Plekhanov 1909

On Mr Guyau’s Book

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 414-18.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘The review of Guyau’s book was published in Sovremenny Mir, no 9, 1909. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918. Marie Jean Guyau (1854-1888) – French philosopher and sociologist; idealist.’

M Guyau, Unbelief of the Future: A Sociological Investigation (with a Biographical Note by A Fouillee and a Preface by Professor DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky; translated from the French (eleventh edition), edited by YL Saker, St Petersburg).

Religion is a widely discussed topic nowadays in Russia. For the most part, those who are discussing it show themselves to be completely uninformed about this social phenomenon, which, in any case deserves the serious attention of a sociologist. M Guyau’s book has therefore arrived at an opportune moment; it will help to disperse the dense fog of ignorance surrounding the religious question in Russia.

The book opens with a preface by Professor DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky. In it the esteemed professor touches on our contemporary religious searches, which appear to him to be ‘at the very least, unnecessary’. We could not agree more with him on this point. In his words, the great majority of these searches ‘are more like a religious game, an infantile exercise on religious themes, and there is in them something at once scholastic, dilettante and fantastic’ (p ix). This is severe but just criticism. No less just is DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky’s remark that in these searches ‘there is noticeable an endeavour to furnish a religious basis to social phenomena’, (p ix) – for example, our emancipation movement – and that there is not the slightest need for it:

This is a feature of an archaistic nature [he says], contradicting the general and ever-growing tendency of progress towards freeing social phenomena from the religious ferule... It is true that our religious reformers and Utopians do not introduce new rituals but they seek a new religious sanction for such ‘secular’ affairs as liberalism, socialism, the emancipation movement, and so on. This would be a step backward, into the depths of the archaic stages of both religion and culture, if it, in fact, could be called a ‘step’, and not just an intellectual game and empty ‘fancy’. (pp ix-x)

We shall add that among the reformers and Utopians DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky includes Mr Lunacharsky, who ‘has launched an attempt to create a “Social-Democratic” religion, for which there is hardly any need’ (p ix). In this case, it might be remarked that our author is expressing himself too mildly; actually, one is fully justified in declaring that there was positively no need at all for Mr Lunacharsky’s attempt.

But – we are very sorry to have to use this ‘but’ – we do not entirely agree with DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky. Frankly speaking, we see no necessity either for the ‘coming religiosity’ to which he pays homage in his preface. He writes:

The progress of positive science and philosophy brings man face to face with the unknowable – and it is here that that religion begins which, in contrast to past religions, does not bind (‘religio’ means ‘bond’) the human soul but frees it from the bonds that chain it to time and place, to the problems of the day, to the worries of the age, as it was always chained by past religions, so closely connected were they with history, with culture, with society, with the state, with classes and the interests of human groups. In comparison with them the religion of the future seems to us, not a religion, but in it man’s religiosity will ascend to the highest peak of that rational contemplation which, ennobling the human spirit, accumulates and frees man’s energy for non-religious cultural activity and struggle for humanity and the highest ideals of mankind. (pp x-xi)

This argumentation seems to us not very convincing. We think that ‘rational contemplation’ has nothing to do with religiosity. Moreover, DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky himself seems to support our opinion with some remarks of his own. Indeed, from what he says it emerges that underlying the coming religiosity will be ‘the idea of the infinite and eternal Cosmos’ (p x). This idea ‘transcends the bounds of human understanding; though conceived in a rational manner, it is irrational or supra-rational, in other words, mystical’ (p x). Let us assume that this is so. But then the coming religiosity also must be ‘irrational or supra-rational, in other words, mystical’. But in that case, as we have said, it has nothing to do with ‘rational contemplation’. Besides, what is inaccessible to scientific knowledge cannot be called mystical. We know that the moon always turns the same side towards the earth. The other side of the moon will, therefore, forever remain inaccessible to scientific investigation. (In saying this we have in mind, of course, the scientists living on the earth.) But does it follow from this that the other side of the moon is irrational, supra-rational, or mystical? In our opinion, it does not follow at all. It will, of course, be objected – and perhaps our author may be among the objectors – that it is one thing when something is unknown or inaccessible to knowledge as a consequence of some special conditions, but absolute unknowability is quite another matter. Our reply is, yes, that may be so... from the viewpoint of the Kantian theory of cognition, or of one of its modern varieties. But for a reference to that theory of cognition to be convincing, that theory must first be proved correct and that is not such an easy task. In addition, the suggestion that the ‘mystical’ is identical with the unknowable will just not hold water.

