Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: Science, Philosophy, and Practice - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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2.: Science, Philosophy, and Practice - 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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Science, Philosophy, and Practice
Marx’s opposition to speculative philosophy is particularly apparent in his early writings, such as the Holy Family and the German Ideology. In the former of these writings (chap. 5, sect. 2, “The Mystery of Speculative Construction”) there is a vigorous passage, quite in the vein of Feuerbach, in which the speculative philosopher is depicted as arguing that the substance or reality of apples, pears, strawberries, and almonds is fruit itself, an organic identity in difference which develops itself in the forms of the different species of fruit. “While the Christian religion recognizes only one unique incarnation of God, for speculative philosophy there are as many incarnations as there are things; in this way it sees in each sort of fruit an incarnation of the substance, of the absolute fruit. The main interest of the speculative philosopher consists, therefore, in producing the existence of real fruit, and in saying, in a mysterious manner, that there are apples, pears, etc. But the apples, the pears, etc., that we discover in the world of speculation, are only the appearances of apples, of pears, etc., for they are the manifestations of fruit, of the rational abstract entity, and are thus themselves rational, abstract entities. Thus the pleasing thing in speculation is finding in it all the real fruits, but as fruits with a higher mystic value, as fruits sprung from the aether of your brain and not from the natural world, incarnations of fruit, of the absolute subject.”3 Anything of value that there is in the Hegelian philosophy—and Marx thought that there was a good deal—was thus the result, not of Hegel’s speculative arguments, but of his great knowledge of history, politics, and art. Speculative philosophers, according to Marx, give the appearance of adding to our knowledge by importing into their systems facts and principles derived from elsewhere. Generalities and abstractions are based on experienced particulars, but the speculative philosopher thinks he can reach to a knowledge of real things by manipulating abstractions whose basis he has forgotten. Marx’s objection to speculative philosophy is, therefore, that it falsely claims to obtain important knowledge of the world by reasoning that is not openly assisted by observation and experiment. He and Engels go even further than this, however, and pronounce the ineffectiveness of any form of philosophy that claims an independent status. “When reality is depicted,” they write in the German Ideology, “philosophy as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence.”4 Developing an epigram of Feuerbach, they write in another part of the same work: “Philosophy and the study of the real world are related to one another as are onanism and love between the sexes.”5 The position is made clearer by Engels in the Anti-Dühring when he writes: “As soon as each separate science is required to get clarity as to its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous. What still independently survives of all former philosophy is the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is merged in the positive science of nature and history.”6 In brief, then, Marxists maintain that the growth of the empirical sciences demonstrates the fruitlessness of the speculative method, that the validity of scientific thinking is tested by sense experience, and that the sole task of philosophy is to indicate the nature of scientific thinking (“formal logic and dialectics”). As to scientific thinking itself, the first and fundamental character is its practical nature. According to Engels, it is in practice that our views about the world are confirmed or refuted. Referring to those who raise skeptical doubts about human knowledge, he writes: “The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical fancies is practice, viz., experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and using it for our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end of the Kantian incomprehensible ‘thing-in-itself.’”7 In the paragraph from which these words are quoted, Engels gives two examples of how practice can assure us that we have genuine knowledge of the real world. We really understand the chemistry of a coloring-matter hitherto only found ready-made in nature when we know how to manufacture it by artificial means. Again, the truth of the Copernican system was proved when, the position of a hitherto unknown planet having been calculated in terms of the Copernican theory, the planet was actually found to be there.
