Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Essence and Phenomenon

The concept of essence and phenomenon. All thinking people want to get at the essence. They seek it like hidden treasure, which lies at the heart of things and controls them. Essence may be considered in global terms, as the ultimate foundation of the universe, in terms of various categories, such as the essence of the human being, for example, and in the sense of the main thing in an individual object.[1]

In the early forms of philosophical thought essence was that from which everything that existed had originated and that to which it would return. The religious consciousness contrasted the "celestial" world and the temporal world. God was the essence of the universe; everything else was his creation.

The essence of any specific individual is that which he is by virtue of his nature. It is the essential principle in a person, the core of his "ego". One could say that it is the special thing in any given person that he cannot lose without ceasing to be himself. Essence is the organising principle of connection between the basic elements or aspects of an object. It is a kind of thread upon which everything hangs; cut it and the whole assembly falls to pieces. Nothing is left but elusive particles and the general order is destroyed.

Essence is closely related to content. In fact, it is content, but not the whole content, only the main, basic part of it. Essence is related to all categories, to quality, for example. But quality does not exhaust essence. It expresses only one of its aspects. To reveal essence one must discover measure or proportion, the unity of quality and quantity. The path to essence lies through the categories of cause and law. Essence is an integral category, which embraces structure, part and whole, individual, particular and general, content and quality, proportion, contradiction, causality and law; it may also be regarded as an interweaving of the laws of the existence and functioning of an object. As the fundamental basis of the existence of an object essence manifests itself fully or partially, in the form of mere appearance—as a phenomenon.

What is a phenomenon? It is a manifestation of essence, which possesses true actuality only as a consequence of certain forms of its self-manifestation. Just as leaves, flowers, branches and fruit express in an external form the essence of a plant, so ethical, aesthetic, political, philosophical and scientific ideas express the essence of a certain social system. The concept of phenomenon may be understood as a manifestation of something underlying, profound. This is similar to the way we use the term "symptom" as the external manifestation of the essence of some disease, a headache, for example. Essence, on the other hand, is the principle and foundation of a certain mode of the external expression of things. Phenomenon as the external aspect is based on the internal essence. It is that in which the principle has expressed itself. What matters for a phenomenon is the result of the functioning of the principle as essence. The categories of essence and phenomenon characterise the interdependence of processes that take place in reality and the level to which thought has penetrated its object, whether we are still only on the surface or have broken through to the essence. A phenomenon usually expresses only some facet of essence, one of its aspects. For example, many manifestations of the essence of a certain type of malignant tumour may have been well researched, but its essence still remains an ominous secret.

The essence is hidden from view while the phenomenon stands out on the surface. If essence is something general, phenomenon is individual, expressing only one element of essence; if essence is something profound, phenomenon is external, richer and more colourful; if essence is something stable and necessary, phenomenon is transient, changing and accidental.

Appearance. A phenomenon may or may not correspond to its essence, and this may happen to varying degrees. For example, mirages in the desert are a phenomenon of nature, not an optical illusion. They can be photographed, they are the result of a distortion of light rays in the atmosphere. As something that is seen, a phenomenon does, of course, depend on the eyes that are looking at it. In the time of Copernicus, and before him, people perceived the apparent rotation of the sun around the earth as a reality. And how much effort and sacrifice were required to prove that this "rotation" was merely an appearance, that in essence the earth rotates around the sun and around its own axis. Appearance is supported by essence but does not always correspond to it. Appearance is essence in one of its definitions, aspects, or moments. In art, for example, appearance is the result of one or another form of discrepancy between phenomenon and essence, aim and the means, action and result, a discrepancy between what a person is in fact, and what he wishes to appear, or claims to be; essence reveals the comic side in appearance.

The category of appearance has an objective-subjective character and expresses superficial knowledge. It manifests itself in numerous forms.

To understand any given event we must critically examine the data of direct observation and make a clear distinction between the relations of "being" and "appearing". An indication of whether we have discovered the essence of something is our ability to use it effectively, to guide this or that process in the desired direction, even if that direction is not always the wisest.

The individual, the general and the particular. Consider, for instance, the leaves of a maple-tree. How closely they resemble each other! But no two of them are absolutely identical. And in the world in general there is nothing absolutely identical to something else, or even to itself at different moments of its existence. Things differ from each other and in themselves. We speak of things as being as alike as two drops of water. But look at them through a microscope and those drops turn out to be different. There are no doubles in the world, though its population runs into billions. Every person is unique! Pure identity can exist only in formal terms.

Let us imagine two objects whose structure and other attributes are all absolutely identical. But in this case they would have to occupy one and the same place at one and the same time. And if this were so, we should be confronted not with two objects but with one. Our two objects occupy different positions in space, so they are in different relations with other objects and this, in its turn, is bound to give rise to a difference in their properties at the given moment.

On the same grounds one may assert that things, events are absolutely irrepeatable in time; nothing happens twice. Everything that happens must obey the inexorable principle of the irreversibility of time. The so-called repeated event differs from what it repeats in that it occurs at a different time and therefore in new conditions that leave their ineradicable individualising mark upon it. The individual is an object taken in its distinctness from everything else and in its unique specific. The characteristic thing about the individual is its distinctness from everything else, its qualitative singularity. Here we come up against the concept of "other". "Other" is "not this", it is the background from which the object emerges and from which it differs as from everything else.

Countless unique conditions, a host of accidents take part in the "moulding" of the individual. In the example of the maple leaves we have the difference in lighting, nutrition, temperature, microclimate, which gives rise to differences in size, colour, shape, weight and so on. Nature abhors the stereotype. It is inexhaustible in its creation of the individual. The individual is a category expressing the relative particularity, discreteness, delimitedness of one thing from another in space and time, the intrinsic peculiarities that make up an object's unique qualitative and quantitative character. As a reflection in our consciousness in the form of a sensuous image or concept, the individual is defined either by a proper noun (Shakespeare, Paris, etc.) or by demonstrative pronouns (this, that, the given) and also by other specific means of communication. The reality of the individual provides the objective basis for the quantitative expression of reality because it is the real prototype of the unit "one", which we use as the basis of counting.

