Their battle cry was: Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses. Their insistence upon sensory perception as the basis of all knowledge represented in its day a gigantic leap forward with regard to the empty speculation of the medieval Schoolmen.
It paved the way for the rapid expansion of science, based upon empirical investigation, observation, and experiment. Yet, despite its tremendously revolutionary character, this form of materialism was one-sided, limited, and therefore incomplete. It tended to regard the facts as isolated and static.
Taken to an extreme, as it was by the likes of Hume and Berkeley, it led to subjective idealism, which denied the existence of a material reality independent of the observer. As Bishop Berkeley put it: Esse est percipi To be is to be perceived. One must add that the world exists independent of my senses. Otherwise, we are left with the absurd proposition that if I close my eyes, the world ceases to exist. This argument was comprehensively demolished by Lenin in his philosophical masterpiece Materialism and Empiriocriticism.
In reality, empiricism presents cognition in a very superficial and one-sided manner. Hegel, whose objective idealism is in flat contradiction to subjective idealism, went to great lengths to show that cognition is a process that proceeds through different stages. But this elementary conception immediately comes into a series of contradictions, if what is being analyzed is considered, not as an isolated atom, but as a process of constant change, in which things can be transformed into their opposites.
The process of cognition has two essential elements: a thinking subject and an object of thought. It was thought itself that was to be examined. As an idealist, Hegel did not set out from real, concrete, sensuous human thought, but from an idealist abstraction. In reality, we do not think only with our mind but with all our senses—with our whole body in fact. What links humans with the external world nature is not abstract thought but human labor, which transforms nature, and at the same time transforms humankind itself. The possibilities of sensory cognition are limited.
The cognition of phenomena that are beyond the reach of sensation can only be arrived at through abstract thought, dialectical thought. The object of thought has an inherent being—in German, an sich. We do not get any closer to the truth by compiling a mass of facts. The power of thought lies precisely in its capacity for abstraction, its ability to exclude particulars and arrive at generalizations that express the main and most essential aspects of a given phenomenon.
The initial step is merely to obtain a sense of the being as an individual object. This, however, proves to be impossible and compels us to delve deeper into the subject, revealing inner contradictions that provide the impulse for movement and change, in which things turn into their opposite. For Hegel, the division of the One and the knowledge of its contradictory parts constitutes the essence of dialectics.
For the One is the whole consisting of two conflicting and opposite poles. It is only by identifying these contradictory tendencies that a correct knowledge of the object under consideration can be recognised in its true, dynamic reality. To give it another name, dialectics is the logic of contradiction. Whereas traditional formal logic attempts to banish contradiction, dialectics embraces it, accepts it as a normal and necessary element of all life and nature. The unity—coincidence, identity, and resultant dynamic interplay—of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, and relative.
The mutually exclusive relationship of opposites is absolute , and it is the basis of all movement, change, and evolution. If it propounds differentiated determinants , they at once become fossilised in its hands, and it can see only the most reprehensible sophistry when these wooden concepts are knocked together so that they take fire. Pure Being, as Hegel points out, is the same as pure nothing.
In Introduction to Non-Marxism, François Laruelle aims to recover Marxism along with its failure by asking, “What is to be done with Marxism?” Laruelle resists. Non-Marxism itself is characterized towards the end of Introduction as a kind of theoretical formalism and as an impossible theory insofar as it.
It is being stripped of all its concreteness and actuality. What appeared to be concrete turns out to be an empty abstraction. Being and nothing are generally considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. But in reality, there can be no being without nothing, and no nothing without being. The unity of being and not being, as Hegel points out, is becoming : the constant movement of change that means that at any given moment, we are, and are not.
Life and death are considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. But in fact, death is an integral part of life. Life is not conceivable without death. We begin to die the moment we are born, for in fact, it is only the death of trillions of cells and their replacement by trillions of new cells, that constitutes life and human development. Without death there could be no life, no growth, no change, no development. Thus, the attempt to banish death from life—as if the two things could be separated—is to arrive at a state of absolute immutability, changeless, static equilibrium, but this is just another name for—death.
For there can be no life without change and movement. I have before me a photograph of a baby, taken many years ago. That baby was me, but no longer exists. A vast number of changes have occurred since that photograph was taken, so that I am no longer what I was. This dialectical process was described most beautifully by Hegel in the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind :.
These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.
Hegel: "The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through Department of Agriculture. Love and hate are opposites. Yet it is common knowledge that love and hate are very closely identified, and can easily be transformed from one to the other. It is the same with pleasure and pain. One cannot exist without the other.
