Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963
There is ample reason to agree with Durkheim that positivism was the most significant and important development in the philosophy of the nineteenth century. Durkheim showed that the idea originated with Saint-Simon who also gave an outline of the positive system of the sciences. The merits of Comte in working out in detail the great innovations brought about by positive philosophy in no way abolish the right of Saint-Simon to the honour, usually awarded to Comte, of being the father of positivism.
This fact is of some importance as far as Marxism-Leninism is concerned. For while even the name of Comte is anathema to the Marxist-Leninists, that of Saint-Simon is not. Marx, who early in his life came into contact with the SaintSimonians and read Comte only much later, put it on record that he was opposed, naturally enough, to Comte’s political and social doctrines, and that he had a poor opinion of his philosophy, only superior in detail but on the whole infinitely inferior to Hegel’s. Marx and Engels found in Saint-Simon the ‘breadth of view of a genius’ and counted him among the ‘three great utopians’ – Fourrier and Owen being the other two – whose ideas, in Lenin’s words, should be recognised as one of the three sources and component parts of the Marxian thought. Comte, Engels commented, had ‘a series of brilliant thoughts’, but they were all taken from Saint-Simon. In Comte’s hands the magnificent conception of Saint-Simon was mutilated ‘in philistine fashion to the best of his (Comte’s) Ability’  Irrespective of whether Marx and Engels learnt about the idea of positive philosophy from the writings of Saint-Simon or those of Comte, there is no doubt that they were greatly impressed by it and assimilated it into their own system.
The impact of positive philosophy on Marx and Engels is already apparent in The German Ideology, but it finds its most pronounced expression in AntiDhring and Ludwig Feuerbach. For according to Engels the idea of positive philosophy could not have been implemented until idealism was driven from its last refuge and this was accomplished when Marx propounded the materialist conception of history. Historical materialism made it possible to transform history and the social sciences into positive disciplines, to merge all knowledge in the great body of positive sciences comprising Nature, human society and history, and thus to achieve the aspiration for the unity of knowledge. Philosophy conceived as a ‘science of sciences’, standing apart and above the positive sciences, with a separate subject matter of its own, came to an end. ‘When reality is depicted’, wrote Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, ‘philosophy as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence’. There only remain the theory of the laws of thought, formal logic and dialectics, themselves a part of positive knowledge.
The main assumption of positive philosophy, as conceived by Saint-Simon and accepted by Engels, was to define knowledge as the totality of facts and of their interconnections, established by particular sciences. This leaves philosophy no separate realm of reality, for by definition everything that can be known belongs to some branch of scientific knowledge. There is no room left for philosophy but ‘within the positive sciences’. Philosophy becomes an activity whose task is to systematise and to order knowledge into a picture of the world. Its validity must be established on the basis of the achievements of science available at the time, for philosophy has no other sources upon which it could draw. It is in the nature of scientific knowledge that it can never be completed; its accumulation knows no limit, each stage reached is provisional and far from perfect. Consequently, there is no exhaustive and final picture of the world. The latter must be constantly revised and adjusted to the progress achieved by particular sciences.
This is only an outline of the new conception of philosophy, which leaves many questions unanswered and lends itself to various interpretations. Thus, some time later, Engels’ views were used to show that philosophy has after all a subject-matter of its own, namely, the most general laws of development, which applying to the world as a whole escape the grid of positive sciences. For Engels also said that philosophy, identified with dialectics, is the ‘science of the general laws of motion and development of Nature, human society and thought’. Although philosophy cannot be practised apart from science, yet it is over and above science, since philosophy provides the latter with its epistemological and methodological foundation. It also paves the way for scientific progress by the formulation of laws of the highest generality, undiscoverable by any particular science, to which all phenomena are subject. This interpretation is in keeping with the anti-positivistic trend initiated by Lenin in Materialism and EmpirioCriticism and continued with increasing vigour by Marxism-Leninism ever since.
