Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Chapter 4. The Theory of Knowledge and Creativity

Table of Contents

General Concept of Cognition
Cognition and Practice
What Is Truth?
The Sensuous Image of the World

General Concept of Cognition

The theory of knowledge and creativity is an important department of philosophy. It arose historically with philosophy, as its core, around which everything else was built. This department of philosophy considers a wide range of problems: the relationship between knowledge and reality, its sources and driving forces, its forms and levels, the principles and laws of cognitive activity, and the trends of its development. Philosophy analyses the criteria of the authenticity of knowledge, its veracity, and also the causes of error, the problems of the practical application of knowledge.

As selective reflection of the world cognition expresses the highest creative aspirations of human reason and constitutes the crown of human achievement. Throughout the millennia of its development humanity has travelled a long road, from the primitive and limited, to an increasingly profound and comprehensive understanding of the essence of existence. This difficult path has led us to the discovery of innumerable facts, properties and laws of nature, of social life and man himself, to the building of an extremely complex and almost unencompassable scientific picture of the world, to the highly sophisticated sphere of art, to the achievements of modern technology.

Humanity has always striven to acquire new knowledge. The process of mastering the secrets of existence continues unceasingly and its vector is oriented on the infinite vistas of the future. The pace and scale of cognitive activity are constantly increasing. Every day is marked by intellectual advances in a constant quest, which ever more widely and vividly illuminates the remote horizons of the as yet invisible. We are deluged with new discoveries.

The path travelled by science convinces us that the possibilities of human cognition are limitless. Our reason perceives the laws of the universe in order to bring them under man's control, in order to refashion the world in the interests of man and society. Human knowledge is a highly complex system, a social memory whose wealth is passed on from generation to generation by means of social heredity.

Cognition coincided with the rise of man. But it was some time before man began to think about what knowledge actually was. The conscious posing of this problem and the attempt to solve it was the beginning of philosophy in the true sense of the word. All philosophers in some way or another analyse the problem of the theory of knowledge and some have reduced the subject of philosophy entirely to this problem.

In the philosophy of the ancient world the basic problems of epistemology were developed by defining types, such as "knowledge" and "opinion", "truth" and "error". Opinion was opposed to knowledge as a subjective notion of the world, while knowledge was its objective investigation. Heraclitus saw the highest goal of cognition in "studying the universal", understanding what was hidden in the universe, the "logos", the universal law. Discussion of the problem of dividing knowledge into types proceeded from the relationship and opposition between ordinary consciousness and standards of theoretical thought, with its techniques of proof, disproof, and so on.

To sum up, knowledge is the result of the process of cognition of reality, tested by socio-historical practice and authenticated by logic, the true reflection of reality in human consciousness in the form of representations, concepts, statements and theory. Knowledge has varying degrees of accuracy, reflecting the dialectics of relative and absolute truth. In its genesis and mode of functioning, knowledge is basically a social phenomenon. It is fixed, embodied in the form of the symbols of the natural and artificial languages.

The relationship of knowledge to reality takes place on many planes and is indirect in character. It develops both phylogenetically, in the history of human culture, and ontogenetically, in the process of the development of the personality. Elementary knowledge, conditioned by biological laws, is inherent in animals, whom it serves as a necessary condition for their existence and the performance of behaviour acts. Knowledge may be pre-scientific or everyday, artistic (as a specific form of aesthetic assimilation of reality) and scientific (empirical and theoretical). Ordinary everyday knowledge, based on common sense and ordinary consciousness, is an important orienting basis for people's everyday behaviour. The bulk of daily practice is based upon it. This form of knowledge develops and is enriched as scientific knowledge progresses. At the same time scientific knowledge itself absorbs the experience of everyday knowledge. Scientific knowledge may be defined as the comprehension of facts in the system of concepts of a given science and it becomes part of theory, which forms the highest level of scientific knowledge. Since it is a generalisation of authentic facts scientific knowledge detects what is necessary and law-governed behind the accidental, what is general, behind the individual and the particular. Forecasting is carried out on this basis. Human thought constantly moves from ignorance to knowledge, from the superficial to more profound, essential and all-embracing knowledge, which is a necessary factor in the transforming activity of human beings and the human race in general.

