Notes on Marxism and empiricism

March 21, 2018


(Also see these notes.)


Reading Maurice Cornforth’s Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy (1965). A good book, not dogmatic or closed-minded in the old Marxist way. It starts off with a historical overview of philosophical empiricism (which, as you probably know, eventually led into the “linguistic philosophy” of the mid-twentieth century). Summaries of Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and so on. The end of the first chapter makes a few useful points, starting with this statement: “In the contrast between the theories of Hobbes and Locke there appeared for the first time that dilemma which has troubled bourgeois philosophy ever since—how to follow the paths of science without abandoning bourgeois illusions.” Cornforth sees Hobbes as having “carried things to their logical conclusions in a way that was unacceptable to the bourgeoisie of his own or any subsequent date. For this reason he was, and has remained, the odd man out of bourgeois philosophy.” More specifically,


He carried Bacon’s conception of “man the interpreter of nature” to its logical conclusion in atheistical materialism. And he carried the refutation of the idea of the divine sanction of government to its logical conclusion in the doctrine that the authority of the state rests [solely] on its possessing the material means of coercion.


The bourgeoisie didn’t and doesn’t want to get rid of religion, for it’s socially useful. Nor does it want the realities of power—the role of naked violence—to be laid bare in the Hobbesian way. The highly useful state should be thought to possess some moral and democratic legitimacy.


So Hobbes’ intellectual integrity had only a negative use, not a positive one:


The great intellectual and social impact of the writings of Hobbes did not consist in their founding any new school of thought, still less in their serving any political or class interests, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. There have never been any Hobbists or Hobbesites. Hobbes’ power lay in repulsion rather than attraction. His writings served as a warning, a red light signaling danger ahead.


The promotion of the sciences is part of the very life-blood of the bourgeois social order. The dilemma presented to all bourgeois thinkers consists of this—that either you take your stand by the sciences and sacrifice your illusions, or else you take your stand by your illusions and sacrifice the sciences. But they are prepared to do neither the one thing nor the other. And so some third way has to be found.


…The most fruitful, the most plausible, and at once the simplest and most flexible way was that discovered by Locke.


…The essence of Locke’s approach was to find how understanding could be extended by first examining its limitations. And he laid it down that the human understanding is “fitted to deal” with no more than the ideas, impressions or appearances of things implanted in the mind. With these alone we are “conversant,” and no science can ever make us conversant with anything else. The scientific approach, whether in the natural sciences or in matters of morality and government, must always be content to argue about things only as they affect us, its object being not the things [in themselves] but the ideas of them in our minds.


Locke thus limited the sphere of possible scientific inquiry, and denied that it could penetrate to “the substance” of things. To try to do that meant pushing inquiry beyond our capacities, and could only result in difficulty and error. [An anticipation of Kant.]


This “way of ideas” has, as we shall see, been persistently explored from the time of Locke right up to the present day. Its virtue is that it enables the explorers at one and the same time to accept the empirical approach and the discoveries of the natural sciences, and to reject all materialism (such as that of Hobbes or, more to the point later, of Marx) and keep the discussion of social and moral problems on a plane where the real contradictions and motive forces operating in society, behind the façade of social consciousness, remain hidden and are never allowed to intrude.


But Locke was, in a sense, inconsistent. He said the “immediate objects” of our knowledge were not external objects but only our ideas—and yet that our ideas of primary qualities (size, motion, shape, etc.) are genuine copies of the qualities of external objects. But if we don’t have direct knowledge of external reality, how can we know which ideas resemble objects and which don’t? This (purported) weakness permits of two opposed lines of criticism. On the one hand you can argue that if at least some of our ideas are accurate or semi-accurate reflections of reality, we’re evidently able to make progress towards understanding things in themselves. This was the line of criticism followed by the revolutionary French materialists—Holbach, Helvetius, and Diderot. On the other hand, you can argue that if we’re immediately aware only of our ideas, we have no knowledge of the external material world, contrary to Locke's position. This was the path followed by Berkeley.