One may treat not only a single object but a whole class of such objects as individual, if it is taken as something integral, relatively independent, existing in the limits of a certain measure. At the same time one object is in itself a certain set of individual parts, which in their turn consist of their own separate parts.

Infinite diversity is only one aspect of existence. Another aspect is the universality of things, their structures, properties and relations. Just as firmly as we stated that there are no two absolutely identical things, we can also say that neither are there two absolutely different things, which have absolutely nothing in common. The notion of the world only as an infinite diversity of individualities is one-sided and therefore false. The individual, the particular and the general, if taken separately, "lose" each other and fall apart. As a unity, however, they do not "dissolve" into one another but retain their specific qualities. Separate phenomena are interconnected, interact, depend upon and condition each other. Consequently, they have something in common. All stars, for example, possess common features distinguishing them from everything else. The same may be said of plants, animals, and so on. The general is the singular in the many. The one-sided analytical view of reality as a multiplicity of singularities is characteristic of narrow empiricism, which regards the individual as primary and the general only as a derived abstraction. For example, the assertion that a certain action is a feat implies acknowledgement of this one action as having a certain general quality. Other actions possessing a similar moral content may be characterised as feats. A person may be writing something. He may write many pages and put his signature on each of them. He may write with a quill pen, a ball-point, or chalk, he may even write with his feet or mouth—there have been such experiments. And still we shall not find any exact identity in the way the letters are delineated. On the other hand, the author's unique handwriting can be identified in all variations of the signature. It is this unvarying quality that gives our signatures practical importance, their legal force. The same applies to our walk or the timbre of our voice, as stable elements in the whole mass of our unique separate movements and sounds.

The common properties and relations of things are identified on the basis of generalisation in the form of concepts and are denoted by substantive nouns, for example, man, law, cause, etc. In each individual there may be something general, which is its essence. Why is the general intrinsically connected with the individual? Because it is the law of the birth and life of the individual. The general plays a constructive role in the emergence of the individual. The general contains a law which insistently demands that certain processes should follow a certain course in any individual phenomenon of the given class. For example, the information recorded in the molecular structures of the cellular nucleus is a general programme, in accordance with which the organism's processes of individual development occur and its hereditary features are passed on from generation to generation. The human being's generic essence in the general groundwork of heredity is transmitted from generation to generation and in unity with all the natural and social conditions creates individuality. But upon this groundwork that is common to the whole line of descent each descendant draws its own individual, unique pattern. The individual is dominated by the general, which ruthlessly "forces" it as something transient to perish again and again for the sake of preserving the general as something stable: the individual dies but the race lives on.

On the other hand, the individual serves as a prerequisite and substratum of the general. The operation of law, the anonymous power of the general is expressed only in the individual and through the individual, but a new law begins by acting as an exception to the general rule, whether it is the birth of a new biological species, new social relations, or whatever. This was how the standards of morality originated, how fashions appear, and so on. Moreover, individual exceptions which correspond to the new trends of develop ment, to the demands of the whole set of conditions and the nature of the phenomenon itself, gradually become the general. Accidental individual aberrations are sifted out and disappear, cancelling each other out and producing the average, the resultant, that is to say, a regularity or law.

For the individual to exist outside the general would amount to its being an "outlaw". And the general without the individual is simply suspended in mid-air. But objects may possess different degrees of individuality — the generality between a star and a rose (what they have in common) is one thing, but the generality within the different varieties of roses is quite another.

Everything individual is transient. Every individuality passes like a shadow and suffers the fate of all transient forms. The general, on the other hand, is stable, constant, unvarying. The individual cannot arise, survive or change without being connected with a multiplicity of other things. And since various things are interconnected, interact and interdepend, they must have some point of contact, they must possess generality.

In histories of scientific achievement the general usually takes first place and is seen as something principal and determining. But in the process of research the general is revealed by generalisation of individual facts. Scientific treatises that begin with a statement of general principles sometimes create the illusion that the general is independent of the individual and can exist without it. For objective idealism it is characteristic to separate the general and the individual and absolutise the former, thus turning the general into a demiurge, as if it had preceded the individual and created it.

The fact of the matter is that the individual thing owes the concrete form of its existence to the system of regularly formed relations within which it arises. Different things become comparable only because they possess a certain degree of generality.

In reality the individual and the general are so closely united and interacting that one can say that the individual is as general as it is individual. The statement: "Dante is a poet" illustrates how the individual becomes the general.

The particular only partially enters the general and the general cannot embrace all particular objects, or all aspects of a given object. The desire to lump together all the specific features of individual phenomena in a general concept denotes a failure to understand both thinking and science. It puts the theoretician in a situation where he cannot see the wood for the trees.

What is the particular? This category expresses a real object as a whole in the unity and correlation of its opposing elements—the individual and the general, and also the universal. The particular is not merely an intermediate link between the individual and the general. Rather it is a uniting principle in the framework of the whole.

An object can be conceived only in the categories of either the individual or the general, separated from one another at the empirical or theoretical level. This is an abstraction that is essential to the process of cognition. Such abstractions are not only presupposed but also subsumed in the category of the particular, which expresses the general in its actual embodiment, and the individual in its unity with the general.

Consequently, the particular may be regarded as the realised general. For example, the general plan to build a house is realised in a specific project. And the latter is embodied in a real house. The particular is conceived as something separate, different from everything else and possessing features that other objects do not possess, and at the same time as something that has various connections and relations with them.

The category of the particular is relative and fluid. In one relation the particular may more or less "approximate" to the general and act and be understood as something general in its connection with its own general nature. The particular "stands" midway between the general and the individual, holding them in its "embrace", as it were, and including them in itself.