Pre-Marxist philosophy contained no understanding of the fact that without socio-cultural factors there could not have been a human picture of the world at all. Marxism is distinguished by its socio-historical approach to cognition. The basic principle of the theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism is the principle of reflection. The knower, the cognising subject is not an isolated individual but an individual as part of social life, using socially evolved forms of cognitive activity, such as language, categories of logic, and so on. By developing the theory of the activity of the subject and thus overcoming the contemplativeness of metaphysical materialism, Marxism showed that objective reality can be known only to the extent that a person masters it in the forms of his practical activity and the cognitive activity that is derived therefrom.

Any notion of the world always bears traces of some kind of social development. Even sensuous notions are by no means the same in all ages. They have a certain structure according to the type of social development that went on when they were acquired. Objects on which cognition is concentrated are mostly the products of previous activity; they could not be understood, considered or assimilated outside the historical context.

The knowability of the world. Are there any limits to the power of human reason and hence to human power over the universe? At the dawn of its development philosophy, in effect, proclaimed the principle of the knowability of the world. But not everyone agreed with this view.

Some philosophers expressed and still express doubts as to the authenticity of human knowledge, and prefer to remain sceptical or even completely deny the possibility of knowing the world, thus adopting the position of agnosticism. Scepticism acknowledges the existence of an external world and seeks a knowledge of things. But when confronted with the universal relativity of knowledge, it is so beset by doubt that it retreats to the position of "withholding judgement".

Agnosticism is a philosophical theory that denies the possibility of man's achieving authentic knowledge of the objective world. Some agnostics, while recognising the objective existence of the world, deny its knowability, others regard the very fact of the world's objective, existence as something unknowable. They maintain that knowledge is subjective by its very nature and that we are in principle unable to reach beyond the boundaries of our own consciousness and cannot know whether anything else except the phenomena of consciousness exists. From the standpoint of agnosticism the question of how a thing is reflected by us differs fundamentally from the question of how it exists in itself. A person moved by the desire for knowledge, says, "I do not know what this is but I hope to find out". The agnostic, on the other hand, says, "I do not know what this is and I shall never know". Most consistent and conscious materialists defend and seek to prove the principle of the knowability of the world, but some fall back on agnosticism. Agnosticism is closely connected with the idealist view. Some idealists recognise the knowability of the world, which they infer from the ideal essence of things. For example, Hegel's recognition of the knowability of the world stems directly from his principle of the identity of being and thinking. In contrast to agnosticism, Hegel believes that the hidden essence of the universe cannot resist the audacity of cognition; it must reveal itself and unfold its riches and the profundity of its nature and allow knowledge to enjoy both.

The classical exponent of agnosticism is Kant, who divorced the content of consciousness from its actual foundation. In his view a phenomenon occurs as a result of the interaction between the "thing-in-itself" and the subject, the knower. The "phenomenon" must therefore be considered from two aspects: its relationship to the "thing-in-itself" and its relationship to the subject. Kant maintained that when we consider an object perceived by the external senses only as a phenomenon, we thereby acknowledge that it is based on the thing-in-itself, although we do not know its properties. We know only that which is manifest to us. And everything that is manifest to us is refracted through consciousness and emotions. We see everything through the prism of our senses and our reason, and therefore cannot know essence as it is, independent of us. An unbridgeable gap lies between the world of things-in-themselves and that of phenomena that can be known. According to Kant, one cannot compare what is in the consciousness with what is outside it. A person may compare only what he knows with what he knows. This implies that we move endlessly in a world of our own consciousness and never come into contact with the actual objects of the objective world. Hence the conclusion that it is impossible to discover anything that does not already exist in thought. The external world, according to the agnostics, is like a traveller. It knocks at the door of the temple of reason, awakens it to activity and then withdraws without revealing its identity, leaving reason to guess what kind of person knocked at its door. So we see that the source of agnosticism lies in the absolute opposition of reason to the external world.

Most characteristic of the 20th century is the agnosticism of neopositivism, which tells us that philosophy cannot provide objective knowledge but must be confined to the analysis of language.

Another source of agnosticism is relativism, that is to say, the absolutising of the variability, the fluidity of things and consciousness. The relativists proceed from the pessimistic principle that everything in the world is transient, that scientific truth reflects our knowledge of objects only at a given moment; what was true yesterday is error today. Every new generation gives its own interpretation of the cultural heritage of the past. The process of cognition is foredoomed to a random pursuit of eternally elusive truth. Relativism works on the assumption that the content of knowledge is not determined by the object of cognition but is constantly transformed by the process of cognition, thus becoming subjective. Absolutising the relative in knowledge, the relativists regard the history of science as movement from one error to another. But if everything is relative, then this assertion, which can have meaning only in relation to the absolute, is also relative.

