Dialectics of Nature. Frederick Engels 1883

Notes and Fragments

Source: Dialectics of Nature, pp. 202-210;
First Published: by Progress Publishers, 1934, 6th printing 1974;
Translated: from the German by Clemens Dutt;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, 2006.

[Natural Science and Philosophy]


Rise of the tendency. The passing of German philosophy into materialism – control over science abolished – outbreak of shallow materialist popularisation, in which the materialism had to make up for the lack of science. Its flourishing at the time of the deepest degradation of bourgeois Germany and official German science – 1850-60. Vogt, Moleschott, Büchner. Mutual assurance. New impetus by the coming into fashion of Darwinism, which was immediately monopolised by these gentlemen.

One could let them alone and leave them to their not unpraiseworthy if narrow occupation of teaching atheism, etc., to the German philistine but for: 1, abuse directed against philosophy (passages to be quoted), [Büchner is acquainted with philosophy only as a dogmatist, just as he himself is a dogmatist of the shallowest reflection of the German would-be Enlightenment, which missed the spirit and movement of the great French materialists (Hegel on this) – just as Nicolai had that of Voltaire. Lessing’s “dead dog Spinoza.”[134] ([Hegel] Enzyklopädie. Preface, p. 19.) Note by Engels.] which in spite of everything is the glory of Germany, and 2, the presumption of applying the theories about nature to society and of reforming socialism. Thus they compel us to take note of them.

First of all, what do they achieve in their own sphere? Quotations.

2. Turning point, pages 170-171. Whence this sudden Hegelianism?[135] Transition to dialectics.

Two philosophical tendencies, the metaphysical with fixed categories, the dialectical (Aristotle and especially Hegel) with fluid categories; the proofs that these fixed opposites of basis and consequence, cause and effect, identity and difference, appearance and essence are untenable, that analysis shows one pole already present in the other in nuce, that at a definite point the one pole becomes transformed into the other, and that all logic develops only from these progressing contradictions. – This mystical in Hegel himself, because the categories appear as pre-existing and the dialectics of the real world as their mere reflection. In reality it is the reverse: the dialectics of the mind is only the reflection of the forms of motion of the real world, both of nature and of history. Until the end of the last century, indeed until 1830, natural scientists could manage pretty well with the old metaphysics, because real science did not go beyond mechanics – terrestrial and cosmic. Nevertheless confusion had already been introduced by higher mathematics, which regards the eternal truth of lower mathematics as a superseded point of view, often asserting the contrary, and putting forward propositions which appear sheer nonsense to the lower mathematician. The rigid categories disappeared here; mathematics arrived at a field where even such simple relations as those of mere abstract quantity, bad infinity, assumed a completely dialectical form and compelled the mathematicians to become dialectical, unconsciously and against their will. There is nothing more comical than the twistings, subterfuges, and expedients employed by the mathematicians to solve this contradiction, to reconcile higher and lower mathematics, to make clear to their understanding that what they had arrived at as an undeniable result is not sheer nonsense, and in general rationally to explain the starting-point, method, and result of the mathematics of the infinite.

Now, however, everything is quite different. Chemistry, the abstract divisibility of physical things, bad infinity – atomistics. Physiology – the cell (the organic process of development, both of the individual and of species, by differentiation, the most striking test of rational dialectics), and finally the identity of the forces of nature and their mutual convertibility, which put an end to all fixity of categories. Nevertheless, the bulk of natural scientists are still held fast in the old metaphysical categories and helpless when these modern facts, which so to say prove the dialectics in nature, have to be rationally explained and brought into relation with one another. And here thinking is necessary: atoms and molecules, etc., cannot be observed under the microscope, but only by the process of thought. Compare the chemists (except for Schorlemmer, who is acquainted with Hegel) and Virchow’s Cellular Pathology, where in the end the helplessness has to be concealed by general phrases. Dialectics divested of mysticism becomes an absolute necessity for natural science, which has forsaken the field where rigid categories sufficed, which represent as it were the lower mathematics of logic, its everyday weapons. Philosophy takes its revenge posthumously on natural science for the latter having deserted it; and yet the scientists could have seen even from the successes in natural science achieved by philosophy that the latter possessed something that was superior to them even in their own special sphere (Leibniz – the founder of the mathematics of the infinite, in contrast to whom the inductive ass Newton[136] appears as a plagiarist[137] and corrupter; Kant – the theory of the origin of the universe before Laplace; Oken – the first in Germany to accept the theory of evolution; Hegel – whose [undeciperable] comprehensive treatment and rational grouping of the natural sciences is a greater achievement than all the materialistic nonsense put together).

