V. I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

( Chapter Three: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism and of Empirio-Criticism. III )

4. The “Principle Of Economy Of
Thought” And The Problem Of The
“Unity Of The World”

The principle of ‘the least expenditure of energy,’ which Mach, Avenarius and many others made the basis of the theory of knowledge, is . . . unquestionably a ‘Marxist’ tendency in epistemology.”

So Bazarov asserts in the Studies, etc., page 69.

There is “economy” in Marx; there is “economy” in Mach. But is it indeed “unquestionable” that there is even a shadow of resemblance between the two?

Avenarius’ work, Philosophie als Denken der Welt gemäss dem Prinzip des Kleinsten Kraftmasses (1876), as we have seen, applies this “principle” in such a way that in the name of “economy of thought” sensation alone is declared to exist. Both causality and “substance” (a word which the professorial gentlemen, “for the sake of importance,” prefer to the clearer and more exact word: matter) are declared “eliminated” on the same plea of economy. Thus we get sensation without matter and thought without brain. This utter nonsense is an attempt to smuggle in subjective idealism under a new guise. That such precisely is the character of this basic work on the celebrated “economy of thought” is, as   we have seen, generally acknowledged in philosophical literature. That our Machians did not notice the subjective idealism under the “new” flag is a fact belonging to the realm of curiosities.

In the Analysis of Sensations (Russ. trans., p. 49), Mach refers incidentally to his work of 1872 on this question. And this work, as we have seen, propounds the standpoint of pure subjectivism and reduces the world to sensations. Thus, both the fundamental works which introduce this famous “principle” into philosophy expound idealism! What is the reason for this? The reason is that if the principle of economy of thought is really made “the basis of the theory of knowledge,” it can lead to nothing but subjective idealism. That it is more “economical” to “think” that only I and my sensations exist is unquestionable, provided we want to introduce such an absurd conception into epistemology.

Is it “more economical” to “think” of the atom as indivisible, or as composed of positive and negative electrons? Is it “more economical” to think of the Russian bourgeois revolution as being conducted by the liberals or as being conducted against the liberals? One has only to put the question in order to see the absurdity, the subjectivism of applying the category of “the economy of thought” here. Human thought is “economical” only when it correctly reflects objective truth, and the criterion of this correctness is practice, experiment and industry. Only by denying objective reality, that is, by denying the foundations of Marxism, can one seriously speak of economy of thought in the theory of knowledge.

If we turn to Mach’s later works, we shall find in them an interpretation of the celebrated principle which frequently amounts to its complete denial. For instance, in the Wärmelehre Mach returns to his favourite idea of “the economical nature” of science (2nd German ed., p. 366). But there he adds that we engage in an activity not for the sake of the activity (p. 366; repeated on p. 391): “the purpose of scientific activity is to present the fullest . . . most tranquil . . . picture possible of the world” (p. 366). If this is the case, the “principle of economy” is banished not only from the basis of epistemology, but virtually from epistemology   generally. When one says that the purpose of science is to present a the picture of the world (tranquillity is entirely beside the point here), one is repeating the materialist point of view. When one says this, one is admitting the objective reality of the world in relation to our knowledge, of the model in relation to the picture. To talk of economy of thought in such a connection is merely to use a clumsy and ridiculously pretentious word in place of the word “correctness.” Mach is muddled here, as usua], and the Machians behold the muddle and worship it!

In Knowledge and Error, in the chapter entitled “Illustrations of Methods of Investigation,” we read the following:

The ‘complete and simplest description’ (Kirchhoff, 1874), the ‘economical presentation of the factual’ (Mach, 1872), the ‘concordance of thinking and being and the mutual concordance of the processes of thought’ (Grassmann, 1844)—all these, with slight variations, express one and the same thought.”

Is this not a model of confusion? “Economy of thought,” from which Mach in 1872 inferred that sensations alone exist (a point of view which he himself subsequently was obliged to acknowledge an idealist one), is declared to be equivalent to the purely materialist dictum of the mathematician Grassmann regarding the necessity of co-ordinating thinking and being, equivalent to the simplest description (of an objective reality, the existence of which it never occurred to Kirchhoff to doubtl).

Such an application of the principle of “economy of thought” is but an example of Mach’s curious philosophical waverings. And if such curiosities and lapses are eliminated, the idealist character of “the principle of the economy of thought” becomes unquestionable. For example, the Kantian Hönigswald, controverting the philosophy of Mach, greets his “principle of economy” as an approach to the “Kantian circle of ideas” (Dr. Richard Hönigswald, Zur Kritik der Machschen Philosophie [A Critique of Mach’s Philosophy], Berlin, 1903, S. 27). And, in truth, if we do not recognise the objective reality given us in our sensations, whence are we to derive the “principle of economy” if not from the subject? Sensations, of course, do not contain any “economy.” Hence, thought gives us something which is not contained in sensations! Hence, the   “principle of economy” is not taken from experience (i.e.., sensations), but precedes all experience and, like a Kantian category, constitutes a logical condition of experience. Hönigswald quotes the following passage from the Analysis of Sensations: “We can from our bodily and spiritual stability infer the stability, the uniqueness of determination and the uniformity of the processes of nature” (Russ. trans., p. 281). And, indeed, the subjective-idealist character of such propositions and the kinship of Mach to Petzoldt, who has gone to the length of apriorism, are beyond all shadow of doubt.

