Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963
The assertion that absolute truths are the sum of relative or partial truths and that knowledge, the ideal goal of the search for Truth, is like the limit of a series to which its partial sums converge, should be considered against the background provided by the first law of dialectics. This law lays down that all things and phenomena of Nature are connected with, dependent on, and determined by each other. Consequently, to acquire knowledge about anything in the world we must examine it int its universal connections with everything else. For if any particular thing or phenomenon has relations to things or phenomena outside itself, and these relations ‘make up’ its nature, all things and phenomena become ‘meaningless’ outside the system to which they are related. The doctrine that maintains that relations constitute or affect the things they relate is known as the theory of internal relations. This theory had in Hegel its modern protagonist. Fom Hegel it passed to Marxist-Leninist philosophy.
If the theory of internal relations is accepted, it seems to follow that the only way of securing adequate knowledge of anything in particular is to specify all its relations with all other objects, that is, to consider the whole of reality from a particular space-time point of view. This conclusion is expressed by Marxist-Leninists? in the assertion that there are no abstract truths, every truth is concrete. ‘Concrete’ here means ‘relative to the circumstance, time and space in which the statement is made’. For in view of the fact that every event is related to every other event, there is no chance of ever making an absolutely true statement unless it is concrete in the indicated sense.
On the other hand, it should be observed that a concrete truth is an ideal point of destination, at which we cannot arrive, unless reality as a whole is included in it, which can never be the case. “Man,” wrote Lenin, “is unable to embrace = to reflect = to mirror the whole of Nature in its fullness, in its ‘immediately totality’, he can only draw ever nearer to it.” The means at man’s disposal are concepts, judgments, generalisations, laws of nature, theories, and similar devices. But these devices sever the terms of relations from each other and the qualities from the subject, dismember the ‘organic totality’ into separate pieces. The reconstruction of reality in thought and in particular judgments by means of these distinct and separate mental constructs cannot be a faithful reflection of the original totality, but only an imperfect approximation to it. Cognition always contains a distorting factor. It immobilises what is changing, cuts up and dissects into fragments what is a complete and concrete fact within the totality of things and phenomena where everything is together with everything else. The concept of concrete truth presupposes the contradistinction of ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ in some peculiar meaning of these terms.
Attention has been drawn to the fact that the use of the expressions ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ in Marxist-Leninist philosophy is closely related to Hegel’s understanding of these terms and differs in some ways from that commonly accepted. We speak of abstract concepts and thoughts and contrast them with the concrete, that is with particular things in the external world. What is concrete for us was abstract for Hegel, and what was concrete for Hegel is abstract for us. Hegel’s distinction concerned, of course, only thoughts, and not mental and physical objects respectively, but this difference from our use is not important in this context.
The essential point is the fact that Hegel qualified as abstract thoughts those which are closest to the world of physical objects and apply to particular things, such as the moon, trees, stones, and the like. According to Hegel, these thoughts were the product of crude common sense which maintains that ‘thoughts are only thoughts’, that is, they are mere forms unless sense perception endows them with substance and reality. They are abstract for they are one-sided and poor in their content, they do not grasp the essence, and are concerned with appearances. On the other hand, thoughts which we could call abstract, the highest categories comprising in themselves, according to Hegel, ‘the full wealth of Particulars’, were for Hegel concrete. A concrete concept is not self-contained, but it points and refers to something beyond itself. The unfolding of the content of concrete thoughts reveals in them what Hegel called ‘concrete Universals’. When a concrete universal is predicated of an individual, the individual is at once shown to be embedded by its attributes and relational properties in the all-comprising whole, apart from which it is only an appearance.
