Review of Philosophy for a Modern Man. Reply by H. Levy

The Philosophy of a Natural Scientist

Reply by H. Levy

Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 20, Number 5, May 1938, pp.318-323 (2,965 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

[Last month we published an article by Clemens Dutt reviewing Professor Levy’s book “A Philosophy for a Modern Man.” This month in this article Professor Levy replies to certain points of criticism made in that review.]

Very little light worth shedding can be thrown on the working-class struggle except by those intimately engaged in it. Two conclusions follow. First that what is written is drawn through the fire of practice: secondly that to-day what is written cannot be withheld for lengthy reflection. One does one’s best in an urgent situation. From this it follows that the book so drastically denounced by Clemens Dutt is probably honeycombed with errors and bad analysis. I should say that its weakest part is probably that dealing with sociological change, and those parts that interest professional philosophers; on these I should be glad of helpful criticism. The trouble about Clemens Dutt’s review is that it is entirely unhelpful, inaccurate in its criticism, shallow in its analysis, and undialectical in its manner of approach. Nowhere does he ask himself, as he ought, “What is there new in this for me and my class? How much of it can we therefore make our own?” In fact he does not seek the contribution, if any, this book makes to the process that is dialectical materialism, but to find how close Levy gets to this position regarded as a finished analysis. One is made to feel not that this is a joint enterprise to which we are all attempting to contribute but that one is an outsider butting in. Apart from a few well known quotations from Lenin and Engels he does not attempt to make a concise statement of what that position is so that his readers may understand what he is driving at. Rather does he set out to show that as I am basically mechanist (undefined), dialectical materialism (unexplained) is by implication something other than what I am expounding; just as the theists to-day will gleefully tell us that since science has outgrown mechanistic materialism, theism must be true. Dutt imagines himself within a brilliantly illuminated circle of light, while I, poor mechanical devil, am clockworking my way about in the outer darkness. “You have been warned,” he booms out, “remember the fate of Bukharin and Dühring.”

My book has been attacked on several fronts:

I. By logical positivists who maintain that I have not proved that most of my problems are not simply language difficulties, which would disappear if I would only use words capable of experimental verification. I ought to build up such a language first. My reply is unprintable.

2. I avoid difficulties by being too abstract.

3. I make difficulties by being too concrete.

4. I have not used the language of Marxism -- unity and interpenetration of opposites, negation of negation, quantity into quality, etc. -- although I have expounded the ideas.

5. I am a mechanist. This from Clemens Dutt. Unfortunately for his proof I do not believe any of the things he says I believe.

Let us see how he establishes his thesis. As far as I can recollect in recent years the first attempt in a British journal to state in sharp form what Dialectical Materialism meant was in March, 1932, by Clemens Dutt in the LABOUR MONTHLY some time after some of us had, without avail, endeavoured to get a sensible statement about it from those who presumably ought to have known (including Clemens Dutt). He would probably now admit that it wasn’t a particularly brilliant effort, but at any rate it was an honest attempt at that time, when most of us knew little about it. A year later I wrote the essay which appears in Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, from which Dutt now quotes as follows: “I doubt very much whether there are any useful illustrations in the field of science,” and he goes on to misquote me so that the rest has no meaning. (This is, however, just carelessness.) The impression he wishes to give is that at the time I had not much use for and was even hostile to dialectical materialism. Actually, the isolated quotation falsifies my then outlook. I said “it was primarily an interpretative method rather than a method of detailed investigation” .... “One could bring forward examples from the detailed work of science to show that these (dialectical) laws may be interpreted there also” .... “They must have their principal application in the field of social and economic development,” and in saying these things I was going much further than some of its spokesmen in this country at that time, from whom I had tried to gather light. Dutt is, of course, trying to make out how much I have moved since that time; that is true, and I am very conscious of it, but the falsehood lies in the impression that Dutt himself and the whole left-wing were not then also theoretically backward. We have all moved, and to be unconscious of this, as Dutt’s quotation and inference implies about himself, is to be undialectical.

Now this extraction of quotations from their context runs as a consistent thread throughout Dutt’s review. He quotes what I have called the General Law of Change (misquoting it so that it is meaningless, but that again is simply carelessness), and then adds, “If this is all that is meant by dialectical materialism, then its view of development would indeed be a crude mechanical one,” from which the reader naturally gathers that I have said that this is all that is meant by dialectical materialism. This is a piece of barefaced misrepresentation. I challenge Clemens Dutt to show anywhere by quotation that I have said or implied this.

