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

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Jan 31 2007 - 13:33:27 EST

In reply to Rakesh:

I do not know anything about Z.A. Jordan's biography, I think he was a Pole
originally interested in maths, who branched out into sociology. His book on
diamat contains a lot of useful information but I think it is not always
accurate, and of course, a little bit dated nowadays. But his book
influenced me considerably in my student years.

In reply to Howard:

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?

Obviously I think so. The human mind is a good example of that. In e.g.
astronomy also, entities are not infrequently postulated the existence of
which is implied by what we know, even although we don't have a way yet of
verifying that.

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

Well, the theoretical extrapolation is still grounded at least to some
extent in observables. Scientific statements, in contrast to metaphysical
statements, are fallible statements (they could be wrong) and it is a
requirement that at least in principle they are testable in some way with
recourse to observables, even if currently we do not know how to do that
yet. Popper had a point with his "bold hypotheses" but his falsification
theory is wrong. Scientists do not mainly want to falsify theories, but
instead generate useable knowledge, i.e. they seek mainly to confirm
theories. Scientific statements are not necessarily falsifiable statements
but rather fallible statements.  There is I think nothing wrong with
theoretical systems, indeed it can be a good thing if we are very systematic
about our theories rather than slap-dash and eclectic, though there is also
room for eclecticism, if we don't yet know exactly how to theorise something
systematically. I think Marx's critique is not directed at theoretical
systems per se, but at the processes by which they are built, i.e. how
generalisations are arrived at. What he objected to was speculatively built
theoretical systems with grand pretensions to the truth, ideological
distortions, linguistic concoctions, vacuous generalisations etc.

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?

I am not quite sure what you mean there. This is a tricky area, but I think
it is really precisely an area which Marx was concerned with in his
critiques. That is, the philosophers and political economists he was
concerned with often juggled with concepts and through this claimed to
arrive at the essence of unobservable structures. Yet he himself sifted
critically through the actual concepts people had used, and related this to
observable experience. You cannot directly observe "value" as such, but you
can observe human valuations (prices, labour-hours, trading ratios,
preferences, the rule of law, moral conduct etc.). But experience and logic
can show that some concepts of value are better than others, in the given
case, i.e. have more explanatory power.

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.

Well I cannot offer any easy "demarcation criterion" between science and
philosophy, and as I said I think Marx & Engels were a bit too hasty in
their dismissal of philosophising. Philosophy can free up your thinking and
have an emancipatory effect. It can produce a useful cross-fertilisation of
different scientific theories etc. Philosophy is often a meta-theory about
something, which can be useful.

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

Well, that's probably fair comment. But really I think Marx himself was not
very concerned with the question of whether there was a knowable,
mind-independent world out there. He took that more or less for granted, he
was increasingly concerned with how to obtain knowledge about it. This is
clear from the second Thesis on Feuerbach: "The question whether objective
truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is
a practical question. Man must prove the truth - i.e. the reality and power,
the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality
or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely
scholastic question."

Dialectical materialism offered a grand cosmology that provided a secular
alternative to religious views. But this cosmology was largely metaphysical
as well, i.e. presented in advance of scientific evidence as an infallible
theory. It is true that all people operate with some metaphysical ideas,
including scientists. But I think it is morally wrong to force you own
metaphysical theory down other people's throats, this is a totalitarian idea
that could amount to spiritual rape. People are entitled to their own
metaphysical beliefs, just as they are entitled to criticize those beliefs.
Stalin and Mao saw religion as an obstacle to modernisation, and tried to
wipe it out. But in the process Marxism-Leninism became a state religion.
And now that Marxism-Leninism is largely gone, people revert to other
religions. Which is to say that modern humanists have not yet created a
satisfactory secular interpretation of human spirituality, or maybe even
fully understood the power of religion, i.e. the propensity of people to
sway or be persuaded by, other people's metaphysical beliefs.



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