In a previous article entitled ‘The dangers of Dualism’, I pointed out the pitfalls of being drawn into dualistic ways of thinking. However, that article only touched on an alternative and more thorough way of thinking. This article, and one to follow, will attempt to remedy that deficiency and supplement the ideas suggested there. Hopefully, this will help make contemporary and future activists, anti-capitalists and revolutionary-humanists, more aware of the partially lost alternative and more complete way of thinking established in the 19th and 20th century. But, more than that, I hope the articles will assist them in taking on board and using this radical alternative to the dominant mode of bourgeois inspired thinking.
The death of the hope for an alternative form of society to the present one, due to the monstrosities of Bolshevism, Trotskyism and Maoism, was not just a physical set back for working class attempts at post-capitalist reconstructions, it represented the simultaneous atrophy of much more. What was also lost, due to its associations with the ‘leaders’ of these practical and theoretical distortions, was an advance in the mode of critical thinking. Yet this alternative method of thinking had already been further developed and refined which enabled two important developments. First, a coherent understanding of modes of production in general and their role in the formation of classes. Second, a lucid criticism of the capitalist mode of production in particular.
The method of thinking I refer to, is known as dialectics, and although it has been around since the ancient Greek period, (eg. Heraclitus etc.) it took on an increasingly important development during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In the 18th century a philosopher named Immanuel Kant wrote extensively of dialectics, particularly in ‘Dialectics of Pure Practical Reason’, but it was Hegel (another Philosopher) in the 19th century who developed the method further before Marx, as a Young Hegelian student and later revolutionary-humanist, saw an important flaw in Hegel’s (idealistic) form of dialectics. However, it is worth considering Hegel’s interpretation of, and contribution to, that method of thinking for Marx considered him; “…the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner”. Also, Hegel has been much overlooked by many within the anti-capitalist movement so that is an additional reason for including him in this article. Hegel wrote;
“Whatever exists is concrete, with difference and opposition within itself……….Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world: and it is ridiculous to say that contradiction is unthinkable. (Hegel’s Logic.)
The term contradiction in the dialectical method does not have the same meaning as is used in everyday life. It does not mean a verbal disagreement between people who simply contradict each others point of view. Contradiction here is used in the sense of things being opposed to themselves, or within themselves. Self-contradiction if you like. Hegel uses the example of a bar magnet with positive and negative poles of opposed attraction within one piece of metal. Cut a bar magnet in half and the poles aren’t actually separated as might be expected. The metal is in two halves but there isn’t a separate positive pole and a separate negative pole. Each half takes on a positive and negative aspect for as opposites they cannot exist without each other. He also mentions that setting of on a global journey eastward will eventually find the traveller back in the west.
Hegel concludes from these, and other examples, that frequently supposed opposites do not actually exclude each other as common-sense and dualism might suggest, but are interdependent. He goes further and suggests that at bottom or in ‘essence’ they are the same. Moreover, Hegel suggests that to know something by its concrete immediate character only is not to know it fully. Initial observations and immediate conclusions offer a limited perspective and stop at a partial one-sided, incomplete stage of knowledge. To Hegel this limited way of thinking is to view things by an inadequate form of thinking by means of a mere abstraction. It is to miss out its inward and developmental character from the effect of internal and external contradictions and changes.
The example of a plant seed is used by Hegel to illustrate his contention; that everything which exists stands in correlation, and this correlation is the veritable nature of every existence. What he was getting at in this and many other examples, was that to an initial surface consideration, a seed just seems to be a single ‘thing’ (or ‘being’ is a term he often uses). It is a ‘thing’ which can stay as as it ‘is’ and complete for long periods of time under certain dry conditions. However, under certain other conditions, it has within it the potential to become the plant, which itself has within itself the potential to produce new seeds, before withering away, and so on. Negation is a term frequently used in this philosophical context. The seed negates itself by becoming a plant; the plant negates itself by producing seeds. But these negations are not simply negatives, their results are positive. This result, to common-sense represents a paradox, but only to dualistic modes of common-sense thinking, not to nature or to dialectical thinking. The completed process represents Hegel’s negation of the negation which results in a new positive.