The reader with some knowledge of the main trends of modern philosophy will be inclined to say that the view so far expounded is pretty much what in England, France, and the United States is known as positivism. Positivism it certainly is, in its depreciation of theology, its linking of metaphysics with theology, its acceptance of the methods of the natural sciences as the sole means of acquiring genuine knowledge, and in its belief that the scientific method is the method of practice and industry. The substance of Comte’s Law of the Three Stages is repeated by Marx, Engels, and Feuerbach, inasmuch as they all believed that in the modern era theological ideas were being dressed up in speculative terms and would be superseded by the positive scientific mode of thinking. Engels’ phrase “positive science of nature and history” shows even a verbal similarity. The emphasis on practice is also common to positivism and Marxism, for Bacon’s dictum “knowledge is power” is accepted in each. The following passage from Comte’s Course of Positive Philosophy sets out his position on this matter: “. . . While the common reason was satisfied to grasp, in the course of judicious observation of diverse occurrences, certain natural relations capable of guiding the most indispensable practical predictions, philosophical ambition, disdaining such successes, was hoping to obtain the solution of the most impenetrable mysteries by means of a supernatural light. But, on the contrary, a healthy philosophy, substituting everywhere the search after effective laws for the search after essential causes, intimately combines its highest speculations with the most simple popular notions, so as finally to build up—apart from the difference of degree—a profound mental identity, which no longer allows the contemplative class to remain in its habitual proud isolation from the active mass [de la masse active—the acting masses].”8 But Marx himself would not admit any value in the work of Comte. Writing to Engels on 7 July 1866 he says: “I am also studying Comte now, as a sideline, because the English and French make such a fuss about the fellow. What takes their fancy is the encyclopedic touch, the synthesis. But this is miserable compared to Hegel. (Although Comte, as a professional mathematician and physicist, was superior to him, i.e., superior in matters of detail, even here Hegel is infinitely greater as a whole.) And this positivist rot appeared in 1832.”9 And in a letter to Professor Beesly of University College, London, dated June 1871, he writes: “I as a Party man have a thoroughly hostile attitude towards Comte’s philosophy, while as a scientific man I have a very poor opinion of it.”10 One would hardly suppose, from these attacks, that Marx and Comte were fully agreed in rejecting speculative philosophy, and that Hegel was the leading speculative philosopher of modern times. Marx, of course, differed from Comte on important matters, notably on politics and dialectics—though even here, as we shall see, the differences between Comte and the Marxists are not as great as the latter maintain—but it is worth considering for a moment why it is that Marxists so vehemently deny this manifest kinship. The Marxist writings are largely polemical, but the objects of attack are not, for the most part, representatives of the orders of society that the Marxists wish to destroy, but rival radicals whose competition they fear. Thus the Holy Family is directed against Bruno Bauer and other radical Hegelians; the German Ideology is critical of Feuerbach, Max Stirner, and certain socialists of the eighteen forties; the Poverty of Philosophy is an attack on Proudhon, whose socialist views had been held up to admiration in the Holy Family; Eugen Dühring, who because of his criticisms of the Hegelian elements in Marxism, was so fiercely attacked by the kindly Engels, was a determined opponent of speculative philosophy and of the current orthodoxies; Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was directed against members of his own party who considered they were supporting a scientific view of the world; and in our own day Marxists are busy criticizing Logical Positivism and kindred views with which they clearly have much in common. I have already pointed out that Lenin’s attitude toward the philosophy of Mach is in part that of the party administrator who wishes to be disencumbered of what he regards as distracting subtleties. It is important to bear in mind, however, that it is a Marxist view—which will be considered in Part Two—that philosophical theories are the expression of class interests. It is therefore never safe to welcome a set of philosophical views on the ground that they fit in with those that one has independently come to regard as true. For they may be linked with other views which reflect different class interests, so that approval of them may weaken the Marxist philosopher’s exclusive devotion to the working class and its Party. Marx’s opposition to a philosophy with which he had so much in common was thus mainly due to his dislike of Comte’s political and social doctrines, which made it inopportune to admit the kinship. In the Soviet Union today, the procedure thus followed by Marx, Engels, and Lenin is vigorously advocated in leading circles. Thus the late Mr. Zhdanov, in his speech to the philosophers about Professor Aleksandrov’s History of Philosophy (which had been awarded the Stalin prize) referred to “the passive, meditative, academic character” of the book, and criticized it for its “absence of party spirit,” rhetorically asking “. . . did not Lenin teach us that ‘materialism carries with it, so to speak, party spirit, compelling one, in any evaluation of events, to take up directly and openly the viewpoint of a definite social group’?”11 Incidentally, Mr. Zhdanov defined philosophy, much as a positivist would, as “the science of thought and its laws, including epistemology.”
