V.I. Lenin

Materialism and Empirio-criticism

Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

Chapter 1.5

Does Man Think With The Help of the Brain?

Bazarov emphatically answers this question in the affirmative. He writes:

“If Plekhanov’s thesis that ‘consciousness is an internal [? Bazarov] state of matter’ be given a more satisfactory form, e.g., that ‘every mental process is a function of the cerebral process,’ then neither Mach nor Avenarius would dispute it” (Studiesin” the Philosophy of Marxism, p. 29).

To the mouse no beast is stronger than the cat. To the Russian Machians there is no materialist stronger than Plekhanov. Was Plekhanov really the only one, or the first, to advance the materialist thesis that consciousness is an internal state of matter? And if Bazarov did not like Plekhanov’s formulation of materialism, why did he take Plekhanov and not Engels or Feuerbach?

Because the Machians are afraid to admit the truth. They are fighting materialism, but pretend that it is only Plekhanov they are fighting. A cowardly and unprincipled method.

But let us turn to empirio-criticism. Avenarius “would not dispute” the statement that thought is a function of the brain. These words of Bazarov’s contain a direct untruth. Not only does Avenarius dispute the materialist thesis, but invents a whole “theory” in order to refute it. “The brain,” says Avenarius in The Human Concept of the World, “is not the habitation, the seat, the creator, it is not the instrument or organ, the supporter or substratum, etc., of thought” (p. 76—approvingly quoted by Mach in the Analysis of Sensations, p. 32). “Thought is not an inhabitant, or commander, or the other half, or side, etc., nor is it a product or even a physiological function, or a state in general of the brain” (ibid.). And Avenarius expresses himself no less emphatically in his Notes: “presentations” are “not functions (physiological, psychical, or psycho-physical) of the brain” (op. cit., § 115, p. 419). Sensations are not “psychical functions of the brain” (§ 116).

Thus, according to Avenarius, the brain is not the organ of thought, and thought is not a function of the brain. Take Engels, and we immediately find directly contrary, frankly materialist formulations. “Thought and consciousness,” says Engels in Anti-Dühring, “are products of the human brain” (5th Germ. ed., p. 22).[4] This idea is often repeated in that work. In Ludwig Feuerbach we have the following exposition of the views of Feuerbach and Engels: “. . . the material (stofflich), sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality . . . our consciousness and thinking, however suprasensuous they may seem, are the product (Erzeugnis) of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter. This is, of course, pure materialism” (4th Germ. ed., p. 18). Or on p. 4, where he speaks of the reflection of the processes of nature in “the thinking brain,”[5] etc., etc.

Avenarius rejects this materialist standpoint and says that “the thinking brain” is a “fetish of natural science(The Human Concept of the World, 2nd Germ. ed., p. 70). Hence, Avenarius cherishes no illusions concerning his absolute disagreement with natural science on this point. He admits, as do Mach and all the immanentists, that natural science holds an instinctive and unconscious materialist point of view. He admits and explicitly declares that he absolutely differs from theprevailing psychology(Notes, p. 150, etc.). This prevailing psychology is guilty of an inadmissible “introjection"—such is the new term contrived by our philosopher—i.e., the insertion of thought into the brain, or of sensations into us. These “two words” (into us—in uns), Avenarius goes on to say, contain the assumption (Annahme) that empirio-criticism disputes. “This insertion (Hinein verlegung) of the visible, etc., into man is what we call introjection” (§ 45, p. 153).

Introjection deviates “in principle” from the “natural conception of the world” (natürlicher Weltbegriff) by substituting “in me” for “before me” (vor mir, p. 154) “by turning a component part of the (real) environment into a component part of (ideal) thought” (ibid.). “Out of the amechanical [a new word in place of “mental”] which manifests itself freely and clearly in the experienced [or, in what is found—im Vorgefundenen], introjection makes something which hides itself [Latitierendes, says Avenarius—another new word] mysteriously in the central nervous system” (ibid.).

Here we have the same mystification that we encountered in the famous defence of “naïve realism” by the empirio-criticists and immanentists. Avenarius here acts on the advice of the charlatan in Turgenev[6]: denounce most of all those vices which you yourself possess. Avenarius tries to pretend that he is combating idealism: philosophical idealism, you see, is usually deduced from introjection, the external world is converted into sensation, into idea, and so forth, while I defend “naïve realism,” the equal reality of everything presented, both “self” and environment, without inserting the external world into the human brain.

The sophistry here is the same as that which we observed in the case of the famous co-ordination. While distracting the attention of the reader by attacking idealism, Avenarius is in fact defending idealism, albeit in slightly different words: thought is not a function of the brain; the brain is not the organ of thought; sensations are not a function of the nervous system, oh, no! sensations are—"elements,” psychical only in one connection, while in another connection (although the elements are “identical”) they are physical. With his new and muddled terminology, with his new and pompous epithets, supposedly expressing a new “theory,” Avenarius merely beat about the bush and returned to his fundamental idealist premise.