For Lenin positivism lost its distinctive features to become a trend comprising a great variety of ideas. As he saw it, the ‘broad current of positivism’ included such diverse thinkers as Comte, Spencer, Mikhailovsky, some Neo-Kantians, Mach, and Avenarius. Lenin did not conceal his utter contempt for the currents of thought which came into prominence towards the end of the nineteenth century, for they lacked, in his opinion, originality and consistency whether they were called “ ‘positivism’, ‘realism’, or some other professorial charlatanism” .
From the early ‘thirties Marxism-Leninism has given great prominence to Lenin’s views on positivism and vied in its hostility to logical positivism with that of Lenin to Mach and Avenarius. Philipp Frank’s expectation, expressed in 1935, that some intellectual kinship between dialectical materialism and logical empiricism may possibly bring them closer together, did not materialise. The pronounced anti-positivistic trend in Marxism-Leninism is combined with the confident claim that philosophy can acquire important and valid knowledge, unobtainable by any particular science. Philosophy is assigned a vantage point from which the whole of knowledge can be criticised, the true meaning of facts of experience revealed, and the laws of science reinterpreted or dismissed.
The important point to be noted in Engels’ conception of philosophy is the fact that there is no place within it for a theory of knowledge. As a matter of fact, there is no evidence that Engels saw any need for it or that he attached any importance to epistemological problems.
Engels adopted the common sense, naively realistic standpoint in the theory of knowledge and thought that no serious attack could be made on it, least of all that an attack might be initiated and supported by science. He seemed to have been unaware of the subverting criticism based on Berkeley’s approach, to which the common sense world might be subjected, and of the reinforcement with which the scientific study of the sense organs, of the nervous system and of the brain, from Johannes Mller onwards, might provide this line of attack. Engels considered Kant’s philosophy as the most formidable obstacle that barred the path back to comprehending the real world in its sensuous immediacy, undiluted by Humean doubt and secure from transcendental analysis. Hegel helped to dispose of this obstacle, but at a heavy price, namely, by substituting the absolute concept for the world of Nature. Once it was realised, however, that Hegel was wrong, and that the ‘concepts in our head’ are images of the real things instead of the latter being images of ‘this or that stage of the absolute concept’, all confusion seemed to disappear and the problem of how we come to know the objects of the external world presented no problem. There was no doubt that we know things as they actually are and not as they appear to us, for whatever we experience – feelings, thoughts, impulses, volitions – is the effect of the external world acting on the human brain. The thing-in-itself of the ‘Neo-Kantian agnostics’ is a figment of the imagination, which Hegel already saw through and dispelled. When we know the qualities of an object we know the object itself and since it is the cause of our perceptions we know also that it exists without us. Thus, Engels accepted the view common to all positivists and abhorred by all essentialists that things or bodies or matter are nothing apart from their attributes. In Marxism-Leninism only the negative part of Engels’ idea, that is, that there is nothing unknowable in the world, has been accepted, and its positive assertion, directed against essentialism, has been ignored.
The realisation that there is no single thing that persists when its attributes change or are taken away in thought, inspired Engels with a vigorous optimism in man’s unlimited capacity for knowledge, however limited and liable to errors it might be at each particular historical moment. We may have an imperfect knowledge of the external world but by manufacturing what we claim to know we can verify the truth of our knowledge. To know what albuminous bodies are is to be able to produce artificial albumen. The powerful and rapid progress of natural science and industry was an irrefutable argument against sceptical doubts about man’s ability to acquire true knowledge about the external world.
Engels did speak of thoughts being reflections or images of material objects, but he contrasted this view with that of Hegel and not with those of Berkeley or Hume. For the metaphysical problem of the relation of Spirit to Nature occupied his mind more than the epistemological question concerning the relation of thought to reality. Engels did not conceive the idea, ascribed to him by Lenin, who expounded his own theory of perception as if it were Engels’, that sensations and concepts are ‘copies, photographs, images, mirror-reflections of things’ . Engels was not concerned with the epistemological problems of perception and seemed to have felt that whatever difficulties they might raise they could simply and conclusively be disposed of.