But Berkeley, too, was inconsistent, when he inferred the existence of God as a spiritual being who produced in us the sensations and ideas we have. “For if it is illegitimate to infer the existence of the material world as the ground of our experience, it must be equally illegitimate to infer the existence of God. If all knowledge is derived from sense, how can knowledge of God and the soul be allowed? Or if we are allowed a ‘notion’ [as opposed to a more definite idea] of spirit, why is it absurd to have a ‘notion’ of matter? If the words ‘material substance’ are meaningless, surely the same must go for ‘infinite spirit’?”


Enter David Hume, who set about removing these inconsistencies. After his work of demolition was done, there were (supposedly) no longer philosophically respectable (or “demonstrable”) reasons to believe in matter, spirit, soul, God, causality, or in fact anything besides “those perceptions which are immediately present to consciousness” (quoting Hume). Starting from Locke’s doctrine of ideas we’ve arrived at solipsism. “I am at first affrighted and confounded,” Hume said, “with that forlorn solitude in which I am placed in my philosophy.” Even the existence of the past and future is thrown into doubt.


Be that as it may, just as all proofs of God and the like, and of matter, were now refuted, so were all proofs of their nonexistence. Hume was compelled to be agnostic about all this, since it’s inadmissible to make inferences beyond sense-impressions.


Though this was not his intention, Hume in fact continued and completed the work of Berkeley in the matter of the reconciliation of science and religion. He agreed that the object of scientific knowledge is nothing but our own sense-impressions. He corrected the extravagance of Berkeley, who had tried to make out that the observable order in our sense-impressions was proof of the existence of God. But equally, he reinforced Berkeley’s own refutation of extravagant claims made on behalf of science. Men of science were deluded if they supposed that their investigations led to the discovery of material causes which were “the ultimate and operating principle as something which resides in the external object.”


Science, therefore, can discover nothing that can possibly conflict with religion. A scientist can be religious or not, as he chooses—his researches simply throw no light at all on the truth or otherwise of religious faith. On the other hand, the religious man has no cause to fear or quarrel with science.


In the first period of the development of modern natural science, it took up arms against religious obscurantism. The philosophy which Hume developed from Berkeley meant that science was now to be disarmed. It was to lay aside any claim to represent a true and expanding picture of the real nature of things, of natural history, the forces at work in the world, and the explanation of events.


Hume’s spirit of skepticism and distrust of all certainty and “zeal” led to his being a Tory in politics. It’s best to let well enough alone, only making occasional modest reforms. “Let us cherish and improve our ancient government as much as possible, without encouraging a passion for novelties.” “An established government has an infinite advantage, by that very circumstance, of its being established… To tamper, therefore, in this affair merely upon the credit of supposed argument and philosophy, can never be the part of a wise magistrate…and though he may attempt some improvement for the public good, yet he will adjust his innovations as much as possible to the ancient fabric, and preserve entire the chief pillars and supports of the constitution.” Cornforth comments: “This is exactly the same argument as Burke afterwards produced, with more prolixity, against the French Revolution, and as still serves today as the foundation-stone of British Conservatism.”


Again, then, Humean empiricism and skepticism were useful to capitalism and the status quo.


Then came the nineteenth century and the revolutionary development of industry and science. After a short discussion of dialectical materialism—the world is a complex of dynamic processes, not things, and contradictory relationships leading to development, and quantitative changes resulting in qualitative changes—Cornforth remarks that, by contrast, the classical doctrine of empiricism (that sense-impressions, not the external material world, are the objects of knowledge) continued to be maintained by bourgeois thinkers. Despite the incredible advances of science. For example, according to Mill, T. H. Huxley, and others, “what the sciences achieve is [simply] the methodical prediction of the ordering of sense-impressions. [These thinkers] explained that when science refers to material objects and material causes, what it actually does is predict what groupings and sequences of sensations to expect. A material object, as Mill put it, is a ‘permanent possibility of sensation.’” You can see the long reach of these positivists in later arguments by Karl Popper and others that the point of science is to predict, and that any theory that can’t make testable predictions is unscientific. Chomsky, by contrast—as a competent thinker—remarks that explanation is different from prediction. There’s no contradiction in being able to explain past and present events while being unable to predict future ones.