It is important in both theory and practice to understand the dialectics of the individual, particular and general. Not for nothing does the whole history of philosophy revolves around this question. To understand separate phenomena we must take them out of their general connection and examine them analytically. But the stating of individual facts is not yet knowledge. People sometimes say, "if you know one man you know them all", but this is not true. The individual can be understood only through the general and vice versa. Thanks to its psychophysiological, linguistic and logical machinery of universalisation, scientific thought permeates everything with a spirit of generalisation, in which all that is individual evaporates and is replaced by the impersonal and the generally significant. But to be successful in practice one must know not only the general but also the individual that forms a unity with it.

Science is concerned with generalisations and operates with general concepts. This enables it to establish laws and thus to arm practice with the ability to predict. This is its strong point. But it is also its weakness, which can be compensated by both ordinary and artistic thinking. Everything individual pales in the light of scientific thought. When scientific thought penetrates reality, all its rich and infinite diversity is stripped away and its splendid colours fade. The living flow chokes in the silence of meditation. The fullness that radiates its warmth upon us and is organised in innumerable attractive and delightful images is broken down into cut-and-dried forms and diagrams.

The individual is richer than the general: the general as a law is narrow and schematic. Only by thoughtful analysis and consideration of the individual and the particular through observation and experiment can the laws of science be extended in depth and made more concrete. The person who has no appetite for the individual fails to perceive true reality. Creative thought permits no stereotypes, no magic wands that can be used everywhere in the same way, without taking into account the individual aspects of events.

If the individual is ignored, our knowledge of the general and the particular falters just where individual features constitute the essential aspect of the given object, whether it be a social revolution, a nation, or a person. Thus the concept "man" fails to reflect the countless individual features that are characteristic of any specific person. The principle of individualisation is important not only in art, which cannot exist without it, but also in science, and particularly in practice. For example. the sciences concerned with humanity cannot ignore the fact that in the details of their anatomical structure and the functioning of various organs, in the chemical composition of their brain, blood, muscles, and skin, in the reactions of the organism to drugs and to countless other influences, in the types of temperature regulation, sensitivity to pain and need for food, people are astonishingly unique.

When determining the average velocity of the molecules of a gas, we do not investigate the behaviour of each separate molecule. No one is worried about depersonalising them. In quantum mechanics, for example, as distinct from classical mechanics, it is fundamentally impossible to trace each particle separately and thus distinguish between them. So there is good reason for us to say that in quantum mechanics particles lose their "individuality". And such individuality is probably of little consequence to either science or practice. But in medicine, for example, it is quite a different matter. The doctor treats not man in general but a person suffering from some specific disease, a person with unique individual features, often astonishing by intricate mental and bodily peculiarities, which are of crucial importance to the essence of the case. One and the same illness is often surprisingly modified in different patients and therefore demands an extremely individualised approach. Everyone gets ill in his own way. So the wisest doctors have always maintained that one should treat not the disease but the patient himself with his particular organs and energies. Every sick person is, above all, a personality with physiological and psychological peculiarities, with a particular character, mentality, moods, emotions, and so on. How many people suffer, and some times very painfully, from iatrogenic ailments caused by the standardised thinking, by the crudely inflexible approach of a doctor who disregards his patient's often individually delicate and uniquely complex constitution. But the individualised personal approach, so often advocated and so often ignored, is only one aspect of the case, the other being that a doctor cannot prescribe single medicine or any kind of treatment until it has been thoroughly treated under laboratory conditions and thus been proved fit for general use. Medicine is not only the most complex science; to an even greater degree it is an art, and the greatest of all arts at that. And it is acquired through integral knowledge of the general, individual and particular, with the stress on the individual form of their expression.

The conclusions of science are generally significant because the phenomena themselves contain something stable, some thing that is firmly retained and gives them their generally significant character. Although every organism is something unique, the doctor has no doubt that certain organs in a particular patient fulfil the same functions as in other people, that their structure, despite some individual variations, is on the whole similar. And this is what enables him to describe the structure of the brain in general, the heart in general, and so on. If each of us had a unique structure and way of functioning, or malfunctioning, there could be no anatomy, physiology or medicine as a science and no art of healing.

Leo Tolstoy, who ridiculed the impotence of medicine that ignored the principle of individualised approach, wrote: "Doctors came to see her, both singly and in consultation, talked endlessly in French, German and Latin, criticised one another and prescribed every sort of remedy to cure every complaint they had ever heard of. But it never occurred to one of them to make the simple reflection that the disease Natasha was suffering from could not be known to them, just as no complaint afflicting a living being can ever be entirely familiar, for each living being has his own individual peculiarities and whatever his disease it must necessarily be peculiar to himself, a new and complex malady unknown to medicine—not a disease of the lungs, liver, skin, heart, nerves, and so on, as described in medical books, but a disease consisting of one out of the innumerable combinations of the ailments of those organs."[2] This passage contains both exaggeration and the profound wisdom of the all-round approach to the personality and its suffering that "interlock" in every possible way.

The principle of individualisation is no less important, say, in judicial practice, and in any other sphere concerning human beings and human relations. A person is not born a criminal. A judge should not restrict himself to establishing the degree of guilt and responsibility of a certain individual for the crime he has committed. He is bound to consider the individual's character, the degree of individual volition in the crime and also the offender's readiness to make amends, which is extremely important when it comes to deciding the measure of punishment within the framework of the existing laws of state.

Science cannot exist without basing itself on the general. Take, for example, such a science as history. If historians confined themselves to recording only the individual, even they in their thousands would be unable to describe one single day in the life of humanity, though they were given a thousand years to do it in. They would be like an author who takes two years to write one year of his autobiography.

There are some thinkers who do not regard history as a science on the grounds that it does not reveal general principles or laws. The concept of law-governed historical development is considered intrinsically contradictory in the same way as one might regard a concept of dry moisture. The field of social experience is regarded as "unique" and "personal". All social relationships are irrepeatable. If some thing happens in history, the same thing can never occur again. And for things that do not repeat themselves no law can be established.