An overwhelming majority of thinkers, Engels wrote and he counted himself as one of them, answers affirmatively the question whether our experience faithfully reflects the objects of the external world. The line of reasoning that questions the adequacy of our perceptions and denies that our senses give us correct representations of the objects we perceive through them, is hard to beat by mere argument. But such objections are philosophical inventions, not to be taken seriously, because experiment, practice, and industry are perfectly capable of dealing with them. There is no doubt that we do make false perceptual judgments and that actions based on false beliefs fail to achieve their purpose. If this happens, the cause of it should be sought for either in the perception being ‘incomplete and superficial’ or in ‘defective reasoning’. There is no reason, however, to assert on this basis that there is an inherent discrepancy between what things seem to be and what they are. ‘So long as we take care to train and use our senses properly, and to keep our actions within the limits prescribed by perceptions, properly made and properly used, so long shall we find that the result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived’ . Engels did not realise that before he could speak of ‘perceptions properly made and properly used’ he would have to be in possession of the idea of what the world, causing all kinds of fleeting and evanescent sensations, is like. For in the absence of this idea the concept of properly made and properly used perception has no meaning and to define the world by means of this concept is to move in a vicious circle.
Engels’ position can be described as that of naive realism: external objects are more or less as they seem. Our sensations are never wrong and errors begin only with the interpretation of sensational data. There are no illusions of the senses, though there are illusory inferences drawn from some perceptions. These errors are discovered by experiment, careful observation and putting our ideas about things to the test of practice. These views are supported by a rudimentary causal and representational theory of perception. The objects of the external world are causes of our perceptions and the latter are a reflection of the external world. The thesis that material objects appear to us disguised as their own effects (which also guarantees that they exist independently of us), and that these effects are a true reflection of material objects, is accepted as self-evident. Whatever proof might be provided must be produced by positive science. Philosophical perplexities are out of place; they raise doubts which science ignores. There are no specifically philosophical problems in the theory of perception or in that concerned with the objective validity of knowledge.
Engels adopted the attitude of the scientist of his time, who overlooked the fact that he himself is an observer, that he must finally rely on some immediate data of experience, and that he cannot start with ascribing to his findings the objectivity which they do not possess. The truths of physics and physiology are an inferred knowledge, based on direct records of experience. The physicist, stated one of the important conclusions reached by Mach, is always operating with sensations. His direct records of experience, however elaborate they might be, do not differ from observations of everyday life by means of which we verify a common sense statement. In both cases we record the occurrence of some sensedata. For this reason both science and common sense require a theory of knowledge. To accept either in science or philosophy what common sense says on the matter, is to endorse bold and far-reaching metaphysical assumptions, made up as matters of fact. By his exposure of this common sense metaphysics Mach, Engels’ contemporary, produced in his Analysis of Sensations and Knowledge and Error a decisive turning point in the philosophy of science. On the other hand, the view that science confirms the naive belief of mankind about the external world, is utterly mistaken. ‘Naive realism leads to physics and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false’, wrote Bertrand Russell. For physics assures us that the green colour of grass or the hardness of stones are something very different from what we know in our own experience. ‘Therefore, naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false’ . The objects, with which we are familiar in everyday life, must be, when unseen, quite unlike what they appear to be when seen. Science is not a continuation of common sense.
Lenin could not retain Engels’ epistemological position in its initial form any longer. One of the important reasons for the readmission of the problems of knowledge into the philosopher’s preserve was the fact that the causal theory of perception is compatible not only with naive realism but also with phenomenalism, and phenomenalism was Lenin’s main opponent. Moreover, while the causal theory of perception may be considered as supporting naive realism in the sense that it implies the belief, common to realism of all sorts, concerning the continued existence of material objects when they are not perceived, as well as accounting for mental images ‘in our heads’, it does not support it in another sense. For the causal theory of perception raises doubts as to whether things are exactly or even approximately as they seem and possess the qualities which we ascribe to things on perceiving them. This was already recognised by Helmholtz in 1866. To reinforce the position of naive realism, Lenin worked out his copy theory of perception, ascribed it, without much justification, to Engels, and retained the causal theory in the background as an auxiliary means of defence, used rather against subjective idealism than ‘non-materialist’ realism.
