Leningrad Institute of Philosophy

A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy



ONLY BY PROCEEDING from material social practice as the basis of the theory of knowledge were Marx, Engels and Lenin able to resolve the problem of the connection of subject and object, to uncover the historical, evolutionary character of that connection.

Human knowledge of reality passes in the course of its development through different moments or gradations that mark the comprehension by man of the ever more deep and many-sided connections of the material world. Lenin expounds as follows the movement by which knowledge attains greater and greater depth.

“At first—impressions, as in a flash, then—something is distinguished, then—ideas of quality are developed (leading to a definition of a thing or phenomenon) and subsequently, ideas of quantity. Then study and reflection direct the thought to questions of identity and difference—basis—essence. All these moments or steps of knowledge are directed from the subject to the object, verify themselves by practice and proceed through this verification to truth.”

From the direct perception of reality, of sense data, of separate impressions, received by the aid of our senses, man proceeds to the stage of defining a thing and reaching an “idea” of it, to the disclosure of its connections, the law of its development, and all this he verifies in practice.

Among all these different moments of knowledge the problem of the relation and connection between sense data and idea, between immediate and developed knowledge, the problem of the importance and rote of each of these at each stage of knowledge, has occupied a central place in philosophy through the whole course of its history. Even in ancient Greece the question was being raised in a general way. What is truth, sense perceptions or “logos” (reason)? If sense perceptions then how are we able to make any kind of unity out of their diversity? The question is really this, if by truth we mean that our understanding reflects reality, how can we be sure that it is possible to pass from a number of separate sensations to these general ideas through which we understand? The failure to solve this question led to scepticism and relativism (the admission by the Sophists of the absolute relativity of all that exists—including our knowledge), to the denial of the reality of movement (the Eleatics), to the construction of idealistic systems (Plato, for whom the sensed, material world is virtually non-existent)

In the working out of dialectic as a theory of knowledge Lenin insistently stressed this problem of the transition of one moment of knowledge to another and the helplessness of pre-Marxian philosophy to solve it. He sees in this failure one of the stumbling-blocks of the Greek and also the modern philosophers.

Lenin shows that a successful approach to this problem must unite the different streams in the history of philosophy, for example the Sophists with Kant and Mach; Hegel and Plato with Epicurus and Locke.

The ancient Greek rationalist Zeno regarded movement as “sensed truth.” But he did not limit himself to the mere admission of this as a fact. He was one of the first in the history of philosophy to show the contradictory aspects of movement—the contradictions of discreteness and continuity, of rest and motion. He was one of the first to set before himself the problem of understanding the connection of these aspects and in this is his great historical service.

But being a metaphysician he could not comprehend this contradiction in terms of fixed concepts, and therefore as a rationalist came to a denial of the reality of movement, and opposed to it, as to a deception of the senses involving hopeless contradiction, rest and identity (grasped in metaphysical conceptions) as the real essence of things.

Lenin formulated Zeno’s problem thus—the question is not whether there is such a thing as movement, thus is acknowledged as a fact of experience, but how to express it in the logic of fixed concepts.

In the history of recent philosophy the different attempts to solve the question whether scientific knowledge is based on sense experience or reason, give rise to different philosophical movements, sensationalism, empiricism (from the Latin word “sensus,” the faculty of feeling, and the Greek “εμπειρία,” experience) and rationalism (from the Latin “ratio,” reason).

Sensationalism was at the basis of the theories of knowledge of the various materialistic schools which emerged in the struggle with medieval scholasticism and with the thoroughgoing rationalism of classic German idealism; these schools were represented by the English philosophers Bacon and Locke, the French materialists of the eighteenth century and Feuerbach. Nevertheless from this same sensationalist point of view, philosophers have also been able to draw subjective idealist conclusions.

The classic representatives of such sensationalist idealism were Berkeley and Hume. How was it that such a remarkable combination of two sharply opposed philosophies should be found in this common derivation from sensationlism? Special attention must be paid to this problem because it demonstrates clearly that the “freezing” of any one “moment” of knowledge and the tearing of it out of its connection with knowledge as a whole in an abstract, metaphysical fashion, serves as a loophole for the idealist, and, in a favourable class setting (which always helps one or the other party in philosophy and fortifies its conclusions), may be converted into a whole idealistic system.

