Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


Lenin’s theory of knowledge was part of orthodox Marxism-Leninism in Poland. But beside it another trend of thought had appeared among the younger generation of Marxist-Leninists, who were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what the official doctrine had to say on the problems of knowledge. The leading spirits of this trend were Helena Eilstein, Zdzisław Kochański, and, above all, Leszek Kołakowski. Kołakowski’s ideas have a considerable affinity with and are largely derived from the views of the young Marx, to be found in the unfinished manuscript Nationalökonomie und Philosophie. In Kołakowski’s interpretation, the young Marx held a conception of knowledge radically different from the positivistic epistemology to which he and Engels later subscribed, and also from that prevalent in contemporary Marxism-Leninism, based mainly on Lenin Materialism and Empirio-Critism.

Kołakowski’s views deserve attention for several reasons. They initiate a new trend of thought inspired by the Marxian tradition and are free from the stereotypes of Marxism-Leninism, which has precipitated a spate of sharp and sometimes angry rejoinders from the more traditionalistic supporters of the doctrine[796]. More specifically, Kołakowski makes the first attempt since the post-war Marxian revival in Poland to give a philosophical interpretation to the conviction that thinking is socially determined. In this attempt Kołakowski makes use of the general non-evaluative form of the total conception of ideology, formulated by Mannheim but applied by him exclusively to the analysis of the utopian political mentality.

Kołakowski has been the protagonist of the view that the whole development of modern philosophy suffers from the consequences of Descartes’ reform of philosophy. Descartes set philosophy on a new course by his demand that the reflection on, and the criticism of knowledge should be put in the foreground and made the foundation for philosophical thinking. This demand has ever since prevented the relation of man to Nature and History to be seen in its true light. Moreover, it is also altogether unacceptable because it is prejudicial: on its basis an idealist solution of the problems of knowledge becomes inevitable. The conviction that this solution is entirely false, cannot prevail as long as Descartes’ rule remains in force. If it is conceded at the very beginning that the cognising subject can be isolated from the community, of which he is a member, emancipated from historical and social determinations, as well as from the impact of scientific tradition, truth and reason are doomed to defeat and to all the irrational follies of subjectivism. An individual as conceived by Locke, Descartes, Berkeley or Hume never did and does not exist[797]. It is a fallacy to suppose that an abstract individual of the traditional epistemology could acquire any knowledge and that his acts of cognition would obtain objectivity and rationality. What the thinkers of the past regarded as a source of errors and bias are the very conditions without which no genuine cognitive act could be accomplished, no creative action and thought arise.

The question whether we can acquire any knowledge at all, frequently asked by modern philosophers, provides its own answer. If we could not gain any knowledge, we could not put the question either. Ab esse adposse valet consequentia. What remains is the problem of the specific conditions under which the question, whether we can know anything, could have arisen. The question concerning the possibility of knowledge is settled by the fact that knowledge is inherent in the social life of man; for social life is a constant struggle to gain control over the environment and if this is not knowledge, what else might it be? The best proof that man is capable of doing something is that he does it. This was known to Marx when he pointed out that the question of the possibility of knowledge is not a question of theory but that of practice. It was also known to Engels when he quoted Faust: Im Anfang war die That[798].