The efficacy of the scientific method of hypothesis, observation, and experiment is no longer a matter of controversy, although much remains to be said about how its various features are related to one another. There still is controversy, however, concerning the applicability of the method to human affairs, and this question will have to be touched on in Part Two. Must it also be admitted that there is no longer any place for speculative philosophy, or as it is more often called today, metaphysics? Hegel himself made the obvious reply to the opponents of metaphysics when, in § 38 of the Encyclopedia, a section devoted to empiricism, he wrote: “The fundamental mistake of scientific empiricism is always this, that it makes use of the metaphysical categories of matter, force, one, many, universality, of the infinite, etc., and furthermore draws conclusions under the guidance of these categories, at the same time presupposing and applying the forms of inference, yet with all this it does not recognize that it contains and pursues a metaphysics of its own and is making unconscious use of those categories in a thoroughly uncritical manner.” Present-day “scientific empiricists” would not admit that they use such categories uncritically; on the contrary, they would claim that they are able to give an account of them that accords well with their point of view. This raises one of the major questions of modern philosophy, and we cannot here do more than indicate some very general grounds for not accepting the empiricist-positivist point of view as a presupposition of philosophical good faith as some of its exponents seem to require. In the first place, it seems to me that insufficient attention has been given to the question what sort of theory positivism, or any other philosophical view, must be. Clearly philosophical theories are not confined to particular aspects or areas of the world as scientific theories are, but are in some way about science and common sense. This is what the idealist philosophers of the nineteenth century meant when they said that philosophy is reflective, and it has been recognized, in one way or another, ever since Plato. Furthermore, there are bodies of thought such as history and law that have reached a high level of elaboration without being regarded as parts of science or as mere common sense, and these too need to be embraced in philosophical theory if it is not to remain one-sided or incomplete. Law, of course, is practical, and in many ways akin to morals, and we thus see that philosophical thinking must enquire into the connections of theoretical rational activities with practical rational activities. We may say that philosophy must be thinking in its most self-conscious form, and that such thinking must necessarily be very different from the thinking that is directly immersed in particular enquiries. We should not assume that it must be like the thought of mathematicians or physicists. As one or another special science becomes prominent, however, philosophers will tend to be influenced by their understanding—which may not always be adequate—of the notions current in it, and there will be mathematicizing periods, psycho-analyzing periods, and so on. In our day, many philosophers have been influenced by the conceptions of symbolic logic, and have sought to make use of them in dealing with the traditional problems of philosophy. There is much to be gained by trying out such specialized notions in the philosophical sphere, but it must always be done tentatively, with no more zeal than is necessary to carry such trains of thought effectively forward, since anything beyond this is an example of the very dogmatism or unselfconsciousness that philosophy is meant to correct. In the second place, then, I think that many people expect or claim an unreasonable degree of confidence for philosophical views. There are two main reasons why philosophy should not be considered an exact science. One is that the rules to be followed in thinking about thought (or talking about talk) are not—apart from the rules of formal logic—as obvious or as settled as are the rules of the primary thought activities. We are hardly entitled to have, for example, the degree of confidence in a theory about the nature of deductive inference as we may have in the validity of a particular deduction. The second reason is that, in so far as philosophy is concerned with matters more fundamental than those of any single science or range of activity, an element of what may be called judgment must enter in, as, say, the moral or historical point of view is related to the biological or physical in such a problem as that of free-will or of the nature of mind. Something akin to tact or taste is bound to be required, and it is this, I believe, that Hegel had in mind when he criticized the rigid categories of the Understanding by contrast with the more flexible ones of the Reason. (Hume seems sometimes to think of the Imagination in similar terms.) It is proper that many philosophers should be reluctant to say such things, since they rightly feel that, if dwelt upon, they could lead to a renewal of the uncontrolled speculation, the quasi-intellectual whims, of German “romantic” philosophy. It is right that rigor should be sought, but not right to impose it on unsuitable material. A third point to bear in mind is that we live at a time when scientific activity is more influential than ever before, so that philosophers, if they are to avoid deception by what Marx called “the illusion of the epoch,” must take special care to distinguish between the power of science to discover and its power to impress. The age being as it is, our ideas of what is reasonable in these highly abstract regions of thought are likely to be influenced more than they should be by the might rather than by the rationality of science. It is useful, therefore, on occasion, to correct the bias somewhat, and to regard with perhaps exaggerated skepticism the arguments of those numerous thinkers who are positivists by inclination or as a practical principle. It is all the more important to do this if, as I have suggested above, the grounds for deciding between possible views at the highest level of philosophical abstraction are rational in a sense that has affinity with taste or tact as well as with formal logic. In such matters the barrier between reason and prejudice must be very thin.
Earlier in this section I mentioned Engels’ view that scientific theories are established by “practice, viz., experiment and industry,” along with his suggestion that we have full knowledge of something only when we make it. Now it is quite clear that both positivists and Marxists oppose practice to speculation. Speculation is the “arm-chair” activity of mere thinking. Speculative thought consists of such activities as imagining, considering, defining, and concluding. The man who engages in this sort of thinking does not test his conjectures or conclusions by reference to what goes on out of sight of his arm-chair. His line of argument rather is: “That is how things must be really, however they may appear to be.” With him is to be contrasted the man who, perhaps also from an arm-chair, puts forward a view about how things work, but who, having done this, gets up from his chair and traverses ground to look or touch or listen, so as to ascertain whether the things work as he has said they do. He, or his agents, must walk, climb, lift up stones or make holes in the ground, pull things to pieces or mix them together, take measurements, look through microscopes or telescopes, whereas the speculator, like the mathematician, does not need to do these things. The things that the mere thinker does not do and that the other man does do may quite appropriately be called “practice.” This is the sort of practice involved in the second of Engels’ examples. Someone who accepts the Copernican hypothesis calculates on its basis the existence of a planet, but this remains mere calculation, unpractical paper-work, until the existence of the planet has been verified by someone who sees it through a telescope. “Practice” here means the verifying of hypotheses, that is to say, of suggested theories, emphasis being placed on the need for someone to bestir himself physically, to move or arrange things, or to use instruments of observation. Thus Engels’ second example illustrates the “union of theory and practice” by reference to the generally accepted methods of the empirical sciences. There is nothing in all this that would not be accepted by any educated person—though there is room for a good deal of discussion about the precise rôle of the observation or experiment—and the critic of phenomenalism will be glad to point out that verifying is something that involves moving and manipulating and the use of physical means, so that it would be circular to use the notion of verifiability, as some phenomenalists have done, in analyzing the notion of a physical object. “Verifying,” when used in the phenomenalist theory, is a philosophical, not a common sense, word, and requires us to give a clear meaning to the term “sense datum,” which is far from easy.
