Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: Metaphysics - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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5.: “Metaphysics” - 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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As I have already indicated, the word “metaphysics” is generally used to mean (a) philosophy itself, as the study of first principles, and (b) speculative philosophy, i.e., the philosophy which claims to reach conclusions about the world by a priori argument. But the use of the word which Stalin takes over from Engels differs from both of these, and I will now make some suggestions about its sources.
Both Marx and Engels learned philosophy from men who had studied in the Hegelian school, and we should therefore first turn to Hegel for the origin of this piece of nomenclature. Engels makes this clear when in his Ludwig Feuerbach he refers to “the old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls ‘metaphysical,’ which preferred to investigate things as given, as fixed and stable.” Now Hegel used the word “metaphysics” in the two ordinary senses already mentioned, and maintained that those philosophers who disclaim belief in any first principles or in any unverifiable truths must nevertheless presuppose a metaphysic into which they do not enquire. Thus in § 98 of the Encyclopedia he says that in modern times a good many political philosophers presuppose an atomistic metaphysics: and in the notes to this section he remarks that, since everyone who thinks must have some metaphysics, the important thing is to have the right one. In fact Hegel believed that in his system logic and metaphysics were shown to be one. In his Science of Logic, however, and in the logical part of the Encyclopedia, he writes about “the former metaphysics” (die vormalige Metaphysik). By this he meant such pre-Kantian metaphysical systems as that of Christian Wolff, in which the attempt had been made to establish definite conclusions as to the nature of being in general (Ontology), the soul (Pneumatology), the world (Cosmology), and God (Natural Theology), by means of rigorous deductions from propositions the terms of which had been clearly defined. This form of metaphysics, Hegel thought, was an attempt to apply mathematical or quasi-mathematical methods of reasoning to subjects they were not fitted for. This procedure, he agreed with Kant, was improperly dogmatical, and, again in agreement with Kant, he held that it was characteristic of the Understanding as distinct from the Reason. The categories of the Understanding are rigidly distinguished from one another and are accepted, in this sort of reasoning, pretty much at their face value from “popular conceptions.” A critical examination of them shows, however, that they are not disconnected but can only be adequately grasped in their connection with one another. Thus, for example, according to the Understanding the world is either finite or infinite; but according to the Reason the notions of finite and infinite are not exclusive of one another. On Hegel’s view, accordingly, the dialectical method of speculative philosophy “carried out the principle of totality.” In § 80 of the Encyclopedia he writes: “Thought, as Understanding, remains with the firm and definite distinctions of things one against the other; it treats this form of limited abstract as having real existence.” In § 81 he writes: “The Dialectical stage is that in which these finite characters are superseded and pass into their opposites.” In § 82 he writes: “The Speculative stage, or stage of Positive Reason, apprehends the unity of properties in their opposition, the affirmation that is contained in their dissolution and transition.” That Engels used the word “metaphysics” to mean something like Hegel’s “former metaphysics” may readily be seen by referring back to the passage from the Anti-Dühring quoted in the previous section.
But of course Engels does not, as Hegel did, condemn abstract metaphysics in terms of a more satisfactory speculative philosophy. The more satisfactory thing with which Engels compares it is a dialectics of nature that is at the same time empirical and materialistic. Here, I suggest, he may well have been influenced from other quarters. As early as the seventeenth century, the adjective “metaphysical” had been used (by Bossuet among others) in a pejorative sense to mean “too abstract,” and analogously the noun “metaphysics” had been used to mean the misuse of abstract terms. In the nineteenth century this use of the term was taken over by Comte and turned into a technical term of his philosophy. According to Comte, human thought had passed through two preparatory phases, and was about to enter upon a third and final one. The preparatory phases were the theological, in which explanations of natural events were in terms of gods, and the transitional metaphysical phase, in which gods were replaced by abstract principles. At the positive stage—Hegel, it will be recalled, had used the word “positive” for the highest stage of speculative thinking—explanations were in terms of laws based on the facts themselves, and not in terms of causes, whether gods or hypothetical principles. Positive, i.e., genuinely scientific, knowledge, is, furthermore, always regarded as relative, i.e., as provisional. Whereas at the metaphysical stage of knowledge the claim is made to know some things absolutely, anyone who has advanced to the positive stage is aware that any single scientific proposition is modifiable in the light of further discoveries. Thus, where positive knowledge is relative, metaphysical pseudo-knowledge is abstract and absolute. Comte gave as examples of metaphysical theories the theory of natural rights, and the individualistic laissez-faire economic science of the early nineteenth century. The exponents of these theories, he held, not being concerned with real individuals but with abstractions invented by themselves, falsely believed that individuals could be understood in abstraction from their society and the stage of civilization it had reached, and that the laws of economics were independent of the more complex laws of society as a whole. Central to Comte’s use of the word “metaphysics,” therefore, is the notion of thought which errs by isolating what is in fact joined and by fixing what is in fact fluid. The likeness to Hegel’s “the former metaphysics” is apparent, but whereas Hegel’s contrast was between abstract metaphysical thinking and concrete metaphysical thinking, Comte’s was between abstract metaphysical thinking and positive thinking that was not metaphysical in any sense at all. The Marxist view is that genuinely empirical and scientific thinking is dialectical, so that it is possible to think dialectically without falling into the quicksands of speculation. We may see in the Marxist view, indeed, an exaltation of the methods of the empirical sciences by applying to them epithets which had previously added distinction to the higher flights of Hegelian speculation.
A further point to be observed in the Marxist notion of “metaphysics” is that it is not a consistent view. For the implication of the second characteristic of dialectics is that according to metaphysics nature is in a state of “rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability,” whereas the third characteristic of dialectics implies that according to metaphysics things develop “as a movement in a circle,” as “a simple repetition of what has already occurred.” But clearly if nature is immobile and immutable, it does not move at all, whether in circles or by repetition, and if it moves in circles or repeats itself then it is not immobile or immutable. No one with any intelligence, therefore, who reads Stalin’s account of it could possibly consider “metaphysics” worth subscribing to.