And then there was Ernst Mach. “Bodies do not produce sensations,” he declared, “but complexes of elements (complexes of sensations) make up bodies.” “For us, the world does not consist of mysterious entities, which by their interaction with another, equally mysterious entity, the ego, produce sensations, which alone are accessible. For us, colors, sounds, spaces, times, are provisionally the ultimate elements, whose given condition it is our business to investigate. It is precisely in this that the exploration of reality consists.” But he wasn’t an idealist, he insisted! Reality isn’t mental or spiritual. Rather, “the antithesis between ego and world, between sensation (appearance) and thing, vanishes, and we have simply to deal with the connection of the elements.” The “elements” are neither mental nor material. They’re “neutral.” (Cf. Russell’s neutral monism.) The science of psychology deals with one sort of “order” of the elements, and then we call them mental. The science of physics deals with another sort of “order,” in which case we call them physical. But really they’re neither.


After reading the Stanford Encyclopedia article on neutral monism I’m reminded of my own (obvious) thoughts from years ago about how a given ‘object’ or sensory appearance is physical from one point of view—an actual thing ‘out there’—and mental from another—a perception ‘in here.’ So, sure, that’s true. These “elements” can be called “neutral,” since their ontological status depends on what stance you adopt towards them. But none of this entails there are no mind-independent physical entities or processes.


Cornforth has a nice critique of the deeply impoverished view of science that Hume’s empiricism leads to. To argue, as the scientist Sir Arthur Eddington did, that “the whole subject-matter of science consists of pointer-readings and similar indications” is to misunderstand the essence and purpose of science, which is far richer than that. I’m reminded of Chomsky’s remark that to talk of “the behavioral sciences” (as opposed to the cognitive sciences or some such) is like interpreting physics as nothing but “meter-reading science,” which every minimally rational person knows is an absurdly thin view, just laughable. But that’s how positivists literally saw it!


The thinker should take it as a rule of thumb that insofar as something is mainstream or widely accepted, it’s probably wrong. First because philosophies become ideologies the more popular they are—and the role of ideologies is but to serve the interests of the powerful and to intellectually sublimate institutional norms—and second because most people are not competent thinkers.


One advantage of idealistic empiricism, incidentally, was supposed to be that it adheres to Occam’s Razor. As Russell said in one of his phases, “whenever possible, logical constructions are to be substituted for inferred entities.” For then you’re being more parsimonious in your ontology. But while Occam’s Razor is a useful principle, it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all (or so it seems to me).


Anyway, while the positivist philosophy of science misunderstood science, “it fitted in far better with the methods and postulates which were at the same time being adopted for the investigation of society.” While a genuinely “scientific” analysis of society has to proceed in the Marxian way, getting beneath appearances to uncover the processes of exploitation, the production of surplus-value, class conflict, etc., the imperatives of bourgeois social science forbade this method. Instead, it was argued that science should stick to the observed facts, and that the Marxian idea of real value and its objective measurement is a metaphysical invention. The point of bourgeois social science was, as Marx said, merely the task of “describing, cataloguing, expounding and bringing under classifying definitions the external phenomena of the process of everyday life in their outward manifestation and appearance.” (Thus you get the obsession with typologizing that Lukács discusses, as manifested everywhere from philosophy to sociology.)


“Bourgeois economic theory studied to formulate laws connecting such observational variables as supply and demand, costs of production, wages, prices, rents, rates of interest, etc. This conception of ‘law’ [as having to do only with regularities and correlations between observed phenomena] was precisely that formulated in the positivist philosophy; and the task which bourgeois economic theory set itself was precisely the task allotted to science by the positivist philosophy.”


The positivist philosophy of science was, then, in its actual development the philosophy which enunciated the principles of the methodology of bourgeois social science… Most of the effort of positivist philosophers went into the interpretation of the natural sciences—and especially of physics. It was presented as a philosophy of natural rather than of social science. This meant, in effect, that what was being done was to misrepresent the methods and findings of the natural sciences in such a way as to represent the officially recognized social sciences as practicing the same scientific method, and to represent scientific socialism as unscientific.