On Büchner’s claim to pronounce judgement on socialism and political economy on the basis of the struggle for existence: Hegel (Enzyklopädie, 1, p. 9), on cobbling.[138]

On politics and socialism. The understanding for. which the world has waited, p. 11.[139]

Separation, coexistence, and succession. Hegel, Enzyklopddie, p. 35! as determination of the sensuous, of the idea.[140]

Hegel, Enzyklopädie, p. 40. Natural phenomena[141] – but in Büchner – not thought about, merely copied out, hence it is superfluous.

Page 42. Solon’s laws were “produced out of his head” – Büchner is able to do the same for modern society.

Page 45. Metaphysics – the science of things – not of movements.

Page 53. “In experience everything depends upon the mind we bring to bear upon actuality. A great mind is great in its experience; and in the motley play of phenomena at once perceives the point of real significance.”

Page 56. The parallelism between the human individual and history[142] – the parallelism between embryology and palaeontology.

* * *

Just as Fourier is a mathematical poem[143] and yet still used, so Hegel a dialectical poem.

* * *

The incorrect theory of porosity (according to which the various false matters, caloric, etc., are situated in the pores of one another and yet do not penetrate one another) is presented by Hegel as a pure figment of the mind (Enzyklopädie, I, p. 259. See also his Logik[144]).

* * *

Hegel, Enzyklopadie, I, pp. 205-206,[145] a prophetic passage on atomic weights in contrast to the physical views of the time, and on atoms and molecules as thought determinations, on which thinking has to decide.

* * *

If Hegel regards nature as a manifestation of the eternal “idea” in its alienation, and if this is such a serious crime, what are we to say of the morphologist Richard Owen:

“The archetypal idea was manifested in the flesh under diverse modifications upon this planet, long prior to the existence of those animal species that actually exemplify it.” (Nature of Limbs, 1849.)[146]

If that is said by a mystical natural scientist, who means nothing by it, it is calmly allowed to pass, but if a philosopher says the same thing, and one who means something by it, and indeed au fond something correct, although in inverted form, then it is mysticism and a terrible crime.

* * *

Natural-scientific thought. Agassiz’s plan of creation, according to which God proceeded in creation from the general to the particular and individual, first creating the vertebrate as such, then the mammal as such, the animal of prey as such, the cat as such, and only finally the lion, etc.! That is to say, first of all abstract ideas in the shape of concrete things and then concrete things! (See Haeckel, p. 59.)[147]

* * *

In Oken (Haeckel, p. 85: et seq.) the nonsense that has arisen from the dualism between natural science and philosophy is evident. By the path of thought, Oken discovers protoplasm and the cell, but it does not occur to anyone to follow up the matter along the lines of natural-scientific investigation – it is to be accomplished by thinking! And when protoplasm and the cell were discovered, Oken was in general disrepute!

* * *

Hofmann (Ein Jahrhundert Chemie unter den Hohenzollern) cites the philosophy of nature. A quotation from Rosenkranz, the belletrist, whom no real Hegelian recognises. To make the philosophy of nature responsible for Rosenkranz is as foolish as Hofmann making the Hohenzollerns responsible for Marggraf’s discovery of beet sugar.[148]

* * *

Theory and empiricism. – The oblateness of the earth was theoretically established by Newton. The Cassinis[149] and other Frenchmen maintained a long time afterwards, on the basis of their empirical measurements, that the earth is ellipsoidal and the polar axis the longest one.

* * *

The contempt of the empiricists for the Greeks receives a peculiar illustration if one reads, for instance, Th. Thomson (On Electricity [150]), where people like Davy and even Faraday grope in the dark (the electric spark, etc.), and make experiments that quite remind one of the stories of Aristotle and Pliny about physico-chemical phenomena. It is precisely in this new science that the empiricists entirely reproduce the blind groping of the ancients. And when Faraday with his genius gets on the right track, the philistine Thomson has to protest against it. (p. 397).

* * *

Haeckel, Anthropogenie, p. 707.

“According to the materialist outlook on the world, matter or substance was present earlier than motion or vis viva, matter created force.” This is just as false as that force created matter, since force and matter are inseparable.[151]

Where does he get his materialism from?

* * *

Causae finales and efficientes transformed by Haeckel (pp. 89, 90) into purposively acting and mechanically acting causes, because for him causa finalis=God! Likewise for him “mechanical,” adopted out of hand from Kant, =monistic, not =mechanical in the sense of mechanics. With such confusion of language, nonsense is inevitable. What Haeckel says here of Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft does not agree with Hegel. (Geschichte der Philosophie (Vol. III], S. 603.)[152]

Another example [This word refers to the note “Polarity,” which was written immediately before the present note on the same sheet] of polarity in Haeckel: mechanism= monism, and vitalism or teleology = dualism. Already in Kant and Hegel inner purpose is a protest against dualism. Mechanism applied to life is a helpless category, at the most we could speak of chemism, if we do not want to renounce all understanding of names. Purpose: Hegel, V, p. 205:[153]

“Thus mechanism manifests itself as a tendency of totality in that It seeks to seize nature for itself as a whole which requires no other for its notion – a totality which is not found in end and the extra-mundane understanding which is associated therewith.

