Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963
Every sort of materialism involves epistemological realism, and Marxist-Leninist materialism is no exception to this rule. Although Marxism-Leninism is primarily metaphysics, and a theory of knowledge only by implication, the defence of epistemological realism is one of its constant and deep concerns.
Lenin discouraged even the use of the term ‘realism’ and applied ‘materialism’ or ‘the materialist theory of knowledge’ instead. ‘Realism’, he wrote, is a term usurped by the positivists and the other muddleheads who vacillate between materialism and idealism. It is an illegitimate and incorrect expression, by means of which idealist premisses are surreptitiously smuggled into materialism in the manner of Mach or Avenarius. After some initial hesitation Lenin’s followers in Poland have adhered to this terminology out of respect for his authority, and also because of necessity. For, speaking generally, not every realist is a materialist, and some of the staunchest opponents of Marxist-Leninist metaphysics, for instance, the Neo-Thornists, are epistemological realists. Marxist-Leninists being anxious to sever every kind of connection with these trends had to invent a distinctive name for themselves.
Since Lenin wrote Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Marxist-Leninists had to define more and more sharply the difference between an epistemological and a materialist realist, as well as to devote their energy increasingly to the defence of their theory of knowledge. This theory was effectively criticised by materialist and non-materialist thinkers alike. On the other hand, epistemology has frequently provided the basis for the criticism of the Marxist-Leninist metaphysics. Marxism-Leninism could not ignore the existence of what Lenin called ‘epistemological artifices’, invented, as he thought, solely for the purpose of the struggle against materialism.
Marxist-Leninists often refer to scientific knowledge, and, in particular, to natural science as the most persuasive and the strongest epistemological justification of their metaphysical conjectures. They do not go as far and are not as consistent as Bertrand Russell is. Their mind is not dominated as much as Russell’s by the world of astronomy, physics, and biology. They do not place as much reliance upon what science tells about the Universe as Russell does. They would disagree with him that scientific knowledge should be more trusted than any non-scientific or unscientific knowledge, unless ‘scientific’ is defined in such a manner that it would include what they hold to be true and exclude what they hold to be false. Finally, they would reject Russell’s conviction that conscious and thinking life is restricted to a tiny fragment of space-time and constitutes only an inconsequential incident in the history of the Universe. The Marxist-Leninist approach to science is anthropocentric. Consequently, Russell’s picture of the world is incompatible with their own which is concerned, above all, with the place and fate of man in the Universe and little with the Universe itself.
The epistemological support, which Marxist-Leninist philosophers expect to receive from natural science, should be sought for in what Lenin called ‘natural scientific materialism’or the’philosophically unconscious’materialist conviction shared and applied in research by an overwhelming majority of scientists. For it is a fact, inherent in scientific method, that all phenomena are investigated as if they were exclusively material. This method has proved to be extremely successful and has paved the way to ever new important discoveries. According to Lenin, the instinctively adopted standpoint of the materialist theory of knowledge gives all the required support to materialist metaphysics. For Engels’ and Lenin’s attitude to the scientists was ambivalent: however respectful of their achievements, they were distrustful of their intentions. In the Marxist-Leninist tenet of the partisan character of science their mistrust has been raised to the status of a philosophical principle. In general, Marxist-Leninist philosophy recognises scientific knowledge to be reliable as long as it helps to corroborate metaphysical materialism of a particular kind.
To say that scientific method presupposes materialism is a simplification, which is unlikely to find acceptance among scientists. For some of them would rejoin that science can do more than testify to a presupposition, and others that it fails to achieve even this purpose. The former might say that though neither materialist nor non-materialist metaphysics can be examined by scientific method, its conclusions can sometimes be investigated by it. For instance, vitalism and finalism in biology imply that certain material occurrences should be observed in the history of life. If such occurrences cannot be found, this would probabilify rather the materialist than the vitalist hypothesis. On this assumption, the choice between materialism, vitalism and finalism in biology would not be the result of a bias, inspired by the procedure of scientific method, but an inference based on the evaluation of scientific evidence.