It follows that not only the starting point of modern epistemology was wrong, but also that the materialist theory of knowledge is on the wrong track. For the latter, notwithstanding its protestations to the contrary, shares with the former its individualistic presupposition, tries to beat its opponent by inappropriate means, and has to pay the penalty for entering upon this course. The attempt of interpreting knowledge as a reflection of the ‘objective reality’ in the mind has encumbered the materialist theory of knowledge with ‘rather embarrassing ambiguities’ [799]. Both Engels and Lenin conceived knowledge as a more and more perfect picture or map of the world as it exists quite independently of the mind. But we could have no notion of what exists quite independently of us and the assumption that knowledge is a process similar to the reflection of objects in a mirror is simply untrue. Materialism is right when it asserts that the existence of the physical world is not dependent on the consciousness, but the knowledge of the physical world is relative to the mind. Both the biological constitution of man and social requirements produce definite reactions to definite stimuli and determine the manner in which the cognising subject organises the data of experience. The cognitive capacity of man is selective and not reflective; it is a product of the evolution of the human species and inheritance, of the totality of social circumstances and individual characteristics. It serves primarily the biological and social functions. If our perceptions inform us of things and relations existing in the outside world, these perceptions cannot be conceived as their images in the proper meaning of this term. For an image must display some resemblance to what it is an image of, and no resemblance can be demanded of perceptions. The external world exists independently of man and is not created by him in any sense of this expression. But the external world as it appears to man is a socially organised and construed reality, and the cognising subject is a social subject, whose concepts and categories are functionally or otherwise determined by the institutional structure of society, as well as by the biological and social evolution of the human species[800].

The views of the young Marx on the problems of knowledge were expounded in the form of critical observations on Hegel’s system and his peculiar mode of thinking. The manuscript is unfinished, the elusiveness and imprecision of its style vies with Hegel’s. It seems to be clear, however, that Marx subordinated ‘pure reason’ to ‘practical reason’ and thought that the problem of knowledge cannot even be formulated in terms of an abstract theory. Thinking and being are undoubtedly distinct, but they are intimately associated with each other. Marx’s starting point differs from that of other historically known systems, including the materialist. This, one can add, was once emphasised by Bukharin. In Marx’s theory of knowledge, Bukharin wrote, ‘there is another object, another subject, and a different relationship between them’. In its essence his theory of knowledge is sociological[801].

From Marx’s point of view the concept of reality-in-itself is devoid of any sense and cannot be rationally construed. There is never anything like a thingin-itself, there are always only ‘things for us’. The material world an und fr sich, causally independent of man. does exist, but it is also entirely beyond his reach. Knowable is only the world that appears in man’s experience, that is, divided into species and individuals, pieces and classes, articulated into objects and their relations, into things with a definite form, arrangement and structure, cut out from the chaotic mass of the pre-existing world as it persists by itself. This humanised world is knowable because it is a world determined by man. As a natural being man shapes the environment according to his needs, and the needs determine the articulation of the world into separate things and their connections. If the needs were different, the world would look differently, as it does to other animal species. The eye is not a mirror that faithfully reflects something outside it as it exists in itself, but a human eye, and the same applies to other senses. This means that the ‘senses have. . . . . become directly in their practice theoreticians’, the objects become for man the objectification of himself, or, as Marx cryptically said, ‘man himself becomes the object’. ‘It is clear’, Marx wrote, ‘that thinghood. . . . . is utterly without any independence, any essentiality vis-?-vis self-consciousness; that on the contrary it is a mere creature – something posited by self-consciousness. And what is posited, instead of confirming itself, is but a confirmation of the act as its product, seeming to give the de-posit – but only for a moment – the character of an independent, real substance’ [802].

Language is a social product, used to provide names, concepts and categories. Its function is, as it were, to fix the socially shaped world and help to manipulate what is made by our needs into things and their interrelations. It provides no means of looking through and finding out what the world in itself is like. Language has no other uses than the familiar ones. It has got no concealed foundations beneath its surface, which some thinkers before and after Marx, from Kratylus to Wittgenstein, tried to discover.

The subjective world, articulated and determined in its structure by the powers of life, by man’s needs, tendencies, impulses, and ability to suffer, is not an ephemeral world, ever becoming and passing away. For man is a natural being, that is, a member of an animal species, and a social being, destined to act with others. Man’s individual and species life are not different, and the former, though it may not appear in the direct form of a communal life carried out together with others, is an expression of social life[803]. Man is not an individual but a social subject and his cognitive capacities and organising forms or categories of thought are social too. The subjective world is, therefore, socially subjective, and displays certain persisting qualities, corresponding to the durable characteristics of the human species. There are habits generated by repeated experiences, common to all members of the species; they induce what Bertrand Russell called ‘animal inference’, the spontaneous inclination to interpret sensations in a certain manner. Animal inferences endow the socially subjective world with some permanency, give man an initial store of regularities and laws, and guide him towards science[804].