So a developed idea of a particular seed, (or anything else) containing a description of size, shape, weight, density, colour and internal structure may seem to offer a comprehensive basis for knowledge, but compared with knowledge of the whole natural (or social) cycle it is not. Therefore, it makes very little sense to always stop the investigation of the ‘thing’ or ‘situation’ in isolation. Without knowledge of how its process correlates to its material, biological or social composition and how this relates to the rest of its material life-cycle and environment, the understanding is severely limited. Therefore, knowledge and understanding of just one dimension of nature and life in general is not just limited but can be actually misleading. And not just with regard to plants. To stop at first and second levels of empirical observation regarding the things around us, for whatever reason, is to impose a self-limitation on our understanding. But that is not the only danger attached to such limited empirical methods of thinking.
The empiricist method does consider the real world and then not only names the real things in it and categorises them, but frequently makes them into abstractions, which are then given an imaginary independent life of their own. Real things can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted and weighed, that’s how we (and the empiricists) know they exist. However, not every word, describes something which actually exists. There are many words for which there is no corresponding ‘thing’, and not just in the case of imaginary beings. Space and time are examples of such rational abstractions which cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or weighed, but are thought by many to have an independent existence. Yet they only exist as abstractions in thought, tools of thinking, transformed into vocal speech or writing on paper.
Hegel, also gave the example of the difference between abstractions and real things by pointing out that we can eat cherries and plums, but not fruit. Fruit is just a collective category or tool of language and thought, not some ‘thing’ that actually exists. Common sense expressions such as “I eat some fruit for breakfast this morning”, are not really accurate. They rely on the intelligence and discrimination of the hearer to assume bananas, apples, grapes etc. Or he or she may ask which fruit, if sufficiently interested. These may sound trite and inconsequential examples, but the same ingrained habit of assuming abstractions exist is replicated on many more important issues, particularly in the fields of religion, economics, social and political life.
To paraphrase Hegel; to actually maintain the idea that something has only a unilateral, independent identity is only possible by abstracting away from it all its other important attributes and connections. Left at that abstract stage, understanding is not only deficient and misleading but dangerous, particularly when wielded by those with the power and influence, to promote such one-sided, incomplete and judgemental impressions and abstractions. Economists, Financial ‘experts’ (sic) Politicians, Lawyers and Media Pundits are among those who most frequently operate with abstractions (imaginary and otherwise) and are most practiced at selecting one-sided, incomplete representations of reality as long as it serves their purpose.
Fake news, propaganda, redacted or censored documents, plausible deniability actions, misinformation, withheld information, etc., are the most obvious common symptoms of this phenomena. And just because some examples of one-sidedness, are so bizarre that they are obviously fake, doesn’t mean that other more subtle variants do not occur which are not always detected and pass for valid assumptions. These examples, along with abstractions are the means of maintaining that these manipulated realities represent a (or even ‘the’) ‘true’ picture. However, the elites success in promoting these one-sided and often deliberately misleading caricatures and stereotypes of reality is dependent upon their audiences being trapped within the same limited method of thinking. The elites depend upon the bulk of society being unable or unwilling to deconstruct or fully challenge what amounts to intended or in some cases unintended distortions of reality. If seeing is not always accurate and can be manipulated by peer group suggestion – and it can – so too can thinking.
How dangerous limited ways of thinking can be – even within the radical left – was demonstrated by the acceptance in 1930’s Germany of Stalin’s instructions to categorise German Social Democrats as Social Fascists and not to join joint them in the struggle against the Nazis. Clearly, this politically driven categorisation was an abstraction and a distorted dualistic one at that. Tragically, the category was sufficiently accepted by the rank file CP members, that it split the potential anti-fascist opposition to Hitler and probably hastened the Nazi conquest of state power. Had sufficient organised opposition to Nazis materialised, it may or may not have prevented a capitalist war, for capitalism has many economic motives for war, other than a dehumanised dictator, but it would have possibly prevented many of the atrocities associated with the Nazi regimes leadership of it.
So from a revolutionary-humanist dialectical and even a scientific perspective, abstractions and dualisms can be problematic whenever and wherever they arise. Hegel again; “The abstract understanding with its ‘Either-or’, may struggle against this (dialectical) conception of nature”. And;
“Not that such analysis is illegitimate: we only mean that the external and mechanical relation of whole to parts is not sufficient for us, if we want to study organic life in its truth. (Hegel. Logic.)
