Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


From Lenin’s viewpoint the evidence of our senses could not provide a convincing argument to demonstrate the existence of material objects and Lenin was determined to show that the existence of material objects is a demonstrable truth, open to no doubt whatsoever. It was not this evidence alone but sense experience combined with the causal theory of perception, which was to supply the missing link between mental images and the external world. For Lenin the causal theory was hardly distinct or in need of differentiation from the vague and complex body of direct and inferred knowledge, indiscriminately referred to as ‘empirical knowledge’. What the causal theory seems to imply was merged in Lenin’s thinking with the data of sense experience into an unanalysed whole that endowed the former with its supposed demonstrative power. The ‘evidence of the senses’, of which Lenin made use, is something more than what this expression usually conveys.

According to Lenin, the evidence of our senses can be trusted because our ‘sensations are evoked in us by real objects’. This is proved by science and provides conclusive evidence of the objective existence of material objects[784]. The causal theory is presupposed in Lenin’s definition of matter, which is conceived as that which acts upon our sense organs and produces sensations. This presupposition, which Lenin sometimes simply calls the ‘standpoint of materialism’, was explicitly endorsed by Polish followers of Lenin and singled out by them as an important component of the materialist theory of knowledge[785]. The causal theory of perception might appear to narrow or even to close the gap between the evidence and the conclusion about the existence of material objects. For it seems to provide what Lenin described as the ‘connection between consciousness and the external world’. But in fact it does neither.

The causal theory of perception is really a part of physiology and physiological psychology. It was Helmholtz, Fechner and Wundt who formulated its basic assumptions and undertook on this basis to found a scientific psychology, capable of using the conceptual apparatus and methods of natural science in the investigations of mental phenomena. In the course of time the causal theory has been expanded and enriched with a mass of detailed findings. Scientists like Helmholtz used it to demonstrate the truth of epistemological realism as the simplest hypothesis, tested and verified in a very broad field of application. It vindicated the belief of science, instinctively accepted by many scientists, that our sensations, being effects wrought by external causes in our senses, are dependent on the external objects, while material things are causally independent of our observations of them. To regard the existence of physical objects as being in any way problematic could not, in Helmholtz’s view, be reconciled with science. ‘This is materialism’, wrote Lenin referring to Helmholtz’s exposition of the causal theory of perception[786].

According to the causal theory, the perception is the final stage in a long chain of events, physical and physiological, originating in the external world and terminating in the emergence of sensations – sense-data – above the threshold of consciousness. The perception is an end-product of a process that starts from and is determined by the external object. The object is regarded as one of the conditions which produce the perception of this very object, and perception, speaking metaphorically, is the object in a disguised form or its effect.

It should be observed that in the causal theory of perception the cognising subject is conceived as a material body, one external object among others. If physical objects consist of electrons, protons, neutrons, and other similar entities, the human body, the brain and the nervous system, the eye and the ear, must also be a structure composed of elements of this sort. The human body is a sensitive body, and we can, therefore, translate the cause-effect relation to that described in terms of stimuli and organic reactions, the latter being physical or physiological events. As G. F. Stout rightly emphasised, within the causal theory an experiencing individual should be treated ‘as if he were only one group of phenomena, though of a very peculiar kind, within the general order of sequence and co-existence which it is the business of physical science to investigate’ [787]. This is a necessary presupposition if the problem of perception is to be defined in terms of physics and its solution undertaken by methods of natural science.

The question arises, however, what are the implications of this legitimate and necessary presupposition when the causal theory is applied outside the province of natural science. The use made of it in the theory of knowledge is an instance in point. Mach pointed out that to regard all experiences as effects or extensions of an external world into consciousness is to make far-reaching metaphysical assumptions which lead to a tangle of difficulties, impossible to unravel. Mach’s attempt to make a fresh approach to the problem of knowledge of the external world, that disregarded both ‘representation and the causal theory of perception, has been followed by others. In Poland, the most notable achievement of this sort has been Kotarbiński’s radical realism[788].

