Anton Pannekoek

Lenin as Philosopher

Chapter 5

The title of Lenin’s work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism imposes the necessity to treat here the Zürich philosopher Richard Avenarius, because empirio-criticism was the name he gave to his doctrine, in many parts touching upon Mach’s views. In his chief work Kritik der reinen Erfahrung (Criticism of pure experience) he starts from simple experience, considers carefully what is certain about it. and then tests critically what man derived and assumed about the world and himself, what is tenable and justifiable in it and what is not.

In the natural world view, he explains, I find the following things. I find myself with thoughts and feelings within a surrounding world; to these surroundings belong fellow-men acting and speaking as I do, whom therefore I assume to be similar to myself. Strictly speaking, the interpretation of the movements and sounds connected with fellow-man as having a meaning just as mine is an assumption, not a real experience. But it is a necessary assumption without which a reasonable world view would be impossible: “the empiriocritical basic assumption of human equality.” Then this is my world: first my own statements, e.g. “I see (or touch) a tree” (I call this an observation); I find it, repeatedly, back at the same spot, I describe it as an object in space; I call it “world,” distinct from myself, or “outer world.” Moreover I have remembrances (I call them ideas), somehow analogous to observations. Secondly there are fellow-men as part of the world. Thirdly there are statements of the fellow-men dealing with the same world; he speaks to me of the tree he, too, is seeing; what he says clearly depends on the “world.” So far all is simple and natural, there is nothing more to have thoughts about, nothing of inner and outer, of soul and body.

Now, however, I say: my world is object of the observation of my fellow-man; he is the bearer of the observation, it is part of hmm; I put it into him, and so I do with his other experiences, thoughts, feelings, of which I know through his sayings. I say that he has an “impression” of the tree, that he makes himself a “conception” of the tree. An impression, a conception, a sensation of another person, however, is imperceptible to me; it finds no place in my world of experience. By so doing I introduce something that has a new character, that can never be experience to me, that is entirely foreign to all that so far was present. Thus my fellow-man has now got an inner world of observations, feelings, knowledge, and an outer world that he observes and knows. Since I stand to him as he stands to me I too have an inner world of sensations and feelings opposite to that which I call the “outer” world. The tree I saw and know is split into a knowledge and an object. This process is called “introjection” by Avenarius; something is introduced, introjected into man that was not present in the original simple empirical world conception.

Introjection has made a cleavage in the world. It is the philosophical fall of man. Before the fall he was in a state of philosophical innocence; he took the world as simple, single, as the senses show it; he did not know of body and soul, of mind and matter, of good and evil. The introjection brought dualism with all its problems and contradictions. Let us look at its consequences already at the lowest state of civilisation. On the basis of experience introjection takes place not only into fellow-man but also into fellow-animals, into fellow-things, into trees, rocks, etc: this is animism. We see a man sleeping; awakened he says he was elsewhere; so part of him rested here, part left the body temporarily. If it does not return, the first part is rotting away, but the other part appears in dreams, ghostly. So man consists of a perishable body and a non-perishing spirit. Such spirits also live in trees, in the air, in heaven. At a higher stage of civilisation the direct experience of spirits disappears; what is experienced is the outer world of senses; the inner spiritual world is super-sensual. “Experience as things and experience as knowledge now stand against one another, incomparable as a material and a spiritual world” (Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, p.110).

In this short summary of Avenarius’s exposure of his views we omitted one thing that to him is an essential link in the chain. To the sayings of the fellow-man belongs not only himself and his body, but belongs in particular his brain. In my experience, Avenarius says, I have three dependencies: between the sayings of man and his outer world, between his brain and the outer world, and between his brain and his sayings. The second is a physical relation, part of the law of energy; the other two belong to logic.

Avenarius now proceeds first to criticise and then to eliminate introjection. That actions and sayings of fellow-men are related to the outer world is my experience. When I introduce it as ideas into him, it is into his brain that I introduce them. But no anatomical section can disclose them. “We cannot find any characteristic in the thought or in the brain to show that thought is a part or character of the brain” (Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, p.125). Man can say truly: I have brain; i.e. to the complex called “myself” brain belongs as a part; he can say truly: I have thoughts, i.e. to the complex “myself” thoughts belong as a part. But that does not imply that my brain have these thoughts. “Thought is thought of myself, but not therefore thought of my brain” (Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, p.131) “Brain is no lodging or site, no producer, no instrument or organ, no bearer or substratum, etc., of thinking ... Thinking is no resident or commander, no other side, no product either, not even a physiological function of the brain” (Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, p.132).