Over what did Berkeley and Hume and in our day Mach stumble when they found themselves compelled to deny in one form or another the objectivity of the external world, although they had set out by admitting sensation as the sole source and material of knowledge?

The course of their reasoning is as follows:

To man are given directly his perceptions, his sensation. They are the only material of knowledge. In the perceptions themselves there is no internal necessary connection. Connection is nothing else than particular combinations of perceptions in the stream of the psychical experiences of the subject. Wherefore any statements about the objectivity of the logical categories—causality, interaction, substance, etc.—are pure metaphysics reflecting nothing real in the sensed material of knowledge. The logical categories are only schemes which we use for organizing sense data, and for this or the other evaluation of them. But these schemes and this evaluation are entirely subjective. They are subjective first of all in relation to the external world, for which there is no more evidence, from the sensationalist point of view, than there is for, say, the devil (since experience offers evidence for nothing but itself); secondly, these logical schemes are subjective in relation to the very sense data of knowledge themselves, since they are determined by the peculiar constitution of the subject, i.e. in the last analysis, by the aggregate of the subject’s former psychical experiences as well as by that group of sensations on which its attention is now directed.

The assertion of materialists, namely that the necessary objective connection between sensed phenomena is confirmed by experience and practice, is an elementary logical mistake, because experience itself, and therefore practice, is nothing other than a mass of psychical experiences, so that its unity and connection are derived not from the external world, but from the mental states themselves. The world of man is limited by its “human experience” and beyond its bounds, for a “positive” scientific knowledge, there exists nothing.

And so the root error of sensationalism, which has been developed by subjective idealists into a whole philosophic system, consists in this—that it has concerned itself solely with the question of the source and content of knowledge and has left out of account the question of the forms of knowledge and their foundation, in which are expressed the connections and transitions given in sensed experience itself. Subjective idealists have turned their sense data, in which sensationalism rightly saw the final means of knowledge, into the sole object of knowledge.

Proceeding from the ground that every object of knowledge in the last resort appears before us in its sensed form, they have exalted to an absolute, the discreteness, the specific character that belongs to it as a moment, and have in this way deprived the object of every internal necessary connection. For example, to a bored man time seems “an eternity,” to a cheerful man “an instant,” to the soldier, who goes on the march with fresh powers it is nothing to cover forty versts, but to the tired man even two versts appear to be a big distance. In this way the subjective idealists have returned to the position of the ancient Greek sceptic Protagoras, who said that “man is the measure of all things” and took away from science its only basis—the objective, law-governed connection of phenomena.

Actually, by remaining on the ground of mere sensations, it is impossible to show, for example, that it is not the sun that goes round the earth, but the earth that goes round the sun, that thunder and lightning appear simultaneously and not one after the other. In this way, by contending for the rights of the senses in knowledge, as the sole source of “real given-ness,” by contending against “metaphysics,” against the lessening of the rights of the senses by “wilful reason,” subjective idealists inevitably arrive at a selfdestructive conclusion, at complete disbelief in sense experience, since in effect they have deprived it of its objective content and of those laws which made it rational. Lenin has many times drawn attention to this: “Phenomenalists like Mach and Co.”—he says—“when they attempt to deal with the question of law and necessity unavoidably become idealists.”

The weakness of resting in the moment of simple perception and the kind of idealistic error this involves, is clearly seen in Plekhanov’s theory of knowledge. We have in view in the first place, his so-called “hieroglyphic” theory. Plekhanov borrowed the theory of hieroglyphics principally from the natural scientists, Sechenov and Helmholtz.

Helmholtz in particular expresses with remarkable clarity that distrust of all sense experience which springs from the isolation of the perceptual moment of knowledge. He tries to prove that visual perception is completely relative. For example, people perceive the colours of flowers differently. There are even those who suffer from so-called Daltonism, to whom violet appears green, yellow—pink, and so on. Indeed, even to the eye of a healthy man an object may appear differently. For instance, if the image of an object falls on the so-called “blind spot” of the eye, then the man cannot see the object at all; he will see it again only by shifting the retina. From the relativity of our visual perception, Helmholtz concludes that the image of the object in our consciousness is quite unlike the object itself, that it is only a hieroglyph, a symbol (conventional sign) of some object that exists outside our consciousness. We know that this object exists, because we feel its action on us (and only the results of this action can we know, in the opinion of the agnostic), but we never know the object itself, and can never define it. We can only say that to the relations between sensations there are corresponding relations between real objects, and to the changes of sensation there correspond changes in the object. But we shall never be able to know what these objects are and what is the real nature of the changes that go on within them.