Do these objections stand up? No. Individual events in their specific forms do not repeat themselves. Every war is unique in its individuality. But in this uniqueness of social and psychological tragedy there is always something general: war is war!

There are two roads towards cognition of the general. Theoretical thought proceeds by abstracting from the individual, the accidental, to the formulation of concepts that reflect the essential. There is also another road towards knowledge of the general. This lies through finding the most characteristic individual events which, no matter how unique they are, immediately, as it were, represent the general, the law-governed. These are "typical" individualities. This is the way the generalising, creative force of imaginative thinking operates in the sphere of art, where a truly artistic image expresses the typical through its individualisation. Something synthetic between these two roads occurs in historical science, where the law-governed is expressed both in the form of theoretical principles and also by the splendid artistic descriptions of "living" events sometimes achieved by gifted historians.

Law as a general and essential relation. Life has constantly persuaded human beings that the processes at work in the world are not merely the raging of elemental forces of chaos. The universe has its "code of laws". Everywhere there is a certain order in the world: the planets move in strictly unvarying patterns and no matter how long the night it is always followed by day; the young grows old and departs from this life with inexorable necessity and is replaced by the newborn. Migrating birds fly northwards in the spring and return to the south every autumn. The ewe gives birth to the lamb, the mare to the foal, and so on. There has never been a case of a watermelon growing out of an acorn or of time suddenly flowing backwards and winter following spring. Obeying the same law of gravity, gossamer floats and lead plummets. In short, everything in the world, from the motion of physical fields, of elementary particles, atoms, and crystals, to gigantic cosmic systems, social events and the realm of the mind, obeys certain laws. Everything is committed to a certain framework, like steel in its mould.

According to religious idealistic notions, everything in the world follows the "cruises" charted by God, the eternal laws that guide everything in accordance with the will of the Almighty. In general, there is a tendency to identify the laws of the universe with God; the world is then seen as being governed by both God and law. This means that laws are personified and come to resemble the rational, order-creating power of God. And indeed, we speak of laws guiding all events, without thinking that some supernatural force, some omnipotent driver, holds the reins of all events in the universe. According to Hegel, natural processes obey certain laws representing rational, non-material relations. This is objective idealism. Other philosophers believe that the laws of science arose only thanks to man's habitual love of order. This is the subjective idealist conception.

The life of the world is regulated not externally, not by forces that stand above it, but by itself. It is an infinitely complex, self-regulating system.

What do we mean when we use the word "law"? Juridical laws are promulgated by the state in order to regulate, to control relations between the individual members of society. Moral standards rooted in the way people are brought up are also factors in the pattern of human self-control. The phenomena of nature, of society and consciousness, are organised or regulated by laws that no one created. They exist objectively. When we speak of the laws of the universe we have in mind a certain regularity in the coming of events.

Law is not an object, nor one of its properties, but a type of relations between objects. It organises the interconnection of the elements of a system. When speaking of a law we mean stable, repetitive, essential, necessary relations.

Laws may be less general, operating in a limited field, and also more general, such as the law of the conservation of energy.

Alongside the stability of essential relationships expressed by laws we also have the principle of the conservation of the laws themselves with a more or less broad range of changing conditions in which they operate. When there is a change in the conditions under which certain laws operate, the latter are preserved, that is to say, they operate in a different situation, just as they operated previously. Of course, this stability is relative. There are no laws that are independent of conditions. The wider the range of conditions in which a law retains its force, the more general it is.

Some laws express a strict quantitative dependence between phenomena and are recorded in science by mathematical formulae. Others resist quantitative expression, for example, the law of natural selection.

We should distinguish the laws of the structure, functioning and development of a system. In developing systems a law takes the form of a tendency or trend. The concept of law as a tendency is applicable to the social process in the analysis of mass phenomena, their frequent repetition in certain circumstances. Such laws relate to the statistics of, for example, population, trade, or transport. This concept also serves to express the main trend in the development of events. A large proportion of social laws takes the form of trends expressing the main line of development without predetermining the whole infinite diversity of the possible and usually circuitous paths of motion. The summing up of a large number of individual events usually cancels out their accidental deviations on either side and reveals a certain tendency, that is to say, a law. Such regularity is called statistical.

There are also dynamic laws of varying degrees of complexity, from the laws of mechanics to the laws of the development of the organism. What distinguishes them from statistical laws? They control all the phenomena of a certain class as a whole and each phenomenon in particular. For example, any stone thrown into the air obeys the law of gravity. When the conditions and causes of events are known, science can with a fair degree of accuracy guarantee prediction of events, as in the case of a lunar eclipse, for example.

But there are also events that do not obey the laws of dynamics. From the mere fact of sexual contact it is impossible to predict whether the result will be a boy or a girl. At first sight this appears to be an example of chaos. But if we take a large number of facts over a period of years, it turns out that the ratio of girl babies to boy babies is 100:106. This is an example of statistical law.

The discovery of laws is the basic task of science. Scientists constantly seek to establish regularity, "order", stable tendencies in phenomena, that is to say, laws. Man's power over the forces of the universe is proportional to the volume and depth of his knowledge of its laws.

The law-governed and the accidental. Could something not have happened that did happen? Could the thing that failed to happen have happened? Is it possible to say that what should not happen will not happen? Many thinkers have pondered such questions. Was it a law or accident that made Napoleon head of the French state? Was it an accidental or law-governed event that America was discovered and that this discovery was made by Columbus? Was it accidental or by law that life on earth came about and was followed by the appearance of human beings, by the readers of this book, by you and me? The list of such questions could be continued ad infinitum. Various thinkers have given various answers. No matter what happens in nature or in the life of man and society, fatalistically minded people usually say, "What must be will be". This dictum rests on the notion that everything in the universe and human life is preordained either by fate or God or by the whole system of interaction of phenomena. Everything that we observe is as it is and could not be otherwise. Accident is thus regarded as a purely subjective concept by which we designate something whose cause is unknown to us. As soon as a person discovers the cause of a phenomenon, it ceases to be accidental. It is true that there are no causeless phenomena in the world. Even accidental phenomena are causally conditioned. But this does not make them necessary. According to the concept of absolute necessity, which excludes chance, the final result of any process in the universe is preordained from the very beginning and must come about with inexorable force. Thus the final point of any process of development exists from the first in reality, like an "embryo" for whose development the process serves only as an external auxiliary factor, a "midwife".