In connection with “the principle of the economy of thought,” the idealist Wundt very aptly characterised Mach as “Kant turned inside out” (Systematische Philosophie, Leipzig, 1907, S. 128). Kant has a priori and experience, Mach has experience and a priori, for Mach’s principle of the econ omy of thought is essentially apriorism (p. 130). The con nection (Verknüpfung) is either in things, as an “objective law of nature [and this Mach emphatically rejects], or else it is a subjective principle of description” (p. 130). The principle of economy with Mach is subjective and kommt wie aus der Pistole geschossen—appears nobody knows whence—as a teleological principle which may have a diversity of meanings (p. 131). As you see, experts in philosophical terminology are not as naïve as our Machians, who are blindly prepared to believe that a “new” term can eliminate the contrast between subjectivism and objectivism, between idealism and materialism.

Finally, let us turn to the English philosopher James Ward, who without circumlocution calls himself a spiritualist monist. He does not controvert Mach, but, as we shall see later, utilises the entire Machian trend in physics in his fight against materialism. And he definitely declares that with Mach “the criterion of simplicity . . . is in the main subjective, not objective” (Naturalism and Agnosticism, Vol. I, 3rd ed., p. 82).

That the principle of the economy of thought as the basis of epistemology pleased the German Kantians and English spiritualists will not seem strange after all that has been said above. That people who are desirous of being Marxists should link the political economy of the materialist Marx   with the epistemological economy of Mach is simply ludicrous.

It would be appropriate here to say a few words about “the unity of the world.” On this question Mr. P. Yushkevich strikingly exemplifies—for the thousandth time perhaps—the abysmal confusion created by our Machians. Engels, in his Anti-Dühring, replies to Dühring, who had deduced the unity of the world from the unity of thought, as follows: “The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggling phrases, but by a long and protracted development of philosophy and natural science” (p. 31).[1] Mr. Yushkevich cites this passage and retorts: “First of all it is not clear what is meant here by the assertion that ‘the unity of the world consists in its materiality’” (op. cit., p. 52).

Charming, is it not? This individual undertakes publicly to prate about the philosophy of Marxism, and then declares that the most elementary propositions of materialism are “not clear” to him! Engels showed, using Dühring as an example, that any philosophy that claims to be consistent can deduce the unity of the world either from thought—in which case it is helpless against spiritualism and fideism (Anti-Dühring, p. 30), and its arguments inevitably become mere phrase-juggling—or from the objective reality which exists outside us, which in the theory of knowledge has long gone under the name of matter, and which is studied by natural science. It is useless to speak seriously to an individual to whom such a thing is “not clear,” for he says it is “not clear” in order fraudulently to evade giving a genuine answer to Engels’ clear materialist proposition. And, doing so, he talks pure Dühringian nonsense about “the cardinal postulate of the fundamental homogeneity and connection of being” (Yushkevich, op. cit., p. 51), about postulates being “propositions” of which “it would not be exact to say that they have been deduced from expericnce, since scientific experience is possible only because they are made the basis of investigation” (ibid.). This is nothing but twaddle, for if this individual had the slightest respect for the printed word he would detect the idealist character in general, and the Kantian character in particular of the idea that there can be postulates which are not taken from experience   and without which experience is impossible. A jumble of words culled from diverse books and coupled with the obvious errors of the materialist Dietzgen—such is the “philosophy” of Mr. Yushkevich and his like.

Let us rather examine the argument for the unity of the world expounded by a serious empirio-criticist, Joseph Petzoldt. Section 29, Vol. II, of his Introduction is termed: “The Tendency to a Uniform (einheitlich) Conception of the Realm of Knowledge; the Postulate of the Unique Determination of All That Happens.” And here are a few samples of his line of reasoning: “. . . Only in unity can one find that natural end beyond which no thought can go and in which, consequently, thought, if it takes into consideration all the facts of the given sphere, can reach quiescence” (p. 79). “. . . It is beyond doubt that nature does not always respond to the demand for unity, but it is equally beyond doubt that in many cases it already satisfies the demand for quiescence and it must be held, in accordance with all our previous investigations, that nature in all probability will satisfy this demand in the future in all cases. Hence, it would be more correct to describe the actual soul behaviour as a striving for states of stability rather than as a striving for unity. . . . The principle of the states of stability goes farther and deeper. . . . Haeckel’s proposal to put the kingdom of the protista alongside the plant and animal kingdom is an untenable solution for it creates two new difficulties in place of the former one difficulty: while formerly the boundary between the plants and animals was doubtful, now it becomes impossible to demarcate the protista from both plants and animals. . . . Obviously, such a state is not final (endgültig). Such ambiguity of concepts must in one way or another be eliminated, if only, should there be no other means, by an agreement between the specialists, or by a majority vote” (pp. 80-81).

Enough, I think? It is evident that the ernpirio-criticist Petzoldt is not one whit better than Dühring. But we must be fair even to an adversary; Petzoldt at least has sufficient scientific integrity to reject materialism as a philosophical trend unflinchingly and decisively in all his works. At least, he does not humiliate himself to the extent of posing as a materialist and declaring that the most elementary distinction between the fundamental philosophical trends is “not clear.”



[1] See F. Engels, Anti-Duhring, Moscov.’, 1959, pp. 65.

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