Engels in his time showed Helmholtz’s fundamental mistake to lie in his separation of sensational and logical knowledge. “Helmholtz forgets,” said Engels, “that thought also is united with our eye.”

This same agnostic “theory of correspondence” was borrowed by Plekhanov too from those scientists who fell into Kantianism and was adopted by him in place of the Marxist theory of reflection.

Later on Plekhanov sought to explain away his mistake by ascribing it to unsuccessful terminology, to the abuse of the term “hieroglyph,” but continued to hold the “theory of correspondence” without realizing its Kantian significance. The core of this agnostic error of Plekhanov was shown by Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. In defence of the hieroglyphic theory against Lenin’s criticism, Axelrod came forward declaring that contemporary science also took the same attitude towards the “symbolic” character of knowledge. But if sensationalism is incapable of showing the validity of the system of scientific laws which underlies the connections and changes of things, can we not turn to the rationalist philosophers who regard the logical working of the mind as the real ground of rational knowledge? Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz—the chief representatives of the rationalistic tendency of the philosophy of the seventeenth century—regarded sense knowledge as something dim and untrustworthy. The task of the true method, in their opinion, is precisely this, to purify knowledge from fluidity, unsubstantiality, and its overload of ephemeral fortuitous appearances which sometimes seem, as it were, to add additional and unreal data to sense knowledge. And so the conclusion to which the rationalists arrive runs as follows: The freer that logical thought is from sensation, the more truly will it reflect the essence of the object. Thus, in absolute knowledge (about which all the rationalists speak as about something attainable by every thinker who possesses the right method) thought finds itself “in its own sphere,” being perfectly free from all the elements of sensation. Quality of “intellect” consists, above all, in its complete insulation from sense experience.

It stands to reason that by remaining in the sphere of thought itself rationalists could not explain the development of thought, its ever deepening comprehension of actuality. Truth, in the teaching of the rationalists, presents a picture of death-like immobility, a grey frozen waste unstirred by a breath of movement.

The marks of truly scientific knowledge are, from the rationalist point of view, the generality and necessity of its propositions. By generality is meant applicability to all experienced facts without exception, and by necessity that the minds of all men must compel them to acknowledge such a truth. These are obviously the marks of purely logical knowledge, not the knowledge derived from sense experience. But whence does the rationalist derive his unified system of relationships which according to him underlies the deceptive appearances of things?

Why should it be supposed that because these ideas are clear and self-evident, because they form a logically consistent system, they necessarily constitute a true picture of the external world? The classic rationalism of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century does not state these problems in a fundamental manner and does not solve them. It proceeds from an assurance that “the order and connection of ideas are the same as the order and connections of things” (Spinoza), but does not establish this coincidence in fact. Moreover attempts to establish it led rationalists to the idea of a “pre-determined harmony” between world and spirit” (Leibnitz), to an “occasionalism” that saw in every act of knowledge a miracle, which one could explain only by the constant “assistance of divinity.” To bridge the gulf between consciousness and matter, between the “thinking” mode and the extended, was beyond the power of Spinoza who by his teaching of the unity of extension and “thought” in the one substance approached incomparably nearer than the others to the materialistic solution of the question.

Basing themselves on the conviction of a primordial coincidence of the laws of thought and the laws of being, the rationalists saw the task of knowledge thus: To construct by thinking an object in accordance with the laws of thought itself, proceeding each time from clear and evident premises. But the rationalist could base these premises only on other ideas, and ultimately on those ideas which were, in his opinion, the most universal, the most clear, and belonged to every human consciousness. Thus the rationalists proceed to the theory of “innate ideas” (Descartes), of a priori categories and laws of thought, as the final sources and means of scientific knowledge.

But rationalism, in spite of its efforts, could not get away from sense experience. It could neither relegate to sense experience the mere function of setting a task to logical reason, nor dissolve the whole extent of such experiences into logical constructions built up with the aid of a priori ideas. And so Leibnitz was compelled to recognize along with “truths of reason” also “truths of fact,” i.e. truths of observation and experience.