When absolutised, necessity becomes its opposite: everything is a matter of chance and one must leave everything to chance. The offended vanity of an aggressor, the bad mood of a monarch, the whim of a woman, are sufficient cause for going to war, for throwing millions of people into the slaughter, destroying cities and plunging nations into poverty and grief, spreading disaster and despair for many centuries.

We are thus faced with a false alternative. Either the world is ruled only by chance and then there can be no necessity, or else there is no chance and the world is ruled by necessity. In actual fact, both in nature and society, where chance appears to dominate, it is in reality subordinate to certain laws. But not everything that happens does so of necessity. Much occurs by chance. Chance has its share of "right" to existence.

If the world were dominated only by necessity everything would be fatally predetermined and there would be no room for human freedom of action. One and the same phenomenon is composed of the effects of many causes. Everything brought about by secondary causes was defined by Aristotle as accidental, while necessity meant the impossibility of something being otherwise.

It is impossible to predict the sudden onset of certain diseases and the need for urgent medical aid. It is impossible to say how many calls an ambulance service may receive in a given period of time. Here we are confronted with a typical situation in which the emergency call, the time the doctor spends at the bedside, the time taken by the ambulance in travelling from hospital to home and back, all involve chance. A vast series of chance events has to be considered.

The number of examples in which chance phenomena determine the character of a certain process could be carried to infinity. It is much harder to enumerate the processes where chance events have no influence.

What is chance? This category expresses mainly external, contingent, inessential events. These are phenomena that are subjectively unexpected and objectively extraneous. There are phenomena that in certain conditions may or may not occur, that may be of one or another kind, whose existence or non-existence, or existence of one or another kind, is based not in itself but in something else. These are external chance events. Intrinsic chance events, on the other hand, are events that have been "stirred up" by necessity itself, by variously oriented forms of its manifestation.

External chance is beyond the demands and power of a given necessity. It is determined by extraneous circumstances. A person steps on a banana skin and falls over. Here we have the cause of his fall, but it does not follow from the logic of the victim's actions. He might not have fallen. He is the victim of the sudden intervention of blind chance. In general both necessary and chance consequences arise from people's actions. One can be blamed only for the necessary consequences of action; only they are connected with the nature of the action itself and they alone could be foreseen.

All events that we sometimes lump together under the heading of "bloody-mindedness", such as the slice of bread that falls butter-side down or the bus that comes late just when we are in a great hurry, may be considered examples of external chance. They are so-called "coincidences".

Chance may be favourable or unfavourable to a person. For example, in war more than anywhere else, "things turn out to be different from what we imagine; when we see them close up, they look different from how they appear at a distance. The architect can calmly observe a building going up according to his plan. Or the doctor, although he has to reckon with a great number of chance and unknown influences in his work, does know exactly what effect certain drugs will have. But war is different. The commander of a large military unit is constantly at the mercy of waves of false and true information, of mistakes caused by fear, negligence, haste or obstinacy, due to correct or incorrect notions, evil intent or a false or genuine sense of duty, laziness or exhaustion; he is besieged by chance events that no one could possibly foresee."[3]

One and the same event may be necessary in one relation and accidental in another. For example, a baby girl is born. Is this a case of necessity? In relation to the final result of the development of the embryo, yes. But from the standpoint of development of the given nation or of world history it is a chance event. Sex mutation is still one of nature's secrets. A single mutation is the expression of necessity of certain physico-chemical processes in the organism. But in relation to the organism and even more to the species, it is a matter of chance. In reality, therefore, any phenomenon at one and the same time but in different relations may be either necessary or accidental.

The necessary carves a road for itself through an infinite number of accidents. Chance introduces an element of instability in law-governed processes and this is expressed in the category of probability. Why does necessity manifest itself in the form of chance? It can come about only through the individual, which is moulded by an infinite number of circumstances, all of which leave their unique stamp on it. Accidents influence the course of a necessary process, accelerating or retarding it. In the course of their development accidents may turn into necessities. For example, the regular attributes of one or another biological species originally appeared as accidental deviations from the attributes of another species. Such accidents give life and perspective to necessity.

The chance phenomenon may strike us as something necessary or even unavoidable, if the space-time dimension in which it occurs is narrowed while we observe it, and if an increasing number of circumstances have to be taken into account. If we tackle certain events from a distance, a road collision, for example, may be regarded as accidental. But let us suppose that there was ice on the road. Two cars were travelling towards each other at high speed. One of them skidded. Neither driver could do anything and the collision was inevitable. Chance is closely related to necessity. To understand whether any event was necessary or accidental, we must consider the whole set of conditions that gave rise to it. And when the given conditions and relations are taken into account, the possible outcomes are often narrowed down from two or more to only one. And then we can say for certain whether an event occurred of necessity or by accident, and what was necessary or accidental in that event.

It is important in practical and theoretical work to take into account the dialectics of chance and necessity. No one should bank on chance, but it is foolish to ignore favourable opportunities. A good many discoveries and inventions have been made thanks to lucky coincidences. No matter how cleverly a bold operation is planned, there must always be something left to chance. Fire escapes, life and property insurance, additional medical personnel at holiday times—all these measures are taken to counteract the effects of chance, of accidents.

Scientific work never ignores the factor of chance events, even when they play a secondary role. The main goal of cognition is to discover laws. But to do so one must analyse the specific form of chance in which the necessary manifests itself. Through the investigation of various individual cases scientific thought moves towards discovery of the underlying, law-governed element.

