is not confined to the limits of his own speciality naturally tries to attempt something of the sort for himself, but Levy occupies a special position and has a special combination of qualifications, the result of which makes his book very important as an indicator of the present period in England, reflecting both the trend of the most advanced thought in this country and at the same time revealing the limitations still present at this stage of development. This makes it worth while examining his conclusions at some length.

There is no need to dwell in detail on Levy’s special qualifications. Everyone knows that he is an eminent scientific authority and a professional mathematician, so that his knowledge in this respect is of no amateur kind. As was to be expected from him, this book is characterised by original thinking and sturdy independence of mind. He certainly does not rehash other people’s opinions or take views at second hand; in fact he is so intent on working out his own views that he has hardly any time to spare for anyone else’s.

Further, he is an advanced progressive thinker, i.e., he is not in any way mystical, idealist or reactionary in his views. At the same time he: has a wide social awareness, a deep realisation of the inter-relation of science, and society, of theory and practice.

All these qualities inevitably bring him close to the Marxian position. Naturally the question at once arises: is the “philosophy for a modern man” at which he arrives, the philosophy of Marxism, i.e., dialectical materialism?

Levy himself does not use the term “dialectical materialism” anywhere in the book, although, as we shall see, he does refer in one place to the terms which he believes dialectical materialists would use to describe one of his basic conceptions. He has one quotation from Marx, he refers once to Engels, and nowhere at all to Lenin. Nevertheless, the whole book is permeated by the idea of dialectical change; he is entirely concerned with the process of change and it is to be noted that the “general qualitative law of change” at which he arrives is, he says, “usually referred to, in Hegelian terminology, as the passage of Quantity into Quality” (p.110).

This already indicates the considerable advance from the period of a few years ago when Levy too was prominent in protesting at the “almost medieval language” of the dialectical materialists, and, in regard to the Hegelian laws of change, declared as his opinion “I doubt very much whether there are any useful illustrations in the field of science.”

At that time the most he could say for these laws was “they amount to little more than the well known principle that any series of processes are separated by regions of instability, or that positions of stability inevitably occur alternately.”

This book shows that on closer analysis Levy has found that what he calls the general qualitative law of change is not only applicable in all spheres, but as a generalised law of movement forms the necessary basis for a modern scientific philosophy. That is the basic theme of his book.

But when one examines this philosophy it is seen to diverge in some marked respects from the philosophy of Marxism.

First of all, it is to be noted that Levy’s philosophy has not only the advantages, but all the defects of a self-made philosophy. It represents, not the working over of the whole history of philosophical thinking, such as Engels demanded, but an attempt to elaborate a philosophy built round a few special principles, sticking as close to the facts of natural science as possible.

In the main the principles betray the impact of dialectical materialism on the thinking of the natural scientist. Thus dialectical materialism insists on the inter-connection of all phenomena and processes. This has been taken up by Levy and made a cornerstone of his whole system. Secondly, he has thoroughly made his own that essential mark of the dialectical viewpoint which sees everything in process of movement, of change. He demonstrates the correctness of this view in example after example, throughout the book, both from the field of natural science and that of social phenomena.

He makes particular use of the results of natural scientific research, showing how modern views, for instance in regard to the statistical basis of natural laws, fit in with the principles he enunciates. His philosophy for a modern man is presented primarily as the obvious philosophy of a modern natural scientist.

But the more one examines his treatment, the clearer it becomes that his generalisations from natural science are not an adequate substitute for philosophical thinking.

In the first place, he exhibits the characteristic empiricism of the naïve, materialist natural scientist, the outlook that believes that the greatest degree of understanding of nature is obtained by keeping as close as possible to tangible objects and concrete facts, and avoiding abstract thought as much as possible.

We see this in Levy’s treatment throughout. It is notably expressed in his fundamental principle formulated by him: “Existence implies existence in groups, or existence of groups within greater groups” (p.65). This lays stress, in an undialectical manner, on one aspect of being. In effect, it involves adopting one side of Kant’s second antimony, in preference to the other side. It is just as correct to insist that all being is one.

Levy, by his preoccupation with the everyday universe of science, in effect loses sight of the relation of subjective thinking to the objective world, and the dialectics of thought as a reflection of the dialectics of the objective world. For him, the most important thing is the existence of “inter-connection,” that every part of the universe is connected with other parts and by itself is an “isolate.” The word is a quite useful one, but with him it has to do duty for everything; an object, a conception, a quality, an abstract idea, a scientific law – they are all just “isolates.”

