Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4.: Lenin's Criticisms of Phenomenalism - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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4.: Lenin’s Criticisms of Phenomenalism - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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Lenin’s Criticisms of Phenomenalism
Marxists hold that religion is used by the rich as a means of reconciling the poor to their poverty, and that idealism (with which, as has already been explained, they associate phenomenalism) is a deliberate attempt to reinforce this policy in the face of the religious unbelief that the natural sciences encourage. There is no doubt that they think that idealism is a dishonest view. They feel that, however subtle the arguments in its favor, it is fundamentally unbelievable. A man may deny the reality of matter with his lips, but his life and actions belie what his lips have uttered. For most men life has been a losing struggle against scarcity and disease, and for everyone the end is death. The few fortunate have material things at their command, the many unfortunate are the slaves of circumstance. Rich men and their clients, therefore, may affect to despise material things, and may even employ their leisure in demonstrating that there are none. But their ability to do these things depends upon there being food and shelter and leisure at their disposal. If they reflected on how the majority of men lived, they would realize that ingenious idealist speculations are frivolous insults to suffering mankind.
It is in the light of such considerations, I think, that Lenin’s attack on phenomenalism is to be understood. In the first chapter of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he suggests that it is characteristic of contemporary (i.e., Marxist) materialism to hold that “arguments and syllogisms alone do not suffice to refute idealism, and that here it is not a question of theoretical argument.”14 Further on he writes: “The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge, and it inevitably leads to materialism, brushing aside the endless fabrications of professorial scholasticism.”15 Again, in his Philosophical Notebooks Lenin comments on a passage in Hegel’s History of Philosophy in which the great idealist philosopher criticizes Epicurus for not having gone beyond “the common human understanding.” Lenin’s comment is: “Slanders against materialism. . . . Its [i.e., Idealism’s] non-agreement with ‘the common human understanding’ is the lazy whim of the Idealists.”16 Lenin also quotes with approval Feuerbach’s remark that before we can perceive we must be able to breathe and feel. He does not do so, but he might have quoted the following passage from Feuerbach’s Preliminary Theses towards the Reform of Philosophy (1842) which had undoubtedly impressed Marx: “The denial in metaphysics of the reality of space and time in the very nature of things has the most injurious practical consequences. Only a man who everywhere bases himself on time and space can achieve tact in living and practical understanding. Space and time are the basic criteria of practice. A people which excludes time from its metaphysic, which bows down before eternal existence, that is, abstract existence cut off from time, excludes time also from its politics and bows down before an anti-historical principle of stability that is contrary to right and reason.”17 In section 33 of his Foundations of the Philosophy of the Future (1843) Feuerbach had also written: “. . . Love is the true ontological proof of the existence of an object outside our heads, and there is no other proof of existence except love, and sensation in general.”
From Lenin’s statements, and from those of Feuerbach from which they derive, we may extract the following main positions. (i) Even though an individual could not, from mere observation of his own sense-experiences, prove the existence of a material world existing independently of him, all his actions, as distinct from his theorizing, demonstrate in a practical way the truth of the realist platitude. (ii) Even though we were unable to find satisfactory counter-arguments to the arguments of the idealists, it would be right for us to prefer to the most brilliant of such arguments the naïve realism which we presuppose when we eat our meals and associate with our fellows. (iii) To accept the conclusions of elaborate philosophical arguments rather than what is presupposed in our dealings with the world and other men is socially disastrous and unjust.
