Plekhanov 1911

On Mr Heinrich Rickert’s Book

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 481-86.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘The review of Rickert’s book Sciences of Nature and Sciences of Culture was published in Sovremenny Mir, no 9, 1911. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918. Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936) – German philosopher and sociologist, one of the main representatives of the Baden school of neo-Kantianism.’

H Rickert, Sciences of Nature and Sciences of Culture (translated from the Second German Edition, edited by S Hessen, Obrazovaniye Publishers, St Petersburg, 1911).

There is a saying: tell me your friends, and I will tell you who you are. By the same token it might be said: I will determine who you are if you tell me your enemies. There are extraordinarily characteristic types of hostility. Among them is one which many representatives of social science feel nowadays towards the materialist explanation of history. Don’t think that I am expressing myself inexactly: I mean precisely hostility, and not a calm denial arising from some more or less correct theoretical considerations. In other words, in rejecting the materialist explanation of history, many of our present-day social scientists are, for the most part, obeying the dictates of their hearts instead of listening to the voice of their intellects, which usually remain in a state of considerable vagueness about what they are rejecting. In proof, I shall cite Heinrich Rickert, the author of a small book, or, if you like, a large pamphlet, entitled Sciences of Nature and Sciences of Culture and highly recommended by Mr S Hessen.

Rickert discerns in historical materialism an attempt ‘to transform all history into economic history and then into natural science’ (p 159). One would require to be almost completely in the dark about this subject to believe anything like that. First of all, the adherents of historical materialism have never attempted to ‘transform all history into economic history’. Secondly, it has even less entered their heads ‘then’ to transform economic history into natural science. Rickert would have known this had he taken the trouble to familiarise himself with the views of the men who founded historical materialism – Marx and Engels. Marx used to state categorically that ‘natural-scientific’ materialism was utterly inadequate to explain social phenomena. But while Rickert thinks nothing of repudiating Marx’s historical theory, he does not consider it necessary to get to know it. He is guided by his heart and not by his head, as is crystal-clear from all his subsequent argumentation.

The alleged attempts to transform all history into economic history and then into natural science are based, he says:

... on a quite arbitrarily selected principle of separating the essential from the non-essential, a principle which moreover owed its preference initially to a completely unscientific political prejudice. This may be observed already in the works of Condorcet, and the so-called materialist conception of history, which represents only the extreme apex of this trend, may serve as a classic example of this. A very great part of it is dependent on specifically Social-Democratic aspirations. As the guiding cultural ideal is democratic there is an inclination to consider the great personalities of the past too as ‘non-essential’ and to take account only of that which comes from the masses. Hence the idea of ‘collectivist’ history. From the standpoint of the proletariat, or from the standpoint which the theoreticians regard as the standpoint of the masses, moreover, it is mainly the economic values which come in for consideration and consequently only that is ‘essential’ which has a direct bearing on them, that is to say, economic life. Hence, too, history becomes ‘materialist’. (pp 159-60)

Whoever has read the celebrated book Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrčs de l'esprit humain will be very surprised to hear from Rickert that Condorcet tried to transform all history into economic history. True, in Condorcet one does find materialist explanations of some individual historical phenomena. He also has a propensity to regard the first stages in the cultural development of mankind from the angle of the development of the productive forces. But that is due to the fact that he is unable to discover an adequate level of knowledge at these stages. Starting approximately with Greece, a purely idealist view of all subsequent history prevails in Condorcet’s book. Idealism was so predominant in all the historical writings of the eighteenth century that even the materialists of that day were purely idealist in their historical outlook, although some of them, for example Helvétius, sometimes also very shrewdly explained some particular historical phenomena by materialist considerations. It is strange, indeed, that the learned Mr Rickert and the enlightened Mr Hessen do not know about this. (Or, perhaps, they do not want to know about it?) Further. The adherents of historical materialism are, in fact, very much concerned with what ‘comes’ from the masses. But, to begin with, this is not their ‘only’ concern; they pay exceptionally great attention also to what comes from the upper classes. Marx’s Capital proves this splendidly by its mere existence. Secondly, the practice of taking into consideration what comes from the masses – and of doing so deliberately – was begun already by the French historians at the time of the Restoration (for instance, Augustin Thierry) to whom ‘Social-Democratic aspirations’ were utterly alien. Again it is very strange that neither the enlightened Mr Hessen nor the learned Mr Rickert wish to hear of this. Finally, is it not ludicrous to affirm that, from the standpoint of the proletariat, or, as Rickert puts it, from the standpoint which the theoreticians regard as the standpoint of the masses, attention is turned mainly to economic values. If anyone is paying chief attention to these values nowadays it is surely the bourgeoisie in its opposition to the proletariat. Those who uphold today the materialist explanation of history are quite well aware of this and never lose sight of it. Consequently what Rickert says about them does not make sense from that standpoint either.

Rickert interprets historical materialism in such an astonishing fashion that F Tönnies, a man, who, as far as we know, has no connection with Social-Democracy, asks him mockingly (in Archiv für system Philos, Volume 8, p 38): ‘From which swamp did he borrow his so characteristic exposition of the materialist conception of history?’ (Quoted by Rickert in a footnote to page 161.) And, indeed, there is a strong smell of the swamp about Rickert’s exposition. However, the question of what particular swamp he borrows from is fraught with some complexity. The fact is that Rickert and other scientists like him do not have the foggiest notion of historical materialism, not for any personal reason, but because their intellectual field of vision is clouded by prejudices that are peculiar to a whole class. It might truly be said of them that the rubbish they offer as an exposition of historical materialism is determined by ‘a completely unscientific political prejudice’. Their aversion to historical materialism speaks most eloquently of their fear of ‘specifically Social-Democratic aspirations’. And since the materialist explanation of history is the sole scientific explanation of the historical process (as is revealed by the fact that even those scientists who close their ears to the very word materialism have recourse to it more and more often in their specialised works), those writers whose class prejudices render them incapable of comprehending and assimilating it, when they attempt to elaborate a general theory of history, necessarily find themselves in a blind alley of more or less clever but always arbitrary and, therefore, barren theoretical constructions. Rickert’s theory can be listed in the category of such arbitrary constructions.