The causal theory has met much criticism from various quarters. Some say that this theory is a part of natural science and, as it stands, cannot function as its foundation, that is, as a theory of what perceptual observation is. For it is itself based upon observations of sense-organs, the nervous system and brain, lenses and retinae, physical media and objects, and assumes in its premisses the theory which it is supposed to demonstrate. Translated into an epistemological account of observation it has an air of fundamental artificiality and implausibility, which a closer examination does not fail to confirm[789]. Others deny that the causal theory can be applied to the problems of knowledge at all. For it extends the concept of causality beyond the field of its significant applicability and results in the formulations of hypotheses for which there could be no valid evidence[790]. Moreover, the causal theory must also be examined as to its suitability to explain what it sets out to achieve in the theory of knowledge, namely, to account for the cognition of material objects in the act of perceiving them. It is this question which is of vital importance for the materialist theory of knowledge. For within the latter the causal theory is to secure some kind of conclusive evidence concerning the existence of things outside and independent of our minds which the copy theory is unable to supply by itself.

At first glance it might appear that there is no problem here, that is, that the causal theory does close the gap between percept and object. If the external object is the cause and the sensation its effect, this causal relation explains both the appearance of the object to the senses and its cognisance by the senses. This was Helmholtz’s view. Lenin and his supporters often suggested that only a fool could see any difficulty in a matter so simple and elementary. This opinion, however, cannot be accepted.

The reference of percepts (‘images’ in Lenin’s terminology) to their physical and physiological causal conditions presupposes some prior knowledge of the existence of the external world[791]. This does not mean that the causal theory is bound to move in a vicious circle; what it requires is not a general knowledge of the existence of the external world, which inevitably is an inferred knowledge. What it cannot do without is some directly experienced connection between the perception as effect and the physical thing as its cause. If the search for this awareness of an external object in the perceptual process itself, as conceived by the causal theory, were successful, nothing would stand in the way of interpreting the stimulus-sensitive body relation as that of the cognising subject and the cognised object. We could then also assume that though the existence of the external world as a whole is an inferred and conjectural knowledge, the existence of particular material things is based on direct knowledge, as it were, a knowledge by acquaintance, secured in the very act of perceiving external objects.

It should be borne in mind, that on the basis of the causal theory of perception the cognising subject is a body as much external as any other external object. It neither could nor should be conceived as we know it from our internal experience. We are, therefore, barred from assuming any knowledge whatsoever that could be gained from this source and we are bound to examine ourselves as nothing but sensitive bodies.

If this limitation is accepted, and it is impossible to avoid it, it becomes clear that what happens to the sensitive body, affected by an external stimulus, cannot be apprehended as an effect of a cause. For, on the assumption of the theory, the perceptual experience of a sensitive body is just an event of perceiving and nothing else, distinct from the event which caused it as much as from any other with which it has no connection whatsoever. When the light from a distant star hits a photographic plate, a spot appears. Should a sensitive body replace the photographic plate, it would be aware of the event of perceiving a spot, but on the assumption of the causal theory this awareness does not point out, as it were, beyond itself, any more than the black spot on the photographic plate does, and without it there is no cognition called ‘seeing the star’. The external causes can account for the fact of how the event of sensing or perceiving is brought about, but they are unable to explain how such events should be cognitions of anything outside them, of their causes in particular.

If the experience, of which a sensitive body is aware, is only the event of perceiving, nothing could be inferred from it either, unless the inference from effect to cause is identified with perceptual consciousness. But this begs the question and reverses the real order of thought. For the inference from effect to cause already presupposes some prior knowledge of the external world which a sensitive body is assumed not to possess. Not even a tentative thought of an external object could occur as a result of the action exercised by the objects on a sensitive body, if this action is restricted to the cause-effect relation. Moreover, according to the causal theory what happens to the sensitive body takes place inside it -Lenin’s images ‘exist within us’ or even more specifically ‘within the human head’ – and the causal conditions are outside it. On this assumption, our inferred knowledge of the external objects turns out to be entirely inexplicable. For then, if the effect is within us and the cause that releases the chain of events outside us, we cannot arrive at this knowledge even by an inference from effect to cause. Why should the cause of the experienced effect be outside us? The antecedents of the perception are some occurrences in our nervous system, and the inference concerning the antecedents would have to place them inside and not outside our body. The causal theory by itself cannot transcend the bounds of sensations and events taking place within the sensitive body. This has been recognised by Bertrand Russell, who has drawn the conclusion therefrom that, for instance, the “starry heaven that we know in visual sensation is inside us’ and the ‘external starry heaven that we believe in is inferred’ [792].