Engels’ first example, however, may be taken to suggest that a theory is not fully established until the things it is about can actually be made by human beings. Thus the practice necessary to complete mere theory would be manufacture as well as verification. From this it would follow, for good or ill, that theories about planets could never be as adequate as theories about dyes (Comte thought this, though for a rather different reason), since the latter can be made whereas it is unlikely that planets will ever be produced by human beings. It would hardly be maintained, I imagine, that ability to manufacture is in itself a proof of adequate knowledge, for if it were, then an intuitive cook or peasant distiller would know more than a physiologist or chemist. Can it, then, be reasonably held that physical things and processes are only incompletely understood until they have been or could be manufactured? In a perfectly trivial sense this may be admitted, since until the knowledge of how to make a thing has been acquired knowledge of it is, to that extent, defective. In the same way, knowledge of carrots is defective until the weight is known of all the carrots in the world, though it has to be admitted that knowledge of how to make something is generally more closely linked with a scientific understanding of it than such knowledge of carrots is linked with a scientific understanding of them. Scientific understanding often, but not always, shows the way toward manufacture. The knowledge of how to make them is extremely useful knowledge to have of things that we want to have, and therefore great efforts are made to discover how to make them. In this way, human desires have led to mechanical inventions and the setting up of industrial plants. Scientific knowledge is then used to improve these industrial plants, and the plants can often be used to produce instruments which help the advance of scientific knowledge. Thus there is set up a process in which industry serves science and science serves industry. But this is far from demonstrating that science is an offshoot or sub-species of industry. Science has been developed by men whose aim was to understand rather than to make, and their activity is more like that of the consumers of industrial products than that of their makers. The plant used by the scientist supplements his sense organs, whereas that of the industrialist supplements his muscles. A scientist is not a practical man in the same sense that an industrialist is, for, if the scientist makes, it is in order to know, whereas the industrialist uses his knowledge in order to make.
In our discussion of the Marxist theory we have now distinguished four meanings of “practice.” The first was that in which it stood for the common sense which cannot be shaken by fine-spun skeptical argumentation. The second meaning of the word was an alleged passage, in perception, from an “image” or “copy” to a real grasp of an independently existing physical object. In its third sense the word meant the process of verifying hypotheses by means of observation and experiment. Fourthly, the word was used to stand for that mode of manufacture which, by completing the process of verification, linked science with industry. To conflate these together in the slogan “union of theory and practice” is to invite and spread confusion. To distinguish them is to enable the true to be separated from the false. We have seen that it makes good sense to say that practice refutes skepticism about material things, and that empirical science is a practical activity by comparison with mathematics and mere speculation. The “practice,” however, that is supposed to take us from “image” to material thing, is an expedient required to patch up an incoherent theory of perception, and the attempt to identify science and industry is only a plausible sophism.
[3. ]M.E.G.A., I, 3, p. 230. Hegel (Encyclopedia § 13) had made the very same point, viz., that there is no “fruitness” except in the various fruits. The source of Marx’s view may be seen in the following passage from Feuerbach’s Vorlaüfige Thesen zur Reform der Philosophie (1842): “That which is expressed as it is, the true stated truly, appears superficial; that which is expressed as it is not, the true stated falsely, in reverse, appears profound.”
[4. ]English translation, p. 15.
[5. ]M.E.G.A., I, 5, p. 216. (This is not in the English translation.)
[6. ]Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (English translation, London, 1934), p. 31.
[7. ]Ludwig Feuerbach (English translation, London, 1935), pp. 32–33.
[8. ]Cours de Philosophie Positive, vol. 6, p. 650 (Paris, 1842).
[9. ]Selected Correspondence, 1846–1895. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (London, 1943).
[11. ]“Andrei Zhdanov’s Speech to the Philosophers: An Essay in Interpretation,” by J. and M. Miller, Soviet Studies, vol. 1, no. 1.