Contrast this, for instance, with the view expressed in Lenin’s remark on the role of abstraction in the apprehension of reality:

Thinking, by rising from the concrete to the abstract, does not -- if it is correct -- become removed from truth but comes nearer to it. The abstraction of matter, of natural law, the abstraction of value, etc., in a word all scientific (correct, serious, not senseless), abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely. From living contemplation to abstract thinking, and from this to practice -- this is the dialectical way to cognition of truth, cognition of reality. (From Lenin’s Notebook on Hegel’s Logic.)

Lenin correctly stresses that man cannot comprehend the universe in its “immediate totality,” that it reflects itself in his mind not directly or completely, but through the process of a series of abstractions, formulations, formation of concepts, laws, etc.

Levy’s approach, with his emphasis on “things” and his apparatus of atomic and statistical isolates, is fundamentally a mechanist approach and this leaves its impress on his whole manner of thought.

This becomes especially clear when we come to consider the kernel of the whole question, the estimation of Levy’s generalised law of change, his conception of the dialectical process.

Levy’s emphasis on change and his analysis of the process of change is the essence of the whole book. Preoccupied with his discrete objects, concentrating almost exclusively on movement in the form of mechanical movement, defining change as “in the first instance a movement of some other thing or group of things” (p.33), and looking on change as a kind of mechanical pattern weaving (“to say that the world is in a state of change is to say that at any moment new statistical isolates are being formed out of old ones or by the grouping of atomic isolates, and so old ones are being transformed or decomposed” -- p.17), he cannot help presenting a mechanist view of dialectics.

Let us take the three basic chapters of his book, Chapters III., IV. and V., with their significant titles: “How a Quality is modified,” “How a Quality is transformed,” and “What causes change.”

The first two chapters lead up to his generalised law of change. Incidentally “quality” is defined in a mechanist way as a “relation of one thing to other things” (p.33). Quality, therefore, is regarded not as an essence of the thing, but only as a relation. The importance of this will be seen when we come to the “cause of movement.”

After analysing a series of examples mainly from physical science the principle is arrived at that, where there is a passage from a “phase” marked by one quality to another with a different quality, “the change in phase is always brought about directly by a secondary casual factor arising in the inter-relation of the parts during the actual phase and indirectly by the operation of the primary casual agent” (p.112).

In general terms, as Levy formulates it, in a state S wherein a certain quality Q is undergoing intensification, “the intensification of Q arouses in it or intensifies in it, a structural quality q. The quality q is recognised by the fact that its intensification is inimical to the continued existence of the given state S. Accordingly, at a critical stage of q, the state S is transformed into a new qualitative state Q” p.112).

Now it would not matter if Levy was content to put forward this principle as a great discovery. But when he says that the point at which the change-over caused by q “is referred to by Dialectical Materialists as the point at which Quantity passes into Quality” and that “a statistical isolate involving the co-existence of Q and q prior to the dialectical change is considered as possessing a contradiction” (p.113), than we are led to protest.

If this is all that is meant by dialectical materialism, then its view of development would indeed be a crude, mechanical one. Essentially there is very little difference between Levy’s conception of development as resulting from the opposition of Q and q and Bukharin’s much condemned conception of the contradiction of opposing forces.

It is very significant that Levy has not a word to say anywhere about the mutual penetration of opposites, about the identity of opposites. Lenin puts this aspect before any other. He says: “Dialectics is the teaching how opposites can be identical, why human understanding must comprehend these opposites not as dead and rigid, but as living, conditioned, moving and becoming transformed into one another.”

For example, life itself is a dialectical process, involving a simultaneous building up and breaking down. The living organism, says Engels, is at each instant the same thing and something different. But this is not a question of opposing forces, of “Q” and “p.”

Dialectics recognises the contradictory opposing sides in all phenomena and processes. Lenin stresses how the simplest proposition contains a contradiction, such as the contradiction between the particular and the general.

The effect of Levy’s mechanist conception of dialectics is seen very clearly in his Chapters IV. and V., “What causes change,” and “What causes change in society?” The very formulation of the question is meaningless and indicates a wrong approach. Movement as applied to matter is change in general and the question is equivalent to asking what is the cause of motion? Engels himself gives the reply in saying: “Matter and its mode of existence, motion, are uncreatable and therefore are their own final cause.”

What is Levy’s own answer to this question? His argument is not very clear in relation to the question, but apparently it is a justification of causality and deals with the nature of scientific laws.