Let us see how he slips into this view. It will be seen to involve a definite weakness in dialectical understanding. Anyone reviewing my book with some appreciation of the subject matter will see that I have followed a well-defined conscious plan. The earlier parts of the book are concerned mainly with mechanical and physical illustrations of dialectical change, showing the specific detailed changes at that level. At that stage I extract a general law of change for that level. Dutt quotes it at that stage, where I point out correctly that these illustrate dialectical change, although they are in the main only concerned, so far, with material phenomena. I then pass on to generalise the meaning of the law and its terms, in the fields of biology, in society, in relation to thinking and feeling, in purposive thinking and action, in the logic of a physical process, in scientific theories and ideologies of classes. In each of these I try to show that the dialectical process is at work in its own specific way. I break away from the mechanical illustrations, be it noted, with the words: “Are we correct in saying that this process takes place also in the transformation of ideas? So far we have sought to establish it for changing processes in materials. That this is so follows at once from the qualitative linkage we have persistently underlined between mental and material changes” (p.113). Dutt evidently stopped reading prior to this stage, for he blandly writes: “Levy, by his preoccupation with the everyday universe of science in effect loses sight of the relation of subjective thinking to the objective world, and the dialectics of thought as the reflection of the dialectics of the objective world.” Perhaps the LABOUR MONTHLY will give Dutt the copy of my last book, Thinking, that dealt specifically with its dialectics; a book the did not bother to review, so that I need not now be blamed for not writing it.

I hold from long experience that the proper way to teach is to pass from the concrete to the abstract and back, at successive levels, and, as far as the traditional outlook of this country concerned, to build up one’s generalisations empirically by the multiplication of example on example. That is also the proper way to do active political work. Dutt should criticise this approach in my book, if he objects to it, and if he is indeed conscious of its presence; but he must not split it half-way as he seems to have done, and then remark:

“He exhibits the characteristic empiricism of the naive materialist natural scientist, the outlook that believes that the greatest degree of understanding of nature is obtained by keeping as close as possible to tangible objects and concrete facts and avoiding abstract thought as much as possible.”

He tells me that Lenin insists again and again on studying things and processes in their self-movement. It is what I am doing throughout. Watch Dutt doing it. Here then is a book in which a process of argument is developed. So concerned is he with the need for proving me a mechanist that he remains blissfully unaware of the self-movement of that argument, of its structural evolution, and of the inter-connection of its structure with the type of reader for whom it is intended. He is studying Levy, the victim of mechanism but he is unaware of the self-movement of Levy. He remains unconscious of the fact that Levy consciously designed that structure for a purpose, that he realises the need for a dialectics of exposition. Does this not mean that Dutt analyses at the wrong level, ignorant of the self-movement he is so anxious others should direct attention to? That is not dialectical materialism in practice, but the characteristic form of mechanism. He will find it explained in my article on the “Fallacy of Mechanism” in the first issue of the Modern Quarterly.

It is not only in the general plan of the book that this point eludes him. He misses it in the detailed discussion. Thus he says: “Preoccupied with his discrete objects, concentrating almost exclusively on movement in the form of mechanical movement, defining change as ‘in the first instance a movement of some other thing or group of things’ he cannot help presenting a mechanist view of dialectics.” Dutt is like a greyhound after his mechanical rabbit: he has no time to be warned by the first four words of the quotation, otherwise he might have read the next sentence: “With that movement certain aspects of that thing and its relations to other things also alter” and I go on to talk of changing qualities, and in particular, later on with changing ideas. When discussing movement it is absolutely necessary to pass from the concrete to the abstract. Movement in ideas, and the thought that there may be an underlying regularity in their mode of change, is an extraordinarily difficult point for many people to grasp.