Treating all human knowledge as relative and void of any particle of the absolute amounts essentially to acknowledgement of complete arbitrariness in cognition, which then becomes a continuous flux, in which nothing is stable or authentic and all distinctions between truth and falsehood are erased. But if we cannot believe any of scientific propositions, we have nothing left to guide us in life and in practice. The metaphysical thinker has a tendency to reason as follows: if we speak of truth, it must be absolute truth, and if it is not absolute it is not truth. The relativists, on the other hand, usually argue that the history of science records many cases when propositions once recognised as true were later dis proved and, conversely, propositions believed to be false eventually emerged as true in the course of the further development of science. Admittedly, the path of scientific cognition does not proceed in a straight line; it may often swerve in unexpected directions. But this does not prove that all our knowledge is nonsense. It is not enough to assert that scientific truths change. We must remember that this process of change moves in a certain direction, proceeding ever deeper into the essence of things. The historical transformation of the content of knowledge on the road to its maximum fullness is regarded by agnostics as "proof" of its independence of the object of cognition. The relativist substitutes for the true proposition "knowledge contains an element of the relative" the false assertion that "all human knowledge is unreliable".

Dialectics recognises the variability of the world and the flexibility of concepts, their "fluidity", their transmutations. But its premises are the actually existing processes of the development of objects and their reflection in concepts; it does not absolutise the variability of things or their reflection. It does not deny their relative stability and qualitative determinacy Variability and stability, both in things and their reflection, form a real contradiction. Whereas absolutising the element of stability leads to metaphysics and dogmatism, absolutising the element of variability leads to relativism. Relativism undermines belief in scientific truth, and when belief in truth in general collapses it brings down belief in science and even in life. Dialectics embraces the elements of relativism, negation and scepticism but cannot be reduced to relativism. It sees relativity not as negation of the objectivity of truth but as evidence of the fact that cognition is historically conditioned in its approach to objective truth.

Knowledge is historically limited, but in every relative truth there is some objective content, which is intransient. The Intransient elements of past knowledge form a part of new knowledge. Scientific systems collapse but they do not disappear without a trace; more perfect theories are built on top of them. One of the forms in which relativism manifests itself is conventionalism, which maintains that the concepts of science are formally accepted postulates, and that the question of whether they correspond to reality may be discarded as irrelevant to science.

The history of science is the history of omnipotent cognition, which renounces both the absolutising of achieved scientific truths and their sceptical denial.

Agnostics also resort to the following arguments. One cannot know the parts without knowing the whole. The whole is infinite and, as such, unknowable. Therefore its parts are also unknowable. Pascal, for example, believed that man would understand the life of his body only when he had studied everything it needed, and for this man would have to study the whole universe. But the universe was infinite and could not be known. Empiricists have always maintained that we can know only the finite and that the infinite is unknowable. But by getting to know the finite, the transient, we in so doing begin to know the infinite.

The knowability of the world does indeed imply a profound paradox. The world, the universe is boundless and inexhaustible and our knowledge of it at every given level of the development of science is inevitably limited and always will be. Nevertheless, the universe is knowable and agnosticism evaporates in the light of more complete knowledge. This comprehensibility of the world, which some people regard as the most incomprehensible thing of all, is not a figment, but the result of the whole preceding history of science, technology, and practice, which demonstrates that as a matter of principle there is nothing "classified" in the universe. All knowledge is opposed by unknown but knowable reality. There is nothing hidden that cannot be revealed, nothing secret that cannot be discovered. Humanity is capable of getting to know the whole universe because there is no limit to the development of its organs of cognition or of action. But humanity is limited by the historical framework and by the abilities of each individual. These limitations are overcome by the subsequent development of science and practice. All the preceding practice of humankind, the history of the develop ment of cognition itself convincingly show that there is no limit to knowledge. When it plunges into the waves of existence, reason will never hit the "bottom" of the universe. Knowledge of the world has its beginning but no end.

