V. I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

( Chapter Two: The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism. II )

3. L. Feuerbach and J. Dietzgen on the Thing-In-Itself

To show how absurd are the assertions of our Machians that the materialists Marx and Engels denied the existence of things-in-themselves (i.e., things outside our sensations,   perceptions, and so forth) and the possibility of their cognition, and that they admitted the existence of an absolute boundary between the appearance and the thing-in-itself, we shall give a few more quotations from Feuerbach. The whole trouble with our Machians is that they set about parroting the words of the reactionary professors on dialectical materialism without themselves knowing anything either of dialectics or of materialism.

Modern philosophical spiritualism,” says Feuerbach, “which calls itself idealism, utters the annihilating, in its own opinion, stricture against materialism that it is dogmatism, viz., that it starts from the sensuous (sinnlichen) world as though from an undisputed (ausgemacht) objective truth, and assumes that it is a world in itself (an sich), i.e., as existing without us, while in reality the world is only a product of spirit” (Sämtliche Werke, X. Band, 1866, S. 185).

This seems clear enough. The world in itself is a world that exists without us. This materialism of Feuerbach’s, like the materialism of the seventeenth century contested by Bishop Berkeley, consisted in the recognition that “objects in themselves” exist outside our mind. The an sich (of itself, or “in itself”) of Feuerbach is the direct opposite of the an sich of Kant. Let us recall the excerpt from Feuerbach already quoted, where he rebukes Kant because for the latter the “thing-in-itself” is an “abstraction without reality.” For Feuerbach the “thing-in-itself” is an “abstraction with reality,” that is, a world existing outside us, completely knowable and fundamentally not different from “appearance.”

Feuerbach very ingeniously and clearly explains how ridiculous it is to postulate a “transcendence” from the world of phenomena to the world in itself, a sort of impassable gulf created by the priests and taken over from them by the professors of philosophy. Here is one of his explanations:

Of course, the products of fantasy are also products of nature, for the force of fantasy, like all other human forces, is in the last analysis (zuletzt) both in its basis and in its origin a force of nature; nevertheless, a human being is a being distinguished from the sun, moon and stars, from stones, animals and plants, in a word, from those beings (Wesen) which he designates by the general name, ‘nature’;   and consequently, man’s presentations (Bilder) of the sun, moon and stars and the other beings of nature (Naturwesen), although these presentations are products of nature, are yet products distinct from their objects in nature” (Werke, Band VII, Stuttgart, 1903, S. 516).

The objects of our ideas are distinct from our ideas, the thing-in-itself is distinct from the thing-for-us, for the latter is only a part, or only one aspect, of the former, just as man himself is only a fragment of the nature reflected in his ideas.

“. . . The taste-nerve is just as much a product of nature as salt is, but it does not follow from this that the taste of salt is directly as such an objective property of salt, that what salt is merely as an object of sensation it also is in itself (an und für sich), hence that the sensation of salt on the tongue is a property of salt thought of without sensation (des ohne Empfindung gedachten Salzes). . . .” And several pages earlier: “Saltiness, as a taste, is the subjective expression of an objective property of salt” (ibid, p. 514).

Sensation is the result of the action of a thing-in-itself, existing objectively outside us, upon our sense-organs—such is Feuerbach’s theory. Sensation is a subjective image of the objective world, of the world an und für sich.

“. . . So is man also a being of nature (Naturwesen), like sun, star, plant, animal, and stone, nevertheless, he is distinct from nature, and, consequently, nature in the head and heart of man is distinct from nature outside the human head and heart.”

“. . . However, this object, viz., man, is the only object in which, according to the statement of the idealists themselves, the requirement of the ‘identity of object and subject’ is realised; for man is an object whose equality and unity with my being are beyond all possible doubt. . . . And is not one man for another, even the most intimate, an object of fantasy, of the imagination? Does not each man comprehend another in his own way, after his own mind (in und nach seinem Sinne)? . . . And if even between man and man, between mind and mind, there is a very considerable difference which it is impossible to ignore, how much greater must be the difference between an unthinking, non-human, dissimilar (to us) being in itself (Wesen an sich) and the   same being as we think of it, perceive it and apprehend it?” (ibid., p. 518).

All the mysterious, sage and subtle distinctions between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself are sheer philosophical balderdash. In practice each one of us has observed times without number the simple and palpable transformation of the “thing-in-itself” into phenomenon, into the “thing-for-us.” It is precisely this transformation that is cognition. The “doctrine” of Machism that since we know only sensations, we cannot know of the existence of anything beyond the bounds of sensation, is an old sophistry of idealist and agnostic philosophy served up with a new sauce.