If Lenin and his Polish followers came to a different conclusion and claimed that the causal theory of perception establishes the connection between the percept and the cognised object, this was probably due to the fact that he tacitly assumed in the premisses of the theory what it was intended to prove. It is easy to overlook that the concept of the cognising subject cannot be consistently accommodated within the causal theory and that to introduce it is to endow the sensitive body with a capacity that is exactly precluded because of what is assumed. The causal theory is a scientific theory which explains knowledge as a natural process without being able to establish that we actually have knowledge about the existence of physical objects. It is one thing to explain how sense-data are generated by the interaction of objects connected with each other by spatial, temporal, and causal relations, and a different one to justify the belief in the existence of physical objects. The former presupposes the latter, but the converse is not true. We may hold the belief in question and deny without selfcontradiction the validity of the causal theory. This theory might be legitimately applied provided that we are already in possession of some knowledge about the existence of external objects and we make use of it to account for the manner in which we have acquired knowledge as a matter of fact.

Moreover, we can make use of it provided that we are ready to renounce naive realism in the sense that things are as they appear to be or that the ‘thing-initself’, as Lenin put it, ‘does not differ fundamentally from its appearance’ [793]. The causal theory does not seem to be compatible with this view. For it is very probable that the causes of our experiences, for instance, light or sound waves, do not resemble in any manner their effects, the experience of seeing colour or hearing a sound. It is, therefore, extremely doubtful that the objects which are the prime cause of our experience, the source of light and sound waves, should have any resemblance with the light and sound experience. The content of the latter might be like some of the intrinsic characteristics of the former, but it might also be totally different. There are no means available to find out which of the two possibilities applies and there are important reasons to believe that the second is the case. For we cannot even imagine what is the ‘content’ of any event unless it happens to us, and we do know, for instance, that the music caused by a gramophone record does not resemble the record itself. Lenin realised sometimes the implications of the causal theory, but most often firmly denied them[794].

If we are unable to justify our claim to the knowledge of the external objects in some other way, the causal theory does not provide any help in this respect. Either in conjunction with the copy theory or by itself, instead of bridging the gap between percept and object it severs the percipient body from the external object and leaves them both in their separate worlds. Engels and Lenin accused Hume and Kant of “fencing off ‘the appearance’ from that which appears, the perception from that which is perceived, the thing-for-us from the ‘thing-initself’” [795]. This is exactly what the causal theory seems to do if it is mistaken for an epistemological theory. To accept the causal theory as a proof of the existence of material objects is to dogmatically assume the truth of physics. There is nothing wrong with this assumption provided that we do not try to misrepresent a scientific explanation as an epistemological one.

Whenever epistemological questions are discussed Marxist-Leninists assure us that the materialist theory of knowledge recognises the existence of a reality beyond the phenomena, of real objects outside and independent of us. If no logical justification is produced, the belief in the existence of physical things is no theory of knowledge but an epistemological dogma. Neither the causal nor the copy theory of perception provide the required justification. At most, they give an explanation of the manner in which we might possibly have acquired the knowledge claimed, but they do not justify knowledge that we claim to possess.

Marxist-Leninists are inclined to consider the distinction between these two different problems as a futile verbal evasion of what they regard as the main epistemological issue, namely, whether the existence of external objects independent of a cognising subject is accepted or rejected. To differentiate what is ‘immediately’ or ‘factually given’ from what is not, is to perform a masquerade in which an ‘agnostic’ disguises himself in a materialist’s cloak, to befog and to sidetrack the main epistemological issue that divides materialism and idealism. Compared with this main issue, everything else – to use Lenin’s inimitable style – is superfluous ballast of professorial erudition, muddleheaded tomfoolery and scholastic balderdash, which results in regarding ‘gelehrtes (learned) fiction’ as genuine philosophy. What Lenin considered as genuine philosophy does not seem to include the theory of knowledge and what he had in mind was metaphysical beliefs decked out in epistemological terms.

The materialist theory of knowledge is in a rudimentary state. It does not provide either an effective support for materialist metaphysics or the means of defence against the criticism of the latter based on a more elaborate theory of knowledge. The materialist theory of knowledge is hardly anything more than an accessory derived from the same first principles which underlie the Marxist-Leninist account of the Universe, an adventitious appendage of a deductive metaphysics.