The point is, however, that mechanism (and also the materialism of the eighteenth century) does not get away from abstract necessity, and hence not from chance either. That matter evolves out of itself the thinking human brain is for mechanism a pure accident, although necessarily determined, step by step, where it happens. But the truth is that it is the nature of matter to advance to the evolution of thinking beings, hence this always necessarily occurs wherever the conditions for it (not necessarily identical at all places and times) are present.

Further, Hegel, V, p. 206:

“Consequently, in its connection of external necessity, this principle (of mechanism)” affords the consciousness of infinite freedom as against teleology, which sets up as something absolute whatever it contains that is trivial or even contemptible; and here a more universal thought can only feel infinitely cramped or even nauseated.”

Here, again, the colossal waste of matter and motion in nature. In the solar system there are perhaps three planets at most on which life and thinking beings could! exist – under present conditions. And the whole enormous apparatus for their sake!

The inner purpose in the organism, according to Hegel (V, p. 244),154 operates through impulse. Pas trop fort. Impulse is supposed to bring the single living being more or less into harmony with the idea of it. From this it is seen how much the whole inner purpose is itself an ideological determination. And yet Lamarck is contained in this.

* * *

Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought, and for thought they need thought determinations. But they take these categories unreflectingly from the common consciousness of so-called educated persons, which is dominated by the relics of long obsolete philosophies or from the little bit of philosophy compulsorily listened to at the University (which is not only fragmentary, but also a medley of views of people belonging to the most varied. and usually the worst schools), or from uncritical and unsystematic reading of philosophical writings of all kinds. Hence they are no less in bondage philosophy but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves to precisely the worst vulgarized relics of the worst philosophies.

* * *

Natural scientists may adopt whatever attitude they please, they are still under the domination of philosophy. It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad, fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.

“Physics, beware of metaphysics,” is quite right, but in a different sense.[155]

Natural scientists allow philosophy to prolong an illusory existence by making shift with the dregs of the old metaphysics. Only when natural and historical science has become imbued with dialectics will all the philosophical rubbish – other than the pure theory of thought – be superfluous, disappearing in positive science.


133. The fragment headed “Büchner” was written before the other parts of Dialectics of Nature. It is the opening note of the first folder of the manuscript. The fragment is apparently a synopsis of a work planned by Engels against Büchner as an exponent-of vulgar materialism and social Darwinism. Judging by the content of the fragment and by Engels’s marginal notes in his copy of Büchner’s book Der Mensch und seine Stellung in der Natur (Man and His Place in Nature), a second edition of which appeared late in 1872, Engels proposed to criticise primarily this work of Büchner’s. The laconical comment we find in W. Liebknecht’s letter to Engels dated February 8, 1873-"As for Büchner, go ahead!” – seems to suggest that Engels had just informed Liebknecht of his plan. It is therefore safe to assume that this fragment was written early in 1873.

134. Engels is quoting the following passage from the Preface to the second edition of Hegel’s Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences: “Lessing said in his time that people treat Spinoza like a dead dog.” Hegel had in mind a conversation between Lessing and Jacobi on June 7, 1780, during which Lessing had said: “Why, people still talk of Spinoza as if he were a dead dog.” See F. H. Jacobi, Werke, Bd. IV, Abt. I, Leipzig, 1819, S. 68. Hegel deals in detail with the French materialists in Volume III of his History of Philosophy.

135. The reference is to L. Büchner, Der Mensch und seine Stellung .in der Natur in Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft (Man and His Place in Nature in the Past, Present and Future), 2. Aufl., Leipzig, 1872. On pp. 170-171 of his book, Büchner says that as mankind gradually develops there arrives the moment when nature in man becomes aware of itself and when man stops submitting passively to the blind laws of nature to become their master, that is, when quantity becomes quality, to use Hegel’s phrase. In his copy of Büchner’s book, Engels marked this passage with a stroke and commented: “Umschlag!” (“A reversal!”)

136. Engels has in mind the limitation of Newton’s philosophical views, his one-sided over-estimation of the method of induction and his negative attitude to hypotheses, expressed by him in the well-known words “Hypotheses non fingo” (“I do not invent hypotheses”). See Note 15.