Some other scientists would argue, however, that the success of scientific method does not justify any conclusions concerning the metaphysical nature of the Universe. From the fact that the method works, nothing else than it works can be inferred. Science is confined by its methodological conventions to material means of investigations and, consequently, its subject-matter cannot be but material phenomena. These methodological conventions are nothing more than regulative principles, which have been evolved by the method of trial and error. They decide what can be incorporated into the body of reliable knowledge at a given moment and are not invariant through time. There is nothing ultimate about them, they are themselves subject to the so-called ‘principle of permanent control’, that is, they are and should be the object of an endless criticism. Otherwise they could not remain a system of rules of empirical science. The inference, drawn from the procedure of scientific inquiry, that science confirms materialist metaphysics and imposes, as it were, materialism upon the Universe, is invalid. Methodological materialism of science does not imply materialist metaphysics and can never support it.
If the claim that science justifies one rather than another metaphysical creed about Nature and Man can be established at all, it requires something more than arguments of an elusive generality. The belief that there is an external world independent of the perceiving subject is a presupposition of natural science. But it is a presupposition and not a metaphysical point of view. The difference is of considerable importance. For a presupposition in this context means nothing more than a frame of reference accepted without inquiry into its implications, which remain disputable, and to-day, perhaps, more problematic than ever before. This is not what Lenin assumed. He believed that the frame of reference of natural science contains in nuce a philosophy of Nature which only needs to be made explicit to give birth to dialectic materialism.
Lenin was able to make his point by transforming the presupposition into a philosophical point of view, that is, by arguing in a philosophical manner that the presupposition of natural science is the correct one, since the world is material. The presupposition of natural science is compatible with this conclusion, but it does not logically imply it. For the meaning to be attached to the expression ‘independent of the perceiving subject’ or ‘real ‘ is relative to physical theory and is defined in its terms. This becomes very clear when the classical and quantum mechanical description of reality are compared with respect to the kind of physical variables they involve. The confrontation of a physical theory of a high degree of universality with experience is accomplished as a last stage of theoretical analysis. The procedure, described by Carnap, makes it clear that the sense given to the term ‘reality’ appears as a conclusion to which there cannot easily be assigned a simple empirical meaning. ‘Reality’, as this term is understood in contemporary physics, is a word whose meaning is circumscribed by operations based on formal logic, methodology, and epistemology. Its relevance to the metaphysical reality of Lenin is indirect and doubtfull.
Ever since the end of the last century, when physics entered upon the path of its revolutionary development, arguments and counterarguments have constantly been produced to the effect that physics has demonstrated the existence within the physical universe of some spiritual elements or that nothing of that sort has actually happened and only a revision of the concept of matter and of laws of Nature has been accomplished. Numerous controversies of this kind took place in Poland in the post-war period between the Christian and the Marxist-Leninist philosophical journalists. Such controversies have been inconclusive; neither side abandoned its claim to be supported by contemporary science. In Poland, as everywhere else, the dispute in question has been shown to be not about facts but about their interpretation, the differences in the interpretation being partly reducible to epistemological problems, i.e., to what is knowledge, how we arrive at it, what degree of certainty we can ascribe to it, what is cognition and how it is related to the so-called empirical knowledge of matters of fact. The problems of cognition, which should be differentiated from the problems of epistemology, constitute the field investigated by the theory of knowledge in the narrower sense of this term. The views resulting from such investigations often provide important presuppositions in other branches of philosophical inquiry and in science. The theory of knowledge in the narrower sense has some peculiar difficulties of its own. They are questions of considerable complexity to which physics, physiology, psychology, and logic contribute their respective share and make of many of its issues a knot hard to disentangle. Marxist-Leninist philosophy has tried to consider them, though only marginally and reluctantly.
In the theory of knowledge we can follow two different lines of inquiry. We can consider the beliefs of common sense, such as that material things exist when they are not perceived, that they are known to us and are more or less such as they appear, as unwarranted under closer examination. Consequently, we are concerned with the questions: do material things exist when they are not perceived, and if they do, how can we know them in view of the fact that we do not know them directly.
