Plekhanov 1911

On Emile Boutroux’s Book

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 487-91.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘The review of Boutroux’s book Science et Religion dans la philosophie contemporaine (Science and Religion in Modern Philosophy) was published in Sovremenny Mir, no 12, 1911. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918. Emile Boutroux (1845-1921) – French positivist philosopher, a defender of mysticism and religion.’

E Boutroux, Science and Religion in Contemporary Philosophy (translated by V Bazarov with a Preface by the Translator, Library of Contemporary Philosophy, no 3, Shipovnik Publishers, St Petersburg, 1910).

In his preface to the work of E Boutroux, Mr Bazarov says that some fifty years ago, in reply to the question, what gives rise to the conflict between religion and science and will this conflict find its ultimate solution sometime and in some way, every ‘enlightened’ person would simply have shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. At that time, such a question was thought to be absurd, since it was believed that science contradicted the conceptions underlying every religion. Now it is different. Now truly ‘cultured’ people would never dream of such an opinion. They think it is absurd even to speak of such a conflict, not because religion has allegedly been refuted already by science, once and for all, but because, they say, science and religion ‘revolve’ on quite different planes:

In the past [Mr V Bazarov tells us], theoretical concepts contended with religious dogmas. Now scientific ideas supplanted religious beliefs and took their place – and then men of science said that traditional religion had been ‘refuted’, that the time had come to create a ‘scientific religion’, and so on. Now, on the contrary, science appeared to be ‘bankrupt’, incapable of solving ‘the riddles of the universe’ and then the adherents of traditional religion raised their heads and with fresh ardour exalted their own solution of the secrets of the universe. And in each instance the very content both of science and religion respectively engaged in battle. The presence of common ground between them, and consequently of ground for conflict, was never doubted... At the present time, another point of view is steadily and stubbornly coming to the fore... This view recognises that in past conflicts both these opposing forces were right, and in the most extreme, most irreconcilable of their conclusions at that... If all religious notions are absurd from a scientific point of view, if all scientific concepts are impious – or, at best, indifferent from the standpoint of religion, this simply means that between the first and second spheres, in point of fact, conflict or contradiction of any kind is unthinkable... People of the old stock were mistaken, not in that they considered religious and scientific ideas to be incompatible – here they were quite right – but in that, despite of this, they still tried at any cost to combine them... (pp 5-8)

That is very interesting. There is just one thing wrong with it: it is completely at loggerheads with historical truth. ‘Formerly’ theoretical concepts were far from always contending with religious dogmas. Really, has the ‘cultured’ Mr V Bazarov never heard of the so-called ‘dual truth'? This doctrine first saw the light of day in the Middle Ages and reached maturity in the Renaissance period. The whole meaning of it is that the truths of science ‘revolve’ in quite a different plane from that of the truths of religion. Thus, if ‘cultured’ people assure us at the present time that there is essentially no room for conflict between science and religion they are only warming up something very much of ‘the past’. [1] On the other hand, how long is it since the ‘bankruptcy of science’ was loudly and triumphantly proclaimed by, for example, Brunetière? Everyone knows that this was only a short time ago. So it is strange to refer an argument on the theme of this supposed bankruptcy of science only to a period ‘of the past’. It follows from all this that the ‘cultured’ person who wrote the preface to Boutroux’s book is badly versed both in the history of philosophical thought and in present-day ‘philosophical’ trends.

An impartial observer will readily discern the obvious social causes prompting the present-day ‘philosophers’ of a certain type to warm up the old doctrine of ‘dual truth’ and serve it with a new sauce. [2] E Boutroux is one of those warmers-up whose works constitute what might justifiably be called twentieth-century scholasticism. He has an excellent knowledge of the literature on his subject. But there is not an atom of originality and not a shred of literary talent in his work. It is, therefore, insufferably dull. Beware, Russian reader!

Here is a sample of Boutroux’s arguments: ‘Man must be permitted to examine the conditions not only of scientific knowledge, but also of his own life.’ (p 324) That ‘but’ is really matchless! It assumes that man’s investigation of ‘his own life’ cannot be scientific; but it goes without saying that this assumption is utterly unjustified. Yet, it is on this utterly unjustified assumption that Boutroux constructs his whole defence of the rights of the religious mode of thought. A remarkable defence of religion! When one gets to know the arguments of such defenders of religion, one ceases to wonder at the Pope almost excommunicating them. The Roman Catholic Church knows perfectly well that religion has many friends who, in fact, are worse than enemies:

Each one of my actions [continues our luckless defender of the faith], each word of mine, each thought of mine signifies that I attribute some reality and some value to my personal existence, its preservation, its role in the world. I know absolutely nothing concerning the objective value of this judgement; I do not need to have it proved to me. If I do happen to reflect upon it, I find that this opinion is but the expression of my instinct, of my habits and my prejudices... In conformity with these prejudices, the thought suggests itself to me to attribute to myself a tendency to persevere in my own being, to believe myself capable of something, to consider my ideas as serious, original, useful, to work to spread them and have them adopted. Nothing of all this will bear the slightest scientific scrutiny. But without these illusions I could not live, at least, like a man; and thanks to these lies, I occasionally alleviate some unhappiness, encourage some of my fellow-men to bear or to love life, love myself and seek to make a tolerable use of it. (p 324)

