From: (davie maclean)

Subject: Dialectics of nature

Here's one for your discussion group.

Dear Cyril, I see from Andy's discussion group you have been discussing the question of dialectics and nature. While not claiming any expertise in this field I do have a few thoughts on this question which may be useful. You posed the question - is there a dialectic in nature, and described your past difficulties in providing an answer, sometimes leaning towards a yes and sometimes no, and more often towards a don't know. In my view, yes and no is in fact the correct answer to this problem.

If we formulate the question as - is it possible to detect in the natural world the constant coming into being and passing away of things, to find movement driven both by internal contradictions and the interaction with external forces, to see both continuity and discontinuity, evolution and revolution - then clearly the answer is yes. These things are present in nature and examples of them abound.

Is this however the only thing we can find in nature ? Obviously not. When we encounter the natural world on a day by the seaside, or in the process of constructing a steel bridge over a gorge, or through the words of a poet, then the 'laws' of dialectical thinking are by no means necessary or even relevant for such an encounter.

So the answer is that yes dialectics can be present in nature, but to find a dialectic in nature is to engage in a certain kind of relationship with it. Or to put it another way, in response to the question 'is there a dialectic in nature ?' I would say, 'it depends what you want to know for'.

In line with Lukacs, I think it is from this angle that Engels' position in 'Anti-Duhring' is open to criticism. In the case that Andy has referred to, of alizarin, it is not adequate to cite this discovery as proof of the validity of the application of dialectics to nature. For while it may be so that this approach yields truths about nature, truths that can be tested through the practice of the chemical industry, the point is that this is only one kind of truth, one that looks to industrial manipulation as proof of its truth content. But this is not the only way to approach nature - there are others.

Lukacs' position on this issue is very close to Heidegger's, which is unlikely to be a coincidence. A central thrust of Heidegger's philosophy is to expose the hidden assumptions in the approach of modernity to nature that he identifies as beginning with Descartes and to propose a different relationship between humanity and the natural world, one that does not simply reduce it to a 'standing reserve' of raw material for human exploitation. He sees this as disastrous, not only for the planet but for humanity as well. Unfortunately Engels' formulations allow Marxism to be placed in the same bracket as bourgeois philosophy on this issue. In my view one of the strengths of Lukacs work, in particular his theory of reification, is that it allows for the rescue of Marxism from this identification with bourgeois modernity.

One of the strongest features of Lukacs' position, in my view, is the way he succeeds in overcoming the subject/object split that was opened up by Descartes. Heidegger also achieves this, although in a different manner. Both philosophers derive their position largely from Hegel, and to my mind it is precisely in this area that Hegel's philosophy has the most to offer us today. For through Hegel it is possible to see that the essence of truth lies not in the objectivity of the objective world nor in the subjectivity of the subject, but in the relationhip between the two. The essence of truth is therefore a relation.

It is possible to look at the world, therefore, applying the 'laws' of dialectical materialism, and derive some truth about it. But it is equally possible to employ Descartes' metaphysics, which reduces everything to matter and extension. This latter method is extremely useful from a technical point of view, but has also some very unfortunate implications as Heidegger effectively demonstrates in his discussions of Descartes. The question I suspect would come into your mind in response to this, Cyril, would be to ask - just what kind of a relationship with nature would be a genuinely human one ? I'm not sure, but I think that the answer would have to be one that was historical, since I do not think humanity has a fixed essence but is shaped by the course of history. Hope this is useful, Davie.