Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Negation and Continuity

Justified negation as an element of development. Everything passes! All things are finite, everything is moving towards its end. Everything has its spring and its summer, everything declines into autumn and dies in the frigid cold of its winter. Such is the inexorable logic of life, both natural and human. Everything individual is like the flame of a fire and fire consumes its own source. Time is similar. Like the ancient god Cronus, it eats its own children. This is a sad fact of life. But wisdom reminds us that without negation of the old there could be no birth or maturing of the higher and fuller forces of the new and, therefore, no process of development, no progress. Even when young and still full of energy, things start to change inwardly in the direction of inevitable ageing. This begins even when energy and strength are at their peak. Immortal is the race where the mortal dies.

Everything obsolescent strives to renew itself and hold its ground in regenerated forms. Between the new and the old there is similarity or generality (otherwise we should have only a multiplicity of unconnected states), differences (with out transition to something else there is no development), coexistence, struggle, mutual negation, and the transmutation of the one into the other and vice versa. The new arises in the womb of the old, achieves a level incompatible with the old, and the latter is then negated. Sooner or later the old must die so that the young can live. The eternal play of life is as ruthless as death, as inevitable as birth. In the positive understanding of existence dialectics also includes understanding of its negation, its inevitable destruction.

The chain of negation of the old and emergence of the new has no beginning and no end. The developing object simultaneously becomes something different and in a certain sense remains the same. For example, youth negates child hood and itself in its turn is negated by maturity, and the latter is negated by old age. But these are all different stages in the development of one and the same person.

Negation understood as the destruction of one thing by another is negative in character. This negation pushes the past into the abyss of "nothingness". Dialectical negation is primarily a creative and conserving negation. The old is not simply thrown aside but is "subsumed", preserved in the new. The development of phenomena moves in cycles. Every cycle consists of three stages: the initial moment of development; the transformation of phenomena into their opposites, that is to say, negation; the transformation of the new opposite into its opposite, that is to say, the negation of negation. The chain of negations in the process of development has neither beginning nor end. Two different, even opposite types of negation are vividly expressed in Goethe's Faust. Whereas Mephistopheles denied everything and saw in this his essence, Faust negated, denied in the name of creation and preserved what was needed for a new beginning. For example, much of the best in past culture survives in progressive contemporary culture. Negation is at the same time affirmation. In destroying something that exists, it preserves its positive elements in subsumed form. Lenin stressed that the essential thing in dialectics is negation as a moment of connection, as a moment of development, with retention of the positive. This "retention", the unity of negation and continuity in develop ment, constitutes an important feature of the dialectics of negation as a universal principle of existence.

Wise criticism, while destroying the obsolete, encourages the creation of the new. It overthrows but creates something new in the process.

Continuity. The concept of development is characterised by continuity, consistency, direction, irreversibility and the preservation of achieved results. Development is not the sum-total of separate successive states. If this were so, processes would have no duration and everything would remain in the present; there would be no continuation of the past in the present, and no development.

The new, which negates and replaces the old as a result of self-development, constantly preserves the connection with the old, absorbs from it everything viable and necessary, and discards everything obsolete, everything that holds up progress. The emergent new cannot affirm itself without negation; nor can it do so without continuity. For example, a biological species survives and asserts itself only through the destruction of individuals, which in the process of procreation exhaust their purpose and, since they have nothing higher, go on to their death.

At every present moment the world is the fruit of its past and the seed of the future. The present "drags" the past in its wake. As Herzen put it in a vivid phrase, the future hovers over the events of the present and plucks from them the threads for its new fabric, from which there will be made a burial robe for the past and the swaddling clothes for the newborn. The past cannot be regarded as disappearing without a trace on the principle that what is past is past and cannot be revived. The past holds us firmly in its grip. It constantly participates in the creation of the present.

The development of life itself, for example, is possible thanks to the subtle mechanisms of heredity Progeny are never exact replicas of their parents. Change works side by side with heredity in producing new attributes. Some changes are inherited and become a property of the whole species. In the evolutionary process, the negating element is ensured by the influence of the environment and mutation.