We should note that Hegel is not making the case for the emergence of a condition of ‘false consciousness’ in contrast to ‘true consciousness’ (another frequent misleading dualist abstraction) by the uncritical and imaginary use of abstractions. Abstractions are not necessarily illegitimate forms of analysis, although as noted above, if they are non-existent or distorted, they can be. In fact rational abstractions can also be the starting point for a more thorough understanding of natural and social life, providing they are not considered as the end point for understanding, as some like to assume. Marx, for example, began his most famous work – Das Capital – with the abstraction ‘commodity’ rather than a particular commodity such as an hammer or kettle, however, he did not stop there but went on for another 3 volumes.
To develop thinking further, as Marx did, our thought processes need to go back to the chosen starting point – object or subject – and uncover and discover what has been abstracted. When that is done it becomes possible to reinstate those internal and external attributes and thus modify and supplement our ideas of the starting point. In other words, in regard to Hegel’s example above, we need to go back to the seed and having comprehended its full life-cycle development, now understand it in a new inclusive and inter-dependent light. One final extract from Hegel, will illustrate both the difficulty of reading Hegel due to the 18th century translated words and concepts he uses, but this also sums up his own explanation of the dialectical approach to thinking.
“Conditions of a thing seem at first sight to involve no bias any way. Really however an immediate actuality of this kind includes in it the germ of something else altogether. At first this something else is only a possibility: but the form of possibility is soon suspended and translated into actuality. This new actuality thus issuing is the very inside of the immediate actuality which it uses up. Thus there comes into being quite an other shape of things, and yet it is not an other..” (Hegel. Logic.)
It may help the reader to decode and understand the above extract by again thinking back to the example of the seed and plant noted above. The seed is Hegel’s actuality which contains the germ of something else as a possibility (eg the potential future plant). This possibility is translated into actuality from within the actuality (the seed) itself. And thus comes into being another shape (the actual plant) and yet it is not another – it is itself in another form. So far so dialectically good, but with Hegel we are still immersed in the realm of ideas. Hence his ‘Thesis – anti-thesis – synthesis’ continuum. Of course Hegel did not have the benefit of present day knowledge of micro – biology, cell/gene structure, and DNA, so his ‘germ’ idea contained every facet of the future form in extreme miniature. However, unlike, many philosophers before, and many who followed later, he had the process broadly nailed except for a couple of other important points.
First, his search for accuracy in understanding (which he considered as ‘truth’) was also aimed at proving by ideas the existence of something out of nothing (ie philosophically justifying the biblical creation myth) by God. This was a common obsession with many philosophers of that period and before. Second, his accuracy and truth seeking was to perfect the idea, which in the form of the ‘absolute’ idea, he also thought was evidence of the existence God. Eg.”Ultimate truth is..uncovered through…the history of ideas”. In philosophy, the linguistic abstraction ‘truth’ is invariably considered absolute, whereas in science the linguistic abstraction ‘accuracy’ is usually considered relative. [The latter being a more rational word and concept to use than the former.] This starting and finishing with the idea (as dialectically perfected) was why Marx stated Hegel’s views on the dialectic were idealistic and needed to be inverted (stood the right way up) in order to be a rational method. Thus, for Marx, dialectics;
“In its rational form, it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time, also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” (Marx. Preface, Capital Volume 1.)
This last quote demonstrates Marx outlining the critical and revolutionary role the dialectical approach plays when rationally applied within and to modes of production. The key broad elements in this approach to thinking with regard to modes of production, and other aspects of life are 1. a recognition of the existing situation; 2. A recognition of its transient nature; and 3. the recognition of radical/revolutionary change. Points 2 and 3 are the parts the bourgeoisie and their supporters are in denial about. In his notebooks, known as the Grundrisse, Marx provides some additional points on how to start from the abstract and work toward understanding the interconnected detail and the processes involved in the real world as distinct from the world of ideas. First, the difference between idealistic dialectics and materialist dialectics.
“Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being.” (Marx. Grundrisse.)
