Re: [OPE-L] Where "dialectical materialism" really comes from

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Tue Jan 30 2007 - 16:11:09 EST

Hi Jurriaan,

Do the real forces impelling the things of the world, including human
behavior, include unobservable entities not in themselves capable, even in
principle, of experiential or practical verification, but verifiable only in
their effects?

If so, that is, if verifiable experiment does not offer direct sensory
access to all of the causal forces actually operating in the world or in
human life, then how is access possible at all except in function of
theories which, insofar as they are at all complicated, become loosely
systems of one sort or another, e.g. the theoretical system of quantum

Also, you refer to the rejection of "philosophical inquiry as being mainly
'ideology', insofar as a 'materialist world view' (however defined) is
itself also a philosophical abstraction, to the extent that it is a
generalisation which goes beyond verifiable experience, and guides it."

Set aside the reference to a 'materialist world view'.  I'm interested in
the reference to generalizations which go beyond verifiable experience as
being 'philosophical abstractions'.  Does the phrase 'philosophical
abstraction' refer to concepts about the world only, say one ideological
form or another, or can it refer to unobservable causal structures that
function as forces impelling human or other natural behavior?

Notice I've asked a series of what seem to be philosophical questions.  Yet
there is nothing in the questions themselves or even in the answers one
might be tempted to give to them that presupposes a commitment to any
philosophical effort at all other than one fully continuous with the
inquiries and methods of science.

Rather than say Marx rejected the philosophical mode of inquiry, I'd be more
inclined to say that he foreshadowed today's sophisticated scientific


----- Original Message -----
From: "Jurriaan Bendien" <adsl675281@TISCALI.NL>
Sent: Monday, January 29, 2007 12:39 PM
Subject: [OPE-L] Where "dialectical materialism" really comes from

> Briefly, Dietzgen, whom Marx referred to in a friendly way as "our
> philosopher", is usually credited with originating the notion of
> materialism, more or less independently from Marx & Engels, because he was
> the first to publish explicitly about a "dialectical-materialist
> [dialektisch-materialistischen Auffassung] of man and world.
> However two points can be noted - 1) Dietzgen did not, as far as I recall,
> explicitly use the term "dialectical materialism" in describing his
> philosophy, and 2) his idea of a materialist world view differed in some
> respects from subsequent interpretations. Thus, for example, Anton
> claimed that Lenin's philosophical materialism was really quite different
> from that of Marx & Engels. It was to my knowledge Plekhanov who first
> explicitly mentioned "dialectical materialism" as a philosophical world
> view, though from the 1870s onwards, there were quite a few authors with
> similar ideas. One of the main aims of this philosophical activity was to
> dispell religious or superstitious views, and provide a coherent, secular
> philosophical alternative in a popular way.
> In the 1980s, I delved into the literature to understand better what all
> this stuff was about, but I discovered that there was actually a very wide
> range of different interpretations under the general heading of
> materialism". An eloquent modern defense of diamat in English is a book by
> John Hoffman, "Marxism and the theory of praxis" (Lawrence & Wishart).
> As I said before, I think Marx & Engels eventually ditched the
> philosophical/metaphysical mode of inquiry in favour of
> practical-experiential verification and scientific research, although they
> continued to mention the "materialist viewpoint on historical processes".
> This involved drawing a distinction between what people "imagined" or
> "thought" about themselves and their activity, in a more or less
> way, and their real activity, the real relationships involved and the real
> forces impelling
> human behaviour, which could be empirically verified. People often acted
> without being truly aware of what they were doing or why, or without
> the full implications of their actions. There were all sorts of gradations
> of consciousness, and possibly what was really happening would be
> established only later. Thus for example Marx mentions the example of
> trade - people trade first, and only later do they develop theoretical
> generalisations out of that experience, about what really regulates that
> trade.
> The "dialectical" aspect consisted in grasping the interaction between
> practical-material reality and the ideas people developed about it - how
> instance ideas could become detached from the context in which they arose,
> and how they reacted back on it. This did not mean at all a denial of the
> force of ideas and the human spirit, it was only a question of
> contextualising ideas and spiritual concerns, within the circumstances
> within which they arose, the real background or setting of those ideas or
> concerns. That was a specific question, not to be resolved through
> philosophical disquisitions about the "relationship between thought and
> being" and suchlike.
> In a way, this stance by Marx & Engels is similar to Richard Rorty's
> rejection of the project of epistemology, i.e. the rejection of the idea
> philosophers setting up general standards for human knowledge through
> philosophical inquiry.
> Philosophy is often defined as "the study of the most general questions
> concerning human beings and the universe", and to the extent that these
> general questions are always being asked, the propensity to philosophize
> could be considered part of the human condition. However I think Marx &
> Engels' real concern was specifically with how generalisations were
> at - they developed a distaste for philosophers who more or less
> speculatively built "theoretical systems" or acted as though they could
> divine the truth independently of practical-experiential verification, and
> independently of participation in the things they were philosophizing
> The question was no longer one of whether it was possible to obtain
> knowledge of something, but how to go about it, and the latter question
> could not be resolved through philosophizing, because it was essentially a
> practical-experiential question.
> Nevertheless as I said, an ambiguity remained in Marx & Engels's rejection
> of philosophical inquiry as being mainly "ideology", insofar as a
> "materialist world view" (however defined) is itself also a philosophical
> abstraction, to the extent that it is a generalisation which goes beyond
> verifiable experience, and guides it. It left open the question of how
> theory could or should guide practice. Moreover, no political party could
> function effectively without a set of shared values and perspectives, nor
> could e.g. legal systems function without some notion of jurisprudence.
> Thus, Marx & Engels actually left the door wide open for a specifically
> philosophical elaboration of their new perspective, up to the most rigid
> "orthodox Marxist" doctrines, in spite of their documented rejection of
> philosophical mode of inquiry.
> Jurriaan

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