It does not seem likely that the misinterpretation of the natural sciences could have become so persistent, or gained so much social prestige, had it not been for this evident, but never stated, service which positivist philosophy performed for bourgeois social science.


At the same time, insofar as stress was laid on the limitations of scientific knowledge—“which, after all, revealed nothing but laws of combination and sequence of sense-impressions”—the effect was to leave scope for religious dogma and every other kind of obscurantist authority. Another useful service for capitalist society.


The chapter on the Principia Mathematica (and logicism, logical atomism, etc.) is a bit more dense and difficult than the others. The upshot is that the new methods of analytic philosophy, taken from the successes in analyzing mathematics and formal logic, gave positivism a new lease on life. Just as propositions in mathematics and logic had been analyzed into more primitive elements, so concepts like “external material things” and the like were supposed to be analyzed in terms of sense-data. As they already had been, by Mach and others. Russell’s attempts, in Our Knowledge of the External World, The Analysis of Matter, and The Analysis of Mind, to work out a conception of the world by taking sense-data as his starting-point were not particularly original, aside from their “new terminology for setting forth the conclusions of Mach’s Analysis of Sensations.” Nor, as Cornforth says, “did Russell even find new grounds for these conclusions. The grounds were the old [Humean] ones: all that we know with certainty to exist is our own sense-impressions, and all knowledge is therefore to be interpreted as referring to these sense-impressions.”


More to the point is that Russell was wrong to say his analysis was “verifiable” and to compare it to Galileo’s advance in physics. For how, e.g., is to be “verified” that the same objects that constitute a body (sense-data) also constitute a mind? In fact, desite his protestations, his whole theory is a product of a priori, “unverifiable” reasoning.


Cornforth also exposits and critiques G. E. Moore’s version of analytic philosophy, arriving at a similar conclusion: what Moore demonstrated (even more than Russell) was that “when an analytic philosopher sits down to do a philosophical analysis, all sorts of different analyses, each more complicated and far-fetched than the last, present themselves; but the method gives no means of deciding which of them, if any, is the right one, that is, the one which actually corresponds to the facts.” And later he introduces his discussion of Wittgenstein and logical positivism this way:


The chief difficulty in the method of logical analysis, as practiced originally by Russell and Moore, lay in the lack of any criterion or principle for deciding what was the right analysis. The conclusions, therefore, appeared arbitrary and speculative. It was this difficulty, above all, that led to the theorizings of the philosophers known as logical positivists and, in particular, to the first or original philosophy of Wittgenstein.


But before I get into that I just want to note down some points made about British absolute idealism in the late nineteenth century, since they’re reminiscent of The Destruction of Reason (which I recently read). It was the age of imperialism, colonialism, the increasing incorporation of the working class into the state, in general the growth of the state and of a more interventionist policy domestically and internationally. Not surprisingly, then, mystical idealism sprang up even in Britain. “It was above all Bosanquet who translated into English the the Hegelian doctrine that the State is the manifestation in human life of the Moral Idea, that the individual exists only through the State and receives everything he needs through the State, that his good lies in obeying the State, and that the State itself is a spiritual entity, a spiritual unity more real than the fragmentary individual selves of its citizens. All this was put forward with a great show of moral fervor, of class reconciliation, and of contempt for mere science and empirical calculation.” The analytic philosophers performed an important service in demolishing all this irrationalist, authoritarian nonsense, a victory that hindered the progress of fascism in Britain. In this respect, Germany could have used a few dozen Bertrand Russells and G. E. Moores.


Well, I was going to follow Cornforth into the tangles of Wittgenstein and logical positivism, and then “the linguistic philosophy,” but I’ve read too much about these subjects in the past and by now they’re dated anyway. On top of that, I always start to feel guilty when I spend too much time on philosophy. The world is falling apart, so I should focus on that.

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