An attempt to overcome the one-sidedness of sensationalism and rationalism was made by Kant. But the ambiguity, the compromising character of Kant’s philosophy, declared themselves in his solution of the problem of sensation and reason. The sensational and the logical moment of knowledge do not have, according to Kant’s teaching, a common basis, there is no transition between the two. The sensed, in Kant’s opinion, arises in consequence of the external action on us of some “thing-in-itself,” the logical has its basis in our thought, which is sundered from the material world. Ideas, according to Kant, do not grow up out of the sensed world, but are already given before it by the a priori categories of reasoning. These grasp, with dead tentacles, the living, multiform, ever-changing material of sensations, but themselves remain fixed. Similarly the question of the variety and at the same time the unity of scientific knowledge was resolved by Kant not by disclosing the process by which knowledge grew out of experience, or describing the slow transition from the one to the other, not by showing how these two mutually enrich one another, but by setting up the multiplicity of sensation over against the unity of rational knowledge in a thoroughly mechanical way.

The defect of the Kantian solution of the problem of the connection between sense data and logical form was demonstrated from the position of dialectical idealism by Hegel. Hegel’s fundamental reproach of Kant is this, that “the latter wished to learn to swim, before getting into the water,” that is, he solves the problem of scientific knowledge outside the process of knowledge itself.

The new element introduced by Hegel into the solution of the problem is this—he proceeds from the dialectical movement of thought from a lower grade to a higher and on this ground resolves the question of the connection of the sensational and the logical, criticizing the one-sidedness both of empiricism and rationalism. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows the path along which, in his opinion, consciousness travels, raising itself from the level of sensation to the “realm of pure thought.” It is necessary to remember that this consciousness is conceived by him in a doubly abstract form, separate both from the material carrier of consciousness, and also from social man.

But however brilliant was the new approach to this problem made by Hegel, his idealism frustrated his attempt to solve it. Idealistic contempt for the material basis of sensation had as its result this fact, that instead of the logical construction of knowledge actually developing on the basis of working upon the ever richer material given by sensation, the process of the ascent of consciousness to ever higher levels was represented by Hegel as the course of a gradual emancipation or “purifying” from the sensed.

The point at which we may first be said to have reached truth is where we have escaped from “sensed concreteness.”

The connection of the sensed and logical thus appeared in a significant manner to be unreal, since sensation according to Hegel is a necessary accompaniment of only the lowest grades of knowledge.

The attempt to restore the importance of the sensed moment of knowledge, which had been pushed into the background ever since the days of French materialism, belongs to Feuerbach. In a vigorous criticism of the abstract Hegelian rationalism he tried to overthrow the position that only by the help of thought are we able to grasp the connection of the various aspects of the object and make generalizations.

“Is it possible I see only leaves and not trees also?” he writes as against Leibnitz. “Is it possible there is no sensation of identity, of uniqueness, of difference? Is it possible the law of identity is not at the same time a law of sensation, is it possible that in the last count this law of thought does not depend on the veracity of sensed contemplation?”

And in his statement of the question Feuerbach is right. This is how the matter stands: Sensations are not merely raw material, that in an external fashion is in opposition to thought (as the German idealists supposed). On the contrary they are the starting point of the logical understanding of reality. The connections of the objective world, that are finally reflected in logical ideas (identity, opposition, causality, necessity, etc.), have already been reached in rudimentary form in sensed representations. Thus, we observe a known likeness, a difference, we detect sequence of one phenomenon after another. We see how day is replaced by night, we hear that a blow is accompanied by a sound, etc. All this serves as a basis for a mental conclusion about law, causality, the mutual dependence of the different sides of actuality.

But Feuerbach, as Marx showed, regards sensation as sensed contemplation in which consciousness is merely made aware of the existence of external objects and is not apprehending them through human activity. But the sensation of the subject is not simply an aggregate of definite physiological acts of perception determined by its bodily organization, but is always only relatively a direct knowledge of the world, since it is the apprehension of an individual in a particular historical situation.

The direct perception of actuality at a given stage of social development, by a member of a given class, is affected by the whole of the past experience of society and of that class, in other words it is not merely perception but apperception.

The sensed and the logical, direct perception and apperception, are not different, independent aspects of social knowledge, not distinct stages of it. The difference between them is relative. Direct perception becomes knowledge permeated by past experience, that is to say apperception; sensed knowledge becomes logical knowledge.

In its solution of the problem of the sensed and the rational in knowledge, dialectical materialism is equally removed from mechanistic materialism and from idealism. And on this question it wages an irreconcilable struggle on two fronts.