Let us recall some of the stages in the triumphant march of human reason. For example, the mathematicians, beginning with Euclid, evolved a geometry that was perfectly true on the terrestrial scale; the physicists, beginning with Archimedes, revealed with increasing precision the laws of terrestrial mechanics. The astronomers, beginning with Hipparchus, penetrated ever deeper into the regions of the visible heavens. The biologists, beginning with Aristotle, delved ever deeper into the secrets of life. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin evolved great theories that led to fundamental changes in the human view of the universe and exerted a tremendous influence on all aspects of human culture and modes of thought. The greatest discovery of 19th-century biology was the discovery of the living cell; in chemistry the palm belongs to Mendeleyev's periodic system of the chemical elements. On the threshold of the 20th century X-rays and radioactivity were discovered. A turning-point in the history of natural science was Einstein's theory of relativity. Recent decades of our century have been marked by the discovery of a new world of elementary particles of matter and the emergence of cybernetics. The successes of natural science and technology have made it possible to launch artificial satellites of the Earth, the Moon and Venus, to put artificial planets in orbit, and to send man into outer space. The list of the great achievements of human reason probing ever deeper into the secrets of nature and society, and of reason itself, could be extended still further. This undoubtedly proves the powers of human reason and science's ability to continue to multiply its discoveries and provide humanity with knowledge of new things and their properties whose existence we do not today even suspect. The advances of science are a constant reproach to agnosticism. Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism, declared that humanity would never know the chemical composition of the Sun. But the ink was scarcely dry on the paper where these sceptical words had been written when spectral analysis revealed the Sun's composition. Some supporters of Machism boldly averred that the atom was a chimera, a mere figment of a sick imagination. But as most people know, atomic theory is now the basis of all contemporary natural science. The same thing has happened with the "unknowability" of the dark side of the Moon.

In the enormous world of astronomy and the tiny world of the atom man has discovered secrets that were thought to be undiscoverable. Under the pressure of advancing science the agnostics have been compelled to yield one position after another.

We should not forget, however, that the knowability of the world does not mean that it is known. What we now know is a mere drop from the ocean of the unknown. While rejecting agnosticism, we also reject the absolutising of the results of scientific cognition and also the absolutising of the possibilities of cognition, an absolutising that ignores the real conditions of cognitive activity. Science is incompatible with immoderate claims to absolute knowledge, claims which would set a limit to its development.

Man has got to know a great deal. But cognition also reveals our abysmal ignorance. Reality extends beyond the frontiers of any knowledge. It is always more "cunning" than any theories and infinitely richer. Any tendency to categorical and final statements on all questions is bad form in philosophical thinking. There is so much mystery in the world that we are obliged to be modest and reasonably cautious in our judgements. The true scientist knows too much to share an immoderate optimism and he regards the "super-optimists" with the kind of melancholy that grown-ups feel when watching children's frolics. We know for sure only comparatively simple things. Human beings are always 'standing on the shore". Before them lies the majestic, infinite, unencompassable ocean of what is knowable but not yet known, dotted with only a few inshore islands of the known. And we are always trying to see further through its enveloping mists.

We live in a world where far more is unknown than known. And by the very logic of things we are destined to stand forever confronted by an unknown that moves further and further away from us.

The volume of our knowledge is incomparable with what we have yet to discover; but in content and depth we are getting to know reality with a great degree of accuracy. Reason must more often put us under the protection of doubt. Doubt is an essential component of developing science. There can be no cognition without a problem, no problem without doubt. Human reason may be compared to a lamp. The brighter the flame, the deeper the shadow of doubt. Legend tells us that one day Zeno, when asked why he doubted everything, drew two unequal circles and, pointing first to the larger, and then to the smaller, said that this large circle was his knowledge, and the smaller that of his pupil. Everything outside those circles was the sphere of the unknown. His contact with the unknown, he went on, was therefore greater than his pupil's, so he was bound to doubt more than his pupil. "Subject everything to doubt" is a maxim adopted by every creatively thinking scientist.

Scepticism within reasonable limits is beneficial; but cheap scepticism is like blind fanaticism. They are both equally often encountered in narrow-minded people. Denial of the knowability of the world leads to pessimism about science and to repudiation of its values. And this opens the door to various forms of reaction against reason and science. When attempting to explain any phenomenon it is absurd to assume that it is inexplicable. A person must believe that the incomprehensible can be comprehended; otherwise there is no point in thinking about it.

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