The enlargement of the basis for an anthropologically oriented epistemology leads to several important conclusions. The barrier that in Engels’ or Lenin’s theory of knowledge fences off the percept from the perceived object disappears. For man’s consciousness of himself is the correlate of the resistance in the environment, encountered by him as he tries, as a natural being, to appropriate from Nature what his needs require. Neither the self-consciousness nor the outside world, neither percept nor perceived object, can be apprehended separately from each other[805].

The idea is not peculiarly Marxian, though its formulation is. It was Kant who raised the presupposition contained in Marx’s idea to the status of a general principle underlying his refutation of idealism. This general principle states that there is no self-knowledge prior and unrelated to the knowledge of other things, of spatio-temporal bodies in particular. In order to be known to itself, the self must be an experiencing individual and the experiencing must include that which is not-self. It follows that in our knowledge the self and the spatio-temporal world are inseparable. If either exists, the other must exist too.

Marx did not set the world as it appears to us over against the world an und fr sich, which pre-exists every, attempt to know it. The world of Feuerbach, Engels and Lenin that exists without and independently of us and yet is completely knowable, is for Marx a ‘nullity’. a ‘nothing. . . . devoid of sense” or mere ‘externality’ [806]. Its existence is not problematic, but the question regarding the mode of its existence is no more significant than if we asked what the world would be like should our eyes be sensitive to wave frequencies different from those we can now perceive. An external world independent of the perceiving subject is a fiction beyond our comprehension and ability of rational construction, for all our concepts as well as our language are inevitably and exclusively related to the socially subjective world. It cannot even be said that the socially subjective world is a distorted picture of the real one. If ‘distortion’ were not a pejorative but a neutral term, it would still presuppose the correlative expression referring to what is not distorted and what functions as the model. Neither of the two Kantian distinctions between phenomena and things-inthemselves can be applied to provide this model. The world an und fr sich is a nullity not only because it cannot be known through experience, but also because we cannot draw any nearer to it, whatever efforts we undertake and however extended in time our efforts are. There is nothing in the socially subjective world that points beyond itself, to the transcendent world of the positivisticallyminded materialism[807].

There is a gulf, therefore, between the conception of a socially subjective world and that of Aristotelian realism, based on the assumption that the conceptual apparatus can be brought into correspondence with the true and real nature of things. Marxism-Leninism accepts the latter conception and stresses its importance for science. From the viewpoint of anthropological realism this is an illusion. For long before man began to reflect on the problems of knowledge, the world as it can be known and the manner in which knowledge can be acquired had been biologically and socially determined. The biological and social life had simultaneously determined the articulation of the external world into separate objects and the conceptual apparatus whose primary function is to help people to find their bearing in the environment[808].

There is a superficial similarity between anthropological realism and pragmatism, for they both emphasise the primacy of human activity over reflection and ascribe to things some kind of esse concessum or a ‘posited substantiality’ [809]. But there is no room in anthropological realism for the relativism of the pragmatists. Anthropological realism conceives both the outside world to be socially constructed and the consciousness to be essentially a social product. Although the so-called materialist definition of truth is inapplicable, the correspondence theory of truth is perfectly compatible with the assumptions of anthropological realism. Provided that ‘Nature’is given the meaning of ‘socially subjective world’, Lenin’s definition of truth as the ‘correspondence between the consciousness which reflects Nature and the Nature which is reflected by consciousness’ remains valid[810].