Before we consider these arguments, it should be mentioned that they are not new. In the ancient world the Stoic philosophers, seeking to uphold the practical moral certainties against the subtle arguments of the Skeptics, argued in somewhat similar terms. Zeno of Citium, the founder of the School, had spoken of the “grasp” by which real things were certainly known. Cicero, in reproducing Zeno’s view, writes: “Therefore those who assert that nothing can be grasped deprive us of these things that are the very tools and equipment of life. . . .”18 The following passage from the Moral Discourses of Epictetus stresses the superiority of practice to speculation. “Let the followers of Pyrrho or of the Academy [i.e., the Skeptics] come and oppose us. Indeed I, for my part, have no leisure for such matters, nor can I act as advocate to the commonly received opinion. If I had a petty suit about a mere bit of land, I should have called in someone else as my advocate. With what evidence, then, am I satisfied? With that which belongs to the matter in hand. To the question how perception arises, whether through the whole body, or from some particular part, perhaps I do not know how to give a reasonable answer, and both views perplex me. But that you and I are not the same persons, I know very certainly. Whence do I get this knowledge? When I want to swallow something, I never take the morsel to that place but to this;19 when I wish to take bread, I never take sweepings, but I always go after the bread as to a mark. And do you yourselves, who take away the evidence of the senses, do anything else? Who among you when he wishes to go to a bath goes to a mill instead? Ought we not to the best of our ability to hold fast also to this—maintain, that is, the commonly received opinion, and be on our guard against the arguments that seek to overthrow it?”20 In this passage we may particularly note (a) the scorn with which Epictetus says he has “no leisure for such matters,” thus suggesting that Skepticism is the fruit of irresponsible idleness; (b) the claim that practical certainty rightly overrides theoretical perplexity; and (c) the weight given to “the commonly received opinion.” In chapter 5 of the same book Epictetus had discussed the skeptical argument that there is no certain means of distinguishing between dreaming and waking, and had asserted that a man who persists in maintaining this argument is devoid of shame and modesty, and is like a drunk man who says whatever comes into his head. It would be tempting for the Marxist to say that it was because he was a slave that Epictetus came to express, eighteen hundred years ago, a view so very like the Marxist one. This temptation, however, should not be yielded to, since Epictetus was restating views which had been expressed long before his time by Stoic philosophers who were not slaves.
In the eighteenth century, Thomas Reid, the philosopher of Common Sense, maintained a similar point of view. In his Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764) he wrote: “The belief of a material world is older, and of more authority, than any principles of philosophy. It declines the tribunal of reason, and laughs at all the artillery of the logician.” In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) he included among his Principles of Common Sense the proposition: “That those things do really exist which we distinctly perceive by our senses, and are what we perceive them to be.” He also argued that, although Berkeley did not intend it, his philosophy would lead each individual, if he were to be consistent, to believe that he could be certain only of his own existence and must be doubtful of that of others. “It stifles every generous and social principle.”21 In our own day, Professor G. E. Moore has said that, in order to prove that there are at least two external objects, it is sufficient for a man to hold up both his hands to his own view and that of other people. In the face of the arguments of idealist philosophers, it is appropriate, he holds, to restate the realist platitude with a number of supporting explanations.22
It will be seen that Epictetus, Reid, Feuerbach, and Lenin are all, in their different ways, concerned lest certain subtle philosophical arguments should turn men from their social duties by raising doubts about the existence of matter and of other people. Epictetus had in mind those Skeptics who argued that the result of admitting their skeptical conclusions should be a holding back from human affairs, a refusal to commit oneself in the uncertainties of social life. What effects, however, could the acceptance of the skeptical or idealist arguments have on anyone’s attitude to what they had previously taken to be material things and other people? Could anyone ever seriously say: “I have been reading Hume, and have been convinced by him that there are no satisfactory grounds for believing in the independent existence of material things or of people other than myself. I shall therefore cease to eat and drink, and I shall take no further interest in such doubtfully existing beings as other people.” Hume’s own conclusion was very much less dramatic. “I dine,” he wrote, “I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and make merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.” Arguments to show that the existence of a material world and of other people is doubtful, carry conviction, if at all, only while they are being propounded and attended to, and are overwhelmed by the ordinary affairs of living. We may compare someone in doubt whether the substance he sees before him is cheese or soap, with someone else in doubt whether cheese or soap or any material thing really exists at all. The doubt of the first man can be set at rest by smelling or tasting or in some other obvious way. It is the sort of doubt that can be fairly readily removed after a few tests have been made. The doubt of the second man is rather different, since no amount of looking or tasting will get rid of it. One reason for this is that he considers that it is always possible that some new experience will arise to conflict with what the previous tests have established. These tests, he reflects, have only been applied up to now, so that we cannot be quite sure what they will reveal when next they are made. But such a doubt, surely, is never relevant in the sphere of action, since if it were, action could never take place, but would remain ever poised on the brink of an ever receding penultimate test. If we are to act at all, we must be willing to use tests which establish reality in a finite number of moves. The skeptic’s doubts, therefore, are not of practical relevance in a world where, as we know, doubts have to be, and frequently are, brought to a settlement. Furthermore, were a skeptic to use his sort of doubt as reasons for not troubling about the material needs of other people—“if there is no matter and if there are no other people with material needs, then I need not trouble about them”—and were he to continue attending to his own material needs we should say that he was dishonest as well as irrelevant. I cannot suppose that anyone ever has argued in quite this way, but Marxist thinkers may well have believed that something of the sort was the philosophical counterpart to the wealthy Christian’s advice to the poor man to seek for heavenly rather than for earthly treasures. We can now see that there is some point in Lenin’s favorable view of the common human understanding. Skeptics and idealists must act as if they were fully assured of the existence of matter and of embodied mankind.