Apart from any other reason we make progress in research because there is no need for us to travel the whole road of our predecessors in order to have at our command their accumulated knowledge. By no means all our new ideas come out of our own heads. We can have insight into the future only through knowledge of the past.

What has been achieved by every generation in practical and cultural activity is a precious legacy whose growth is the result of accumulation by all preceding generations.

Continuity plays a specially important role in science and technology. Without knowing their history we cannot under stand the development of culture and assess contemporary achievements, or get a grasp of future prospects. When people of each successive generation enter life, they enter a world of objects and relations, a world of signs and symbols created by previous generations. This is how tradition as a social form of the transmission of human experience evolves. Tradition in the general philosophical sense of the term is a certain type of relationship between successive stages of a developing object, including culture. The "old" passes into the new and "works" productively within it. If this productive tradition is capable of adaptation in the context of the socially new and helps its development, it acquires stability. Tradition that hinders the development of society gradually outlives itself, but sometimes because of certain subjective conditions it lingers on and gets in the way of historical progress.

Days, decades, even centuries pass and time—that incorruptible judge—carries away everything secondary and transient into the ocean of oblivion, preserving only the essential. The development of culture is like the flow of a river. While rolling down to the sea it always retains its link with its source. There are eternal values that survive centuries and even millennia, constantly influencing the development of world culture. The relationship of the present to the past is aptly expressed in the saying that we take fire, not cold ashes from the intellectual hearths of our ancestors. History as a rule acts on the principle that what is eternal is always contemporary. The dialectics of the truly great works of culture is such that they outlive by many years or centuries the purpose for which they were originally designed because they possess a great power of generalisation, which retains its intransient importance.

Far from excluding negation continuity of development presupposes it. Continuity of development is not the same as continuous development. The whole history of scientific research indicates that from ancient times to the present day knowledge has developed through negation: every stage in the development of science finds the strength in itself to ruthlessly overcome what has gone before. Science dies if it stops giving birth to the new. Einstein expressed both respect for tradition and negation of the obsolete in tradition when he said that the concepts created by Newton still dominate our physical thinking, although it is now clear to us that the urge for a deeper understanding of interconnections compels us to replace these concepts by others that stand at a greater distance from the sphere of direct experience.

The idea of progress. The fact of progress is clearly and impressively recorded on the scrolls of history. Knowledge acquired by one generation is passed on to the next. In inorganic nature processes of development take place which do not, however, embrace all changes and cannot be reduced to an ascent from the lower to the higher. The processes of development include the formation of elementary particles, atoms, molecules, cosmic systems. Progressive development is the basic direction of motion for the branch of the universe that includes our planet.

The development of matter follows not one direction but a countless number of directions. Nature's progress cannot be represented as a straight line. In its development nature seems to dart from side to side in all directions and never march straight ahead. This accounts for the endless diversity of forms of existence. For example, the development of organic matter has taken hundreds of thousands of directions, which have produced the great wealth of vegetable and animal species that astonish us by their variety of form and colour. The evolution of man is only one of the lines of progress of the organic world.

Development is not a straight line and not motion in a circle, but a spiral with an infinite series of turns. Forward motion is thus intricately combined with circular motion. If all processes in the world developed only successively, without repeating themselves, such things as life, animal and human behaviour, and the life of society could never have arisen; mental activity, consciousness, material and spiritual culture could never have come into being. The process of development also involves a kind of return to previous stages, when certain features of obsolete and replaced forms are repeated in new forms. The process of cognition on a new basis often repeats cycles that have already taken place.