In science there are laws that reflect necessity almost in "pure" form, the mathematically refined laws of classical mechanics, for example. But there are also propositions that reflect both the necessary and the accidental alternatively. At the same time there are propositions that embrace necessity and chance as a unity. To predict a solar eclipse astronomy abstracts from the accidental and takes only the necessary. But the forecasting of historical events involves both. For example, acceleration or retarding of historical progress sometimes depends to a great degree on subjective factors, including such chance elements as the character, health or talent of the people in charge.

The task of science and particularly philosophy is to detect the necessity disguised as chance; but this should not be taken to mean that chance is merely a figment of our imagination and should therefore be ignored wherever possible so that we can perceive the truth. There are certain general needs, for example, the need for food, drink, clothing, etc., and it appears to be largely a matter of chance how these needs are satisfied. The soil may be more fertile in one place than another; harvests may differ from year to year; one man is diligent, the other idle. But this very chaos produces general principles. And facts that appear to be unconnected and disorderly are guided by necessity, the uncovering of which is the task of political economy. Confronted with a mass of accidents, it reveals their underlying laws.

Probability as the measure of realisation of chance. The concept of probability arose in logic as a means of defining lack of proof. But life has accumulated large numbers of facts that force us to consider probability as a problem in itself. This problem has been scientifically expressed in mathematics, in the theory of probability. Pascal evolved this theory as a means of understanding gambling in which the main role is played by chance. Today probability relations are studied in the most diverse spheres of nature, society, and science. It is recognised that nature is governed by certain laws but lacks precision. Some scientists have suggested that probability may be taken to denote a subjective rather than an objective estimate by the knower. Others believe that this point of view cannot be accepted because the probability of a chance event is always independent of our reasoning about it. For example, our personal view of the chances that a ship will arrive safely exerts no influence on the actual outcome of its voyage.

The theory of probability involves the study of mass phenomena. It can be applied only where large numbers of more or less equivalent factors take part. The classical theory of probability derived from the study of chance in gambling defines probability as the relation of the number of favourable outcomes to the total number of equally possible results.

The future is not simply predetermined by what exists in the present. Objective possibilities of development may be divided into two groups: the necessary, those that must become reality, and the unnecessary, those that may not occur. A certain event is accidental if its outcome is only a probability and cannot be accurately predicted. If on the other hand there is a subjective factor, if people are taking part in bringing certain events about, the outcome is even more difficult, or strictly speaking, impossible to predict. Human actions are not universally predetermined, they are not programmed once and for all. Events whose occurrence cannot be determined with any degree of probability are called indefinite events. The life of nature is a kind of constant experiment, a kind of game or spinning of the coin, in which some probabilities become reality and others remain unrealised.

Probability is a degree of possibility, the extent to which a given event may be realised in given conditions and under a given law. It characterises the degree to which a certain possibility is grounded, the measure of its ability to become reality, the degree of its approximation to realisation, the ratio of favourable and unfavourable factors. Probability is not simply the measure of our expectation. It is an objective measure of the possibility of chance becoming reality. Probability tells us how likely an event is to happen, what the objective grounds are for its happening. Or whether it may happen at all. More probable means a more justified possibility.

Probability is a property of sets of events. If we spin a coin only a few times or only once it is impossible to say which side up it will land. Here we are in the power of chance. But this power is delegated, as it were, to the statistical law that when a large number of tosses are made, both possibilities occur with an equal degree of necessity. The coin is symmetrical and this is the main cause of the equally probable result. If the probability of an event is very small, we ignore it. We sit at a lecture, for instance, without worrying about the possibility of being struck by a meteorite. Necessity is a one hundred per cent probability. The absence of any probability denotes the complete unlikeliness or impossibility of an event. The concept of impossibility reflects not only the fact that some possibilities do not exist but also what processes do not allow the existence of these possibilities.

Probability relations have two aspects, the internal, connected with the structure of the object in question (in our example, the symmetry of the coin), and external, connected with the frequency of the event (the number of tosses). The objective link between the internal and external aspects of probability is expressed in the law of large numbers, which states that the total effect of a large number of accidental facts leads in certain extremely general conditions to a result almost independent of chance. Every event is the resultant of necessary and accidental causes. The law of large numbers acts as the law of stable causes overcoming the influence of accidental factors. Constancy, stability appears within the limits of the conditions and causes that produce a certain phenomenon. In the example of spinning a coin the main cause (symmetry of the coin) makes itself felt as the number of experiments increases. This cause operates continuously in one direction and finally leads to the realisation of both possibilities. In a large number of experiments the frequency of a number of chance events remains almost constant. This leads us to assume the existence of laws in phenomena occurrence that do not depend on the experimenter and that reveal themselves in an almost constant frequency.

The stability with which some chance possibilities are realised in the mass captures our imagination, and in some people evokes a mystical feeling of fatal predestination and the inexorable power of numbers. The numbers of marriages, divorces, births, deaths, crimes, of passengers travelling by a certain means of transport over a certain period of time, the frequency of injuries in certain sports (mountain climbing, speedway racing, fencing), all exhibit a surprisingly stable regularity. For example, the number of children born out of wedlock runs at an average of 9 per cent for the same number of people year after year. Decades of observation have yielded another curious law: during and after prolonged wars the birth rate of male babies tends to increase.

Statistical regularity, which exists objectively in a mass of individual phenomena, with its specific relationship between the necessary and the accidental, the individual and the general, the whole and its parts, cause and effect, possible and probable, constitutes the objective basis on which the massive structure of statistical research methods is erected. The methods of probability theory and the directly related statistical methods are becoming increasingly important in all fields of contemporary science. Statistical physics has developed out of classical physics and probability principles have acquired fundamental significance in quantum mechanics. Information theory, the bedrock of cybernetics, is founded on the probability theory. Biologists, economists, sociologists and engineers are making ever wider use of probability methods. A special branch of logic—probability logic—has emerged and is being intensively developed. No matter how profound and comprehensive our knowledge, it cannot dispense with probability because of the unavoidable fact that probability in knowledge expresses a vital gradation between the possible and the real.