These considerations, however, have not disposed of phenomenalism. For phenomenalism is not the view that there is no material world, nor the view that the existence of the material world is problematical, but the view that the material world is nothing but actual and possible sense data. It will be remembered that Berkeley was careful to say that he did not deny the existence of cherries; his view was that cherries are what can be seen, touched, and tasted when, say, someone goes into the garden. On his view, a cherry is the whole group of sense data that we say “belong” to it. Now arguments about practice can be used to overthrow the view that the existence of matter may be doubted or denied, but they do not succeed, as Lenin thought they did, in disposing of the view that matter just is actual and possible sense data. The sort of practical activity that Feuerbach and Lenin cited in refutation of phenomenalism were such things as loving, eating, and breathing, but these, and other practical activities, can be accounted for by the phenomenalist within his scheme. According to the phenomenalist, the activity of eating would consist of certain feelings of effort and of pressure, along with the visual, tactile, and taste sensations which link the eating with the thing that is being eaten. Similarly, in terms of what is being experienced, breathing consists of certain visual sensations of movement (e.g., the observed movements of the chest), certain auditory sensations which we describe as the sound of breathing, and, in the breather, the feelings he has when he attends to his breathing or when something interferes with it. What especially seems to be involved in action is sensations of effort meeting with some resistance. The phenomenalist will say, however, that both the effort and the resistance to it are only describable in terms of sensation. If phenomenalists were to confine their descriptions to the data of the so-called five senses, then, of course, practice would be a notion that could not be comprised in their theory. Once, however, the notion of sense-experience is extended to include pleasure and pain and the bodily feelings called “organic sensations,” practice presents the phenomenalist with no insuperable theoretical difficulties. He would claim to be giving a different account of what material things are and of what practice is from that assumed by the realist, and he would also claim that his account is superior to that of the realist, since the realist believes in things-in-themselves which are never directly experienced and transcend all possible experience, whereas the phenomenalist brings into his theory only such entities as are or could be directly experienced and cannot therefore be questioned. It does not seem to me, therefore, that the Marxist can, by appealing to practice, refute the phenomenalist who sets out to give an account of matter in purely empirical terms.
We may briefly restate the argument as follows. The phenomenalist says that a material object, say a cherry, is “a permanent possibility of sensation.” The Marxist replies that we know of the existence of cherries, not by merely experiencing sense data, but by picking and eating and other such deeds. It is absurd, he may continue, to suggest that we can pick and eat permanent possibilities of sensation, and therefore practice shows that it is cherries—material things, not sense data—that are the objects of our perception. It seems to me, however, that the phenomenalist has a thoroughly satisfactory answer to this. The absurdity of talking about picking and eating permanent possibilities of sensation, he will say, depends upon giving the analysis of cherries in terms of sense data and at the same time refraining from giving the analysis of picking and eating in similar terms. If matter is reducible to actual and possible sense data, then action is reducible to actual and possible feelings and sense data. The argument from practice, therefore, has force against the doubter and denier of matter, but not against the phenomenalist, who is not really doubting or denying matter but claiming to say what it is.