Marx described his views as ‘consistent naturalism and humanism’, distinct from materialism and idealism, and constituting the unifying truth of both[811]. This naturalism makes metaphysics, in a certain sense of this term, impossible. For if humanised Nature is the only one that man can ever know, it is idle, futile, and self-contradictory to speak of the world as it exists independently of man. This is a pure speculative thought spun out by what Marx called the “philosophic mind’ and which he defined as an ‘estranged mind . . . . thinking within its estrangement’. On the other hand, with the Marxian assumption we cannot conceive scientific thinking as an activity that by its discoveries tries, as it were, to reproduce imitatively the world as it exists an und fr sich and to draw nearer and nearer to some unconditional truth. ‘The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism’ wrote Lenin[812]. This has been recognised by Marx as a self-contradictory thought. There can be no question of hypotheses, which are at the base of scientific theories, being regarded as accurate descriptions of the constitution of the Universe as it exists in itself. The world accessible to man bears the imprint of human creativeness and this creativeness continues to inform and direct scientific thinking[813].

Finally, the realisation that the world is created by man in the naturalistic and social meaning of this expression, faces the philosopher with a new task. Metaphysics is a wild goose chase. The theory of knowledge is not entirely impossible, but its terms of reference must be reformulated.

‘Pure datum is as elusive as the world of metaphysics and an epistemologist who in the fashion of an Avenarius undertakes the ‘critique of pure experience’ is as much off the track as a metaphysician. If anthropological realism is right, the capacity of man ‘as such’ to acquire knowledge cannot be investigated. The concept of universal man is either a biological concept, and thus belongs to natural science, or it is nothing at all. For the concept of man as a social thing is not a universal but essentially a historical notion which must always be related to definite circumstances in time and space. The social man is a creature of history, it has no unchanging essence, and to speak of the universal man in history is self-contradictory.

A general anthropological theory of knowledge is not impossible, but its content would be extremely poor and repetitious. It would have to restrict itself to the statement that knowledge functionally depends on historical development, on the social conditions, on class stratification and class conflicts, on man’s relation to Nature. Such generalities lead nowhere, unless they are shown to apply to a definite historical, social, scientific, and philosophical context. But this would no longer be a general theory of knowledge and its conclusions would not be universal in character, for validity would have to be restricted in time and space.

Epistemology should be reduced, therefore, to the history of knowledge. Knowledge might be conceived sensu largo, and then the history of knowledge would merge with the history of philosophy, based on different assumptions from those traditionally accepted. It may also be understood sensu stricto, as scientific knowledge. In the latter case epistemology becomes a part of the history of science, dealing with the historical development of various descriptive schemes, their conceptual framework and underlying principles[814].

What remains for the philosophers to do cannot be easily and unambiguously described. There is no particular domain of facts or problems which is his own exclusive preserve. His interest is anthropological and this means that his inquiry is concentrated on the practical and human sense that any kind and part of knowledge might have. By definition, all the knowledge, as conceived by an anthropological realist, has this sense, but this might not always be apparent. Furthermore, the relative human importance and significance of a particular part of knowledge changes in time. It might be astronomy, as was the case at the time of the conflict between the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, it might be physics and the issue of determinism, as is the case at present. It is not only the content but also the historical circumstances which decide what particular matter acquires philosophical relevance. From the anthropological standpoint, what is philosophically relevant is also morally important, it has an impact on human attitudes and conduct. For knowledge being biologically and socially determined has both a cognitive and regulative content, and the function of a philosopher is to discover and to explain their interdependence. It is important to emphasise both aspects of knowledge, if the exorcised follies of subjectivism, characteristic of the traditional theory of knowledge, are not to be supplanted by those of voluntarism, as happened, for instance, in some interpretations of the Marxian doctrine. Essentialism in theory and voluntarism in practice has produced a chimerical philosophical programme, inspired by a self-contented dilettantism[815].

Kołakowski did not go beyond the stage of programmatic statements. With one or two exceptions, he has expounded his views in a number of essays of a general and more or less popular form. His purpose was practical rather than theoretical, that is, he wished to modify the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of his contemporaries without offering a fully and systematically developed system[816]. His supporters have so far offered no more than some loose comments and marginal observations and have expressed clearly critical opinions of anthropological realism.