On the other hand, we can accept the presuppositions of common sense as legitimate and more certain than their denial, and proceed to the examination of how we have come to the knowledge claimed. In the latter case we examine the theory explaining common sense knowledge and evaluate the measure of its adequacy. Engels and Lenin adopted the second approach and Marxist-Leninist has followed their lead. Lenin more than any body else has been responsible for making the naive beliefs of mankind the foundation of the materialist theory of knowledge.
While the Marxist-Leninist procedure, which starts with stating what we know and only later inquires into how we know, might be urged for various important reasons, the obligation of providing an explanation of the knowledge claimed to be in our possession cannot be ignored. A materialist outlook without a fully developed theory of knowledge is an unsatisfactory and highly vulnerable doctrine. Evidently, this aim cannot be achieved by the refutation of theories which are incompatible with materialism. If it is conceded that Lenin’s objections against Machian phenomenalism are valid, this does not imply that Lenin’s own views are valid. The refutation of phenomenalism has logically nothing to do with the justification of epistemological realism and its defence against possible objections. It is true that Lenin assumed that he was not refuting the views of this or that thinker, but what he called the whole Berkeleian and Humean line in epistemology. According to Lenin, there are two and only two possible standpoints in the theory of knowledge, corresponding to idealism and materialism, in the Marxist-Leninist sense of these terms. For we can assert either that there is ‘no object without a subject’ or that ‘the object exists independently of the subject. If the former is false, the latter must be true. This presupposition is both materially and formally fallacious. The two epistemological standpoints, singled out by Lenin, are not exclusive, for there are other possible intermediate standpoints. For instance, nothing that Lenin said against Mach refutes methodological phenomenalism, that is, the view that statements about physical objects are formally reducible or translatable into statements about sense-data. To assume that the materialist theory of knowledge is true, if epistemological idealism is false, is to show a defective grasp of logic. This particular error of Lenin was implicitly recognised by Polish Marxist-Leninists. They hesitated, however, for a long time before they moved further on to a more rational frame of mind and recognised that the existence of reasons sufficient for the rejection of Lenin’s theories is incompatible with a continued adherence to them.
The chief aim of the materialist theory of knowledge is to provide a rational justification of the belief in the existence of the external world. If this belief is inadequately justified, the whole metaphysical structure is left hovering in the air. The first question to be examined is whether Marxist-Leninists can be credited with a theory of knowledge that achieves this aim and stands up to critical examination.
The second point to be considered concerns epistemology rather than the theory of knowledge in the narrower sense. Marxist-Leninists emphasise the social character and determination of knowledge. Although the emphasis of this assertion is laid upon socio-cultural thinking, in their view all knowledge should be related and ultimately reduced to its social source before its truth or falsehood can be established. Moreover, Marxist-Leninists maintain that the modern theory of knowledge has individualism as its sociological presupposition; this pattern set by Locke and Descartes has ruled ever since. The knower has been cut free from any connections with his social existence, and the influence of the social environment upon knowledge has acquired a negative significance. Since Bacon the social determination of knowledge has been regarded as a perverting influence from which the mind must be emancipated, if true and valid knowledge is to be reached. According to Marxist-Leninists, this doctrine itself perverts scientific objectivity and is a prime source of errors and falsehood.
This particular view has been already examined, including the manner in which its fallacy has been exposed by non-Marxist thinkers in Poland. There remains the question whether Marxist-Leninists tried to take advantage of it in their own epistemology and to show in what manner the social character and determination of knowledge secured true rationality and objectivity, unobtainable on the basis of an individualistically conceived epistemology.
In the following pages the question as to how the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge justifies its claims will be more closely examined. This inquiry has an intrinsic interest of its own, but it also throws light upon two other fundamental philosophical problems, to which Polish Marxist-Leninists devoted much attention, namely, the problem of truth and that of universals. These issues will be considered in the order indicated.