From a medical point of view, pain has an important function. It is not just an evil, but a warning from the body that all is not well. Pain is part of the human condition. Not only that: pain and pleasure are dialectically related. Without the existence of pain, pleasure could not exist. Don Quixote explained to Sancho Panza that the best sauce was hunger.
Likewise, we rest far better after a period of vigorous exertion. A world in which everything was white would actually be the same as a world in which everything was black, as polar explorers discovered when they suffered from snow blindness. In the Science of Logic , particularly the section on measurement, Hegel elaborates his theory of the nodal line of development , in which a series of small, apparently insignificant changes eventually reach a critical point in which there is a qualitative leap.
Chaos theory and its derivatives are clearly a form of dialectical thinking. In particular, the idea of the transformation from quantity to quality is central to it—one of the basic laws of dialectics. The advances of science over the last hundred years have completely borne out this assertion.
American scientists have been at the forefront of some of the most important developments in modern science. I am thinking in particular of the work of R. Lewontin in the field of genetics, and above all, the writings of the evolutionary biologist, Stephen J. When water at normal atmospheric pressure is heated or cooled, there is a leap from one state of aggregation to another: at 0 degrees Celsius it is a solid ice , and at degrees it changes to a gaseous state steam. If we increase the temperature still further, to degrees, it becomes plasma , an entirely different state of matter, where the dissociation of atoms and molecules occurs.
The leaps between each of these states are known as phase transitions. The study of phase transitions constitutes a very important branch of modern physics. Similar changes can be observed in the history of society, where the equivalent of a phase transition is a revolution. Nucleation is the first step in the formation of either a new thermodynamic phase or a new structure by means of self-organisation.
It is the process that determines how much time is required before a new phase or self-organised structure appears. This phenomenon is seen in thermodynamic phase transitions of every type. From a saturated solution to a crystal, from the evaporation of a liquid to a gas, or in the transition from water to ice.
It is possible to actually reach a position of supersaturation of a solution, where, for example, water under normal conditions can be heated or cooled above oC or below 0oC without becoming steam or a solid. What is required in many circumstances for the phase transition to occur is either an external shock or the presence of some impurity.
Water, when heated, does not form bubbles of steam at any random point, but they all begin ascending from a scratch or imperfection on the surface of the saucepan. This is a nucleation point forming around a catalyst. However, its formation is aided by the presence of some catalyst on whose surface the entropy leap is lowered. We can visualise this process when we think of the crystallisation of a pearl in a clam.
In the case of the formation of a pearl, all of the conditions for its formation can exist except one: some impurity around which it can take shape. Here the imagery is quite striking: a beautiful pearl forming a sarcophagus around a rather ugly piece of dead biological matter.
We often see the apparent repetition of stages of development that have long since been overcome. We see the same thing in the study of embryos, which apparently go through the stages of evolution. A human embryo starts as a single cell, then divides and acquires more complex forms. At one stage it has gills like a fish, later it has a tail like a monkey.
The similarity between human embryos and those of other animals, including fish and reptiles, is striking, and was already noted by the ancient Greeks. Over two thousand years before Darwin, Anaximander c. The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent and we share a large percentage of our genes with fruit flies and even more primitive organisms. However, the two percent difference that separates us from the other primates is a qualitative leap that carries humankind to an entirely different and higher level.
The earliest protozoa developed into chordata , through to the earliest land-dwelling amphibians, to reptiles, and later to mammals and humans. History and nature know both evolution—slow, gradual development—and revolution—a qualitative leap, where the process of evolution is enormously accelerated. Evolution prepares the way for revolution, which in turn prepares the way for a new period of evolution on a higher level. The unity of opposites can be clearly observed at all levels of matter. Conflicting tendencies are found at all levels in nature, from the largest galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles.
The identity of opposites is the recognition—or discovery—of the mutually exclusive tendencies that exist in all the phenomena and processes of nature. This is what Engels meant when he defined dialectics as the most general laws of nature, society, and human thought.
It is an elementary truth of chemistry that opposite charges attract, while like charges repel. But here we have an apparent paradox. The nuclei of all atoms except hydrogen contain more than one proton, and each proton carries a positive charge. The protons must feel a repulsive force from the other protons. So why would the nuclei of these atoms stay together?