The real and the possible. The process of development is always connected with the passing of the possible into the real. Everything that exists is strictly and continually controlled by the law of the conservation of matter: nothing can come from nothing. The new must have premises in the old. The sources of the future lie both in the past and in the present. The person who exists in reality is preceded by his potential, by that which is given in the embryo. Everything arises from that which exists as a possibility but not as a reality. A child possesses only a capacity or a real possibility of rational thought, but the possibility has not yet been realised. The child is not yet capable of rational action.

By means of the categories of the possible and the real thought encompasses the fact that matter is active, that it constantly acquires more and more new forms of existence, transforming itself from some forms into others, moving from one state to another, that it possesses an infinite number of different potentials. Possibility is not so much "a particular property of the non-existent" as a reality existing in a particular way. For instance, the regrettable possibility of war causes such enormous movements of society's material and spiritual forces that it would be wrong to deprive this possibility of the status of real existence. On the other hand, a bright and hopeful prospect may possess no less (or even more) productive power and hence, existence. Thus, "existence as a possibility" is an independent sphere of reality in its own right.

The material world resembles a boundless field sown with various seeds of possibility, which are not brought into the world by any supernatural forces but arise and exist there, expressing the self-motion and self-development of reality. Consequently, the category of the real embraces all possibilities because there is nowhere else for them to be, except in reality. Everything possible is possible because it exists in reality as the embryo of something else, as its orientation on the future, on change, transformation into something else. When we speak of possibility, we think of some perhaps very small "beginning" of something, which lies within that which possesses the possibility, that is to say, within concrete reality. This beginning also comprises the programme of that which does not yet exist in that which exists. Therefore, by reality in the broad sense we mean both the possible, the process of creating the new, and its existence at all levels of perfection, that is to say, the action of all the real forces in the universe: nature in all the majesty of its material and information-energy formations, properties and relations, world history with all its countless small- or large-scale events and collisions, man with his sophisticated mind, and the material and spiritual culture of society in their mutual relationship. Reality takes in both the internal and external, the essential and the phenomenal, the law-governed and the accidental, the individual, general and particular, cause and effect, potential, realisation and what has been realised. Reality, to the degree that it has been comprehended by humanity, is expressed in the entire endlessly subtle system of concepts of science, philosophy and culture as a whole.

While stressing the unity of possibility and reality, the former's inclusion in the latter, we should at the same time bear in mind their difference or even their polarity. The possibility of anything is not yet its reality and perhaps is never destined to become anything of the kind. The category of possibility expresses the fact that a phenomenon has already begun to exist but has not yet acquired its perfect form. Hence, possibility is a unity of existence and non existence. Development is a process of generation of pos sibilities and conversion of one of them into reality. That which is becoming is only heading in the direction of existence and in this sense it does not yet exist. At the same time, having once begun, it already exists. It is as yet only a "prospect" of existence.

Possibilities delight us most of all in child prodigies. Youth is also full of promise. But not for nothing do we sometimes say about prodigies that their future is often left behind in the past. That's the way life is. Only when it grows up does the child reveal to the full its human essence, its possibilities. Only a mature person knows for sure what he is capable of, which of his possibilities have turned out to be real and what lies behind him as vain hopes and fruitless impulses. He stands before the judge that rules the consciousness of every one of us, and must answer for how much of that which was conceived in youth has been achieved in reality. And by no means everyone is satisfied with his achievement. Many of those who looked so promising have turned out to be quite ordinary people. The "makings" alone cannot be regarded as a person's true inner world. So we should never present as reality that which as yet exists only as a possibility. The inspiring possibility of all-embracing knowledge of the world is a far cry from its realisation.

In the narrower and more categorial sense reality is thought of as realised possibility, something that has come about, emerged, been actualised, that lives and acts. In relation to the possible as potential the reality is a realised possibility and the basis for emergence of new possibilities. Consequently, reality is immeasurably richer than possibility because it comprises not only all forms and stages of its becoming, but also every result of the process. All the influence of the past on the development of this process in the future consists in the state it has achieved at the present moment.

Possibility is a tendency or rather the as yet implicit tendencies of development of actual reality. It is the future in the present, the tomorrow in the today. Reality is a world of possibilities and a world of realisations, and between them lies the process of the conversion of potential into actual reality.

The concept of reality is also used in the sense of full manifestation of some property or attribute. For example, a person who lives a full, creative life and is guided by noble impulses, who brings light, warmth and goodness to others, is often said to be living a real life, and not just vegetating.

Reality is not always the same thing as the existing. Reality is existence justified by the maximum fullness and vividness of the manifestation of its rich essence. In life, therefore, there are various degrees of manifestation of reality. Not everything that exists is real in the highest sense of the term.

The universe contains nothing that does not exist as a possibility or a reality or is not on the way from one to the other. Possibility precedes reality in time. But reality, being the result of previous development, is simultaneously the point of departure for further development. Possibility arises in a given reality and is realised in a new one.

Any historical process contains several possibilities. People strive to realise them but the process ultimately leads to unavoidable, unambiguous necessity. When all the contradictory possibilities are excluded, the circle of conditions completed, and there appears a certain reality which cannot be anything but what it is, then the possibility of being or not being disappears. What has happened and is real also has the nature of impossibility of being otherwise. This is the essence of necessity, which can be understood as developed reality or the unity of actual possibility and reality. The conversion of possibility into reality depends on how necessary it was for precisely this possibility to be realised. This necessity may increase or decrease to the point of total exhaustion, depending on changing conditions.