Mechanists attribute the rational to sensation, in effect they see in the rational nothing else than a general representation, within whose vague contours the specific features of the separate sense-representations are mutually overlaid. It is the property of truly rational ideas, that grow up out of practice and are confirmed by it, that they represent a working-over of the sensed in such a way that in it are reflected all the essential connections of the object. Such a property can never be understood by the mechanists.

When the mechanist is confronted by the problem of the development of class consciousness, his attribution of the rational to sensation forces him to deny a qualitative difference between class psychology and class ideology, he will assert an elemental development of class theoretical consciousness as a passive product, he will, it follows, degrade the rôle of revolutionary theory and the whole theoretical front of class struggle.

Nay, more, mechanists like Feuerbach treat human sensation as a physiological function of the organism, as mere reflexes so to speak, and therefore wipe out any distinction between the sensed reflection of actuality in a human consciousness and the sensations of an animal. But that is just why they cannot see even in the rational side of human consciousness, in human theoretical thinking, any qualitatively new stage as compared with the germs of instinctive “analysis” and “synthesis” that animals possess.

That which other mechanists do not openly confess is frankly stated by Zeitlin.

He is assured that “the statement that animals too have ideas about matter can be shown to be strictly scientific.” He seriously analyses the character of animal philosophy and comes to the conclusion that “the Berkeleyan and empirio-critical understanding of matter as an objectivized stable connection of sensations is very near to the animal understanding of matter.”

However, dialectical materialism regards even the physical basis of human sensation not as something given in a ready-made form with the biological nature of homo sapiens, but as a quite special product, arising in distinction from merely animal sensations upon the basis of historic social practice.

Quite mistaken also is the assertion of rationalistic idealism, which is upheld even by our Menshevist idealists, that the development of social knowledge is only a development of rational knowledge and has nothing to do with sense experience. The development of social knowledge is the development and enrichment of both the sensed or direct form of knowledge and the rational, apperceptive form of knowledge, at the basis of which lies the development of social practice. The new theoretical approach to problems, brought forth by new practice, carries with it a new direct perception of actuality, which grows up out of the same practice. The sensations as well as the ideas of a savage are so low as not to be compared with those of a modern civilized man. His thought and sensation alike are determined by the extremely restricted range and low level of his material practice.1

The position of the Marx-Leninist theory of knowledge in resolving the problem of the sensational and rational moment in knowledge has been shown with extraordinary clearness in the analysis by Marx and Lenin of the formation of the class consciousness of the proletariat.

In the elemental period of the worker’s movement we do not yet have on the part of the workers a scientific understanding of actuality. The worker is directly in conflict with the individual capitalist. In his daily disputes with his employer his experience includes actual details of cruel exploitation, the indignation of separate groups of workers, their mutual assistance, acts of treachery, etc. All these facts are accepted and interpreted by him, not as by a “naked physiological individuum,” but in large measure from the standpoint of the petty-bourgeoisie, whose entrance into the ranks of the workers was the historic source of the education of the proletariat. At this stage his “direct” knowledge appears mainly as nought else than the prejudices of a petty-bourgeois. Many of the facts of capitalist exploitation that the worker has observed he is inclined to ascribe to the personal qualities of his own employer. The employer, in the consciousness of the worker at this period, emerges as distinct from the class of capitalists as a whole, just as the worker does not realize himself as also part of a whole—the proletariat. The different aspects of capitalist reality do not yet emerge in the consciousness of the worker as manifestations of a class antagonism running through the whole of society, but as chance things with no interconnection.

To this very stage of the development of proletarian consciousness, in which the world of actuality emerges still in its “primitive, formless indefiniteness,” there correspond in the development of theory different forms of pre-scientific socialism, including also Utopian socialism the immediate predecessor of scientific socialism.

“Such phantastic pictures of future society, painted at a time when the proletariat is still in a very undeveloped state and has but a phantastic conception of its own position, correspond with the first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society” (Marx).

However, even at that stage in the consciousness of the proletariat there is already something which makes possible the transition to a scientific understanding, to a complete, connected synthesis of the facts. This is found in the ideas derived from and actually reflecting the worker’s experience of collisions with his employer. It is such ideas that make it possible to escape from the limitations of disconnected experiences, for they reflect the objective relations of concrete reality, even though they may do so in a distorted fashion.