And if our Russian Machians (e. c., Bogdanov) failed to notice the “mystification” and discerned a refutation of idealism in the “new” defence of idealism, in the analysis of empirio-criticism given by the professional philosophers we find a sober estimate of the true nature of Avenarius’ ideas, which is laid bare when stripped of its pretentious terminology.

In 1903 Bogdanov wrote ("Authoritative Thinking,” an article in the symposium From the Psychology of Society, p. 119, et seq.):

“Richard Avenarius presented a most harmonious and complete philosophical picture of the development of the dualism of spirit and body. The gist of his ‘doctrine of introjection’ is the following: [we observe only physical bodies directly, and we infer the experiences of others, i.e., the mind of another person, only by hypothesis]. . . . The hypothesis is complicated by the fact that the experiences of the other person are assumed to be located in his body, are inserted (introjected) into his organism. This is already a superfluous hypothesis and even gives rise to numerous contradictions. Avenarius systematically draws attention to these contradictions by unfolding a series of successive historical facts in the development of dualism and of philosophical idealism. But here we need not follow Avenarius. . . . Introjection serves as an explanation of the dualism of mind and body.”

Bogdanov swallowed the bait of professorial philosophy in believing that “introjection” was aimed against idealism. He accepted the evaluation of introjection given by Avenarius himself at its face value and failed to notice the barb directed against materialism. Introjection denies that thought is a function of the brain, that sensations are a function of man’s central nervous system: that is, it denies the- most elementary truth of physiology in order to destroy materialism. “Dualism,” it appears, is refuted idealistically (notwithstanding all Avenarius’ diplomatic rage against idealism), for sensation and thought prove to be not secondary, not a product of matter, but primary. Dualism is here refuted by Avenarius only in so far as he “refutes” the existence of the object without the subject, matter without thought, the external world independent of our sensations; that is, it is refuted idealistically. The absurd denial of the fact that the visual image of a tree is a function of the retina, the nerves and the brain, was required by Avenarius in order to bolster up his theory of the “indissoluble” connection of the “complete” experience, which includes not only the self but also the tree, i.e., the environment.

The doctrine of introjection is a muddle, it smuggles in idealistic rubbish and is contradictory to natural science, which inflexibly holds that thought is a function of the brain, that sensations, i.e., the images of the external world, exist within us, produced by the action of things on our sense-organs. The materialist elimination of the “dualism of mind and body” (i.e., materialist monism) consists in the assertion that the mind does not exist independently of the body, that mind is secondary, a function of the brain, a reflection of the external world. The idealist elimination of the “dualism of mind and body” (i.e., idealist monism) consists in the assertion that mind is not a function of the body, that, consequently, mind is primary, that the “environment” and the “self” exist only in an inseparable connection of one and the same “complexes of elements.” Apart from these two diametrically opposed methods of eliminating “the dualism of mind and body,” there can be no third method, unless it be eclecticism, which is a senseless jumble of materialism and idealism. And it was this jumble of Avenarius’ that seemed to Bogdanov and Co. “the truth transcending materialism and idealism.”

But the professional philosophers are not as naïve and credulous as are the Russian Machians. True, each of these professors-in-ordinary advocates his “own” system of refuting materialism, or, at any rate, of “reconciling” materialism and idealism. But when it comes to a competitor they unceremoniously expose the unconnected fragments of materialism and idealism that are contained in all the “recent” and “original” systems. And if a few young intellectuals swallowed Avenarius’ bait, that old bird Wundt was not to be enticed so easily. The idealist Wundt tore the mask from the poseur Avenarius very unceremoniously when he praised him for the anti-materialist tendency of the theory of introjection. Wundt wrote:

“If empirio-criticism reproaches vulgar materialism because by such expressions as the brain ‘has’ thought, or the brain ‘produces’ thought, it expresses a relation which generally cannot be established by factual observation and description [evidently, for Wundt it is a “fact” that a person thinks without the help of a brain!]. . . this reproach, of course, is well founded” (op. cit., S pp. 47-48).

Well, of course! The idealists will always join the half-hearted Avenarius and Mach in attacking materialism! It is only a pity, Wundt goes on to say, that this theory of introjection “does not stand in any relation to the doctrine of the independent vital series, and was, to all appearances, only tacked on to it as an afterthought and in a rather artificial fashion” (p. 365).

Introjection, says O. Ewald, “is to be regarded as nothing but a fiction of empirio-criticism, which the latter requires in order to shield its own fallacies” (op. cit., p. 44).