Concrete thinking does not rest on the separation of the content and form of knowledge, assumed in ‘ordinary consciousness’. For ‘ordinary consciousness’ make sits universals abstract, that is, void of content. A ‘concrete universal’ is full of content which is unfolded and differentiated by elucidations and deductions. This can be exemplified by the concept of concrete identity (similarlyconcrete quantity, infinity, necessity, and so forth), which unlike the abstract identity of traditional logic and mathematics combines identity with difference within itself and, generally, by any ‘fluid’ or ‘dialectical category’ as opposed to a ‘fixed’ or ‘rigid category’ . The co-existence of the polar opposites in ‘dialectical categories’ and the movement of thought revealing ‘one pole already present in the other in nuce’ by means of which mind ‘gives itself its determinateness’, lead to the apprehension of the unity of all things and of the internal connections which the abstract universality of common sense and science cannot grasp and express.
Hegel’s thoughts were always thoughts of a thought; in the case of Marx and Engels they became thoughts of an object or of an aggregate of objects. In Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, published posthumously by Karl Kautsky, Marx explained in what way his use of the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ differs from Hegel’s. Marx pointed out that Hegel mistook the ‘movement of categories’ for the real act of creation. ‘ Hegel’, wrote Marx, ‘fell into the error .... of considering the real as the result of self-coordinating, self-absorbed, and spontaneously operating thought, while the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is but way of thinking by which the concrete is grasped and is reproduced in our mind as a concrete’. In a manner of speaking, it can be said that real objects, as comprehended objects, are a product of thought. But real objects, to which thought refers, have an independent existence ‘outside of the head’ before and after they have been grasped as ‘concrete aggregates’. For Marx, ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ are predicates which apply to physical and mental objects respectively, and not, as for Hegel, to different varieties of thought.
But Marx retained Hegel’s differentiation with respect to the mode of thinking and to the kind of concepts of which they make use. Thus, the concepts of population, capital, labour, money, are abstractions, and ‘empty words’ as long as they refer to a selected aspect of reality. The concept of population is an ‘imaginary concrete’ if it leaves out the social classes in the examination of the population. In their turn classes presuppose the consideration of wage-labour and capital, and the latter presuppose exchange, division of labour, value, and money. ‘The concrete is concrete, because it is a combination of many objects with different destinations, i.e. a unity of diverse elements’. Unlike the abstract universality of natural science, criticised by Engels in Dialectic of Nature, which ignores the interconnections of phenomena, concrete thinking in Hegel’s sense, advocated by Marx, leads to the knowledge that ‘reproduces the concrete subject of judgment in the course of analysis and reasoning, and grasps objects as a rich aggregate of many conceptions and relations’ within the totality of mutually related parts.
It is this concept of concreteness and the doctrine of thus conceived concrete truths which ultimately pave the way for raising the fundamental assumptions of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, in principle as a ‘sum of relative truths’, from the status of relative to that of absolute truth. This cannot be achieved without an equivocation. For the concrete character of singular statements obviously differs from the alleged concrete character of universal statements in the Hegelian and Marxian meaning of the concreteness as qualifying applied to a mode of thinking. In the former case, ‘concrete’ means ‘relative to time, space, and circumstances’, and applies to statements about singular facts; in the latter, ‘concrete’ means ‘revealing the interconnections of things and phenomena’, and applies to general or universal facts. There is no easy passage from statements of the first kind to those of the second.
‘Concrete truths’ in the second meaning of this expression purport to be universal empirical statements. They must be empirical, for otherwise they would have to be analytic, and be regarded at best as true by convention, that is, as valid within a definite system of concepts. ‘Concrete truths’ of Marxist-Leninist philosophy are clearly non-analytic statements. But if they are nonanalytic, they cannot raise an unconditional claim to truth.
If a statement is true at all, it is timelessly true. Non-analytic statements cannot, therefore, ever be true. They require verification by reference to what is found in particular cases and these cases of experience are infinite in number. No empirical statement is verified beyond the particular occasion of experience, it cannot be proved either conclusively true or conclusively false. For instance, if we assert: ‘(x) φ (x) ⊃ ψ (x)’ is true, we should be able to show that whatever value of ‘x’ is chosen, it is not the case that ‘φ (xn)’ be true and ‘ψ (xn)’ be false. This we are unable to accomplish, although we may frequently be ‘practically sure’ that it is so. In other words, we can possibly obtain psychological but not logical certainty. If we can establish that our belief is probable in a high degree, we are justified in holding this belief. A belief may be justified and rational without being conclusively certain and true.