To develop these ideas so that they scientifically explain their objective content, the concrete experience of the worker must be permeated by the knowledge derived from the world-historic practice of mankind by all the cultural thought and knowledge of his century. Knowledge of the complex capitalist actuality, which includes in itself the sum of the development of all the foregoing history of mankind, requires generalizations so wide as to be beyond the range of separate groups of the proletariat (taking into consideration their situation in capitalist society) and far beyond the bounds of their immediate circle of vision. Such a theoretical expression of the whole experience of the workers’ movement on the basis of an inspired generalization of the movements and tendencies of world-historical development, on the basis of all the positive attainments of all human culture, was given by the creators of scientific communism. It was they who raised the consciousness of the workers to the level of the class scientific theory. Just in so far as the workers accept the Marx-Leninist theory, so is the “conflict” between the objective content of their experience and the form in which that content is understood entirely removed. Different disconnected experiences, which grasp only the surface appearance of things, fortuitous external connections between concretely existing facts (which make the “given” material stage of consciousness “rudimentary” in relation to more rational forms) receive a “necessary,” stable character. Every different fact of class struggle appears now as part of a whole system of social relationships.

The wholeness, the survey of all the facts in their universal mutual-dependence, the simultaneous grasping of the many sides, is just that which characterizes the scientific knowledge2 that reflects reality and distinguishes it from the direct perception of the object. This characteristic of the understanding of an object has been many times stressed by the exponents of dialectical materialism, it reveals rational knowledge as a higher grade of reflection of the material world, in comparison with the direct apprehension of it in sensations and representations. Thus speaking of value, Marx says wittily:

“The reality of the value of commodities thus resembles Mistress Quickly, of whom Falstaff said: ‘man knows not where to have her.’ This reality of the value of commodities contrasts with the gross material reality of these same commodities (the reality which is perceived by our bodily senses) in that not an atom of matter enters into the reality of value. We may twist and turn a commodity this way and that—as a thing of value it still remains unappreciable by our bodily senses.”3

That is you can see and touch the material envelope of different commodities but not their value, not the universal connection between the owners of commodities, not capitalism as a whole.

The same thought concerning the deeper reflection of actuality in ideas is expressed by Lenin, speaking of the reflection of movement in consciousness; “Movement of three hundred thousand kilometres per second”—he says—“is difficult for us to represent, but we can understand that light moves at such a speed.” In another place, developing the idea of the dialectical connections of the various aspects of the material world in relation to their mutual transition one to another, Lenin writes: “The usual representation grasps the difference and contradiction, but not the transition from one to the other, and that is very important.” And further: “Reason sharpens those differences which do not prevent ultimate reconciliation, i.e. the simple diversity of the appearance of things; it does not reveal irreconcilable differences, final contradictions.”

How important is the thought of the development of understanding as a deepening of knowledge, as a new qualitative moment in the knowledge of an object, can be seen from this, that Engels in his criticism of the Kantian-agnostic theory of hieroglyphics, uses this new conception of knowledge as one of the essential arguments against Helmholtz. As we know, Engels saw that the fundamental mistake of Helmholtz lay in his forgetting that thought is “united” with our eyes. The “uniting” is as follows—the organ, in this case the eye, responsible for the sense data, which actually emerge in connected form, discloses something more than can be grasped by the eye alone. The “uniting” of thought, of which Engels speaks, can by no means be understood mechanistically, generalizations are not developed in any external fashion in relation to the sensed material of knowledge, but they arise and are developed in so far as the investigator masters his data, equipped as he is with ideas derived from the many-sided, sensed experience of mankind, and in so far as he is permeated by that experience.

The question of the transition of experience into rational knowledge, of the preservation of sense experience in the latter, which occupies a most important place in the dialectical theory of knowledge, was first faced by Feuerbach, who criticized what he called the “drunken speculation” of Hegel. Hegel, although he was often formally correct in his treatment of the inherent connection of sense data and reason, did not understand the basis of that connection which remained for him therefore a fortuitous one.

Thought is nothing else than sensations connectedly read, says Feuerbach. Why then was he unable to find a complete solution of the problem of the relation of sense knowledge to reason?