It is important to note that Lenin did restore to the theory of knowledge its philosophical character. He did not take this step in order to study the problems of knowledge on their own account but to protect materialist metaphysics against the criticism based on epistemological phenomenalism. This was recognised by the Marxist-Leninists in Poland. They emphasised that the content and formulation of the copy theory of perception cannot be properly understood unless it is related to the purpose it was to serve, that is, the refutation of idealist theories of knowledge.
Lenin’s epistemology is pervaded by a boundless optimism which is based on two interrelated beliefs – his theory of perception that claims to have abolished the barrier between the phenomenon and the ‘thing-in-itself ‘and the role ascribed to practice. The latter belief inspires him with the conviction that even to consider the possibility of any limitations inherent in human knowledge is a philosophical invention. There is nothing ‘unknowable’ in the world, knowledge is cumulative, the ‘only difference is between what is known and what is not yet known’ .
Lenin’s opinion that science approximates more and more closely the ‘true essence’ of things rests on his theory of perception, according to which ‘the objective reality. . . . is copied, photographed, and reflected by our sensations’. Lenin argued that not a ‘single fact was or could be cited’ to refute this view, ‘which is shared by science to this day’ . Now, the opinion that sensations are true copies of the external objects is known in Poland, as everywhere else, under the name of ‘naive realism’ of a particular kind and is considered to be untenable and even meaningless. If our perceptions provide us with some kind of images, and this is granted for the sake of argument, the relation of the image to what it is an image of cannot be that of ‘being its copy’. The perceptive image is supposed to be the content of the perception and by its very nature it cannot be either similar or dissimilar, a copy or a photograph, of something that is not a content of the perception. The theory implies either that the image itself is a physical object, which since Democritus and Epicurus nobody seems to be willing to accept, or that the relation is in fact not that between a portrait and a portrayed person.
A more serious error is, however, involved in the copy version of naive realism. What it says to be the case is either a metaphor, which cannot be actually applied in the theory of perception, or it assumes what it intends to prove, and what it assumes is unverifiable by any imaginable procedure. We know a portrait to be a portrait of the portrayed person, because we can perceive both and compare them with each other. This does not apply to our perceptions. If the copy theory is right, we perceive only images or copies of things and never the things themselves. We are unable, therefore, to compare the images with the perceived objects. If we are unable to do so, how can we say that these supposed images are ‘true’ or ‘false’, how can we say, at all, that they are images of the objects perceived? What the copy theory says might be right, but if it is right we could not know it. If it is right, we have no means to ascertain whether the images provide a good or bad likeness of the perceived objects with which, as the theory implies, we never come in direct contact. On closer examination the reflection theory of perception appears to be absurd.
According to Lenin, any deviation from the copy theory of perception, that is from the assumption that the ‘thing in itself. . . . does not differ fundamentally from appearance’ and the image from the thing, makes the existence of external objects subject to doubt. Just the contrary, however, seems to be the case. The metaphor of the sensation being a mirror-reflection of the outside world makes each of us a ‘monad with no windows’. We can never pierce the veil of these mirror-reflections, be in direct communication with other individuals or in direct contact with any object of the outside world.
‘Naive realism’ is also the name of the view according to which things are what they appear to be; the sense-data belong to, or inhere in, or are a part of the perceived object. It can hardly be doubted that Lenin did believe in sense-data and that he held them to be a ‘true’ or an ‘approximately true copy’ of external objects. Moreover, if he thought that sensations are mirror-reflections of their objects and that the former can be actually compared with the latter, like a picture with its model, he was bound to accept the standpoint of naive realism in the second sense. Lenin’s criticism of Helmholtz and, in general, of the ‘theory of symbols’ leaves little room for doubt that he was strongly opposed to any concession in favour of critical realism. Since critical realism introduces ‘an entirely unnecessary element of agnosticism’ and ultimately ‘throws the door open for fideism’, he clearly identified materialism with naive realism. This leaves him open to the objection that his philosophical concept of matter can hardly be reconciled with his naive realistic view in the theory of knowledge. According to the latter the bits and pieces of matter given us in sensation comprise the sensed colours, smells, flavours, and so forth, as their qualities. On the other hand, the philosophical concept of matter does not include in its connotation any of these sensual characteristics.
