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International Socialism, October-December 1972


Mike McKenna

Empiricism and its Evolution


From International Socialism (1st series), No.53, , October-December 1972, pp.41-42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Empiricism and its Evolution, A Marxist View
by George Novack
Pathfinder Press, £1.05

George Novack has produced a disappointing book. To his credit, he has attempted an important task. A marxist critique of empiricism (impressionism) is important not only at the level of systematic bourgeois culture but also at the level of working class false consciousness. Sad to say, bourgeois philosophical tendencies are not simply confined to the philosophers. Empiricist habits of thought have thoroughly penetrated the working class movement. They would constitute a crucial component in any account of reformism today. Nor can it be denied that avowedly marxist organisations have on a number of occasions, and with varying degrees of sophistication, capitulated to empiricism – often indeed under the banner of opposition to philosophy or even to theory in general. The most pervasive bourgeois philosophical tendency is of course empiricism and its degenerate offshoot pragmatism. The contempt for theory implicit in both these tendencies has one peculiar consequence. These philosophies tend to inhabit the practice they inform implicitly. Hence it is not far from the truth to suggest that the presence of these tendencies is rarely appreciated by those most influenced by them. The paradox then results that the most vocal opponents of a concern with philosophy are likely to be just those individuals or tendencies most under the domination of bourgeois philosophy. Marxists have always understood that liberation from bourgeois ideology can only be achieved through a thorough critical confrontation.

Novack must also be given credit for producing an account designed to be accessible to a serious working class reader rather than the academic philosopher. This is of course a crucial task. If ideas are to become a material force they must acquire the character of weapons in the arsenal of the revolutionary class.

The problem with this book is that its readability is not a product of a successful attempt to popularise an adequate and dialectical critique of empiricism. Rather, its ‘simplicity’ reflects a certain ‘vulgarity’. In sharper terms, it must be said that Novack is, at a fundamental level, himself an empiricist. On Novack’s presentation, the dialectical components in marxian theory appears as a dogmatic imposition of a number of orthodox themes on a basically incompatible empiricist foundation.

To take an example: Capital in its treatment of ‘value and price’ builds on a distinction between appearance and reality On the surface of capitalist society individuals confront ‘prices’ in the sphere of distribution. The real laws of motion however are only adequately revealed in the scientific grasp of the process of production and reproduction of ‘values’. The observable (appearance) can only be grasped in terms of an unobservable (reality). Now Novack informs us (p.8) that ‘the original empirical school owed a large measure of its effectiveness to its recognition of the truth that all knowledge depends on sense experience of the external world’. This is a remarkably unqualified statement from an erstwhile critic of empiricism. The logic of such a statement is either that there is no underlying ‘reality’ behind the ‘appearance’ or that any such reality is of merely hypothetical or heuristic status. The consequence is that Marx must be viewed not as the most fundamental analyst of capitalist ‘reality’ but as a useful model builder at best, or a speculative metaphysician at worst.

The fact that Novack is aware of the method of Capital does not invalidate this point. He simply grafts a marxist orthodoxy on an incompatible empiricist philosophy.

An empiricist attempt to reduce historical and social reality to the level of surface appearances is not . simply a problem in method. It also neglects the problem of ‘mystification’. Marx and, for that matter, Freud understood the way in which the empirical level not only failed to reflect underlying reality, but was also thoroughly complicant in obscuring that reality. The fact that under capitalism ‘real’ relations between men ‘appear’ as relations between things (commodity fetishism) involves the naive empiricist who ‘reports innocently’ on these ‘appearances’ in a collaboration with that fetishism.

Novack’s capitulation to empiricist philosophy becomes explicit at a number of other points. Empiricists have been long engaged in popularising a view as to the nature of the 17th century scientific revolution according to which the development of modern science was more or less the product of a turn to empiricism. From the beginning of this century historical material has increasingly called into question the tenability of this view. Men like the historian and scientist P. Duhem at the turn of the century and A. Koyre in more recent years, have painted a very different picture. Copernicus was a catholic priest and closer to pythagorean philosophy than to empiricism. Kepler was a platonist, while Newton’s great synthesis was at a fundamental level in debt to English neo-platonism. Men like Bacon, self-conscious precursors of empiricism, failed to make any fundamental contribution to the scientific developments of the period.