There is the whole of Boutroux, with all his amazing instability and all the revolting immorality of his sickly-sweet arguments. It does not even enter his head that he who lives ‘thanks’ to some sort of ‘lies’, and without them cannot ‘make a tolerable use of his life’ does not by any means live ‘like a man’. This sensitive person does not understand how dirt-cheap is the value of the alleged help he renders to his fellow-men, consisting as it does of bolstering up their ‘illusions'! He does not even suspect that it is precisely his wretched attempt to find a theoretical justification for the ‘illusions’ that ‘will not bear the slightest at all scientific scrutiny’. And why does he imagine that it is only thanks to auto-suggestion that he has ‘the tendency to persevere in his own being'? Actually, this tendency is a property of all organisms. It is an inevitable consequence and expression of life. To point to it as proof that there are phenomena beyond the reach of ‘scientific scrutiny’ is simply to play with words. Nor is there anything surprising in the fact that ‘I believe myself capable of something’. As long as ‘I’ am alive, ‘I’ have certain powers, and the presence of these powers induces me to consider myself capable of doing this or that. Of course, ‘I’ may exaggerate my capabilities: not without reason has it been said that to err is human. We do not need to look far for an example. E Boutroux errs very much in regarding the considerations he advances in defence of religion as ‘serious’ and ‘useful’ (I shall say nothing about their ‘originality’ for that is out of the question). But it does not at all follow from the fact that he is mistaken that the hopes people naturally place on their capabilities require any mystical explanation and that they cannot be explained otherwise than with the help of ‘dual truth’.

Errors are governed by their own laws. Boutroux’s error in believing his defence of religion is ‘serious’ and ‘useful’ is conditioned by his role as an ideologist of a declining social class, the present-day French bourgeoisie. Here, too, there is absolutely nothing inaccessible to scientific scrutiny. The fact is that every social class, like every individual, defends itself as it can and as long as it can...

It will be useful to add to what has been said an analysis of the following argument advanced by our author: ‘Practice presupposes, first, faith; secondly, an object assumed by that faith; thirdly, love of the object and the desire to realise it.’ (p 331)

If I ‘assume’ there is a she-wolf in a nearby wood, there is not the slightest need to ‘assume’ also faith in that she-wolf before going out to hunt her. E Boutroux multiplies by two what ought to be left in the singular. Why? There is only one possible answer to this, in my opinion; it is to accustom himself and his readers to the misplaced use of the word ‘faith’. Anyone convinced that practice is inconceivable without ‘faith’ will be very much disposed to accept ‘dual truth’. In other words, Boutroux is resorting to a little cunning. But it does not matter. We have already been told by him that ‘illusions’ and ‘lies’ are essential to ‘human’ existence.

Further. Practice assumes love for the object. This is not always the case. The hunt of the she-wolf assumes not love for her, but love of hunting. However, let us not be too severe. Let us assume that practice always demands a love for the object we are ‘assuming’. What follows from that? According to Boutroux, that practice is impossible without religion, since ‘if one goes deeper into love, it plunges beyond nature in the proper sense of the word’ (p 333). Very convincing. Even more so than Boutroux himself thinks. In fact, as the female predatory animals undoubtedly love their young, it follows that our ‘assumed’ she-wolf is also not impervious to religious sentiment.

One cannot but admit that things are in a very bad way indeed with the social class whose ideologist is constrained to ‘deceive’ himself (or only others?) by such wisdom. In the eighteenth century, on the eve of the revolution, the French bourgeois ideologists were much more ‘serious’. But that time has gone, never to return.

And what about Mr V Bazarov, who once imagined himself to be an ideologist of the proletariat? Things are in a still worse way with him; he knows not what he does.

Once again: beware, Russian reader!


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’.

1. GH Lewes in his History of Philosophy alleges that Francis Bacon was one of the first to enunciate the ‘doctrine of dual truth’. That is inaccurate. [The founder of the theory of the ‘dual truth’ was Averroes. Later this theory was widespread in other countries including England, where Bacon became Averroes’ follower – Editor.] But notice how Lewes himself, who recognises this truth, formulates it: ‘Philosophy may be occupied about the same problems as religion: but it employs altogether different criteria, and depends on altogether different principles...’ [GH Lewes, History of Philosophy, Series 1, Conclusion – Editor.] This is word for word the same as what we are offered ‘at the present time’ by Mr Bazarov, from the writings of E Boutroux and those who share his views on this question. Yet Lewes is undoubtedly a writer of ‘the past’.

2. See the excellent article by LI Axelrod, ‘Dual Truth in Contemporary German Philosophy’, Collected Philosophical Essays (St Petersburg, 1906).