Lenin proved that if the copy theory of perception is true, phenomenalism cannot be right; but he failed to show that his own theory is a true one. He even failed to indicate how various facts, well known from the psychology of perception, can be accommodated within the copy theory, and failing this no theory of knowledge can provide a satisfactory account of what it intends to explain. One hardly needs to leave the ground of everyday experience to show that we have mental images of objects which do not exist, that we describe objects in a manner in which they do not appear, ascribe characteristics to them which they do not possess and which owe their existence merely to some peculiarity or psychophysical organisation of the perceiving subject. We have to recognise, therefore, that we do not always experience objects as they were or are and that we are aware of perceiving things when in fact we do not perceive them at all. These are no ‘philosophical crotchets’, produced, to use Lenin’s picturesque language, by ‘buffoons of bourgeois science*, but facts of common experience to which Lenin himself frequently appealed to justify some of his views. The facts in question are troublesome if the standpoint of an unsophisticated realism is to be adhered to, but they cannot be overlooked or simply ignored. Thus, to give but one significant example, Lenin dealt firmly and summarily with the law of the specific energy of sensory nerves. Since the law implies that our sensations are not copies of objective reality, it cannot be true.
The apparent strength of Lenin’s position in his criticism of the Machians does not result from the soundness of his own views but from his implied denial that some questions, which his opponents did put to themselves, could be asked legitimately. Lenin wished to bar certain questions from being raised and this aim was to be achieved by propounding a theory of perception within which they should not arise. But no philosophical question can be settled by an evasion or by refusing to notice questions that might and should legitimately be asked.
In Lenin’s case, this refusal was prompted by the requirements of eliminating any possibility of deviation from “absolute realism’. For Lenin was convinced that once the relativity of knowledge upon the cognising subject is recognised in any way whatever, one has to surrender to agnosticism (in the Marxist-Leninist sense of this term) or subjective idealism. On the other hand, to defend the copy theory of perception was to defend materialist metaphysics, for, as Lenin saw it, they were beliefs logically equivalent. They can both function in the capacity of the ‘fundamental premiss of materialism’.
Thus, judged by the criteria of factual evidence and logical consistency, Lenin’s theory of knowledge faces considerable philosophical difficulties. On the one hand, Lenin was committed to an untenable theory of perception, on the other the falsehood of this theory implied, according to his own opinion, also the falsehood of materialist metaphysics. The copy theory is not a prop but a pitfall. If materialism is true, the copy theory cannot be maintained.
Under the impact of criticism made by non-Marxist thinkers, Marxist-Leninists in Poland recognised that the original version of the copy theory of perception could not be upheld. From the very beginning they showed a greater respect for facts than did Lenin. They recognised the dependence of sensations upon the nervous system and the state of the subject. Initially, however, they saw no reason, strange as it might appear, for rejecting the copy theory of perception, which alone – in this respect they followed Lenin faithfully – can prevent philosophy from falling an easy victim to Kantian agnosticism or subjective idealism. They were no more inclined to accept the implications of the recognised dependence of sense experience upon the perceiving subject than Lenin was, when he dismissed the law of the specific energy of sensory nerves. They were thus reduced to a theory that denied in its conclusions what was stated in its premisses.