The exponents of mechanistic determinism assume that all that exists is wholly predetermined by the past, just as the future is predetermined by the present. Just as a sapling contains all the nature of the tree, its shape, colour, appearance and the taste of its fruit, so the cloud of gas and dust that generated the Sun, the planets and our Earth already contained the whole subsequent history of the solar system, including blue eyes, pink cheeks, and all the other peculiarities of individual human beings and their destinies. This claim implies that everything is given at once, that the future may be read in the present. From this basis the objective possibility of clairvoyance is deduced. If all possibilities were given once and for all and no new possibilities could arise in the course of development, the universe would be threatened with the inevitable exhaustion of possibilities and it would resemble a certain character in literature, whose days and hours diminished as his every wish was fulfilled.

In actual fact, development is not simply the unfolding of ready-made possibilities. Just as an effect contains something more than its cause, so reality constantly generates new possibilities. The living, for example, arises from premises that do not have the properties of life. A cause can be held to determine only the effect that arises from it directly. It is not responsible for what these effects bring about when they, in their turn, become causes in the remote future. Similarly every condition of things determines not all subsequent conditions but only those that proceed directly from it. The distant future becomes something that the present never dreamed of.

The farther we try to see into the future, the more hazy its contours become. The "mists of the future" do objectively thicken the farther away it is from the present. Possibilities characterise reality from the standpoint of its future. All possibilities are aimed at realisation and have a certain orientation. They are full of urge, effort and "yearning" for realisation. Every specific reality generally contains an infinite number of possibilities of emergence of qualitatively new phenomena.

Two factors are required for possibility to become reality: the operation of a certain law and the availability of appropriate conditions. People are born with exceptional possibilities in the form of their natural potentials. But these potentials can develop only under certain conditions. Any system contains more possibilities than it can actually realise. For example, a living organism has the possibility of producing an enormous progeny: microorganisms could in a few days produce a mass of living substance much greater than the mass of our whole planet. But enormous numbers of possibilities never come to fruition. And does man himself realise all his physical and spiritual potentials? The paths to the realisation of each of them are littered with obstacles and the possibilities contest with one another. Life selects some and discards others. Everything that exists in reality is the result of this selection. Whether the result is a happy one is another question. No one can tell whether all this was inevitable. Sometimes we have to regret lost opportunities.

Life constantly gives rise to conflicts between what is and what should be. Everything is permeated with contradiction. This is true even of possibilities, which may be either progressive or reactionary. When a social revolution takes place, for example, it contains two possibilities: victory for the progressive forces or for those of reaction. And history records many cases when reaction has won the day. But in the final analysis time works in favour of progress and sooner or later progress triumphs.

Like everything else in the world, possibilities develop: some of them grow, others wither.

In nature the conversion of possibility into reality generally comes about spontaneously. History is made by people. A great deal depends on their will and consciousness. At the present time there is a possibility of preserving peace. Thanks to the active struggle for peace by all peace-loving forces, this possibility exists as a reality. In the life of society, too, events may come about spontaneously; some possibilities are realised when we do nothing or very little about them.

The most essential characteristic of possibility is the measure of its potential. Possibilities can be likely, not very likely or totally unlikely, mere formalities. The real, that is to say, the likely possibility, is a law-governed tendency in the development of the object concerned. A not very likely possibility is an inessential tendency in the development of the object and may come about in reality only due to a great coincidence. Only formal justification can be cited in its favour. It is possible that tonight an artificial satellite will hit a meteorite because all satellites are bodies separated from Earth and may collide with meteorites. This possibility is very remote. But for a real possibility to exist there have to be enough necessary conditions for its conversion into reality. It must have a favourable wind of circumstance.

The formal possibility differs radically from impossibility, i.e., from something that cannot happen under any circumstances. For example, it is impossible to invent perpetual motion. This contradicts the law of the conservation of energy. It is also impossible for us to meet, let us say, Socrates in the street. We are confronted with a possibility only when the actual presence of that which we claim to be possible does not contain anything impossible. A huge number of formal possibilities never become reality. A perfectly real possibility may be missed or remain objectively unrealised because of certain circumstances. It becomes a formal possibility. Similarly, a formal possibility may become a real one. For example, the possibility of space flight was once only formal but has now become reality. In the time of Hippocrates was there any possibility of transplanting human organs? Of course, not. Before becoming reality, a formal possibility must become a real one. Due to the effect of opposing decisive factors, in conditions of opposing possibilities, a certain real possibility may be excluded. Possibilities sometimes cancel each other out.

The difference between the scientific understanding of the relationship between possibility and reality and the fatalistic notion, which identifies possibility and necessity, lies in the fact that a real possibility is regarded not as an inevitability but as a transformation that presupposes the influence of accidents, deviations, and the struggle of opposing forces. Not everything that is necessary is possible.

Reasonable people usually avoid talking about unlikely possibilities and leave that to the so-called "pub politicians", who comfort themselves with all kinds of pipe dreams. Wisdom does not allow itself to be tempted by unlikely possibilities. It keeps its feet firmly in reality. Reason is, in fact, the ability to set attainable goals. In life there are plenty of sayings that express the common people's contempt for vague possibilities, such as "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".

A correct understanding of the categories of possibility and reality, the relation of the real and the unlikely possibility is important both in theory and practice. It is often vital for us to be able to perceive the beginnings of something within something else that possesses potential of further development. The practical person, the politician must draw a clear distinction between the real possibility and the chimera. Knowledge of real possibilities, of opportunities, inspires hope. But when people hope for good weather or a win in the state lottery, such hopes have no effect on the outcome. There are different kinds of hope; there is a kind of hope that encourages and warms the heart and thus becomes an ideal motive force for certain actions that lead to its realisation.



The term "substance" is sometimes used by English philosophers to denote the first of these senses.— Trans.


L. N. Tolstoy, War and Peace, Vol. 2, Penguin Books, 1957, pp. 776-77.


Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, Verlag des Ministerium für National Verteidigung, Berlin, 1957, S. 178.

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