There are insuperable difficulties in establishing the conditions under which universal empirical statements can be conclusively verified or true. For a Marxist-Leninist, armed with what Schaff calls ‘dynamic analysis’, there seem to be no difficulties. The assumption which underlies the smooth passage from the indubitable fact that some statements are absolutely true to the doubtful conclusion that some universal statements, such as the so-called laws of dialectics, are absolutely true, should be sought in the concept of concreteness in the Hegelian and Marxian sense. For this concept seems to justify the belief that nothing can be really and significantly true unless it is about the reality as a whole; the laws of dialectics are eminently universal statements of this sort. Should their truth be uncertain and subject to doubt, nothing whatever could be true and we would be at the mercy of complete relativism. The reductio ad absurdum rests on the fallacy that whenever certainty is unobtainable the distinction between rational and irrational, credible and unjustifiable beliefs must fall to the ground.
It is in fact the Hegelian inheritance rather than that of Marx and Engels of which a Marxist-Leninist makes use in his claim of being in possession of irrefutable truths. Engels displayed a much greater caution and philosophical acumen than any of his Marxist-Leninist adherents with respect to the question whether there are any incorrigible truths, and, if there are, what sort of truths they are. Engels divided the whole realm of knowledge into three departmentsexact sciences: mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, physics, and chemistry; biological sciences; historical sciences, including logic and dialectics. So far as the first department of knowledge, and particularly mathematics, is concerned, Engels thought that certain results obtained in it are final and ultimate truths. The more knowledge increases and expands, whether in mathematics, in astronomy and mechanics, physics and chemistry, the more rare, however, they become. In empirical science we have to rely on what is approximately correct and to which the polar concepts of error and truth do not apply.
No immutable truths, apart from platitudes, such as all men are mortal, all female mammals have mammary glands and the like, can be found in the second department of knowledge In the realm of biology new discoveries constantly cause a complete revision of accepted views and theories. It would be unjustifiable to claim that any of them is final and incorrigible.
Eternal truths, Engels continued, are in an even worse plight in the historical group of sciences, though it is precisely in this sphere that claims are frequently made of the discovery of eternal and ultimate truths. The statement ‘Napoleon died on May 5, 1821’ is absolutely true, but statements of this kind were according to Engels commonplaces of the sorriest kind. We do not fare any better in dialectics and formal logic. In particular, ultimate truths are much more rarely encountered in logic than is commonly realised.
The scarcity of incorrigible truths, Engels commented, testifies to the constant advancement of knowledge and reflects the changeability of its object. To voice disappointment at the scarcity of ultimate truths is to confess one’s ignorance of what science is and to assert that the scientist knows the absolute truth, is to claim an infallibility which no single individual can ever achieve. Engels advocated in these observations a thoroughly modern approach to scientific knowledge, which does not regard complete certainty as its distinguishing mark.
This certainty is desirable but unobtainable. Contemporary empiricism adopts this standpoint, maintains that probable and corrigible knowledge is the only one we can again, and believes that the recognition of this fact confers upon science the reliability which we associate with it. For in this manner scientific knowledge includes in its assumptions the principle of self-corrigibility and of self-improvement, and safeguards its efficacy more securely than the elevated ideal of complete certainty compatible both with empiricism and speculative rationalism.
Lenin, and still more his successors, encountered insuperable difficulties in squaring their own views on what can be known with certainty and finality with those of Engels. Lenin claimed that if the existence of absolute truths cannot be doubted, knowledge of incontrovertibly true empirical propositions (‘objective truths’) is obtainable. It is self-evident that this does not follow from the premiss, but it has been accepted as a valid conclusion in Marxist-Leninist philosophy. The Hegelian doctrine of the concreteness of truth is clearly the source and provides the justification of Lenin’s claim.