This imposing enumeration of usual psychological statements discloses why the brain was introduced. To refute our introjection of a mental world into fellow-man, Avenarius emphasises that its place would then be the brain, and the brain when anatomically dissected does not show it. Elsewhere he says: introjection means that my thinking puts itself at the place of fellow-man, hence my thinking combines with his brain, which can be done only in fantasy, not really. As arguments to serve as the basis of a philosophical system they are rather artificial and unconvincing. What is true and important is the disclosure of the fact of introjection, the demonstration that in our assumption that the world of fellow-man is the same kind of thing as my own, I introduce a second world of fantasy of another character, entirely outside my experience. It corresponds point for point with my own; its introduction is necessary; but it means a doubling of the world, or rather a multiplication of worlds not directly accessible to me, no possible part of my world of experience.

Now Avenarius sees as his task the building up of a world-structure free from introjection, by means of the simple data of experience. In his exposition he finds it necessary to introduce a special system of new names, characters and figures with algebraic expressions to designate our ordinary concepts. The laudable intention is this; not to be led astray by instinctive associations and meanings connected with ordinary language. But the result is an appearance of profoundness with an abstruse terminology that needs to be back-translated into our usual terms if we want to understand its meanings, and is a source of easy misunderstandings. His argument expressed thus by himself in a far more intricate way, may be summarised as follows:

We find ourselves, a relative constant, amidst a changing multitude of units denoted as “trees,” “fellow-men,” etc., which show many mutual relations, “Myself” and “surroundings” are found both at the same time in the same experience; we call them “central-part” and “counter-part” (Zentralglied und Gegenglied). That my fellow-man has thoughts, experiences and a world just as I have, is expressed in the statement that part of my surroundings is central-part itself. When in his brain variations take place (they belong to my world of experience), then phenomena occur in his world; his sayings about them are determined by processes in his brains. In my world of experience the outer world determines the change in his brain (a neurological fact); not my observed tree determines his observation (situated in another world), but the changes caused by the tree in his brain (both belonging to my world) determine his observation. Now my scientific experience declares my brain and his brain to change in the same way through impressions of the outer world; hence the resulting “his world” and my world must be of the same stuff. So the natural world conception is restored without the need of introjection. The argument comes down to this that our practice of assuming similar thoughts and conceptions as our own in fellow-men, which should be illicit notwithstanding our spiritual intercourse, should become valid as soon as we make a detour along the material brains. To which must be remarked that neurology may assume as a valid theory that the outer world produces the same changes in my brain and in another man’s; but that, strictly keeping to my experience, I have never observed it and never can observe it.

Avenarius’s ideas have nothing in common with Dietzgen; they do not deal with the connection between knowledge and experience. They are cognate to Mach’s in that both proceed from experience, dissolve the entire world into experience and believe thus to have done away with dualism.

“If we keep ‘complete experience’ free from all adulteration, our world-conception will be free from all metaphysical dualism. To these eliminated dualisms belong the absolute antithesis of ‘body’ and ‘mind,’ of ‘matter’ and ‘spirit,’ in short of physical and psychical” (p.118). “Things physical, matter in its metaphysical absolute sense finds no place in purified ‘complete experience,’ because ‘matter’ in this conception is only an abstractum, indicating the entirety of counter-parts when abstraction is made of all ‘central-parts’” (Bemerkungen zum Begriff des Gegenstandes der Psychologie, p.119).

This is analogous to Mach; but it is different from Mach in being built out into a finished and closed system. The equality of the experience of fellow-man, settled by Mach in a few words, is a most difficult piece of work to Avenarius. The neutral character of the elements of experience is pointed out with more precision by Avenarius; they are not sensations, nothing psychical, but simply something “found present” (Vorgefundenes).

So he opposes prevailing psychology, that formerly dealt with the “soul,” afterwards with “psychic functions,” because it proceeds from the assumption that the observed world is an image within us. This, he says, is not a “thing found present,” and neither can it be disclosed from what is “found present.”

“Whereas I leave the tree before me as something seen in the same relation to me, as a thing ‘found present’ to me, prevailing psychology puts the tree as ‘something seen’ into man, especially into his brain” (Bemerkungen zum Begriff des Gegenstandes der Psychologie, p.45 Note). Introjection created this false object of psychology; it changed “before me” into “in me,” what is “found present” into what is “imagined “ it made “part of (real) surroundings” into “part of (ideal) thinking.”

For Avenarius, instead, the material changes in the brain are the basis of psychology. He proceeds from the thesis taken over from the special science of physiology that all action of the surroundings produces changes in the brain and that these produce thoughts and sayings – and this certainly lies outside direct experience. It is a curious fact that Mach and Carnap too speak of observing (ideally, not really) the brain (by physical or chemical methods, or by a “brain-mirror”) to see what happens there in connection with sensations and thoughts. It seems that middle-class[1] theory of knowledge cannot do without having recourse to this materialist conception. Avenarius is the most radical in this respect; for him psychology is the science of the dependence of behaviour upon the brain; what belongs to the actions of man is not psychical but physiological, mere brain processes. When we speak of ideas and ideologies, empirio-criticism speaks of changes in the central nervous system. The study of the great world-moving ideas in the history of mankind turns into the study of their nervous systems. Thus empirio-criticism stands close to middle-class materialism that also, in the problem of the determination of ideas by the surrounding world, appeals to brain-matter, In comparing Avenarius with Haeckel we should rather call him Haeckel reversed. Both can understand mind only as an attribute of the brain; since mind and matter, however, are fundamentally disparate, Haeckel attributes a particle of mind to every atom, whereas Avenarius entirely dispenses with the mind as a special something. But therefore the world for him takes instead the somewhat shadowy character – frightening to materialists and opening the gate to ideological interpretations – of consisting of “my experience” only.