This position was as untenable as Lenin’s and did not silence the criticism, which eventually compelled them to move a step further. While asserting that they were restoring to the copy theory its authentic meaning, they rejected its original version. Lenin’s statement ‘sensations are the true copy of the objective reality’, repeated over and over again in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, was never to be anything but an analogy or a metaphor. That it was nonsensical to interpret it as a literally true statement becomes plain if one tried to apply the metaphor to other sensations than those of sight. To say that our sensations reflect outside reality does not either assume or imply that there is the likeness, and still less the identity, between reality and its cognitive reflection. What is assumed is some kind of a correspondence relation between the two, by virtue of which the world is knowable. This implies that there are no ‘things in themselves’ and that our perceptions reflect ‘more or less faithfully’ the objective reality. The ‘images’ should be conceived as representations which accord in some way with their objects.
This accord is tested by practice. For if practice confirms the prediction made on the basis of perception, we can conclude that the representation is in accord with what it represents in the external world. The view that perception has a predictive function, confirmed or disconfirmed by subsequent action, is a characteristic feature of the materialist theory of knowledge (the idea was Helmholtz’s, later also adopted by his eminent pupil Heinrich Hertz, whose works on the subject were well known to Engels and Lenin, since both quoted them in Dialectics of Nature and Materialism and Empirio-Criticism respectively). For if the criterion of practice is included in the theory of knowledge, this theory leads to materialism, that is, to the recognition that the external world reflected by the mind exists independently of the mind. This calls for the qualification that practice is only a partial criterion of the correspondence between the image and the thing imaged and that it provides the evidence for the correspondence being adequate on the whole and not in every respect and detail.
In non-Marxist terminology this is as much as to say that action provides an operational criterion of what it means that representations are in accord with their objects. From this it does not follow, however, that the predictive success proves anything more than that we are successful in making predictions.
It should be noted that no kind of practice can accomplish the feat of passing from the sensations conceived as mirror-like reflections of objects to the objects themselves once it is realised that on this assumption the percipient never has any access to the reality outside him. What he can gain by practice are ever new and more numerous ‘reflections’, whose relation to the ‘model’ must remain unknown to him. Practice alone does not transform naive realism in the first sense into critical realism and does not provide a direct access to the external objects. Lenin, and after him Polish Marxist-Leninists, must have been misled by the ambiguity of their own metaphor. When we observe reflections in the mirror we can turn our head or move about in the room to compare what is reflected with its mirror reflection. Practice, Lenin probably thought, plays the same role in life as our turning of the head and moving in the room. Here the simile goes astray. Whatever our perceptions are, we can, of course, move about and turn our head, but if the copy theory is right, we can never detach ourselves from the mirror; we have to look into it and never away from it, to compare the image with its model. We see only reflections in the mirror and, as the criticism of the causal theory of knowledge seems to show, we would even have no valid reason to infer from it the conjecture about something outside us being the cause of the apprehended reflections.
It is a moot point, therefore, whether practice and predictive success is by itself sufficient ground for claiming true knowledge. There can be little doubt, as Mach argued, that if predictive success separates knowledge from error, knowledge would thus be proved to be a biologically useful psychological experience, which is a very valuable but by no means the final and the highest point of departure for inquiry. Lenin expressly rejected this cautious interpretation. He maintained that nothing could be useful for the preservation of life and species, unless it reflects ‘objective truth’ independent of man. Marxist-Leninists in Poland, hard pressed by critics and opponents, gave unconditional support to Lenin’s view and faith in the perfect rationality of the Universe.
The revision of Lenin’s copy theory of perception, accomplished by Polish Marxist-Leninists, could be described as a return to Engels’ broadly conceived ‘representationism’, with the exclusion of his naive realism, that is, of the view that things are as they seem. The revision in question has committed Polish Marxist-Leninists to the standpoint of critical – instead of the previous naive-realism in the theory of knowledge. This consequence has eagerly been endorsed by the Marxist-Leninists of the younger generation, who, unlike their elders, were fully aware of the inconsistencies in Lenin’s original theory of perception. Critical realism was not, however, examined. Its broad and general content was considered to be sufficient to justify the claim that we can know ‘objective reality’ and that our knowledge has a factual and material reference. Having stated that ‘reflection’ is not to be taken literally and to mean ‘copy’ or ‘mirror-like reflection’, implying likeness, resemblance or identity, Schaff wrote that the assertion of thoughts and perceptions being a reflection of reality is equivalent to a conjunction of three statements: reality exists independently of us; it is knowable, that is, it is adequately reflected in perception and conceptual thinking; cognition is not relative to the perceiving subject and progressively reveals the ‘objective truth’ about reality.