Like the eighteenth century materialists, Levy wants a cause of motion. This is linked up with his view of quality as merely a relation and his mechanical view of change. In contrast to this we have Engels’ view that “movement is not merely change of place, in the supra-mechanical spheres it is also change of quality.” We can connect this with the conception of dialectical materialism that the quality of a thing is not just a relation but that its essential quality is given by the particular kind of movement fundamental to it. This is what Lenin called “self-movement,” and he insists again and again on the necessity of studying things and processes in their “self-movement,” of determining thereby the essential contradictions on which all the others depend. Levy’s view is infinitely cruder and less profound than the thought of Marx and Lenin.

The last third of the book is devoted to the “cause of change” in society. Once again one remarks the metaphysical title; not how change occurs, not the movement characteristic of social development, but “what causes change in society.”

Therefore, also, the answer is found not in the contradictions that reveal the special character of social movement, and which must be worked out and revealed in their concrete form in each phase and each aspect, but instead in a single driving force which he identifies as technology.

It is not accidental that the only citation of Marx is to make a correction. He quotes from Marx that “the mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.” Levy proceeds to make the bland comment: “The emphasis here is on the word “general,” though what authority he has for saying so he alone knows, and declares: “There are other qualities that require to be taken into consideration.”

When one comes to examine these other things that Marx overlooked, we find only the crudest geo-political conception of history, that “an area rich in coal, iron and metals that can be worked, may be expected to develop an industrial economy.” Apparently the ancient Britons neglected their opportunities.

Just as the presence of coal and iron itself is assumed to involve the development of an industrial economy, so in the next pages the one-sided view is put forward that the development of the Soviet Union after the revolution was the result of the new technical civilisation that had been founded. He declares: “It was a magnificent illustration of the dictum that the technical level of the community sets also the level of the social life” (p.193). A simple person would imagine that, if anything, it was exactly the contrary, that it was the new social existence brought about by the revolution which had resulted in a new level of technical development.

Levy has to press his one-sided view because he has to prove that it is the “drive of technique” that is the “main casual agency” in social development, corresponding to the causal agent Q of his general scheme.

His mechanist view goes so far, as to proclaim in words that social changes must conform in behaviour to physical changes. “Just as a liquid when subjected to heating (Q) takes this up by a mutual adjustment and agitational quality of the molecules, so a community when subjected to growing technical pressure must show this somehow in the actions of its constituent members. They are two manifestations of the same phenomenon” (p.294).

Levy’s technological explanation of history is responsible for the curious interpretation that “the nature of the Cromwell Rebellion hinged on the fact that the townsmen with their new industries, rallying around him, made it possible to fight with muskets and cannon. The new technological order was imposing its power by the use of its new technological weapons” (p.218). The inadequacy of this summing up cries out aloud. Here all the correct things that he has said about the rise of capitalism are forgotten. The rôle of class conflict disappears altogether. It all becomes just a question of technology.

It is quite clear also that the undialectical features of Levy’s approach to problems of social development are not accidental, but inevitably follow from his mechanical formula for change. He has to find a single causal factor, Q, and he finds it in technology. He has to find also a secondary causal factor, q, and this he identifies first of all as class conflict, though he is by no means so clear about its operation. He speaks of “stress at the inter-face,” whatever this may mean, and terms this the “first aspect of the quality q that corresponds to the external quality Q, the technical level” (p.202). Later on this internal stress q is explained to be “really an activity on the part of human beings” (p.227).

Levy has a great many correct things to say about the economic functioning and development of capitalist society, but his descriptions owe little for their conviction to being forced into his Q and q scheme.

Perhaps this review does less than justice to the many correct ideas, clever formulations and apt illustrations contained in this book. It has much of great value and it will set many readers thinking where a more hackneyed presentation would have aroused no interest.

But one of the most instructive points to be noticed is precisely the relation of the standpoint of one of our leading scientists to the philosophy of Marxism, and this calls for stress on the points open to criticism on points of divergence.

It is necessary to point out that the theory Levy advances is not the same as dialectical materialism, although Levy has made his own many elements of the latter.

He has clearly thought things out for himself and found much with which he is in agreement. But it is also clear that he has not yet got to the kernel, that he is still in a position not far removed from Dühring, who denied contradiction except as a matter of opposing forces. Dühring’s philosophy is not one for a modern man. Professor Levy would be advised to take warning, lest he lay himself open to the charge of repeating the errors castigated by Engels in his devastating attack on Dühring’s philosophy.