“We observe a strange contradiction: on the one hand, the elimination of introjection and the restoration of the natural world conception is intended to restore to the world the character of living reality; on the other hand, in the principal co-ordination empirio-criticism is leading to a purely idealist theory of an absolute correlation of the counter-term and the central term. Avenarius is thus moving in a circle. He set out to do battle against idealism but laid down his arms before it came to an open skirmish. He wanted to liberate the world of objects from the yoke of the subject, but again bound that world to the subject. What he has actually destroyed by his criticism is a caricature of idealism rather than its genuine epistemological expression” (ibid., pp. 64-65).

"In his [Avenarius’] frequently quoted statement,” Norman Smith says, “that the brain is not the seat, organ or supporter of thought, he rejects the only terms which we possess for defining their connection” (op. cit., p. 30).

Nor is it surprising that the theory of introjection approved by Wundt excites the sympathy of the outspoken spiritualist, James Ward,[1] who wages systematic war on “naturalism and agnosticism, and especially on Thomas Huxley (not because he was an insufficiently outspoken and determined materialist, for which Engels reproached him, but) because his agnosticism served in fact to conceal materialism.

Let us note that Karl Pearson, the English Machian, who avoid all philosophical artifices, and who recognises neither introjection, nor co-ordination, nor yet “the discovery of the world-elements,” arrives at the inevitable outcome of Machism when it is stripped of such “disguises,” namely, pure subjective idealism. Pearson knows no “elements"; “sense impressions” are his alpha and omega. He never doubts that man thinks with the help of the brain. And the contradiction between this thesis (which alone conforms with science) and the basis of his philosophy remains naked and obvious. Pearson spares no effort in combating the concept that matter exists independently of our sense-impressions (The Grammar of Science, Chap VII). Repeating all Berkeley’s arguments, Pearson declare that matter is a nonentity. But when he comes to speak of the relation of the brain to thought, Pearson emphatically declares: “From will and consciousness associated with material machinery we can infer nothing whatever as to will and consciousness without that machinery.”[2] He even advances the following thesis as a summary of his investigations in this field:

“Consciousness has no meaning beyond nervous systems akin to our own; it is illogical to assert that all matter is conscious [but it is logical to assert that all matter possesses a property which is essentially akin to sensation, the property of reflection], still more that consciousness or will can exist outside matter” (ibid., p. 75, 2nd thesis).

Pearson’s muddle is glaring! Matter is nothing but groups of sense impressions. That is his premise, that is his philosophy. Hence, sensation and thought should be primary; matter, secondary. But no, consciousness without matter does not exist, and apparently not even without a nervous system! That is, consciousness and sensation are secondary. The waters rest on the earth, the earth rests on a whale, and the whale rests on the waters. Mach’s “elements” and Avenarius’ co-ordination and introjection do not clear up this muddle, all they do is to obscure the matter, to cover up traces with the help of an erudite philosophical gibberish.

Just such gibberish, and of this a word or two will suffice, is the special terminology of Avenarius, who coined a plenitude of diverse “notals,” “securals,” “fidentials,” etc., etc. Our Russian Machians for the most part shamefacedly avoid this professorial rigmarole, and only now and again bombard the reader (in order to stun him) with an “existential” and such like. But if naïve people take these words for a species of bio-mechanics, the German philosophers, who are themselves lovers of “erudite” words, laugh at Avenarius. To say “notal” (notus = known), or to say that this or the other thing is known to me, is absolutely one and the same, says Wundt in the section entitled “Scholastic Character of the Empirio-Critical System.” And, indeed, it is the purest and most dreary scholasticism. One of Avenarius’ most faithful disciples, R. Willy, had the courage to admit it frankly. He says:

“Avenarius dreamed of a bio-mechanics but an understanding of the life of the brain can be arrived at only by actual discoveries, and not by the way in which Avenarius attempted to arrive at it. Avenarius’ bio-mechanics is not grounded on any new observations whatever; its characteristic feature is purely schematic constructions of concepts, and, indeed, constructions that do not even bear the nature of hypotheses that open up new vistas, but rather of stereotyped speculations (blosse Spekulierschablonen), which, like a wall, conceal our view.”[3]

The Russian Machians will soon be like fashion-lovers who are moved to ecstasy over a hat which has already been discarded by the bourgeois philosophers of Europe.


[1] James Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism, 3rd ed., London, 1906, Vol. II, pp. 171-72. —Lenin

[2] The Grammar of Science, 2nd ed., London, 1900, p. 58. —Lenin

[3] R. Willy, Gegen die Schulweisheit, p. 169. Of course, the pedant Petzoldt will not make any such admissions. With the smug satisfaction of the philistine he chews the cud of Avenarius’ “biological” scholasticism (Vol. I, Chap. II). —Lenin

[4] See F. Engels, Anti-Dürhring, Moscow, 1959, p. 55.

[5] See Karl Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, pp. 363, 372.

[6] Lenin is referring to the literary portrait drawn by I. S. Turgenev in his prose poem “A Rule of Life”.