This theory amounts to the division of the empirical sciences into two groups: the generalising sciences of nature and the individualising sciences of culture. The natural sciences, says Rickert:

... see in their objects existence and occurrence, free of anything pertaining to value; their interest is to study the general abstract relationships, and as far as possible the laws, whose significance affects this being and occurrence. The individual case is for them only a ‘copy’.

Elsewhere he follows Kant in advancing the concept of nature as the existence of things, in so far as it is determined by general laws (p 38). To this concept he opposes the concept of historical phenomena:

We have no one suitable word corresponding to the term ‘nature’, which could characterise them [these sciences] from the standpoint of their object as well as from the standpoint of their method. We must, therefore, select two expressions that correspond to the two meanings of the word ‘nature’. As sciences of culture, they study objects pertaining to universal cultural values; as historical sciences, they portray their unique development in its distinctiveness and individuality. And the fact that their objects are essentially processes of culture imparts to their historical method at the same time the principle of concept formation, for what is essential to them is only that which in its individual originality has significance for the guiding cultural value. Therefore, by individualising, they select from reality as ‘culture’ something quite distinct from the natural sciences which examine in a generalising way the same reality, as ‘nature’. For the significance of a cultural process, in most cases, rests precisely on the originality which distinguishes it from other processes, whereas, on the other hand, that which it possesses in common with other processes, that is to say, that which constitutes their natural-scientific essence, is non-essential to the historical science of culture. (pp 142-43)

These passages strikingly reveal the weakness of Rickert’s theory. Leaving aside for the moment the question of cultural values, I will remark, first, that if the importance of every particular historical process lies in its originality – and that is correct – this by no means justifies the contrasting of natural science to history, or, as Rickert puts it, the sciences of nature to the sciences of culture. The fact is that among the natural sciences there are sciences which do not cease to be natural sciences while at the same time being historical sciences. Such, for example, is geology. The special subject it is concerned with cannot at all be regarded as ‘only a copy’. No. Geology studies the history of the earth and not some other celestial body, just as the history of Russia is the history of our fatherland and not the history of some other country. The history of the earth is ‘individualised’ not a whit less than the history of Russia, France, and so forth. Consequently it cannot be fitted at all into the framework of the division that Rickert tries to establish. Our author himself feels that in this respect things are not at all right with him. He tries to remedy this by acknowledging the presence of ‘ intermediate spheres’ in which the historical method passes over to the domain of natural science (p 147 et seq). But this acknowledgement gets him absolutely nowhere.

As an example, he takes phylogenetic biology:

Although it operates exclusively with general concepts [he agrees], these concepts are, however, constituted in such a way that the investigated whole which it examines is considered from the standpoint of its singleness and peculiarity. (p 148)

But in his opinion this is no argument against his principles for the division of the sciences: ‘Similar mixed forms, on the contrary, become comprehensible as mixed forms precisely because of this.’ (p 150) The trouble is that history represents a form absolutely as mixed as phylogenetic biology or geology. If these two last-named sciences belong to the ‘intermediate sphere’, history is also part of it. And if that is so, it shatters the very concept of this sphere, since, according to Rickert, it lies between history and natural science.

Rickert also hopes to save the situation by pointing out that ‘in general, interest in phylogenetic biology is evidently dying out’ (p 152). That may be so. But that is beside the point. The point is what method was used by scientists while they were still interested in this science. And it was the same method which is used by the scientists concerned with universal history. Besides, the interest in geology, for example, is not ‘dying out’ at all. The very existence of this science alone is sufficient to refute Rickert’s principle of the division of the sciences.

Our author also refers to such concepts as ‘progress’ and ‘regress’ being used in phylogenetic biology, although they have meaning only from the standpoint of value (p 151). But this circumstance by no means settles the question of which method is used by phylogenetic biology. It may, in truth, be said of geology too that it is of interest to man principally as the history of the planet on which the development of human culture is taking place. And one could probably agree with that. But even having agreed with it, we shall nevertheless have to recognise that what is ‘essential’ in the eyes of the geologist, as such, is not that which pertains to any kind of cultural value, but that – and only that – which enables him to understand and depict the objective course of the earth’s development.

The same with history. Undoubtedly, every historian arranges his scientific material – separating the essential from the non-essential – from the viewpoint of a certain value. The whole question is: what is the nature of this value? It is quite impossible to answer this question by asserting that, in this particular case, the value concerned is in the category of cultural values. Not at all. As a man of science – and within the framework of his science – the historian considers as essential that which helps him to determine the causal connection of those events the aggregate of which constitutes the individual process of development he is studying: and as non-essential that which is irrelevant to this theme. Consequently what is involved there is not at all the category of values spoken of by Rickert.

With Rickert, generalised natural science is contrasted to history which depicts the particular processes of development in their individualised forms. But apart from history, in the broad sense, there is also sociology, which is concerned with ‘the general’ to the same degree as natural science. History becomes a science only in so far as it succeeds in explaining from the point of view of sociology the processes it portrays. Therefore history is related to sociology in exactly the same way as geology is related to ‘generalised’ natural science. And hence it follows that Rickert’s attempt to oppose the sciences of culture to the sciences of nature has no serious basis.

It is not without interest that some theoreticians of syndicalism at present have a weakness for Rickert. This gives a fair assessment of the ‘value’ of their own teaching.