According to Lenin, the truth of the dialectical laws and the dependence of any statement in respect of its significance and truth on the laws of dialectics, can be seen in analysing the simplest, most ordinary and common sentences. A subjectpredicate sentence ‘A is B’ not only indicates that A is B, but also that A is not A, that is, in Hegel’s words, that every finite thing strives for something other than itself, that it is incomplete, connected with other kinds of particular things, comprises the unity of the opposites – of the general and the singular. The nucleus of all the elements of dialectics are thus disclosed in any proposition, and on this fact the claim of dialectics being a property of all knowledge can be firmly and securely established. The analysis of a simple subject-predicate sentence shows how the properties of every object, taken not in isolation but as it exists actually, as an aspect or moment in the development of the whole, dissolve into an extended network of relations in which it stands to everything else. Therefore, no particular thing can be comprehended unless it is examined in its universal connections and reproduced in thought by means of notions which reflect the structure and the movement of reality as a whole. The determination of particular things presupposes the knowledge of universal and ‘concrete’ principles, which are expressed in the dialectical method and the laws of dialectics.
Schaff referred to Lenin as his authority and tried to accomplish the impossible feat of combining Lenin’s Hegelian ideas with the positivistic and empiricist approach of Engels. He distinguishes four classes of statements, which, if true, are absolutely true. The first class consists of singular historical statements. The second is made up of sentences referring to some linguistic facts. The sentence “the term ‘der Stuhl’ in the German language spoken in the first half of the twentieth century means ‘the chair’ in the English language spoken in the same period” is as absolutely true as the sentence ‘Napoleon died on May 5, 1821’. The third class includes ‘mathematical formulae’ such as 2 z 2 = 4, the commutative law of addition, or arithmetical equalities. All the statements of these three classes have one common property, namely, they refer to some narrowly circumscribed state of affairs and the fact of their being absolutely true depends on this circumstance.
The fourth class of absolutely true statements is of a different sort. It consists of some general and universal statements, established by inductive generalisation or in another way, which the sentences ‘all men are mortal’ or ‘motion is an inseparable property of matter’ may exemplify. Generally, all empirical statements confirmed to the highest degree should be considered to be absolutely true. To build up an unbridgeable gulf between such statements and other absolutely true statements is sheer metaphysics.
It should be noted that whether we do or do not call it metaphysics, whatever this may mean in this context, the distinction of the terms ‘true’ and ‘confirmed’ saves us from contradiction. For while it is redundant, and possibly self-contradictory, to say “the statement ‘p’ is true to-day” (in the sense of the term ‘true’ accepted by the Marxist-Leninist), the statement “ ‘p’ is confirmed to such and such a degree” is incomplete unless the time variable is implicitly assumed. There is no such thing as a conclusive verification of a universal proposition of physics or biology. If by verification is understood a definitive establishment of truth, no law of natural science can ever be verified, that is, accepted as true (although many empirical propositions are certain in the psychological sense). Instead, by testing its instances, we can obtain its confirmation. For these reasons we cannot say, “the confirmed statement ‘p’is true.” There would be no self-contradiction only if the semantical concept of confirmation were involved. But Schaff has clearly the pragmatical and not the semantical concept of confirmation in mind.
At the price of this contradiction Marxist-Leninist philosophy can claim that on the one hand its assumptions, for instance the laws of dialectics, are empirical generalisations or universal empirical statements, and that they are absolutely true on the other. This nobody else can achieve. Others have to be reconciled with corrigible beliefs, and only Marxist-Leninists are in possession of the immutable truth. In Poland this basic difference between Marxist-Leninist and other philosophical beliefs was used mostly in criticism of the latter; in the Soviet Union – in praise of the former. ‘All the fundamental theses and an enormous number of lesser tenets of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, economic science, and the theory of socialism and the class struggle are absolutely true’, wrote a Soviet philosopher. There is an error in this statement. Not only an enormous number, but all lesser tenets of Marxist-Leninist philosophy are absolutely true. For from true premisses only true conclusions can be derived. Thus, Marxist-Leninist philosophy, either as a whole or in any of its parts, consists solely of incontrovertible truths.