The empiricist distortion of the character of the period is pithily characterised in the still widely believed tale of Galileo and the leaning tower of Pisa experiment. According to the mythology, Galileo tiring of interminable metaphysical debates with the ‘aristotelians’ came upon the brilliant idea of putting the issue to empirical test. The result we are told was a clear triumph for ‘experience’ over ‘reason’. Why no one thought of such a simple solution before is rarely explained. The whole tale is in fact historical rubbish. Galileo never performed such an experiment and those who did arrived at results opposed to Galileo.

There are other difficulties for which the empiricist cannot account. If the fundamental breakthroughs were so dependant on empirical methods, why was it that the breakthroughs occurred first in astronomy resulting in a process which in time revolutionised every other sphere of scientific practice. An empiricist who was not wise after the event would have entertained quite different expectations. This theoretical revolution should have centred first on areas empirically available and subject to experimental manipulation – chemistry, mechanics etc. The revolution should have ascended ‘from earth to heaven’.

A key aspect of the whole period concerns the question of the mathematisation of nature. The idea that such a mathematisation was possible came easily to those who turned to Greek philosophy and in particular to Plato. On the other hand commentators today often fail to appreciate the antipathy amongst empiricists of the period to mathematics. How could a nature so empirically rich and qualitative, only knowable inductively, yield to the formal and deductivist thinking of the mathematician? To this day the very possibility of mathematics remains a mystery to empiricist philosophers.

Empiricism did in fact make marginal contributions to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. The work of the astronomer Tycho Brahe is an important case in point. Equally true, however, is the fact that it was implicated in the counter revolution against science. Contrary to popular myth, Cardinal Bellamine’s famous case against Galileo was made out not in ‘theological’ but in ‘empiricist’ terms.

Little of this complexity comes through in Novack’s book. Stripped of minor qualifications he simply reproduces the empiricist’s self-congratulatory and false consciousness as to the relationship of empiricism to science.

But luckily we need not simply rely on Novack as to the contradictions and weaknesses of empiricist philosophy. They have ‘immanently’ displayed themselves in the internal development of the tradition. There are numerous examples of empiricism culminating in relativism and scepticism. David Hume in the 18th century and the more vulgar philosophy of T. Kuhn so fashionable today are examples.

There are equally numerous examples of a tendency to idealism – the philosophy of Bishop Berkley for example, or the reactionary 19th century philosophy of Mach so passionately criticised by Lenin.

The important point for a dialectical critique of empiricism is to display these degenerations as necessary consequences of empiricism as indeed they are. But this is precisely what Novack does not do. For to Novack any tendency he feels he ought to reject as a marxist, i.e. atomism, scepticism or idealism, is treated as an external development to the spirit of empiricism, to be explained away in terms of the individual philosopher and his social position. Such an exercise amounts precisely to a defence of empiricism. If these degenerations are not immanent to the tradition then any critique will tend to be external and dogmatic.

Finally it is worth noting that the empiricist prides himself on being a concrete thinker, thoroughly concerned with the reality of things. Whatever philosophical criticisms are levelled at him, he will tend to insist, he gets to the facts. In fact, the empiricist can never grasp reality. In conflating the empirical with the real he simply offers a tautology. Empiricism can never exhaust the real, confined as it is to the surface of things, the realm of appearance. The facts exist discretely. Experience is of its essence atomistic. In isolation from the totality the discrete experience or fact is in a literal sense abstract. To think concretely is to situate the part within the whole that gives it its specific significance. Experience in its immediacy offers an ‘imaginary’ concreteness. Reason must mediate experience as Kant understood formally and statically, and as Hegel and Marx understood dialectically. The dialectic of immediacy and mediation is in effect absent from Novack’s marxism. The empiricist then is of necessity an abstract thinker and in this camp we are reluctantly forced to place Novack.

Scientific thought must, however, begin somewhere. The totality is in no sense immediately available. Such a view leads inevitably to mysticism. Science must therefore move from the level of the abstract and onesided to the level of the concrete many-sided,totality. Marx expressed this theme clearly in his contribution to the critique of political economy-in particular in his discussion of the method of political economy.

In conclusion then it might be said of Novack that he falls foul of the Proudhon error. Marx criticised Proudhon for his attempt to transcend political economy from within political economy. In similar spirit we can view this book as an attempt to transcend empiricism from within empiricism, and this constitutes its central contradiction.

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