Subject Object Cognition. V A Lektorsky 1980


The approaches to the analysis of the cognitive relation, characteristic of pre-Marxian and non-Marxist philosophy, prove to be internally untenable and contradict the practice of modern cognition. Whether cognition is interpreted as mere interaction of two natural systems or as determined by the structure of individual consciousness, in both cases the very mode of formulating and discussing the problem under consideration predetermines the fruitlessness of the researcher’s thinking, leading to false results.

Within the framework of the first approach, correct materialist premises (the subject and the object being considered as definite material systems with real material links between them) go side by side with implications which lead the study of some basic epistemological questions into a blind alley, and compel metaphysical materialists to make serious concessions to subjectivism on a number of points.

Idealistic conceptions which assume that cognition is conditioned by the structure of individual consciousness, exploit for their own ends the problem of substantiating knowledge and the need for establishing norms which serve as criteria for separating knowledge from absence of it. In discussing the problem of substantiation of knowledge, the upholders of this approach proceed from two false assumptions which predetermine the subjectivist nature of their epistemological conceptions. The first is the metaphysical notion about the existence of standards permitting one to draw a distinct boundary between knowledge and absence of knowledge and to single out “absolute knowledge” in pure form which could be used as the foundation of the entire system of scientific theories. The second is that the adherents of the idealistic conceptions considered here, assuming that raising the problem of substantiation implies a critical attitude to the various kinds of existing knowledge, arrive at the conclusion that the philosophical analysis of the cognitive relation should reject any reliance on the results of the special sciences or the propositions of the pre-scientific “common sense.”

The dialectical materialist conception of the cognitive relation, apart from answering the questions which confuse non-Marxist epistemology, sets tasks and problems before epistemology which do not exist for traditional bourgeois philosophy. Marxist-Leninist epistemology makes its starting point the recognition of the unity of reflection, of practical object-oriented activity and communication, and the conception of cognition as a socially mediated and historically developing activity of reflection.

Marxist philosophy asserts that cognition is founded on practical activity and that the latter must be understood in its specifically human characteristics, to wit, as collective or joint activity, in which the individual enters upon definite relations with other persons, as mediated activity in which man places between himself and an external naturally emerging object other man-made objects functioning as the implements of activity; and finally, as a historically developing activity carrying in itself its own history. In the objects that are cognized, man singles out those features that prove to be essential for the developing social practice, and that is only possible through mediator objects implementing socio-historical experiences.

Man-made instruments act as the forms of expressing objective norms, standards, and object-hypotheses existing outside a given individual. The assimilation of these norms, social in their origin, by the individual, makes possible their functioning as structure-forming components of cognition.

The internal processes of consciousness emerge as the consequence of their interiorisation, that is, “growing in” or transposition onto the inner plane of those actions of the subject which are originally implemented in an external form and directed at external objects. At the start of the formation of consciousness, three kinds of activity emerge as linked together: external practical activity, the process of cognition, and communication. In implementing one and the same object-oriented action, the subject simultaneously performs a number of functions — he changes the form of the external object, performs the act of cognitive orientation and assimilates the socially moulded ways of practical and cognitive activity embodied in the object which he uses as a mediator object. The assimilation of adequate modes of manipulating a socially functioning object is only possible if the subject is included in the living communicative connections with other persons, who teach him methods of using man-made things and thereby shape his cultural orientations and norms, including the standards of cognitive activity. At the stage of well-formed consciousness, the direct links between practical activity, cognition and communication are disrupted. At the same time, any cognitive activity, whatever the form of its direct subjective givenness, is socially mediated in the basic mechanisms of its realisation, and consequently always carries the potential of communicating. Therefore, as far as epistemological research, i.e., the discovery of universal referential meanings, norms and standards, is concerned, the most suitable material for analysis is precisely the processes, means, and products of communicative activity, in which cognition is reified and objectified, and not the phenomena of consciousness taken as such, in which these referential meanings and standards appear in “converted” or “folded” form, so to speak, and are not always sufficiently clear to the subject himself. In the Marxist philosophical conception, the process of transmission of knowledge implies objectification of knowledge not only in the form of texts or utterances but also in the form of man-made objects carrying socio-cultural meaning.

Marxist-Leninist epistemology radically re-orientates the traditional epistemological problems and fundamentally changes the very manner of positing and studying them. The starting point of analysis of knowledge is not taken to be the study of the relation of the individual subject (whether it be organism or consciousness) to the opposing object but the study of the functioning and development of systems of collective, inter-subject activity based on practical transformation of external objects.

The Marxist-Leninist conception of the nature of cognition entails a number of propositions important for further study of problems in scientific epistemology and at the same time opening up the possibility of scientific interpretation of numerous questions widely discussed in modern works on the methodology of science, scientology, and the psychology of cognition.

The task of epistemology does not at all consist in the solution of a metaphysically interpreted problem of “absolute” substantiation of knowledge. The real substantiation of knowledge is attained in the process of actual development of cognition itself in its union with practical activity. The development of cognition involves a complicated dialectical interaction of discreteness and continuity or cohesion. This mutual relation is one of the aspects of the connection between absolute and relative moments in objective truth, which was analysed in classical form by Lenin. Scientific epistemology is an integral and special part of cognition. Neither the individual nor the collective subjects of cognition are the supreme guarantors of this substantiation. It may be said, of course, that scientific epistemology is objective reflexion about the collective cognizing subject. The latter, however, is not a complete entity equal to itself, not a world of consciousness closed in itself, but a system of constantly developing collective cognitive activity closely linked with practical object-oriented activity. Therefore, the proper field of epistemological study. is, first of all, the development of cognitive norms, the philogenesis and ontogenesis of cognition in their dialectical unity. The development of cognition implies also changes in the cognizing subjects, both collective and individual, and in the range of cognized objects. At the same time, it encompasses the development of certain cognitive standards, and consequently the development of some characteristics of cognition itself.