Let us then see whether Lenin’s other main line of criticism succeeds in refuting phenomenalism. This other line of criticism has already been briefly indicated as the view that if phenomenalism were true, then well-attested scientific theories according to which the world existed for a long time before there were living beings would have to be denied. Lenin argues23 that if the material world consists of sense data, and if, as seems to be scientifically established, sense data depend upon the existence of suitably equipped living organisms, then the material world could not have existed before there were living organisms. (Lenin writes in terms of “sensations” rather than of sense data, but this makes no difference to the argument, since sense data, like sensations, are supposed to be inseparable from percipients.) Yet the combined evidence of geology, physics, chemistry, and biology is to the effect that living organisms could not have existed in the earliest stages of the world’s history, but have evolved as favorable physical conditions developed. Avenarius had tried to avoid this difficulty by introducing the notion of an imaginary spectator, and phenomenalists in general have argued that to say there was a material world prior to the existence of beings that could be conscious of it is to say that had there been such beings they would have had such and such sensations. Lenin abusively asserts that this view is only a particularly unplausible form of idealism. His exposition is aided by quotations from philosophers who had tried to bolster up the phenomenalist position by referring to the experiences of ichthyosauruses and even of worms. “The philosophy of Mach the scientist,” he writes in another part of the book, “is to science what the kiss of the Christian Judas was to Christ.”24
Sir John Percival, a friend of Berkeley, wrote to Berkeley on 26 August 1710, just after the publication of the Principles of Human Knowledge, as follows: “My wife, who has all the good esteem and opinion of you that is possible from your just notions of marriage-happiness, desires to know if there be nothing but spirit and ideas, what you make of that part of the six days’ creation which preceded man.” Lady Percival, like Lenin, felt that there must be some incongruity in holding that ideas depend on spirits, that seas and mountains are groups of ideas, and yet that seas and mountains exist before the spirits do. But Berkeley had an answer that the modern atheistic phenomenalist cannot utilize. “. . . I do not deny,” he said, “the existence of any of the sensible things which Moses says were created by God. They existed from all eternity in the Divine intellect, and then became perceptible (i.e. were created) in the same manner and order as is described in Genesis. For I take creation to belong to things only as they respect finite spirits, there being nothing new to God. Hence it follows that the act of creation consists in God’s willing that things should be perceptible to other spirits, which before were known only to Himself. . . .”25 The ichthyosauruses and worms mentioned by Lenin were ludicrous substitutes for God, and Berkeley’s polite comments on Lady Percival’s argument (“. . . she is the only person of those you mentioned my book to, who opposed it with reason and argument”) may, with due allowances, be transferred to Lenin’s analogous objections.
Lenin, I think, saw certain essential weaknesses of phenomenalism, although he did not have the patience to probe them fully and unexcitedly. Present-day phenomenalists, however, sometimes reply that their account of matter is not and is not intended to be a scientific theory at all; that as philosophers they are not concerned to make scientific statements, but rather to clear up the meaning of such notions as cause, thing, and matter, which are accepted uncritically by common sense and science alike; and that therefore, since it is not a scientific theory, it cannot conflict with any scientific theory, and hence no scientific theory can be adduced to refute it. In my opinion this argument will not do at all. For phenomenalism is a philosophical theory which has been developed in modern times largely in order to give a consistent account of that attention to experience which is held to be the fundamental feature of modern science. Phenomenalism is advocated as consistent empiricism, as the ultimate codification of the natural scientist’s instinctive procedures. The phenomenalist’s rejection of any conception of matter that goes beyond actual or possible sensations, is the philosophical counterpart of the natural scientist’s distrust of untestable hypotheses. Of all philosophical theories, therefore, modern phenomenalism, which is openly parasitic on natural science, must guard against giving an account of matter that fails to square with any important class of propositions belonging to natural science. It is not only scientific statements that can clash with other scientific statements; it is possible for a suggested analysis of the notion of matter that is held to be in accord with common sense and natural science, not in fact to be so. Therefore the objection that phenomenalism is inconsistent with certain scientific theories cannot be initially ruled out of court.