Right as Avenarius may be that it is not strictly expedence, the equalisation of fellow-men with ourselves and the identity of their world with ours is an inevitably natural affair, whatever kind of spiritual or material terms are used to express it. The point is again that middle-class philosophy wants to criticise and correct human thinking instead of trying to understand it as a natural process.

In this context a general remark must be made. The essential character in Mach and Avenarius, as in most modem philosophers of science, is that they start from personal experience. It is their only basis of certainly; to it they go back when asked what is true. When fellow-men enter into the play, a kind of theoretical uncertainty appears, and with difficult reasonings their experience must be reduced to ours. We have here an effect of the strong individualism of the middle-class world. [1] The middle-class individual in his strong feeling of personality has lost social consciousness; he does not know how entirely he is a social being. In everything of himself, in his body, his mind, his life, his thoughts, his feeling, in his most simple experiences he is a product of society, human society made them all what they are. What is considered a purely personal sensation: I see a tree – can enter into consciousness only through the distinctness given to it by names. Without the inherited words to indicate things and species, actions and concepts, the sensation could not be expressed and conceived. Out of the indistinctive mass of the world of impressions the important parts come forward only when they are denoted by sounds and thus become separated from the unimportant mass. When Carnap constructs the world with out using the old names, he still makes use of his capacity of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking, however, by means of concepts, is not possible without speech; speech and abstract thinking developed together as a product of society.

Speech could never have originated without human society for which it is an organ of mutual communication. It could develop in a society only, as an instrument in the practical activity of man. This activity is a social process that as the deepest foundation underlies all my experiences. The activity of fellow-man, inclusive his speaking, I experience as co-natural with my activity because they are parts of one common activity; thus we know our similarity. Man is first an active being, a worker, To live he must eat, i.e. he must seize and assimilate other things; he must search, fight, conquer. This action upon the world, a life-necessity, determines his thinking and feeling, because it is his chief life content and forms the most essential part of his experiences. It was from the first a collective activity, a social labour process. Speech originated as part of this collective process, as an indispensable mediator in the common work, and at the same time as an instrument of reflexive thinking needed in the handling of tools, themselves products of collective working. In such a way the entire world of experience of man bears a social character. The simple “natural world view” taken by Avenarius and other philosophers as their starting point, is not the spontaneous view of a primitive single man but, in philosophical garb, the outcome of a highly developed society.

Social development has, through the increasing division of labour, dissected and separated what before was a unit. Scientists and philosophers have the special task of investigating and reasoning so that their science and their conceptions may play their role in the total process of production-now the role chiefly of supporting and strengthening the existing social system. Cut off from the root of life, the social process of labour, they hang in the air and have to resort to artificial reasonings to find a basis. Thus the philosopher starts with imagining himself the only being on earth and suspiciously asks whether he can demonstrate his own existence; till he is happily reassured by Descartes “I think, so I exist.” Then along a chain of logical deductions he proceeds to ascertain the existence of the world and of fellow-men; and so the self-evident comes out along a wide detour – if it comes out. For the middle-class philosopher does not feel the necessity to follow up to the last consequences, to materialism, and he prefers to stay somewhere in-between, expressing the world in ideological terms.

So this is the difference: middle-class philosophy looks for the source of knowledge in personal meditation, Marxism finds it in social labour. All consciousness, all spiritual life of man, even of the most lonely hermit, is a collective product, has been made and shaped by the working community of mankind. Though in the form of personal consciousness – because man is a biological individual – it can exist only as part of the whole. People can have experiences only as social beings; though the contents are personally different, in their essence experiences are super-personal, society being their self-evident basis. Thus the objective world of phenomena which logical thought constructs out of the data of experience, is first and foremost, by its origin already, collective experience of mankind.



1. The phrase “middle-class” is here used as a translation for the German word “bürgerlich”. The more modern term used in Marxist discourse for this concept is “bourgeois” (i.e. relating to the capitalist or bourgeois class) in order to distinguish it from the rather imprecise term “middle class”, which is often used as a broad description for white-collar workers, professionals, the self-employed etc. Similarly when this text refers to “the middle class” it is referring to the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. (Note by MIA)


Last updated on 2.7.2004