Does the theory of perception, to which Polish Marxist-Leninists adhere, justify the conjunction of these three statements? ‘Representationism, either of Engels or of Lenin, excludes the possibility of some direct access to the objects of the external world, of knowing them otherwise than mediately via the interposed mental images. According to Engels and Lenin we are never in immediate contact with the outside world, material objects are always given to us by means of their reflections, whether these are conceived as true copies or representations of some other sort. One cannot assume that either Engels or Lenin conceived the data of sense experience as being a part of the object perceived, and, consequently, that whenever they spoke of perceiving an object this implied having knowledge that there was an object to which what was sensed belonged. This would be the ‘line of subjectivism’, expressly and vigorously criticised by Lenin, that is bound to result in identifying material objects with sensation-complexes. Lenin contrasted the ‘subjective line’ with the ‘objective line’, followed in Locke’s footsteps, and accepted his epistemological dualism. What is immediately given is caused by the object, which is a source of sensations ‘independent of humanity’. The object and the data of sense experience are two related but distinct entities.
A theory of knowledge which assumes the existence of sense-data, and Lenin’s theory is one of them, cannot ignore the fact that the perceptual conditions which are necessary and sufficient to establish the existence of sense-data, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the establishment of the existence of material objects. This means that the evidence for the existence of the former cannot be taken as the evidence for the existence of the latter. Furthermore, while the perceptual conditions under which the existence of sense-data can be established provide direct and, therefore, conclusive evidence for the existence of sensedata, no such direct and conclusive evidence can, in the very nature of the case, be ever available for the existence of material objects.
If we are never aware of objects except through the mediation of their representations, the existence of material objects is an inferred knowledge. The validity of this inference is not beyond doubt, for it is logically defective and questionable. The premisses speak of what is given to us directly, that is, of images and their content, and the conclusions refer to something else, to reflected or represented objects, which are not spoken of in the premisses. Such an inference does not yield a logically valid conclusion. This conclusion is not a substitution instance of a truth of logic, that is, it is not a logically true proposition in the wider sense of this expression. We can deny it without making a self-contradictory statement, what we assert might be true or false. The conviction that the conclusion is true provides a psychological justification for its acceptance, but adds nothing to the logical grounds for its validity. Psychologically the conclusion does not assert a simple fact of sense, but a belief causally or otherwise related to some other beliefs and is, to use Bertrand Russell’s terminology, not a primitive but a derivative statement, supported not by a ‘hard’ but by a ‘soft’ datum. When its supposed obviousness, generated by habit and nurtured by familiarity, is recognised, what remains of the firm if not dogmatic assertion that the reality is knowable is merely a hypothesis, which it would be rash to reject off-hand but which is nothing more than a conjecture. The basic statement of the materialist theory of knowledge that the ‘human mind reflects an objectively real external world’ cannot be considered as satisfactorily proven beyond any reasonably held doubt.
Marxist-Leninists did not seem to have noticed that there is a gap between what, according to their own theory, is directly known – the perceptual world of the cognising subject, and what is not known in that manner and never directly experienced – the cognised object. In other words, they seem to be unaware of the fact that their theory of perception raises questions of how we can ever acquire knowledge of material things, if they are not directly given. This gap can only be bridged by means of reasoning, either deductive or inductive. But in both cases the reasoning remains defective and the conclusion only a plausible one, accepted ‘according to our inclination’. For we cannot make valid inferences from what is an experienced to what is an unexperienced entity.