The point that was worrying Lenin was this. If phenomenalism were true, then talk about the world as it was prior to the emergence of consciousness would be talk about what a potential observer would have observed had he been there to observe, although in fact he was not there at all, and could not have been there in any case since the conditions for life were not yet in existence. This view evokes immediate dissatisfaction for the following reasons. In the first place, the notion of a possible observer is not very helpful. The first difficulty concerns the term “observer.” To say that the world prior to living creatures is what living creatures would have observed had they existed before they did exist, seems to be a quite useless tautology. For to observe involves both an observer and what he observes, and if this is so, then to say that the world prior to life is what would have been observed if there had been living creatures is merely to say that if there had been observers they would have observed whatever was there to be observed. The whole question of independent existence is wrapped up in that of an observer, so that the introduction of observers, whether actual or possible, does nothing to clarify the issue. In the second place, we cannot think of a possible something without thinking of the something. If, therefore, in order to say what matter is we have to say something about possible observers, we have to say or imply something about observers. Thus, when matter is defined in terms of possible observers or possible sensations, the notion of “observer” or the notion of “sensation” is contained in the definition. Now if “father” is defined as “a male parent,” it is self-contradictory to say that someone is a father but not male. And similarly if matter is a permanent possibility of sensation, or what would be observed if an observer were in a position to observe it, it is self-contradictory to say that matter could exist apart from all possibility of sensation or observation. It might be said that even the most fervent realist would hardly wish to maintain the existence of matter that could not possibly be observed, and this is true if we interpret “possibly” widely enough. But it does not follow from this that “possibly observed,” i.e., “would be observed if . . .,” is part of the definition of “matter,” any more than it follows from the fact that it is possible for some men to jump seven feet in the air, i.e., “would jump seven feet in the air if . . .,” that that is part of the definition of “man.” By bringing observers or sensations into their definition, even if indirectly, phenomenalists are giving to observation or sensation an importance by relation to “matter” that ordinary users of the term are unwilling to confirm. This is the point at which phenomenalism is in conflict with the “ordinary human understanding,” and thus fails to do what it sets out to do, viz., to show what people mean when they speak or think about material things.
However, these are matters that I cannot claim to settle in a paragraph. It must be clear, from what has already been said, that further discussion of it would require us to consider the nature of the hypothetical or if-then connection involved in saying that a material thing is what would be, or would have been, observed if an observer were to be, or had been, in a position to observe. In our own day, the problem of phenomenalism, like so many other philosophical problems, has been discussed in terms of language, in this case in terms of the merits and defects of the “physical object language” on the one hand, and the “sense datum language” (the one preferred by phenomenalists) on the other. An advantage of this approach is that it calls attention to the possibility that philosophers, in talking of sense data, are not referring to recondite entities the existence of which is unsuspected by non-philosophers just as the existence of viruses was unsuspected by everyone in the seventeenth century and by ignorant people today, but are introducing a terminology in order to make their discussion of perspectives and illusions more precise. Whether those who hold this sort of view are right in their contention that phenomenalism, in this sense, does not imply idealism is a problem I do not propose to discuss here as it would take us too far from our main subject. For the present it is sufficient to say that the sort of phenomenalism or consistent empiricism that Lenin was criticizing appears on the one hand to render meaningless the notion of a God who transcends experience, and yet appears also to require there to be some Observer (not necessarily God, but perhaps merely a Sensitive Gas) to make sense of the conception of the world that existed before the coming of animal or human life.
There are other objections to phenomenalism that, with a certain amount of good will, can be extracted from Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, but I think that enough has been said to show that he was on pretty strong ground when he concluded it was not true.
[14. ]M. and E-C, p. 104.
[15. ]Ibid., p. 205.
[16. ]Aus dem Philosophischen Nachlass, Exzerpte und Randglossen, ed. V. Adoratski, pp. 228–29 (Wien-Berlin, 1932).
[17. ]Werke, ed. Bolin and Jodl (Stuttgart, 1903–11), II, p. 233.
[18. ]Academica, II. x. 31 (Loeb edition, translated by H. Rackham).
[19. ]We must suppose that at this point Epictetus gestured, first toward another part of his body, and then toward his mouth.
[20. ]Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus, I, xxvii, 15–20 (Loeb edition, translated by W. A. Oldfather).
[21. ]The quotations from Reid are from Works, ed. Sir William Hamilton, vol. 1, pp. 127, 445, 446.
[22. ]Proof of an External World, British Academy, Annual Philosophical Lecture, 1939.
[23. ]M. and E-C, pp. 140–51.
[24. ]Ibid., p. 397.
[25. ]Berkeley and Percival, by Benjamin Rand, p. 81 and pp. 83–84 (Cambridge, 1914).