Joseph Dietzgen is a dialectical materialist. We shall show below that his mode of expression is often inexact, that he is often not free from confusion, a fact which has been seized upon by various foolish people (Eugen Dietzgen among them) and of course by our Machians. But they did not take the trouble or were unable to analyse the dominant line of his philosophy and to disengage his materialism from alien elements.

Let us take the world as the ‘thing-in-itself,’” says Dietzgen in his The Nature of the Workings of the Human Mind. “We shall easily see that the ‘world in itself’ and the world as it appears to us, the phenomena of the world, differ from each other only as the whole differs from its parts” (Germ. ed., 1903, p. 65). “A phenomenon differs no more and no less from the thing which produces it than the ten-mile stretch of a road differs from the road itself” (pp. 71-72). There is not, nor can there be, any essential difference here, any “transcendence,” or “innate disagreement.” But a difference there is, to be sure, viz., the passage beyond the bounds of sense-perceptions to the existence of things outside us.

We learn by experience (wir erfahren),” says Dietzgen in his Excursions of a Socialist into the Domain of the Theory of Knowledge, “that each experience is only a part of that which, in the words of Kant, passes beyond the bounds of all experience. . . . For a consciousness that has become conscious of its own nature, each particle, be it of dust, or of   stone, or of wood, is something unknowable in its full extent (Unauskenntliches), i.e., each particle is inexhaustible material for the human faculty of cognition and, consequently, something which passes beyond experience” (Kleinere philosophische Schriften [Smaller Philosophical Essays], 1903, S. 199).

You see: in the words of Kant, i.e., adopting—exclusively for purposes of popularisation, for purposes of contrast—Kant’s erroneous, confusing terminology, Dietzgen recognises the passage “beyond experience.” This is a good example of what the Machians are grasping at when they pass from materialism to agnosticism: you see, they say, we do not wish to go “beyond experience”, for us “sense-perception is the reality existing outside us.”

Unhealthy mysticism [Dietzgen says, objecting precisely to such a philosophy] unscientifically separates the absolute truth from the relative truth. It makes of the thing as it appears and the ‘thing-in-itself,’ that is, of the appearance and the verity, two categories which differ toto coelo [completely, fundamentally] from each other and are not contained in any common category” (S. 200).

We can now judge the knowledge and ingenuity of Bogdanov, the Russian Machian, who does not wish to acknowledge himself a Machian and wishes to be regarded as a Marxist in philosophy.

A golden mean [between “panpsychism and panmaterialism”] has been adopted by materialists of a more critical shade who have rejected the absolute unknowability of the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but at the same time regard it as being fundamentally [Bogdanov’s italics] different from the ‘phenomenon’ and, therefore, always only ‘dimly discernible’ in it, outside of experience as far as its content is concerned [that is, presumably, as far as the “elements” are concerned, which are not the same as elements of experience], but yet lying within the bounds of what is called the forms of experience, i.e., time, space and causality. Such is approximately the standpoint of the French materialists of the eighteenth century and among the modern philosophers—Engels and his Russian follower, Beltov[1](Empirio-Monism, Bk. II, 2nd ed., 1907, pp. 40-41).

This is a complete muddle. 1) The materialists of the seventeenth century, against whom Berkeley argues, hold that “objects in themselves” are absolutely knowable, for our presentations, ideas, are only copies or reflections of those objects, which exist “outside the mind” (see Introduction). 2) Feuerbach, and J. Dietzgen after him, vigorously dispute any “fundamental” difference between the thing-in-itself and the phenomenon, and Engels disposes of this view by his brief example of the transformation of the “thing-in-itself” into the “thing-for-us.” 3) Finally, to maintain that the materialists regard things-in-themselves as “always only dimly discernible in the phenomenon” is sheer nonsense, as we have seen from Engels’ refutation of the agnostic. The reason for Bogdanov’s distortion of materialism lies in his failure to understand the relation of absolute truth to relative truth (of which we shall speak later). As regards the “outside-of-experience” thing-in-itself and the “elements of experience,” these are already the beginnings of the Machian muddle of which we have already said enough.

Parroting the incredible nonsense uttered by the reactionary professors about the materialists, disavowing Engels in 1907, and attempting to “revise” Engels into agnosticism in 1908—such is the philosophy of the “recent positivism” of the Russian Machians!


[1] Beltov, N.-a pseudonym of G. V. Plekhanov.

  2. “Transcendence,” Or Bazarov “Revises” Engels | 4. Does Objective Truth Exist?  

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