The matter stands thus: Even the very smallest generalization or mental conclusion is a certain activity of the subject. The movement of knowledge in the direction of ever deeper connections supposes an active, operative relationship of the subject to its object. By defining representations, ideas, as a mirror-like reflection of the object in consciousness, the Marx-Leninist theory of knowledge is only seeking to stress the material nature of the object and the reflection of its real aspects in representations. But from this mirror-like element in reflection, it by no means follows that human consciousness, like a lifeless reflecting surface, mirrors only that which immediately stands in front of it, nor that our consciousness, like a material mirror, always and in the same way reflects objects according to some immutable laws of its own, and consequently gives, at any given point, either absolute truth or absolute falsehood. By drawing such conclusions from the theory of reflection, opponents of the Marx-Leninist philosophy, such as Max Adler, have either deliberately or inadvertently distorted it; like Axelrod, they “forget” that this “reflecting” knowledge is an active moment of historical, evolutionary, social practice.

“The practice of man, by repeating itself millions of times, is fortified in consciousness by the figures of logic,” says Lenin concerning the actual historic basis of the so-called “eternal” forms of logical thought.

Of course, being the exponent of contemplative materialism, and not understanding practical action, Feuerbach was quite unable to solve the problem of exactly how the sense data are synthesized, just how ideas come into existence. He could only state that which required explanation. But thence flows the perversity of his whole position; not being able to resolve the question of how this change took place he had no notion of what it consisted in. To put it simply: Instead of explaining the uniqueness of logical thought, as a higher stage of knowledge of the material world which contains sense knowledge within itself as one of its moments and depends upon it, Feuerbach reduces logical knowledge to the level of elementary sensations.

As regards the German idealists, they could never solve this problem because they persisted in treating both the subject and its activity idealistically. The Hegelian understanding of dialectic as a theory of knowledge is nothing else than the disclosure of the immanent process of the enrichment of knowledge on the basis of the activity of thought. The German idealists by endowing only thought itself with activity could not resolve the problem of the transition of the sensed to the logical, since the sensed itself was understood by them as a derivative from the logical and as possessing no basis of its own.

A philosophical system, in which the sensed is regarded as something external and foreign to the logical, where all the independence of the material of sensations vanishes into “pure” thought, was naturally incapable of finding the way out. That can only be done if the subject is regarded as the materialistic but at the same time organic centre of an active process which indissolubly unites sensation and thought. This activity of the social subject is, however, the same thing as the material practice of social man. In this we have the sensuous apprehension of the world of objects by purposeful, directed action, an apprehension which thus includes a reasoned relationship to surrounding reality. It is this concrete human sensuous activity that Marx opposed to the purely ideal activity of German philosophy.

A rational relation to the object, as a moment of sensuous human activity, distinguishes a social man’s perception of the surrounding world from the passive perception of it proper to an animal. Animals passively perceive material actuality by passively adapting themselves to the surrounding environment. Man actively confronts it. This contradiction also finds its expression in purpose, which characterizes man’s relation to the external world. Everyone knows the dictum of Marx on that form of labour which appertains exclusively to man. It is this, that in contradistinction to animals, man “not only changes the form of that which has been given by nature—but also realizes at the same time his own conscious aim, which, like a law, defines the means and character of his actions and to which he is compelled to subordinate his will.”

And the further this or that stage of social development stands away from the period when man was still only an animal, the sharper is the distinction, and the more complete the conscious direction of his action. Instinctive man does not draw distinctions in nature. The conscious man distinguishes categories, which are the very essence of that process of distinction which is knowledge itself, which are, as it were, the knots of a net that assists man to apprehend and master reality.

This same activity of thought which is a moment in the general practical relationship of man to the surrounding world, has been turned into something self-sufficient by the German idealists. In actuality both the conscious aim of action and the understanding of the material conditions of its realization are included in the process of social practice, are brought forth by it and evolve on its basis. The recurrence in practice of various phenomena with which man comes into contact, the reproduction of phenomena, the substitution of one object for another, the union of very different objects in the reproduction of conditions of social life, etc.—all these create the basis for generalizations, conclusions.

Engels points out that the notion of the causal connection of phenomena, which expresses the objective connection of various aspects of the material world, arose from the very fact of man’s active changing of nature by his activity. Man, by reproducing the conditions necessary for the occurrence of any given phenomenon, by acting upon one phenomenon and thereby evoking from it another—often something not previously met in relation to the first phenomenon—rises to the level of an understanding of causal relations.