This was clearly seen by Lenin when he criticised his opponents: “If the perceptual world is objective reality, then the door is closed to every other ‘reality’” . But what Lenin noticed in the views of his adversaries, he refused to acknowledge with respect to his own. Thus, he warned that the external object should not be identified with the sense-data, which are no part of it, ‘for sense perception is not the reality existing outside us, it is only the image of that reality’, to be found, as he emphasised elsewhere, ‘within us’. Having made this distinction, Lenin denied, however, that there was any problem at all in accounting for the passage from the image within to the object without, or that the validity of this passage could be questioned and called illegitimate, if no plausible justification was forthcoming.
Confronted by this difficulty Lenin used to argue that to accept this point of view is to indulge in ‘idealist aberration’, unreconcilable with the natural sciences and to fly in the face of the evidence of our senses. The impassable gulf between the sense-data and the external object, the problem of the transcendence of the object, was according to Lenin an invention of priests and professors of philosophy. The transcendence of the object is an apparent problem, for the mental image and the imaged thing faithfully correspond to each other and this correspondence is an ‘objective truth’ acquired in experience. This truth can be doubted only by those who ‘do not sufficiently trust the evidence of our senseorgans’. Lenin had more arguments than the confidence in this evidence to support his conviction, but he often spoke as if it were all we needed to dispose of the difficulty arising from the differentiation of the sense-data and the external objects.
There is, of course, a grain of common sense truth in what Lenin said, but this kind of truth is irrelevant so far as the demonstration of the existence of material objects is concerned. For Lenin did not provide any new arguments that would either logically justify the elimination of the transcendence problem or strengthen the validity of the step that bridges the gap between sense-data and objects. Confidence placed in the evidence of sense experience, to which Lenin over and over again appealed, is no logical but only a psychological argument from which nothing whatsoever can be inferred. From the fact that Lenin was convinced that what he said was true, it did not follow logically that it was true, for no conviction guarantees that what we are convinced of is true. A proposition might be true and disbelieved by some or everybody, as well as it might be false though believed to be true by a great many people. Convictions say something about those who share them. They provide, as Nagel put it, evidence for the biographies but no relevant evidence regarding their objects. Few people would deny that we have strong psychological reasons for recognising the reality of the external world and its independent existence, in some meaning of this term, though hardly anyone would argue for it on the strength of the assumption that there is a unique correspondence between sense-data and objects. For even if it were the case, we could never verify the truth of this claim. The crux of the matter is, however, the logical reasons, not only the psychological ones, which would transform a subjective conviction into a logically true or a logically justifiable proposition. These logical reasons Marxist-Leninist ‘representationism’ does not provide, and, furthermore, makes them perhaps more difficult to find than ever before.
The immediate knowledge given by sense experience need not be proved by argument – in this respect Lenin was quite right – but it contains much less than common sense supposes as a result of confusing psychologically primitive with psychologically derivative knowledge. By itself it cannot achieve the purpose which Lenin wished it to perform, that is, to provide proof for the existence of the external world. For various illusions, based on the evidence of the senses, exactly preclude the possibility of this evidence being invariably reliable. Although he never explicitly acknowledged it, Lenin must have been aware of the ‘argument from illusion’. A rod dipped in water is visually crooked, but tactually and metrically straight. It does seem clear that there are many visual and tactual ‘copies’ of material objects which are not ‘true copies’ of the latter.
It follows that perceptual consciousness is not always a faithful reflection of the outside world; that it is at least sometimes erroneous; and that failing to mirror objective reality veridically, has not always an ‘objective content. Other facts reinforce the argument from ‘abnormal copies’. Lenin must have known that we can see stars looking at them or by receiving a blow on the eye, we can see two tables instead of one when we press an eyeball. We have to differentiate, therefore, between the visual stars and tables and the real ones. The reason why Lenin preferred to speak of images instead of direct observations of material objects was the fact that statements about images do not imply that a material thing exists and is veridically perceived. If instead of images he spoke of direct observations he would be forced to admit that things are always exactly as they appear, which he wished to avoid, at least in some cases. For he was barred by his own assumptions from admitting, what Mach could have done, that nothing justifies us in dismissing some sensations as abnormal, all of them being only different or differently conditioned combinations of the ‘elements’.