It is clear that the materialist theory of truth, and, in particular, the conception of the concreteness of truth (in the Hegelian sense), involves a definite doctrine of universals. The latter dovetails with the former and supports some of the claims on behalf of the theory of truth. Before the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of universals is examined, it may be advisable to make some general closing remarks on the method, by means of which the materialist theory establishes the absolute certainty of its own premisses.
We say that q is presupposed by p, when p could not be true unless q were true. The truth of the latter is compatible both with the truth and falsity of its presupposition (its premiss), for a true proposition may be entailed by a false proposition. Marxist-Leninists seem to use the term ‘presupposition’ in a stronger sense, in which q is said to be presupposed by p when q could not be true unless p were true, that is, when p is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for q. It is in this sense that according to Marxist-Leninists the truth of any statement is presupposed by the truth of the dialectic laws or that the truth of a statement concerning a concrete thing or a particular part of reality is presupposed by the truth of some universal statements concerning the whole of reality. This belief and the procedure associated with it continue the philosophical trend called by Bertrand Russell the ‘classical tradition’ .
According to this tradition a general principle obtained by a priori reasoning can be more certain than any of its particular instances ascertainable by direct observation or inspection. Russell argued that the method of the classical tradition based on the inference from some general, ‘higher’ or ‘better’ principles to detailed or particular conclusions is bound to produce bewilderment rather than conviction because of the high likelihood of error liable to occur in abstract and involved arguments of this kind. It is a fact that by this method different thinkers reached mutually exclusive conclusions about the whole of reality and ascribed to them a greater certainty than they were inclined to concede to any piecemeal and detailed result of observation and analysis. Thus some said that reality is one and indivisible, timeless and changeless, others that it is the sum total of particular things engulfed in a continuous flux of change. In Russell’s opinion it has been the empirical outlook that refuses to legislate what the Universe is that has thrust aside the classical tradition and the constructions of traditional metaphysics.
To this should be added the liberating effect upon philosophy exercised by the developments in logic. It has been logical analysis that cleared up a certain persistent misunderstanding concerning the relation between observational data or facts and theory that is to explain them. This misunderstanding arose in empirical science but its harmful effects could be particularly felt in philosophy, since it endowed speculative thought with a considerable power of resistance. It consists in the assumption that if it is possible to derive observational facts from theory by deductive inference, theory can be inferred inductively from observational facts. This is a fallacy, for the same set of observational facts can be, as a rule, derived from several different theories, or, more generally, one and the same conclusion may be inferred from different premisses. The inductive inference is not conclusive; it does not verify any of the alternative hypotheses, though it may confirm and throw some light on each and help to assess their respective probability and the measure of rational belief, which we can confer upon them. Consequently, a universal empirical statement cannot justify any of its particular instances and still less prove the falsehood of any unfavourable instance, for the truth of a particular instance is more certain than that of the universal principle, by means of which the truth or falsehood of a particular case is supposed to be established.
The rejection of the classical tradition in philosophy is ultimately based on the empirical outlook as well as on the rational attitude of mind which requires that the degree of certainty ascribed to a belief should be related to the degree of certainty of its evidence. Statements concerning the whole of reality, however important they might be for some reason or other, cannot be more certain than any particular statement which is said to be presupposed by some all-embracing principles. This applies equally to the laws of dialectics, one of the products of the classical tradition in philosophy. Ajdukiewicz emphasised that at most their degree of certainty is as strong as the degree of certainty conferred upon the established laws of Nature. If the latter are not incontrovertible truths, the former are not such truths either. Whatever actual degree of certainty they possess, might be a matter of controversy, likely to remain unresolved, if the controversy is a concealed clash between mentalities affected by divergent inspirations, those of science and logic on the one side, of imagination and vision responsive to untestable generalities on the other.