“We not only find”—he writes—“that after a known movement there follows another movement, we also find that we are in a position to reproduce that movement by creating the conditions in which it issues in nature; we find too that we are in a position to evoke movements which are not even to be met with in nature (or at least, are not met with in that precise form) and that we can give to these movements such characteristics and quantities as we may decide on beforehand. Thanks to this, thanks to the action of man, there is created the notion of causality, the notion that one movement is the cause of another.”

Sensuous human activity increases with the development of the instruments of production, with the perfecting of technical devices, by the aid of which the further study of objective processes is made possible. The instruments of production assist the extension of the reality apprehended by the senses, by lengthening the human arm, by perfecting man’s eyes and ears. The microscope, the telescope, the most accurate measuring instruments, etc., assist in the enrichment of sensed material, in the human perception of the surrounding world, and by this means create a basis for ever wider and deeper generalizations.

The whole development of social-historic practice, taken in all its moments, creates a basis for theoretical generalizations. For example, one can take the development of socialistic revolution, which draws millions into political struggle and creates in the minds of millions of people premises for the Marx-Leninist understanding of reality. And the more revolutionary practice spreads and the deeper the historic crises in which the contradiction and connections of reality emerge ever more starkly, so much the wider is the possibility of a right understanding of the object (that possibility is not realized fundamentally without the previous mastery of the whole store of knowledge that has been accumulated by man). The analysis of the different stages in the development of social practice shows incontrovertibly that the depth and width of the theoretic generalizations that correspond to that stage are indissolubly and organically connected with the wealth of the factual world, as comprehended in direct experience at the given stage.

Theory and practice interact with one another. Were there no hypotheses, no scientific generalizations, no theoretical “plan” behind the creating of a telescope, there would not be one, and there would be no possibility of widening the field of sensed vision. Without a development of our understanding of the objective world in practice, there would be no refinement of hearing or taste, no “trained” eye, which detects the finest shades and modulations of colours.

Compel a man who is of a primitive level of culture to listen to a symphony, and he will grasp nothing in it except a chaos of sounds that deafens and confuses him. A sharp contrast is presented by the hearing of a musician, who can detect the plan of musical development in the symphony and the function of every note in the harmonious whole.

The senses of man develop and are perfected along with the development of social-historic practice, the index of whose stage of development is the ability to generalize, and the level of theoretic thought. They have, therefore, a deeply historic character. Marx in attacking Feuerbach’s physiological, anti-historical understanding of sensation emphasizes that “the education of the five senses is the product of universal history.” “A needy man, full of cares”—says Marx—“is not able to understand a very beautiful composition. The dealer in minerals sees only their money value, not the beauty or the special character of the minerals; he has no mineralogical sense.” The historic character of the five senses is determined by the level of development of human history, by the concrete practice of social man. Marx stresses the gulf that lies between the senses of a savage and of a man in a higher stage of evolution; the senses of a man of primitive society are, in his opinion, to be radically distinguished from the senses of man as contemporary with the epoch of capitalism.

Practice, by its creation of the unity and mutual conditioning of the sensed and the logical moments of knowledge, is, at once, a verification of the correctness of both of them, and a measure of the truth of knowledge as a whole. In this same verification there is realized in its turn the mutual transition of the sensed and the logical, and we notice that the verification of any theory—the transformation of it into life—is at the same time a creation of a new objectivity that is now accessible to direct perception. Practice is the crown and completion of the ideal and, as such, unites in itself both the moment of universality, attainable at once by reason, and the great diversity of sensed material. “Practice”—Lenin emphasizes—“is higher than theoretical knowledge, because it has not only the property of generality, but also direct actuality.”

In this “completion” of the ideal is shown the objective content of the latter. Ideas have as their basis human action, the attribute of man alone; they give him his uniqueness, since they have no place in any other forms of the movement of matter.

The transformation of scientific theory into life, and the possibility, on its basis, of uniting and dissociating the different forms of movement of the material world, that are found outside the human head, and of manipulating them according to previously formed aims—these disclose the close connection of theory with objectivity.



1.Anthropology has even established on a basis of actual measurement that savages possess no special acuity of vision or smell.

2. “Actually all really exhaustive knowledge is thus characterized in our thoughts we take a single thing out of its singleness and turn it into a particularity, and this latter into a generality—that is, we find infinity in finity, the eternal in the transitory.” Engels, Anti-Dühring.

3. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 17.

Next: IV. The Doctrine of Truth