137. At the present time it is considered to be beyond doubt that Newton arrived at the discovery of the differential and integral calculus independently of and earlier than Leibniz, but Leibniz, who made this discovery also independently, gave it a more perfect form. Already within two years of writing the present fragment Engels expressed a more accurate view on this question (see this edition, p. 258).

138. Engels has in mind the following passage from Hegel’s Logik in Enzyklopadie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences), §5, Note: “Everybody allows that to know any other science you must have first studied it, and that you can only claim to express a judgment upon it in virtue of such knowledge. Everybody allows that to make a shoe you must have learnt and practised the craft of the shoemaker.... For philosophy alone, it seems to be imagined, such study, care, and application are not in the least requisite.”

139. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §6, Observation: “This divorce between idea and reality is especially dear to the analytic understanding which looks upon its own abstractions, dreams though they are, as something true and real, and prides it self on the imperative ‘ought’, which it takes especial pleasure in prescribing even on the field of politics. As if the world had waited on it to learn how it ought to be, and was not!”

140. Ibid., observation to § 20.

141. Ibid., addendum to § 21.

142. The reference is to Hegel’s argument on the transition from a naively unsophisticated state to a state of reflection, both in the history of society and in the development of the individual: “But the truth is that... the awakening of consciousness follows from the very nature of man: and the same history repeats itself in every son of Adam” (Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, § 24, Addendum 3).

143. A “mathematical poem” is the term applied by W. Thomson to the book of the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier Theorie analytique de la chaleur (Analytical Theory of Heat), Paris, 1822. See the appendix to the book of Thomson and Tait A Treatise on Natural Philosophy, Vol. I, Oxford, 1867, p. 713. In the synopsis of this book made by Engels this passage is copied out and underlined.

144. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, § 130, Observation; Science of Logic, Book II, Section 11, Chapter 1, “Note on the Porosity of Matter.”

145. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §103, Addendum. Here Hegel is polemising with those physicists who explained the differences of the specific gravity of bodies by saying that “a body, with a specific gravity twice that of another, contains within the same space twice as many material parts (atoms) as, the other.”

146. R. Owen, On the Nature of Limbs, London, 1849, p. 86.

147. E. Haeckel, Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte (Natural History of Creation), 4. Aufl., Berlin, 1873.

148. On page 26 of his book Hofmann gives the following quotation from Rosenkranz’s book System der Wissenschaft. Ein philosophisches Encheiridion, Konigsberg, 1850: “...Platinum is ... basically only a paradox of silver, wishing to occupy already the highest stage of metallicity. This belongs only to gold...” (§475, S.301).

Hofmann speaks of the “services” of the Prussian King Frederick-William III in organising the sugar-beet industry on pages 5-6 of his book.

149. In Engels’s manuscript the surname Cassini is given in the plural (die Cassinis). Four astronomers named Cassini are known in the history of French science: 1) Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712), first director of the Paris Observatory, who emigrated from Italy; 2) his son Jacques Cassini (1677-1756); 3) the son of the last-named, Cesar Francois Cassini (1714-1784), and 4) his son Jacques Dominique Cassini (1748-1845). All four consecutively held the office of director of the Paris Observatory (from 1669 to 1793).

The first three upheld incorrect, anti-Newtonian notions of the shape of the earth, and. only the last was compelled, under the influence of more accurate measurements of its volume and shape, to admit that Newton was correct in inferring that the globe is compressed along the axis of its rotation.

150. Th. Thomson, An Outline of the Sciences of Heat and Electricity, 2nd edition, London, 1840.

151. E. Haeckel, Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen, Leipzig, 1874, §. 707-08.

152. Haeckel (Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte, 4. Aufl., Berlin, 1873, pp. 89-94) stresses the contradiction in Kant’s Critique of the Teleological Faculty of Judgement (second part) between the “mechanical methods of explanation” and teleology, Haeckel depicting the latter, in opposition to Kant, as the doctrine of external aims, of external expediency. Hegel, however, who examines this same Critique of the Teleological Faculty of Judgement in his History of Philosophy, Vol. III, Part III, Chapter 4, paragraph on Kant (Werke, Bd. XV, Berlin, 1836, S. 603), put in the foreground Kant’s conception of “inner expediency,” according to which in organic beings “everything is purpose and reciprocally also means.” (Quotation from Kant, given by Hegel.)

153. Hegel, Science of Logic, Book III, Section II, Chapter 3. In working on Dialectics of Nature, Engels used the edition G. W. F. Hegel, Werke, Bd. V, 2. Aufl., Berlin, 1841.

154. Ibid., Section III, Chapter 1.

155. That is, taking “metaphysics” not in its old meaning – not as Newton did, for example (see Note 15), who regarded it as philosophical thought in general, but in its modern meaning, that is, as the metaphysical method of thought.