The idealistic form of dialectics always returns to contemplation of the idea for further refinement or perfection – as the test of its relevance. Essentially it is satisfied by asking; does reality conform to the perfect idea. If it doesn’t the temptation is to select from reality only those aspects which fit the idea. In addition this method frequently ushers in the battle of ideas syndrome, in which competing ideological sides each claim – in front of a panel, membership or readership – that their ideas are the best. The idea which finally wins approval is judged to be correct, just because it won. In contrast, materialist dialectic always starts from and returns to experimentation and detailed rigorous observation of reality for conformation of the ideas relevance to it, and asks; does the idea reflect the reality including the reality of potential and actual change. If it doesn’t then the idea isn’t accurate. Unfolding reality becomes the criteria for judgement, not the static opinions of those listening to the pros and cons of the ideas. The rational form of dialectics rises from the abstract cognition of reality by successive determinations of thought, as assisted by many observations of reality. This leads to a progressive improvement of the concepts used. Thus the concrete reality is apprehended by the brain as;
“..a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending; but not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above observation and conception; a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts.” (Marx. Grundrisse.)
Anyone who has opened any of the three volumes of Marx’s Das Capital and looked at the contents list will recognise the enormous effort of the working up of observation and concepts undertaken by the author. Years and years of intensive research went into detailed analysis of the capitalist mode of production. How accurately it reflected the reality and the dialectically changing reality of the economic, financial and social conditions, can only be understood after reading it thoroughly and familiarising oneself with the socio-economic situation itself. But elsewhere Marx went even further than the above quote and reasoned that human beings are part of nature and therefore their abilities are natural abilities, including the ability to act upon and think about the objects and relationships around them. Therefore, the objective product of human activity confirms the objective activity of humanity and also the correctness of human thinking. It is practical activity which confirms the accuracy of human thinking, not the elegance, multiplicity, or intricacy of their ideas. Prior to that, Marx had already concluded that;
“…consistent naturalism or humanism distinguishes itself both from idealism and materialism, constituting at the same time the unifying truth of both.” (Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.)
As noted earlier, the 19th century words and phrases used by those who improved the dialectical method of pursuing knowledge and understanding, can be somewhat obscure. This is particularly applicable to those who wrote in a different language and were later translated into English. So rather, than simply quoting them in summary using their often convoluted words I offer the following guidelines, (or check list for evaluation) presented as stages, that I use myself in my own effort to unify the insights of materialism and the world of ideas within a dialectical framework. They were formulated after reading Hegel, Marx and Engels on the revolutionary-humanist and dialectical method of enquiry. This suggests the need;
1. To accurately know what something is identified as.
2. To accurately know what something is comprised of.
3. To accurately know how it came into being.
4. To accurately know the natural or social context it depends upon.
5. To accurately know the objects internal contradictions and process of transformation whether characterised as germination, transformation or decay.
6. To accurately grasp the direction or potential direction any transformation can take. (ie. By the working up of the five levels of enquiry into an enriched idea of 1.)
7. To test each stage against reality, (experimentally or by serious observation and study.)
8. To always maintain certainty with an element of doubt as new or unforseen developments can occur.
9. To always remember that the essence of humanities thinking is achieved as a natural, social species, not as a spiritual creation of individuals, nations, religions or races.
The question of accuracy is often one of degree, because it it is not always possible to test this criteria given that accurate information and evidence are not always freely (or even expensively) available. Utilising the best available evidence at the time and admitting this is the honest way to proceed, if waiting until better arrives is not an option. The dangers of ones own confirmation bias as well as others bias also needs to be kept in mind. I suggest the integrated combination of these stages of knowledge is what separates the dialectical process of thinking from all other methods. Just grasping stages 1 and 2 accurately is enough to get by in many realms of life providing they are accurately understood. Stage 3 needs to be accurately contemplated for any level of understanding and positive interaction above naming and categorising. Many commentators fail to go beyond this 3rd stage.
However, it is the fourth, fifth and to a lesser extent the sixth stage which determines the more scientific approach to understanding and intervening in the natural and social arenas of life. Nevertheless, it is the inclusion of the sixth, seventh and eighth stages which transforms thinking into a forward looking and revolutionary mode of understanding. Many of these levels or stages of knowledge and understanding are well established in some areas of human endeavour, but not others. Engineering, building, science, medicine, for example, could not function effectively without using 4, 5, 6 and 7 (ie testing results) levels of understanding. It is the 8th and 9th which are frequently missing and wilfully disregarded in much of religious and political thinking in the 21st century as it has also been in in the past. In my opinion it is all these stages or Ievels of understanding, which need to be kept alive and continually championed, not just the easiest or most convenient.
R. Ratcliffe (September 2018.)