The criterion of progress. A general criterion of progress is the perfecting, differentiation and integration of the elements of a system: elementary particles, atoms, molecules, micro-molecules. As matter develops and increasing numbers of highly organised systems are formed, the qualitative diversity of objects increases. Science knows only a few types of stable elementary particles, but has "on its books" more than a hundred chemical elements. At the molecular level tens of thousands of structural formations are known and the known macromolecular formations are practically uncountable. In relation to biological forms the criterion of progress is the level of development of organisation, particularly the nervous system, the wealth of interrelationships between the organism and the environment, the level of development of reflection, of mental activity. Thus the criterion of progress consists in extension of possibilities of further development, its acceleration. As various forms of matter attain higher levels, the velocities of development increase. For example, essential qualitative changes in cosmic systems take place over periods measured in millions and billions of years. The formation of the Sun and its planets, for example, required approximately 5,000 million years. Geological changes on Earth take place much quicker than the formation of the Earth itself. It took approximately a thousand million years for life to appear on Earth. Animate nature develops much quicker. Every succeeding epoch of the Earth's development is shorter than the one before and yet more diverse forms are born and die in the shorter period. In the four or five thousand million years that life has existed on Earth there have appeared thousands of animal and vegetable species, including man's ancestor, which labour turned into a human being in a mere two million years.

Engels compared the progressive development of social life to "...a free hand-drawn spiral, the turns of which are not too precisely executed. History begins its course slowly from an invisible point, languidly making its turns around it, but its circles become ever larger, the flight becomes ever swifter and more lively, until at last history shoots like a flaming comet from star to star, often skimming its old paths, often intersecting them, and with every turn it approaches closer to infinity.""[1]

In social history the pace of development increases as formations proceed from lower to higher levels. Whereas the primitive communal system developed slowly (over 30 to 40 thousand years it hardly reached the stage of the iron plough), the slave system moved ahead much quicker. It achieved a high technological and spiritual culture in about 1,500 years. Feudalism rose to an even higher level in about a thousand years. Capitalism required only about 200 years to establish itself as the dominant form of social life. And in only a few decades socialism has achieved transformations that cannot be compared with any previous period in history.

There is no limit to human development and man can never say to himself, "Stop, I've had enough, there's nowhere else to go!"

Consequently, we arrive at a general principle: the pace of development grows as the forms of organisation of matter move from the lower to the higher. It follows that the pace of development of this or that material organisation in general, and of social forms of life in particular, indicates how far they have gone towards perfection. This law expresses the contradictoriness of the general direction of development: progress is related to regress, irreversibility to circular movement, discontinuity to continuity, negation to succession, return to the old in a new form bearing only a formal resemblance to one of the previous stages, cycle and spiral.

Thus progress takes place not along a straight line of ascent. It puts out side branches, and certain elements of the whole even take a reverse course. The progressive line of development, being realisation of one of many possibilities, at the same time sets a limit on motion in other directions. Every progress is in a sense restriction; it reinforces one-way development and excludes the possibility of development in other directions.

The methodological and practical significance of this principle is important for an understanding of the general tendency of development and the connection between past and present that takes shape in the course of it. If the new arises out of the old and absorbs everything positive therein, it means that in both science and practice we must give due credit to the achievements of the past and critically accept its most valuable results.

Negation is a method of reasonable critical assimilation, based on the principle: "My successors must go ahead of me, contradict me, even destroy my work while at the same time continuing it. Only from such destructive work can progress be created."[2]

This principle helps us to understand where development is going, what it consigns to oblivion, and what will grow and develop. The new is irresistible. In the long run, despite certain retreats, zigzags, turns, it overcomes the obsolete. In practical activity, therefore, one should always orient oneself on the new. One must listen attentively to the voice of life, notice and support fresh beginnings, even if they have not yet taken root, for it is to them that the future belongs. This is one of the important conditions for wise policy-making in everything.

In the present age the direction of the development of society is the centre of acute ideological struggle. During the period of ascendant development of capitalism many bourgeois philosophers supported the ideas of social progress. However, as antagonistic contradictions intensify, notes of pessimism and lack of faith in the future have become increasingly audible. Every advance made by humanity is presented as a further step along the road to destruction. But the history of the development of nature and humanity proves that progressive development is an immutable law of life.



F. Engels, "Retrograde Signs of the Time" in: K. Marx, F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 2, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 48.


V. Michurin, Works, Vol. 4, Moscow, 1948, p. 402 (in Russian).

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