Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Chapter 2. The System of Categories in Philosophical Thought

Table of Contents

The Categories of Dialectics
Matter as the Substance of Everything That Exists
The Motion of Matter
Space and Time
The Principle of Universal Connection and Development
The Principle of Causality
System and Structure
Essence and Phenomenon
Quality and Quantity
Negation and Continuity
Contradiction and Harmony

The Categories of Dialectics

Dialectics and metaphysics. Dialectics is a theory of the most general connections of the universe and its cognition and also the method of thinking based on this theory. Anyone who wants to find a rational orientation in the world and change the world must have a knowledge of the dialectics of life and thought. Dialectical thinking has its roots far back in the past. The most striking example was Heraclitus, who saw the world as being in constant flux, intrinsically contradictory, an eternally living fire blazing up and dying down according to certain laws. The ideas of dialectics run right through the history of the development of human thought. They were profoundly expressed in such great thinkers as Kant and Hegel. In Hegel, dialectics embraces the whole sphere of reality and the life of the mind. Dialectical thought reached its highest peak in the philosophy of Marxism, in which materialist dialectics is expressed in a system of philosophical principles, categories and laws.

Dialectics arose and develops historically in a struggle against the metaphysical method, which is characteristically one-sided and abstract and inclined to absolutise certain elements within the whole. Metaphysical views have taken various historical forms. While Heraclitus stressed one aspect of existence—the changeability of things, which the Sophists extended to complete relativism, the Eleatic philosophers in their criticism of the Heraclitean principle of flux, concentrated on another aspect, on the stability of existence and went to another extreme in supposing that everything was changeless. Thus, some philosophers dissolved the world in a fiery flux while others crystallised it into immovable rock.

In modern times metaphysics has taken the form of an absolutising of the analysis and classification techniques in the cognition of nature. Because they are constantly repeated in scientific research, the techniques of analysis, experimental isolation and classification have gradually imparted to scientific thinking certain general ideas suggesting that in nature's "workshop" objects exist in isolation, as it were, apart from one another. As philosophy and the specialised sciences have developed the focus of the struggle between dialectics and metaphysics has shifted from attempts to explain the connection of things to interpretation of the principle of development. Here metaphysical thought emerged at first in the form of simple evolutionism, and then in various concepts of "creative evolution". While the former hypertrophies quantitative and gradual changes, ignoring qualitative transitions and breaks in gradualness, the latter absolutise the qualitative, essential changes without perceiving the gradual quantitative "preparatory" processes leading up to them. So metaphysical thought is inclined to "jump" to extremes, to exaggerate some aspect of the object: its stability, recurrence, relative independence, and so on. In cognition this leads to idealism or dogmatism and, in practice, to the justification of stagnation and reaction. The only antidote to metaphysics and dogmatism, which is metaphysics in another form, is dialectics, which will not tolerate stagnation and sets no limits to cognition and its scope. Dissatisfaction with what has been achieved is the element of dialectics, and revolutionary activity is its essence.

Categories. In philosophy, categories are extremely general, fundamental concepts reflecting the most essential, law-governed connections and relationships of reality. Categories are the forms and stable organising principles of the thought process and, as such, they reproduce the properties and relations of existence in global and most concentrated form. Categories are the result of generalisation, of the intellectual synthesis of the achievements of science and socio-historical practice and are, therefore, the key points of cognition, the moments when thought grasps the essence of things. This is the starting-point for the analysis of the diversity (individual and particular, part and whole, form and content, etc.).

The categories are universal and lasting because they reflect what is most stable in the universe. Moreover, in the process of history the content, role and status of the categories change and new categories (system, structure, for example) arise.

In the present age the rapid and overall development of scientific knowledge goes hand in hand with a process of identification of fundamental concepts which acquire the significance of categories inasmuch as they perform in relation to specific fields of knowledge a function comparable to that of philosophical categories, for example, information, self-regulation, symmetry, and so on, and also constitute the subject-matter of a specific science, that is to say, they are universal and non-variable in relation to a great number of special concepts of such a science (for example, the categories of organism or species in biology, the categories of image, action, motive in psychology, the categories of element in chemistry, of particles and fields in physics, and of commodities and value in political economy). This prompts us to investigate the system of scientific categories as something with its own specifics, something that does not coincide with the system of philosophical categories, although it is closely connected with that system. By tracing the system of scientific categories we can uncover the logic of development of any given science, the law-governed transformation of its conceptual build-up. The categories of philosophy, which constantly accumulate the results of the development of the specialised sciences, help us to identify and synthesise the elements of world-view and methodology in scientific thought.

The categories bear a certain relation to one another and constitute a system. They are so interconnected that each can only be understood as an element of the whole. The initial categories for the whole system are those of matter and consciousness. They provide the trunk from which all the various branches of the other categories stem.

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