What holds the nucleus together? The unity of opposites pulling together and tearing apart the atom are the strong nuclear force and the electrostatic force respectively. Neutrons and protons bind to each other through the strong nuclear force, however, this force only operates over a very short range. Positively charged protons, however, are constantly repelling each other through electrostatic repulsion.
This force operates over much larger distances. The strong nuclear force holds most ordinary matter together. In addition, the strong force binds neutrons and protons to create atomic nuclei. Just as centrifugal forces attempt to tear galaxies apart while gravity holds them together, electromagnetism is the force that would theoretically rip a nucleus apart, while the nuclear force— times stronger than electromagnetism—holds it together.
The nucleus holds together, but only within certain limits. If the number of protons or neutrons exceeds these limits, the nucleus becomes unstable due to radioactive decay. If the nucleus becomes very large it can undergo an even more dramatic transformation.
As the nucleus increases in size, the repulsive electrostatic force eventually overcomes the attractive nuclear force and the nucleus becomes unstable. All that is then required is to fire a single neutron at the nucleus and—quantity transforms into quality—the nucleus splits in two, emitting a large amount of energy and often emitting more neutrons in the process. This is what physicists refer to as nuclear fission. If a certain amount of fissionable material is present, it will ensure that neutrons released by fission will strike another nucleus, thus producing a chain reaction.
The more fissionable material is present, the greater the odds that such an event will occur. Critical mass is defined as the amount of material at which a neutron produced by a fission process will, on average, create another fission event. In the transition from a controlled to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction there is a qualitative leap—a transition from quantity into quality. If you insert material—a control rod—into the fissile material to absorb more neutrons than are being emitted by the fission reaction, the reaction remains under control.
However, remove the control rod an inch too far and you have a cascade of neutrons and quantity transforms into quality—producing a nuclear meltdown. The same processes can be observed at all levels of nature. In his book Ubiquity , the American physicist and author, Mark Buchanan, points out that phenomena as diverse as heart attacks, avalanches, forest fires, the rise and fall of animal populations, stock exchange crises, the movement of traffic, and even revolutions in art and fashion are all governed by the same basic law, which can be expressed as a mathematical equation known as a power law.
This is yet another striking confIrmation of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx! Even allowing for an element of exaggeration—these were, after all, rough notes written for self-clarification, not intended for publication—the fundamental idea expressed by Lenin is correct. Capital itself is a masterful application of the dialectical method refined by Hegel and perfected by Marx and Engels. The first chapter of the first volume is purely philosophical in character and is precisely based on Hegel, as Marx himself pointed out.
For that very reason, this chapter is generally considered one of the most difficult in the entire work. It is not about economics but about philosophy. Prices fluctuate according to the laws of supply and demand, but these fluctuations take place around a given point, which is the real value of a commodity. Marx analyses the commodity and explains that it has two aspects, which are really contradictory tendencies. At first sight, the commodity appears to be something very simple and concrete: an object of use.
Whether this use is really necessary or is the product of caprice is indifferent to this consideration. But on closer examination, we see the commodity is not simple at all. It is not just a use value, but also an exchange value—something entirely different. Humankind has produced use values from the earliest period, but under capitalism, the nature of commodities undergoes a fundamental change. The capitalist does not produce objects for human use but objects for sale in order to obtain a profit. The use value of a commodity is confined to its concrete attributes; but in exchange value there is not a single atom of matter.
The price of an individual commodity is determined by a vast number of transactions that take place daily in the world economy.
This value, as even economists prior to Marx explained, is the product of human labour. The subsequent exposition shows us the development both growth and movement of these contradictions and of this society in the sum of its individual parts. From its beginning to its end. Such must also be the method of exposition or study of dialectics in general—for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics. To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc. The medieval scholastics cracked their brains over the question as to whether universals abstractions actually exist.
Hegel solved this problem brilliantly by pointing out that the particular and the universal are in fact the same : every particular is, in one way or another, a universal. Every individual belongs to a genus or species that defines its true nature, however, genesis and species are made up of individual creatures. The limit of these categories in biology is determined by the ability to reproduce. Consequently, the opposites—the particular as opposed to the universal—are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal.
The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is—in one way or another—a universal. Every universal is a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc.
Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals—things, phenomena, processes, etc. The flood of books and journals only strengthen the CVs of the academics or feed the coffers of the publishing houses. I am not sure if Non-Marxism will be little more than a passing fashion. It will beat its drum for a while only to disappear into the dustbin of history.
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Reviewed by Joshua Moufawad-Paul. Comment on this review 1 comment View comments. One comment I wonder what kind of intellectual life the West is after!