Dutt is at his best in relation to Causality and its meaning for change. He doesn’t like my metaphysical titles What Causes Change? and What Causes Change in Society? Don’t I know that change is inexplicable, uncaused, like matter? He goes on:

“Like the 18th Century materialists Levy wants a cause of motion.” This is indeed a travesty of my position, and illustrates to a fine degree Dutt’s inability to see Causality and Determinism from the dialectical standpoint. Must I repeat my book? On p.32 I am warning the reader to remember that change being given in Nature, he must beware of trying to explain its origin in an absolute way, otherwise he will find himself asking “How did the world come into existence?” or “From what state of nothingness did the world of somethingness spring?” instead of “From what previous state of change did the present state of change emerge?” Having led the reader to see that there are dialectical regularities at work in all process change, we can begin to discuss their nature in circumstances in which human beings, conscious of these processes, carry through the dialectical changes. This raises the problem of causality and of determinism to a level beyond that of mechanical causality and determinism, so that human groups, social classes, become causal agents making the dialectical process in social development, making their own predictions come true -- a new level of determinism. Dutt’s sole comment after asserting that I want a cause of motion is that my answer is not very clear but is apparently a justification for causality and deals with the nature of scientific laws! Could ineffectiveness go further? He does not see that the question “What Causes Change?” has been asked at a new level of understanding.

But that does not prevent his warning me from saying just those things I have warned people from saying. It is like hearing your own jokes recounted to you. One of the worst instances of this however is worth recording:

“His mechanist view goes so far as to proclaim in words that social changes must conform to physical changes ‘Just as a liquid when subjected to heating.... so a community when subjected to growing technical pressure.... These are two manifestations of the same phenomena.’”

When I read this I found it difficult to restrain my temper. I had shown with countless examples the universality of dialectical change, but I had stressed, again and again, the particular type of such changes that arise within conscious human groups, and the difference it makes to be individually conscious and to be class or group conscious. Here in the quotation I am referring incidentally to the dialectical change only. Dutt seizes on it for his purpose. After reading that book does Dutt really believe that I imagine that since water boils at 100°C. the working-class will revolt at 100°C. If not what the devil is it that he says I mean? He must explain the meaning of his charges.

There is one last shot in his locker. There is very little difference apparently between my view and Bukharin’s! It is a pity he does not explain exactly what difference there is, so that we might see where they are the same. Dutt never enlightens us on such points. He merely refers to me as holding that Q and q are in opposition, that they are opposing forces, that I require a single causal factor Q and so on. If this is Bukharinism he is welcome to it, but it has nothing to do with me. I challenge Dutt to show me where I have referred to Q and q as opposing forces, as if they were isolated, independent and self-contained. I have illustrated the dialectical change in all the possible fields of human thought, action, and feeling, of which I could think, and at all possible levels, and never have I taken that view. It conflicts with the whole outlook of the book. I disagree with it. It is stupid. As for Q being a single causal factor, where have I said that? I have discussed hierarchy of causes, and groups of causes at a particular level. Every feature taken as a Q is a statistical isolate, a complex of factors. That I have stated repeatedly. If Dutt wishes to have some idea of the complexity of the factors that are involved in the “single cause” Q let him study the section on the search for the social variables regarded merely as a means for scouting out the field. His objection to having a “single” factor arises from his inability to appreciate what I mean by a statistical isolate, his inability to see that the very fact of the isolate, already in its terminology, unifies the particular and the general, and so effects an immediate economy in dialectical thinking; that what he calls my “apparatus of atomic and statistical isolates” contains the essence of qualitative change, and that he imagines it is mechanistic simply because he is himself unable to emancipate himself from thinking always in terms of things. I personally do not have that difficulty.

I should like to have dealt with his remarks about qualities, but time and space prevent. It is the part on which I should certainly have welcomed help, as it is a subject on which such marxist writing as I know, seem particularly vague. On this issue Dutt, in criticising my view, commits himself to the positive statement that “in dialectical materialism the quality of a thing (why this preoccupation with things, Dutt?) is not just a relation but that its essential quality is given by the particular kind of movement fundamental to it.” Whatever meaning I can attach to this seems identical with my own where I regard a quality as a relation that manifests itself in behaviour, where the relation and the behaviour may be in the realm of things, ideas, or feelings, as my illustrations indicate. If my view is mechanistic I should be glad to see where, but Dutt has not made it plain to me. That I have slipped into mechanistic fallacies I hope I will be the first to admit, for I realise only too well how sterile such a view may be. We who are struggling out of a period of mechanistic interpretation are certain to drag with us many fallacies from the past. That it appears in my approach to qualities or to my development of atomic and statistical isolates I cannot see. I regard these sections as methodologically the most important in the book. In practice I have found them most fertile and so do others who are actually applying them in their political work. Finally I am sorry I am too busy to follow Engels’ demand, made at a different period of working class history, that one ought to work over the whole history of philosophical thinking. I am incapable of doing that. Perhaps Clemens Dutt will do it.