It should be borne in mind that Kołakowski’s criticism of the individualistic presupposition accepted in modern epistemology is not as revolutionary and novel as it might appear at first glance. This criticism is implicit in some recent sociological theories as well as in some philosophical writings. Durkheim’s studies on religion, which led to the conclusion that human conduct is primarily determined by social institutions, gave rise to the idea that social institutions provide the prevailing pattern of rationality and objectivity in general and that the individual’s whole conceptual framework is of social origin. Mannheim’s general theory of the total ideology and of epistemological relationism should be placed at the other extreme of Bacon’s repudiation of the idola fori. Epistemological relationism is not only a methodological rule but also an epistemological assertion. Each socio-cultural perspective, to which individual thinking should be always related, far from being a source of errors and bias provides an insight into what must remain closed and inaccessible in another perspective[817].

Philosophers approached the same problem from a different direction. Dewey more than any other thinker emphasised the biological basis of human thought and its primary role as a means of adapting the organism to its environment. This implies that the conception of reason as an impartial power, immune from change and above time and history, is basically wrong. The faculties of reason are comprised in the flux of universal changeability, they contribute to and are affected by the process of biological and social adjustment. Cognitive experience originates within that of a non-cognitive sort, in which thought is a ‘factor in action’, an instrument in satisfying the needs of the human organism and the requirements of adaptation. The most refined devices of intellectual analysis are an evolutionary outcome of the activities that serve specific social and biological ends. The conception of experience and knowledge, initiated in the seventeenth century, that reduced experience and knowledge to ‘subjective private consciousness set over against nature, which consists wholly of physical objects, has wrought havoc in philosophy’ [818] Dewey’s own peculiar anthropological and psychological examinations of the methods of inquiry were to set philosophy on its right course again.

On the other hand, Philipp Frank emphasised that traditional epistemology and metaphysics are disguised social theories, which, being less respectable than the former have to appear made up in public. To say that sociological theories influence epistemological and metaphysical thinking or that the latter is a ‘projection’ of the former, does not imply that all thinking is socially determined. We come close to this assertion if we accept that the socio-cultural perspective is socially determined.

The belief that modern philosophy makes sociological individualism its foundation for the theory of knowledge seems to be right. The view that only an individual separated from his social and historical context is a rational being is a sociological theory. On the validity of this theory, accepted as self-evident and never so far examined or tested, hangs the validity and the relevance of much that modern epistemology has to say on the problems of knowledge.

The most doubtful part of anthropological realism is its consequences concerning scientific knowledge. That science can provide no adequate representation of the underlying realities, but only various generalised descriptive schemes, to be evaluated by other criteria than those of the correspondence theory of truth, is not a new belief in the philosophy of science. What is new in it, is its justification. But the arguments put forward by Kołakowski are far-fetched and elusive compared with those which, for instance, conventionalism or the instrumentalist and neo-positivistic conceptions of science can offer. For in the case of anthropological realism the view on scientific knowledge is simply a consequence deduced from the fact that the world is a socially subjective reality. If it is granted that this might be the case within certain limits, there remains the question of how wide these limits are. Do they include, to take some extreme examples, the reality revealed by radio astronomy, the electronic microscope, and atomic physics? More generally, the question can be asked: has the term ‘reality’ only one use? If it is not so, is not the arbitrary restriction of the use of the term to one meaning alone rather an invention foisted upon the facts than a discovery, whose claim to validity, though supported by some reasoned arguments, cannot, in the nature of the case, be based on hard facts? For what these facts could possibly be, is extremely difficult to see. Kołakowski’s socially subjective reality within which we are for ever imprisoned recalls Eddington’s two tables, the familiar and the ‘scientific’ one, immortalised in The Nature of the Physical World. The fallacy underlying Eddington’s two tables theory has been cleared up by the observation that if something can be described in terms of two different languages, this fact does not imply that two ontologically different objects correspond to these manners of description. We can refer to the same object in different ways and this should not mislead us into believing that the object referred to is different in each case[819]. What the young Marx did was perhaps not to discover a new reality but a new language in terms of which reality can be described.