M Guyau says in the book under review:

The universe is, without doubt, infinite; consequently the material for human science is also infinite; nevertheless, the universe is governed by a certain number of simple laws which we are more and more becoming aware of. (pp 358-59)

That is very true. And it contains the answer to DN Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky, who considers the idea of the infinity and eternity of the Cosmos ‘mystical’. Once a man has finally become convinced that the infinite universe is governed by a certain number of simple laws, there is no room in his world-outlook for mysticism. The esteemed professor, in characterising the late M Guyau’s views, says that this French philosopher foresaw ‘not a decline of morality and religion, but the opposite, the blossoming of moral and religious creativity, inspired not only by the external guarantees of freedom of conscience and thought, but also by the inner freedom of man from the shackles of dogmatism in questions of religious and moral consciousness’ (p vi). Just so: but it would not be out of place to add that by the religion of the future M Guyau understands something that has no resemblance to religion. Thus, he writes:

We have said that science is likewise a religion, which returns to reality, resumes its normal direction, finds itself again, so to speak. Science says to living beings: penetrate one another, know one another. Religion says to them: unite with one another; conclude among yourselves a close, solid union. These two precepts are one and the same. (p 186)

If ‘science is a religion’, then, undoubtedly, in the future religious creativity will wax greatly in strength, since the scientific activity of civilised man grows apace. But in other places – for instance, in the first and second chapters of the first part of his book – Guyau himself explains very well that the religious viewpoint is directly opposed to the scientific viewpoint; science considers nature as a chain of phenomena, interdependent on one another; religion, or more exactly, the theory underlying religion, sees nature as the manifestation of ‘wills more or less independent, endowed with extraordinary powers and capable of acting on one another and on us’ (p 50; see also p 51). Thus any identification of science with religion becomes logically inconsistent. Guyau remarks that ‘Spencer’s supposed reconciliation of science and religion springs only from ambiguity of expression’ (p 361). He might well have applied this remark to himself. Only by using ambiguous expressions can one assert that ‘science is a religion’, and so on.

But however ambiguous Guyau’s expressions may sometimes be, it is none the less plain that he understands the blossoming of religious creativity in the future as, strictly speaking, the blossoming of science, art and morality. To be assured of this, it is enough to read but Chapter II of the Part Three of his work (pp 364-95). This chapter has the characteristic title: ‘Association – What Will Remain of Religion in Social Life?’ It turns out that nothing will remain. We are not joking. Guyau says:

If religion is regarded as the popularisation of man’s first scientific theories, there is reason to believe that the most reliable means to combat the errors and preserve the good sides of religion will be the popularisation of the true theories of modern science. (p 369)

For our part, we repeat that the popularisation of the true theories of science will, of course, increase greatly in the future, but this is no guarantee at all for the preservation of even the good sides of religion, since its viewpoint is directly opposed to that of science. Some pages further on we read:

The object of enthusiasm changes from epoch to epoch; it applies itself to religion, but it can also apply itself to scientific doctrines and discoveries, and especially moral and social beliefs. From this follows a new consequence, that the very spirit of proselytism, which appears to be peculiar to religions, will by no means disappear with them; it will merely be transformed. (p 374)

Here again it is clear that the only religion which will ‘remain’ will not be at all the religion that we know, and it would be a great mistake to confuse it with the old religion.

M Guyau is an inconsistent thinker, and we considered it our duty to warn the reader in advance about his inconsistency. Nevertheless, he is a thinker, and not afflicted by religious hysterics like our ‘god-seekers’. Therefore, in spite of his inconsistencies, there are in his book many elements which, as we have said, will help to disperse the dense fog of ignorance surrounding the religious question in Russia. Most of these elements are to be found in the first part of his book; we strongly recommend this part to the attention of our readers.

Unfortunately, we can recommend even this part only with reservations; we can agree in an absolute sense with hardly anything Guyau says in it. Take, for instance, his definition of religion. His opinion is that:

... religion is a physical, metaphysical, and moral explanation of all things by analogy with human society, in imaginative and symbolic form. In short: religion is the universal sociological explanation of the world in mythical form. (p xix).

In fact, religion does explain much by analogy with human society. But not everything. We know already that a religious person sees in nature the manifestation of the will of divine beings. This view represents that animistic element which has always had its place in every religion. But animism arose not by analogy with human society, but by analogy with the individual as a being endowed with consciousness and will. Primitive man explained all phenomena of nature by analogy with himself; he personified nature, assuming the presence of consciousness and will everywhere. This personification of nature was connected in the closest possible way with the state of primitive technique. We think it necessary to point this out because Guyau’s characteristic view of religion as universal sociomorphism has prevented him from assessing at its full value the most important influence of technique on the development of primitive mythology.

In general, it should be noted that the ethnological material on which Guyau based his work is now largely out of date. Suffice it to say that, in regarding religion as universal sociomorphism, he says nothing about totemism, which is such an eloquent example of the explanation of phenomena, that is, of some aspects of them, by analogy with human society.

It is useful to read Guyau’s book, but a mistake to think that it has even approximately exhausted the question. It is a very, very long way from that!